August 30, 2009

Into the Gulf

There are a number of channels out from the Horn Island anchorage, each leading in a different direction between different islands. There are two that are potentially useful for a south-westerly exit toward the Gulf of Carpentaria, and each has its own collection of interesting tides and currents. There was quite a bit of detailed discussion about them amongst the yachties anchored behind Horn, including a fair bit of third hand local knowledge.

To us it seemed fairly simple. Option One was to fight the notorious Boat Channel with its 6 knot currents and shoals, then to double back through Endeavour Strait with its rocks and shifting sandbanks. Option Two was to slip out of Normanby Passage on a rising tide and to cross into the Gulf using the shipping lane at Booby Island.

Low tide was at dawn, but by the time we'd had breakfast and cleared the boat for sea it was closer to eight o'clock and already approaching the top of the tide (the tides are pretty strange around Thursday Island). This suited our planned relaxed start and we accepted the 3.5 knot boost down Normanby and ran gently over to Booby Island, from whence it is a hundred mile straight run down the Gulf into the company mining town of Weipa.

For a while we marvelled at the feeling of travelling southward, a first for this trip. Then we sat back with Harriet at the helm and admired the pale blue skies and azure seas sparkling in the sunshine.

The marine weather forecast had been unusually precise, with 15-20 knots from the southeast and no change expected for the next three days. As we came abeam of the exit to the Endeavour Strait, I noticed a few wispy mare's tails high in the sky. These are rarely a good sign and, thinking about the very shallow waters in the strait to the east of us, I commented that this would be pretty nasty place to get caught in a storm. Bronwyn replied with something like, "When was the last time that we saw any rain? I can't remember."

It was Bronwyn's watch so I went below to get some rest. After a while I became aware that the bunk was shuddering as if we were travelling at high speed, so I looked out of the saloon window and noticed that we were heeled over so far that the deck rail was in the water.

Up on deck, I found Harriet steering perfectly and Bronwyn looking in some bemusement at the huge squall that was spewing out of the Endeavour Strait and rolling towards us. Hurriedly we shortened sail and Bronwyn got into her life vest and harness while I hid in the companionway under the shelter of the dodger.


It was quite the squall, with driving rain and 35 knot winds. Bronwyn grinned at me through the water pouring down her face as we hit 8 knots. "At last," she said, "I'm finally washing off all that sea salt."
Then a big wave reared up and landed on her head.


When we emerged from the other side of the squall, we found that while we were inside, the world had gone grey and there were more squalls and storms on every quarter.

I quickly went below to check that everything was battened down and then lay down on the bunk. Bronwyn had waterproofs, safety gear and the helm and by far the safest place for me to be if the boat was going to get a thrashing, was in bed.

Night fell, and the worst of it was over. Bronwyn came below to scrape off the salt, and I went on deck for my watch. The storm had left a legacy of 25 knot winds and lumpy beam seas which made everything a bit uncomfortable. The rain had stopped, but I spent most of my watch under the dodger watching the helmsman's position disappearing under spray as confused waves slammed into the boat. I was very glad that the wind vane was doing all the hard work.

The sun came up, and we were out of sight of land and becalmed under a motionless blue sky . Flying fish scattered across the surface like little jewelled helicopters, frightened by an enormous swordfish that swiped at them with its bill. A hammerhead shark cruised by, cocking its curious head sideways to see if we were worth eating. Up above, petrels and terns wheeled and dived, taking inordinate interest in the rigging.


It was all very beautiful, but it wasn't getting us any closer to Weipa. We fired up the engine and motor-sailed.

August 26, 2009

Thursday Island

Rather than take our little 3 horsepower tender across the rather unpredictable channel between Horn Island and TI, we caught the ferry.

TI is less than a square mile of tropical island, and very pleasant. The people that we met could be divided into the ones that were working in the shops, who were either grumpy or apparently bemused that we wanted to buy anything, and the people who were not working in shops, who were universally happy and smiling and having a good time. Certainly the pubs were doing a roaring trade. I was particularly taken by the sign outside the Royal Hotel, which as well as offering "the loudest music in town", issued the stern declaration that it would refuse to serve anybody "with visual armpit hair".

We visited the very pretty catholic church, and also the island's graveyard which contains a great many memorials to islanders who died far too young while diving for pearl and trochus shells. There was also a section for Japanese fisherman who had died chasing the same dream.

One other curious feature of the graveyard was the popularity of the grave markers as scaffolding for termite nests.

Australian Customs regards TI very much as their front line against not only immigrants but also pests and diseases. Their big launch was continually running up and down the channel, checking out the boats and boarding incoming yachts and confiscating their fresh food supplies.

We had heard that, even though we were not arriving from abroad, we would still need to get a certificate of authenticity from the supermarkets which would allow us to keep our fresh food if we were stopped on the way back to the mainland. There was a colourful but uninformative sign on the ferry dock which seemed to back this up, but when we asked at the supermarket they said that all we needed to do was to keep the receipt. We kept our purchases to an absolute minimum just in case, and then ran into a uniformed AQIS (quarantine) guy at the dock. He told us that we didn't even need the receipt, but then admitted that he'd only been on the job for a week and really had no idea...

August 25, 2009

Horn Island

There is a cluster of islands a few hours north of Cape York, out in the Torres Strait and on the way to Papua New Guinea. Although they are part of Australia, most of them have been placed off limits to visitors by the Torres Strait Islanders who live there. In the middle of the group, though, are two islands that we can get to.

Thursday Island is well known in the yachting community because it is a convenient place to stop and rest if you are following the trades from the Pacific to destinations westward. In some ways this is a bit odd, because TI (as it is known) offers few facilities to yachts, and the anchorage is poor holding in a vicious current.

We chose to anchor a mile away across the channel by Horn Island, which boasts a calm and comfortable anchorage and a regular ferry to TI.

After sleeping for most of the day, we ventured out onto Horn Island to look around. It comprises only a couple of streets and seems to exist mainly to service the local airstrip (TI itself is far too small to land planes on).


We naturally gravitated to the only pub, the Wongai Hotel, for a cold beer. Before long we were chatting to Charlotte the barmaid, and then to Matt the off duty duty manager, and then before not too many more beers we seemed to know everybody in the pub.

As the night wore on we switched from beer to wine, then from wine to spirits. The pub closed, Bob the landlord invited us back to his pool for a swim and some more beers, and then there was an increasingly blurred round of house visits until finally we found ourselves back on Pindimara mixing cocktails as the party continued.

A great pub, a great night, and I really don't know how I managed to wake up and ferry Matt and Lucy back to the dock in the tender in the morning. Certainly the crew of the ferry said later that it had been very funny to watch. I didn't even see any darn ferry.

Onward to the Torres Strait

We had embarked on a four-day passage up through the Great Barrier Reef and out into the Torres Strait. The trade winds were blowing fairly consistently and the weather forecast was good. It was also stinking hot, and we discovered that some of our eggs had cooked themselves inside their shells.

The Great Barrier Reef is much more than the outer ribbon reef that protects the eastern coastline from the open ocean. Inside the enclosed lagoon are tens of thousands of square miles of shallow water dotted by uncountable reefs and islands, many of them still uncharted. The reefs are mostly invisible and lurk just below the surface, so the only way that you can know where they are is to pay diligent attention to the charts.


I really have to take my hat off to Captain Cook who sailed these waters with no idea what lay beneath. It is a wonder that the Endeavour only suffered one serious accident here. Bligh also passed through in his open boat after having been set adrift by the mutineers on the Bounty. We passed a few of the islands that he stopped at on his epic journey from Tahiti to Indonesia, a feat that he achieved by navigating entirely from memory.

Those men were giants.

One thing that Bligh and Cook didn't have to contend with were the ore freighters which continually forge their way up and down the coast. With a good chart, it is possible to thread a large vessel through the reefs in any number of ways, but the maritime authorities have now designated a few specific routes and have made it illegal for commercial vessels to stray from them. On the one hand, this guarantees safe passage for the ships without fear of encountering an unmarked reef, and it means that we always know where they are likely to be, and where they will be heading. On the other hand, the designated channel is often the only reasonable route through, creating pinch points where all vessels, commercial and private, must come together. This is especially exciting at night when you are tired and alone on deck and find that your fragile cockleshell is suddenly the focal point of three enormous cargo ships.


We planned a route that largely avoided the shipping channels in the daytime, but which used them at night when we could take advantage of their navigation beacons.

The days passed and we settled into shipboard routine. The sailing was generally easy, although the trades tended to blow harder at night. In the day, they sometimes died right off, or we'd be hit by a squall, but we made good time and rounded Cape York at around three in the morning of the fourth day.


Cape York is the northenmost tip of mainland Australia, and a milestone on our trip. It gave us an immense sense of achievement to have made it all the way up the east coast. We had now turned the corner, and from now on would be sailing into the sunset.

August 21, 2009

A Fishy Tale Too

Coming abeam of Watson Island (where Mrs Watson's body was found, see Lizard Island), Bronwyn tossed out the trolling line to see if she could catch us a fish supper. Within half an hour or so, something struck hard. It fought mightily in the distance, but eventually Bronwyn managed to slowly haul it in hand over hand so that we could get a look at it.

We realised that instead of catching dinner, we had hooked well over a metre of something that looked very much like a shark. It was very muscular with a flattened body, brown above and white below, a wide mouth like a catfish, and big dorsal and pectoral fins. It wasn't in any of our fish books, but it certainly didn't look like anything that we wanted to share our cockpit with, so we decided to let it go.

The only problem was that it had swallowed our one and only trolling spoon, and we needed it back. For almost an hour, Bronwyn played the enormous beast back and forth, trying to tire it enough to get it close to the boat so that I could pull out the hook and let it go. We got so engrossed in the task that I forgot to look where we were going, and got a real shock when I checked our course over my shoulder and found that we were about to T-bone a sand island.

At that precise moment, the wind increased to 30 knots and stayed there, leaving me with only a tiny slot between the edge of the island and a 7-knot gybe. At the same time, the fish was experiencing a whole extra knot of speed, and Bronwyn's shoulders were aching with the effort of keeping it with us.


A few minutes later, with disaster averted, we pointed the boat into the (suddenly well-behaved) wind and then cursed as the fish made a sprint under the boat. If it got the line wrapped around the propeller, we would never get it back. However, it seemed to know what it was doing, because the line went slack and the fish swam off, leaving our tackle behind and apparently only slightly exerted by several miles of hard fighting.

We decided to eat canned soup for dinner.

August 20, 2009

Lizard Island

We woke behind Cape Flattery to a weather forecast telling us to expect 30 knot winds again in the evening and all of the next day. We could have stayed there, but it was pretty dull and not very well insulated from the swell. Lizard Island beckoned from less than 20 miles away, giving us ample time to get there and hide before the blow started again.

When we poked our nose out from behind Cape Flattery, we found a reasonable 20-25 knots which took us to Lizard in no time at all.

We'd heard good reports of the island and were keen to stay for a while to explore. When we arrived at the Mrs Watsons Bay anchorage, we were a little surprised to find more than a dozen cruising boats packed in among the coral heads, as well as a fair sized but inconspicuous resort on the shore.



The bay is named after the eponymous wife of a beche-de-mere fisherman who was attacked there by aboriginals while her husband was out fishing. She and a servant and her newborn child escaped to sea in a cast iron boiling tub, and eventually washed up on what is now called Watson Island, where all three of them perished.

The water was blue and crystal clear; we could actually see the anchor on the bottom. The island gave good protection from the developing swell, but very little from the actual wind, so we put out all 70 metres of chain in preparation for the night ahead.

It did indeed blow that night, 30 knots or more, and all the boats got a good thrashing. I kept being awoken by strange sounds that had me running up on deck, but the anchor held. We were a bit tired the next morning, and simply stayed below all day as the wind continued to howl.

The next night was a little calmer, and by lunchtime the waves had died down enough that we were finally able to lower to outboard into the tender and go ashore.

We found a trail leading across the island and through the Pandanus swamps that fill the level ground between the rocky hills.




The trail led to the 'Blue Lagoon', an unusual geological formation in that coral lagoons are usually features of reef rather than of continental islands. In the case of Lizard Island it also provides yacht anchorage in calm weather, but those conditions certainly didn't apply today and nobody had tried it.


There were, however, a few kite-surfers playing around, having sailed around the island from the resort.


Lizard Island is also famous for having a peak that was climbed by Captain Cook when he was trying to find a vantage point from which he could plan a way out of the Great Barrier Reef. We set off on his trail on the following morning. It was a pleasant clamber over enormous granite boulders, shaded here and there by gums, and the views down into the reefs of Mrs Watsons Bay were spectacular.


From the top of the hill, we could faintly make out in the distance the dark blue of lurking ribbon reef, and the lighter blue of safe passages. If Cook hadn't successfully spotted the gap, then he might not have made it back to England and Australians today might all be speaking French. It was very satisfying to stand there on a hilltop on an island in the far Great Barrier Reef, staring out to sea and feeling the connection to the history of our adopted country. Bien sûr.

Back at shore level, we went for a welcome swim in the gloriously clear water, and used the coral sand to scrub away the weeks of sun tan lotion and grime before returning to Pindimara for a rare and welcome freshwater shower.

We'll definitely be coming back to Lizard Island again. It has genuinely beautiful white coral beaches, a very pretty landscape, some serious rocks, and a warm and easily accessible reef. Wonderful.

But now, it's time to move on. The Torres Strait beckons.


August 17, 2009

Careful what you wish for

There was still no wind, so we idled away the early morning on little chores, grumbling in a mild sort of way about a whole week of still days and dull motoring.

By ten o'clock the promised trade winds arrived as a gentle breeze. We cleared up below and prepared for sea. While hoisting the anchor, we noticed a very large fish taking an inordinate amount of interest in our hull, over a metre long and very powerfully built. Even when we started to motor out of the bay, it kept station with us, and we noticed a big propeller slice just behind the dorsal fin. Perhaps it was used to being fed by tourists.

And tourists there certainly were, in plentiful supply. As we left, they began to arrive in droves on large commercial sail boats of all descriptions, including an enormous cat ketch and a pseudo-oriental junk. All these people were decanted either onto the beach by the lighthouse, or into one of the many fishing punts and jet skis that littered the shore.

Already far from the madding crowd, gentle winds pushed us northward. To our left, the Great Dividing Range marched impressively along the shore line, cloud-shrouded thousand-metre peaks rejoicing in such names as Mount Sorrow, Mount Surprise, and Mount Unbelievable. Captain Cook had a bad time along here, hence also Cape Tribulation, Struck Island, Weary Bay, plus of course Endeavour Reef where he grounded and only got off with quite serious damage which had to be repaired ashore in what later became Cooktown.


For all that we've been sailing inside the Great Barrier Reef for several weeks, it has always thus far been far out to sea and hasn't had any direct impact on us apart from its pleasant calming effect on the swell. From here on in, it comes close inshore and is a navigational force to be reckoned with, comprising hundreds of scattered reefs lurking invisibly just below the waves. There is a marked shipping channel which is presumably well charted, but on the other hand this is full of large ships moving ore up and down the coast.


A humpback whale treated us to an aerial display in our wake. Dusk fell, the wind picked up to the low twenties, and our speed increased to 6-7 knots under full sail. Harriet was doing a fine job of sailing, so while Bronwyn went below to rest, I was free to sit in comfort and idly formulate an elaborate metaphor for the process of sailing through the reef at night time.

Imagine getting in your car to drive to the next town. First, however, you spray-paint the windows black so that you can't see out. Then you tape your mobile phone to the dashboard and log on to Google Maps. You start the engine and put it into gear, and from now on you are completely at the mercy of the accuracy of the map and where your phone says that you are. You can be reasonably certain that all the streets and intersections are marked, as well as perhaps the more obvious light poles and roadside furniture, but you just have to deal with curbs, speed humps, trash bins, dogs and cats as you feel your wheels bump over them.
Thankfully there is little other traffic, but you know that if you leave the twisting side-roads and venture onto the highway, you will be sharing the road with fully laden trucks. You also know that they can't see you either, and that in any case all their brake lines have been disconnected.

As I lay in the cockpit spinning this tale and watching meteorites blaze across the milky brilliance of the starry sky, yacht ploughing blindly into pitch darkness at close to hull speed, I thought happily that I wouldn't trade places with anybody.

The hours passed, and the wind crept up to the mid twenties. Pindimara was now quite overpowered, but there were few gusts and the swells were predictable, so I left full sails up. In any case, Harriet the Hydrovane was coping superbly. In fact she was tracking better than ever before, and I realised what Hydrovane meant when they coined the slogan 'survive your dream'.

In the early hours of the morning, the wind crept up into the high twenties and our speed to over seven knots. Enough was enough, so I called all hands on deck to reduce sail. To say that the crew tumbled eagerly out of their bunks would be an overstatement, and when Bronwyn did clamber painfully out, she commented that her 'rest period' in the bucking bunk seemed to have consisted mainly of two hours of strenuous Pilates exercise.

We were at this point in the shipping lane with bulk carriers and trawlers passing on either side, so we quickly reduced sail and got back onto course. As is our usual practice on night passages, we'd gone straight to the third reef, but Harriet soon picked up the pace to a respectable 4-5 knots. I was pretty tired by now so I gratefully put my head down while Bronwyn took a watch.

At a little after 4am I took over again, and immediately got my feet wet as a wave curled over the stern. The swell was now well over 2 metres, and the wind was touching 30 knots. It had also swung around onto the beam, and even with the third reef in, we were overpowered for a reach. The wind was howling in the rigging, and the hull was thrumming and making odd little banging sounds under my feet. I seriously considered replacing the main with our storm trysail for the final four hours to safe haven on Lizard Island, but instead chose to put our tail between our legs and run for nearby Cape Flattery, which at 260 metres high looked to be big enough to hide behind.

The wind was easier to manage with it behind us, but continued to increase and of course now we were surfing down 3 metre swells in the darkness. As the Cape loomed out of the gathering dawn light, I once again roused Bronwyn who navigated us in to shelter between the Cape itself and a sunken wreck.

Anchoring for once in the light, we immediately fell into bed and slept until lunch time. Although we were snug in our bay, the 30-knot wind continues to howl over our heads. Be careful what you wish for.

August 16, 2009

Cairns and Beyond

We've stayed in Cairns before and found it be simply a tourist conduit for the Great Barrier Reef, so we only popped in to run some errands and to buy some fuel.


We also needed to do quite a bit of printing for our schoolwork, so rather than anchor in the duck pond in the main river we booked a berth at the Marlin Marina where we could access shore power. The marina was OK, but not particularly friendly and surprisingly - and annoyingly - lacked any kind of chandlery.

What did amaze us was the shorefront development that has sprung up since our last visit. We had previously found Cairns' night life to be somewhat dull (always excepting the excellent Kanis seafood restaurant), but now the waterfront is ablaze with interesting pubs, restaurants and cafes and local people having a good time.


We had a great time at the bar there and met a lot of interesting people, but our chores were done and there was no reason to stay so we cast off and motored back out of the river. Unbeknownst to us, the Alana Rose, which has been a week or two ahead of us all the way up the coast, had returned to Cairns to repair some electronics, so we must have passed within a hundred metres of them on our way out without noticing. That was a shame, because we've only ever spoken to Nancy and John via email and it would have been great to meet them in the flesh.

Out in the channel, we discovered that yes, there was still no wind at all. We really wanted to make some northing, so we resigned ourselves to a day of motoring in the stifling heat.

As well as a few whales, which surfaced to breathe but which otherwise didn't show themselves, we came across another of those yellow swimming snakes, which decided after a while that it didn't like the look of us and dived vertically downwards.


As evening fell it was clear that the situation was not going to improve, an opinion which was backed by the GRIB data that I downloaded which did, however, intimate that things might improve on the morrow.

Rather than burn fuel all night, we checked the chart for likely anchorages and settled on the Low Islets, which are really just a mangrove swamp sticking out of the sea. Naturally we arrived in full dark, to find a good sprinkling of yachts already there - including a large number of unlit tourist punts, which our Lucas cruising guide had warned us about - and found some swinging room at the back in about 12 metres of water on a sand and coral bottom.

Bronwyn magically produced a full roast lamb dinner with all the trimmings. I don't know how she does that.

In the morning, there still wasn't any wind.



August 13, 2009

Slow Boat to Cairns

Since we didn't have any wind, we arrived at the North Barnard Islands later than anticipated, after dusk but before moonrise. It was very dark indeed. We slipped into the usual routine of one of us on deck steering with night-accustomed vision and the other down below watching the GPS and chart and calling up course adjustments. We knew from the chart that we were rounding Kent Island at a distance of a few tens of metres, but we could barely make it out as we slipped between it and an equally invisible breaking rock.

When we got into the reef between Kent and neighbouring Jessie, we found another yacht already there, thankfully with anchor lights correctly lit, but there was room for both of us.

A mild but continual beam swell made for a restless night, but the morning brought no wind so we took it easy. While standing on deck admiring the scenery, I spotted a derelict old dugout canoe floating towards us. I got out the binoculars (a bird-watching present from my parents when I was about ten; who'd have thought then that one day I'd be using them on a yacht in the Pacific?) to have a closer look, but there didn't seem to be anybody aboard.


As I watched, the canoe vanished and then reappeared, and I suddenly realised that it wasn't a boat at all but the tail flukes of a whale hanging head-down in the water. It was pretty shallow, so I can only assume that it was resting with its head on the bottom.

There was still no wind. I attempted to update the blog, but found that I only had one bar of signal. This was an excellent chance to test out the antenna that we'd bought in Townsville. We hadn't been able to source either a mount or a patch cable to attach it to the modem, but I'd knocked something up using copper wire, aluminium foil, gaffer tape and string. It all worked perfectly, first time, with four bars of broadband. Not a bad upgrade for $100.

While washing up after a leisurely brunch, we felt a faint zephyr of a breeze and realised that there was a distant rain squall marching across the horizon. Guessing that we were on the edge of a small weather system, we quickly cleared the boat for sea and set up the sails for the anticipated sou'wester.


It did come, but it came slowly, drifting us along at only a couple of knots. For the rest of the day the squall stayed stubbornly on the horizon and refused to come closer, so that in order to make any headway we had to sail wing-on-wing in the light breeze. This entails keeping the main sail hovering on the edge of a gybe and flying the jib on the wrong side, which takes a bit of concentration when you don't have a pole to stop the jib from collapsing. In the end we pulled in the foresail and let Harriet bimble us along at 3 knots on the main alone.

As evening drew in, even that little breeze dropped and we started the motor. We were a little low on fuel, and dislike motoring at night, so we decided to hide behind nearby Normandy Island, one of the Franklin Group. The last dying rays of dusk allowed us to spot a couple of other yachts and some other mysterious floating objects through the binoculars before we arrived in full dark, which was just as well because when we arrived they were largely unlit.

One yacht was showing an anchor light, but a large cat which really should have known better had only hung out a handful of dim little garden solar lanterns. There were also two vessels belonging to the Cruise Franklin company, one with a single solar lantern that ran down its batteries and went out as we watched, and the other completely dark and which we were lucky not to run down.

We had hoped to get some shelter from the SE swell, but in the event it parted around the island into two streams which hit us simultaneously at 90 degrees to each other, rolling and pitching at the same time. We made the best of it until 3 am when it all died down and we were able to get some proper sleep.

The next morning brought the lightest of winds again, and in the end we motor-sailed the last stretch into Cairns. Where are the famed continuous trade winds when you need them?


August 12, 2009

Are we cruisers yet?

One way of spotting a cruising boat is to see how much junk is hanging off the back.


Do we qualify yet?

August 10, 2009

Hinchinbrook Island

We rode a nice nor'easter out of Townsville and back past Magnetic Island, where the evening weather made a mockery of our plans for a night cruise and left us bobbing in a perfect millpond sea without a breath of a breeze. We went below and cooked dinner before submitting to the inevitable and starting the engine.

It was extraordinarily dark, but after a while a red moon rose and drowned out most of the stars, revealing the scattered islands of the Palm Group as we threaded our way between them.

Bronwyn had gone below for a nap, and in order to counteract the mind-numbing tedium of motoring, I had loaded some Spanish lessons onto the new ipod that we'd bought in Townsville. It was a pleasant way of passing the time, and nobody was around to hear me declaiming loudly about my requirement for an explanation of the precise route to Santiago railway station.

A little later, my lessons done, I searched through the music files that I had randomly downloaded from my computer onto the ipod, looking for something that would suit motoring by moonlight through a crowded island group in the middle of the night. After a few false starts, I rediscovered some old live Whitesnake recordings, and spent the next few hours cheerfully navigating to the strains of Micky Moody on guitar.

We were heading for the passage behind Hinchinbrook Island, and in order to cross the bar we needed to wait for both sunlight and the tide. There are a couple of islands to the north of the Palm Group that provide convenient anchorages, and we dropped our pick in a mirror-smooth bay behind Fantome Island.

We had a great night's sleep. In fact, the weather was so still that we could probably have slept floating on the open sea. In the morning we woke easily to the alarm and began motoring the final few hours to the southern entrance to Hinchinbrook Passage.

According to the official charts, the bar is too shallow for us to cross. However, there is an active three-mile long sugar loader with leading lights across the shoals to a jetty, showing that the channel is regularly used. In addition, we'd emailed Nancy and John on Alana Rose who had recently crossed the bar, and they told us that they'd had good depths at high tide.


We had no problems getting across. The leads and navigation buoys took us so close to the sugar loader and the old molasses jetty that it was possible to chat quietly to the fishermen as we glided past.


There was still very little wind, so we motor-sailed up the passage (or 'did a Bob' as we call it, in honour of another blogger who circumnavigated Australia in a Bavaria with, as far as we can tell, his engine running most of the time). Hinchinbrook Channel is about twenty miles long and allows you to squeeze between the mountains of Hinchinbrook Island to the east, and the coast-hugging Cardwell Range to the west. The Channel is lined with mangroves which provide a vivid bright green contrast to the darker green gums behind, while the stark rock of the mountains looms impressively in the background.


After a very scenic day, we pulled off the main channel into Gayundah Creek, one of the many drainage creeks that cut down from the mountains and through the mangroves. The breathless quiet was broken only by the occasional call of a bird or splash of a fish in the shallows. In the background we could hear sporadic 'clunk' noises that sounded vaguely like a branch snapping, or somebody slapping the water. We guessed that they were either made by frogs or by air bubbling up from the swamp mud, although we never did get to the bottom of it.


The many secluded and winding tributary channels just cried out to be explored, so we unshipped the dinghy and spent a happy afternoon alternately motoring and paddling in the shallows.


The creeks were teeming with life, from rays and bait fish in the water, to crabs and white herons on the mud, to scintillating kingfishers flashing through the air.

Rested and content, it was time to put in some northerly miles. There was no wind at all behind Hinchinbrook Island, but we assumed that it was still blowing out to sea. A few hours later, we poked our nose out around the northernmost tip of the island and picked up a lovely nor'easter that had us flying along towards the next set of islands, the Family Group.

As dusk fell, we came abeam of the resort island of Dunk. We passed into its wind shadow, and then never came out. The wind had died completely. I downloaded some GRIB files and found that the forecast was for no wind at all for the next few days. We considered anchoring at Dunk, but felt that we hadn't really made any progress - Hinchinbrook was still in sight - so we decided to motor for a few more hours and anchor off the Barnard Islands instead.

August 7, 2009

We like Townsville

We spent several days enjoying the cafes and pubs of Townsville. The Palmer Street restaurant district is just behind the TMBYC marina, and from there it is but a short stroll to the Flinders Street East pub and club circuit. We didn't have a single bad drink or indifferent meal in Townsville. We became regulars at the Townsville Brewery, situated in the impressive old General Post Office building and home to seven or eight enormously impressive boutique beers, and Cactus Jack's which offers excellent margaritas in its rooftop bar with views out over the town.


The other big draw is The Strand, which is the area backing Townsville's long beachfront. The town planners have done a marvellous job here in creating something akin to La Rambla in Montevideo and many other latin countries. The beach remains pristine, but is now backed by a wide boulevard dotted with palm trees, sculptures, memorials, and playgrounds for young and old alike.


One of these playgrounds is a fountain designed for playing in, complete with water cannons and a big bucket which periodically soaks everybody in the area.


The Strand is delightfully uncommercial. Some low-rise hotels sit unobtrusively far back across the road, and the occasional cafes and restaurants are tucked away in secluded corners so as not to detract from the sweep of the bay. Bronwyn's favourite was Juliette's, a gelateria that makes its own gelato on the spot and which does cracking business well into the night.


As well as the beach itself, sections of which are protected by stinger nets to guard against jellyfish, The Strand also boasts a pool at each end. The Tobruk pool was used for training by Australia's olympic swimmers in the sixties (the entrance hall alone is well worth a visit for its collection of photos from that period), and the Kissing Point Rock Pool is an artificial swimming lagoon designed to provide safe swimming in the stinger season.


We got the feeling that Townsville is destined for good things. It has not escaped the world's current financial problems; for instance, the central mall was closed down and scheduled for major prestigious redevelopment, but this project has been put on hold so that a large part of the centre now sits idle and locals have to travel to the suburbs to do their shopping. All around, premium apartments have been built - neither too high nor too offensive, more kudos to the town planners - but we understood that hundreds of them stand empty awaiting buyers who never came. On the other hand, the town's prosperity was never derived from tourism, and the constant flow of mineral, agricultural and livestock wealth continues to flow from the North Queensland interior to the various loaders and refineries to the south of the town.

Day followed perfect day, and we began to think that we would never get around to leaving. It was nice to be stuck somewhere because we wanted to be, instead of - as has happened so often on this trip - being trapped by storms. In the end, though, we realised that if we were going to get around the northern coast of Australia before the advent of the cyclone season, then we needed to get moving.

But we really like Townsville, and will return.


August 5, 2009

A Tale of Two Marinas

We had never intended to stop in Townsville. However, Patricia was flying out to wherever we happened to be at the beginning of August, and Townsville airport was within striking distance. This also meant that she could join us for our exploration of nearby Magnetic Island.

Townsville has several marinas, and we randomly chose The Breakwater which seemed at first glance to give easiest access to the sea. The chart showed dredged depths of 1.1m which should have allowed us in at most points of the tide, but luckily we rang ahead and found that in fact the channel was really only 50cm deep.

We'd arrived only a few hours before high tide, so we hung around hove-to until it was deep enough and then motored in. In retrospect this was a wise decision, because when the tall ship Joshua C followed us in a few days later, they found themselves dredging their own channel with their keel.

It seems to be a point of honour among marinas that they never adequately signpost their berths, and Breakwater was no different. We endured the usual stress of searching up and down the narrow and crowded channels of an unfamiliar marina, until eventually we located our assigned berth. Because of the combined effects of wind, tide and surrounding boats, you usually only get one chance of getting cleanly in to a berth, so Bronwyn swung the bow round in a fast turn while I stood on the foredeck with a handful of pre-prepared lines. As the little slot twisted into view, I jumped onto the pontoon and prepared to tie off and help warp her in, only to find that the wood was so rotten that all the cleats had fallen out. Looking around for any sort of projection that I could use, I shouted "It's up to you!" to Bronwyn, who executed a flawless parallel park while I hunted around for something to tie up to.

Most of Breakwater Marina was like that. The pontoons were all falling apart, the staff were distinctly strange, and the fee structure was impenetrable and changed from one day to the next, not only in terms of dollar amount but also with the tax charged. After a few days, we went to the office clutching a handful of mis-matched invoices and asking for clarification. We were told that although we had requested a 10m berth, "none were available" and so they had "put us in a 12m berth" and charged us accordingly. This is gibberish, because the berths are largely all the same and it is the length of your boat that should determine the fee. It wasn't just us; we heard later that the Joshua C was also charged randomly changing amounts with each passing day. The marina also tried very hard to keep our key deposit when we left, by conveniently "forgetting" to keep a note of our card details so that they were unable to credit our account.

Patricia arrived, and we set off to explore Magnetic Island (see the previous blog entry). The Breakwater marina notwithstanding, we had thoroughly enjoyed our initial impression of Townsville itself, and wanted to stay on a bit longer when when we brought Patricia back to town. We decided to try out the Townsville Motor Boat and Yacht Club marina, which is down Ross Creek in the centre of town. Access is via the commercial harbour shipping channel, so we nipped in ahead of an incoming bulk carrier and found good depths all the way.

After the usual hunt for our berth, we tied up to a warm welcome by Mark, the marina manager, who called a taxi for Patricia and went out of his way to make our stay as enjoyable as possible. The pontoons were all sturdy and new, the club's facilities were being completely refurbished, there was a lively bar on site, the other marina residents were universally friendly and interesting, and to top it all the berths were considerably cheaper than at Breakwater.

Leaving Pindimara in safe hands, we happily set off to explore the town.

August 4, 2009

Magnetic Island

After picking up Patricia from Townsville airport, we sailed across to nearby Magnetic Island for the weekend. Captain Cook named it "Magnetical" because he believed that it was affecting his compass, but it seems that he was mistaken. This can happen to the best of us; see for instance this harrowing tale from the crew of Pelagic.

The island may lack magnetic anomalies, but it does have some beautiful bays and walking tracks. The best anchorage is in Horseshoe Bay to the north, offering good protection from the SE trade winds, so we dropped anchor there for a few days while we explored. Although it was a busy bay, there was plenty of room for all, and there was no appreciable swell despite continuing strong trade winds.


A couple of thousand permanent residents are scattered around a number of small settlements connected by a circular bus route. Apart from one younger chap, who was presumably new to the job, the bus drivers tried to make the route more interesting for themselves by keeping the accelerator pedal firmly to the metal at all times. They would only grudgingly switch to the brake pedal when a few metres short of a bus stop, and they made up for this by stamping heavily on it and performing an emergency stop. Passengers quickly learned that it was necessary to wait for the bus to stop bouncing on its springs before daring to stand up to get off.

The other mode of transport on the island is the Mini Moke. I had no idea that there were so many of them left in the world, but this may be because they are all now collected in this one spot. Most are for hire, fulfilling the function of the golf cart on Hamilton Island, being usually piloted by slightly inebriated tourists making their way home from the pub.


Tourism is the only industry here, but Magnetic ('Maggie' to its friends) has escaped the resort frenzy that has claimed Hamilton. Most of the accommodation is low key and comprises individual houses or cabins rather than hotels. The ferry to the mainland is the island's lifeline and the key to its prosperity, as can clearly be seen in Picnic Bay which used to be a thriving commercial quarter but which is now largely a ghost town because the ferry terminal moved around the corner to Nelly Bay.

There are no such problems at Horseshoe Bay, which is the jewel in the crown and whose few but excellent beachside bars are presumably adequately serviced by visiting yachties. The Barefoot cafe and art gallery is particularly relaxing, and an honourable mention must go to the 'Noodies' Mexican restaurant next door for the opportunity to sit margarita in hand while watching dugongs in the surf and people messing about on the beach.


The island also boasts a number of easy walking trails. Perhaps the most spectacular is the Forts Walk which hits you with a triple whammy. Firstly, the views of the surrounding shorelines are superb. Secondly, the path takes you up to a historically interesting WWII gun emplacement, and lastly the trail is lined with koalas.




We were sad to leave Horseshoe Bay when it was time to take Patricia back to the mainland, but the weather co-operated to give us perfect sailing conditions back down around West Point to complete our circumnavigation of the island.