September 27, 2009

Cyclone Proof

It was quite incredibly hot. Darwin was going through 'the build-up', which is the crossover period between the two seasons. The humidity starts ramping up from the dry season (hot, dry) to the wet season (hot, wet), making the weather more and more muggy but without providing the release of actual rainfall. For the greater part of the day it was literally too hot to move, and we found ourselves sitting in a stupour beneath our electric fan. The boat needed to be cleaned and prepared, but even the smallest task brought rivers of sweat pouring down our backs and legs. Occasionally we made a foray to the cafe so that we could sit under the air conditioner, and another steaming day was spent at the mall.

This was crazy. It was time to move on. We made use of the cooler periods of the morning and evening to hose months of accumulated salt from the fibreglass. In preparation for the cyclones we removed everything from the deck, stowed the foresail, lashed the mainsail to the boom, and doubled up all the mooring lines.


In preparation for the humidity of the wet season, we ate or discarded our remaining fresh goods, filled the fuel and water tanks, sprayed the bilges with mildew preventer, laid cockroach traps, lifted all the seat cushions and topped up the batteries. The marina laundry took a beating as we washed every piece of fabric and packed it all away into vacuum bags.


In the hot periods of physical lassitude we spent hours on the internet looking at flight schedules and job opportunities, and then spent a few minutes packing for a round the world trip. That's one of the great things about living on a boat; if you have to catch a plane, you don't need to spend a lot of time deciding what to bring. Everything that you own goes into a small bag, and off you go.

We arranged for Keith the wonderful and obliging lockmaster to occasionally check and ventilate the boat over the next six months, got in a taxi, and headed for SIngapore.


September 25, 2009


There isn't too much to do around Tipperary Waters marina, although the two cafes on the shore are very good and we understand that a bar will be opening soon. The Dinah Sailing club down the road is the only place to get a drink, and it isn't exactly spectacular. However, public transport is cheap, and it only costs two dollars to get the bus into town and about ten to take the taxi back again.

After so long in the back of beyond, it was surprisingly great to get a good dose of civilisation. We had some excellent tapas at the Moorish Cafe in town, and together with Rob from Ku Ching we tackled the enormous seafood platter at Crustaceans On The Wharf.

We also had a good party session up and down Mitchell Street, which is the restaurant and bar district, and met some fun and interesting people (that's you, Carlee).

It's funny that we're seeing a completely different Darwin to our last visit. That time it was christmas and there was nobody here and nothing was open. Right now in September, the place is hopping. Last night we went to the famous market at Mindle Beach. As well as the crowds milling around in the market itself, there must have been ten thousand people sitting quietly on the beach watching the sunset.


We're very aware that the wet season seems to be coming early this year. It is very hot and very sticky, and although it isn't actually raining, the sky is continually threatening.

Two yachts that were heading for Perth recently gave up and turned around and came back, saying that conditions are impossible. Since that's the direction that we're heading, we've spent a lot of time canvassing the local cruisers, and even though we're aware that one man's "impossible" is another woman's "fun sail", there is a solid consensus is that we're looking at a very hard trip down the coast.

Faced with a rough ride, and aware that since we've started rushing along the coastline we haven't been enjoying ourselves half as much as we ought to, we've decided to leave Pindimara in Darwin for the wet and cyclone seasons, and to come back and finish the trip in the middle of next year. Not only does it give us a chance to do some work and replenish the coffers, but it also means that we'll be able to take our time cruising the Kimberleys rather than continually rushing along and checking over our shoulders for a cyclone.

September 21, 2009

Beagle Gulf

Carefully timing the tides, we went to bed for some rest before getting up and leaving at midnight. It was a starry but moon-less night, there were almost no lights on the shore of Bathurst Island, and there was no wind at all. The backwash from the steaming light off the back of the furled foresail gave a strange, misty air to the world, so that we seemed to be coccooned in an ethereal blanket. We may have left a little late, as I forgot that it would take nearly 2 hours to get out of Gordon Bay, but the tide sucked us out and then gave us a 3.5 knot boost toward Darwin.

Despite the complete absence of any wind, the water got quite exciting, a roller coaster ride. At one point we were smashing through standing waves and I was wondering how Bronwyn, even though she is a champion sleeper, could possibly be snoozing in the fore-peak. As far as I could imagine, she must have been in the air half the time. Then the whole yacht went airborne off one wave and ploughed into the next, washing the decks of the accumulated mud and ash, and replacing them with sand and shells. A tousled head appeared in the companionway. "How fast are we going?" she asked, before heading sleepily back to bed.

A little later the propeller didn't seem to be able to get any traction. Bear in mind that it was completely black. I peered into the small pool of light cast by the stern light, and could just make out that the water was bubbling and boiling beneath us. Presumably there was so much air in the thrashing water that the prop was cavitating.

Sliding sideways into the Beagle Gulf, I suddenly had an inspiration and realised that I might be able reprogram part of the autopilot to display the GPS 'course over ground'. Then I could judge the tidal set without continually going below to check our position on the chart. I don't know why I didn't think of it before. It worked a treat, and while I was at it I added a display for the water temperature. For the record, in the middle of the night in September, it was 27 centigrade. No wonder it is popular with crocodiles.

The sun came up, and the sea became flat an placid in all directions. We couldn't see the shore and were completely alone.


Suddenly an enormous cargo ship appeared, in a great hurry to get somewhere. It passed us by and disappeared again.


Time passed. There was not a breath of wind. We motored.

The tide started to pick us up as planned for the final approach into Darwin, slowly increasing the boost until we were doing over 10 knots.


We could see the Darwin skyline, but we couldn't get a mobile phone connection. Broadband internet was working, though, so we used Skype to call the closest marina, Cullem. They explained that although they did have a free berth, we would be charged $240 for the privilege of opening the lock gate. I think not. We called Tipperary Marina, who were able to fit us in at a more reasonable price. Although they were another four miles upriver, the continuing tide made mincemeat of the distance.

The approach to Tipperary was interesting, up a river which dries out at low tide. We maintained radio contact with Keith the lockmaster, and as we were passing a seemingly unbroken rock wall, he asked us if we could see him waving. Eventually we spotted him in the dusk, and realised that there was an all-but-invisible break in the wall. It was like the Gulgari Rip all over again, but this gap was only seven metres wide.

We negotiated the lock without any problems, and found ourselves in a trim and tidy little marina full of smart long-term liveaboards. Keith was wonderfully helpful and did a great job of making us feel welcome.

The showers were wonderful.

September 20, 2009

Decisions at Gordon Bay

We had an exciting ride out of Snake River in a strong nor'easter which took us at 7 knots to Cape Van Diemen, the northern tip of Melville Island. For the rest of the night we followed the coastline southward, riding the winds until they faltered in mid morning. We were starting to notice an opposing tide, so rather than waste fuel we anchored off Bathurst Island in about 70 square miles of sheltered and shallow water. Only the southern part, Gordon Bay, has been named or charted, so we dropped anchor there in about 10 metres and spent the rest of the day pottering around. I really should have been doing my schoolwork, but after many night watches with my iPod I had finally almost finished organising our music collection, so I finished off that job instead.

Although we still carried a couple of month's worth of dried and tinned ingredients, we were desperately short of fresh food. We ate our last orange, leaving us with one sweet potato and two onions. It was decision time. Wyndham or Darwin? We had to provision at one or the other before tackling the Kimberleys. Each town had its advantages and disadvantages.

Darwin has evil spring tides, an approach route that leads into the teeth of the trade winds, and nowhere simple to stay. The choice there is between anchoring in Fannie Bay and dragging the dinghy through half a mile of mud, and booking through the lock gates into one of the marinas. Because of the drying tides, all of Darwin's marinas have lock gates that only let you in and out at certain times, considerably restricting your freedom. On the other hand, if we could get into a marina then shopping would be easy.

Wyndham lies at the bottom of the Bonaparte Gulf and was still several days away. The winds in the Gulf are notoriously inconsistent, and the GRIB showed that we would encounter confused light winds coming from every direction. The only place to anchor is in the strongly tidal river, the jetty is apparently only useable for a few hours each day, and the actual town is a taxi ride from the river. After provisioning, it's a long hard slog back out of the Gulf. On the other hand, we'd never been there before and it has the dubious pleasure of having Australia's hottest average temperature (32C).


The trade winds were set to slacken. We also fancied a meal in a restaurant. We chose Darwin.

September 19, 2009

Musings in Milikapiti

When we awoke in our little mud pond in the Snake River, I sat on deck and looked across the water at the settlement of Milikapiti. It seemed strange to be anchored so close to a shoreline aboriginal community, to be connected to their broadband mast and choked by their bush fires and yet not have any social interaction.

Firstly, we are not allowed on to aboriginal land without a pre-arranged permit. Secondly, the residents of the Arnhem Land coastline, even here on the island, did not seem to make any use of boats. Although their houses and cars line the beaches, they never seem to have any jetties, tinnies or even canoes. We have passed woven branch fishing traps within wading distance of the shore, but we never once saw an aboriginal person out on the water.

The upshot of this is that we couldn't visit them, and they couldn't visit us. It does feel a bit strange.

And then, just as we were leaving, three enormous aluminium powerboats came flying down the river and were whisked up a ramp and out of sight. I thought that I would have to revise (or even delete) this blog entry as it looked like I was wrong.

I couldn't really see who was in the boats, so I fired off a couple of dozen shots with the telephoto lens. Later that day I blew up the images and realised that the people in the boats were all white, possibly pearl fishermen. So my comments still stand.

Video footage revisited

Long time readers of this blog will know that sometimes I upload bits of video for your delectation and delight. For some time now I've been unhappy with the compression routines that Blogspot automatically applies to my carefully edited masterpieces, which renders them small and blurry.

I have now uploaded the videos onto a different server so that you can see them exactly as I originally intended. I will use this format for all new videos, and I've updated the old blog entries to point to the new locations.

Here's the complete list:


Snake River

Ahead of us were the infamous tidal flows of Darwin and its guardian Dundas and Clarence Straits, two or more days of irresistable rips and crucial tide timetables. For a clean run, one writer claimed that we needed to maintain an average speed of eight knots, which even allowing for a following current is a bit of an ask. Lugubrious cruising guides spoke of yachts that had mistimed it and anchored up, only to be sucked out of their safe bays by the marauding rip. On top of this, it's the end of winter and we're heading into the spring tides when the tides exceed nine metres and everything is just that little bit worse.


Jimmy Cornell in his influential book 'World Cruising Routes' states quite bluntly that it should not be attempted, and recommends taking the longer route around Melville Island, even though this adds a hundred miles to the journey and ends with seventy miles of beating into wind to get to Darwin.

Even taking the northern route, cautious tidal planning is still necessary. We left Port Essington on a falling tide, hoping to get sucked out of the bay and at least half way across the entrance to the Dundas Strait before having to fight the easterly set. The plan began well, but inevitably we ended up in a hard slog against up to five knots of current. Luckily the trade winds were behind us and we could make a few knots of headway.

Evening fell as we fought free of the influence of the Strait, and then we had a hard nights sail across the top of Melville Island. The currents were increasingly difficult to predict and we zigzagged wildly. Even at the large scale of the chart above, you can see that our route was not exactly straight.

We sailed all night and most of the next day. We didn't seen any other boats, but we did spot a bird floating along on the sea. You might not think that this was so strange, but the bird, apparently a black and white booby, was nonchalantly standing upright on the surface. As we got closer, we realised that it was standing on the back of a turtle that was swimming along at the surface. The pair were still together when they passed over the horizon.

By mid afternoon we were entering Snake Bay. We knew nothing at all about this area apart from the fact that it was a north-facing river entrance that should give us protection from the south-easterly trades, and that the aboriginal community there had a broadband mast. We'd been out of touch for well over a week, and quite apart from updating this blog, we needed to check on our university work and deal with some business.

Snake Bay is divided into easterly and a westerly channels, and judging by the patterns of the sand banks on the chart it looked as if the eastern side would have less current. By the time we got there, though, the wind had shifted to the NE and was blowing straight at us, building up an uncomfortable chop. Aware that the charts only had a zone of confidence of C ("depth anomalies may be expected"), we crept further upstream looking for shelter, but found none.

It was time for Plan B. I had previously noted that it seemed to be just possible to squeeze through a 30 metre gap in the shoals and access the main western channel, before tackling a 30 metre wide bar between two drying banks which would drop us into a 5 metre deep pool inside a large drying mud lake.

In a nifty and stylish piece of navigation (I can safely say this in retrospect, since we didn't hit anything) we arrived at the centre of the 100 metre square pool and dropped anchor in millpond smooth waters.


After catching up with the outside world and sipping a G&T or two, we collapsed into bed for our first sleep in 48 hours. The wind shifted in the night, and blew ash and smoke from the aboriginal fires through the cabin. I imagine that it kept the mosquitoes away.

September 17, 2009


We anchored off Adams Head, deep in Port Essington, and set off in the relative cool of the morning to explore the abandoned settlement of Victoria. The temperature was still in the thirties.

In the early 1800s, England had settled parts of the eastern coast of Australia but was concerned that the northern reaches of this vast continent might be vulnerable to Dutch and French expansion from their colonies in the East Indies.

Two military bases were set up, Fort Dundas on Melville Island and Port Wellington on the Cobourg Peninsula, but both settlements failed due to the harsh conditions. The English government persisted, and in 1838 set up the civilian settlement of Victoria at a site much farther inland, at Adam Head on the shores of the large Port Essington bay.


Surveys had shown that there was a plentiful supply of fresh water, and also that the area might support a successful trepang trade. We've seen traces of similar activity (trepang are also known as beche-de-mer, or sea cucumbers or sea slugs) all over the northern islands and coasts. Mrs Watson of Lizard Island was there because her husband was a beche-de-mer fisherman. The sea slugs themselves were traded at great profit to the Chinese who regard them as a delicacy. I tried one once in Shanghai, and it was indeed very expensive but also tasted pretty much the way that you would expect.

The settlement began bravely, with a prefabricated Governor's House, a church, a hospital, thatched and shingled cottages, and a military barracks.


For food they had vegetable gardens, imported water buffalo, and a peaceable trading relationship with the local aboriginals and with visiting Macassan (Indonesian) trepang fishermen.

Unfortunately the original survey had been conducted in the wet season, and for the other six months of the year the colony had to rely on ever deeper wells.


A cyclone hit in the second year, and destroyed much of what had been built. The supply ships came only intermittently, and the soil turned out to be so poor that their gardens were barely better than subsistance. Malaria became a way of life, eventually killing almost a quarter of the residents.


At times fully half of the population were in hospital, not only from malaria but also from dysentery, influenza and scurvy.

After eleven hard years, the political situation had changed and foreign incursion was no longer regarded as a threat. The survivors were shipped out and the settlement was abandoned.

Some of the buildings were subsequently and intermittently used by freelance trepang fishermen and hunters tracking the now wild water buffalo, but the bush soon moved back in. It didn't take long for most of the signs of civilisation to be erased.


September 15, 2009

Across the Arafura Sea

We didn't have permits to go onto aboriginal land anywhere across the Northern Territories, so we did not get off on Raragala Island and did not plan to set foot on land again until we got to Darwin. Cruisers who were doing the distance more slowly had applied for permits with variable results. One boat's applications got 'lost'. Another boat got every permit that they asked for, but dated in such a way that there was no way that they could possibly use them.

We were also aware of the ticking of the cyclone clock and decided to skip the bureaucracy and thus the Arnhem Land coastline, which all looks pretty similar anyway. We drew a straight line on the chart across the Arafura Sea to the Cobourg Peninsula near to Darwin.



We were at sea for two days and two nights, during which time we sighted no land, no ships, no planes, and only three items of interest. The first was a banded coral snake. The second was a very lost ten-inch crab, swimming at the surface miles from shore. The third was a juvenile petrel who roosted on our dodger for most of the second night, completely unconcerned with the comings and goings of crew with bright lights and cameras.


On the morning of the third day we sighted land and dropped anchor on the south-western side of Grant Island for a rest. We couldn't go ashore, because even this was aboriginal land, but we couldn't face any more sailing and needed to get some decent sleep.

After a few hours the swell turned around and began to hit us on the beam, which is never comfortable and a sure fire trigger for lost sleep and tinkling crockery. The good news was that the sea conditions were right and there was room to swing about; I could finally try a trick that Virginia had mentioned months ago.

Picture this: We're at anchor. Boats at anchor are designed to point into wind, so the wind is coming from dead ahead. The swell is slapping into us from starboard (right hand side). I got a long rope and tied one end to the anchor chain where it dropped over the bow roller, and the other end to the port stern quarter (left back) of the boat. Back at the front of the boat, I let out ten extra metres of anchor chain, dragging that end of the rope far under water. Strolling back to the stern end of the rope, I attached it to a winch and wound it in, dragging the stern around to port, and pointing the bow into the swell. Rather than streaming off the anchor in a straight fore-and-aft line, the boat was now hanging sideways on a Y-shaped harness.

The rocking stopped. Brilliant. Thankyou, Virginia.

In the morning we got up and looked at the perfect and inviting beach. Ah well. We had no permit, and anyway it was time to move on. We hoisted sail and headed out of the bay.

Just for a change we had a perfect combination of strong following winds and a swell that was directly astern. We could move around the yacht freely, read books and concentrate on small tasks without feeling seasick. It seemed as good a time as any to learn how to make an eye splice.


We'd planned to reach Black Point in the large bay of Port Essington by midnight, but we were making cracking progress and turned into the entrance shortly after nightfall. It was a pitch black moonless night, and much of the territory up here is not well charted. There are some spot heights and guesstimated contours, but even these are only 95% certain to be within 2 metres vertically and 500 metres horizontally. Nevertheless there wasn't much that we could do about it, so we charged in at something over six knots and, navigating by GPS, dropped anchor in complete darkness in 5 metres of water a respectable distance from the invisible reef and the invisible shore.

Once everything was ship-shape, I got out the big spotlight to have a last check for any hazards, and illuminated Black Point Beach right in front of the bow. We hastily weighed anchor and backed off a few hundred yards before putting it back down again.

Epiphany at Black Point

The Black Point anchorage had a pronounced roll and we awoke irritable and grumpy. We were getting bored with the continual mileage and were going more than a little stir crazy, having seen little in the last thousand miles much more interesting than sea water and the inside of a few pubs. Without our university work to keep us occupied and to fuel our discussions, we probably would have cracked long before this. Were we going too far, too fast?

Port Essington is part of a national park, and there is a ranger station at Black Point. I called up the ranger on the radio to see if it was possible to get a permit to go ashore at the nearby historical settlement of Victoria, and received the welcome news that no permit was required for day visits. Eager to see a new face after a week at sea, I tossed the dinghy over the side and rowed to shore to get more details. Just as I was setting the anchor on the beach, the ranger's helicopter lifted off from behind the treeline and headed off seaward. Darn!

I went up to his house anyway and found the visitor centre, which was closed. Persistence paid off as I found an unlocked rear entrance and spent a happy hour or so wandering around the nice little museum there.

On the way back to the dinghy, I stopped on the beach and dug my feet into the baking hot sand. Scattered around me were hundreds of shell and coral fragments. I picked up a handful and realised that I was looking at more individual new things than I had seen in the entire past week.

The realisation hit that, although sailing is fun, I am first and foremost a land mammal. There just isn't enough variety on the water to keep me that interested. Rowing back to Pindimara, I imparted this new-found wisdom to Bronwyn, who of course had worked it out for herself weeks ago and was waiting for me to catch up.

We decided to take a little holiday from our holiday, and instead of moving west took off southward deeper into the bay in the direction of the ruined town of Victoria some three hours away.

It felt good to be heading for a real destination that we could walk around on, rather than just another palm-fringed inaccessible beach on the way to the next one. In addition, Port Essington is sheltered from the swell but not from the trade winds, so we were soon creaming along at a steady seven knots. Flying fish sparkled across the water before us, dolphins cruised serenely alongside. Even heeled over, the boat hung reasonably steady in the flat azure sea, and Bronwyn popped below for long enough to bake a batch of scones.

Things were looking up.

September 14, 2009

The Hole in the Wall

The first barrier to our westward route was a group of three long island chains, all running parallel to each other SW to NE. The first set were the Bromby Islets sticking up ten miles from the top of mainland Arnhem Land. Then we had to cross a channel called the Malay Road and squeeze between a couple of the English Companys Islands, before finally crossing Donnington Sound and finding a route through the Wessel Islands.

The most obvious route (apart from the long way around over the top of the Wessels) was to sneak between the Brombys and Cape Wilberforce at the top of Arnhem Land, run the gap between Cotton and Wigram Islands, and then take the Gulgari Rip between Raragala and Guluwuru Islands.


The only problem with this plan was that each crossing demanded a particular time of the tide. Get it wrong and we could, for instance, face a 12 knot opposing current through the Gulgari Rip.

After a little thought and some work with the guides and tide tables we realised that if we left Gove shortly after midnight, we could use the moonlight to get out of the harbour and be crossing the Brombys at slack tide just after dawn. Then we had just enough time to get across the Malay Road and through the English Companys before the tide started flooding, after which the sail across Donnington Sound would bring us to the Gulgari Rip at the top of the following tide.

One disadvantage of the plan was that the literature was quite vague about the exact time that the tide turns in each of the passes, but we thought that we had probably figured it close enough.

We arrived at the Brombys in the pre-dawn light. The channel was half a mile across and we crossed it without any problems.


The gap between Cotton and Wigram was more of a dogleg and reputed to have a four-knot rip. Even though we must have been close to slack tide we still got sucked through, and had to do some fancy footwork to avoid an area of boiling rip at the western end, where the seabirds were having a breakfast feeding frenzy.



It's about fifteen miles across Donnington Sound to the Wessel Islands, so we took it in turns to sleep.

The Gulgari Rip between Raragala and Guluwuru Islands is also known as 'The Hole in the Wall' because it is so narrow and difficult to see. Decent winds saw us arriving half an hour early, and we were a little disappointed at first to see that from the our direction the gap was really obvious. We didn't want to get too close without committing, but through the binoculars I could make out whitecaps which suggested that the eastward rip was still running towards us. We hove to and drifted in the sunshine for an hour while we ate lunch and waited for the time that we believed that the tide would turn.

At the appointed hour, which was slightly after high tide at faraway Gove, we reset the sails and discovered that the hole had disappeared. Even though I had memorised the surrounding cliff structure when we arrived, the gap was still completely invisible until we found precisely the right approach angle. Our first sight of it must have just been very lucky.

Hoping that we were now at the top of the tide, we sailed into the bay that funnelled us in to the gap, arriving at about half past Gove high tide. We knew that the gap was about 70 metres wide with 30 metres of that navigable, but that's still only 3 boat lengths across and as we approached it at 5 knots it looked terrifyingly narrow.


Once through the jaws, the surrounding cliffs shielded us from the winds and the sails went slack. We'd expected this and had the engine idling in preparation, but we didn't need it because the boat started to accelerate as the Rip sucked us in.

After that, the ride got surreal. We glided with slack sails between picturesque stacks of rock on either side, with nothing to do beyond keeping the bow pointed at the far end. Here and there, people had smeared graffiti on the rocks to show that they had been through; the crew of HMAS Wollongong were particularly obvious. Tiny bays opened out on either side, and it is rumoured that some of them are deep enough to shelter in if you found yourself halfway through and fighting too strong a rip. I can't imagine trying to get into one of them with your boat already out of control.


I shot some very bad video that shows some of these bays.


The Rip spat us out into the Arafura Sea, and we popped around the corner to a safe anchorage in Guruliya Bay to get some sleep. In the morning we had a long passage ahead of us.

September 11, 2009

Gove and Nhulunbuy

Gove is another Rio Tinto bauxite mining site, but quite different from the operation on the other side of the Gulf. Whereas the town of Weipa was purpose-built in the wilderness to service the mine, there were already existing settlements on the Gove peninsula when the miners came so they had to fit in around what was already there.


Around the harbour itself are situated the Rio Tinto Alcan bauxite refinery and alumina loader, the Perkins delivery barge terminal, fields of sodium hydroxide tailings, and the Gove Yacht Club. Everything else is in Nhulunbuy Township a dozen kilometres down the road.


The yacht club gave us a warm welcome, and for a few dollars we purchased temporary membership which gave us access to a shower block and laundry, as well as a key to get in the back door of the pub which was handy when the front door was locked against drunken and screaming aboriginals, an all too frequent occurrence.


The clientele of the club was a mix of aboriginal drinkers from the dry townships down the road, visting yachties like ourselves, and workers at for Rio Tinto who chose to live aboard rather than in town. The harbour contained quite a few wrecks of old liveaboard boats that had sunk when their tenant moved on to another mining contract.


The taxi service from the yacht club into Nhulunbuy was enormously expensive, so by far the best way to get there was to hire a car for the day. The cheapest service was run by local resident Manny (08 8987 2300) who charged us fifty dollars for the day's use of a decent Hilux Twin-Cab, immediately saving us money over the cost of a taxi each way.

The ute enabled us to provision, although not to buy alcohol because the township is dry and you need a special license just to buy it from the supermarket.


One of the recurrent conversational themes at the club was how difficult it was to get fuel from the Perkins barge dock. Not only was it tricky to manoeuver in and out, but there were quite a few tales about how reluctant they were to service yachts at all. We threw some fuel cans into the back of the ute and filled up at the service station in town.

Nhulunbuy had little character and could be described as a number of houses of various sizes scattered around some small apartment blocks. There were a couple of small and run-down malls offering a supermarket and take-away food, a bank, a few clothing stores and a post office. The civic pride that was so obvious in Weipa was missing here, and the streets were lined with discarded junk.


Since we had a car, we braved the "no entry without a permit" signs to visit the art gallery in neighbouring Yrrkala. The gallery was interesting, and so was the museum of artifacts and the photographic record of the conscripted aboriginal forces in WW2, but the gallery prices seemed to us to be rather high. It didn't seem to hurt their business, though, because the building was scattered with brand new computer equipment and bark and wood paintings that had been packaged up for delivery to satisfied customers.

We spent several evenings at the yacht club and met a lot of interesting people. A bunch of backpackers had recently been abandoned there after crewing for a yacht which had promised them flights back to Perth from Gove. The yacht sailed off into the sunset leaving them stranded on the beach, and they'd made the best of it by working at the club. Some kind soul had put them up on one of the boats in the harbour.

We also met Jan and Neville on Panache and Selina and Stephen on Westward II, as well of course Paul on the 'big grey cat' who entertained us with tales of his extraordinary life sailing from place to place. Gerry and Alan gave us a tour of Black Gold, probably the highest-tech power boat in Australia, which can run on practically anything - old sump oil, chip fat, coconut oil - because it has been built around a miniature hydrocarbon cracking refinery and computer controlled blending station. On the outside it looks like a rich man's plaything. Very impressive indeed.

Time passed, and it became clear that Gove is one of those pleasant black holes where your life can slip away in a blur of alcohol and gossip. Some yachts had been there for years. Even the GPS didn't know what time it was, never really deciding whether we were in Northern Territory or Queensland.

The only real irritant were the sandflies. Almost completely invisible, they were always attacking our lower limbs. We tried nets and mosquito coils and sprays and even set off an insect bomb on the boat, but they were completely unstoppable. According to the chemist in Nhulunbuy, they weren't actually biting us, but were peeing on us and their pee is really toxic. Bronwyn was particularly susceptible, and all her sandfly sores turned into violently itchy welts.


It's a feature of aboriginal life that they love to set fire to things. You can always tell if an island on aboriginal land is inhabited because of the enormous pall of greasy smoke that hangs over it, and here on the mainland it was no different. Every piece of bush was continually burning. Even when a roadside verge had already been reduced to stark black sticks, somebody on the way back from the pub would still try to light it. Long term yacht residents talked of weekly deck washes to remove the stray ash, and indeed Pindimara wasn't looking too clean herself.


We woke one morning to find the whole peninsula in flames and the anchorage disappearing into the smoke. We took one last trip to shore to load up with water, hand in our key and say goodbye, then set our sights on destinations westward.

September 5, 2009

Across the Gulf

It was time to embark on our first proper ocean passage. Although we have done many multi-day non-stop passages, we've never really been more than 20 miles from land and there's almost always been some island or cape within a few hours sailing that we could hide behind if the weather turned nasty.

The trip from Weipa to Gove is a 300-mile straight line across the Gulf of Carpentaria, with no islands or shelter of any kind. We already knew from our voyage to Weipa that the weather in the Gulf was very changeable, but although our GRIB files reflected this, there was nothing really nasty in the forecast for the next few days.

We set off up the channel out of Weipa harbour, carefully giving the working dredgers a wide berth, and crossed into the open sea with a good following wind. The water was so clear, and the seabed sand so yellow, that the terns wheeling about our mast became magically green in the reflected light.


Dolphins came to see us off, jostling each other to get the prime position just under the bow. For some reason, a dolphin's idea of a good time is to have five tonnes of yacht crashing repeatedly down on his head. Each to their own, I guess.


The flat landscape of Cape York soon dropped over the horizon, and we were alone in the blazing heat. The instruments told us that the boat was moving, but there were no points of reference and we might as well have been standing motionless in an eternity of blue.


Later that afternoon, the wind died and left us becalmed. We began to take the sails down in preparation for starting the motor, and then noticed a curious rippling in the surface of the mirror-smooth sea. We looked around a little nervously at the clear blue sky. Nothing was visible, but we were very aware of a breathless pause. Something was about to happen.

Suddenly the cockpit was full of insects. Hundreds of them swarmed all over the boom and the Hydrovane sail, and spun in a motley cloud above the targa. I examined the nearest handful and saw that they were small brown beetles. I assumed that we had encountered a migratory swarm, but then Bronwyn shouted "Ow!" as something bit her, and we realised that there were dozens of different species of all shapes and sizes. In addition to the beetles, which seemed to be a kind of grain thrip, there were enormous black and white horseflies, dung flies in yellow and green, a variety of moths, and some big and evil-looking red-headed wasps. There were even some flightless creatures, scuttling ants and spiders.

In short, it looked as if something had sucked up all the insects from a crop field, carried them twenty miles out to sea, and then dumped them on our boat.

Some years ago, I watched small dust-devils sucking up hay and making crop circles in a field in Belgium, and only a few months ago we saw a waterspout that dropped its load of sea water onto Capricorn which was passing by, so I can only imagine that something similar happened here. The sea is surely a very strange place.

No sooner had we swept the nastiest of the insects overboard, then the wind shifted 180 degrees and we were hurriedly re-hoisting the sails to go close-hauled. It was time to go sailing.

For several days and nights we continued, with fair winds and with none at all, with large swell and small, alternately running, reaching and motoring as conditions dictated. We didn't see a single other vessel.


When the wind was blowing, we let Harriet the hydrovane do the steering, except when the wind dropped too much and the size of the swell exceeded the force of the breeze and made the boom slap at the bottom of every trough. Eventually I worked out a way of tying the boom down, which solved that little problem.

The wind tended to die off completely at night. We came to hate the periods of extended motoring, for the following swell demanded full concentration to stay on course, hour after hour after hour. I cursed the Raytheon dealer in Sydney who was supposed to have repaired our autopilot, but who just wasted our time instead. Our problem was exacerbated by the lack of landmarks, so that instead of simply aiming for a cape or a lighthouse we had to stare continuously at the compass, which is a very tiring way of motoring. At night we had a full moon, which was good for visibility but bad for steering because it washed the stars out and gave us nothing to steer by.

When the sails were up, even without the hydrovane the yacht was balanced and we were free to get up and walk around. Under motor, we were glued to the helmsman's position. Our backsides became raw from sitting on the hard cockpit seats in the rolling sea, forcing us to adopt ever stranger seating positions in an attempt to bring some new part of our anatomy to bear that wasn't already red and raw. I cut up some foam and made deck cushions, which made a tremendous psychological difference but which in reality only took the edge off the pain.

The third night was the worst. Turn and turn about, our spells at the wheel became shorter and shorter before we had to call down for a change of watch. Repeatedly rousted from less than two hours of sleep, we rested our chins on the wheel and stared at the compass through scratchy, red raw eyes. We were so tired that the boat was veering as much as sixty degrees to either side. Shortly after dawn we gave up, killed the engine and just let her drift unmanned while we both collapsed gratefully into blissful oblivion.

When we awoke, the sun was high in the sky and the sea was a still as a mill pond. We made breakfast and then fired up the motor again.

The day passed slowly, with no signs of life either human or animal. And then - Land Ho! A distant beach shimmered on the horizon.

We now have some inkling of how those early sailors must have felt when their destination hove into view after months at sea. Our hearts swelled, and we began to grin maniacally. Land! Land! FInally we had something to steer for, and we began to talk about what we would do when we reached land. Would there be showers? Would there be cold beer, would there be steak? Which would we have first?

The shoreline crept closer, until we could distinguish the passage between the mainland and Bremer Island, where aboriginal fires were burning. We'd heard that this was the traditional place for teenage delinquents, who were taken there to re-learn cultural values if they had transgressed against society. If this was still the case, then they certainly seemed to be busy at the moment.

A small yacht sailed out from behind the headland, crew waving cheerily as they passed. Sweaty, smelly, salt-encrusted and weary, we waved back. We had arrived.


September 2, 2009

Making Water

We are the proud owners of four thousand dollar's worth of Katadyn Powersurvivor 40E desalinator, but so far we had never managed to get it running properly. With the coast-hopping segment of our voyage behind us and some long non-stop passage-making ahead of us, I really wanted to get the wretched thing working once and for all. The opportunities for filling up with clean fresh water over the top end and down the west coast will be few and far between.


The problem with water-makers is that you can only test them when you are out in deep clean ocean, because any trace of organics (as found inshore) or chlorine (as found in tap water) can permanently and expensively kill the osmotic membrane. Since arriving in northern Queensland, we had been pretty permanently sailing through orange algal bloom, which is no good at all.

The story so far was that sometimes it made water, and sometimes it just blew bubbles, and there didn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to it. I variously replumbed, bypassed and short-circuited different parts of the machine in accordance with the instructions in the Katadyn manual, and after carefully following the troubleshooting flow diagrams, arrived at the conclusion that it was buggered.

I sent it back to the dealer, who fired it up, said that there was nothing wrong with it, and sent it back (a process that spanned several weeks and as many marina office drop boxes). I plumbed it back in, and hey presto it worked first time. We waited a couple of days and then tried again, and sure enough it refused to make any fresh water at all. It seemed to only work when I was testing it, not when I actually wanted some water. The dealer didn't have any opinion apart from "there's something wrong with your installation, maybe an air bubble somewhere". Thanks a bunch.

Far too late in the day, I thought of consulting Nigel Calder's excellent "Boat Owner's Mechanical and Electrical Manual", and found that the limiting factor was whether or not the unit could build up enough water pressure on the osmotic membrane. Since the unit doesn't have a pressure gauge, there's no way to tell whether it has or not. There is, however, a direct correlation between the amp-hours in the house batteries and the pressure in the unit, but unfortunately the distinction between 'the batteries are charged enough' and 'the batteries are not charged enough' is too subtle to be picked up by our boat's instrumentation. It would be great if the water-maker had either a pressure gauge or a warning light, but it doesn't have either of them. Katadyn, are you listening?

Before installing the unit I had done the math and knew that I would have to run the tow generator at the same time as the water-maker in order to get enough power. On paper it looked fine, but perhaps the reality was different.

I experimented some more, and after considerable frustration and more than one occasion when I announced that I was chucking the whole thing over the side, I settled on first running the tow generator alone for an hour or two to make sure that there was enough reserve in our (apparently already fully charged) batteries, and only then firing up the Katadyn.


We can now reliably make five litres of water an hour. If the sun is high over the solar panels and we're pulling the tow generator at over five knots, then we can run the unit for three or four hours without unduly stressing the system. Since we can get by on about 15 litres of water a day, we are now borderline self-sufficient in fresh water. Hurrah!

September 1, 2009


Weipa is a Rio Tinto company town of 3500 souls (a third of them children!) that exists to service the largest bauxite mine in the world. Many of those bulk carriers that we encountered in our journey up the reef were carrying bauxite ore to the smelters that we visited in Gladstone, so we were interested to see this end of the process as well.

From the chart we could see that there are two rivers that flow past Weipa, Mission to the north and Embley to the south. The Embley River is the shipping channel and well provided with navigation markers. The Mission River is much, much closer to town but has no markers and nobody in the literature seems to mention it as a potential anchorage. We went with the herd and put our anchor down in Embley across from the ore loader, in a large natural harbour ringed with beaches and mangroves.

We could see some houseboat moorings against the north shore, and there seemed to be a couple of other yachts anchored over there, but they were close to the ore loaders and we decided instead to shelter under the lee of the southern shore. The anchorage was calm, comfortable and quiet, except at the bottom of the tide when there was a 4.5 knot rip but it only rocked the boat for an hour or so in the morning. Occasionally a Panamax-class bulk carrier came by, but the harbour is big enough that we didn't really notice, except when they eclipsed the sun.

The only way to shore is by Evans Landing, a public jetty that gives access to Steve the houseboat guy's premises and little else apart from a telephone box, which you will need because the only realistic way into town from there is to call a taxi. Evans Landing was a mile away across the bay from our anchorage, but not a problem for our little 3 horsepower dinghy as long as we avoided low tide.


Naturally the first thing that we did when we got to shore was to hunt down the pub, in which we were stymied because there is no pub, or indeed any real town centre. Since Weipa was originally just housing for the mine, it hasn't grown up around a traditional centre, and has more the feel of a bunch of haphazard suburbs.



There are, however, two clubs. Several people told us that the reason that Weipa has a Golf Club and a Lawn Bowls Club is because these are the two sports that you can perform while drinking.

We randomly chose the Bowls Club, and had a great time and met (and drank with) a large number of interesting and colourful characters.


We also managed to eat some local prawns. This may not sound much of a feat, but all the way up the Queensland coast we have been trying to eat local seafood, only to find that all their catch is frozen and sent to the city. When the local restaurants need fish, they have to import it frozen from the usual sources.

The Weipa Bowls Club had Banana Prawns straight from the Gulf of Carpentaria. They were excellent.

A couple of days later, we got on a tour bus and went to the mine. It was another fascinating trip, not least because it is a far cry from your traditional open-cast mine. Bauxite is near as dammit just lying around on the surface, so all the miners really have to do is come along with a scoop and pick it up. Of course, it is slightly more complicated than that, and they get to use some very big scoops...




Tomorrow we're heading out on an extended passage across the sea to Gove. Since the Bureau of Meteorology clearly has no idea about the weather in the Gulf, we haven't read the weather but we have downloaded some GRIB files which tell us that we will have decent winds during the day but nothing but motoring at night.

For those who are interested in such things, I have added this quarter's cruising costs, as well as updating the map of our route.