Heading West

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Our route across the Gulf of Carpentaria

Seisia

We hadn’t been sure what to expect from Seisia, believing there was not much more than a camp site there, but we were pleasantly surprised. Arriving from Possession Island, we continued to be amazed by how green the area is from the water. We had to anchor outside the main anchorage, which is in a protected harbour in front of the jetty, because it didn’t have a great deal of depth. We ended up out beyond Red Island, but it was still a good anchorage and we were comfortable there even in over twenty five knots of wind. It was a long dinghy ride in, but nothing Goon Bag couldn’t handle. It was also a dryer ride than you might expect, but it really didn’t matter if you got wet, as that cooled you down, and you soon dried anyway!

As soon as we were settled on the anchor, we launched Goon Bag, and headed in with our fuel jerries, as this was our main reason for stopping here. A friendly fisho at the boat ramp directed us just around the corner to the servo, and we were pleased to see it was just a couple of hundred meters from the boat ramp, an easy distance to return with the full load. We purchased diesel in Australia’s most northerly servo – we know this because it was written on all the bowsers! As well as fuel, we treated ourselves to an ice cream, to help us with the return trip. We had noted a few boats in the harbour, and saw a Sydney registered boat amongst them, with clear signs of life aboard. We decided to stop by and say hi, and what a great idea that turned out to be!

Sea Urchin, owned by Bryan and Jenny, was on the return trip to Pittwater from Thailand! Even better, Bryan and Jenny were Squadron members, and their crew Dave was incredibly knowledgeable about this area of Australia. Between them they were able to pass on a great deal of invaluable information, and we all found we knew a lot of people in common. We ended up staying for a cuppa and cake, and were a little late back aboard for our HF sked. Jenny had told me that she was heading in to the campsite in the morning to use the laundry, so I decided that would also be my plan, given the bucket of sweaty gear that had accumulated and was stinking up the aft head.

That evening I cooked up a pasta and sauce, so that we could freeze the left overs as one of our dinners for crossing the gulf. The other dinner was the rest of the Sri Lankan fish curry, already in the freezer, so we would have plenty now. Bryan had mentioned that there was a fishing club here where they did meals on Fridays, so we thought we may treat ourselves tomorrow, by not having to cook or wash up!

In the morning, Pete dropped me and the laundry ashore, and I hot footed it to the camp site, and checked it was ok to use the washers. They were fine with it, and Jenny was already there, putting her washing on the washing lines. I had not thought to bring pegs, so put my wash in, then walked to the supermarket, and bought some pegs. It was well stocked, though not surprisingly (for Australia’s most northerly supermarket!), a bit expensive, but we would be able to stock up on a few items we were running short of. As I was leaving, I struck up a conversation with another boating couple, also returning from South East Asia, who also willingly passed on some useful tips.

Back at the laundry, Jenny and I completed the transfer from washing machine to line, with a bit of help from Bryan, and then we retired to the little craft shop at the camp site for a cold drink. It was a funny little place and the lady was making craft items to sell, and selling orange or cola slushies. As this was the only choice, we all had an orange slushie! I immediately drank too fast and got ice cream headache! As we were heading back to get the hopefully now dry washing, it started to rain, so we pulled everything quickly off the lines and packed into bags, ready for our respective taxi rides back to our boats. As we waited for the dinghies, Bryan invited us to join them at the fishos for a drink and dinner, which I gratefully accepted – no cooking for me tonight!

Back on board, we continued our preparation for departure, as on current weather forecasts we intended to leave the next day, Saturday, at midday. It had been so long since we had needed to overnight sail, we had a lot to organise to ensure we were well prepared. As mentioned, I had already cooked and frozen enough dinners for us for four nights, and as well as these, we needed easy to prepare lunch and breakfast, with ingredients readily to hand, and lots of snack stuffs like hard boiled eggs, muesli bars, nuts and so on. All this needed to be freely accessible, but stored where it couldn’t fall off shelves, or be under a heap of other stuff needing to be moved.

We also had to make sure all our safety gear was on deck, and life jackets, EPIRBS, torches and other items were all in working order and again, easily accessible. Finally, we needed to do route and departure planning, for which we were very grateful to have internet access here. This meant we had access to the most current weather information, to give us the best possible departure plan. When Pete initially ran the weather file it had looked very windy until Monday, but now this seemed to be moderating, and we agreed that Saturday looked good, with all the models generally concurring. The most wind we expected to see was around mid-twenty knots, and that just for a short period the first night.

Final checks involved making sure we had a comfortable sea berth for the off watch person to sleep in, and then checking that everything else was safely and securely stowed, so that it could not roll around, fall off, clink or clank or make other infuriating noises! We would be running a three hour watch system, with one person “on duty” for three hours while the other slept. Sleeping in our master cabin while on the move is uncomfortable and impractical, so we have a single berth in the main saloon we use. It has a deep lee cloth to stop you falling out, and because it’s in the centre of the boat, any pitch, yaw or rolling movement is minimised.

Finally satisfied we had done all we could on board, we made a quick trip to the supermarket then showered and headed in to join Bryan, Jenny and Dave at the Fishos. When we got there, my supermarket friends from the morning had also joined us, John and Catherine, so we had a really fascinating evening swapping information, stories and phone numbers! Pete also saw the family from the Cape York 4WD we had chatted to, and spent some time talking to them. We had a great burger and chips, and a couple of beers, and Bryan revealed his grandfather had been Welsh. With this revelation it was agreed that as a send off, we would have morning tea aboard Sea Urchin, and I would make Welsh cakes for the occasion!

We woke early and I got straight to baking while it was still cool. Apart from burning the bottoms of some, I managed to make a good serve of Welsh Cakes to take with us for morning tea. We would also have a few for our trip! We headed in to Sea Urchin at about 1000 and had a lovely morning tea, thanking them for all their help and wishing them a safe journey homeward. They wouldn’t be leaving for a few days, as there was a strong wind warning current for the east side of the Cape. We hoped that the wind coming over the top would give us a good breeze across the Gulf. Arriving back at WDS, we stowed the Goon Bag in very choppy conditions and slipped the anchor. We were off into waters new, our first night Sailing since rounding Fraser Island, all those months ago.

Crossing the Gulf of Carpentaria

It seems to me that there is nothing that can prepare you for the Gulf crossing. No matter how prepared you and the boat are, it’s a long way, in shallow water in a tropical climate! I had read extensively about other people’s experiences, not just from our Cruising guides, but seeking out all and any Sailing blogs that may mention it, as well as asking those we had met who had done it. Many of the people, whether in person or in blogs, had little to say about it and I wondered why they were not forthcoming. As we started our first watch, I think it became clear to me why people don’t talk about it very much – they just want to put it behind them!

We started out well, though we were both a little tired and nervous. Starting at midday gave us the time to settle into being back at sea, as well as start mentally preparing for night watches. With the wind sitting comfortably in the 15-20 knot range, coming from dead astern, we tested out a new sail combo. This was the big headsail poled out, and the small number 5, set on the other gybe on the inner forestay. We had consciously decided not to run the main, as in these fast running conditions, with possible big swells, we could get into difficulty very easily. This was absolutely the right decision in the end.

All afternoon, the breeze stayed up around the twenty knot level. Whist this was comfortable with our sail combo, the autohelm didn’t really like it, so we were hand steering. This was because the sea was absolute mayhem. Everything I had read about the Gulf talks about its messy sea state because of it being so shallow (rarely more than fifty meters deep, and in many places much less than that) and warm (around 30 degrees), but we were not quite prepared for the complete chaos, which was only bearable because we were travelling generally in the same direction as the waves. If we had been going in the other direction, I reckon I would have sold the boat within about half an hour of setting off!

By around 1800, we were regularly seeing over twenty knots, and this continued, with the boat flying along, but us having to work hard on the helm. We were expecting this to abate, as the forecast had indicated, but there was no sign that this was happening, as the wind continued to build. It wasn’t going to be sustainable for us to hand steer through the night. As our boat top speed record (16.3 knots, set during the run from Port Stephens to the Gold Coast) began to fall, with each record surf (the top speed was 17.2 for those keen to know!) the wind speed went up a notch. As I started my watch at 2000, it was a solid 25 knots, and in the end I had to call Pete up, as the upper twenties appeared more regularly. By 2130, we decided we needed to put away the big headsail, and see if we could just reach on the small headsail.

We hadn’t thought about furling the headsail with this sail combo, as all our winches were busy. We finally solved the dilemma, by using the halyard winch for the furling line, but Pete needed to steer, so I had to ease the jib sheet and manually grind on the furling line in about 28 knots of breeze. We got it done, it wasnt pretty, but it worked. This left Pete to clear the foredeck of the spinnaker pole, and check all the sheets and running gear were clear so we could gybe the small headsail. Of course there were tangles, but nothing we couldn’t sort out, and eventually we settled in to about seven knots, reaching comfortably with just the small sail out. Best of all, Otto was now able to steer, which would give us a break from the hard work of hand steering, especially in the dark. This left us free to spot lightning storms to avoid and other shipping, and surprisingly there was a bit about.

This was how we ran through the night, continuing to see wind speeds up to 30 knots, but come dawn, it started to abate, and by the time I got up at 0800, we were Sailing wing on wing again. During my morning watch, the distance to the next waypoint clicked over to just 100 miles to go, from the 229 it had started as after leaving Endeavour Straight. It felt like a milestone, and we really started to watch the distances diminish now. By mid morning we had passed the halfway mark, and while we were working off a chart showing the whole Gulf, so it was very small scale, it did feel like we were making progress when we plotted our positions on to it.

Another day passed, with the time measured by the hourly positions noted in the logbook. The breeze gradually eased, which also meant the sea state improved, and by late afternoon, we were talking about possibly needing to motor to make our proposed anchorage in daylight! At least Otto was doing most of the steering now, so even though we had to get the motor going to maintain our required speed, we didn’t need to manually steer. As the sun set and dusk fell, we were joined by some terns, who flew around the boat clearly sussing out a landing pad. Eventually one made it to the solar panels, and hooked himself on the edge where the backstay divides the panels, to counteract the roll of the boat in the waves. His four mates eventually worked up the courage to join him. Then in the dusk a much bigger bird wanted to join the action and Mr Booby made a couple of abortive landing attempts, upsetting the terns. His second last attempt was a disaster as the boat rolled and he slid unceremoniously into the sea. For a while he continued swimming, acting as if he had intended to do just that, but he then came in for another go. This time he slid off the solar panels, but managed to grab the push pit and somehow ended up inside the push pit, perched just above the engine control panel! As I went off watch, I heard Pete berating Mr Booby, who had realised that flying fish jumped on to the back deck at night, so he was gaily wandering around the back deck, eating the fish and pooping everywhere! Eventually Pete managed to get rid of Mr Booby and clean up the mess, using the aft shower, but apparently the solar panels also needed a major clean!

My first watch was motor only, with Mr Booby keeping an eye on the engine panel for me, and the most exciting thing I got to do was rehome a flying fish who had leapt aboard, clattering around noisily until I threw him back. When I went off watch, I actually slept like a baby for the whole of it. So much so, that when I woke up, I had to spend time working out where I was! When I finally got up on deck, I suggested to Pete that we should have a sail up – it was already up and had been for some time! During his watch we had crossed the notional QLD/NT border (I say notional, because it’s a line in the ocean here, not an actual border!), so Pete had treated himself to a rum and coke to celebrate. We had to get familiar with a whole new forecast area, and different times for the NT forecasts. My 0200-0500 watch was uneventful, other than the breeze increasing enough for us to turn off the engine and sail only. As Pete came up to relieve me, we had around forty miles to go, to complete our crossing. We were expecting to be at anchor by about midday, which would make our time forty eight hours to get across the Gulf.

Land hove into sight about four miles out. At first we could just make out the Cape Wessel light, and a tiny bit of low lying land below it, but soon we could see a line of land, Marchinbar Island, the most northerly of the Wessels. As we rounded the Cape, we celebrated the successful crossing of the Gulf, finishing in a lot easier conditions than we had started! We headed down to Two Island Bay, our selected anchorage for recuperation, and dropped anchor between the two islands, in lovely flat, turquoise water. We put up the shade, then treated ourselves to a large gin and tonic (me) and large rum and tonic (Pete), to celebrate our safe arrival in the Northern Territory. A quick bite to eat, tidy the boat, then a good long sleep which was very welcome.

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A drink to celebrate dropping the anchor in Two Island Bay

The alarm woke us at 1700, in time for our sked with Charlesville Radio, and we requested that they report our safe arrival to Choppa and Fran. We then settled in for a quiet night, with no rocking and rolling, no clanking, creaking, groaning or rumbling, just the peace, quiet and bird calls of a completely isolated anchorage. A quick look at the chart as we planned our next stage confirmed that we are closer here to Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, than we are even to Cape York!

R & R in the Northern Territory

We slept like babies. It was certainly my best nights sleep for as long as I could remember, and we were both groggy when we eventually surfaced at about 0700. Last evening we had studied the route from here to Darwin, and made two plans for how we might proceed, depending on the weather. Our first plan was to do another long Passage, around 260 miles, direct to Croker Island, and anchor in Somerville Bay. The alternative was to do a bit of coastal hopping around the Arnhem Land Coast, with about four stops before we got to Somerville Bay. We would make a decision based on the weather forecast, with lighter wind being the deciding factor of whether we do one or several legs. Last nights forecast had indicated the wind would be Easterly 10-15 knots on Wednesday, dropping to less on Thursday. When this did not change in the morning forecast, we decided we would do the single, long leg.

We were well set up now for overnight, still with frozen prepared meals and all safety gear to hand, so it made sense to capitalise on this relatively settled weather. If things changed when we were mooching along the coast, we may get stuck, especially if it came in from the northeast when we were tucked into the coast, needing to come out. We were also phased by Bowen Straight, which we would need to transit, and which was showing on the chart as unsurveyed! We had been unable to find anything in our reference books that gave us any confidence in it, so the longer passage was the winner.

We passed the morning doing chores. Pete changed the oil in the sail drive, while I sewed. First I completed hand stitching the last window mozzie net. Then I repaired the companionway net, which had a few holes in it now. Next I fixed my white cotton tunic which had some tears on the side seam, and finally, I shortened my favourite cotton dress which I had torn in Bundaberg, and made it a short dress. I would get much more use out of it now! We bailed the lazarette, which had filled up from several poopings as we crossed the Gulf, then Pete finished marking his papers. Finally, I changed our bed and put on fresh sheets to make our sleep tonight even better than the previous night.

The afternoon was spent relaxing, fishing, reading and generally taking it easy, to prepare for another long session at sea. I continued the domestic goddess theme by cooking up a storm with some of our fresh ingredients that needed using, while Pete smoked the last of the Spanish mackerel on the BBQ for our dinner of fish tacos. We ate early and then watched one of our DVDs on deck, as it was relatively cool and more comfortable on bean bags than in the saloon. The Girl on the Train was great, reflected the book well (apart from being set in USA!) and we both enjoyed it. Then we packed what we could ready for an early departure at 0600.

The Wessels to Croker Island

It was a lovely morning, a perfect reproduction of the weather forecast with around 10 knots of breeze and partly cloudy. We had coffee and breakfast and then hoisted the asymmetric spinnaker, and cruised along until about 1400, when we started to spot building squalls. As well as being able to see these towering cumulus with black undersides, we were checking them out on the radar to see if they also had rain in them. With one inside us and one to windward, we could see the wind starting to build, and decided to get the assy down. Not a moment too soon, because when we got it bundled below, we got our first squall complete with rain.

We rode this one out under main alone, while I fixed a couple of small holes in the kite. Once the rain had finished, we repacked the spinnaker, and rehoisted it, once it looked like the breeze had settled back to around 10 knots. This time we saw more squalls. They were not all that predictable, and whilst some were heading from offshore towards the shore, some just tracked along due west. One seemed to be heading behind us, but then tracking it on the radar, we saw it make a bee line for us, and we quickly doused the kite. In the nick of time, as soon as it was below, the breeze shot up to 20 knots, and we had thick rain for about five minutes. The wind seemed to stay put as the squall did not want to leave us. We decided to put a reef in the main, because if we were going to run it tonight, we wanted to be well in control if a squall hit with just one of us on watch.

We ran with a reefed main and the headsail until the breeze again dropped back, but then got another squall through which took the wind up over 20 knots. We furled the heady, dropped the main and ran with just the #5, and this was our sail plan as we had an early dinner. Again, the breeze dropped out, and we ended up motoring, and this was the state of play for most of the night, although we did motor sail when the breeze allowed.

It was a much tougher sail than the Carpentaria crossing. Probably because the forecast seemed so benign, but of course did not account for the frequent and completely unpredictable squalls. This was our first real experience of this type of weather, and we were finding it wearing. We had to be on our guard all the time, always watching out for the sneaky black clouds or the red spots on the radar. When they were coming for us, it was never clear what they would deliver, as some brought no wind, some too much wind, always the wind was from a shit direction (mostly directly from behind) and often there was some degree of rain. Added to this, during the daytime it was roasting hot, with little chance of a relieving breeze because we were travelling in the same direction as the wind. At night, it was still hot, though now and again a cooler breeze may come off the edge of a cloud. Windows below had to be closed in case of rain or wave activity, so it was stifling downstairs and almost too hot to sleep. Thank goodness for our little fans, which blew a gentle, if warm airstream over us in the saloon berth.

We were able to run the full main and the assy for a few hours in the morning, but then the squall activity picked up again. After dousing the assy, we tried everything to find a sail plan that would keep us going at seven knots, but the only solution was to motor sail. Seven knots was the magic number – if we could maintain an average speed of seven knots, we would make it to Somerville Bay before sunset, allowing us to anchor in daylight. It already felt like this leg had taken much longer than the Gulf leg, so we were absolutely determined to get to our anchorage before dark. To pass the time, Pete threw a fishing line in behind us, and much to our surprise something took the lure, but not before it had nearly taken the whole reel. Pete worked hard to get it in, but just as he was getting the last ten meters, the line went slack, and had broken. The only fish we were having for dinner was the last of the frozen Spanish mackerel curry!

On our final approach to Cape Croker, we were racing the biggest squall yet, which was building behind us. This one looked like a real doozy, with building towers of cumulonimbus lenticulating as it reached the stratosphere, and a black base, stretching for several miles. There was definitely a storm in this one, and we preferred to be at anchor to meet it. Fortunately, we saw only a little rain from it, and not much wind, as it slid down towards the mainland, never catching us. We turned into Somerville Bay as the sun was setting in a spectacular tunnel of clouds, and were settled at anchor as dusk fell. We treated ourselves to a well deserved stiff gin and tonic and rum and tonic, and discussed the ups and downs of the Passage.

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Yep! Thats where we are headed, right under that squall!
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Red crumbling headland at Cape Croker
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Building storm as we headed to our anchorage

Today was Thursday. Since leaving Seisia on Saturday, we had sailed over six hundred nautical miles, and crossed ten degrees of longitude. For the yachties reading this, Pete and I had just completed the equivalent of a Sydney to Southport Race, followed by a Pittwater to Coffs Harbour Race, with just one lay day in between! No wonder we had been feeling tired during this second leg, and in need of reaching the end! We both agreed that the first night out from Seisia had been the worst, with the building wind we had expected to moderate and the horrible sea state. However, I thought the unpredictable nature of the weather on this second leg had been pretty tough, making it very difficult to maintain our required average speed. We had also had to do a lot more motoring, which added to the heat below decks.

Highlights had been the sea life we encountered. The birds on the Gulf crossing had kept us amused for hours, and also had Pete busy clearing the bird poo from the solar panels for a couple of hours. From the Wessels, we had had a couple of encounters with small dolphins. At least two pods of around ten dolphins had checked us out and then played in the bow wave for ages. It is impossible not to go forward and join the fun they were having, so we both spent a long while on the foredeck, smiling and laughing with the dolphins, as they ducked and weaved with Wine-Dark Sea.

The nights had been equal parts beautiful and threatening. The beauty lay in the clear, star filled skies, with absolutely no ambient light to distract the eye, and no moon until the very early hours, as it waned to a sliver. This also made for amazing phosphorescence in the sea, with glowing white caps on the waves, and visible fish activity down in the depths. The threats were of course the clouds, harder to read at night because they all seemed black, but often brought some breeze. Some brought rain, mainly on Pete’s watches, and of course some were filled with flashing lightening. These were the ones we needed to monitor, to make sure they weren’t headed our way, but luckily most of them seemed to love the land. We must have watched at least ten separate lightening storms over the course of the two passages, but none of them were ever close enough for us to even hear the thunder. And even a lightening storm is a thing of beauty – from a distance!

We now have less than 150 miles to go to reach Darwin. It seems a little unreal as I write that, especially as I didn’t expect that my first visit to the Northern Territory and Darwin would be by yacht from Sydney! We can now take our time from here and visit the Cobourg Peninsula on our way, doing day Sailing only, and maybe even spending a little time exploring again.

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Sunset in a tunnel of clouds
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Cloud sentinels on the horizon

 

3 thoughts on “Heading West

  1. This is EPIC Sarah and Pete – what an amazing experience! I love living vicariously through your blog – great writing and photos! You could get this published in book form Sarah … ‘Voyages on a Wine Dark Sea’

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  2. Wow!! Enjoyed sitting down and reading this with a cuppa:-) Sooooo far from the reality of here;-) You are amazing, thanks so much for sharing. Thinking of you loads xxx Big slopping hugs from the girls (can tell them where Pete is right now…)

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