Sunday, July 11, 2010

July 3, Darwin, Northern Territories, AU

We left Brisbane exactly two months ago in a double-reefed fresh breeze and a following tide that flushed us out of Moreton Bay in short order. All breeze left us shortly after and we were reduced to motoring several days through channels and around islands that should have been more interesting than they were. From Brisbane it is a couple hundred miles until one is actually “inside the Reef” though with no wind it didn’t make any difference in sea state. We did have a few days of pleasant sailing in the next week as we approached the Whitsunday group of islands that are the charter boat playground of the Coral Coast. Throughout the entire 1300 nm run to Cape York at the top of Queensland we day sailed, or day motored as required. The runs were generally from 50 to 80 miles. There are many anchorages along the way either behind small capes on the mainland or islands off shore. The Reef protects from ocean swell but leaves the wind waves that many times have miles and miles of fetch creating a short steep chop as much as two meters high and very confused. We came to resent the sea state.
About 400 miles shy of the top the trades steady into a strong and unrelenting onslaught. Sailing is fast, as the trades are SE and we are headed NW. The anchorages become few and poor while the wind blows a constant 20-30kts. The swell finds its way into nearly every anchorage, often at right angles to the prevailing breeze creating less than restful sleep conditions. The Reef comes quite close to the mainland further north so ship traffic is much more concentrated and our options for avoiding shipping lanes much reduced. Though the obstacles along the lanes are well-marked sailing at night is ill-advised. The obstacles are all low or awash making visual navigation quite difficult. We came to rely very heavily on our new chart plotter at the helm which we installed in New Zealand as part of the big refit accomplished there. “Handy” does not come close to describing the convenience and instant information available to the navigator. Our autopilot, also a refit addition steered the boat with strength and heart. However, the boat builder who installed it did not attach it properly resulting in misalignment under heavy power conditions and failure of the pilot to steer the boat. The condition never rendered us completely without steerage except a couple times when moving slowly as we were anchoring. On one of our very few rest days I disassembled the system and was able to fix the installation problem and have had no more trouble since.
The last anchorage before a swift-current pass just shy of Cape York is an estuary called Escape River that provides deep shelter and a very calm night’s sleep before the final push around the tip. However, to make the proper current direction in the pass about 15 miles further up requires leaving the estuary across its shallow bar on an ebb tide against a 25 kt wind with miles of fetch. With just a few feet of water under us we plunged and rolled for an hour before finally reaching deeper water and a turn down wind. As we heard later we faired rather well compared to some of the other boats nearby. We entered Albany Pass a little early for the tide but with nothing but a polled genoa up we made slow and stately way into the channel. Coming the other way was a motor-sailor of perhaps 70 feet or so plunging into the swell that was still running against the tide. We found out later that the owner had notified his crew that they were to deliver the vessel from where she was in Indonesia to Brisbane, maybe 2500 or 3000 miles in three weeks so there they were pounding into the teeth of the reinforced trades.
From Joshua Slocomb on gremlins of various sorts apparently inhabit small boats in big water. I’m becoming a believer. With the Cape York lighthouse on our port beam the chart plotter just turned off. Went blank. Could not be revived. Lost interest in us. Failed to muster. Went AWOL. Still blowing 30 kts with the genoa pulling the boat along at 8+ kts and a misery of choked islands and shallow water ahead about 10 miles we went into navigation backup mode. Our first backup is the computer down at the nav station loaded with electronic charts of the world. That’s good. But we have yet to be able to hook up a GPS to the computer so plotting our position on the computer requires transferring position data from a GPS screen to the computer screen manually. As I was at the helm trying to keep the boat sailing upright, Ellen was below plotting a couple of waypoints to take us into an anchorage among several small islands. Until Cape York we had the comfort of following a wonderful book called “Cruising the Coral Coast” which assumed that the sailor was navigating visually and included lots of photos of what the land looked like when approaching an anchorage. But we had just rounded Cape York and no longer were in the Coral Sea and the book no longer had nice photos of what we should be seeing. Not knowing which island was which and not having a visual understanding of where Ellen had plotted the waypoints we made our way toward the first one. As we drew nearer I came to identify the islands but incorrectly. When we arrived at the waypoint and the next one required a 90 deg. turn to weather and sailing on the “wrong” side of an island I was desperate. The water was filled with obstacles seen and unseen and all of a sudden I didn’t know where we were. I swung the boat around into a hove to position to figure out what to do next. A mile or so away were a couple of sailboats heading down what I had interpreted to be a possible but very narrow and shallow channel toward a more distant anchorage. We hailed them on the radio to discover that they were headed down the very passage we were wanting. We requested that we follow them and they readily agreed. With my heart in my throat I sailed across some unknown water to their line and followed in tandem a couple hours into a safe and populated anchorage with friends and a pleasant village ashore. The gremlin of Cape York tried and just about succeeded in putting us on the bricks but it was not to be.

A couple days at anchor off a village we didn’t even know existed with a very nice grocery, laundry, a French bakery, a bus service, and a café serving good burgers and fries revived our spirits. Revived our chart plotter too. The next day I turned it on and everything worked fine. Go figure. We now had about 800 miles to Darwin across the top of Australia and the Gulf of Carpentaria. The wind was still howling though there was some indication that it might abate a little a few days hence. Eve was meeting us in Darwin on July 4th and we wanted to be there by the 1st to get some chores out of the way so we felt we couldn’t wait too long for weather. We left in the company of a couple other boats, leaving most of the anchored boats to wait one more day before departing on Friday.

The Arafura Sea is a rather confined body of water between Australia and New Guinea, west of Torres Strait. At no point is it more than 200 feet deep. It includes the large Gulf of Carpentaria with its own swirling wind patterns. Add easterly winds at 20-30kt and the result is the worst sustained sea state I have ever encountered. We sailed two fast and very uncomfortable days across the mouth of the Gulf to a remote island anchorage where we rested for a day and licked our wounds. Then it was off again in the same conditions two more days to the entrance of a 110 mile channel into Darwin. In the middle of the second night we were finally now around the corner and enjoying calmer winds and seas, feeling pretty good about ourselves and enjoying the prospect of a long rest just a day or so away. The wind died completely leaving us rolling in the swell and getting nowhere. So we fired up the engine to get to an anchorage we had identified about 20 miles further on. I left Ellen to manage to boat and went down for some needed rest. 10 miles later I was awakened to her shouts and shaking to find the engine alarm wailing and Ellen in a panic. The engine was overheating. After turning it off I opened the engine compartment to find a very hot engine and an alternator/water pump belt destroyed. With the engine so hot there was nothing to be done for it so we were left to the currents and a zephyr of swirling air. 2:00AM. Little or no sleep. Almost two months of relentless travel in often very uncomfortable conditions. And now this. Then I looked at the outboard stationed on the stern rail. We have an operable engine. How can we use it? Get the dinghy in the water, put on the engine, tie the dink to the side of the boat and get moving. At this point the boat had turned sideways to the swell and was rolling just about gunnel to gunnel, making being in the dinghy, much less doing anything there very difficult. As Rasa rolled away from the dink she would pull it just about out of the water trying very hard to pitch me off not unlike a bull rider. But we got it done. Got the outboard revving and made our way about 10 miles into a broad but smooth anchorage getting the hook down about 4:00am. We spent most of the rest of the day asleep.
The final leg into Darwin involves timing the 5 meter tides through two channels with a small gulf in between to arrive in Darwin just at first light to make our way into a crowded anchorage. After the trouble with the electronics at Cape York we didn’t want our backup navigation to be haphazard in the least, especially since we were traversing one very narrow channel with very swift current that is a major shipping channel to Darwin. We worked out a 10 waypoint route that we entered both into the chart plotter and into the GPS. Now, the GPS is connected to the entire electronic navigation system through a central hub instrument that collects and distributes the information necessary for all the systems to function. This distribution hub is the one piece of gear that in the last two years of operation has never failed. The GPS has failed but we have a backup hookup for installing another GPS in the system. Takes about two minutes. But the signal still goes through the hub. Just as we started into the first channel late in the day with the boat speed starting to increase as the current began to push us on our way the hub stopped sending a GPS signal to the chart plotter. The GPS was working fine but would not talk to anything else. But this time we were thoroughly prepared, not only with waypoints in the functioning GPS but also plotted waypoints on the paper charts we have of the area. Thank you, Ellen, for your thorough preparation. We managed the passage with the boat kicking and bucking in the rips, navigation lights appearing on the wrong side of the bow just a couple miles away only to right themselves when the current swept us across the channel as we flew by at over ten knots with the engine only idling enough to maintain steerage. Ellen’s mother should not read this.
We now sit comfortably in Fanny Bay, about a mile off the beach due to the shoaling bottom and enormous tides. After all that, we arrived on schedule – July 1. I have already had a doctor’s visit to address the sciatica problems that have been plaguing me for the past four months. We are hopeful that in the three weeks we are here awaiting departure in the Indonesia Rally I can receive the care required to alleviate the painful and debilitating problem. We very much look forward to Eve’s visit here and Amy’s visit later in the summer in Indonesia. I can’t say that the last two months have been exactly enjoyable but there was some exceptional sailing at times and we have met some caring and companionable cruising friends along the way.