When we first started planning our journey up the York peninsula of Far North Queensland, we envisioned a leisurely string of daysails with enough time in between to sit out strong wind or bad weather in cozy anchorages getting ourselves organized for the coming 700-mile passage to Indonesia, our first offshore run in 18 months. What we didn’t realize is that there are precious few good anchorages along this coast. Oh, there are plenty of places to drop anchor in what the guidebooks call “settled weather” but given the near constant strong trade winds, most of the places we thought we could take shelter are uncomfortable rolly spots where it’s tough to get a good night’s sleep even if the boat is secure.
The last four days have been challenging, to say the least. We left the wonderful Flinders Island Group knowing we had at least three long days of sailing with moderate wind and fair weather. As always on this coast the weather predictions can be wildly inaccurate and what we ended up with for the first two days was lovely wind for sailing but not quite enough to get us where we’re going before dark. It’s winter here and the days are short. Distances we can easily cover on longer days are a stretch in this season. That means a predawn departure, an obsession with boat speed and predicted ETA, and an engine assist when our speed drops below our target for the day. All of that adds up to a low level stress. Add frequent sail handling to raise, lower, reef or jibe as we weave along the increasingly narrow route between the Great Barrier Reef and the mainland coast (requiring all hands on deck,) the need for a constant watch to dodge obstacles and ships (usually Jack, who enjoys being at the helm for hours) while still keeping us fed and hydrated (me, down below, making noise with the pots and pans.) In a way, longer passages are easier, especially far away from land where there’s nothing to hit and the sails stay set sometimes for days on end with little adjustment.
After three days we thought we’d take a break and do some boat chores before the final push. We rounded Cape Melville and had a rollicking good sail to Shelburne Bay only to find the recommended anchorage rolly and downright violent at times. By first light we realized a couple days of this would do us no good at all and we raised half the mainsail in 25 kts of wind for a fast but comfortable downwind run northward. Within a few hours, just as Jack was suggesting we raise a little more mainsail, we started getting squalls every hour or so when the wind increased to 35-40 kts. driving rain from behind into the cockpit. We’re definitely getting a full enclosure when we win the lottery.
This carried on for the rest of the day. The good news was we would reach Escape River before dark. The bad news was the wind and seas kept building so that by the time we were ready to cross the bar at the river the seas were steep and very close together and when we turned to line up the entrance, coming at us from the side.
Jack is an experienced river boatman and after 18 months in Australia good at crossing these shallow bars too, but this was challenging even for him. For a mile and a half I stayed quiet and out of the way, tucked into a corner for safety as he manhandled Escape Velocity through the chop.
He handsteered because the autopilot can’t do the analysis a human brain can, watching the wave sets, learning which ones are likely to slew the boat around, discerning the pattern, anticipating the forces on the hulls as the big ones come at us. He worked hard at the wheel, twisting to look in all directions as I watched the chart, doing the constant math of 1/4, 1/3, 1/2 done, unable to stand in my usual spot in the corner of the cockpit to take photos because the boat was lurching, dipping, swerving. Every third or fourth wave smacked the hulls hard and sent spray up over the side deck.
After what seemed like an hour but was in reality about 20 minutes we made it past the headland and the steep waves were mercifully blocked. Suddenly it was calmer but still very windy. As Jack continued to pilot us into the river I stood on the side deck with the binoculars pointing out the pearl floats from the commercial farming operation nearby.
We were tired and ready to stop for the day but just as we were choosing an appropriate place to anchor we spotted a sailboat much further up river. It looked even calmer there but it would take another 15 minutes in fading light dodging the floats. Should we keep going? Nah. We threw the anchor out, tidied up the sails and shut down the instruments just as more wind and rain bands swept the Cape. We’ve gone far enough for today. It’s time for Dark ‘n’ Stormies.