Horn Island, Torres Strait, Australia
Horn Island, Torres Strait, Australia
Today was a Big Day. We had about 45 more miles to round Cape York and reach Thursday Island where we will clear out of Australia and sail to our first new country since we arrived here in December 2016. The wind would be a little better if we waited another day, but we’d done all the chores we could, and besides, after three weeks with only very slow satellite communications we were ready to catch up with the world, post some photos and meet up with other boats.
Leaving the Escape River was nearly as uncomfortable as entering but once out and turned on our course we had a nice run up to the Albany passage, a narrow slot where the current runs fast. We already had a fair push from the usual tidal stream.
Jack got a little worried as we approached the passage because there appeared to be a breaking wave across the entrance. It turned out just to be the clash of swells coming from two different directions and not a shallow bar, and we passed it with very little turbulence.
Once inside the passage the water was flat calm and the current pushed us along faster than we usually go, but with no effort from us.
Before long we were squirted out the other side and only a few miles from rounding Cape York, the northernmost point on the Australian mainland.
Rounding the Cape was one of those emotional moments we experience now and again. We know we will soon be leaving Australia, our home for more than 19 months. Sailing up the seemingly endless Queensland coast has been challenging and wonderful but it’s all behind us now and we’re starting to turn our sights toward Indonesia and beyond.
We estimated our trip to Thursday Island to take about eight hours but with the fair currents and tidal streams it was in reality only a little more than five hours. Our destination was Horn Island, a more protected leeward anchorage and we found plenty of room in clear blue water and good holding. Depending on ease of final provisioning and various admin we need to accomplish before we leave high speed internet again we expect to be here a week.
It’s time to celebrate with the good bubbly Alex and Diana brought for the purpose. Tick another one off the bucket list.
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.
Flinders Island is an unexpected delight. On paper the anchorage looks like yet another rolly stopover where you get little sleep and move on as quickly as you can. In reality it’s calm and welcoming with a long slightly sloping sandspit perfect for landing a dinghy.
Susan from Erie Spirit and I thought we’d organize a Fourth of July potluck and we dinghied boat to boat introducing ourselves and inviting everyone to join us the next day. As we chatted with the various crews we learned there’s extensive aboriginal cave art on adjacent Stanley island and that it was “not to be missed.” Well, say no more!
It was a long soaking dinghy ride across a windswept channel, then a very wet dinghy landing, a hike across the island and a short climb up a hill before we found a jaw-dropping gallery of paintings in several open caves. We were transfixed.
We later found out there are aboriginal paintings at other sites all over these islands and we wish we’d had a guide book or internet access to learn where they are and how to get to them. But we’ll have to content ourselves with this one beautiful experience. It was a gift.
The next day we gathered ashore for food and drink and got to know our anchor neighbors. Several of the boats are part of our group sailing to Indonesia, and some are Aussies just moseying north for the winter. It’s the first cruisers beach party in recent memory and we loved feeling a part of the community of boat people again.
Most of the boats departed for points north the next morning but we opted for one more night in the shelter of Flinders Island. We’d discovered a common interest with the crew of a cruising trawler — a love of rocks — and we wanted to see their collection. Plus we learned there’s 19th century graffiti carved into some boulders along the shoreline that we missed. The carvings are said to have been left by passing ships that stopped along the beach to refill their water barrels.
When Jeff and Julie mentioned they collect rocks I got excited because I can’t help picking up rocks wherever we go. Jack warns I’ll sink the boat if I keep bringing them aboard. What we learned when we visited Northern Lady is that these are not ordinary rocks, but semiprecious stones that they find and Jeff cuts, facets and polishes into jewelry quality gems.
I neglected to photograph the beautifully cut crystals, peridots, topazes, opals and other gems — the real stars of their work — because while those are stunning, my own personal taste leans more toward rocks that reveal the geological forces that created them. I peppered them with questions about where they find the rocks, what they look for, what tools they use (and again I forgot to photograph the machinery) until Jack looked like he was worried I might embark on a new hobby.
We dragged ourselves away and got EV ready for an early morning departure. We’re facing at least three long daysails before some unpleasant weather may require us to seek shelter for a day or two and the calendar won’t stop for us to linger here at Flinders. It’s been a restorative interlude but it’s time to go.
We watched and waited for better weather but what we see coming down the pike is even worse that what we have at Lizard Island and it will continue for another week. While it’s a comfortable anchorage we reluctantly made the decision to bite the bullet and make the two day journey around the bend to the Flinders Island group where the worst of the weather will be behind us, a calmer anchorage awaits and we’ll be well-positioned for the next push northward when the seas lie down a bit.
It was an early start for Escape Velocity and we raised only a little more than half the mainsail even though conditions were mild at the start. We’ve learned to think ahead and before long the predicted strong trade winds filled the sails and we took off. The wind angle and strength should have made for a perfect sail but the confused seastate caused the autopilot conniptions and after futzing with the sails and course we gave up and added a motor at low rpms just to keep us on track.
During the day when we jibed the sails on a course change the boom was less controlled than normal. As it slammed over the trap door at the gooseneck that guards where the sail feeds into the mast track flopped open. We made note of it but we were busy with trimming the sails and getting our course adjusted and promptly forgot about it. Later when we were furling the mainsail a sudden gust from the side caused the bottom of the sail to billow out through the gap where the trap door should have been closed. None of this is a problem except that the billowing happened right at a sail batten and as we winched in on the mandrel the batten got twisted. Crunch. The plastic bit that secures the end of the batten gave up the ghost. A very minor problem but it had to be taken care of before we raise the mainsail again.
We were relieved to drop the hook at Ninian Bay, not the worst anchorage we’ve been in but probably in the top five. It’s a shallow open roadstead and the east wind sent a short, steep swell at Escape Velocity all night long. We got up before dawn, found the replacement batten ends and went up on deck in still gusty winds to make the repair. That involved pulling a few meters of sail off the mandrel to the deck where we had to stand on it to keep it from blowing overboard and us with it. Jack unscrewed the crumbled bit and lined up the new one.
There ensued some strong language as he discovered the bolt holes didn’t line up, and we both puzzled over this unexpected problem until we realized these are the replacement batten ends for our old rig which had a different kind of track. By this time we really needed to get moving if we wanted to get to our next anchorage at a reasonable hour, and besides, hanging onto the boom and keeping the sail onboard in the wind was not much fun. We decided to pull the unsecured batten out for the day, rewrapped the sail onto the mandrel and got underway.
Once out of Ninian Bay we had a gorgeous sail, not fast but very comfortable under sunny skies until we rounded Cape Melville when suddenly — and given that this has been the pattern we shouldn’t have been surprised — the wind piped up and the seas seemed to come from all directions. Once again the autopilot couldn’t keep us on course and Jack handsteered for a couple of hours until we entered the protected channel to our anchorage.
There were already four other boats at anchor but plenty of room and we secured EV, tidied up and set to work on replacing the batten end with the proper one for our rig. It’s a much easier task when you’re not working in strong wind and rolly seas.
When we finally stood back and looked around we discovered a gorgeous calm anchorage in clear water between two beautiful mountainous islands. We hadn’t expected this and even though we still have many miles to go by our checkout deadline at Thursday Island we think we’ll hang out here for a few days.