Author Archives: Marce

Flipside

I came on watch this morning before dawn and Jack went downstairs to take a nap. Shortly after sunrise we were hit with a sudden wind squall that spun the boat around so quick I didn’t have time to get the sails under control. We had been sailing wing and wing with the mainsail held out to one side and the jib on the other, both secured with preventer lines. I called for Jack who took the helm while I went from one side deck to the other releasing the preventers and sheeting in the sails. We followed the wind around in a circle getting slammed this way and that by the big seas until the squall passed and the wind decided on a direction, then got back on something resembling our course and the sails trimmed. It was over in about 15 minutes but we were both exhausted and flush with adrenalin.

I offered to go below and make coffee while Jack kept an eye on things. I should have remembered that slamming into steep seas would shift the contents of the cabinets but it wasn’t on my mind. So when I opened a cupboard door the stack of my beloved little Turkish bowls toppled onto the counter, and half of them onto the floor and down the steps into the port hull.

I loved those bowls. I bought them at Harris Farm Market in Sydney for $2 each on a day when Alex drove Jack and me all over the city to knock off a bunch or errands that would have taken a day apiece had we used public transportation. Alex embraced every one of our quests and entertained us with life stories to boot. We ended up at Harris and when I wondered aloud if I should get four or six bowls Alex said to get the six. They became our dessert bowls, my yogurt bowls, serving bowls for nuts, olives, salsa. I associate them with Sydney and Alex and they made me happy. Three survived, not enough to serve dessert to guests, but enough for the salsa and the nibbles.

It took the better part of an hour to clean up the shards scattered so comprehensively throughout the galley and port hull that the effort left me queasy. By the time I delivered Jack’s thermal coffee mug to the cockpit I was ready for this day to be over. In fact I may have said I wanted to move to a farm. I’m not sure now what may have come out of my mouth at the time.

The day did improve after that, but I’m going to miss those bowls.

Flying fish routinely land onboard during a passage, but not usually on the cockpit cushions.

This fish was on deck after a particularly lively night of big waves.

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Underway

It’s our second night at sea on the way to Debut, Indonesia. It’s a beautiful night, with a sky full of stars, a soft breeze, following seas. The air is still chilly enough when the sun goes down that I change into sweatpants and a hoodie, funny when we’re at 10 degrees south latitude, closer to the equator than we’ve been since the Marquesas three years ago and that was hot. There’s a near constant parade of ships in both directions but they pass at a respectful distance. I’m still on the lookout for fishing vessels which are often unlit. There’s a tiny bit of moon but it’s dark on the water and I have to stare hard on my every 15-minute horizon check to see that the way ahead is clear.

A ship that I hailed earlier on the radio to make sure he could see us has altered course and is now abeam about a mile and a half away, bound for Singapore. Jack is off watch and I hope he’s getting some sleep. It takes a few days to adjust to the sleep pattern of a passage and we both feel out of sorts at first.

This afternoon we piped a couple of podcasts out to the cockpit, then switched to music. The random shuffle of a hundred gigabytes of tunes gave us didgeridoo music by Ganga Giri as a goodbye to Oz, then a beautiful rendition of Over the Rainbow by our dear friend Mary Cassidy to make us a little homesick for the people we love.

Being at sea, being anywhere cut off from the world and stripped of the visual stimuli of modern life, always unclutters my mind. It’s meditation, a complete reboot, tabula rasa. It’s what I loved about camping, when the hours in a day are concerned only with shelter, water, fire and food. Onboard a sailboat at sea, we watch the weather, take care of the boat’s needs to keep her on course and moving well. We take care of each other too, making sure we get enough rest, stay hydrated and fed. But with no internet or TV our minds are free to wander. Sometimes I find I’ve been staring at the sea or the sky for an hour with not one thought except to look and listen. The sea is of course hypnotic and it’s easy to lose yourself in its soothing rhythm. That’s assuming it’s in a soothing mood, which it is so far tonight. The wind is steady so I’m not having to tweak the sails or the course. So far this passage reminds me of sailing from Puerto Rico to Panama, a thousand downwind miles that started us on our six on/ six off watch schedule because it was too beautiful to go to bed. It doesn’t often happen but the memory of it keeps us coming back for more.

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And now for something completely different

We checked out of Australia on Tuesday afternoon at the Border Force office on Thursday Island after a last Aussie lunch, burgers and fries at the same hotel café as before. It’s hard to beat a $10 special. The ferry driver recommended a cafe down the street and the cabinet food there may have been a little healthier but how can you pass up a pile of hot crisp made-to-order fries? You can’t. That’s all there is to it.

Custom house, Thursday Island

The clearing out process was quick and easy and we got a Border Force shopping tote, two Border Force caps, a Border Force cool wrap, a Border Force water bottle and a Border Force pen. We’re all set with Border Force branded gear.

We did our last bit of provisioning at the supermarket before catching the 4:15 ferry back to Horn Island, but really, we don’t have room for anything else and long ago stuffed the cupboards with all the must have items we understand might be hard to come by in Indonesia. I think we could survive a year on the food we have onboard.

Ferry dock with dinghies, Horn Island

Wednesday the change of tide came at mid day so for once we didn’t have to pop out of bed in the dark and get underway before the coffee kicked in. The Torres Strait has wicked tidal streams that can set you back a couple of knots or give you a welcome assist. Timing it is confusing but we came out ok. Our method is to see when everyone else goes and follow them. It doesn’t always work but the odds are with us and this time was perfect.

It was sad leaving Australia. We fell in love with the country long before we arrived, lured by the many Aussies we met along the way, from Laurie and Sonia of Moana Roa in the Caribbean, to Tom of Dancing Bear, and Phil and Karel of Tehani Li in the Galapagos, to Diana and Alex of Enki II, and Di and Bruce of Toucan across the Pacific. They all share what we’ve come to think of as the Australian character: a big heart, a generous spirit, an irreverent sense of humor, and a ready enthusiasm for fun and adventure. Maybe those are just traits of long-distance cruisers, and if so, Australians embody them better than anyone.

Once we set foot on Australian soil we felt instantly at home. It’s big, diverse, unruly yet regulated, profound and ridiculous, familiar and confusing all at once. Any country that shortens many of their names for things by adding either ‘ie’ or ‘o’, as in barbie for BBQ or rego for registration, doesn’t take itself too seriously. But why do they call a fuel pump a bowser? Why do shoes cost so much? And why are they against colorful footwear? We ran out of time to answer these questions.

In the end it was hard to tear ourselves away. It’s easy living, and we were seduced by ready access to every little whim. That ends up being bad for our pocketbooks and salves the itchy feet that brought us to this side of the globe in the first place. It’s definitely time to move on.

We’re on our way now to a place completely unfamiliar, where English is not widely spoken, where our rusty traveler skills will be exercised, where every day will be a journey. And that journey, for us, is home.

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Backfilling

Subscribers may be confused as to where we are while we try to catch up with the last couple of months of missed blog posts. We’re slotting them in in chronological order, so please bear with us as we attempt to tie up Australia with a pretty ribbon before we go. Everyone else, scroll down if you want to see what we were doing during those long periods of radio silence.

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We’re ready for our closeup

We’re included in an article on “Cat People” in the current Multihulls issue of SAIL magazine. Here’s a photo of the spread with our faces sent to us by Ed Kelly of Angel Louise.

You can see the online version with more photos here. Be sure to check out the story about Angel Louise’s great loop of Europe while you’re at it. It’s a unique adventure.

We’re still hoping someone will come across a print copy for us. It’s not available here and we’d love to have one. We’ll PayPal anyone who can put their hands on one and mail to our US address.

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Thursday on Friday

Our calm anchorage is a scant distance from Thursday Island but the constant trade winds and wicked tidal stream would make a dinghy ride across the channel a wet and bumpy proposition. We wisely took the local ferry over on Friday to check out the place, have lunch and play tourists.

Thursday is much smaller than Horn Island but as the administrative center of the Torres Strait district it’s way more populous and feels almost urban.

We started at Green Hill Fort, a late 19th defense against a possible Russian invasion. During WWII it was recommissioned as a signal station, and used post war as a weather station until the 90s. Today it serves only as a panoramic lookout over the Torres Strait and our likely route westward when we leave Australia.

No self respecting boater passes up either a chandlery or a hardware store and we all cruised every aisle picking up last minute must-haves from the surprisingly well stocked Miter 10.

Lunch was a $10 burger and fries special — they even had a veg burger! — in what appeared to be a local hangout.

We walked the Main Street and went in nearly every shop, knowing it would probably be our last retail opportunity in Australia, then visited the church that was built in 1893 to memorialize the 134 lives lost when the S.S. Quetta sank in 1890 near Mount Adolphus Island nearby.

I can’t see I’ve ever seen either a wall hanging or a stained glass window depicting a disaster at sea, but they’ve got them here.

The rest of the afternoon we spent slow-walking every aisle of the supermarket doing the mental calculus of cost-space-desire on every product on the shelves. We’re provisioned to the gills but there are always items you wish you’d bought more of. Trying to anticipate what those will be is a fool’s errand but that doesn’t mean we don’t try.

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The view from the front porch

Horn Island, Torres Strait, Australia

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At the tippy top

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.

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You know it don’t come easy

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.

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Flinders keepers

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.

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