Winter Cruise Brisbane to Darwin by Trailer Sailer


The Notion

The idea for this cruise had its beginnings during a cruise of the Whitsunday Passage in 1989. That year, three of us with our wives sailed our trailer sailers in company from Mackay to Airlie Beach over a period of two weeks. It was September, the weather was wonderful and we had the place nearly all to ourselves because it was the year of the airline pilots strike. You can picture, during the happy hours each afternoon, how the conversation would turn to what could be done to continue this idyllic existence.

Once the thought was seeded, it took root and grew over time. A reasonable and relatively sensible suggestion was to cruise from Mackay to Cairns. This was only a small extension to the logistics employed on the 1989 trip. Why not start a little further south, say from Brisbane? It would then be simpler to arrange a direct flight from Cairns to Brisbane to collect the cars and trailers, compared to some of the smaller towns in between. Besides, its not far up the coast from Brisbane to Fraser Island, from where the rest of the voyage would be effectively in the lee of the island and shortly after in the lee of the Great Barrier Reef.

Time passed, the notion was discussed here and there, eliciting in one case an expression of interest in a crew position. This offer circumvented growing domestic resistance to crewing on a cruise that appeared to be growing in extent. A look at the atlas of the east coast of Australia shows that the Great Barrier Reef runs northwards from the latitude of Rockhampton to Papua New Guinea. It was very tempting to take advantage of that feature to sail for as far as possible in relatively sheltered waters, given the size of vessel. The trouble with that idea was that Cooktown (at that time) and Thursday Island were not realistic terminal ports because they lacked appropriate access for the cars and trailers.

Accepting that, then following the coast around in an anti-clockwise direction (Australia to port hand), there is no suitable port with good road access until Karumba. Well, once there, it isnt much further to Darwin. The advantage for me with Darwin as a destination was that my third daughter, Candice, was based with the Army there and she would be available to look after the car and trailer. So that was the plan, Brisbane to Darwin.

The Detail Planning

When are we going? was the question raised from time to time by one of the prospective crew. However, some years had to pass until 2001 before a moment in time appeared in the domestic plans. These plans were often foreshadowed some years in advance. Winter 2003 (i.e. June, July and August) was free and therefore was reserved for the voyage. As well, aging was becoming a factor. This was cited as the reason for withdrawing by the first crew to offer their services. Luckily there were reserves, with one preferring the leg from Brisbane to Cairns and the other preferring the leg from Cairns to Darwin. The first leg I decided to call the marina cruise and the second leg I called the adventure cruise. So it would prove to be.

Two other pieces of the plan came together somewhat fortuitously. Firstly my daughter was coming up for a new posting and fortunately this was again in Darwin. The second was when a friend, learning of my intention to road freight the car and trailer from Brisbane to Darwin, offered to drive it himself as he had not been in that part of the country. Expressions of interest were sought for vessels to accompany and one reply was received. This came to nothing when the owner moved to ownership of a fixed keel yacht.

The Boat

MUSETTA is a swing keel Timpenny 770 with 90% of its ballasting in the hull. In fact it meets the haul down requirements of the AYF "Blue Book" with the centreboard raised fully. This feature was going to account for itself well in alarming circumstances later in the voyage. Otherwise, setting up the boat was a matter of making some improvements for comfort and efficiency in operation. In particular, some changes were necessary to increase the stowage of provisions to increase the range. Of course there was comprehensive maintenance necessary to all the vital equipment. Much time was spent on these matters. Some items such as the fender board, new awning and the picnic chairs and table were never used. Thankfully nor was any of the safety equipment used, nor any of the critical spares such as the new racing sails or wire rigging, nor the spare anchor, chain and warp. The best additions were a seawater pump to the sink and lazy jacks to the mainsail.

Heavy items were loaded as low as possible and as near to the centre of the boat as possible. A load estimate was made and came to about 600 kilograms, including the crew weight and their baggage. This brought the laden displacement to 2  tonnes. After the crew (two persons on board), the really heavy items were; water 100kg, provisions (including beverages) 70kg, fuel 60kg, main outboard engine 36 kg, inflatable dinghy and its outboard 32 kg, batteries 30 kg and spare anchor chain and warp 30 kg. This mostly dead load was in excess of the live load in passengers that would be permitted in a vessel of this size. It was estimated that the waterline would be about 60mm lower than the normal racing waterline.

Pressure built as the time for departure from Adelaide approached and at the same time the lists of jobs seemed to grow faster than they could be completed. This feeling continued until the boat was safely tied up in the marina at the Royal Queensland Yacht Squadron. By then many people had committed to this venture, by way of leave taking and travel arrangements.

The Journey Begins

Yvonne and I drove out of Adelaide on 25th May, allowing plenty of time for leisurely travel to Brisbane ahead of the scheduled cast off date of 7th June. We went via Sydney to catch up with some friends and also to check out the boating scene there. We arrived in Brisbane with nearly a week to spare and the first to follow us in was our car and trailer driver, Trevor Gordon, followed a couple of days later by my first crew, Rob Hutson. Provisioning was then completed and we were exactly on schedule.


Strong Wind Warning

During he week we were in Brisbane, it was mirror calm out on Moreton Bay. It was still the same when we motored out of the RQYS marina at Manly at 0800h on Saturday 7th June. At 1030 a strong wind warning of 25-30 knots was issued for Sunday for coastal waters from Cooktown to Coolangatta. Instead of spending Saturday night in Moreton Bay, we decided to press on for Double Island Point with the intention of being in more sheltered waters ahead of the change. After sunset, we pulled into Mooloolaba to top up with fuel and to have a light meal. Nearing Noosa around midnight, we considered that a rest would enable us to deal with the forecast change more effectively in the morrows daylight. We anchored at 0045h and departed in the pre-dawn at 0545h.

Excitement at Double Island Point

The wind had strengthened to 15-20 knots during the night and was slowly backing. By 0800h it was 20 knots from the south with seas about 3 metres. The waters here are open to the Tasman Sea. We continued motor sailing in order to arrive in the lee of Double Island Point as soon as possible. At 1015h a peak speed of 15.1 knots was reached while surfing down the face of a wave, which by this time were estimated to be about 3 metres high. This caused some concern because the boat had not been properly battened down. Having failed to learn that lesson an even riskier moment occurred an hour later. In an attempt to avoid shooting a particularly steep faced sea, the boat was allowed to come up only to have the wave crest break on the beam and cause a wild broach. The boom went well in and my crew off watch below observed that the view through the lee cabin windows was just solid water.

We were keen to escape these conditions. Double Island Point was reached at noon and we performed a granny knot to come on to the other tack. We took the short cut between the point and Wolf Rock, hoping the seas would not become worse as we knew that the water shoaled between the rock and shore. As soon as we were through the gap and in the lee of the point, the conditions became much easier in Wide Bay. At the northern end of the bay we observed a small fishing vessel crossing South Spit off Inskip Point. We hadnt located the leads, which show the way into Great Sandy Straight through the channel between Inskip Point on the mainland and Hook Point on Fraser Island. Even though the chart has noted always breaks, we figured we could cross there as well. Certainly there was a wave break on shore and another to seaward, presumably with the proper channel north of that. We crossed without incident in water greater than 1.5 metres deep as the centreboard never touched. This route may not have been possible if the wind had been more in its usual southeasterly direction. Later we heard that the fishing vessel had radioed a warning to us but as it was not heard we blithely carried on.

Great Sandy Straight

After a brief lunch stop behind Inskip Point, our course continued northwards in the sheltered waters of Great Sandy Straight to Garrys Anchorage on Fraser Island, 130 nautical miles from Manly. Wind and tide meant that the program had to be flexible. The first day it had been the wind and the next day at Garrys Anchorage it was to be the turn of the tide. After a walk ashore, which took longer than expected because of some shortcomings with the maps, we returned to find that the boat had taken the bottom. Our objective ashore had been to locate a feature, which we imagined was one of those spectacular hanging freshwater lakes found on Fraser Island. As Garrys Anchorage had formerly been the site of a timber cutters camp, we reasoned that the lake would have been their source of fresh water. None of the tracks we had followed out of the camp took us to the lake. So instead we set out with a compass in hand and proceeding on a direct bearing to the lake, we pushed through the scrub and stepped out the required distance. Eventually the lake appeared, only to turn out to be a reedy and muddy swamp in the last throes of the drought. Our bathers remained in our backpacks.

At 1300h the boat was once again floating and we set sail (main only, variously full down to double reefed) for Kingfisher Resort, arriving in the rain at 1700h. At the time the rain was attributed to the fact we were still in sub-tropical latitudes where winter rains could be expected. We were to learn differently later. We ate ashore that night because this was now our third night away from the fleshpots. Next day we sailed across Hervey Bay to Bundaberg with winds to 20 knots, seas to 1.5 metres and rainsqualls. Carried main and winged out jib, reducing to single reefed main in the squalls. Entered the Burnett River and docked at the second marina on the south bank at 1700h. Bundaberg Port Marina is only a few years old and as might be expected, the facilities are very good. Before we had our lines tied off, we were approached by the agitated crews off of three large motor cruisers (10+ metres) anxious to know about the conditions outside. They had been weatherbound in the marina since Saturday night! What could you say? They had left the Gold Coast at the same time we had left Manly.

Rum Port

Bundaberg was a compulsory stop on the itinerary because we wanted to stock up at the distillery. This meant two nights in the marina, allowing time to do some laundry, to take the distillery tour and to sight see some of Bundaberg. On the second evening we were invited aboard Ian and Dianne Moncrieff's RSAYS yacht Pied Piper II for happy hour. It turned out to be a wonderful happy three hours. When we told them of our plan to be in Darwin before the end of August, Ian said that we were racing.


First Crocodile Warning

Departed the marina at 0700h and from 0900h carried the spinnaker all day to Clews Point leading into our anchorage in Pancake Creek, for an average speed of 6.4 knots. The spinnaker was carried again next morning but the wind petered out for our run through the South Channel towards Gladstone. The channel is a typical dredged shipping channel, that is, not very wide and marked by beacons. In the middle of the channel we found a large tree floating. I made a scurit call to all stations. Our radio call was picked by a yacht, which was following in our track. During a conversation I was warned against swimming at our intended anchorage, Because you cant tell what is in the water. This was Graham Creek on Curtis Island about 10 nm north of Gladstone. We were not yet in the tropics and here was the first warning of many to follow.

The Narrows and The Tropic of Capricorn

Departing our anchorage the next morning on the flood was timed such that we had a following current to reach the high water point in The Narrows between Curtis Island and the mainland and then an ebb tide to carry us out, still travelling northwards. The Narrows dry to over one metre at spring tides. Seven other vessels were in the Narrows at the same time (5 northbound and 2 southbound). We crossed the Tropic of Capricorn at 1000h in the lee of Curtis Island and on passage to Great Keppel Island, where we anchored at 1630h, ahead of a forecast 25 knot southerly change.

Island Hopping

The change arrived at 0200h at 25 knots. By morning the wind had eased to 20 knots from the south. Over the next few days the wind remained vectored south to southeast at speeds of 15 to 20 knots. Anchorages over successive nights were at Freshwater Bay, Island Head Creek, South Percy Island, Curlew Island and then Brampton Island as our first stop in the Whitsunday Passage. Other islands anchored at before arriving at Airlie Beach were Shaw Island and Cid Harbour on Whitsunday Island.

Cool Weather

Much of the weather to this time had been overcast, thus reducing the energy collected from the solar panel and necessitating more running of the portable generator than was intended. Not only was the noise of the generator made barely endurable for the want of a cold beer, the excessive running was to lead to maintenance problems at a more critical time later in the cruise. The cooler weather also meant a sleeping bag was required at night. The log entry for 21st June makes note of the fact that it was the first morning when a jumper was not needed.

Airlie Beach

We arrived at Abel Point Marina at Airlie Beach on the day of the winter solstice, having made nearly six degrees of latitude northwards in pursuit of the sun. From now on the sun would reach a higher zenith on each succeeding day as it made its journey back towards the south. We hoped this would bring about better weather. The arrival time at 0930h coincided with the departure of the charter boats for the day, in a seemingly endless stream. It was estimated there were some 300 boats at Airlie Beach, at anchor, on moorings and in the marina. The plan had two days in the marina to allow time for comprehensive re-provisioning. It also allowed time to catch up with a friend from school days and Michael Tromp of Epsilon fame.

Blowin Bowen

It was raining when we departed Airlie Beach, soon obscuring details along the coast. The barometer had fallen a little and by afternoon, having wound our way through Gloucester Passage, we ran across Edgecumbe Bay towards Bowen. By then the wind had risen to 20-25 knots from the south. Bowen Boat Harbour only has pile berths but cheap at $8.75 per night. Following thunder, lightning and heavy rain during the night, we remained weather bound at Blowin Bowen for the next day and night. We made an early start out of Bowen and after 58 nm anchored in an unnamed creek at Lat 19 30.4' Lon 147 31.5'. Alan Lucas makes no reference to this anchorage in his book Cruising the Coral Coast, presumably for the reasons that the barred approach would be difficult in a prevailing southeasterly and once inside, it is fairly shallow. The wind had some west in it and as it was the cane-cutting season, by morning the boat was covered with black ash.


The next 50 nm to Townsville involved some motor sailing. The Breakwater Marina in Townsville was full but probably because of our size, they let us dock for the night on the fuel berth (at standard marina rates). Townsville was then hosting the USS Boxer. This is a United States Marine Corps ship, having the proportions of an aircraft carrier and a capacity to carry a full brigade complete with their helicopters. Naturally security was tight so that sight seeing vessels were kept well back.


Reef Collision

Weather continued light over the next few days involving mostly motoring to successive anchorages. The first of these was Horseshoe Bay on Magnetic Island where we counted 50 boats at anchor. Earlier in the day I dropped Rob off at Picnic Bay so he could sightsee on the island and we met later at Horseshoe Bay. With calmer weather we were able to do some reef diving at Great Palm Island en route to Orpheus Island. An arrival late in the afternoon at Pioneer Bay on Orpheus Island had us on approach under poor lighting conditions. The depth sounder was showing the bottom coming up slowly at 7 to 6 metres with no visible sign of the reef when suddenly, bang! and we were in the reef. The plate lifting tackle jammed and after clearing that and raising the rudder, we gingerly motored back to deeper water and tied up to a public mooring on the other side of the bay.

Calm Weather

Hinchinbrook Channel between the mainland and Hinchinbrook Island I believe is scenic only because of the mountains rising to around 1000 metres height on either side. The shores are lined with mangroves and could only be attractive to committed fishers and crabbers. The continuing calm weather meant we had motored most of the way since leaving Townsville and so it was necessary to call into Cardwell to refuel. The tide was low and we had to scrape in to the jetty in about a half a metre of water. Talking to a fisherman on the jetty we learnt that four crocodiles were in residence in the new marina at Oyster Point just south of Cardwell. Therefore it wasnt too great a disappointment when the low tide kept us from entering the channel into the marina. Instead we anchored for the night across the channel near Hecate Point at the northern end of Hinchinbrook Island.

Unseasonable Weather

The next anchorage was Dunk Island, 22 nm to the north. Five miles from the land and a million miles from your cares I think was how the old advertisement was worded. The light conditions and later a rising northerly meant we motored this leg. We anchored in the calm water on the south side of the spit, which juts out on the western side of the island. The northerly continued to pick up to 20 knots or so and those boats out in the usual anchorage (Brammo Bay) were by then rolling heavily. Staff on the island said this wind at this time of the year was unprecedented. On shore, conditions were very pleasant and we walked for a couple of hours. I made a mental note that this was a place Yvonne would enjoy; the more so if arrival was by means other than a small trailable yacht.


Innisfail up the Johnstone River was the next stop and by the time we reached there we had motor or motor-sailed for the last 270 nm. Departing Innisfail in the morning, we encountered fog in the Johnstone River with visibility down to 200 metres. Fitzroy Island was the last anchorage before arriving at Cairns exactly on schedule for the crew changeover. We radioed ahead for a berth for three nights in Marlin Marina. I thought the rate at $14/night was very reasonable, particularly as the location is so central. Long term users, however were very critical of the shore facilities, which are temporary pending further development of the marina.

Crew Change

The boat was emptied of rotting supplies and cleaned by the disembarking crew. The new crew, Barry Scarpella, arrived from Melbourne late on the second day and loaded his kit on to the boat. Rob moved to a hotel ashore that night. I noted that even though both crew had been advised that whatever they brought with them they would be sleeping with, they both managed to overflow their stuff into other areas. With a different crew, I also noted that the re-provisioning lists took a new form. Two days before arriving in Cairns, the tiller autohelm failed due to a drop of water getting on to one of the circuit chips. A marine electronics expert charged $100 for an inspection and managed to get it working after cleaning the corrosion around the terminals. It only worked for a day.


Rain Squalls

Departure from Cairns, as with Brisbane, was in company with a strong wind warning. With the wind at 20+ knots from the south east, I was concerned about the approach over the bar at the Bloomfield River, so we changed plans and spent our first night out at Low Isles, about 8 nm north east from Port Douglas. The run up to Cooktown was a distance of 60 nm but with wind going to 35 knots during the rain squalls, we made a passage at an average speed of 6.7 knots. The heaviest rainsquall was reserved for our approach to the Endeavour River at 1600h. The coast and channel markers were completely obscured and we continued in on a compass heading, with the rain clearing when we were about a half a mile out of the river mouth. We spent two nights there because of the weather. This was the first time the inflatable dinghy was deployed. I had been to Cooktown before and I had seen those notices along the bank, warning that estuarine crocodiles inhabit those waters.

The rain and wind continued on and off over the next few days with average speeds of 6 knots or more en route to anchorages at Cape Flattery, Lizard Island and Ninian Bay. A dozen boats were at anchor at Lizard Island, which is a favourite destination for many yachties. We should have stayed longer but decided to move on with the wind. I put Lizard Island down for a later visit with Yvonne.

Customs Surveillance

A few miles south of Cape Melville we had our first contact with Customs. About a mile behind us, we observed a twin-engine aircraft orbit at low altitude and then it proceeded to make a pass at about 100' down our port side. At that close range there was no mistaking in big letters the word CUSTOMS painted on the fuselage of the aircraft. We presumed that the observer, on the right side of the aircraft, could get a good look at us and to take a photograph. They called us up on VHF channel 16 as small white sloop and after changing channels asked, the vessels name, our home port (RSAYS, Port Adelaide), our last port and our next port. I think my answer to the last question made reference to wind and tide. I knew that their report would soon arrive on my daughters screen. Her job at NORCOM would enable her to track our progress from Customs' sightings.

Many anchorages at islands along the way had the boat rolling uncomfortably at night. (Those catamarans always looked more comfortable.) The next anchorage, at the western spit of Flinders Island, in Owen Channel, didnt look inviting but proved to be all right, perhaps due in part to the wind dropping to 5 knots by morning. The next suitable anchorage was Morris Islet, 60 nm away and so we got under way in the dark at 0430h. It was winter and there are only about 10 hours of daylight. Late afternoon arrivals at reef fringed anchorages we knew were not advisable. Working on 5 knots average speed and allowing a small margin for a day light approach to the intended anchorage meant a pre-dawn start. Its safer to depart in the dark rather than arrive in the dark.

Spanish Mackerel

Some confusion about interpreting the chart caused some excitement later on in the middle of the day. We had landed our biggest fish for the whole trip, a Spanish mackerel measuring 116 centimetres overall. A magnificent looking fish if your normal experience is trolling for snook in St Vincent Gulf. Butchering a fish this size takes up a lot of space in the cockpit and generates a lot of blood and guts. This can be somewhat distracting to the crew on watch. Whether this contributed to misinterpreting the chart is now uncertain. However, we were short cutting on a track east of the main shipping channel, using the light on the western end of Magpie Reef as a way point on the GPS and steering to leave it to starboard, by a fair margin, maybe 400 metres clear. The wind had picked up a little and the spinnaker was set. We were closing on the reef edge expecting to sail around its western extremity. Thankfully the sky was clear and the wind was relatively light because we realised a little later that we were embayed within the reef with only about 100 metres to go. Luckily the spinnaker came down without any foul ups but as is often the case, the motor baulked at a panic start and so we commenced to tack back over our track, approaching the reef within a couple of metres on the first tack. Once clear of the reef, it was plain sailing once again down wind.

Morris Islet

The plan for whole trip was based on a nominal 30 nm per day in order to cover the required distance in the time available. The original plan had anchorages generally at islands spaced at the nominal distance, as read from maps not much better than normal road maps. Along the way, after detailed reading of Lucas, particularly after having a bad night on anchor, we would most likely select a more comfortable anchorage, even though it might be further. Morris Islet was a case in point, Lucas claiming it to be the best anchorage along this part of the coast.

Another Crocodile Warning

Our approach to Morris Islet later in the afternoon was in winds to 30 knots, aft of the beam. We passed to windward (i.e. raced) two yachts sailing in close company. (We wanted the choice of best spots in the anchorage.) We were called up on the radio by one of the yachts seeking information about the anchorage. We were unable to help however we learnt that the leading yacht was in fact towing the trailing yacht, which had suffered engine failure. What about using the sails? we mused to ourselves. The vessel under tow had also said that they were undertaking an around the world voyage! Two trawlers and two yachts and were also at anchor that night. Next day was a lay day because the winds were still gusting to 25 knots and there was a strong wind warning current for the whole of the east coast of Queensland. In the morning we brought the boat up to the shore and walked around the island (twice, at 20 minutes for each circuit). In the afternoon I was scraping barnacles and weed off the bottom as the tide was rising when the fisherman at anchor nearest to me hailed, I wouldnt swim at any more islands north of here. I asked, What about here? He replied, Its probably all right. We experienced a 40 knot rain squall during the night but the anchorage remained secure as advised by Lucas.

Portland Roads

We faced another 55 miler the next day and so departed at 0700h. The log records we were under double reefed main all day with winds SSE 15 knots, with rainsqualls hourly at up to 35 knots. We crossed the bar in one metre of water to anchor in the Lockhart River, having averaged 5.8 knots for the day. Another early start was made next day so we would have time to visit ashore at Portland Roads. On arrival, the tide was right for us to bring Musetta on to the beach. We took our place amongst the tinnies in close and after a careful look around, waded ashore. We missed the chance to meet and have coffee with one of the local identities because she had gone fishing! The reason for her going fishing is probably understood by a single word recorded in the log, i.e. Sunny! Clearly, by now, we regarded this as an unusual meteorological phenomenon.

Sand Flies

As one might be able to predict by now, there was wind and rain in the afternoon, so heavy at one stage that visibility was down to 200 metres. In the last hour, after rounding Fair Cape, we reached across Temple Bay towards our anchorage at Hunter Inlet at an average speed of 7 knots. The average speed for the day was 6 knots for the 48 nm covered in the days sailing. It rained through the night of course. Anchorages on the mainland usually saw us setting the mosquito nets. At dawn the next day, while gazing at the mangroves during ablutions, we suffered our first full scale attack by sand flies. Too small to notice them at the time but the consequences were revealed shortly afterwards by severe itching in the tender parts. This day was a relatively short (28 nm) sail to Margaret Bay, in drizzle and light wind to start with, clearing in time to thread our way through the reef strewn waters of the Home Islands of Cape Grenville.

Map Gap

A start at 0430 was necessary to cover the 74 miles to Escape River. We started under double reefed main on a bearing to clear reefs ahead, which became visible soon after in the pre-dawn light. What made this trip even more interesting (apart from two accidental gybes in the dark when we were both brained before the preventer was put on the boom) was that we had a 10 nm gap in our 1:300,000 scale charts. The road map was all we had for this section. Since leaving Cairns we noticed a considerable drop in the number of vessels in anchorages and on passage. As luck would have it, on this day we were in company with a larger (12 metre) sloop. We were once again racing so it wasnt possible to give up our lead and instead had to anticipate their track in order to clear any possible obstacles. The wind rose from 20 to 25 knots through the day, so we gradually out-paced them. From their accent we think they were under a French flag. They had trouble understanding instructions from the pearl farm on Turtle Head Island at the entrance to Escape River. The outcome was that instead of following us up the river, they turned into the channel between the island and the mainland and promptly ran aground. Perhaps they didnt have charts after all!

Crays and Crocs

Just over the horizon now, a mere 27 nm away was Cape York. After a cautious approach into Albany Passage because of the strong winds and counter tide, we landed at a dwelling on the shore on Albany Island. We were following up on a lead that we would be able to buy some crayfish tails there. This was unsuccessful but we were told by the local resident, Rob, who regularly dives for crays, where to go but it seemed to us we would be diving with the crocodiles. A coffee from our host had us delayed a moment too long and to get off the shore we had a teeth grinding drag off oyster coated rocks. We could only imagine the condition of the gel coat as nobody was going into the water to find out.

Forty Knots

In the lee of Albany Island, on the run up to Cape York, the winds were gusting to 40 knots, judging by the way the tops were being whipped off the waves. With one nautical mile to go to Cape York, the bottom slug on the double-reefed main broke and the luff bellied out a little. As the words Well thats interesting started form in my mind, the next one up the luff broke. Quick! Get it down, I ordered, thinking we might see a domino effect with the whole mainsail coming adrift and thrashing around. The sail was furled and we completed the last mile of the days passage under motor, passing outside Eborac and York Islands. We came to anchor at the beach in the lee of Cape York. The beach has a very shallow gradient and after grounding the boat it was still about 100 metres to the shore. The tide was on the flood. After having a careful look around, we waded in, dragging behind us the anchor chain and warp right out to bitter end. It was only a few hundred metres walk from there to Cape York. Standing at the very tip of Cape York we could see to the east that there was a great deal of white water and looking at the gap between Cape York and York Island we were glad not to have attempted to pass there under these conditions. To the west bullets screamed down off Mount Bremer which rises behind the cape. A sad feature at the cape is a resort, which has been abandoned and now lies derelict. On returning to the beach, the tide had risen about a metre as expected. Again, after a careful look around, we waded out to locate the anchor so we could pull the boat back into shallower water.

Horn Island

During the night there had been some ferocious wind bullets passing offshore. With such pre-conditioning, we sailed off our anchorage under storm jib and part mainsail, meaning the sail was hoisted until the head was level with the spreaders, i.e. about third hoist. The lazy jacks then showed another use. There were no cringles in the luff or leach with which to secure the sail, but it seemed happy enough to lie against the lazy jacks. The shortest distance to Horn Island was via the Boat Channel between Prince of Wales Island and Horn Island and we took this as we judged there would be sufficient depth. With Horn Island to weather as we came to anchorage, we were greeted with gusts to 30 knots. By this time such winds were not unusual. Indeed, the information about sailing this coast makes it quite clear that stronger winds could be expected the further one went north. What we hadnt expected was the high proportion of overcast conditions, frequently accompanied with heavy rain. We thought this was supposed to be the dry season! Three nights were scheduled at TI (as Thursday Island is referred to in this part of the world) for R & R and re-provisioning. The latter was, by capital cities standards, quite expensive. We could not find out if there was a laundry, so when we took the ten minute ferry ride across to TI we carried our washing on speculation and eventually found a laundry at the back of a fast food shop.


South West Winds

The plan changed significantly at TI, in part due to a story we heard that two vessels, which had departed TI in the last two weeks, had come to grief because of strong winds in the Gulf of Carpentaria. One of these was apparently drifting around the gulf, after the authorities had taken off the crew. The change in plan meant that instead of close reaching 360 nm south west across the Gulf of Carpentaria to Groote Eylandt, we would instead sail down to Weipa on the west coast of Cape York Peninsula. From there we would sail on a broad reach across the Gulf of Carpentaria directly to Gove, for the shorter distance of 300 nm. This route also attracted us by the claim that the west coast of Cape York Peninsula was the worlds longest anchorage. The idea is to sail along the coast as far as one wants, then turn into the wind towards the beach to anchor for the night. This only worked for us on the first night. During the second day the wind dropped out and we continued southwards under motor. We wondered what was causing a southwesterly swell. By the time we were coming to anchor at sunset the sky had taken on the appearance of a thunderstorm, i.e. large cumulus clouds and heavy rain showers. The wind came back, now from the south west at 10 knots, which of course is on shore and rather ruined any prospect for enjoying the worlds longest anchorage. We doubled back 10 nm to take shelter in Port Musgrave and we depended very much on the GPS to make an entry into the channel in the dark.


We experienced identical weather conditions the next day as we were coming up to round Duyfken Point, 10 nm out of Weipa. An adverse tide and a head wind slowed our rounding of the point and so our arrival into Weipa was in the dark. However, being a major port, the channel was at least lit and over the radio we had been advised of a suitable anchorage inside the harbour and clear of the channel. We needed fuel and the next day we had the fortune to run into a contractor who worked for Queensland Transport. He drove us a few kilometres to the service station and then proceeded to give us a tour of the town.

Gulf of Carpentaria

The wind was light from the southeast for our 0700h start to our crossing of the gulf. The swell from the southwest still persisted. Just after sunset the wind had risen to 20-25 knots from the southeast, which was 5-10 knots higher than forecast. Seas rose to 2 to 3 metres. In accordance with our agreed routine, we donned our safety harnesses and clipped on whenever out of the cabin. Watch keeping changed from hour on / hour off to 3 hours on / 3 hours off. I found this extremely tiring and so next night we went back to our old routine. Factors affecting fatigue were that the moon was in the new moon phase and cloud cover was to 7 oktas. In other words, it was dark. Stars only made the very briefest of appearances and so most of the steering was under the dim light of the compass. The tendency was to steer the boat for best control, given the firm conditions. Sometimes we were too high and sometimes we had half a gybe, held up by the preventer. This seemingly blundering around in the dark amounted to a cross track error of 15 nm south of our planned course after 20 hours of sailing, i.e. a third of the way across. At the same time the rudder started banging around and it appeared that the top pintle bush had worn. You start doing the sums along the lines of 1000 nm to Darwin, say 200 hours of sailing time, i.e. 720,000 seconds and a thump every couple of seconds, means that this is going to happen up to another half a million times. Will the pintle last? The first fix as made in the dark, was to strop the pintle off to one side with elastic cord and this seemed to work.

After midday on the second day the wind dropped to 5 knots and we began to motor sail. By then we were halfway and had passed the PNR (point of no return) as far as fuel was concerned. I wanted to maintain an average speed of 5 knots so that we would reach Gove in daylight late on the following day. We werent carrying charts for the harbour and we didnt want to hang around in the gulf unnecessarily. We ended up with the motor staying on for the next 27 hours all the way to Gove. As we closed with the coast we could see the weather building up over Gove Peninsula. As usual, just as we were coming up to the harbour entrance, the wind went ahead and it poured with rain. Butting into the short chop, we used a bulk carrier at the jetty as a windbreak. The wind eased as we turned into Inverell Bay, where 60 boats were at anchor in front of the Gove Yacht Club. We had covered 320 nm since leaving Weipa at an average speed of 5.4 knots after being at sea 3 days and 2 nights.

After that we deserved three nights at Gove. There were a few maintenance jobs to be done on the boat including, repairing the rudder pintle, renewing sail slugs and cleaning the bottom. Luckily we ran into Gunter, who was one of the local identities at the yacht club. Gunter had been a crocodile shooter in the past and had sailed along this coast many times. The rudder problem simply turned out to be that the bushing had slid out of the gudgeon and down the pintle. The only supplier of slugs in town was Gunter, who had recently re-rigged his mizzen and he had some spares, which he generously gave to us. Nhulunbuy is 10 kilometres from the yacht club and we stood on the roadside to hitch a ride, being the custom. Once again Gunter came to our aid by giving us a lift back from town with all our fresh provisions and fuel.


Wind against Tide at Cape Wilberforce

The Hole in the Wall we thought was the last adventure we faced before reaching Darwin. There turned out to be three more. From local advice and other information at hand, we were fairly confident about negotiating this very narrow waterway. Gunter had mentioned something about Cape Wilberforce but we were more focussed on the Hole in the Wall. Departing Gove, the sail towards Cape Wilberforce was routine, just reducing down to single reefed main and storm jib as the wind rose to 20 knots and the seas built a little as we cleared the lee of Gove Peninsula.

After rounding Cape Wilberforce there is a passage through a channel about half a mile across between Point William and West Bromby Islet. The tide had turned about an hour before our final approach. Barry called me up and suggested I take some photographs of the waves as they had become larger. While I was doing that I noticed that our forward speed past the shore was zero when we were in the troughs. I came aft and started the motor in order to keep the boat moving down the back of the waves and in the troughs and then throttled back as the next crest approached. The waves were looking quite awesome by now, due a lot to the fact that the wavelength was about 25 metres, say 3 boat lengths. After practicing on 2 or 3 waves, a near vertical faced wave about 3 metres high came up. I throttled back and put my arm around the stern pulpit and hoped Barry was in control. I remember hearing the motor speed up, caused by the windmilling prop as the boat accelerated down the face of the wave wave. Barry, who was looking forward of course, noted the speed went over 14 knots and that at the bottom of the wave the bow buried about a metre past the bow. Luckily the boat tracked straight. We think three things helped the boat to do this. I normally sail with the plate full down all the time. However, the constant slop in the plate case was annoying when down below, so counting on the fact that nearly all the ballast was in the hull, we had been experimenting with a raked plate. It was raked this day, probably as much as 60 degrees, thus moving the centre of lateral resistance aft. The next thing was that we had reefed earlier, thus moving the centre of effort forward. Lastly, we were both sitting right at the stern of the boat. As the speed indication was by the GPS, i.e. over the bottom, then our speed through the water was close to 20 knots. I dont think it would have been possible for us to round the cape if we had been a few minutes later.

An hour later, after crossing Malay Road, we faced a passage of similar width between Cotton Island and Wigram Island in The English Companys Islands. I said to Barry if the approach was anything like that at Cape Wilberforce, then we wouldnt be going through. Strangely, it showed very little tide flow and we carried through to anchor in a bay for the night on the northwest side of Cotton Island.

Hole in the Wall

Our departure next day was carefully timed to cross the 15 nm of Donington Sound to the Wessel Islands at 4 knots (head tide expected) so that we would go through the Hole in the Wall at one hour before high water Gove, as advised at Gove. We arrived a little early and ended up jilling about for half an hour. At precisely the right moment, we turned in towards the narrow channel between Guluwuru and Raragala Islands. The channel is a little over a mile long and is 64 metres wide at its narrowest. At the narrowest choke there was still a 4-knot tide running against us. John Knights Northern Territory Coast  A Cruising Guide, bought in Darwin after the trip, gives times which look as though they might work out better.

We had now turned the northeastern corner of Arnhem Land and were west bound along the north coast of Arnhem Land. We had no permits and were therefore not allowed to land except in the case of an emergency. Piloting along this coast requires close attention because the water near the coast is often turbid and there are few navigational beacons. Anchorages on the way to Coburg Peninsula were at Raragala Island, Elcho Island, Cape Stewart, Maningrida, Cuthbert Point, South Goulburn Island and Valentia Island.

During this part of the voyage, items of interest noted in the log included the excitement of catching a 112 cm Spanish mackerel just when we were running into shoaling water while trying to locate the channel in Cadell Straight between Elcho Island and the mainland. Another note for this same day was that it was the best days cruising for the trip. This was probably due to the relatively calm water and the wind strength and direction which allowed setting of the spinnaker for long periods. Average speed for that day was 5.9 knots. The waters too around Millingimbi are closed without permit. However, it was getting late in the day and I decided to seek shelter behind one of the islands. Several times we started to turn in towards the shore, only to see the depth sounder trace show reefs stepping up from the bottom in one-metre jumps. At two metres it was time to turn away and so we never found what should have been a channel as shown on the chart. The alternate anchorage that we had to resort to was a rolly night at Cape Stewart. I discovered that Haul Round Island, at the entrance to the Liverpool River leading to Maningrida, was positioned incorrectly as a fixed navigational aid in my Magellan model 320, being about 2.5 nm east of the charted position.

Coburg Peninsula

After nine days of not stepping off the boat, we arrived at Coburg Peninsula, which is a national park in Arnhem Land. In Raffles Bay we poked around in the scrub on shore to find the ruins of Fort Wellington, in use from 1827 to 1829. Raffles Bay is nearly all taken over as a pearl oyster farm run by Paspaley. The next day we moved around to Port Essington, site of the parks ranger station and Victoria Settlement. Our anchorage for the night was a little way into the port at Table Head and in company with two ketches and two catamarans. We were invited aboard the larger catamaran for happy hour and included in the nibbles were crayfish tails caught the same day by one of the other skippers. He gathered them in 2 metres on a reef at the entrance to Port Essington.

Historic Ruins

Victoria Settlement is further up the port and was the site of the first British settlement in the north. Their presence was intended to deter territorial claims from other European nations. The settlement only lasted from 1838-49. Disease and malnutrition took their toll as can be seen from the many names of those interred in the cemetery. Enough of the ruins of the stone buildings remain to be able to visualise their original form. A trail of nearly 4 kilometres meanders through the scrub to pass the principal ruins, including Government House, married soldiers quarters, hospital, bakery and various kilns and stores. The only building to undergo restoration is the munitions store, set half into the ground. The harsh living conditions together with the lack of commercial development led to abandonment of the site.

In the last days along this coast, the sky was generally clear, with it being calm in the morning and then northeasterly sea breezes in the afternoon. By then we were thinking that if the weather had not been overcast as much as it had been, then we would have baked during our periods on watch. In a case of swings and roundabouts, the sunny weather was giving just enough input to the refrigerator battery that we were able to enjoy a cool, if not cold, beer at the end of the day. This was important because by now the generator had packed up. (At home later, it was found that the exhaust port in the 2-stroke engine was completely blocked with carbon deposits.)

Departing Port Essington it was overcast with a 5 knot northeasterly. This, together with the swell and low visibility in the water at the reef at the entrance to Port Essington, was enough to discourage diving for crays.

Rounding Cape Don at Night

Cape Don, at the extremity of Coburg Peninsula, was to be our last adventure. We sought anchorage in Christies Bay, which is the bay nearest to Cape Don. The aim was to have the shortest distance to go to round the cape and also as a landing place to go ashore to visit the lighthouse. Reefs lined the approach and we touched several times negotiating the entrance. The bay was shallow and lined with mangroves, which prevented making a landing. As it looked like the tide would trap us, we backtracked a couple of miles to Alcaro Bay.

In Gove we had obtained a copy of the tide atlas for Van Diemen Gulf. This showed that the tide around Cape Don reverses to a flow into Van Diemen Gulf at 4  hours before high water Darwin, which was at a height of 7.23 metres at 0726h on 13th August 2003. Why all the detail? Just a check on what we experienced, based on this data. We departed Alcaro Bay at 0145h and set the throttle so that we travelled at 4 knots through the water inside the bay. This meant it would take 45 minutes to cover the 3 nm to Cape Don, in slack water. This would have meant an arrival off the cape at 0230h, or in fact a little later as the outgoing tide was estimated to turn at 0300h. On reaching the entrance to the bay at 0200h, it was time to change watch, as was our system. A quick check of position based on the bearing and distance to Cape Don lighthouse, showed that we needed to track 250 magnetic to safely clear the reefs off the cape. Any number less than that and we would risk being on the rocks. Shortly after changing watch, Barry called me up to show me the difference between our track as shown by the GPS and our heading as shown by the compass, which were respectively 250 and 340. Cape Don light was nearly over our stern and continued there until we had reached a position to its west. Our track was then changed to 225 (the heading also became 225) on a course for Cape Hotham on the other side of Van Diemen Gulf. The throttle position had not been changed, but according to the GPS our speed was 8 knots. This meant there was a 4-knot current, at slack water! One is left wondering how all this would have worked out if only a compass had been available. The tidal atlas shows tidal flows of up to 3.5 knots between Cape Don and Melville Island when the tide is in a spring flood. Local knowledge is apparently essential because quoting from Knight; we have the advice that Close to Cape Don itself flows of 4-6 knots occur, often setting onshore or across reefs. We didnt sight any of the reefs, even though it was a full moon.

Clarence Straight

A few hours later, while still dark, clouds built up and brought rain. Cape Hotham was 62 nm from our anchorage and although we had tide assistance for half the time, the other half was of course with a head tide. We anchored on the western side of Cape Hotham in mid-afternoon but had to wait until the following day for suitable tidal conditions to make passage through the Vernon Islands. These islands separate Van Diemen Gulf, with a tidal range up to 3 metres, from Beagle Gulf, where there is a tidal range of up to 7 metres. This time, the tidal calculations and the actual experience coincided. We took the more conservative Howard Channel through the islands in Clarence Straight, rather than a short cut around Gunn Point. Even so, an hour after the turn of the tide, we had picked up 3 knots of tide assistance as we rounded South West Vernon Island and headed for Darwin.

Destination Darwin

The mornings broadcast had forecast rain for Darwin but there was no sign of it as we ran under spinnaker in a 12-knot northeasterly across Shoal Bay. We carried the spinnaker into Fannie Bay and on in amongst the 60 or so vessels at anchor. With the shore coming up and the Darwin Sailing Club clearly in sight, Barry said Weve crossed the finish line now, so you can take down the spinnaker. It was 1615 Thursday, 15th August, 2003, having travelled 2,675 nautical miles from Brisbane (1,670 from Cairns) in 70 days (40 days from Cairns). We arrived 8 days ahead of the plan. The two main reasons for this were firstly, that on the east coast comfortable anchorages were generally further apart than the notional days travel of 30 nm and secondly, we cut out the sector to Groote Eylandt. Around 300 litres of fuel was used, which means about one third of the total distance was motored or motor sailed.

Last Crocodile Warning

Candice was flying around the north in her job and was not due home until Friday. We stayed at anchor for two nights and on the intervening day cleaned the boat and washed the sails. Up to this time I had ringing in my ears Yvonnes parting remark Dont do any thing stupid! which later would be interpreted as Dont do anything! Stupid. To clean the bottom of barnacles and weed, we tied to the careening frame near the boat ramp in 2 metres of water on a falling tide. The frame provided cover of sorts on one side. After doing the best we could, as quickly as possible, we beached the boat in front of the club to complete the cleaning. While waiting for the tide, a local came along, having noticed the squadron burgee. After answering his questions about details of the voyage, I asked about crocodiles. He said that they had pulled 380 crocodiles out of Darwin Harbour last year and then he went on to say See that white catamaran over there? pointing to a catamaran about 100 metres from the careening frame, They caught a crocodile there two weeks ago. We never saw a crocodile on the trip but They saw you we heard.

The boat was pulled out of the water on Saturday and prepared for the long tow home. Having arrived early, we had to wait for the wives to arrive and they made it abundantly clear that they were not leaving Darwin early, having endured all of the winter alone back home.


The trip went pretty well according to plan, with a few moments of high excitement. It is unlikely I would repeat the trip, although I would be interested in part of it, probably between Tin Can Bay and Cairns. One of the vessels in Port Essington had taken 5 years to get there from Darwin, compared to nearly 10 weeks for us. Others we spoke to along the way were surprised that we werent going on to Broome, claiming The Kimberley was the best part. I dont think so, having seen those 10 metre tides from the shore side. It was not the case in the end of racing towards Darwin, for I found that the ships routine had become automatic. It was just a matter from day to day to select the next anchorage. If chartering, serious consideration would have to be given to using a catamaran with its large accommodation and ability to get in close and/or sit on shore. So this trip was somewhat of a reconnaissance where some part may be repeated at a latter date and possibly by a different mode.

Lloyd Cushway


30th September 2003