Cape York to Darwin 18August2010

From Cape York to Horn Island is 20 miles, from Horn Island to Gove is 357 miles and from Gove to Darwin is 430 miles. So after 800 or so miles from Cape York, here we are ensconced in the ‘Tipperary Waters Marina’ in Darwin having something of a rest; and it’s hot!

After our photo shoot at Cape York we slipped away at 1400 headed for Horn and Thursday Islands and not before time as on the way out we only had 30 cm of water under the keel (oh for a catamaran in this part of the world).  On the way out the skipper was spotted looking mournfully out in the direction of Adolphus Island and the wreck site of the Quetta.  The RMS Quetta was a 2147 ton steamship that on the night February 28, 1890 hit an uncharted rock in the Adolphus Channel (now known as Quetta rock) and in three minutes sank taking 134 people with it, the loss ranking as Queenslands worst maritime disaster.  The skipper dived the wreck back in 1988 and the plan for this trip was to have another look, but with the weather currently being enjoyed this just wasn’t going to happen.  Bummer as this is the wreck of wreck dives; ah well next time! On the up side the wind was still whistling from the SE so the sail into Horn was one would say quite brisk and a lot of fun, so after slipping through ‘Flinders Passage’ and the ‘Ellis Channel’ the Gadfly went to anchor under the lee of Horn Island in the strait between Horn and Thursday Islands.

Horn Island Wharf

Horn Island off the beach.

Thursday Island

Thursday Island.

Horn Island is the bigger of the two islands but all the activity is over on Thursday where the main town is and getting there means a trip on the ferry.  Next day (09August) the crew went for the obligatory explore, lunch at the pub and to try and find a washing machine for the pile of smelly clothing we had accumulated. One of the sites to be visited was the ‘Quetta’ memorial church where there are artifacts from the Quetta in the church and they have the bell.  Sadly the church was in the process of being renovated and all the good things had been put away.  The bell, fortunately was still hanging outside enabling a photo opportunity and Ralph, Elmore and others, one would would need a very good and noisy grinder.

Can l take it home??

After a day of chilling out we got down to the more mundane tasks of revictualling and fuelling up the boat so while the girls went food shopping and checking the boat out through quarantine (AQIS), the skipper and Leif sorted out diesel and water. There is also a little museum on Horn Island and after the boaty stuff, a few drinks and a swim at the ‘resort’ on Horn Island a stroll through history was required.  It seems Horn was effectively unoccupied up till the second world war when pending hostilities with the Japanese suggested the need for an air base.  Eventually 5000 odd people were based on the island maintaining, defending, supporting and flying a host of aircraft including the B17 bomber, Beaufort bombers, and several fighter types (Lightning, Thunderbolt, Kittyhawk, Airocobra, Spitfires).  The Japanese of course were also frequent visitors doing their determined best to ensure a future source of wrecked planes as exhibits for the museum.  A lot of the museum is focused on the war-time history with pieces of wrecked planes (the supercharger for a P47 thunderbolt was interesting), lots of grainy, faded photographs of planes and people but also some interesting post war stuff on the local indigenous community and the pearling and fishing industries.  One can wonder at the joys of a war-time posting at Horn Island!

On the locals they are quite industrious but as one might expect there are quite a few people who sit around and watch the world go by and a lot of people very focused on catching anything that moves in the water.  Given the heat one can understand the sitting around thing! On the catching things front Gini was very unhappy at watching a couple of big turtles being laboriously manhandled onto the back of a flat tray ute; and what are they going to do with them?  It seems there was a funeral happening for one of the local girls and the turtles and several eskys of fish were destined for post funereal activities and the large number of people headed in for the wake.

The next step of course in our now westerly expedition was the 350 odd miles across to Gove. The day after our arrival at Horn, Elsie-2 with Reece and Chris came in to anchor and another boat ‘Sharita’ (Kiwi with Steve and Mary on board) were already hanging about.  Over several beers and much discussion concerning the conditions and tides we had decided to head across the Gulf of Carpentaria on the 11th; weather of course being favourable.  So with a forecast of plenty of SE no stronger then 20-30 knots and the promise of wind on the quarter and perhaps just aft of the beam, away we went to catch the tide at 0800 on the morning of the 11th.  We cleared the Prince of Wales Channel, passed Booby Island in light conditions and at 1100 the wind went SW and just off the nose; brilliant.  It stayed that way alternating between SW and SSW (20 to 30 knots) all the way to the top of Bremer Island where we turned south for Gove when it did eventually go SE and of course on the nose again (at least this was light).

This was a passage to forget, plenty of wind from the wrong direction with a load of fetch and shallow conditions.  Think three to four metre seas, very steep, very confused and only 20 to 30 metres apart; a washing machine would be a good description.  Three days and two nights of very musical conditions with water washing through the cockpit and the boat dropping sideways off waves.  We were as one might imagine very happy when we finally picked up the patch of dirt that is Higginson Islet just to the west of Bremer Island.  After turning south and slipping down the west side of Bremer we finally got the pick down at 1730 on 13August in amongst all the boats at anchor or moored off the Gove Yacht Club.

The anchorage at Gove is interesting with a lot of boats that move either very little or the next move is likely to be downwards.  We could actually see not far ahead of where we were anchored a tangle of rigging that was once a yacht and the locals were  telling us that there are several boats hiding on the bottom.  It seems a lot of people get to Gove where mooring is free and they, literally, never leave. Others are live-aboards for the mine and bauxite plant and when the owners leave they never quite get back to their boat.

Alcan Gove.

Gove itself and the associated metropolis of  Nhulunbuy exist because of the bauxite mine and loading facility with bauxite from the mine being transported on a 23 km conveyor belt to the ships.  It is quite surreal sitting at anchor right up in an isolated corner of Arnhem land looking at a rather massive industrial complex lit up like something from a film set. But Gove does provide a welcome break on a westerly passage to Darwin  and Nhulunbuy offers diesel and a supermarket and the yacht club of course has a bar and showers.  There is also at the yacht club a little convenience type shop being operated to sell supplies to passing yachty types and Jenny who works there loant us her car for the trip into the bright lights of Nhulunbuy and a bit of a look around (big hug for jenny); one road into town and we of course got lost immediately.  So after a cruise around Gove and Nhulunbuy and sorting enough food for three nights we had a few final drinks with the Sharita and Elsie-2 people, declined the offer of buying paintings from the locals, discussed the merits of diving in Gove where one needs an armed sentry to shoot at crocodiles and headed out to our floating home and a move out beyond the floating graveyard.  The place really has something of a boat graveyard look about it and the two nights there were enough.

Nhulunbuy

Nhulunbuy

Alcan lights.

The next phase of our westward sojourn is to clear the Wessels. This island arc is the third of a group of three long island chains, all running parallel to each other SW to NE. The first of these are the Bromby Islets sticking up ten miles from the top of mainland Arnhem Land. After this one crosses a  channel called ‘Malay Road’ , then squeezes between a couple of the English Companys Islands before crossing Donnington Sound and finding a route through the Wessel Islands. Unless you want to go all the way around the top the passage requires the transit of three passes all subject to plenty of tide. The most obvious route is to sneak between the Brombys at Cape Wilberforce,  run the gap between Cotton and Wigram Islands in the English Company group and then take the Gugari Rip between Raragala and Guluwuru Islands in the Wessels. This all requires timing for the tides especially for the Gugari Rip as this can run apparently at around 9 knots and horror stories abound! So to catch the tide at each pass we pulled our trusty anchor up once again at 0300 and with the bright lights of the bauxite loading facility looming to starboard headed out for the long hop into Darwin.

Timing here is the trick. The tides we were told flood east to west through the Bromby’s and English Company group but the Gugari Rip requires an ebb tide flowing east to west.  Cape Wilberforce was easy and with big current assist we slipped quietly into Malay Road.  This was where Mathew Flinders in his 1802-1803 circumnavigation of Australia in HMS Investigator came across a fleet of Macassan ‘trepangers’ on their annual voyage; an island called ‘Pobasso’ is named after the captain of the fleet.  Trepang does seem to be have been very popular as the visiting fleets came to Australia for over 200 years persisting until customs duty and license fees slowed things down. The last ‘prau’ visited in 1906 when the Government closed the licensing system to foreigners; you have to wonder what the attraction really is of a deposit feeding sea-cucumber but they still like them in China it seems.

After Malay Road we lined up for our dog-leg between Cotton and Wigram Islands and once again whistled through with the flood.  This pass was a bit more interesting however with big pressure waves to port on the way out and birds feeding over the top of the waves.  We could actually see fish in the sides of the waves presumably feeding on bait fish being swept through with the current.  The landscape is pretty here with long flat islands of sedimentary rock and different coloured layers of sandstone and siltstone, kind of dry though!

And a bit narrow!

As an observation it seems that the tides in this part of the world can be all over the shop and information quite often not terribly reliable. Gugari Rip has quite the reputation apparently all around the world as something to experience (effectively all world cruisers heading west from Gove transit Gugari).  Also known as ‘Hole in the wall’, it passes at high speed large quantities of water between the Arafura Sea and Donnington Sound and requires very good timing for a transit on the first hour of the developing tide. In our case according to the best of information this meant the first hour of the ebb and according to the guides, arrive at the southern end just after high water Gove. So after crossing Donnington Sound we slipped into Gugari at the right time and by the numbers only to get 4 knots of flood; go figure.

Gugari Rip and ripping; still!!!

Gugari Rip and a bit messy!

Gugari Rip.

This is a very tight pass, a mile long and as the pilot tells us, 64 metres wide and 9 metres at it’s shallowest. Anyway, with enough sail assist and the engine not overly stressed we could maintain at least a knot over ground in the pinch and with the skipper extremely active on the wheel we got through without any great concerns.  Quite the experience however, very scenic and interesting to see the names of past vessels whose crews took the trouble to write on the rocks.  Something of a laugh to see HMAS Wollongong and HMAS Ardent scrawled up there (1980’s and 1970’s, both vessels are long gone now) as writing the names of  Naval vessels on rocks probably wouldn’t go down all that well today.  Bit ironic though considering that the Graffiti of HMS Dart on Flinders Island is now historically significant!

Heading west.

We had been planning to perhaps stop at an anchorage just to the west of Gugari, but Darwin beckoned and time at this point was not on our side, so a direct line for Cape Croker we set and settled down for the 230 odd miles to our next waypoint.  The weather was a lot kinder to us here and with bad memories of the gulf out of the way we amused ourselves trying to catch fish and arguing about what films we should watch.  Fish seemed to be not interested in us at all but we did catch a little shark (Lenny, as in Shark Tales) that we promptly released, well as quickly as we could.  Gini has since worked out that Lenny is a grey reef shark, apparently the most aggressive of the reef sharks.

Lenny headed home!

After Cape Croker it was the 50 odd miles to Cape Don, turn SW into Dundas Strait and the 90 or so miles into Darwin past the Vernons through Clarence Strait. On the way through the Vernons in very quiet conditions and in the dark we were passed by two Naval vessels that ghosted by to Port, one an Anzac (Toowoomba) the other a Japanese air warfare destroyer (we saw them next day) that were busily signalling each other with morse lamps no doubt complaining about grubby sail-boats getting in their way. We finally arrived at Darwin on the 18th only to find the tides too low to get inside at Tipperary Waters, so to anchor we went at the small boat anchorage adjacent to New Fort Wharf and a raft of RAN Anzac Frigates.  It was a dinghy run that night and a seeking out of the bright lights of Darwin, not to mention $4 drinks at Shenanigans ($4 Vodkas had the Danish Coxswain very happy indeed). Next day we moved up Frances Inlet to the marina and our first experience of a lock entry feeling something like a small scale Panama Canal.

Darwin at last.

Rafted ANZAC Frigates and Collins Submarine.

So here we are, 3260 nautical miles out of Melbourne and pondering the next move.  The skipper has a long list of repairs for the boat and a change of crew is happening.  Gini has jetted her way back to Denmark, we are already missing her terribly and not at all happy she is. Monica has gone back to the good ship ‘Jules Verne’ and Leif is looking for work and residing on the boat in the meantime.  Michael (Mr Suter) is flying in from Melbourne and two Kiwis, Tim (pronounce ‘Tem of course) and Trevor are in town and joining the boat in the next 10 days. Something of a worry for the skipper with three Kiwi types on the boat, where will the sheep go??? It’s sunday today and hot, we are off to see the music at the Dinah Beach Cruising Yacht Club, only 300 metres away and the beer is cold.

Gadfly at Tipperary Waters, Darwin.

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