Australia: Cruising “Over the Top”


  George next to a “rather small” ant hill at Port Essington.

After two months of sailing mostly in a northwesterly direction up the Queensland coast, we had reached “the Tip” or Cape York, the northernmost point on the continent of Australia. We gybed onto port, and started heading in a westerly direction, “over the top” of Australian towards Darwin, which would be our last port of call in Australia.

The first and longest leg of the journey over the top was from the North Queensland outpost of Seisia to Gove Harbour in the Northern Territory, about 360 nautical miles west-southwest across the Gulf of Carpenteria. The Australian Bureau of Meteorology had forecast mostly light southeasterlies for the time period. We were hoping to make landfall in the Northern Territory during daylight hours as we were unfamiliar with the area, so planning a minimum average speed of 7 knots and maximum average of 8 knots, we decided to leave at noon, which I reckoned would allow us to make landfall sometime between 6 am and 6 pm.

Departing on schedule at around noon, we were well into the lee of the North Queensland’s Cape York Peninsula, which blocked the southeast trade winds that had given us a nice ride up the east coast. Winds were light and variable, and after being teased by the breeze into a few futile attempts to sail under spinnaker, we surrendered to the iron genniker and motor-sailed all afternoon.

As we crossed the Inskip Banks, which is a large shallow patch where, in some spots, the depths are less than 3 meters, it got a bit lumpy. There was still no wind as the bottom dropped away to 50-odd meters in the Gulf of Carpenteria. As the afternoon wore on, the seas evened out, so we indulged in our daily showers. Since I was cleaned up for the day, I decided to reel in the lure and avoid having to deal with the mess of cleaning a fish.
As the lure drew up close to the stern of the boat, a large silver fish rose and took a whack at the lure. I stopped reeling instantly. It came back for a second go, and this time the hook set. We boarded an 11 kg Spanish mackerel, and after a catch, fillet and release I was covered in fish blood and scales, and had to take another shower.

Merima checking out an old bunker at Port Essington.

By six in the evening, the winds had picked up to the forecast 10-knot level, just slightly forward of the beam, so we put the engine to rest and rolled out the genoa. We were sailing along beautifully at 7-8 knots, right on the rhumb line. The first night was uneventful, just as we like it, but the breeze was gradually increasing to the 15-20 knot range. By early the next morning, BOM Australia revised the forecast to 20-25 knot winds from the southeast. This would definitely increase our speed nicely, but bad news was that away from the lee of Cape York, with hundreds of miles of fetch, the seas had gradually built up to 2-3 meters, short and steep, right on the beam. We were rolling from 15-35 degrees, and finding it a bit uncomfortable. Never mind, our pace had picked up significantly, and we were now averaging 10-11 knots on the rhumb line. We now faced the dilemma that with this increased speed we would make landfall smack in the middle of the night unless we slowed down, further decreasing comfort level.

Carefully studying the charts a bit more, we found that we had a few options if the landfall looked too ugly or scary. There were a few islands off the coast on the west side of the Gulf of Carpenteria that would provide a safe, if not comfortable anchorage till daylight.

We spotted the lights of Nhulunbuy, the township near Gove Harbour, at about midnight. I was now kicking myself for not departing Seisia at 0600 instead of noon, as we could have had the anchor down in time for sundowners! As we approached land, everything – radar, chart plotter, visual bearings, depth – all checked out, and the seas began to moderate in the lee of the Gove Peninsula. We wound our way through the channels between mainland and some low-lying islands with no dramas, and off the township of Nhulunbuy we took temporary anchorage for the night. We enjoyed a good sleep in the calm anchorage and then proceeded around to Gove Harbour the next morning in good light. We’d managed to cram a 48-hour passage into about 39 hours.

This was Merima’s first overnight passage, and unfortunately it was about a 4 on a scale of 10 for comfort. While she didn’t turn out any of her usual gourmet meals under way, I felt she had done just fine…and she didn’t jump ship, so I guess she did too.

Once in Gove Harbour, we gave Moonshadow a much-needed bubble bath and ourselves a well-deserved meal out. We were told that the Gove Yacht Club put on the best meal in town, and in retrospect, after surveying all the options, they were probably right. It was our first shore side meal in weeks, which we enjoyed with a few bevvies, and some great Northern Territory warmth and hospitality.

We were running a bit thin on fresh provisions, so the next day we planned to make the 25-kilometer trip into Nhulunbuy to the market. I asked a lady in the Gove Yacht Club what was the best way to get into town, and she said it was to hitch a ride. We skeptically walked out to the road, and I stuck out my thumb. The first passing vehicle stopped and we hopped in. The man who picked us up had just taken his two young daughters out boating for the morning, and they were all on their way back to town. He dropped us off at the door of the grocery store. I thought to myself that if we were in the States, we might have died of thirst or starvation before we had gotten a ride, and if we had gotten a ride, we would have been found in bits and pieces years later in a shallow grave.

After groceries, we found a bottle shop nearby so went in for a few bottles of wine and some “fish killa” booze. Rather than beat the fish we catch over the head with a winch handle, creating a bloody mess, not to mention pissing off the fish, we’ve found that a squirt or two of spirits over each of the gills is much more humane and puts the fish into a relaxing permanent coma in about a minute. I call it “the parting shot.” Given the choice between the booze and a winch handle, I’d choose the booze every time. Anyway, we couldn’t find any cheap spirits in the shop, so we asked the shop keeper what he might have in the budget range, explaining our purpose of fish euthanasia. He disappeared for a few minutes, leaving the shop completely unattended, returning from the tavern next door with an almost-full, unlabeled “clean skin” liter bottle of gin. He offered to sell it to us for ten bucks if we promised not to actually drink it ourselves, as if it were unsuitable for human consumption. After he boxed up our purchase, he tossed in two new trolling lures, gratis. It seems the further you get from the big cities in Australia, the friendlier the people, and you can’t get much further from a big city in Australia than Nhulunbuy in the Northern Territory.

All topped up with food and grog, we enjoyed another meal out at the Gove Yacht Club that evening. Our plan was to continue our trip over the top towards Darwin with a series of day-sails, starting the next morning.

One of the very few attractions along this route, aside from a lot of sparsely populated Aboriginal land, is a fascinating, if not treacherous feature in the Wessel Islands named the Gulgari Rip, more commonly known as the “Hole in the Wall”. Looking for a bit of excitement, we couldn’t miss it, and positioned ourselves for the trip through the hole by sailing north to nearby Cotton Island. From our anchorage there, we were only a few miles away, so we could theoretically time our passage through just after high tide with a slight bit of positive current.

The Hole in the Wall is a narrow passage between Raragala Island and Guluwuru Island in the southern Wessels. As an aside, it’s interesting that each of those names contains four of the same vowels. Anyway, it is about a mile and a half long, almost perfectly straight, just a couple of boat lengths wide, and during mid-tide the currents can reach 10 knots, making a passage through it more like a whitewater rafting adventure on the Colorado River rather than a placid sail on the Arafura Sea. The strategy for safe passage is to enter the Hole at or near slack water when there is little or no current. If you are heading east to west, you’ll have a bit of positive current just after high tide, and if you’re heading west to east, the same applies just after low tide.

We had a nice, if not slow sail from Cotton Island, arriving at the entrance to the Hole in the Wall at about an hour after the high, so I assumed we would start to get a bit of positive current. Sailing through with just a headsail at about 4.5 knots over the water, we were showing 9 to 9.5 knots over the bottom in the middle of the passage. There were no major rips or whirlpools at this stage in the tide cycle, so we glided through the picturesque waterway as if we were on a riverboat with very little helm adjustment, and in a few short minutes, we were spit out the other end. I can only imagine what it would be like to be caught in there at mid-range on a spring tide (greatest tidal range time) with a strong breeze opposing the current. E-ticket!

Between the Hole in the Wall and Port Essington, some 250 nautical miles to the West, there was not much to see in the way of landforms. The geography was mostly low lying bush land, punctuated by controlled fire burning which made for some very smoky skies and large glowing spots on the night horizon, not to mention soot all over the decks. We were told they were burning off “fuel,” or fallen trees and bushes left from the last tropical cyclone. If the land scenery was not much to see, the sailing was generally easy and pleasant. We were able to cover quite a few miles each day, usually under spinnaker with good southeasterly breezes and flat waters till mid-afternoon, and then find a snug and comfortable anchorage in time for a sundowner. Fishing was good as we landed a few more Spanish mackerel and stuffed the freezer. The most remarkable thing was the number of sea turtles we saw on the surface of the sea, basking in the sun.

After footing it every day for a week since departing Gove, we decided to relax for a few days in the beauty and solitude of Port Essington. Once a British outpost in the early to mid 1800’s, today all that remains are a few ruins and a small eco resort. The small town of Victoria situated at the south end of the long, protected bay, was abandoned in favor of Darwin, which is about 100 miles to the southwest as the cockatoo flies.

We spent two nights in a quiet, calm anchorage off the site of the settlement of Victoria. A walk around the ruins gave us no idea what hardships had befallen the original settlers who suffered through the heat, bugs, crocs, malaria and life of depravation thousands of miles by slow and unreliable ship from the mother land. We wandered between the remains of small stone cottages and giant ant hills, caught a glimpse of a wallaby and evidence of pigs and buffalo, and found the graveyard with its crude crypts and rough-hewn headstones.

The next day, July 4th, we celebrated American Independence at a beach bar-b-que at Coral Bay in Port Essington, with a group of cruisers from the States, England, Canada, Germany, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. The Britons were very good humored about the whole thing – any excuse for a party, they said. We were reminded just where we were as we spotted a small hammerhead shark in the water off the beach and some large saltwater crocs sunning at the other end of the beach.

Other than the passage across the Gulf of Carpenteria, the most challenging stretch of water in the “over the top” journey is from Cape Don to Darwin through the Dundas Strait and the Van Diemen Gulf. This piece of water is notorious for its wicked strong currents, snotty seas and strong winds. We wanted to get the timing just right so we could use the strong currents to our favor and avoid the nasty waves when the wind opposes tide. From Port Essington, we hopped over to Alcaro Bay, just inside of Cape Don, to wait for the right time to tempt the local sea Gods. After much study in the cruising guides, conversation with other cruisers, consultation of the tide and current charts, listening to local weather reports, careful calculation, a nip of rum offered to the sea Gods and a pinch of salt tossed over the shoulder, we reckoned that a 0530 departure the next morning would be the perfect time.

  Moonshadow downlocking in Darwin, with Peter Dermoudy, the lockmaster, waving from the control box.

Well, we got it mostly right, as the Dundas Strait turned out to be a non-event. As calculated, we were able to ride some favorable currents much of the way, and luckily, the seas were mostly flat, but that was owing to the fact that there wasn’t much wind, so we ended up motor sailing much of the way to Darwin. We arrived at Stokes Hill Wharf, off Darwin City at 1700, just in time for happy hour.

The Australian Fisheries people in Darwin are working to eradicate a couple of non-indigenous mussels that are apparently a biosecurity hazard. We were able to coax Chris, the local fisheries agent into working a bit of overtime, with the offer of a rum and coke. We were the last boat of the day to be inspected and cleared for the pesky black-striped and Asian green mussels. Before relaxing with a sundowner and explaining to us more than we could ever want to know about mussels, Chris flushed all of Moonshadow’s saltwater pipes with a lovely pink antibiotic treatment, which permitted us to go into the marina the very next morning, but ruined any chances of us harvesting any future shellfish delicacies from our myriad of plumbing.

The tidal range in Darwin is nearly 8 meters or 26 feet, so as a matter of aesthetics and convenience, all of the marinas are kept at an artificially high water level of about 7 meters, and boats must pass through a lock to get in. We booked into the Tipperary Waters Marina for our stay in Darwin so we could give Moonshadow another much-needed bubble bath, do some minor repair and maintenance, and prepare for the rally to Indonesia.

The last locks that I’d navigated were in the Panama Canal, each of which are about 1000 feet long and 250 feet wide, so ingress and egress weren’t too much of an issue for our 62-foot length and 14.5-foot beam. The lock going into Tipperary was not nearly as ample, giving us just a couple of meters of free play in each direction. At first this was a little bit uncomfortable for me, and quite a bit uncomfortable for Merima, who was new to the whole locking thing. The lockmaster, Peter Dermoudy, calmly explained the process to us over the VHF radio as we approached, and carefully guided us as we entered the lock. The next thing we knew, we had gained 4 meters of altitude, had in hand a set of keys to the facilities, and we were in a snug little marina surrounded by beautiful homes. We made two more trips through the lock later that week when we went to and from the fuel wharf, and by then we had it wired like a couple of pros.

It was great to enjoy two weeks of civilization in Darwin after nearly a month in the outback. We had some great meals out, enjoyed a bit of night life, caught some great live music, did a bit of shopping, a load of provisioning, a few repairs, a little maintenance, and enjoyed some of the local hospitality at the Darwin Sailing Club. There were plenty of social activities leading up to the Darwin-to-Kupang rally, so we had the opportunity to meet some of the other participating boats. We found the Darwinians to be very friendly and down to earth, most helpful, and everyone was happy to give us a lift here and there as we checked items off our “To Do” and “To Get” lists.

We put on six months’ worth of supplies and provisions to get us through 5000 nautical miles of the third world, and welcomed aboard our good mates and regular “MooCrew” Graham and Todd from Auckland, who would join us for the rally.

Our busy days and nights in Darwin flew by, and the next thing we knew, we were sailing over the start line on the Darwin-to-Kupang Rally.

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