Northwards inside the Barrier Reef

Sorry, this one got out of order, had been saved as draft not published. Bother!

As you head up from Cairns the space between the coast and the reef gets narrower and you find yourself sharing it with big ships, the shipping channel takes up most of the room. See pictures of Pacific Aria. Fortunately there is not too much traffic. Some of the anchorages are better than others, it can be difficult to get out of the swell and small reef islands may not provide much shelter. I was prompted to reread parts of Joshua Slocum “Sailing alone around the world”. He sailed up the E coast of Australia in 1897; from Sydney he went to Bowen then Cooktown, then Thursday Island in the Torres Strait, taking just over a month to do the whole trip. He had been advised to make Day hops (as we have been doing) rather than navigating in the dark but he found the route well charted and perfectly possible to sail at night and easier for him than stopping and having to get the anchor up and the Spray underway every day. No electric anchor winches in 1897.

After Double Island we stopped at Low islands, Rattlesnake Point and Cape Bedford, safely passing Cape Tribulation, Mount Misery and Weary Bay – not sure Cook enjoyed this part of his voyage.

We had been told that Lizard Island was lovely and it certainly lived up to its billing. A glorious beach with wonderful snorkelling at the reef just off the beach, beautiful corals and teeming with fish small and large, including a blue spotted ray, bump headed parrot fish and a black tipped reef shark. There are also nice walks, through the mangroves and over to the Blue lagoon which is the alternative anchorage for those with local knowledge. Anita climbed the hill, quite a steep rocky path, to Cooks lookout, apparently he went ashore briefly and climbed up to spy a way out of the reefs (having already put Endeavour on one and been some weeks at what became Endeavour river and Cooktown making repairs). Certainly a superb view from the top. There is an airstrip and small resort on the island, the rest being National Park. We didn’t bother with the resort as the crew of Shalen that we’d met en route had investigated and found they were not open to Yacht people. Shalen (Oyster 53) is a refugee from the Oyster World Rally.

Lizard Is is also one of the last places as you go north where you can swim, most anchorages have a warning of crocodiles – the Salt water or Estuarine crocodile has vastly increased in numbers since it became a protected species. We haven’t seen any yet.

It may be a while before I can post this, there was a little phone signal at Lizard, halfway up the hill, but not enough to post.


To Cape York, the North Point of Australia

And this one.

As we sailed north we had Howick Island to ourselves, also Pipon Islet, Blackwood Island (Flinders Group), Fife Island and Night Island. There were fishing boats at Portland Roads where there is a small settlement, otherwise we saw a few fishing boats underway and big ships in the channel, it really is empty up here. At Escape River, there was a catamaran anchored further in, the only Yacht seen since Lizard. However we were making great progress sailing with SE winds 15-20 knots behind us, but why does the wind always get up another 5-10 knots when we come to anchor. At least this means the wind generator can keep the batteries charged. Our last anchorage on that side was Mount Adolphus Island, where deflated and put away the dinghy and generally got ready for the longer passage to come. We spent some time consulting all the available information on the tidal streams for going round the top – paper charts, electronic charts, you need the Flood tide, but concluded as we were exactly at Neaps there wasn’t going to be much. The tides here are a little odd, every day there is one bigger tide ( higher HW and lower LW) and one smaller – apparently it’s called “Diurnal inequality”. Leaving on Sunday morning there was just the smaller tide to deal with, and the level hardly changing at all. In fact although we had stronger tide with us at the expected time it never actually went the other way. Passing York Island and Eborac Island we suddenly got phone signal, enough for messages and a few emails, not sure if it was from Cape York or Thursday Island just a bit further north in the Torres Strait. N.B there is also Tuesday Island and Wednesday Island, Sunday Island was further south, but Thursday Island is the populated one. We made our way through the shallower Endeavour Passage, leaving the main Prince of Wales channel to the big ships. And suddenly we were out of the Pacific and the Coral Sea and into the Arafura Sea. According to the book the sea changes colour at this point, but as it was cloudy it looked rather grey anyway. Now for the longer passages across the Gulf of Carpenteria to Gove and then Darwin.

Sometimes the electronic chart is not completely accurate, we had 13m under keel in the anchorage shown at Escape river.

Across the Gulf of Carpentaria

Mostly we had good winds behind us, a couple of calm patches, one just as we exited the Endeavour Strait in the late afternoon and we did wonder if that was it, no wind for the whole crossing, but it came back. As you come out of Endeavour Strait it is very shallow, 10m and it’s a long way until you cross the 20m contour. The second day we were closer to the wind and it increased with a big sea. Timshel was charging along, but however fast we went we were not going to get to Gove in daylight so we reefed and set the staysail instead of the Yankee and the boat was much more comfortable. Eventually we anchored off Bremner Island just north of Gove at 5 am and went on next day after a bit of sleep. With a fresh wind and waves dead against us it took a while to get to the harbour where we anchored among the many boats. Not all the boats are in prime condition, some have been abandoned and there are still a few wrecks from the last cyclone.

There is a thriving yacht club, Gove Boat club, just across the bay, they are very friendly and you can get temporary membership for just 10$ a week to use showers and washing machines etc, there is a bar and they do food Thursday for Sunday. Apparently there are s couple of tame crocodiles around.

We aimed to get the bus into town (6miles) to shop next morning, but met boat builder Glen in the yard who gave us a lift in his truck. Next day Glen very kindly made a special trip into town with our jerrycans and gas bottle so that we could get diesel and a refill, he even found time to show us the sights from the lookout. A wonderful man, so helpful; it would have been really difficult for us to get those supplies without him.

Gove is a small town maybe 3000 people in the Aboriginal lands that is here because of the bauxite (aluminium) mine. There is a metalled road to the airport otherwise dirt roads. There is also the longest conveyor in the world taking ore from the mine to the big ship wharf. It is a dry town and you need a permit to buy take away alcohol. The mining company, Rio Tinto, give a lot of support to the town, there is a 50m swimming pool, BMX track, tennis courts, golf course etc. Not certain that the Aboriginal community use many of these facilities which is sad. They have many health problems and their life expectancy which was once very high is now much lower than average. The whole of this remote north part of Australia is Aboriginal lands, but presumably the incomers didn’t want this bit. You need a special permit to go ashore in most places.

On to Cairns

Mostly trade wind weather, which means SE 15-20 knots or more most of the time, great for making progress north but not so good for finding a calm anchorage. Not calm enough to stop at Russell island, so we had to go on another 20 miles to Fitzroy Island for the night. A pleasant place but extremely busy with day trippers, boats going to and fro the whole time as it is really close to Cairns. Walked round to Nudey Beach, billed as the #1beach in Australia – some of the others might disagree with that, but a pleasant place for a swim. The marina at Cairns is large with good facilities (and full of trip boats), the friendly manager, on learning that we are headed north, reckoned that everyone in Cooktown and onwards is a hillbilly, or an outlaw. Well we’ll find out, if the water is deep enough to get in there. Cairns is very much a tourist place, every just about 4th shop is a travel agents, tourist agency selling various trips, then there are the souvenir shops (didgeridoo anyone?), loads of bars, restaurants and cafes, some big hotels and posh jewellers too. At the Harbour we were amused to see jet ski crocodile watching trips advertised (a cruiser friend thought it was absolutely fine if crocs ate all the jet skis! We stocked up with food, water, diesel etc and did chores e.g. an engine oil change. The sun came out today (raining earlier in the week), it was very warm and we went the short distance to Double island just off Palm beach.

Townsville and north

We hopped across to Townsville on the mainland for a brief visit to get supplies – food, diesel, gas. Also had time to look around the town, some interesting old and new buildings, Anzac Memorial garden (who knew Australians fought in Vietnam – apparently the government offered their support to USA), also the impressive Reef Aquarium, and Anita ran up to the Castle Hill lookout (and down). Next night we spent at Rattlesnake Island which is in the Military Exercise area, but we’d first checked with the coastguard that no bombing was going on. We had the place to ourselves but it was very rolly which was a shame as Steve had cooked a nice anniversary dinner. Orpheus Island was much more comfortable, and looking out at sunset we actually saw a whale – at last, our first one this year, we were getting worried that we were ahead of their migration north and weren’t going to see any. Next stop was scenic Hinchinbrook Island where apparently there are crocodiles so we didn’t swim. Now at Dunk island, one of the family group it is just 4K off the mainland. The resort was wrecked in a cyclone in 2011 but I think people still camp on the island. It’s been sunny with good sailing breezes, but still not all that hot.

Dunk Island

Magnetic Island

We have spent a few days at this holiday island just off Townsville, named by Cook (of course). Nice warm sunny weather, it is school holidays here so quite busy. Did a tour of wildlife sanctuary, a bit like a petting zoo really, but the guide was very knowledgable. Turtles, lizards, baby crocodiles, Koalas, Wombat, Cockatoo and parrot, and a Carpet python. Apparently the wombat weighs 26kg and the position in the guides lap is its favourite place to do a poo …. One family on the tour had apparently seen a small Death adder on the walking trail, but also a snake in their shower and another in their toilet, not sure if this is normal – perhaps they are Slytherin?

Next day we did the Two Forts walk up to WWII remains and saw (and photographed) Koalas in the wild. We walked to secluded Arthur bay to go snorkelling. Apparently while we were snorkelling and focussed looking down on fish and colourful coral below us, 3 whales passed really close to us – which everyone else on the beach saw apart from us!

Still in Whitsundays

Finally managed to get our serviced Liferaft delivered back to us at Abell Point marina at Airlie Beach – it’s a long story. Restocked and set off again. The weather hasn’t been ideal, windy and rainy, but all the charter boats have to manage and so do we. It’s the trade winds season so you do expect the constant 15 to 20 knots from SE, but not the rain. We had a nice day at Blue Pearl Bay on Hayman Island where we tried out our new stinger suits with hoods and gloves attached while we went for a snorkel. Saw lots of big fish, no nasty jelly fish, but the water is quite cool and I have reverted to the wetsuit. There were huge Bat fish under the boat who come and take bread from the hand. In many of the bays Public moorings are provided which is great as it would be difficult to anchor. But they have a 2 hour time limit, which fortunately does not seem to be strictly observed just now as it’s not high season. But you can just imagine the game of musical boats as everybody moves on around the islands every couple of hours and tries not to be the ones left out when it gets to evening. Also the moorings have huge pick up ropes as thick as my arm and half the length of the boat, too big for any of our cleats, and if there is more tide than wind you end up sailing over the buoy. Some of you will be amused to note that one of the anchorages is called Stonehaven.

We are now heading north again.