On May 3rd, a tropical depression had formed 600 miles northwest of Christmas Island where we were waiting for a decent weather window to continue our long passage back from India to Darwin. Stars End 2 was tied to a mooring buoy about 80 meters from where the waves were breaking so we were safe, but it was disconcerting to see the boat lift and dip on the large swells that ran into the bay.
The winds were consistently up to 20 knots and we knew it would be too hard to sail against this all the way to Darwin, so we decided that when we left Christmas Island, we would head almost north towards Java and follow the coastline along the bottom of Indonesia. This route might be a little longer, but would give us a reprieve from the swells of the open ocean and a slight reduction of winds, being in the lee of the coastline. It also gave us the added security of knowing that we wouldn’t be too far from land in case we needed to shelter from severe weather conditions.
We deliberated so much, and we couldn’t afford to procrastinate for too long as stronger trade winds were expected, but we wanted to make wise and safe choices. It became a case of having to simply bite the bullet and choose what looked to be the best of the next few days’ weather window.
We departed Christmas Island on Tuesday May 5th, waiting until after midday when the 2.5 metre swells were expected to reduce slightly. It still seemed pretty boisterous once we cleared the headland, but unlike our first attempt at leaving here, we were prepared with both fore and mizzen sails triple reefed when a squall hit a few miles out with winds in excess of 30 knots. Once it passed, and we moved further away from the island, the seas levelled out and although we were unable to make good headway in the 20 knot winds, at least we were finally on our way again.
Over the next couple of days, the yacht rolled around uncomfortably in the large swells and we discovered the toilet in the head had sprung a leak as well as a through-deck fitting in the toilet area which dripped water every time the waves crashed over the yacht. I ended up shoving towels on the floor to soak up the seawater until Frank had the time and a steadier motion to fix the leaks.
With the rough sea conditions, Frank started to worry that his calculations of our fuel consumption would be short if we needed to motor sail against the wind in such big seas all the way to Darwin. We continued, punching into the headwinds, and by Day 3 we were within 20 miles from the coastline of Java. As we neared land we noticed a distinct improvement in the swell and wind strength, but we still had to zigzag on long tacks in and out from the coast across our rhumb line in order to make headway eastwards.
We began to see a daily pattern emerge in the weather. Strong winds in the morning easing slightly during the afternoon before picking up again to stormy conditions each night.
By Day 5, this constant fighting to sail into the wind had pulled a long stretch of the sail track off the mizzen mast about 9ft up and we were forced to drop the entire sail before it could work loose completely and do more damage. Luckily, the sail dropped out from the broken section so Frank could secure it around the boom, and then we continued motor sailing with one reef in the foresail at about 5 knots with a bonus 1.5 knot current boosting our speed.
With over a thousand miles to go to Darwin, we knew that we needed to find a quiet anchorage where Frank could climb the mast and re attach the sail track so that we could hoist our mainsail again to have sail power. The most obvious location was 225 miles away at the bottom of Lombok Island which we knew well from spending 5 months there back in 2018. We still had all our saved routes through the narrow passages between the small islands so we could negotiate the area, even at night.
We were well aware of the notorious reputation of the Lombok Strait which is the main artery for the Indonesian Throughflow (ITF) and boasts some of the strongest tidal flows on earth due to the stretch of water being one of the main throughflows between the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
Between the neighboring islands of Nusa Penida and Lombok is an underwater sill 200 metres down that plummets to 4000m to the south.
When varying water densities, opposing currents, underwater and tidal flow all converge, the result can be a maelstrom of standing waves and between 3.5 to 8 knots of current are not uncommon to create a disturbance that is visible from space.
Depending on the phase of the moon and monsoon strength, these fierce currents are south setting almost all the year round. However north setting counter currents are frequently found close inshore off the coastlines of Nusa Penida and Lombok and we had experienced this first hand when we had circumnavigated Lombok during our stay there several years before. It had allowed us to motor peacefully close to the rocky shoreline whilst a vicious current further out created disturbed waters and short steep waves clearly visible from our location.
After passing Bali on Sunday May 10th, we hoped that by staying close to the shoreline of the nearby island of Nusa Penida, we would have the benefit of this counter current. Also, Frank’s tide charts showed that we should reach the gap between Nusa Penida and Lombok at its narrowest point of 12 miles across just as the northern tidal flow was reversing. As we approached, we watched with interest a number of freighters and container ships that made a big sweeping ark to the far south of Lombok before very slowly heading up the centre of the channel between the two islands.
We were too naïve for our own good. We approached the southern tip of Nusa Penida just on dusk, and our over the ground speed slowly started rising from 4 to 6 then 8 knots. Frank looked pretty happy and commented that we must have timed our crossing well to coordinate with the countercurrent until the tide would turn and hopefully help us.
As we cleared the point to head across the open channel our speed escalated rapidly. 9,10, up to 11.6 knots. Wow, this was crazy! Then all of a sudden, the yacht made a sudden jerk as we hit an undercurrent vortex that spun the boat violently around and pushed us in the totally opposite direction.
It was a bizarre experience. The bow of ‘Stars End 2’ was still pointing on course across the Lombok Strait, but the GPS showed that we were being dragged backwards down the channel at a terrific rate of knots. Using all our engine power we had virtually no control over the yacht and didn’t stand a chance of fighting the current, so we soon realized we had no other option than to go with the flow of the water and head south west.
Now we understood the diversional tactics of the commercial vessels who must have shaken their heads in wonder at these daft unsuspecting yachties running the gauntlet. We continued slowly on an anti clockwise course for almost five miles, constantly trying to gain a little headway across the channel before we could start turning to the north as the tide started to change. This was when Frank discovered that the tide programme he was using was set to the wrong time zone and we were several hours out.
As night descended, we continued our steady progress up the channel against the constant 2 knot current until we had made sufficient headway northwards and wanted to turn towards Pandanan Point on Lombok Island. Once here, we would be in a protected area, out of the main current and could find somewhere safe nearby to anchor.
Perhaps we attempted to cross the main channel too early? I’m just glad that it was too dark to see clearly because ‘Stars End 2’ hit another convergence of undercurrents and was thrown around wildly for over 20 minutes in the turbulent water with standing waves that Frank felt were easily 3 metres high, until we breathed a sigh of relief as we rounded the point and it became calm.
It wasn’t until the early hours of the morning before we found a safe spot out of the way where we could anchor, and we spent several productive days in tranquil waters doing maintenance, running repairs and fixing up the damaged sail track.
Our satellite phone continued to give us grief with its erratic connection, but we were able to download our weather prediction programmes sufficiently to see that the winds across the bottom of Indonesia were going to be a problem. There was no ideal weather window to leave via the Lombok Strait over the next couple of weeks, and we spent hours checking out options. No matter which time frame we looked at, there were days of headwinds predicted up to 30 knots that would make our progress extremely uncomfortable and hard going.
On the other hand, despite the greater distance, the obvious safer route was up to the north of Lombok and across the top of the islands of Sumbawa, Flores and Alor where the predicted winds were significantly less. Rather than waiting around for better weather, or worse still, heading unwisely into adverse conditions, we could leave straight away and stay well offshore using the Archipelagic Sea Route that is open for all international vessels.
Once the decision was made, we no longer needed to procrastinate and left that same afternoon on Day 12 since leaving Christmas Island (May 16th).
Even if the seas were a bit choppier than we had expected, and we hit a few squalls, over the next couple of days we made good progress, staying about 20 miles offshore where the winds were mostly a consistent ESE 10-15 knots and we were lucky to have up to 11/2 knots of current in our favour.
On May 18th, our satellite phone decided to be temperamental again, just as we were nervously awaiting news of the safe arrival of our new granddaughter. Our son Paul’s message, sent hours earlier, wasn’t delivered until 2 pm by which time Frank and I were nervous wrecks, but we were relieved and thrilled to hear that although Mika had decided to arrive early before her scheduled caesarian section, that both baby and mum Jenny were doing well.
We had good runs of almost 140 miles over the next couple of days with an increase in wind and patchy rainstorms. The sea conditions were mild to moderate, but nothing compared to the horrendous winds that our weather prediction programmes showed the southern route we’d previously planned to take, was experiencing.
By May 20th, my journal shows that with the help of a consistent 2 knot current, we were sailing along at speeds of more than 7 knots, with frequent squalls when the wind would pick up for short bursts.
We had spent over 18 months sailing through Indonesia in 2017, and this trip from Lombok was quite nostalgic as we sailed past landmarks and distant islands we’d so enjoyed cruising.
However, we hadn’t sailed along this coastline of Alor before, with its densely forested highlands, and coastline broken by meandering creeks. Along with the secluded sandy beaches fringing much of the foreshores, it looked intriguing and under different circumstances, we would have loved to explore.
As we rounded the eastern point of Alor Island on a heading towards East Timor, Frank discovered a new sail problem. As a result of the constant motor sailing into the wind, several of the strappings that connect the sail slides to the top of the foresail had worn through and the sail was flapping loose. There was nothing to do but drop the sail, and as dusk fell, we made the decision to divert to Dilli to make repairs.
We drifted during the last couple of hours of darkness before making our way slowly to Dilli’s harbour entrance where we contacted port control by radio. After explaining that we didn’t wish to clear into East Timor, but simply stay on board our yacht whilst we fixed the sails, we were given permission to anchor near a few other yachts in the town basin. Shortly after, two maritime policemen came out in a small boat to ask for copies of our passports and ship papers. An hour or so later, an official boat arrived with the officers plus a Covid team in full PPE gear who took our temperatures and sprayed the railings, decks and cockpit of ‘Stars End 2’. We interestingly noted that they didn’t seem bothered to go inside the boat at all.
We also had a phone call from the Australian Federal Police representative in Dilli who wished to confirm our details and inform us he would pass on our particulars to the Australian Embassy in NT.
By mid morning, appreciative of our reprieve on a calm anchorage, the sail repairs were well underway. The crowded foreshores and bustling township intrigued us, but we had to make do with checking it all out just using our binoculars. Eric, a solo sailor from Madeira whose round the world voyage had ground to a halt when countries started closing their borders, had been here for many months, and he kayaked past for a quick chat and told us what a pleasant friendly place Dilli had been for him to be stuck in.
We checked the various weather prediction programmes which all showed a similar pattern of consistent 18-28 knot ESE and SE winds over the next week, so we knew we would need to fight yet more headwinds, However, an email from our weather friend Des suggested we leave Dilli first thing next morning in order to make the crossing to Darwin from the northern tip of East Timor 96 miles away on Sunday 24th. Since we were on the last 460 mile leg of our long passage home, we felt such a rush of anticipation and excitement, we were happy to be on our way and hope that Des had more accurate weather files than us.
So we left Dilli the next morning and with 16-18 knot ESE winds right on the nose, we tacked back and forth all day along the rugged coastline, making very poor progress. The confused seas made sailing uncomfortable particularly when we tacked further out from shore, and at dawn next morning, we made the decision to anchor off the rocky shoreline a mile or so from the northern tip rather than keep going.
Once we checked the GRIB files we were pleased we had done so, as the winds that day were stronger than initially predicted and we had bullets of wind tearing around the point of the island. It felt much more sensible to rest, then head out to sea later that afternoon when the winds were forecast to progressively ease over the next couple of days.
Frank took a nap and under just triple reefed foresail, we slipped out of the protection of the headland at 2.30pm. It wasn’t too bad whilst we hugged the coastline, but once we sailed past Jaco Island, on the northern tip of East Timor at dusk, the winds were gusting 26-28 knots and the seas became very confused. Stars End handled the conditions sluggishly and it felt like being in a washing machine as she punched into the sharp short 3 metre swells at 3-4 knots, that slowed us even more.
It was not pleasant sailing, but we persisted and over the next day or so, the conditions gradually improved so we were able to shake out some of the reefs which helped our stability, as well as our speed. I spent most of my off shift hours lying in the berth daydreaming about how excited I was to be at the end of such a long trip.
When an Australian Border Force aircraft flew over and radioed us requesting our details and ETA into Darwin, it brought home the thrilling reality that we were almost back on home soil.
As I came onto my watch before dawn on Wednesday 27th May, I could see the distant glow from the lights of Darwin city.
All too soon, we were entering the leads into Darwin Harbour and a series of pings alerted us that we had come into Australian internet connection. After contacting Port Control, Border Force, and the lockmaster, we phoned each of our children. I was beside myself with excitement, and so emotional to hear their voices after so long and know we had finally reached Darwin.
We tied up to the Cullen Bay wharf by 9am and received a steady stream of officials who proficiently helped us work through all the paperwork to clear us back into Australia. We were impressed at the friendly helpful manner of the officers but did feel that our constant communication over the past weeks prior to arriving had helped the process run smoothly and efficiently. It was quite ironic that the officials were all wearing masks and kept their distance from us and yet we were the ones who were at more risk from them having been in total isolation for the past 10 weeks.
Yes, I must admit it. As we tied up to the wharf, I hopped off the yacht, fell to my knees and kissed the ground. I had never been so happy to finally be standing on land again.
I had checked out marinas in Darwin back in March when we first decided to leave India. I had made enquiries about a berth vacancy in the Tipperary Waters Marina with Dani, the lockmaster, so that we could be assured of a safe location to moor ‘Stars End 2’ once we arrived back. Over the next 3 months we had stayed in touch as I kept her up to date with our progress and once we arrived at Christmas Island, Dani helped us by working closely with the authorities in Darwin to facilitate our arrival in NT.
Frank and I were given permission to stay in isolation on board our yacht at Cullen Bay overnight whilst the biosecurity treatment sat for the mandatory 10 hours in all our through-hull salt water outlets. The police were so friendly when they popped back to check up on us, and asked if they could pick us up any food. When Frank said he hankered after a pizza, the officer set it up so that the local Domino Pizza agreed to drop off the pizzas on to the wharf in front of Stars End after we left the correct money in a bag . Boy, did we enjoy the indulgence of greasy fast food.
Early next morning, at high tide, we motored a few miles downstream and through the lock entrance into Tipperary marina where the NT police waited to escort us to our hotel for our compulsory two week quarantine.
They had been most apologetic about this regulation, especially in view of our 10 week isolation, but explained how the authorities had only changed the ability to self isolate anchored on board a vessel after some foolhardy sailors were caught breaking quarantine with nightly visits onshore to the pub.
As it was, we thoroughly enjoyed our two weeks languishing in our waterfront apartment at the Ramada Zen Suites Hotel. Frank slept for up to 18 hours a day for the first few days and admitted that he’d never been in a situation where he had not needed to feel guilty doing absolutely nothing all day!
Dani and the liveaboards at Tipperary Marina had sent us into quarantine with the most generous gift of a magnificent hamper full of amazing treats that kept us indulged in treats for our entire stay.
At the Ramada Hotel we had a lovely modern one bedroomed apartment, with a sitting and dining area, bedroom and bathroom, kitchen, washing machine and a large balcony overlooking the water.
We had three meals delivered to our room each day. Breakfast was cooked in the hotel restaurant and became our most enjoyable meal of the day. We rang our order down to the kitchen each morning, and the lovely Lily would encourage us with suggestions and then place extra little treats on our tray. Lunch was always a pre ordered meal in a takeaway container that could be heated up in the apartment microwave. There was a choice of meat, fish and veggie alternatives- pretty healthy options and salads produced by a catering company. It wasn’t too bad although it became a bit monotonous after a while and we found that we didn’t always get our chosen meal.
Dinner for 5 days a week was a limited choice menu of more than a dozen meals that was cooked in the hotel and was not too bad although we tended to stick to the same few meals. Frank particularly enjoyed the steak meal that was on the menu for $32 normal cost, and he had this every few days as he said it was very good. I preferred the fish and chips, schnitzel or BBQ ribs. The meals and quality seemed to vary as if there were different chefs with varying skills and the kitchen had days off on Sunday and Mondays when we were given more of the catering packs. There was a daily desert although we always opted for the Magnum ice cream that we kept in the freezer and often ate during the hot days.
You could order alcohol but at expensive hotel prices, so we were lucky that we had brought our own supplies with us. Having said that, we ran out! (There wasn’t THAT much to do each day, and we so looked forward to our sundowner drinks, and sometimes afternoon drinks too lol)
Thankfully, friends from home in Brisbane, Deb & John Caulfield, who had become stuck up in Darwin during Covid-19 whilst caravanning in NT, were gracious enough to drop off some extra supplies to the hotel reception for us!
Not used to watching television on board, we thoroughly enjoyed at least one or two Netflix movies a day, and having reliable internet for the first time in 10 weeks, we managed to catch up with most of our friends and family across the globe during our stay, averaging at least two video calls a day. There was also a great deal of emails to catch up on and business to take care of, so we spent time each day online.
We had no key card to the room, since we were not permitted to leave the apartment for the entire two weeks, but housekeeping were only too happy to drop off fresh linen and towels or cleaning products, and we were required to leave the soiled items and our garbage in sealed bags each day in the corridor to be picked up at certain times. There was a chair placed in the hallway outside each quarantine apartment (for trays or items to be left) so you could always see how many were in lockdown, and we found out that the top three floors were mainly given to us quarantine guests. Housekeeping staff chatted to us (from a discreet distance in the hallway) and put us in touch with another yachtie couple who were staying the next floor up. We had a number of long phone chats with Claudia and Craig from SV ‘Gallivant’, comparing sailing experiences getting back to Australia from overseas during Covid-19, and could wave to them from our balcony.
So we now had time to review everything we had been through on our epic adventure.
Frank and I both agreed that we had not been deterred by sailing long distances over many days, as most sailors will agree that after a few nights at sea, you settle into a comfortable pattern where you feel you could continue indefinitely. No, we both felt that the hardest part of our 71 day voyage back to Australia of 4,300 miles, was the inability to pull into a safe anchorage along the way, to break up the journey or wait out bad weather, as we had done pre Covid. It was knowing that countries had closed their borders and no longer welcomed cruising boats as before. We have friends who have been through some dreadful experiences, turned away from ports, naval boats nearly ramming them and guns pointed at them.
The difficulties and bureaucracy of entering places and countries had been exacerbated by constantly changing rules and regulations which could only be attributed to the unprecedented onset and spread of this world pandemic.
We are very happy with our decision to sail back to Australia.
Later, we’d love to cruise overseas again, but for now, we plan to see more of our own magnificent country, starting in September as Frank and I sail ‘Stars End 2’ back from Darwin to Brisbane.