By the time we had completed our epic voyage from India to Darwin, I was so ‘over’ headwind sailing that I wasn’t even sure whether I wanted to continue cruising on Stars End 2. In 40 years of sailing, it was the first time I had ever felt this way.
After our mandatory hotel quarantine in Darwin we flew back to Brisbane in early June. Covid-19 rules were no longer quite so stringent as in previous months, but most people we knew were still behaving responsibly by avoiding social gatherings or unnecessary outings. A number of our close friends with health issues, that placed them at more serious risk, wisely chose to self isolate, and so Frank and I found ourselves relishing quality family time staying at either of our two sons and their families homes, plus the occasional catchup with friends. It was especially precious bonding with our 4yr old grandsons Arnold and Max, and meeting our newest little granddaughter Mika born 10 days before we reached Australia. We were all so grateful for her safe arrival after such a difficult pregnancy and Mika enchanted us with her cute looks and placid temperament. We were thrilled that Avery and Chantelle also drove up from Coffs Harbour with their two littlies, Wilder (3yrs) and Remy (16months) for a great family reunion just before hotspot outbreaks in NSW made Qld close its borders and cut short our plan to drive down to stay with them several weeks later. Hotspots started breaking out in several Qld areas, restricting travel and we became nervous that soon it might impact our ability to get back to Stars End 2.
In July, Frank and I were devastated when cruising friends Del and Craig McEwan were lost after their catamaran ‘Ohana-Uli’ sank in a storm on route from Tanzania to the Seychelles and rescue attempts failed to save their lives. This shocking loss, too close to home, made us question our priorities and impacted our decision to bring the yacht back to Brisbane, where we could live on board and be closer to our family.
Despite all my previous doubts, as soon as Frank started discussing the dynamics of bringing SE2 home, I couldn’t begin to entertain the idea of him finding crew or sailing the long trip home without me. We’d been a team for so long and I knew I would worry as much about him if I wasn’t there than if I was with him having to endure more of those blasted headwinds we both dislike so much.
With time up our sleeve before the weather was more favourable to sail across the top of Northern Territory, we chose to fly to Cairns, pick up a rental campervan and spend 3 weeks driving across far north Queensland to Darwin in NT. It was the first time Frank and I had ever done something like this- a land adventure for a change, and we thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
The campervan was set up with bed, toilet, shower, fridge and cooking facilities. Longtime yachties, Frank and I were accustomed to being economical with water and power, so we were able to avoid going into caravan parks as much as possible ( to plug into power), preferring to find peaceful rest stops in bushland off to the side of the road or if we were lucky, near a waterhole or lagoon. We stopped along the way to wander around some of the quaint outback towns, visited historical museums and took time to sightsee some amazing locations like Cobbald and Katherine Gorge, Lawn Hill, the Bitter Springs at Mataranka, and the Litchfield National Park. Being the end of the dry season, none of the creeks or river beds carried any water but we heard many stories of how the monsoonal rains transformed the landscape. For us, dusk and dawn parked in the rugged outback amongst bush and termite mounds or somewhere like Leichhardt Lagoon, watching the prolific bird and animal life gave us a true appreciation of the beauty, and size of this vast country and was simply food for the soul.
We ate up the miles on the main roads but trying to reach some more out of the way locations found us driving along unmade roads of vibrant red earth with deep corrugations that rattled our bodies and the van for bone crunching hours on end.
We drove almost 2,000 kms and arrived back to the marina at Darwin with a few days spare so we could use the van to dash around picking up boat requirements & provisions to prepare SE2 for her long journey back to Brisbane.
It was almost two weeks before the list of boat chores was complete and we could look for a decent weather window to depart.
My friend Ann-Maree in Scarborough had messaged me to ask if she could put her sister in law Glenice and partner John in touch with Frank and I, since they were also leaving Darwin shortly on their boat to make the trip back down the east coast of Australia, and might appreciate some support as they hadn’t a great deal of sailing experience.
Frank and I were more than happy to get together but explained to Glenice and John when we met, that this trip would be a challenge for us too, punching into trade winds right across the Northern Territory, which was a completely new sailing area we’d never explored. It wouldn’t be until we reached below Cairns in Qld further into the cyclone season (November onwards) that we could hope for some north easterly winds to help us sail down the east coast of Australia.
We parted ways agreeing we’d probably see them along the way.
It was pure coincidence that our paths crossed again the first afternoon we both chose to set sail from Darwin. John and Glenice are a great couple, and over the next week, we made the same hops and stops at various anchorages and quickly
settled into a comfortable pattern of buddy sailing, both enjoying the company and support of sharing this adventure together. Te r’ai Moana is a sleek 56ft Fontaine Peugeot catamaran and whilst she can beat us hands down sailing in brisk conditions, SE2 has the advantage when motor sailing at a tighter angle pointing hard in the wind, ( which has admittedly been much of the time so far since leaving Darwin) so we generally end up not too far apart at the end of the day. Whilst fighting our way across the top of NT, a pattern emerged where by the south easterly trade winds would start off fairly benign early in the morning but would gradually increase to around 30 knots by midday. Punching into such strong headwinds is uncomfortable and a strain on sails and equipment, not to mention our patience. It took several days of struggling to cope with these conditions before we developed the smarter strategy to leave our night’s anchorage at daybreak and try to sail for at least six hours to make the next stop before winds had picked up too much. Sailing for a limited period each day made for slower progress, and some days were a real struggle tacking back and forth punching into choppy seas and strong head winds, plus also trying to take advantage of the fierce currents along this coastline.
There were lay days too when the conditions were too bad or we just needed to take a break. John is a keen fisherman and had purchased a large tinny specifically for the NT conditions so he was game to venture down crocodile infested creeks for a spot of fishing. Our less successful attempts at fishing were more than compensated by John (and Glenice’s) prowess, so we all enjoyed some great seafood meals as well as some fun exploration trips around our anchorages. The landscape we explored looked surreal and it felt such an ancient land. Craggy shorelines were riddled with crumbling layers of sandstone bordering arid scrub and stumpy gnarled trees stretching back as far as the eye could see. It felt almost like another planet it was so quiet and deserted. Puttering down rivers and tributaries, the murky waters stirred up by winds and currents, made us nervous of unseen crocodiles lurking beneath their depths or hiding in thick impenetrable fringes of mangroves. Some bays were protected by tall cliffs of deep red earth clinging steadfastly to the roots of age old trees leaning over balanced at precarious angles as wind and water eroded and threatened their future. Amongst the muddy reaches of these bays, we saw dolphins and dugongs, reef sharks and turtles. Creeks that ran into the water at high tide held trapped shoals of fish or stingrays.
If it was a swampy creek bordered by trees or mangroves, we sometimes found noisy bat colonies or tracks of resident crocs. Then we moved on swiftly. We found plenty of sandy beaches to stretch our legs after long days of sailing. Thankfully, there was far less rubbish than we’d found in Asia but some beaches were scattered with mooring buoys from nearby pearl farms and the inevitable fishing nets and washed up rubbish that made for good fossicking. We were not game to go swimming very much after seeing crocodiles in the water or their recent track marks on beaches, especially leading from swampy creeks feeding into the ocean. Occasionally we anchored off a bay with stunning clear water and after walking from one end of the beach to the other, felt safe enough to splash in the shallows. We would have loved to explore this coastline far more. There were so many fjord-like inlets, tributaries, islands and places to discover. Other than our satellite phone, which we kept mainly for passing our position reports to family, we had virtually no communication with the outside world for many weeks as there were scarcely any mobile phone towers, the terrain being too rugged and remote for development other than the odd fishing resort, indigenous community or rangers station. Stars End 2 and T’erai Moana went through some pretty rugged sea conditions in the shallow waters across the top of NT over the month it took to sail 620 miles from Darwin but the run around Cape Wilberforce before heading into Gove Frank maintains was probably the roughest waters we’ve ever experienced.
Aware that the channel carries a bad reputation for standing waves due to the strong current that rips through, often at conflict with the winds, both Stars End 2 and T’erai Moana got absolutely hammered by up to 5 metre waves being thrown across our decks in confused cross swells. Thankfully, we passed through the channel within a couple of hours and the conditions steadily eased.
Arriving into the anchorage at Gove (Nhullanbuy it’s indigenous name), we recognised a number of boats we knew from Darwin, who like us, were here to wait patiently for the right weather window to cross the Gulf of Carpenteria.Thanks to our friends David and Cate Fisher, whom we had met in 2015 whilst both cruising Fiji, and who now lived here with their young children Henry and Aggie, we managed to explore a lot of the area around Nhulunbuy over the next two weeks, plus enjoyed catching up with yachtie friends on the beach for sundowners or scrumptious meals at the Gove Boat Club.
Nhullanbuy was a busy port and had a large bauxite mine that was slowly being closed down but there were still quite a large number of fly in fly out workers in mining & government positions. Being so far off the beaten track ( Katherine was the nearest township over 600m away by dirt road), the town still offered most facilities and the indigenous communities here were protected from many of the trappings of larger cities. There were many cooperatives and indigenous projects running and a highlight was visiting Baku, the indigenous Art and Craft Centre which displayed some amazing works.
It was a wonderful break in Nhullanbuy, but as soon as we saw a weather window appear across the Gulf, on October 8th, we were part of an exodus of about 8 boats to take advantage of this opportunity. Over the 3 night passage, we became separated from our friends on Moana and used our daily VH radio skeds to keep track of one another. We were relieved to have an unusually calm trip, needing to motor sail the entire way due to such light winds, but our complacency was paid back in full when we got hit with an unexpectedly strong front that took us by surprise on our 3rd night when we were less than 10 miles from the shallow narrow passages of the western Endeavour Straits. We reefed down our full sails in the 25knot gusts and rather than tackle an unknown area in such rough conditions, we detoured 10 miles into the protection of the headland for a few hours rest. We continued on to Seisia next morning and over the next couple of days, several other boats sailed in, with lively tales of the strong winds that were the sting in the tail of an otherwise calm trip. Seisia is a lovely small community 18 miles from the top of Cape York Peninsula with Horn Island visible across the water. The clear waters are surrounded by many small islands, long sandy beaches, great fishing grounds and reputedly many crocodiles. We enjoyed a couple of nights here catching up with the other sailors, and treating ourselves to fabulous pizzas from the local caravan park cafe. On our last night we joined Glenice and John to watch their opposing teams fight it out in the AFL finals on a big screen at the Seisia Fishing Club. A first ever for me watching a full game of football. It was a fun night but I don’t think I’ll start barracking for a team anytime soon.
Next morning we left at daybreak to make the most of another good window of weather. The relentless south easterly trade winds were easing sufficiently to allow us to sail around the Cape York Peninsula, through the Albany Strait and start the long trek down the east coast of Australia. At 15-20 knot winds, we still needed to tack our way down the coast over the next few days but as we watched our friends’ boats head off in different directions, we continued in company of our sailing buddies on Terai Moana and anchored each night in some stunning locations that we would have loved to investigate more had time allowed.
The coastline was very different now with impressive cliffs bordering vast stretches of white sandy beaches often fringed by headlands of rounded boulders resembling massive grey marbles. Promontories jutted out into the choppy waters for miles belying the treacherous submerged reefs lurking beneath their shallow depths. We still had to tack in a zig zag motion each day trying to make the most of the winds but also to wend our way between the many reefs, islands and commercial boats using the shipping channels.
Our luck with milder conditions lasted less than a week after leaving Seisia before an impending strong front had us running for cover.
Both SE2 & Moana did an overnight run to reach the Flinders group of islands to the east of Princess Charlotte Bay. Arriving at 2.30 am we opted to anchor in Stokes Bay on Stanley Island rather than try to head in the dark to the more popular anchorage in the Owen Channel between the two main islands.
We enjoyed such a comfortable night here despite the winds, that we decided to stay on here for the blow.
Over the next 5 days we had winds of 25- 33knots, but we still enjoyed our enforced break very much. We swam most days on the beach at high tide ( having done our safety check for croc alert), and helped John celebrate his 65th birthday on Nov 3rd with drinks and dinner on board Moana. This happened to be the windiest day at anchor and Frank and I had a scary moment when the outboard stopped several times as we headed home. Our smaller 2.5hp outboard we were using had become clogged up due to the dinghy’s pitching motion behind Moana in the 25+ knot winds and after it stopped a third time, Frank took out the oars and we both paddled hard against the wind back to the yacht before we ended up out at sea!
(Note- John and Glenice saw our dilemma and John was already launching his dinghy when I radio’d to say we had got back safely! The outboard had a full service next day and is now working fine.)
Another highlight of our time at Flinders was the visit to the indigenous cave drawings. We went with John and Glenice in their dinghy several miles around to the northern end of the Owen Channel and walked across the island to the beach on the south side of Stanley Island (exposed to the full force of the wind) where the artwork was up in the cliffs behind. It was very moving to see the ancient drawings depicting the life and times of the Yithuwarra tribe who lived in these islands.
The strong winds picked up during the day, so by the time we motored back down the channel between the two islands, it was only John’s skills as an experienced surfer that prevented the dinghy broaching in the scary swells.
On Nov 4th, once the winds had dissipated/eased enough, we headed off from the Flinders group along with ‘Moana’ and friends Claudia and Craig on board ‘Gallivant’. The weather prediction apps showed that we only had a few days of milder winds before those persistent south easterly trade winds were set to blow in again. We pushed to reach Lizard Island within 2 days and as we approached the tall peaked island, we counted 16 boats already at anchor and were pleased to see we’d caught up with several of the ‘old crowd’ from Nhullanbuy. The waters in this National Park are a clear turquoise blue and being a protected marine park, the black tipped sharks, super sized GT and schools of trevally felt confident hanging around our boats hopeful for any scraps. They were far too prolific, large and over friendly for me to feel comfortable to go swimming from the yacht, but with Glenice and John, we spent the next day before the blow hit circumnavigating the island and snorkeling in many different locations around Lizard island and the lagoon. The last 2 cyclones had left some massive damage to the reefs around Lizard Island, but we managed to find some pretty good spots with colourful corals and plenty of fish. Once the strong winds started blowing, we we didn’t venture far from the yacht. Internet was not really available unless you were prepared to climb a steep rocky hill for 20 mins to get reception, but even that wasn’t guaranteed. We joined our friends ashore on the beach for sundowner drinks several evenings, and I used a bore hand pump ashore to do some washing. Otherwise Frank did some boat maintenance and we read books. Oh and I wrote this blog!
The winds finally abated after almost a week so on our last day, Frank used his scuba gear to give the keel a good clean from barnacles and weed growth. He only saw one friendly shark with its remora in tow. With calmer weather we also enjoyed some more snorkeling around the north point of the island.
The weather files showed there was only a couple of days break before yet another blow descended upon this area, so it wasn’t surprising that when we left the anchorage at 5am on Nov 12th, there were 7 boats also joining us. In order to be clear of this next front, we needed to to be south of Cairns 130 miles away so we bypassed Cooktown and chose to push forward to Port Douglas over the next 2 days to refuel and re provision. The weather maps showed that once we reached Cairns, the relentless south easterly trade winds should dissipate, so we were keen to get to this area as soon as possible. After leaving Darwin, we’d had to wean ourselves from the constant need to have internet access on our mobile phones. After a few weeks, the lack of easy communication became a relief as we found ourselves reverting to use it for the purpose of clock, E book and camera. As we came closer to where ‘civilization’ began again, our internet reception returned albeit intermittently, teasing us by downloading messages but not the attached photos and videos, or allowing us to reply. After motor sailing over 1600 miles since Darwin, we now have another 1000+ miles left to reach Brisbane. We’re hoping for some north easterly winds to come in soon, the first following wind we’ll experience since before leaving India. We’re not putting pressure on ourselves by setting time schedules but are looking forward to relaxing more once we are clear of cyclone areas.
Many thanks to Glenice for allowing me to use some of her photos. After 11 weeks of sharing unforgettable adventures together from Darwin, Te R’ai Moana may soon find a temporary new home in a marina along the north Qld coast. We will miss our sailing buddies very much but know that the memories of all those amazing, fun, scary and stressful times will never be forgotten and we will hopefully catch up again before too long. A strong friendship has been forged from sharing such a challenging journey together.