Saturday, June 29, 2013

Cape York and the Gulf of Carpentaria

The high-pressure systems persist over southern Australia which generate reinforced trade winds to the Queensland coast. For weeks now, we have seen steady 20-25 knots of southeast wind which pushes Rutea along at hull speed. Our last stop on the east coast of Queensland was in the Escape River, which has to be navigated carefully due to the pearl farms and their many partially submerged rafts, none of which are lit. Regardless, we had a comfortable night's stay and our timing for the tide to take us through the Albany Channel was going to make our departure from there at a civilized 0700. Under a full main alone, we made our way towards the south end of Albany Island which sits just .2 nautical miles off the Queensland coast. For some reason, we all had our anxieties about making the transit as it's reputation is dreaded. The tidal current was just about at full strength as we approached the channel and wa spotted nasty rip just off the port bow with waves being whipped up in a battle between current and wind. But as we entered the 2-mile long channel, the water flattened to mill pond-like conditions and even though the wind blew at 25 knots, it felt eerily calm. Soon we were making 11 knots in some of the calmest water we had seen in a long time.

It didn't last too long though and as we were spat out the north end of the Albany Channel, there sat the very tip of Cape York, the most northeastern land in Australia. There appeared to be a group of tourist gathered on the tip although there's not much to see, its more of a place to be due to it's unique geological location. Two small islands sit just off the tip and there's foul passage between Cape York and the islands so we continued a little further north before making a sharp left turn to the west. It didn't take long before we were heading south again, leaving Possession Island to port and dropping the anchor off the Aboriginal village of Seisha.

Australia's treatment of the native Aboriginal was probably no worse and was certainly no better than that of any European country that was part of the Age of Discovery. Wholesale genocide took place, decimating a people who had learned to live in harmony with the fierce conditions; murders of Aboriginals went without prosecution or, in many cases, without investigation. Their land was taken from them by force and the native peoples relocated to the most remote parts of the country. Seisha was a different part of Australia for us and it felt like we were in a remote, Third World, Pacific island rather than a leading First World country. The small grocery store had heavy steel bars over the windows and the prices of everything inside were stratospheric. Smoke from burning trash drifted up through the trees. People seemed to move slowly. On the other hand, the local holiday park was busy with travelers from all over Australia and the small restaurant there served up an excellent portion of fish and chips.

We left at mid-morning at the end of the ebb tide and entered the Endeavor Straits, missing the famous Torres Straits by about 40 miles and being within 80 miles of Papua New Guinea. With 15 knots of breeze and a strong current, Rutea's speedometer continuously hit 10 knots but by late afternoon the wind died to less than 5 knots and we had to put the engine on. However, that only lasted for about 4 hours and soon we had a decent breeze again and were able to sail the rest of the 350 miles across the Gulf of Carpentaria, dropping anchor in Two Islands Bay on Marchinbar Island, 52 hours after we left Seisha. A fleet of seven other boats joined us and within a few hours, everyone was anchored in the well-protected anchorage. All in all, it was one of our best passages ever. It feels intensely remote here with the island uninhabited except for lots of crocodiles - so many that no one is willing to go ashore to explore the wide sandy beach. Last night we hosted a cocktail party on board Rutea for everyone in our fleet and Corie put her best sushi making talents to good use by taking advantage of a freshly-caught tuna that our friends on the Malo 36, Norsa, gave to us. She must have made 200 pieces of sushi which were hoovered by our 14 guests.

There's another Strong Wind Warning in effect for our area for today and tomorrow but we think we'll head further south on the island tomorrow, regardless. We still have almost 400 miles to go before we get to Darwin. To all of our Canadian friends, Happy Canada Day!
At 6/29/2013 9:46 PM (utc) Rutea's position was 11°04.51'S 136°43.74'E

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Monday, June 17, 2013

Cairns Northward

My excuse for not making more frequent posts to our blog is that we have had sporadic internet access although this is only partly true. Our first day out from Cairns had us in 25-30 knots of southeast winds and it took us almost no time to make it up to the Low Islets. We were happy to grab a free public mooring for a couple of nights and the reef provided pretty good protection from the whipped-up seas at low tide. Once the tide rose, however, it became more uncomfortable although its hard to get really comfortable when its blowing that hard regardless of the sea conditions. There was some very good snorkeling to be had on the reef right by the boat and charter boats brought loads of tourists in from Port Douglas daily - they were very easy to spot once they were in the water as they often used the brightly-colored Styrofoam 'noodles' to help keep them afloat. We would snigger impolitely at them.

Our next port of call was Hope Island, a small dot inside the Great Barrier Reef that was surrounded by reefs. Some friends had given us the coordinates to maneuver into the anchorage but somehow we missed them and wound up having to pick our way in amongst the huge coral heads with Corie on the bow giving directions to me at the helm. Although we didn't hit anything, our friends on Nicone were anxious because of our proximity to the underwater dangers. They took pictures of us. The signs on shore warned of crocodiles so we didn't go in the water but Corie said the snorkeling wouldn't have been that great after she stuck her head in the water from the dinghy. Still the wind howled all night and at dawn we cast off from the mooring, following our friends on Garamar out through the reef.

After an uneventful and uninteresting overnight stop at Cape Flattery, we made our way to Lizard Island, so named by Lieutenant Cook (who was later promoted to captain) because of all the lizards on shore. There are a lot of lizards on shore still but the spectacular clear water, the wide sandy beach and the calm anchorage will be in our memories forever. The reef just off our beam offered world-class snorkeling with huge schools of tropical fish and a crop of giant clams, with their thick, fleshy and deeply-colored lips - measuring a meter across or more - that was nothing short of breath-taking. A good-sized fleet of cruising sailboats had filled the large anchorage and we knew most of them. At 4:30 every afternoon, people would pile into their dinghies, head for the beach and enjoy 'sundowners' together. True to form, Corie made friends with the people on the largest yacht in the fleet who later took her out diving. Be sure to check out her blog - there's a link to it at the top. Our timing to climb to the top of the island - Cook's Lookout - was perfect as the sky was clear and we probably had 30 kilometers or more of visibility.

It was very hard to tear ourselves away from Lizard Island but we still have quite a distance to go before we can make it around Cape York - the massive finger of land that creates the Torres Straits and the Gulf of Carpentaria. Our sail to Ninian Bay was fast and fun, covering the 60-some-odd miles in 9 hours - under genoa alone. On the way we were buzzed by a twin-engine airplane that later called us on the VHF radio and identified themselves as the Australian Customs Maritime. They wanted to know where we had been and where we were going, our home port, etc. After a polite chat, they signed off with the ubiquitous Australian word that is included in virtually every conversation: "Cheers!" As we closed in on the Queensland coast, Ruthie took a call from an Australian war ship that was steaming southward at a good clip. Apparently, they were concerned that we were going to pass each other starboard-to-starboard instead of the preferred port-to-port, even though we were almost a mile apart. The call made us giggle.

We have just rounded Cape Melville, a promitory that's similar to California's Point Conception in terms of size and the wind it can generate, however, we never saw more than 25 knots of wind and it died completely after our left turn brought us into it's lee. Tonight we'll anchor in the Owen's Channel, in between Flinders Island and Stanley Island. Our friends on Melina have already invited us over for a beer.
At 6/17/2013 7:00 AM (utc) Rutea's position was 14°21.14'S 144°35.77'E

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Friday, June 7, 2013

Leaving Cairns

The Esplanade

It was our intent to stay in Cairns for a week which was supposed to be sufficient time to provision, make some repairs and do some sightseeing. (loud buzzer sound plays here).  Not only did we not take into account that everything on a boat takes twice as long as estimated but we had failed to factor in the time spent visiting old friends and making new ones.  Our one-week stay stretched into two weeks and even then we were scrambling to fit everything in.


Cairns was in the midst of preparing for the Iron Man Triathlon and was luring visitors in from all over the world.  Paul Allen’s 126-meter mega-yacht, Octopus, showed up and dwarfed all other yachts at the marina.  Barriers and fences were sprouting all around the lovely Esplanade, transforming it from a verdant and luxurious park into something that looked more like maze for frustrating rats.

Royal Spoonbill Platalea regia
 All the local residents and visitors notwithstanding, wildlife abounds in and around Cairns.  There, on the mud flats just opposite the head of the dock we were on (right next to the heli-pad), Ruthie spied a rare Jabiru, a 2-meter stork with a massive black bill and an extended black neck but the bird had flown by the time Ruthie got back with her camera.  The juvenile Jabiru leaps in exuberant play and is the frequent subject in Aboriginal art.

Warning about Crocodiles
 We left Cairns just as the buzz of activity was reaching a crescendo.  Yachts from all over the world were arriving, many on a similar route as Rutea.  The cruising clock is ticking and the best time to make passages to either Southeast Asia or South Africa is rapidly approaching.  Even though most of northern Queensland has been under a High Wind Warning, we continue to make our passages north, taking 25-30 knots of wind right up our, well, umm, er, ah,  . . .