Thursday, October 27, 2016

On Top of Oz!

So happy to see the Darwin skyline!
Well, here we are finally at the top of Australia in the capital of the Northern Territory: Darwin. We had been here back in April when we took the Ghan train to Alice Springs for our outback experience. Since we have visited most of the national parks in this area, we did not book any tours over the free weekend like many others who are here for the first time.

The chart makes it look impossible to get into the marina.
You must enter when the tide is at least 4 meters to get across
the mudflats and reefs and into the marina. Challenging!
Darwin is a small but relatively new city. It was completely leveled in 1974 by a cyclone. The entire downtown was rebuild and the roads were laid out so they could be widened for future growth. You can get to everything within 20 minutes as it is build along the waterfront of several bays and peninsulas.

Upon arrival in Darwin, we refueled in Cullen Bay Marina. I almost ran aground as I got confused with the marks in the water that were not on the chart. All is well. We were able to go directly to our slip in Tipperary Waters Marina since we arrived at high tide. That was an experience! When you look at the chart, there is no passage from the channel across the reef or mud flats to the entrance to the marina. It is all land!

Google Earth view of Tipperary Waters Marina at high tide.
Since you have to pass though a lock to get into the marina, we had to enter and leave when the tide was at a minimum of four meters. This is a small window for getting everyone in and out one boat at a time. The approach to the lock was tricky and the lock is very narrow with concrete sides and steel gates at each end.

The aft gate is closing before the water level can be raised.

Inside the lock with both gates closed. Up we go!

Jeff, the lockmaster and marina manager, is
giving us instructions. I felt so nervous.
Once inside the lock, we tied up port side to the wall and waited until the water filled and raised us up to the water level inside the marina. If there wasn't a lock, all of the water in the marina would drain out with the falling tide and boats would be on their sides! We were sitting in high water in the marina, overlooking mud flats that we had come across to get inside!

We were raised up to the level of the water
in the marina; then the forward gate opened
so I could drive us out and to the slip.

Forward gate closed; Dennis checking things.

The World ARC always has a number of social events including a Welcome Party. This was a good time to meet everyone again and connect names and faces. We were also invited to the Dinah Beach Yacht Club for an evening of cocktails and dinner. This is a very old establishment in Darwin. Actually, it is one of the few remaining buildings that survived the big cyclone that wiped out the entire city in 1974.

Sherry and Dennis with Hugh, our WARC leader.
This is a sailors' club. No dress code! Open air clubhouse. Good bar and a food truck type kitchen on the premises. We didn't need to worry about not being "dressed" for a yacht club. We met some very nice locals and shared cruising stories. Apparently, some of our gang had a good night on the dance floor, but we missed it. A good time was had by all!

We also attended a wine tasting event on the dock where we could order duty free wine to be delivered to the boat on our day of departure. It saved about 30% on taxes. Our next wine tasting with be in South Africa.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Anticipating the Challenge of the Torres Straits

Spinnaker pole rigged and ready to use as
we are expecting wind on the stern that will
die out on the westward part of the passage

There are several passages that we look forward to with trepidation. The Straits of Torres between Australia and Papua New Guinea is known for wild currents and tides and often heavy winds. It is also a main shipping channel with huge cargo ships to avoid. Stories have been told about the terrors of the Torres Strait.

We had been dreading this area. There is no avoiding it as it is the middle of the 2000 nm trip. Winds are often gale force strength, the currents are fast and changing in direction irregularly; and when the wind and currents are opposing one another, it can be a wild ride. If you hit the current at the wrong time, it can be a very slow ride. Once again, timing is everything!

Approaching the Albany Pass with Brizo ahead of us.
Well, lucky us! There was no wind and no waves and we got the current timing through the Albany Passage perfectly with the tide. We motored through a beautiful area where there were a number of bays that looked like lovely anchorages. Of course, I didn't check the chart for bottom conditions a we passed by. It was one of the prettiest place we have passed.

Calm conditions (actually flat water) continued all day and we entered the Torres Strait for our transit west. The large cargo ships use the "preferred route" on the chart that was several miles north of us. There is a southern passage called the Endeavor Strait. By taking the Endeavor Strait, we avoided the big ships. This passage has areas too shallow for the freighters. It took us on the south side of Prince of Wales Island. We were out of the strait and crossing the Gulf of Carpentaria, which is about 325 miles wide, before midnight.

Fears unfounded! No wind in the Torres Strait! Woo Hoo!
We did not stop at any of the islands in the strait as the bio security forces require you to check into Australia again. And that is a pain and you can't be sure they won't take all of your meats, fruits and vegetables away from you. Apparently, there is a problem with people bringing such items across the strait from Papua New Guinea to the islands. As long as we did not stop in that area, we were considered to still be in Australian waters.

Once we entered the Torres Straits we had to  continue motoring as there was no wind. So much for that worry! Actually, the passage was like a walk in the park. The WARC boats that went through last week had a different story.

We did a little wing and wing sailing, some motor sailing and some Iron Jenny sailing (just motor) for several days. The wind would pick up enough to sail from time to time, but when it died down, we fired up the engine. Again, timing the entrance into the Dundas Strait at the western end of the passage was important.

During the second afternoon, the dolphins came to play.

One relaxing afternoon - actually a boring afternoon of not moving too fast - we were invaded by dolphins! The came from both stern quarters of the boat for about 20 minutes straight! You could see them coming from a distance. It was like someone rang the dinner bell!

What a sight! They just kept coming like we were
having a dolphin convention or giving away a prize!
They were swimming and jumping out of the water in groups of 3-6 at a time. And they were really big ones. There could have been 150-200 of them. What I found interesting was that they didn't swim back and forth under the bow like most pods who come to play with the bow. These kept coming from the stern, swam next to us and went on ahead. They didn't chris-cross and play.

The show was spectacular and I got some video, put don't know how to put it into the blog. Maybe I can get it up on FaceBook.

Very stealth! This military ship did not appear on my
screen until he was practically on top of me. And note
the direction of his path line: 90 degrees to the boat!
During my night watch, Pat on Brizo called me on the radio and asked if I saw the warship following me. Apparently, it showed up on her screen at least 15 minutes before it showed on mine. She was a couple of miles to my port. I looked behind and I could see the lights in a distance. Shortly, it popped up on my chart plotter and there it was - very close! It made no radio contact with me and just went along at my speed for a while. Finally, it moved on ahead. Thankfully, they did not decide to board us in the dark!

Four of us found a nice anchorage in Alcaro Bay near Cape
Don to wait for the right current in the Dundas Strait.
The following day, we had a Border Patrol plane buzz so close it could have taken the wind instruments off the top of the mast if it had been overhead instead of off the starboard side. They were checking out our flag. Then it went ahead to the other three boats and called the one with the Australia flag. Katarina identified the four boats and said we were with the World ARC. Then they call us, but no one else. Later we heard them demanding another boat, not in our group, to respond. Well, if they didn't have their radio on, they were not going to be responding. The authorities got somewhat aggressive over the air, but we don't know what happened after that.

We saw this anchored near us in the morning
Traveling on these long passages with another boat is more enjoyable. We actually had a group of four as we caught up to Katarina and Into the Blue. Together, the skippers worked out a passage plan for the Dundas Strait and Howard Channel. The plan was to stop for some sleep at Smith Point just north of Port Essington. The first two boats would get there just at sunset. Brizo would arrive around 2300 and we would arrive at 0500 the following morning. The plan was to stay there until time to head to Dundas Strait.

Of course, this meant anchoring in the dark for us. Thankfully, the others were kind enough to leave their AIS on while they slept so we could find the anchorage and not get too close to them.

Timing the currents through the Dundas Strait and
Howard Channel are essential so as not to have a
strong current against you. And of course, we made
the passage in the dark in order to arrive in daylight.
The great minds of the skippers worked on Plans A, B and C. I think they all finally agreed on C, but two hours before departure, it was aborted and they moved to Plan D! Calculating tides and currents along with arrival times based on various boat speeds is not easy. New plan: have a day sail to Alcaro Bay near Cape Don, catch a meal and a nap before heading into Dundas Strait at 2000. So we had a very short sleep at Smith Point, but a beautiful day sail without engine to Alcaro Bay.

We are the smallest boat in the group at 48.5 feet! That means we are the slowest as well as we have a shorter waterline compared to the 52 and 55 foot boats. We announced that we would leave 30 minutes before the others and they could pass us later.

That never happened! We hit all of the currents exactly right and just flew threw the straits and channels at speeds of 8-10 knots. Later our sailing partners wondered what we were doing to stay so far ahead! Nothing, except getting it right! They never caught us and we were the first into Cullen Bay Marina for fuel.

As the Aussies say: Done and Dusted! Here is the path
we took. Trillium is the lighter blue track line.
So nice to have this passage behind us.
Cullen Bay is also the marina where boats go for the bio security sanitation process where they put a chemical in all of the raw water through holes. Brizo kindly tipped us off that they did not have to do that process because they had been on the hard in Mackay. Well, so had we! So I called bio security and got clearance straight into Tipperary Waters Marina. No bio security decontamination needed.

Because the tides can be 8 meters (over 24') here, the marinas have locks through which you enter. The bio security measure is to keep certain critters out of the marina waters since the only water movement is when the lock is opened to let a boat in and out. There is no regular tidal flushing in the marinas.

Next stop: Lombok, Indonesia next door to Bali. Then
to Christmas Island, Cocos Keeling, Mauritius,  Le Reunion
and South Africa by Thanksgiving. Cape Town for Christmas.

Monday, October 17, 2016

So Many Islands; So Little Time

Thigh burn!
As we left Cairns, we knew we only had two more rest stops before the infamous Strait of Torres. Timing our arrival at the Albany Passage to connect with the westward current in the strait was essential for a good passage. A couple of WARC boats had gone ahead of us by a week or so and had high winds and a rough passage. I was not looking forward to testing my new mal de mare preventative here!

Our British friends on Brizo left Cairns just as we were entering the harbor. They were headed to Cooktown which was not on our list. Our plan was to sail straight to Lizard Island. As a result, we caught up to Brizo there.

Mother Nature's stairway!
Lizard Island has one resort and a research center. The beach is beautiful and was free of crocodiles so there was the opportunity to snorkel. Sometimes I think Australia would be the best place to live for a number of reasons, but then I remember they are home to the ten most deadly creatures on the planet. So much beautiful water and so dangerous for swimming!

Sheila, Stuart and Rory climbed to the top of the hill where Captain Cook stood searching for a way out of the Great Barrier Reef. It was quite a challenging climb and Dennis, Pat and I declined the invitation to join them. While the view was beautiful from the top, they agreed it was not something for my hip to endure. Sheila took some spectacular photos that I am sharing here.

I am in awe of the sailing done by Captain Cook and others in this region of the world. And they didn't have the cartography we have. Actually, they we drawing charts as they explored! And those charts are amazingly accurate.

But I also cannot imagine standing in a crow's next on the mast of a tall ship trying to guide the helmsman through the few openings in the reefs. It is no wonder there were so many shipwrecks!

After a quick lunch on board, they all went snorkeling on the reef next to our boat. The reef was very healthy and they saw some giant clams.

We were invited for Sundowners on Brizo! Dennis and I took a dinghy ride over, but Sheila passed. Sheila is full of energy, but the climb took her down early! The good ole thigh burn got her! It is fun to sail with another boat. And Rory and Sheila could explore places we didn't care to go.

From Lizard Island on was mostly sailing with some motor sailing when the wind dropped too low to keep our minimum speed required to get to the Escape River before sundown. The Escape River on the south side of Turtle Head Island was a good resting point, except for trying to find a place to anchor that wasn't reef or pearl farm platforms. Even though the anchorage is in the wide open mouth of a river, it was quite comfortable.

Giant clams are hard to find. There were several here.
Apparently, a couple of earlier years' WARC boats had challenges going aground there. I could see why. In one moment we were in 9 meters of water and suddenly it was 2.2 meters of water and we had only moved a few feet. One must watch the swing of the boat when the tides turn to make sure you don't end up sitting (or laying on your side) on a reef at low tide. Not good for the boat or the reef!

After a good night's sleep, we were up and waiting for the tide to rise so we could cross the sandbar at the mouth of the river. As soon as we could clear the bar, we would continue straight to the Albany Passage to catch the northbound tide and hopefully arrive at the Torres Strait with the tide and wind in our favor. Any place where the water narrows, you will need to make sure you go with the flow. Otherwise, it can be very slow motoring against the tide. And a very bumpy ride!

Sunday, October 9, 2016

A Challenging Sail to Cairns

Entering Cairns Harbour after a wild day and night of
rain, high winds, and big swells.
Our final push will have no more sightseeing stops. We will sail overnight several nights and try to find an overnight anchorage in between overnight sails. Once we get up to the top of Australia's east coast near Cape York Peninsula, we will get a good night's sleep in the Escape River and time our passage through the Albany Passage based on the tides and currents. From there on, there is no stopping for 700 miles.

Cairns has a lovely waterfront full of parks, shops and
restaurants. It is the focal point of the city.
Leaving Magnetic Island at 5 AM in the dark, we followed our tracks out of Horseshoe Bay and began an overnight sail to Cairns. Originally, we had planned to bypass Cairns as we were told that it was just another seaside city. Then our friends on Brizo said they were having a great time in Cairns and a number of WARC boats were there, so off to Cairns it was.

Cairns was an interesting city. Even more interesting is its pronunciation. Americans would say: care-enz. In Australia, there are two pronunciations depending on the region from which one hails. One group says: cans; and the others say: canes. No one pronounces the R. I still don't know how to say it correctly.

We were seeing many large areas of a slimy orange-brown
scum floating on the ocean. We have seen it before in
smaller streaks. At first we thought it was discharge from
ships, but there is too much of it here. What is this stuff?
We are traveling with mostly Brits and Aussies right now. Although their accents and intonations vary, they can really understand each other when speaking fast. Our American ears have to listen carefully to get past the accents and if they are talking fast - forget it! It is especially challenging when on the VHF radio or SSB (single side band radio). I am sure they think I am deaf and dumb because I keep asking them to repeat.

Sorry, Charlie! Tuna surgeons at work!

Our visit to Cairns was great. The town rebuilt the waterfront and is the main area for entertainment. A couple of blocks inland you can find all the things you need and more restaurants. We rented a car and ran a number of errands and provisioned. I can't believe how much food we are consuming on this passage. Even I am eating as I seem to have the mal de mare pretty much under control.

I always appreciate a few meals out after cooking three meals a day in the galley. I get tired of seeing the food. We found a terrific little Thai seafood restaurant on the boardwalk and had a lunch and a dinner there. The huge prawns were out of this world. The whole gang met at the Irish pub for beers and dinner one night.  

We spent several hours in the dark with heavy winds, rain
and swells on the beam trying to get to a calm place in
the lea of Fitzroy Island just outside Darwin Harbour.
After two nights of fun, it was time to hit the track again. Getting into Cairns had been challenging as we had 30+ knots of wind and rain all day and night and finally rounded Fitzroy Island after midnight without a hint of moonlight. Again we followed the chart, we pick an anchor point but nearly snagged a buoy, which we realized at dawn marked the channel in. It was unlit! Moving off the buoy, we dropped anchor and got it set in the wind.

Had I gone another 100 yards, I would have kissed this
rock! So lucky we dropped anchor when we did! This is
why we don't like to anchor in the dark.
Then we realized we were a boat length away from a huge uncharted rock. I don't know why it isn't on the chart as it is as huge! We were lucky that we dropped when we did or it could have been a disaster in the making. In the morning, the dampness hung low and visibility was still stinky. We bounced our way to the Cairns shipping channel and into the marina. Leaving  Cairns was easier as it was a sunny day.

Monday, October 3, 2016

The Wonders of Magnetic Island

You know you have found a good anchorage when you
see a fishing fleet getting some shut eye before going back
out to fish all night. They know where to drop the hook!
From Bona Bay on Gloucester Island, we did an overnight sail to Magnetic Island which is just off the shore at Townsville. Magnetic Island is known for its  rocky walking trails, gum trees full of wild koalas (not bears!), rock wallabies and a holiday atmosphere. Add to this many bays and white sandy beaches! There is only one road that runs from bay to bay and the ferry to Townsville with a reasonable bus service.

Arriving before noon allowed us to take in the sights, tour the town at Horseshoe Bay and visit the Koala preserve. Sheila also went to the south side of the island to see the Rock Wallabies on the beach. And she tried to find koalas in the wild but had no luck.

Dennis and I rested our not so happy hiking hips and waited for the tour of the koala sanctuary. We found giant bean bags to crash upon and took advantage of the cool shade and breeze. Sheila made it back in time to join the tour.

In fact, she was on a mission to hold a koala and have her picture taken with it. Mission Accomplished. We did the tour at the Bungalow Bay Koala Village . There were a number of koalas and at the tour's end, those who paid $18 could hold one and have their picture taken.

The first part of the tour was meeting other native animals and getting up close and personal with them.   
I can't believe I actually did that!
Not being a lover of birds, I was a little unsure of the first activity for the crowd. We held our arm out and a Black Parrot stepped from the trainer's arm to ours. Then you place a sunflower seed between your lips and the parrot "kisses" you as he takes the seed from your mouth. The bird shucks the seed, drops the casing and eats the seed. All while looking at you as if to say NEXT? Yikes! I did it and it was okay. Just okay.

After a few more bird encounters, the naturalist moved on to the reptiles. No way for me! First came a couple of lizards that were passed around the circle. Thanks, but no thanks!

Then she brought out a boa constrictor and place it around each person's neck and shoulders. Absolutely not! Thank you very much! And the last animal was a baby crocodile. It was only 12 inches long. Like the rest of the critters, I touched but chose not to hold. I was the photographer for Dennis and Sheila.

The presentation was interesting and very informative. Fortunately, we have yet to see a crocodile in the wild except on tours. They have warned us not to go into the rivers or swim near a river especially early morning or evenings. Crocs don't bite like sharks; they just grab you and roll you under water until you drown! And they move fast on land and in the water.

This explains why the locals have aluminum dinghies and not inflatable ones. The saltwater crocs inhabit the coast and coastal islands of Queensland and the Northern Territory. That is the rest of our trip in Australia.

Then they let you walk around and see the koalas in their tree habitats. These cuties have all been rescued and not taken from the wild. They are carefully handled and are quite cute. I was surprised to find that their fur felt more like lamb's wool and was not silky and shining as it appears from a distance. 

Sheila wanted to go to the south end of the island to see the Rock Wallabies on the beach. They are so used to humans that they will eat out of your hand. She took off on the bus and we walked back to town.

After the show, we enjoyed a nice seafood platter in an open air restaurant and passed the time while Sheila was exploring. We were back on the boat by 9 PM and ready to raise anchor early the next morning to continue toward Darwin.