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.

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