Thursday, July 19, 2012

Passage To Darwin

    Twister departed Lizard Island around 1130 local time July 09. I had spent two days and two nights there, just taking it easy, doing some snorkeling, jogging on the beach, and having some beers at the bar which is only open two (or three?) days a week (so only one of the days I was there).  Lizard Island is a national park in the middle of The Great Barrier Reef (GBR), but there is also a fancy resort (guests only at that bar), and a research station on the island. The reef was probably the best I’ve seen in a popular anchorage. The reason is marker buoys around the coral (with threats of fines for violators) which keeps the boats anchoring in sand (it’s a win-win for the boats and the reef.  Nobody likes anchoring in coral--anchors get stuck, the chain makes an awful racket when it scrapes against the coral, if you’re foolish enough to not use chain, you’ll soon be adrift, and of course there’s the damage caused to the reefs—but in some anchorages it’s difficult to find a spot without it. There were lots of giant clams (big as a person, don’t get your hands stuck), lovely variously colored coral, and beautiful anemones that looked like what velvet might look like on acid (if you were on acid, not the velvet). Not a ton of fish, though. Some chaps from Melbourne invited me for dinner on their Choy Lee 75 powerboat/trawler. A contrast to Twister. The engine room looked like one from a ship (but cleaner)—two big diesel engines, two generators, and a 10,000 amp-hour (or something ridiculous like that) battery bank. The steak they prepared was possibly the best I have ever had. They were all enthusiastic about and complimentary of my journey.  
Twister was attacked by boobies after leaving Lizard Island
      Lizard Island is ~10 miles from some popular dive sites on the outside endge of GBR. I had sort of planned to stop on the way out and have a swim, but once I got going, I didn’t want to stop. We exited (GBR) via One-and-a-half Mile Opening then enjoyed about 200 miles of open ocean. Back in to GBR through Raine Island Opening, there followed 24 hours of not much sleep with lots of reefs to dodge on the way to The Torres Strait. Fortunately conditions were mellow and as the sun rose on Thursday the 12th, we entered Adolphous Channel (leads from the shipping lane inside GBR to Torres Strait). Not surprisingly there were some cargo ships to avoid. We rounded Cape York a few hours later and entered Endeavour Strait (the southernmost of the channels that make up The Torres Strait between Cape York and Paupa New Guinea). Endeavour Strait is not one of the shipping lanes as it’s too shallow for many ships, so I didn’t have to worry about avoiding behemoth container ships. With the help of the tidal stream, we were going along at 6-7 knots with only a mild breeze. A few hours after, we were past The Torres Strait and into The Gulf Of Carpentaria and The Arafura Sea (the first is part of the second).  After 36 hours with not much sleep, I was happy to be in open water and slept for four hours straight which is maybe the second longest I’ve slept in one block on passage.  The charts show a recommended track for shipping that runs east-west from The Torres Strait to The Indian Ocean (and ships apparently do keep pretty close to this in The Arafura Sea). I had set Horny steering a course of 265 degrees to keep us south of the shipping lane. When I woke up, we were well north of where I had planned to be—actually on the other side of the shipping lane. Horny is great at steering a course relative to the wind, but if the wind changes direction, so do we. We got back to where we wanted to be and slept some more.  The ~300 miles across the Gulf Of Carpentaria was very smooth and pleasant sailing. Just as we rounded Cape Wessel (on the western end of the gulf), the wind piped up and within a few hours, it was blowing 30+ knots with 8 foot seas, and the sun disappeared behind angry rain clouds. The rough sailing and crappy weather only lasted 24 hours or so, which I spent most of cooped up inside, only poking my head out periodically to look for ships and adjust Horny. 

     I had a visit from dolphins at the beginning and end of The Arafura Sea as if they were welcoming and wishing me farewell. As the farewell committee was surfing Twister’s bow wave, I saw something I had not seen before--among the dolphins were a few large fish (not sure what kind) apparently playing along. It did not look like the dolphins were chasing them. Just as I was pondering that, a tuna jumped at least six feet into the air.

     Three times on this passage I was buzzed by Australian Customs' planes who called me on the VHF radio requesting my vessel's name, home port, previous and next port. They were kind enough to email me a photo they took of Twister from the air:

     The last 100 miles to Darwin goes through Van Diemen Gulf and the straits on either side of it (unless you want to go around, adding to the journey more than 100 miles and a long beat to windward) which are subject to strong tidal streams. Before I left Cairns, I had neglected to look up the times for these tides and the resulting streams, but I could tell I was at the wrong end of the cycle when I was sailing in place at the entrance to Dundas Strait (well, I was going about 1 knot). After several hours, the direction of the stream changed and I zipped along at 6 knots. At the other end of Van Diemen Gulf, I entered Clarence Strait and glided along at 6-7 knots in a mild breeze. Unfortunately the wind died completely and I had to start the engine as not to lose steerage and be at the mercy of the tidal stream (reefs on both sides of the channel). I ended up motoring the last 25 or so miles to Darwin as I couldn’t stand to spend another night drifting within sight of Darwin. Twister is anchored in Fannie Bay, the most popular anchorage in Darwin is a large bay with what must be a hundred or more boats.

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