Barry and Margaret Wilmshurst
Wed 8 Jul 2009 02:14
The passage from New Caledonia to Thursday Island was the third longest we have undertaken and perhaps the most challenging yet because the last leg was down Torres Strait. 1,700 miles; 12 days. So far we have been fortunate with the weather this year, in contrast to last season when every significant passage seemed to include periods of strong wind. For this trip we had gentle zephyrs or good sailing breezes, mostly from abaft the beam, and we reached our destination without having to make much use of the engine. However, we were kept on our toes mentally by the prospect of the challenging last leg. The recommended ship channel from Bligh Entrance down to Thursday Island is about 140 miles long so half must be traversed in the dark. It is used by big ships so is well marked and lit but it is a passage through the Great Barrier Reef and it weaves between numerous hazards. Any mariner must tread warily and big ships carry pilots.
Eight thousand years ago Australia was joined to south-east Asia, then some large geological event caused the land to begin to sink. Channels formed and by three thousand years ago the continents were separated by a shallow submerged shelf. The water is warm - perfect conditions for the growth of coral, and by the time European man came exploring the way was strewn with dangerous shallows, reefs and islets. For centuries few believed there was a navigable way through from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean. Luiz Vaez deTorres got through in 1606 but he started out as second in command to a much more flamboyant Spaniard who abandoned his expedition in The New Hebrides (Vanuatu) following a mutiny and returned to Spain. Torres did very little charting and when he eventually got home nobody took much notice of his reports. It was many years later that the strait was named after him. William Bligh found a way through in an open boat with loyal members of Bounty's crew on his way to the Portuguese settlement on Timor but it was Captain Cook who was the second European to take an ocean-going ship through, in 1770, and he nearly lost the Endeavour by shipwreck. They went aground but managed to re-float.
Nowadays the shipping channel is well charted (although large parts of the rest of the reef are unsurveyed) and with the benefits of GPS and electronic aids pilotage is not too difficult but strong cross currents and the big ships have to be watched even on a moonless night. Our new AIS came into its own. Twice, at bends in the channel, freighters called us up by name from five miles away. We were keeping just outside the fairway but they could see we were a sailing vessel and they wanted to know what our intentions were. We told them we would keep clear. On her watch Mags was concerned about two targets that we were due to pass rather close to, but she could not find them on the chart. She soon noticed from their details that they were not under way so her concern was reduced but was not entirely eliminated until she registered that they were lighthouses.
More by good luck than judgement we arrived just after dawn when we could see our way clearly through the last obstacles and past some un-lit buoys. The shallow basin which constitutes the harbour at Thursday Island is surrounded by Thursday, Horn and other islands and the best anchorage, protected from the strong trade winds and fierce currents is in the lee of Horn Island. It took us a little time to get comfortable because our anchor gear failed comprehensively. The mate pottered about for a bit while I deployed the kedge (second anchor).
Looking towards TI (Thursday Island) from our acchorage at Horn Island
Then we settled down to prepare for ordeal by Customs. Australian Customs has a reputation similar to that of the Spanish Inquisition for sorting out sinners from among the sainted majority. One hears and reads horrific tales of swingeing fines for trivial offences and all sorts of bureaucratic nightmares. Our own experience has been quite different and we have yet to meet face to face anybody who has had a bad time. First impressions were a trifle daunting. We were boarded and kept busy for an hour and a half by the Quarantine officer, who took away any fresh food we had left over, and two young women from Customs toting guns, wearing military style combat boots and "baseball" caps rather like a SWAT team. They could not have been more friendly and charming, exchanging their own sailing anecdotes with ours while they attended to much paperwork and made a search of the boat. I am not sure what they were looking for. I noted that, very wisely, the officer did not delve too deeply into our dirty washing, nor did she tear out all the cruising gear stuffed into our cupboards. She was probably trying to establish a general impression of the boat and its crew prior to forming a judgement on whether our presence was likely to be dangerous to Australia. The searcher's colleague, in charge of the form-filling, was complimentary about our blog, saying we had some nice pictures of New Zealand. We preened ourselves and looked modest, then realized that she had "Googled" JJ Moon before our arrival (we had to give at least ninety-six hour's notice) so that she could check that the story we were giving her was the same as that we were giving the rest of the world. After some stressful pilotage throughout the previous night I was beginning to look a bit jaded as I searched for the umpteenth serial number for items of electronic equipment and when the officer started reading Margaret's notebook the mate feared I was going to get shirty. The search officer asked whether it was the ship's log. I said it was not and handed her the relevant volume, which I had been using to remind myself of the date we left our last port. A little later she asked for the previous log-book. However, there was no danger of me making an unseemly protest. They were operating their country's laws in a very friendly and un-threatening manner. Before leaving, with expressions of good-will all round, they offered us the use of one of their own mooring buoys if we failed to get our anchor sorted out by nightfall and later another officer took some trouble to find information on tides for me - not his job. We passed our examination and were free to go ashore.
This was not entirely straightforward. The sheltered anchorage is a mile and a half away from the village on Thursday Island. It can be a rough and risky trip by dinghy but there is a regular ferry service. It took us most of the day to sort out multiple problems with the windlass, retrieve the kedge and deploy the best bower so it was twenty-four hours before we went ashore to explore.
Thursday Island is one of a group of small islands a few miles north of Cape York, the northern tip of Queensland. The British government established a station there in the 1870s in the hope that it would command and benefit from the busy shipping route rather like Gibraltar and Singapore. It didn't work out and after the introduction of steam most ships went past without stopping. The island now has a population of 3,500 including a military base and a strong Customs presence. There is a temptation for some of the teeming population of SE Asia to slip across the strait and enter prosperous Australia by way of the very sparsely populated Aboriginal lands. When William Bligh passed this way he had to avoid all inhabited parts; the local people believed that anyone landing in such circumstances had been rejected by the sea and should best be got rid of without delay. If he and his crew had landed they would probably have been killed and possibly eaten. Not much danger of that today (although there are plenty of salt water crocs. about) but the Aboriginal people of northern Australia are not pleased if cruisers land without first obtaining a permit.
Re-provisioning was not very easy requiring all the produce from the government owned supermarket to be carried some distance to the jetty, loaded on and off the ferry, loaded on and off the dinghy, hauled aboard and stowed away below. We arrived on a Tuesday. At a pinch we could have left for Darwin on the Saturday but a small repair to the mains'l took up more time and energy so we gave ourselves a break and sailed on Sunday.