Cairns to Thursday Island. 10:35.84S, 142:14.35E

Serenity of Swanwick
Phil and Sarah Tadd
Sun 23 Jul 2023 09:18

On Saturday morning the forecast was still for some strong wind (gusts up to 30 knots) but we wanted to get going and the wind would be behind us so we made the decision to leave.  It was going to be an overnight trip to cover the 140 miles to Lizard Island.  We left at 0900 and had a great sail during daylight hours with reefed main and genoa, gradually catching up the two Dutch boats that had left an hour ahead of us.  By nightfall we had caught them but with the prospect of squalls in the dark we dropped the main and continued under genoa alone, at which point the others pulled away ahead of us.  During the night we started getting squally showers and, true to forecast, had gusts around 30 knots keeping us on our toes reefing and un-reefing the genoa. 

We anchored behind Lizard Island at 1100 on Sunday to find plenty of shelter from the swell but almost none from the wind which continued to blow strongly.  So much so that we didn’t feel able to launch our dinghy and go ashore. 

The story goes that Captain Cook was despairing of finding a way out from behind the Great Barrier Reef to the open sea so he climbed the hill on Lizard Island to look out.  He spotted a gap in the reef that enabled him to escape and that gap is still known as Cooks Passage.  It would have been nice to climb to Cook’s Lookout and see the view he did, but it was not to be

Lizard Island anchorage

Our next hop was 80 miles back towards the mainland and another overnighter.  We left Lizard Island at 1500 on Monday and were soon bowling along with reefed main and poled out genoa and it wasn’t long before we had our first squall.  According to our pilot book these are a feature of this coast when moist trade winds blow in towards the coast bringing rain with them.  Once you know what to expect its not too hard to be prepared, but it means constant sail changes to deal with the changing conditions.  We saw little on this trip except one fishing boat which called us to agree which side of us he would pass and then came so close we had little room to manoever.  We made such good progress towards our destination at Flinders Island that we were there just as day was breaking so we decided to make use of the day and continue a further 60 miles to Morris Island.  As soon as we passed Flinders the wind died and we found ourselves motoring for the rest of the day.  It was worth it to spend the night at Morris Island; a large sandy cay with a small island on top of it.  We had reasonable protection from the sea, though little from the wind and we had the place to our selves.  We are now well into crocodile country and there have been reports of crocs on this island so we had to forego the swim.

Morris Island – reef country

The next 4 days were day sails to Portland Roads, Shelburne Bay, Escape River and finally to Thursday Island.  It felt increasingly remote here with no signs of habitation onshore, only a couple of other yachts and no mobile signal between Cairns and Thursday Island.  Up to Morris Island we had seen very little sea life, but from there north we began to see flocks of petrels diving for fish and on one of the sandbanks in Escape River we saw a strange looking bird (from a distance it looked like a cross between and emu and a pelican) which we later identified as a Black Necked Stork.  From Escape River to Thursday Island we had to time our passage to carry the tide through the Albany Passage between the mainland and Albany Island and then on up past Cape York, the most northerly tip of mainland Australia, into the Torres Strait to our anchorage behind Horn Island.  As we passed through the Albany Passage we could see magnetic termite mounds on shore.  These are named because the mounds are flat like tombstones and are always aligned with the long side north-south like a compass – probably to maintain the temperature within the mound.

Black Necked Stork

Magnetic termite mound

Albany Passage – the tide can run up to 5 knots here, but we had next to nothing

Cape York – apparently there is a sign here that reads ‘The Tip’

Approaching Horn Island.  The colour of the sea is amazing

This trip has given us great respect for those who navigated these reef strewn waters even 30 years ago, without the aid of GPS and electronic charts, and even more so for the likes of Captain Cook who had no charts at all.  We found the easiest strategy was to follow the edge of one of the shipping routes as the charting within these routes is pretty accurate: there wasn’t much shipping to bother us- only two or three each day.  We have also found that the need to make our destination in daylight in the shorter tropical days has made us work harder to keep Serenity sailing well.  We have started using the pole to hold the genoa out when sailing  down wind – something we haven’t done much since we crossed the Atlantic and have found that we can make much better speed downwind than we realised – good news for our passage to Indonesia.

We arrived at Horn Island (just across Ellis Channel from Thursday Island) on Saturday to join half a dozen other yachts, probably all waiting to check out for Indonesia.  A further 4 arrived today, including our Dutch friends.  The weather is looking good for departure on Tuesday or Wednesday so we could have ourselves a convoy.  The passage will take about 6 days and if you want to see where we are you can follow our progress on our tracker at

Horn Island anchorage

Our route from Cairns to Thursday Island:

  1. Lizard Island, 2. Morris Island, 3. Portland Roads, 4. Shelburne Bay, 5. Escape River

The indigenous Torres Strait Islanders are Melanesians, ethnically different from the Aboriginal people of the mainland.  The population of the islands is just over 4,000.  Ashore on Horn Island on a Sunday there was a surprising amount of activity with people in the pub for lunch and shopping in the general store.  We had a burgers for lunch and topped up our fresh food ready for the passage.  All that is needed now is our clearance papers from Border Force on Thursday Island, a short ferry ride away.

The pub