Torres Strait to Christmas Island

Ann and I had made it to the top of Australia. We felt this was something
of an achievement, having negotiated many miles of Queensland’s reefs and
the tide bound Torres Straits in our 42 year old, 41 foot steel sloop,
Sylph VI, admittedly not without incident, but we were through safely.
Our stop at Horn and Thursday Islands was pleasant, with its largely
Polynesian and New Guinean population, bazaar style shops and relaxed
atmosphere, it certainly had a foreign feel to it. Also having to check
in with Quarantine and obtain an import permit for the dogs to get back
onto the mainland added to the sense of visiting a foreign country,
increasing our anticipation for future exotic locations.
After an all too brief visit we weighed anchor at 11.00 Saturday 15th June
2002 on a rising tide, the weather pattern looking promising for the days
ahead, and we were soon clear of the remaining channels of Torres Strait
and into the unencumbered waters of the Gulf of Carpentaria. Initially
conditions were very light, we set the drifter for a short while but by
early evening the breeze started to pick up to a pleasant 15 knots, we
reset the jib and were soon making an easy six knots. This was our
longest non-stop period at sea for some years and we could not have asked
for better weather. For the next 48 hours we enjoyed a breeze constant,
light and fair, propelling us at a steady six knots plus. We enjoyed
pleasant days and nights, easy watches and of an evening shared a game of
cribbage in the cockpit. Perfect!
Late Monday night the wind started to freshen and conditions were just
starting to get a bit bouncy but at 23.00 we were abeam Cape Wikawawoi,
marking our successful crossing of the Gulf, and at 02.30 Tuesday morning
we were snug at anchor in Inverell Bay, Gove Harbour. Having entered in
the middle of the night we had ended up a considerable distance out in the
bay, so in the afternoon we weighed and manoeuvred in amongst all the
other yachts moored and anchored there to find ourselves a hole a bit
closer to the shore. Our first chore was to clear in with Quarantine -
the AQIS officer having to sight the dogs before they could go ashore.
The nearest settlement to Gove Harbour is Nhulunbuy some eight kilometers
away, established for the bauxite mining, the land is leased from the
traditional owners and apparently everyone is very satisfied with the
arrangements. To get into town and back is either by taxi (expensive) or
by thumbing a lift, the traditional method of getting around which
everyone does, it is considered a perfectly safe and socially acceptable
means of transport. Nonetheless being somewhat unaccustomed to hitching
it was a couple of lifts before we became relaxed about the process.
Nhulunbuy is a tidy little town except for the public toilets –
disgusting! While it’s not exactly PC to say, apparently our indigenous
brethren up this way have not been taught the finer points of using a
western toilet. It did not take long to exhaust Nhulunbuy’s modest
attractions, its major attribute was the source of fresh supplies, though
everything was about 25% more expensive than most other places, not
surprising considering the town’s remoteness. We therefore only purchased
the essentials. The highlight of Gove is probably the yacht club. It has
everything that a cruising yachtie could desire, cold beer, showers,
laundry and a delightfully landscaped beer garden which faces the setting
sun and makes for pleasant socializing after a day’s work.
In Gove my brother John joined us for the leg to Darwin. While there we
also caught up with the crew of Blown Away II who pulled in two days after
us. John had limited time so on Saturday 22nd June we got underway. Our
first objective was to transit the well known Gugari Rip, more commonly
known as Hole-in-the-Wall, one of those must do things for cruising
yachts. The Rip is a narrow gap between two islands, a mile long but at
its narrowest is only 64 meters wide, and when the tide is running
currents can reach 12 knots or more, apparently the water just boils. To
transit it is therefore critical to get the timing of slack water right.
We had various bits of advice on what time this might be but in the end
looked at what we thought to be the most reliable and averaged them out,
deciding on a transit time of 08.00 Monday 24th. In between we anchored a
night at Elizabeth Bay, where we caught up with Willie Wagtail who had
left Gove a couple of hours after us, enjoying afternoon drinks in their
cockpit Saturday evening. From Elizabeth Bay we sailed to an uncharted
anchorage in Wigram Island, recommended in one of our cruising guides.
This put us a short distance upwind from the Gugari Rip enabling the best
chance of timing our arrival fairly accurately. To this end we got
underway at 05.10 Monday morning, motor sailed to the entrance and timed
our arrival spot on 8 O’clock. The narrowness of the gap can make it
difficult to see but in these GPS days locating it was simple, we
anxiously watched our speed as we approached, any significant increases or
decreases being a sure indication that we had stuffed up our timing. As
it turned out we were pretty well spot on, only encountering a slight
current of about 2 knots against us for a short period which we easily
pushed through. The gap is not especially spectacular, with low rocky
cliffs either side but it is interesting enough and saves about forty
miles sailing around the islands.
As we were celebrating our successful transit we encountered Willie
Wagtail coming the other way, a short exchange on the radio established
that she was going to go and have a look at the Rip, then move on to spend
another couple of days in the area nearby. We tightened sheets and were
once again bowling along, motor silent, broad reaching due west before a
fresh breeze from the sou’-sou’-east. Our next stop was North Goulburn
Island, an overnight sail 205 miles away. It proved another great sail,
minimal swell and a fresh breeze had us powering at sixes and sevens
(knots that is) and the ride was rock steady, great conditions for John,
who made like a log for the night.
The next morning we set a lure as we approached our destination. We had
two bites, a striped mackerel which fell off the hook as we tried to hoist
him aboard and a small mackerel tuna which we released as poor eating,
though not for the two meter shark whose shadow we saw pass under the boat
just as we let it go, undoubtedly attracted by the tuna’s flailings. We
conjectured that the odds were probably in the shark’s favour as our catch
would have been stressed and tired from its ordeal on the hook.
Our disappointing lure recovered, we anchored off North Goulburn Island at
13.30 and wasted no time in getting the dinghy into the water for a bit of
an explore, having been on board since leaving Gove. By the time we got
ashore the wind had died to a zephyr and the scene was beautiful - white
sand, glistening waters, and a variety of interesting flora a short
distance back from the beach, the hinterland between beach and bush being
dominated by pandanus palms and scattered small trees with dense dark
green leaves. We spotted a couple of colourful kingfishers and saw many
fish including a skate amongst the shallows. That evening back in the
cockpit we were delighted with a rich orange sunset on the high cirrus
clouds as we enjoyed a few icy beers.
The next couple of days were dead calm so between us we shared the chore
of steering Sylph while under motor. Fortunately there were a couple of
bays a convenient distance apart and we only had to endure a few hours of
tedium each before we could anchor for a peaceful night.
The next stop of interest was arrived at after a short days sail, namely
Port Essington. We were intending on going all the way into this
extensive bay but spotted Willie Wagtail at anchor off Black Point just
inside the Bay’s entrance. Deciding to be sociable we anchored nearby.
Ashore we were surprised to discover the area was all national park and
included a rangers station, an extensive information hut and even a small
general store. The weekly barge had just arrived so, hopeful of picking
up some fresh supplies, we waited patiently for the next two hours while
the barge crew got around to finishing their afternoon siesta and decided
to unload. I wish I could say the wait was worth it but it wasn’t, the
quantity and quality of the vegetables leaving a lot to be desired.
That evening we enjoyed a very civilised barbecue with the crew of Willie
Wagtail complete with hot plates and party lights on a small cliff
overlooking our anchorage and the bay, the changing tones and colours of
yet another glorious sunset providing the entertainment.
On Saturday we moved well inside of the Bay to anchor off Adam Head.
Here, back in 1838 some brave settlers had made a vain attempt at taming
this difficult area. Isolation and disease eventually defeated them and
in 1849 the settlement was abandoned. A brochure we had picked up from
the information hut back at Black Point allowed us to understand and enjoy
the ruins still remaining as we wandered around the site that afternoon.
They leave an image of hardship and suffering as our early misguided
pioneers tried to emulate a lifestyle and culture from a world far removed
from and totally inappropriate to tropical outback Australia.
Unfortunately Ann was not able to enjoy our hike through the ruins very
much as she was suffering from what we at the time thought was a urinary
tract infection. She had obtained treatment for it in Gove but the
antibiotics were not helping much.
Satisfied with what Port Essington had to offer, John was keen to be
making tracks for Darwin, also it seemed a good idea for Ann to see a
doctor as soon as possible. Our next leg was to take us around Cape Don
and into Dundas Strait. We were somewhat trepidatious about this
particular bit of water as my cruising notes had this to say:
“Dundas Strait is 15 miles across at its narrowest point and passes a vast
amount of water with each tide back and forth between the Gulf and the
Arafura Sea. The wind is also funneled through the gap. The result of
this interaction is strong streams and very rough water. At times the
whole strait is churned into breaking seas by wind and tide. Waves often
reach two metres, and being short bring the vessel to a shuddering halt
before sweeping aboard. Alternatively on still days and nights, becalmed
yachts are at the mercy of strong flows.”
Once again timing was going to be important. We had calculated 17.30 was
the best time for rounding Cape Don and with a bit of assistance from the
engine we managed to round it just after 18.00. From here everything went
beautifully. The tide was with us, the breeze was from the southeast as
we eased sheets and headed southwest for the next narrow bit around Cape
Hotham and the Vernon Island Group. The tide turned as we approached Cape
Hotham but now the ebb was carrying us rapidly out of the Gulf and was
still in our favour. We approached Cape Hotham at 2.00 on Monday 1st of
July. Smooth silver waves stood tall, still and eerie in the bright full
moon, formed by the fresh 20 knot wind moving with the three knot current.
Sylph surged forward at over eight knots despite being well reefed. Then
it was all over as we popped out of the end of Clarence Strait at 5.00
just in time to catch the now flooding tide into Darwin Harbour. We came
to anchor in Fannie Bay at 8.30 much pleased with an excellent 24 hour
run, avoiding the scourges of Dundas Strait and the perils of the Vernon
Islands, images of Odysseus conquering Charybdis sprang to mind.
In the afternoon we were pleasantly surprised by one of those coincidences
that fate seems to throw up more often then seems reasonable, for who
should be at the Darwin Sailing Club other than an old Navy acquaintance,
the indefatigable Billy Rose, who was visiting all the way from Airlie
Beach, and another sailing comrade Lieutenant Warren Reynolds who worked
at NORCOM and who I was hoping to catch up with while we were in Darwin.

On Wednesday Warren took us for a drive to Litchfield Park in his four
wheel drive, accompanied by his three young and very energetic children.
It was a great day and enabled us to enjoy some of the Top End’s beautiful
country; dry dusty bush land slashed by a fault line in turn punctuated
with waterfalls plummeting into refreshing water holes surrounded by lush
vegetation. Another attraction was the “Lost City”, a formation of
sedimentary rocks which have been eroded away by floods over many
thousands of years leaving block like structures in all sorts of
configurations many stories high, very much resembling an ancient city and
hence the name. Warren had to negotiate eight kilometers of four wheel
drive track, apparently the first time he’d done so in his vehicle and I
don’t think he was going to be back in a hurry to do it again.
On Thursday John left us, flying back to the hustle and bustle of city
living. Meanwhile we attempted to get Ann’s health problems looked at.
This was to take some time to resolve and proved very frustrating. In the
meantime we got stuck into some maintenance and took the odd day off to
look around the City. Eventually the doctor decided a cystoscopy was
required in order to identify what was wrong. This took place on the 1st
of August and in the following week the specialist advised us that there
were no identifiable problems and concluded that Ann probably had had an
infection which had since cleared up. Satisfied that at least she was not
suffering from any life threatening illnesses we decided to depart Darwin
on our first major ocean crossing on the 12th of August and subsequently
launched ourselves into the preparations required, namely storing ship,
refueling and organising customs clearance.
Monday the 12th of August arrived, we weighed anchor nice and early which
was just as well, we had been sitting at anchor for so long the local
marine vegetation had decided to set up residence on our cable. It took
quite some time to remove the weed’s tenacious grip before we could stow
the cable. Lesson learnt, one which we are unlikely to forget, we got
underway and motored to the Cullen Bay fuel wharf where we topped up with
duty free fuel (half the usual price), collected our duty free grog and
cleared customs. At 10.15 we threw off the dock lines. We were on our
way!
*********************
But Oh so slow!
We left with a light sea breeze but by late afternoon the tide had turned
and we started going backwards. Now I don’t mind going slow, you get used
to that in a yacht but going backwards was just too much so on went the
motor. We motored for about an hour when some more wind came along, still
on the nose of course.
Over the next few days we worked what little breeze there was, using the
drifter when the wind wasn’t from ahead which wasn’t often. The first day
we covered 79 miles and the second a dismal 48, an average of only two
knots. Sometimes things were so calm we just dropped all the sails and
drifted as the sails slatted uselessly, making lots of noise, wearing
themselves out, getting on the nerves and doing absolutely nothing else.
On one of these occasions Ann looked around and remarked, “I’ve seen
public swimming pools rougher than this.”
Day three out from Darwin at seven in the morning we looked over the side,
the water was mirror smooth and dark, dark blue, almost black like it just
swallowed the sunlight up. The surface of the water had all these tiny
ripples on it and looking closer we could see very small creatures
bouncing off the surface from beneath. Ann lowered a bucket over the side
and brought some up. There would have been 50 of them just in the bucket
and the sea was alive with them as far as we could see, there must have
been literally billions of them.
The creature was little more than a transparent tube about a centimeter
long which was continually sucking in water at one end and pushing it out
the other. Comparing them with pictures in our book on marine life we
worked out that they were sea squirts, or tunicates if you want to sound
more high brow, a zooplankton which feed on smaller plankton, hence all
the sucking and squirting.
I took the opportunity while we were sitting becalmed to overhaul the
anchor cable. It had developed a few twists in it and I thought I could
be smart by lowering most of it over the side, letting the twists fall out
and then haul it back in again. Simple, or so I thought - Wrong! I
totally underestimated how much 10mm chain weighs. As I lowered the
cable, without the anchor (I am not completely stupid), the weight of the
cable in the fairlead would not let the twists pass over it, they just
kept backing up. Eventually we worked the twists out but not without
putting a few digits at risk, and then getting it all back in was another
nightmare. Talk about a work out.
From here things started to improve, thank goodness. A bit more breeze
came in and our daily runs started to grow; day three 83 miles, day four
130, and day five 101, which brought us to Ashmore Reef where we anchored
in the lagoon in its northern side late in the afternoon. We celebrated
our arrival after a trying passage with pizza and a few tots of duty free
rum.
The next day was Ann’s birthday, that special one which has the dubious
distinction of apparently being the mid-point of our lives. So I wished
Ann a happy birthday with a card and a present which had been
surreptitiously wrapped a few nights previous while she was asleep off
watch.
That morning our serenity was disturbed by a large RHIB (rigid hulled
inflatable boat) with two 90 horepower outboards hanging off it. It was
Customs who check on all boats coming and going in this part of the world.
As I was tying the RHIB alongside Sylph the driver says, “Bob, if I’d
known it was you I’d have come over yesterday.” Looking up I had to look
twice before I recognised the face behind the sunglasses as Colin
McMasters who I had served with in HMAS Torrens about 20 years previous
when we were both Sub-Lieutenants. Now we had both retired from the Navy
as Lieutenant Commanders, he the skipper of the Roebuck Bay, a flash 35
meter customs launch and I humbly sailing a 12 meter yacht around the
world.
We did the necessary paperwork and he invited us on board the Roebuck Bay
for a look around later in the day. He picked us up at 14.00 and gave us
an exciting 35 knot ride in the RHIB on the way. The tour was
interesting, the Roebuck Bay is quite an impressive little vessel and the
crew were all very relaxed and friendly. After the tour Colin dropped us
off at the small West Island for a look around. It was a pleasant leg
stretch, just another one of those delightful tropical moments, a lovely
warm breeze, crystal clear waters and a beautiful beach. Up beyond the
beach were number of Muslim graves of Indonesian fisherman, life is not so
free and easy for all.
Forty minutes was enough to explore the island and at the appointed time
Colin returned and literally flew us back to Sylph in the powerful RHIB.
Late that afternoon two other yachts entered the lagoon. They were the
Cornelia, a Dutch boat and the Sarah B, an American. I had met them both
briefly in Darwin as we had all cleared customs around the same time but
now, as they had gone to a different part of the lagoon, in amongst
uncharted bombies which we had not wanted to get tangled up in, we caught
up with a short chat on the radio.
Keen to be on our way with still a thousand miles to go until Christmas
Island, we weighed anchor at 8.30 Monday 19 August and within half an hour
were running goose-winged before a pleasant 15 knot breeze.
The thousand mile passage from Ashmore to Christmas Island was uneventful,
even delightful. We enjoyed the steady 15 knot breeze almost the whole
time, it only occasionally lightening to less than 10 knots. We averaged
good daily runs, our worst was 127 miles and our best was two days in a
row of exactly 166 miles each.
We settled into a watch routine where I would look after the day from
eightish until 20.00 and the middle watch (midnight til 04.00) and Ann
would do the first (20.00 to midnight) and morning (04.00 'til 08.00).
Ann preferred this as she enjoyed the morning watch, in particular the
sunrise, and it meant she did not need to be out in the sun very much
during the day. The routine worked pretty well though I think Ann was
getting a bit overtired towards the end of it and it also turned out that
her illness was not completely resolved, which didn’t help.
At 4.30 Monday 26th of August, seven days out from Ashmore Reef and 14
from Darwin, we raised a red aerobeacon on Christmas Island and a few
hours later had picked up one of the moorings in Flying Fish Cove and had
our Q flag hoisted awaiting clearance by Quarantine and Customs. We had
realized another milestone – our first major ocean passage.
Christmas Island proved a delightful stepping stone in the vast expanse of
the Indian Ocean. The settlement has a population of 2,500 people, a mix
of Malay Muslims, Chinese Buddhists and Western Christians. This is
probably one of the earliest successful attempts at modern
multiculturalism. Each group lives in its own relatively small area,
maintaining their independent way of life yet co-existing peacefully and
indeed enjoying and celebrating each other’s festivals. Overall it seemed
a very calm and relaxed place.
While accommodation appeared spartan and much of it run down, the variety
of Buddhist shrines, the charming Catholic church and simple Muslim mosque
gave the settled areas a very exotic atmosphere. Indeed one calm evening
the Muslim call to prayer wafted across the waters, in a soothing trance
inducing way, giving one the urge to include Zanzibar in the itinerary.
A highlight was the simple dining area at the Chinese Literary Association
hall where you could get a large bowl of delicious noodles for four
dollars. The décor was simple: large open windows in painted concrete
walls faced out onto a spacious balcony, a few old posters adorned the
walls, one was of the last Chinese Emperor smiling in faded sepia tones
and another was an ancient world map with political colourings from the
age of Empire, a ceremonial dragon head faced out of a large pigeonhole
above a doorway; all hinting at a culture bubble suspended in time. Large
stainless topped tables widely spaced surrounded by plastic chairs
provided for a relaxed dining experience a world away from the cluttered
mania of western shopping malls.
On the natural side we were not to see as much as we would have liked but
what we saw was magnificent. Flying Fish Cove itself, apart from the
phosphate loading facility, reminded me of those stylised Chinese
paintings with cliffs rising vertically from the water. Not surprising
really as Christmas Island is an extinct volcano which emerges
precipitously from the ocean depths. The cliff faces provide homes to a
variety of bird life, in particular the Booby, the Frigate and the Tropic
Bird. The Booby is aptly named with a very solid beak streamlined into a
tiny head and heavy body leading back to webbed duck-like feet. Its whole
expression looks decidedly silly but it is undoubtedly good at what it
does which is dive bomb vertically into the ocean at full speed, obviously
to catch a morsel of fish. You’d need to be pretty solid and not too
bright to do that for a crust. The Tropic Bird is quite the opposite, all
white, lightly built and a single long white tail feather gives it a very
delicate and nervous air. How it earns a living I have no idea, it seemed
too fragile and sophisticated for that sort of thing. But the Frigate
Bird, what a master of the air! Black with a large hooked beak, its
flying skills left every other bird I have seen of its size for dead.
Undoubtedly its hooked beak is for catching fish near the surface and we
watched three young birds play, giving us an idea of just how well they
would be able to do this. They were playing with a stick, practicing
their aerobatics, tumbling and turning and swooping, one would drop the
stick and another would dive and catch it easily in mid-air, or
occasionally when it fell into the sea, dive straight down then make a 90
degree turn at the last moment, plucking the stick out of the water
without getting a feather wet. It was fascinating to watch. Maybe one
day they’ll graft a Frigate Bird’s brain into that of a fighter pilot, or
maybe just a transplant would suffice, the Airforce could do a spot of
fishing as a sideline.
Below the water was equally magnificent. Being a volcano Christmas Island
drops off into the abyss of the Indian Ocean and consequently its waters
are crystal clear. The bottom where we were moored is the only tenuous
ledge on the island extending less than 100 meters from the shore. It is
25 meters deep but when calm and still it looked less than five, and there
were fish everywhere.
We had hoped to see a little more of the island itself and when the crew
of the Gallivant arrived two days after us we proposed sharing the cost of
a hire car but subsequent investigation revealed that all the hire cars
available had been taken by Navy who were just offshore conducting border
protection against the invading infidels from the north or by workers
building a detention centre in which to house all these probable
terrorists if they get through. Also another more important matter was
starting to dominate our thoughts. Ann’s health, while it had not
deteriorated was not getting any better either. With ongoing bladder
problems, abdominal discomfort and fatigue I was very concerned about the
2,500 mile crossing to Mauritius and getting ever further away from the
safety and security of our homeland and health care system.
After much discussion and hand wringing we decided that Ann must fly back
to Sydney, stay with a friend and get the problem, whatever it was, fully
resolved. Meanwhile our dogs, Nelson and Emma, and I would press on
alone. We couldn’t stay in Christmas Island, the moorings were untenable
in the long term and we had to clear the area before the cyclone season
started in a few months. With the ever present trade winds it seemed
sensible for us to continue west along our planned route and for Ann to
rejoin as soon as she could.
I noted in Sylph’s log on Sunday 1 September 2002, “Here Ann departs the
ship due health problem. The dogs and I press on with heavy hearts until
her return.”
Ann had moved ashore the previous night to simplify arrangements and to
help us to deal with our emotions as best we could. It was indeed a
depressed and somber crew that slipped the mooring at 7.30 Sunday morning,
raised sail and pointed bows west for our next destination, the
Cocos/Keeling Island Group. While Ann is not here in person I know she is
in spirit. Her presence is everywhere felt in our small boat which we
took such pains to renovate together and have shared so intimately over
the past four years.
*****************
(And that was the end of that!)