FNQ and around the top

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Before we left Cairns, the guys from AQIS popped by Blue Heeler to inform us of the restrictions on taking dairy, meat and veggies to and from the Torres Strait’s special quarantine zone. There are a number of prohibited items that must not be returned to the mainland and we must have an inspection and permit before leaving Torres Strait. We have enough fresh food to get us up there and plenty of canned and packaged food for the ongoing trip to Darwin. After stocking up on fuel, grog and other important items (note to thrifty yachties, bottle shops don’t sell boxed or fortified wine before 4pm so plan your purchases accordingly!), Blue Heeler sailed from a cloudy covered Cairns at a respectable 7am on 15th May for the relatively short sail to Low Isles some 35nm north and 8nm east of Port Douglas. The trade winds are definitely developed so the trip up to Lizard Island was fast. Sailing wing/wing most of the way had us travelling along at an average of 7 knots. We sailed through the Hope Islands onto Cape Bedford, an acceptable anchorage in trade winds. I was surprised to see no other boats although Wayne spotted a yacht seemingly anchored at the north west of the bay – a strange place to be anchored in a south-easterly. I looked at the chart and couldn’t figure out why he would be out that far with an anchor light on. At around 6.30pm it was clear – he was now anchored behind us. Seems they had dragged their anchor 5kms over two hours! I know the anchor alarm can be annoying, but the alternative might be more annoying…

The next morning we left the blustery Cape Bedford and enjoyed sailing the comfortable distance to our favourite destination – Lizard Island – reaching there just after lunchtime. The trade winds blowing a consistent SE 20/25 knots blew us by Palfrey Island and around into Mrs Watson’s Bay. Arriving at low tide helped us to clearly see the familiar clam gardens to starboard and the bommy we enjoyed last year to port. I dropped the anchor in the clear blue water and watched it set nicely in the coral sand some 3m below. Releasing 30m of chain, Blue Heeler was welcomed by a committee of giant trevally (‘GTs’) within the safety of this magnificent conservation zone.

Before we left Lizard, we filled up our water container and had a rinse at the bore water pump located about 200m from the camping area. After priming the pump to get the water flowing, water burst from the top, rather than out through the outlet. Figuring there was a blockage, we continued to pump only to see a small green tree frog climb indignantly out of the top of the pump! His departure from the warm, moist safety of the pump did not improve the water flow so we figured there was still something causing a blockage. Much pumping and a couple of buckets of water later, a large shiny green head appeared at the outlet before plopping clumsily into the bucket below. Swimming to the edge of the bucket, the huge green tree frog used sticky toes to climb out of the bucket, up the handle to the top of the pump, and squeezed his shiny green body through the narrow slit at the top of the pump, into his dark, moist metal habitat. I cracked up laughing when I saw this – it was hilarious!

A strong wind warning was in place during our stay at Lizard, and as much as we would have loved to stay longer, reluctantly we had to continue the trip north after relaxing, sunning ourselves and enjoying plenty of swimming in the warm waters at the island.

We left Lizard with a bumpy 25/30 knot wind and our destination for the day trip was Ninian Bay, some 50nm away. Unfortunately Ninian Bay was a disaster with no relief from the swell or the wind. Arriving at 2pm we sailed at 7knots into the very shallow depths of the bay, with the wind at 30knots and white caps all about. Blue Heeler surfed waves as we entered from 20m to the shallower depths. Sailing fast and furious into the bay, no calm waters could be seen anywhere. With no time to change course and head around to Bathurst Bay some 15nm north, we bit the bullet and decided to drop anchor. Luckily the wind eased to around 20knots overnight and our anchor didn’t drag on the seagrass at the bottom of the bay. After a bouncy sleep, we left early the next day for the short (35nm) trip to Flinders Island. Still a strong wind warning in place, we rounded Cape Melville for the 13nm trip west across Bathurst Bay, with winds exceeding 35knots on the beam. What a ride!  We reached the calm anchorage in time for lunch and a nap. Staying ahead of the weather was our plan so once again we left early for the 60nm trip to Morris Island. Unusually we had winds of 5/10 knots and even got big-spinny out for a sail. Morris Island is a small cay surrounded by a large reef; allegedly a 5m crocodile was recently seen here. Once anchored fellow yachties Brian and Gail from the 48′ yacht Dol’Selene kindly took us in their dinghy to the beach and we walked around the sandy island covered in countless thongs, bottles and plastic bits. A lone palm tree stands over a grave of a diver and for some reason people have thought it a great idea to mark his grave with all sorts of crap – a gumboot, an old torch, empty bottles of rum, etc – all nicely laid out. A little weird methinks.

The next day we left before sunrise for another full day of sailing – 60nm to Portland Roads. The southeast wind remained below 25knots, and generally stayed within 10/20 knots, although little wind in the morning had us motoring along for a couple of hours. Portland Roads anchorage was pretty enough and an acceptable anchorage for the night. We didn’t launch the dinghy and go ashore as the tide was low and the coral reef extended quite some distance from the beach. The following day was a relatively short (47nm) distance to reach Margaret Bay, around the corner from Cape Grenville. The wind forecast was (you guessed it) SE 20/25knots, with a strong wind warning south of Lockhart River to our south. As it turned out, we had winds up to 39knots but mostly they stayed around 25/30 knots for the whole day. It was a little uncomfortable, but with reefed sails, Blue Heeler sliced through the 2m seas with ease taking us along at an average speed of over 7 knots. Deciding not to travel through the narrow Paluma Passage due to the inclement weather, we opted to sail north-east around Clerke Island, keeping close to the lighthouse before turning north-west. Approaching the turn, Blue Heeler was hit by a squall with 40knot winds which eased to less than 30knots for the remainder of the trip into Margaret Bay.

We decided to make use of the strong winds and left Margaret Bay in the dark at 0630, while Dol’Selene opted to stay a further day. It’s still pretty dark at that time of the day in FNQ, also due to the heavy cloud cover which lasted all day. A blaze of lights glowed from nearby fishing boats as we departed the bay for the long 70nm trip north to Escape River.

Although the day started with a windy 25/35 knots, after a couple of hours it eased to 15/20 knots, then a ridiculous (but very welcome) 10/15 knots. The only downside to the trip was that it poured with rain! Now and again a small burst of sun would shine through, only to be followed swiftly by an ominous grey cloud bursting with tropical raindrops ready to cleanse the deck and crew of Blue Heeler. With our pruny white fingers, we adjusted sails as required to make the most of the wind and keep up a 7knot average to reach Escape River on a rising tide. The only ship we passed could only be seen visually within two miles but we’d been watching him via AIS and adjusted our course to avoid him. The last couple of hours of the trip was kind to us, with the rain and wind easing, enough so that Wayne got out the fishing rod and I hung out a few things to dry. Approaching Tern Island south of Escape River entrance, a squall came upon us blowing up to 30knots and dumped gallons of fresh tropical rain over us. Visibility was down to a couple of cables (perhaps 300m) and we couldn’t see the headland. Times like these we are happy to have radar and chart plotters to help us. The shallow point of the entrance is 2.7m LAT, but we’d timed it so that we had a minimum of 2m under the keel before the water deepened into the river. The rain didn’t let up and visibility was poor as we weaved our way through the pearl rafts scattered throughout the wide shallow river. Four miles upstream we found a calm southerly bank and dropped anchor for the evening. Without an enclosed bimini, everything was pretty wet so we rigged up a couple of tarps to hang out our wet gear. The following day we had to time it right to catch the flood tide to take us through the Albany Passage, which runs between the mainland and Albany Island and Cape York. The tide through the passage can run up to 5 knots so if timed wrong we could face a strong tidal flow against us. Low tide was due at around 1pm so we hoisted anchor at midday from our Escape River anchorage and motored the 45minutes to the entrance to the river. Just our luck it started to rain and the clouds rolled in. Wayne steered while I monitored the depth as we crossed the very shallow entrance. The minimum we had under the keel as we bounced through the incoming waves was 1.6m, after half an hour we were in deeper water and on course to head north towards the passage. The wind was up to 30 knots as each squall passed over, but once we’d turned the wind behind us blew us along nicely, even though it rained incessantly. The passage is 14nm from Escape River and took two hours to reach. Clouds and rain reduced our visibility to less than 2nm and glimpses of the passage came and went as we sailed against the weakening ebb tide. On the western side of the passage entrance is a 5m shoal where the strong tide intersected causing a washing machine effect. I’m always the cautious navigator so I steered a little east just in case.

Safely in the passage the water calmed and we floated through with our sails winged doing 7.5knots. Our tide predictions were spot on and we had 2knots helping us along. The passage is a mere 2nm in length and a further 7nm would take us beyond Eborac Island then west to York Island and into the anchorage at Cape York – the ‘pointy bit’ of Australia. The entrance to the anchorage is very shallow and we’d read to keep York Island close to port and head west of the rocks that lay to the south of the ‘boil hole’ – a 22m deep hole within the shallows of the anchorage. Anchoring with only 1m under the keel with 40m of chain out we drifted over the boil hole until we had 14m under the boat. The following day we watched through binoculars as busloads of tourists pile out of coaches and walk to Cape York for the obligatory photo with the sign that basically states ‘you’ve reached the pointy bit’.  We were the only yacht anchored and we had a good distance to reach the beach through the shallows. The outboard hit dirt on the way in and Wayne had to drag the boat through the shallows (one eye always scanning for crocodiles). We walked over a well trodden rocky path and there were plenty of elderly tourists also making their way slowly to the top of Australia. It’s a good feeling to reach this point of our journey and we delighted in looking at our course of the previous day. We had a friendly guy take our photo at the pointy bit’s sign (which is going straight to the pool room) and we ambled along the rocky coast (avoiding crocodiles) back to the dinghy which was stranded further up the beach as the tide was going out. Paddling into deeper water, Wayne then brought the dinghy to life and we motored back to Blue Heeler and got ready to depart for Seisia. We decided not to go to Thursday Island mainly because of the strong winds that we’d have at the TI anchorage. So Seisia was our destination some 20nm away.

As we left Cape York anchorage, the water was very shallow – on two occasions the depth showed zero for far too long and we waited for the strike of keel on sand. Luckily though we managed to stay afloat into deeper water. Phew! Heading into the wind, I pulled the main out, but kept it reefed as we had wind on the beam for the trip and it was already up to 28knots.  The wind didn’t let up as we followed the entrance leads over the shallows into the very pretty Seisia harbour. Today we dinghied to the small township and bought some groceries from the surprisingly well stocked supermarket. The prices, as expected for a remote location, are a little high, but I was very impressed with the range of goods (even had a Maxibon ice-cream!). A loaf of Helga’s bread is $8.75 so I bought a fresh loaf of the Bamaga community bread for half the price. I generally make bread on the boat but it’s not as yummy as freshly baked bought bread.

We need a three day window of reasonable weather to cross the Gulf of Carpentaria to the Wessels. Friday 1st June looks like a good day to leave. A strong wind warning between Torres Strait to Point Danger remains in place and doesn’t look like easing until at least Saturday. Then there looks like another blow on Monday. Tomorrow I’ll go and buy some fresh veggies and local fruit to keep us going for a couple of weeks until we reach Darwin. Until then…

About blueheelerhr39

Sailing the world aboard Blue Heeler
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2 Responses to FNQ and around the top

  1. Judith Backway says:

    Hi guys, didn’t realise you had made your way north again. Will follow your progress with interest. We have now left Laguna Marina as the depth in the marina is now a problem and we are based at the new marina at Port of Airlie for the time being. When you come back this way, give us a hoy. Cheers, Judith and Gary.


    • Hi Judith, yes a quick trip from Brisbane to Darwin in 8 weeks. In time to get some work done on the boat and have a look around NT. Will be sailing to Indonesia at end July and we have plenty to do beforehand. Thanks for the tip re the sand flies! All the best.


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