Our journey from Seisia across the Gulf of Carpentaria was planned for Friday 1st June. Of course we’d placed an order with Huey – ESE 15/20 knots, no rain, following sea – perfect conditions for Blue Heeler. I’ve read of a sailors’ superstition that departing port on a Friday is not a good idea, apparently because Jesus was crucified on a Friday. On that basis I cancelled this superstition with the other more favourable one of pouring wine on the deck as a libation to the gods brings good luck on the voyage.
Up early to check on the weather I was alarmed to find a dead bat below the helm. Obviously he hadn’t tuned in his sonar and crashed into our rigging. Could this be a telling sign indicating we should adjourn our departure until Saturday? Should I have poured more wine? Generally not one to believe in superstitions (although I NEVER write in our destination until we’ve reached it.. you know, just in case), I asked Wayne to pick up the dead bat and give him a proper funeral at sea. Actually Wayne just threw the limp black sightless vermin overboard as a feast for the birds. With a small splotch of bat blood drying on the gelcoat next to a splash of wine, we left Seisia on an early rising tide motoring the first hour or so until we’d reached the depths before we could turn west on our heading for the next 310+ miles and settle in for a 50+ hour journey.
Riding the flood tide through the shallows of the Endeavour Strait carried us along the 2knot current, and moved us swiftly for many miles towards our destination. Strangely though, Huey must have misinterpreted our request, as Blue Heeler sailed along with beam seas and wind at 60 degrees of our port bow. But the wind was a consistent 15/20 knots and the rain had kept away allowing us to enjoy the sunny blue skies which we hadn’t seen too much of coming up the eastern coast, so we weren’t too upset that our request was not completely realised. By our calculations, we would have to make the crossing in less than 60 hours to reach the Wessel Islands in daylight. Generally we plan on 5 knots as an average, particularly over such a large distance – this being my largest open water crossing to date, other than Bass Strait. Our goal therefore was to cross the gulf with a 6knot average at the least.
With 50+ hours up our sleeves we set about doing the things we generally do on a crossing – reading, listening to music, although we spend the majority of our time tweaking the sails and looking out to sea. I usually have something prepared for dinner, although this particular night I cooked from scratch, just to keep myself busy for an hour or so. A port tack however is not preferable in our tiny galley. Bracing myself with my feet wedged on the cupboards to prevent me lurching into the hotplates and searing my palms I managed to produce a tasty Massoman curry complete with peanuts on top. I haven’t yet lost a plate load of dinner in the sink or on the floor…yet!
Our plans for night watch was the same as usual – three hourly watches. Always keen to have a nanna-nap in the afternoon, I took the edge off earlier in the day while Wayne went below for a break after dinner. We alternated watches throughout the night, benefiting from the waxing moon which illuminated our way in the darkness of the Arafura Sea. The evening was not cold although there was a downpour during the night and I sat in the cockpit in my shorts, t-shirt and Goretex jacket as the rain fell around me. In the distance was the reassuring tri-lights from the cat Vaya Con Dios who had left with us from Seisia.
Strangely the wind picked up during the night and with a beam sea and wind, and full sails, Blue Heeler became quite the amusement park ride. Also being the first night, it’s also difficult to sleep on demand so that first night had us a little bleary-eyed the following morning. As usual on a crossing, I prepared the crew a feast of bacon and eggs, keeping in my brace position in the galley to avoid leaning on the hot stove. Sometimes a large wave would slam into the port side of Blue Heeler whereupon I’d yell out to Wayne “Hey, I’m cooking down here!”. Not that he could do anything about it! With toast sliding off melamime plates I slid the egg and bacon from the pan, spiced it up with a bit of HP sauce and pepper and served it to the expectant tongue of the Captain.
So that was the first 24 hours. The following 24 hours was pretty much the same, although the seas did increase and the wind in the evening was up to 27 knots on the beam. At times we flew along at 8-9 knots so before the evening set in we decided to reef the main a little and maybe offer the crew off-watch a better chance to sleep. Although never apart for more than 5 miles, Blue Heeler and Vaya Con Dios danced throughout the journey – sometimes we took the lead, other times they would come up behind and take the lead to the south. Each of us attempting to sail the most direct route to our destination in relative comfort without thrashing the vessel.
Dinner for night two was a feast dedicated to central standard time (CST). I’d soaked, pressure cooked peas and added some mint to make a tasty concoction of ‘mushy peas’. To compliment the taste sensation, I’d also purchased Four’n’Twenty pies (the best) from Seisia and produced a deliciously ugly dish of ‘Pie Floater’. To add a touch of Australiana I fashioned a tomato sauce map of Australia on a cheesy topping. It tasted better than it looked but there were moments of anxiety when Blue Heeler heeled 20 degrees and the sea of green mushy peas swelled up the side of the bowls almost dumping the contents into our lap!
As the sun rose in the east on Sunday June 3, we received an alert on the VHF from Vaya Con Dios to watch out for a huge tree-trunk that they just sailed by. I wonder how many of these evil things we unknowingly pass during the night. Sends shivers up my spine just thinking about the damage it would cause to hit one.
Before we arrive at a destination, I make sure everything is tidy – on deck and below, dishes washed and bedding put away so that upon arrival all I have to do is perhaps catch up on some sleep. An orderly Blue Heeler dropped anchor by 11.30am a very satisfying 52 hours since we left on the 340nm journey. The trip, although bumpy, pleased us no end as we sailed the whole distance, only running the engine for three hours to charge the battery.
As we arrived at the anchorage, the two crews were kindly invited to join the fishing vessel Rachel for a sundowner later that day. They thoughtfully picked us all up in the dory and returned us safely back later that night after an enjoyable evening. The next day Pam and Ian picked us up in their large 90hp dory and took us over to the beach some distance away. The dory lifted out of the water and speedily took us to the beach keeping us dry in the process. Our little dinghy would have taken forever drenching us in the process. We walked through a creek bed keeping both eyes on the lookout for crocodiles. Further up the creek we walked up on the plains void of any trees, and covered in scrub and prickly grasses. The three boats in the blue water of the bay looked stunning. The height of the land is low, perhaps only 25m high, but we could see the panorama of both bays.
We left the anchorage and sailed to Guruliya Bay, 42nm southwards in the Wessels. After sailing in 20/25 knots off the port bow with reefed sails for a more comfortable ride, by early afternoon we’d reached our destination and headed into the shallow foot-shaped bay opting to anchor in the arch of the foot. A comfortable anchorage and the following day we were up again early to depart at 0630 for a 52nm trip to the unnamed bay at the southerly end of Elcho Island – a good place to begin the journey westwards in the shallow unsurveyed waters below the Crocodile Islands. Rounding the top of Stephens Island was a bit hairy – at one point we were sailing at 1.1knots due to a 5knot current against whereupon we engaged the iron sail. The maelstrom continued for over an hour after which the water subsided and the current weakened as we rounded the top of the island. As expected, the winds eased to less than 20knots and we had a lovely sail at 60degrees of the port bow for the remainder of the journey down Elcho Island.
The autopilot stopped working on this leg of the jouney showing a ‘low battery alarm’ even though the batteries were fully charged. Luckily we have the wind pilot, although the day was pleasant enough for hand steering. As much as we love ‘Biggles’ (the autopilot), we are dismayed at the prospect of forking out another wad of cash, although it’s to be expected. Miraculously though ‘Biggles’ acquiesced to the gentle touch of a woman and steered us with no problems all the way to Cape Stewart. Let’s see how long this lasts! Although we’d timed it right to ride the westerly flowing ebb tide, the wind died and we had to motor for most of the 55nm journey to Cape Stewart the following day.
It’s so remote out here with no other souls in sight – the jade hue of the sea, a baby blue sky, white sands and red rocks of the islands – a stunning vista so different from the deep blues and hills of the lower eastern coast. We motored into the shallow Cape Stewart, unable to reach the supposedly more comfortable anchorage at Boucaut Bay some 15nm to the west. With the wind less than 15knots, the anchorage was a little rolly but I managed to lay diagonal across my bed and had a reasonably good sleep. The mozzie nets made an appearance last night due to little bugs invading our space – we were quick to stop them filling up the cabin in case they were the dreaded sand flies that leave me itching for days afterwards, and settled in for a movie night – Angels and Demons, with Tom Hanks.
We managed to pickup internet as we approached Elcho Island and have a reasonable signal here at Cape Stewart and I expect the signal will remain in place for the rest of our journey to Darwin. It’s nice to have internet access for the news, research, banking etc, although I quickly get bored with silly Facebook entries, getting ‘poked’, and bizarre news stories (eg: ‘Boy sits up at funeral and asks for a water’). Of course I enjoy receiving messages from family and friends. We’ve also programmed in Radio Australia into the HF so we are fortunate to keep up to date with Aussie news and programs.
We still haven’t seen any crocs although I’ve been advised by a reliable source that Mutton Bay on the North Goulburn Island has one. Should be there in a couple of days so hopefully I’ll get to see one, on my terms of course!