We departed Fife Bay on the SE coast of Papua New Guinea on Monday, July 9th. The weather forecast looked good, and we set out early with ESE winds at 12-18 knots. Our next destination was Australia, and our route would take us first to the west northwest around the Great Barrier Reef, and then to the southwest through the Torres Strait. This strait is between New Guinea and Australia, where the Coral Sea to the east and the Arafura Sea to the west meet. The shallow waters are a maze of reefs and some 274 islands making it bit of a challenge to navigate through. Since this is the primary channel between the Pacific and Indian Oceans, it’s also a busy shipping route.
By the second day, our winds had lightened to ESE 8-12, and we had a hard time keeping the sails full as we rolled back and forth. Progress was slow at only 2-3 knots. We had the genoa poled out, but despite our efforts, it kept luffing, and after a day the sail started to rip along the foot. We replaced it with the smaller working jib and resigned ourselves to motoring until the winds picked up.
The light conditions persisted for 36 hours, and then the trade winds filled in Thursday night as we passed between Portlock Reefs and Goldie Reefs, the first of many we would be navigating through over the next few days. It was nice to be sailing again, and we were back up to 5-6 knots thanks to a little current. The following morning, we neared Bramble Cay and made our turn to the SW, entering the Great Northeast Channel to the Torres Strait on a close reach into SE 10-15 knot winds. As we were now in the lee of the Great Barrier Reef, there was almost no ocean swell, just small wind waves, and the sailing was pleasant despite the fact that we were going to windward.
From Bramble Cay, it is roughly 130 miles through the Torres Strait to Thursday Island where we would clear into the country. If we continued to sail straight through, it was likely that we would arrive in about 24 hours. Unfortunately, the next day was a Saturday. The cost of clearing into Australia on a boat is very expensive, and the additional overtime charges for clearing in on the weekend are even harder to swallow. Because of this, and the fact that navigating the strait during daylight hours was much more appealing, we chose to do shorter day hops and time our arrival for Monday morning. We are allowed to stop and anchor before clearing in as long we fly the quarantine flag and don’t leave the boat (or have contact with other boats).
So, we set our course for Rennel Island, 53 miles away, which was no problem to reach before sunset averaging 6 knots. Andrew fished along the way and hooked a large wahoo fairly quickly. We got it to the boat, but missed gaffing it before it got away. We put the fishing lines back in the water, and nabbed a blue fin tuna right before reaching the anchorage. This one we got on board.
We approached Rennel Island around 1:30 pm, very cautiously as we had little information on the anchorage and no detailed charts. We did know it was uninhabited, and there was a reef surrounding the island, with coral heads extending off the shore in many areas. We motored around and finally found a spot in the lee of the island in 25 feet to drop the hook. It wasn’t a great anchorage and we were a bit closer to the reef than we would have liked. Fortunately, the trade winds in the Torres Strait blow quite consistently from the SE, which we were counting on to keep us in deeper water. The forecast didn’t show any wind shifts, but we set the anchor drag and shallow water alarms on the GPS just in case and enjoyed a fresh tuna steak for lunch.
It was nice to get a full night sleep, and Saturday morning we were well rested as we set off to make the 40 mile jump south to Sue Islet. It was a very pleasant sail on a close reach in a 15 knot breeze. The course passed by a large exposed wreck of a 400 ton vessel on one of the reefs. We made good time and dropped the hook at 3 pm, sitting beam to the wind as the strong currents pulled us to the side. Of the 274 islands in the Torres Strait, 17 are inhabited, and Sue Islet was the first one we came to that was. Unfortunately, we were stuck on the boat until we officially cleared in.
|sailing the Torres Strait|
Sunday morning, we made the 40 mile trip southwest to Wednesday Island, just a few miles north of Thursday Island. The winds were stronger, and we flew along at 7 knots in the ESE 20-25 knot winds. Andrew caught another tuna, which made for a couple of good meals. Catching fish while sailing through the Torres Strait was really easy. Tuna were constantly jumping around us, and fish were biting lures within minutes of getting them in the water.
By 3 pm, we were anchored off Wednesday Island, and the strong trade winds that were forecasted had arrived. That night was a long one with sustained winds in the 25-30 knot range and gusting much higher. We put out lots of scope, but our anchor was slowly dragging. We just kept an eye on it, as depths in the area were consistently 30-40 ft, and there was plenty of room behind us. We were up throughout the night monitoring our position, and finally around 2 am, after dragging 200 ft, the anchor seemed to be set.
On Monday morning, we motored the nine miles over to Thursday Island, which was a slow trip going against a strong current. Thursday Island is the administrative and commercial center of the Torres Strait Islands. The anchorage in front of Thursday Island is exposed to the trade winds, so we anchored across the channel and in the lee of nearby Horn Island. We dropped the anchor in 30 feet of water and hailed the Australian customs office on the VHF. The current flows quite fast through the channel (often reaching 4 knots), so we made sure to let out plenty of scope.
Within an hour, a small powerboat pulled up alongside with customs, immigration and quarantine officers. They boarded Saviah, and we went through the clearance formalities. Australia has a bad reputation among cruisers because of the very strict quarantine requirements and costs, and many people avoid it all together. We were expecting them to search every inch of the boat and dive on our hull to make sure we weren’t bringing in any unwanted sea life into Australian waters. Although we had just painted the bottom in New Zealand and did some scrubbing in Papua New Guinea before we left, the thought of having to pay for another haul out to get a few barnacles off the bottom made us a bit nervous. We were lucky though, as they didn’t search the boat at all and didn’t inspect the bottom of the boat either. We still had to pay an outrageously high quarantine fee of around $350, but the rest of the process was very quick and painless. We talked to a few other cruisers later on that complained of detailed searches of their boats that lasted several hours.
That afternoon, Annie and Ronnie, Australian cruisers on s/v Siri, stopped by to say “hello” and gave us the scoop on services on both Thursday Island and Horn Island. We were a little nervous about rowing the quarter mile to the dock in our little dinghy because of the salt water crocodiles, or salties as the locals call them. There are salties all along the northern coast of Australia, and the males can get up to 25 ft long – we could just imagine one of these ripping us out of our 8 ft dinghy. We asked the crew of Siri whether they thought it was safe. They said that there was a crocodile on the beach at the anchorage, but that they hadn’t seen it in a couple weeks and we would probably be ok. We were ready to stretch our legs and get some dinner and cold drinks, so we went for it (scanning the water the entire time).
The next day we rowed back to Horn Island and took the small ferry that goes across the channel to Thursday Island. We wanted to do some walking around and stop at the grocery store. We were also hoping to find a place with wi-fi to catch up on email, which we had last done in Vanuatu one month earlier. While on-line, we checked our credit card bill and learned that a few thousand dollars had been charged while we were at sea. This was an unfortunate surprise that we had to spend several hours sorting out and cancelling our credit cards.
We also took a short hike up to the top of Green Hill to see what is left of the old Victoria Barracks which was constructed in 1893. The top of the hill has great views of the surrounding islands. On our way back down, we stopped by the customs, immigration and quarantine offices and cleared out. We only spent two days in Thursday Island, but we were anxious to get to Darwin, and the forecast looked good for the trip.
Our 750 mile passage from Thursday Island to Darwin involved first crossing the shallow Gulf of Carpentaria, about 250 miles across. Due to its shallow depths, the seas are often short and choppy, and it can become quite rough if the winds are strong. We heard that it’s wise to pick a weather window with lighter winds for the first few days. On Wednesday, July 18th, we rode the early morning tide out and set sail in very light SE winds for Darwin.
We slowly made our way into the Gulf of Carpentaria for the first day but by Thursday the winds filled in nicely and we sailed along at 6 knots with a single-reefed main and gennaker. It was a bumpy ride, as the seas built in the shallow green water. On Friday, the winds shifted more to the south and increased to 18-25 knots, but we had cleared the shallow waters of the gulf. We doused the gennaker, unfurled the jib and tucked in the 2nd reef in the main. We continued to make 6 knots on a beam reach for the next few days. Throughout our passage, we were contacted on the VHF by an Australian customs plane that flew overhead. We would hear it fly by and wait by the VHF for them to call and ask the name of the boat, last port and next port. They seem to keep good tabs on cruisers here.
The last 110 miles of our passage into Darwin involved crossing the Van Diemen Gulf and passing through the Clarence Strait, which has strong tidal currents that change direction several times a day and require good timing. The information we had indicated that the best time to start the passage from Cape Don is when it is four hours before high tide in Darwin. Since there are two high tides about 12 hours apart in Darwin and the passage is 110 miles, the decision was whether to begin late in the day and arrive in daylight, or begin in the morning and arrive after nightfall. Since the Clarence Strait is well charted with good navigational aids, we opted to start during the second high tide at 4 pm and arrive in Darwin the following afternoon. As we approached the Van Diemen Gulf, it was after 4 pm and we had missed the window, so we anchored in Port Essington for the night and would head in to Darwin the following day. We had a really peaceful night at anchor as the winds and seas were both starting to calm down.
We left Port Essington the next morning and reached Cape Don a couple hours early. Our wind completely died right before we got there, so we fired up the engine as we needed to keep a decent pace to keep favorable tides with us the entire way.
At 6 pm, our emergency bilge pump and alarm went off, and pumped several gallons of water from the bilge. This is never a good sign, and we frantically checked the through hulls, looking for leaks. The through hulls all seemed fine, so we started speculating about what was causing the leak. It wasn’t a major leak as it only pumped a few gallons every half hour, but we were still concerned, and it was frustrating to not know where it was coming from.
Finally around 10 pm, Andrew was crawling around in the bilge/engine room, and figured out that water was coming through the anti-siphon vent on the wet exhaust. The vent has a half inch clear plastic hose that runs off of it and down into the bilge. We weren’t sure why it was happening, but the exhaust and cooling system seemed to be working otherwise, so we decided it wasn’t critical and could wait until Darwin to figure it out. It was a bit unnerving to know that it was an engine issue, as we were motoring through an area with strong currents and no wind to sail with. We both stayed up throughout the night to navigate and take turns hand steering.
At 3 am, we noticed the bilge pump was no longer going off, and it didn’t happen again for the last five hours into Darwin. By this time we were in the middle of the Clarence Strait, and making 9-10 knots with the 3-4 knots of current. The strait is well charted and has lights throughout, and we zipped through covering 35 miles in four hours.
By 5 am, we were just outside the entrance to Darwin harbor, so we slowed down to enter in daylight. We expected to arrive in the afternoon, but actually got there before the sun came up thanks to the free miles from a favorable current. The sky began to lighten around 6:30 am, and we made our way into the anchorage in Fannie Bay, about five miles northwest of downtown Darwin.
We were sharing the anchorage with what seemed like another 100 boats. The Sail Indonesia Rally participants were gathered in Darwin and leaving in a few days so it was crowded. There was another anchorage a few miles south, but boats were packed in tight. Staying in a marina was too expensive due to the additional cost of lock transit fees (all Darwin marinas use lock systems due to the large tidal change). The Fannie Bay anchorage was not ideal, but there was plenty of room and was our best option until the rally left.
The problem with our anchorage was that the tidal change could be up to 20 ft twice a day. This meant we had to anchor in at least 26 ft of water at high tide so we could have 6 ft of depth when the tide went out. Fannie Bay has a gently sloping seafloor and when we dropped the anchor in 26 ft of water at high tide, we were about a mile from shore. We really wished we had an outboard motor for the dinghy! It took us 45 minutes to row in, which is an especially long time when you are constantly looking over your shoulder for crocodiles.
We made the long row to shore a few times and caught a bus into downtown to have a look around and catch up on email. They have a good bus system in Darwin and getting around town was easy. Unfortunately, wifi is not very popular yet in the outback and was a bit difficult to find. We did eventually find it at the public library, and we emailed our mechanic in Seattle about the engine issue. We were happy to hear that it was likely a damaged gasket in the anti-siphon vented loop – replacing a gasket is a cheap fix. We ordered a spare and had it shipped to our friend Eric from Seattle who was meeting us in Bali in a few weeks. We also took this opportunity to order some other items that were either difficult to find or significantly more expensive outside the US.
Several days after we arrived, over a hundred cruising boats that were signed up with the rally hoisted their sails and set off to Indonesia. Darwin harbor looked empty, and we quickly weighed anchor and moved over near Cullen Bay. Before we dropped the anchor, we pulled up alongside at the fuel dock (outside the locks) to take on fresh water and give Saviah a much needed rinse. We then went out about a hundred yards and dropped the anchor beside only two other boats.
We had a long list of things to accomplish while in Darwin to prepare us for the next three months of cruising across the Indian Ocean. Provisioning was a big one, and our new anchorage near the Cullen Bay Marina would make things much easier. We had a short row to the fuel and ferry dock, where we could leave our dinghy, and it was only a short walk to the bus stop from there.
While in Australia, we also hoped to squeeze in a little time for tourist activities. We rented a car for a few days to see some sites and to make provisioning a little easier. The car we rented turned out to have a manual transmission, and Andrew had to quickly learn how to drive a left hand stick shift.
Our first stop was the Crocodylus Park & Zoo where they have over 1,000 crocodiles, as well as dozens of other animals. There is an organized tour of the saltwater crocodile lagoon and breeding pens that started right when we arrived. During the tour, our guide fed some of the crocodiles, which involved tying a string around raw meat and dangling it over them. It was amazing to see how high they could come out of the water as they would very slowly rise up and chomp down on it. It certainly didn’t help our anxiety later as we rowed back and forth from the boat.
|salties at Crocodylus Park|
At the end of the tour, the guide brought out a couple of baby crocodiles. Their mouths were taped shut so they couldn’t bite anyone, and Di took a turn holding one. The guide warned that they might squirm around and try to escape, so it was important to keep a firm grip and “don’t drop the babies”.
|Di holding a baby croc|
They also breed crocodiles at the zoo for their meat, which is quite popular here. After a day of walking around the park, we decided to get crocodile burgers for lunch. The meat was not bad, although we probably won’t order it again.
The next day we drove out to Litchfield National Park, about 75 miles south of Darwin. There are a series of roads that wind through the park, and you can drive to various points of interest and dozens of trailheads. Our first stop was an area with a bunch of termite mounds. We noticed these mounds along the road on the way in, but weren’t sure what they were. There are literally thousands of these mounds throughout the area, and some of them are 20 ft tall.
|termite mounds at Litchfield National Park|
We spent most of the day hiking to the various waterfalls in the park, many of which were designated swimming holes. The outback is hot and dry during the winter months, and it was really nice to go for a swim to cool off afterward. During the rainy season, there is flooding and some of the large saltwater crocodiles make their way inland and hang out in these swimming holes. In the dry winter months there are only freshwater crocodiles left, which are smaller and less of a threat to humans. We were glad not to see either.
|hiking in Litchfield National Park|
Unfortunately, our visit to Litchfield National Park and Crocodylus Park were about all of the time we had for tourist activities in Darwin. We spent most of our time preparing the boat for the long and potentially boisterous ride across the Indian Ocean. We made several trips to the grocery store to stock up on food to get us to South Africa and other supplies as well as fuel, water and propane. We ended up staying in Darwin for only two weeks and left on August 6th. Next stop Bali, Indonesia.
|sunset over Darwin Harbor|