We left on a rising tide. If our calculations worked out we would be flushed out of Thursday Island with at times 4 kts of current behind us. Indeed, that is what happened!
Leaving Australia was bitter sweet. We were here almost 3 years. We made many friends, witnessed a few once in a century events, and upgraded the boat for the next chapters of our cruise.
Our friends will be missed and we hope to cross paths with them somewhere down the line. The century events such as the Australian fires will not be missed. Nor the rain bombs that plagued the Queensland and New South Wales states. And of course, Covid which shut down so much world travel.
In our ride out of the Australian summit the winds were exactly what we hoped for, the seas not so much. Mother Nature cooperated with a breeze rarely breaking 20 kts. But, Neptune found another way to torture us. There is not much room in the Torres Straits for ocean swell to squeak by. I wondered how nothing seemed to matter in how the seas developed here. We had swell from the NE and then from the Gulf of Carpentaria south of us. Any whoever has studied “waves” understands that the height troughs are additive. Thus if you put a 2’ wave on top of a 2’ sea; where they cross will be 4’. That is the crest. And the opposite is true. If you put a -2’ trough with a second 2’ trough you get a 4’ bottom. The worst is that the waves and seas don’t combine in a nice, comfortable, easy motion; but randomly. The boat is thrown about in odd ways. While tolerable, the motion does make sleeping during off watch times less than idilic.
The good news was that as we were moving away from the Torres Strait and the Gulf of Carpentaria. The seas and swell were easing. The wind moderating to a steady 10-15 kts. We knew then the seas were soon to settle. And the boat motion would follow.
We were making good time. Our first evening we had a lovely lightening show N of us over Papua New Guinea (PNG) and another S over Australia. The good news about lightening offshore is that you can see it 100’s of miles away. The bad news is that you can see it. On a boat in the middle of the ocean, lightening is not fun to have around. One of the fears I had of leaving for Indonesia late in the season was that we would have no wind (Doldrums) and be traveling through the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ). The ITCZ is where lightening calls home. That zone after all is a junction between two weather systems. Our luck held out. All we had from the two lightening shows was a lovely tropical rain shower in the early morning. The wind settled down and became a breeze, the boat’s washed, and we continued on our way.
While every sailor loves wind at their back we are no different. Our course and the wind direction were exactly the opposite. Winds at our back. For sailors that is good news. The minor issue is that while at our back the winds changed during the day from 135º at night to 90º during the day. Each day we needed to gybe the boat a few times to keep traveling in the right direction. Much like walking with a blister, tolerable, just not “fun”.
As the wind and seas settled I decided to fish. Luke and Fumi on s/v Araminta in Lizard Island gave me a hint. To catch Mackerel you must use this particular kind of lure. I didn’t have one. Fumi was ordering some sending them to Thursday Island. Since we would meet up again there I asked her to add two for us. We picked them up in Thursday Island and finally I decided to test their theory. I added it to our new rod and reel we picked up in Gladstone and set about 100’ of line out the back. Set the clicker on and waited. This is how I like to fish. Let the boat do the work, read a book and when we hear the reel ‘zing’ haul it in.
Well for most of the day I never heard a zing. Sometime in the afternoon I checked to see if I had caught some trash on the lure and needed to remove it. W/ “FISH ON”. I noticed we had a fish dragging across the surface of the water. The reel never went through the zing. Had I set the drag
to tight?! It could be the fish tried to swim with us instead of fighting. Anyway, I reeled in a tired fish. Getting it aboard was not easy. I usually just swing it up into the cockpit as taught by my cruising brother Dirk. This one was too big to swing. I couldn’t easily use the pole and the wire leader wanted to cut into my hand. W/ grabbed a pair of leather gloves for me. I reached down and grabbed it by the jaw dragging it through the lifeline and into the cockpit. In the cockpit it began thrashing around as W/ threw an older towel over its head and stood on it. No longer did it thrash around. We made a noose to hang it by the tail, dropped its nose in a bucket and cut the gills to let it bleed out. An hour later I was cleaning a good size Mackerel. 40 plus inches from head to tail. Another hour and we had twenty steaks cut up and in the refrigerator. We added them to the freezer the following day. Whew.
As the days went by and we continued to have wind we settled into a comfortable routine. Light breakfast, Lasagna for lunch and snacks the rest o the day. We divided up the night for watches, slept and read a lot. I started and finished 4 books and W/ read about the same.
Back in Thursday Island we had a bit of luck. We stopped at the Grand Hotel restaurant and had lunch. I had not enjoyed Lasagna for a long time time, ordered it and loved it. A few days later we were there again and asked them if they would sell us a pan of Lasagna. We had done something like this before when we left NZ. They didn’t have any in pans but wold sell us the portions they had already frozen. W/ bought six. This saved heaps of time with meal preparation on our passage. W/ removed one a day from the freezer to the refrigerator, the following day it was ready to heat and eat. It did hit the spot.
We lucked out with the rain and not having a shower every am. But fate threw another curve ball. Fishing fleets, nets and long line bouys. The good news was that most of them had an Automated Identification System (AIS). The bad news was when they showed up on the charting system. It reminded me of science fiction films and attacking aliens in space.The bouys don’t move. We needed to. Further, while they were near a mile apart some had nets. Better to go around them than through them.
When we first began studying our route for this trip I had read that the fishing fleets would be out to around 50 nm. I plotted our course to stay out 60 nm or more. Now we were 80 nm off the coast and coming across the fleets. Yuck!
We maneuvered around all but one. Remember; every once in a while we would see a bouy that didn’t have an AIS marker. There was one bouy that listed its size as 1,300 feet. We suspected a net but had no idea which direction it ran. We sailed by it at about 3 kts. As the bow of our boat came close I saw a string of floats, a net. We coasted right over it, the floats popping up astern of us. With any of the modern racer cruisers they would have caught the net in their rudder. Some people try to put cutters on various parts of their boat below waterline. Fishermen don’t like their nets cut up so some of the newer nets use a wire rope at the surface. A catamaran too would have grabbed the net with any of its 4 below water appendages, two rudders and two sail drives. Snagging a net with ocean all around in the middle of the night would not have been fun! Nope, not at all.
As the week played out, and as predicted the winds eased. The seas followed a day later. That was expected and fine by us. Larger seas than wind creates a lot of work on the boat. Some on the crew too. The swell moves the rigging back and forth as they roll by. As the rig moves the sail loses its drive, not enough wind to hold it out. It goes flat only to be filled back up again when the boat rolls back. Filling up isn’t a nice easy job. Then, as the sail fills again there is a god-awful bang and oft times shaking our rig. Some can noise and shaking can be ameliorated by using a heavy duty pole to keep the sail out. The pole reduces the strain on the rig and sail. For most of the trip we used a pole on our head sail. And as we were sailing 99% of the time straight down wind we never pulled the main sail up.
The last two sailing days were the sweetest. The wind had lightened up such that our heavy duty sail was not doing it’s job. The sail weighed too much and would hang limp. We hauled out our drifter which as the name implies is used when we are close to floating around in the open sea. This sail cloth is super light fabric. It attaches at the top and bottom and a line we refer to as a sheet runs back to the cockpit. She looks alive as the wind breaths into it and moves back and forth slow dancing and pulling us along. We cruised along at 3-4 kts having a wonderful, relaxing, resting day.
The last evening produced another light show, this time to the E of us. All night long we watched lightening dance across the sky. Not until the early morning did we hear the beat of thunder. Thunder tells us that the storm is inside the 10 nm range. It is not a perfect estimate, say 10 nm plus or minus a mile. When we start to hear thunder we count to see how far away it is. Three seconds per km and five seconds per mile. The morning was soon to arrive and we decided rather than attempting to sail into the mess we would lie ahull. We pulled all the sails down, tied the helm over and hung out watching the system pass N of us. We just floated…. aronnd. When the storm had passed our bow and moved far enough away we cranked up the iron genny (our engine) and motored between the two islands, around the top and down into Tual harbor.
And we were damn glad it was daylight. Continuing N we passed 50 or so Fish Attracting Devices (FADs) with a small unlit hut ensconced atop. Running into one of these in the dark would not have made anyone happy. Ironically, while this entire trip to this point we had the wind astern, after the storm system passed the wind was now on our nose. Right out of the N. We rounded the top of Tual and who knew, the wind on our nose continued. Even as we entered the harbour and headed S we had a head wind. Go Figure.
About 2:30 pm local time we anchored with our Quarantine flag up. By 3 pm we had our first official aboard. The day wasn’t over yet!