Wednesday 23 April 2014

An Island too far

Houtman Abrolhos Islands

At sea again, where's the wind?
We made an early start, stowed the hook and motored out of the bay to raise sail, after 5 pleasant days in Geraldton we were on our way to the exotic Abrolhos Islands. A collection of 4 island groups, mainly coral atolls as far as I can tell, 32 miles straight out to sea, but still just inside the Australian continental shelf. I know it has a semi permanent fishing community living there in makeshift shacks of which it is famous. In the old days it was like a heady gold rush attracting all nationalities. As the saying goes, the Finns built saunas, the Italians built chapels and the Aussies built bars. It is also a fairly popular long distance destination for Fremantle cruising yachts. I’ve heard about the islands my entire life, but never been there. There’s history in that place, and the beginnings of European involvement would be one of the most brutal and bloody in all Australian history. 

First glimpse. Really low island.

We were aiming for the closest island group, namely the Palseart group. Named after the Captain of the Batavia, a ship belonging to the Dutch East India Company, which shipwrecked there in 1629. The good captain took a long boat to Java where he was to return with a rescue ship for the remaining crew. After he left, merchant officer Jeronimus Cornelisz and his mutinous honchos went on a rampage and murdered 140 of his fellow crew/passengers and lay in wait to storm Palseart’s rescue ship on his return. His plan was foiled when some survivors made their way to the Walibi group (to the north) where ship’s soldiers had been left stranded. Palseart returned and learnt of the murders from soldiers thus able to capture the perpetrators who were then tried and hanged. Except for 4 of them who were deposited on the mainland to take their chances with the local aborigines. Palseart with 40 surviver’s continued to Java. (There’s been speculation in recent times that the 4 Dutchmen left behind mingled with the indigenous population and maybe there’s some European DNA in the descendants, but not substantiated.)
Fishermen settelment, basic housing.
We wanted to get there in daylight as there are reefs everywhere, but, of course, the day wasn’t ideal, the wind left us halfway across. We only use the motor if it is really serious, like today..  so we’d motor for 40 minutes, try sailing, then motor again.

A cairn! You know, those things mountain climbers
leave a top of mountains...
I figure these islands are so low lying, a wave can
obscure them, fishermen built it to
help find their way back.

We made the islands an hour before sunset so not enough time to find our planned anchorage, which would entail several miles of weaving around coral heads. Explains the name, Abrolhos is a shortening of Dutch phrase meaning “keep your eyes open”. The closest anchorage in the pilot guide was opposite an island called “the post office”. It said it was deep and recommended by “Fisheries Department”. It was 20m deep, and I don’t like dropping the hook that far down. So we motored towards the shore where there was a “real” house (not a shack), checking the depth sounder, at 5m Susie went forward to the anchor, then suddenly called back “Stop! Reverse! Its all coral!” I looked overboard, and there were the biggest coral platters I’ve ever seen. Several feet across, covering every inch of seabed and shoaling quickly. Wow. It looked like another planet down there! On the shore there was a man standing there, looking at us. But no time to hang around over a shoal. We couldn’t anchor here, probably never get the anchor up again..  As we motored back out I looked at the next anchorage the guide “recommended”, it was a good hour away. We had 1/2 hour of sunlight left. I came to the realisation we can’t do anything here. Its reef everywhere, no local knowledge, its dark soon and there’s no hope but to leave. Lets go to Shark Bay and Carnarvon now, 200 miles north and skip the Abrolhos as a bad dream. Susie understood the danger and fully agreed, care and safety of boat and crew overrides frivolous destination choices.

Yet another classic stuff up.

We should have gone yesterday (tons of wind then!) 

Nothing is easy in a small boat on the high seas.

I quickly plotted a course through clear water north east, out of here. Sails up and with Ashiki nodding along at 4.5 knots she was sailing beautifully, like she had not a care in the world, sailing like this has a calming affect. I started thinking of other possibilities. With a southerly blowing, we could heave to and not run into the next island group, another 5 miles to the North West. I knew the direction Ashiki would drift and knew what was possible. To quit Abrohlos all together was an over reaction, this was a better idea.

That is what we did, put Ashiki in heaving to mode, let out the sea anchor to slow our progress and sleep off the night in deep water in between the island groups. We would visit the Abrolhos after all, in the morning, choosing the 2nd Group instead. The Easter Group.

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