Thursday 10 July 2014

Voyage to the Atom Bomb age

To give you an idea what the Montebello Islands are, they are an archipelago 40 miles off the mainland in the Indian Ocean, known for its beauty, nature reserves, wild life and in 1952 a 25 kilotonne nuclear device was detonated  aboard British ship HMS Plym anchored off the islands. In 1956 there was a 16 kilotonne detonation on Trimouille island and a 98 kilotonne one on Alpha Island also in 1956, the biggest nuclear detonation on Australian soil. These were tests carried out by the British government with permission of the Aussie government (bent over backwards didn’t we?), during a time we had an extraordinarily pro British prime minister. Churchill and Menzies were great mates and the latter was eager to sell Aussie sovereignty off cheaply. One would think the poms had plenty of home grown choices to obliterate. Lords cricket ground for one, they had no use for that…

So, we had the alarm set for 1am at the Great Sandy Island anchorage, but there wasn’t much wind then, so Susie reset the alarm for 3:30am and we went back to sleep. This time there appeared to be a 12 to 15 knot Sou’Easterly, that’s more like it, after a quick muesli and coffee, we weighed anchor in the darkness at 4:10am and so started the 50 mile sail to the islands. Steering out of the anchorage with Susie still on the bow sorting out the anchor, I heard a pop and a tug on the tiller. The chain of the windvane had somehow engaged itself on the tiller and one of the blocks broke. That’s the windvane out of action for today.  

Ashiki was fast off the anchor, holding a steady 4.5 to 4.8 knots as Susie steered passed the beacon lights of nearby islands and glows on various points of the horizon, both on the mainland and out to sea. It’s a busy place, still in the heart of Australia’s lucrative oil and gas industry (Aus still a net importer of the black stuff, not producing quite enough for itself, but a big exporter of the gas). The breeze freshened and swung to the East and we’re holding 5 knots on a beam reach, keeping plenty of panels up is working well. Needing to bungy the tiller as there’s some weather helm, not wanting to reduce the helm (the tiller is trying to pull your arms out) by freeing the main sheet, it usually means fast sailing and we want to make the most of this breeze incase it disappears.

We’re having to skirt exclusion zones, because the oil companies are liability mad, there is a big perimeter around Barrow Island. Now that’s a name from both Susie’s and my childhoods, always hearing about the big oil discovery at a place called “Barrow Island”. The glow of the place can be seen over the horizon at night, lit up like a city. Couple hours after sunrise the winds lulled a little, Ashiki is holding 3.5 to 4 knots and not healing much, so I took the opportunity to cook a brunch as Susie was manning the tiller, we had been sailing for 4 hours and feeling a little peckish. Bacon and eggs it is.

Varanus Island behind the platforms

By mid morning we are racing 12 miles abeam Barrow island with the wind freshening again and showing no signs of abating. The seas were building too, Ashiki was getting the occasional slap by quartering waves. By lunchtime the next Island coming into view is Varanus Island. This name is known to just about everybody in Perth because a certain explosion that happened there 2 years ago. The gas refinery on the island is connected to Perth via a 1,400km pipeline. The explosion caused gas shortages all over Perth that summer and the resource company were quite tight lipped over the cause. Subsequent investigation showed the cause was simple enough. Where the pipeline left the island and entered the sea water no maintenance was carried out. It rusted through, gas leaked and caused the massive explosion. Yes my friends, the island was run by dunces.

On the way we saw our first dugong in almost its entirety, not just a head disappearing into the drink. It was a little like a dolphin but flubbier with a fleshy tail and without dorsal fin. Also saw a huge sea snake floating by, looking at us then wiggled away.

It was midday, we had been sailing for 8 hours and as per usual, Susie was doing the bulk of the steering, mainly because she loves it, we were holding over 5 knots and flying!  I’m thinking a mid afternoon arrival at Montebello, cool! We made the waypoint taking us to the northern edge of the Varanus prohibited zone (greedy buggers) and turned from a northerly to a north-west course, a broad reach. Ashiki accelerated to 6 - 6.8 knots, hitting 7 at times, with a following sea making the ride that little more exciting. Oil and gas platforms dotting the horizon to the right and the left of us, like the cover of a Dune novel (spice sands!)..  I reefed down 2 panels each sail just to keep her more controllable. The calms never came, the wind was 20 to 25 knots all day, what a difference that makes.

Before long we were within the Montebello archipelago having come in on one of the leads recommended in the pilot and sticking to our rather convoluted track on the plotter, mainly to skirt the unsurveyed areas. Still with sail up, we were gliding to windward at 4.5 to 5 knots over relatively smooth protected water marvelling at the many islands. This place is much more scenic than the Abrolhos, no low lying islands here, more substantial hilly terrain and sandstone cliffs instead. An hour later we had cruised through the heads of a lagoon entrance were dropping anchor in 5.5 metres. It was 3pm, less than 11 hours to sail 52 nautical miles. If sailed at yesterday’s rate (light winds and adverse current), it would be a 17 hour trip, so today’s sail was very nice indeed.

Ashiki (that's the red arrow) zooming between
the platforms. Yes, that's her speed, going a little
slower at that point..

Termite Island, Montebello Islands Group
Termite Island anchorage, the 2 knot current.

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