Wednesday 28 January 2015


Gove is both a heavy industry port (Bauxite strip mining) and an Aborigonal community with its own name: Nulumbuy. The Gove yacht club has great food with huge servings, biggest I’ve seen in a restaurant since last time I visited the USA 20 years ago.. The slight inconvenience exists in fact that the club is 13km from the town where provisions can be bought. Transport can be a bit of a bummer, but we struck up a conversation with a local and he offered us the use of his car for the morning! So in one trip we filled up one trolley load of Woolworths goodies and filled up all our petrol gerry cans. Not happy that Woolies had no fresh meat, being a Sunday it was sold out. Also this town require you to obtain permission to purchase any take away alcohol (being an aboriginal mission they’re a bit touchy about the devils drink). Lucky we still have some rum left..

We had the big body of water known as the Gulf of Carpentaria before us, 330 miles across to the next settlement, Siesia, another aboriginal mission/town just South of the Cape of York ( - which is the most Northern point of the Australian mainland). We were warned that the seas can get quite rough in the Gulf too. The winds were still from the East so that bogey was still in place. I was hoping we can knock this off in 10 days, to the surprise of other boaties here, who plan on a 5 day trip, for reasons…  never mind.

Gulf sunset

It was great the first 1/2 hour sailing West through the harbour, the wind was behind us, such a rare event! Swung around the point and made Eastward into the 10 to 15knot SE’er. We sailed 42 miles made good that first 24 hours, compared to the 28 mile average of the last leg I’m not complaining. The we settled into a pattern, lashing the tiller most of the time, sometimes using TP when I thought it would do better. When the wind was closer to SE we’d make good progress as Siesia is on a ENE bearing. But most the time it seemed the wind was on the nose, ENE which made us go wildly off course. At least the currents this passage aren’t as bad as over Arnhem Land and we were doing better distances made good this time. Usually 30 to 35 miles/day. Doesn’t sound great but, our expectations have been lowered.. Some days there was a very light Easterly and tacking at 1 knot means more leeway and wider tacking angles, its much better to motor, 2.5 to 3 knots directly there. 

One time I was standing on the aft deck leaning against the boom crutch with hearing nothing but the relatively loud Tohatsu when suddenly a huge roar blasted from behind me. It was our old mates, the @#$% Border Protection plane flew really low over us, almost up the wazoo, to get a pic with their high tech camera mounted under the fusilage. Never heard them coming and scared the living c#@~ out of me! Of course they radio’d us to ask the same questions to which the answer was: “Fremantle, Gove, Siesia”.  Susie, who tends to do the talking with those guys, carried out her threat and asked them if they knew the weather forecast. You know, make them useful for a change, the border protection guy answered, “well its a SE’ly now” (thanks, we can see that) “we dont have any forecast reports…”.  She tried..

Gulf fishing boat

At one point the Tohatsu wouldn’t start. Usually its a problem of flooding, but un-flooding it didnt help. As Ashiki bubbled along at 2 knots I changed the spark plug, to no avail. That’s it, we’re one of those engineless cruisers now, and this doesn't particularly worry us. Thinking back, almost all the anchorages in the past 6 months were doable without motoring. I don’t think it's that hard. So we push on, sailing around 50 miles a day, of which about 30 is made good. That is to say, we are 30 miles closer to our destination. Two  days later, as I’m always puzzled why something stops working, I give the Tohatsu another pull on the cord, and the thing starts. Must have been a severe flooding problem and that's all. We are no longer “engineless” cruisers.

We made the halfway point in the Gulf and set our clocks forward 30 minutes to Queensland time zone, Ashiki is in QLD waters for the first time. Also we are officially in the “Eastern states” where strangely (to me) the sun sets on land and rises from the sea, as Susie is from the Eastern states, she gave a little “yay”. I dunno, I’m a sandgroper, but could become a banana bender, if coerced enough. I asked another cruiser in Darwin what he thought about that and he, having been to both places replied “the mind boggles”, maybe thought it was a concept beyond comprehension. (WA people and QLD people are both known to be quite parochial species.)

Anyway, we are now struggling against wind on the nose in QUEENSLAND and someone, Neptune, Poseidon or who ever decided no more mister nice guy and sent a 30 knot gale our direction. We’re down below, as usual, laying around reading our kindles, as usual, when Ashiki starts heeling a little more and is noticeably more bumpy. Poking my head out the companionway it all looks quite violent pitching over 1.5m waves and decide its time to reef. All it takes is to sit in one corner of the cockpit, release a line and drop 2 or 3 panels, snub up the 2 parrels, move to the other corner do the same to that sail and the motion completely changes. Less heel and more gentle and I’m back below with my Philip K Dick novel. This is what a storm is to us now. No big deal. Ok, sometimes when Ashiki is pounding my mind does wonder whether the foremast is strong enough, will the hull stay together.. I really paid attention to detail building this hull, over built a little, extra layers of glass on all the chines. Over the next couple days the sea remained quite rough as we were warned about, but don’t think the waves are ever over 2m. If this is as rough as it gets in a the Gulf, well, from a West Oz sailor… “ call this rough?”  (Holds up a piece of WA coastline) “This is Rough!”

As with the leg from Darwin, we get into a routine, we grow accustom to life at an angle. Susie actually likes the completely water borne existence, with no land in sight, only flat horizons and and the length and breadth of Ashiki becomes our known world. It does take a fair bit more effort to do anything at an angle. You must climb everywhere even at 20˚. (I can see the point multihullers make..) I try to keep the heel to no more than 20˚, though going to windward she will go faster at 30˚, but that angle is too hard to live with. Oddly enough, Ashiki doesn’t become more efficient as we reef. Most Bermudan boats when overpowered in a strong breeze will sail faster after reefing down. On the other hand Ashiki goes a little slower after reefing, both windward or on a beam reach. Overpowered and on her ear she loves, however, an overpowered junk sail doesn't look overpowered, there’s no ballooning out off the sails like on a bermudan, because the battens keep it in shape. She just heels more, and goes faster. This could be to do with the hull shape too, the dory is quick to heel the first 20˚ then hardens up considerably. She’s never been over 35˚ in the strongest squalls. 30˚ just may be a performance sweet spot. But it's too much.

The easiest dish to serve when its rough is to open a can, otherwise cheese and something else in a mission bread wrap is a favourite, that’s after the fresh bread is finished. Sometimes when Susie feels energetic she’ll make one of her Thai style coconut curry veggie dishes with white rice, yum. Dessert is canned fruit and if lucky, Susie has a batch of home made yoghurt to serve, both cold from the fridge. Breakfasts are commonly either Wheat Bix, Museli or porridge. We drink lots of tea too, with biscuits.

Sleeping is variable, if is calm enough, Susie will sleep in the forward berth with me on the couch. If its rough the forward berth is bouncing too much, she’ll take the couch with lee cloth up or not depending on the tack and I found sleeping on the sole (cabin floor) on a few cushions the best location. The pilot berth at the stern has fallen out of favour for now, it is hard to climb out of and is has since turned into a defacto storage area. We set the alarm and climb up from a look each hour. Waking up every our isn’t the most peaceful sleep around, and I usually fall asleep right away, but never the less, a night at anchor is a nice change.

The last half of the voyage is slower, the winds are more against us and currents seem a little more bothersome, I had a tide app downloaded online while in Gove but its not as user friendly as Navionics one, of whom were still offline (they’re having problems). Then I remembered fiddling with the tide info on the OpenCPN chartplotter on the laptop a few years ago and had decided it didn't work. I reread that part of the manual, hit the “show tides button” on the screen, and presto….  tide stations showed up all over Australia! I had nationwide tide charts all along.  Double checked it with the WA tidebook and its spot on correct.…  DOH.

Siesia, Cape York Peninsular.
On one of the better days we nodded along for 32 miles NNE, tacked and 32 miles SE, 64 miles sailed in 24 hours but 34 miles made good. We ended up approaching the York peninsular more South that we prefered, but the seas were getting flatter, protected by the mainland and started seeing more ships, I assume coming from the bauxite mining port of Weipa. Drawing closer to Seisia we negotiate the long shoals and opted to anchor in the shallows in the lee of Crab Island for a peaceful sleep, just below the entrance to Endeavour Strait. Yep, Captain Cook territory.

We anchored off Australia’s northern most mainland town, Siesia by midday next day, 12 days out from Gove. Averaged 29.6 mile/day made good which was slightly better than Darwin/Gove but consumed less than half the fuel. Time to re-provision.

Monday 12 January 2015

Over Arnhem Land

Ashiki's zigging and zagging

We’re in the Arafura Sea and we are beginning to experience the problem with leaving Darwin. Where are the NW’ers and the Westerlies? It’s all Easterlies, on the nose against us, so are the currents. Sometimes there is no progress at all even while motorsailing, and no where to anchor. What do you do? We want to go East, the wind and current only let us go either North or South. That is a 180˚ tacking angle. So we aim Ashiki North, after two hours, say, she starts sailing a few degrees towards East, eventually she’s heading North East, not bad. The current is slowing changing and letting us make some Easting. Tack around and she can make South East for a couple hours, then the current starts moving against us and Ashiki is heading more Southerly. 

I find sailing her with the tiller lashed is best, this will let Ashiki follow the wind if there is any change in direction. TP can't anticipate this and wants keep Ashiki pointing on a compass course. She inscribes these weird rounded Z shapes across the chart plotter, its the pattern of the changing currents letting her do what she can. But wind is on the nose and we are tacking day in day out, making good only 30 miles/day. It will take two weeks to get to Gove at this rate! We are spending large amounts of time at 1 to 2 knots. 2.5 knots is a good speed! We had one memorable afternoon when the winds swung from the NE, strengthened and Ashiki can make direct East, romping along at 4.5 to 4.8 knots. I was thinking she had forgotten how to go that quick.. So quick a big pod of dolphins joined us, cavorting over each other to sit on our bow wave. Later that night its back to Easterlies. I prefer the calms at least we can motor straight east, making good 2 to 3 knots (instead of the normal 1 knot made good tacking). 

One morning we were surrounding by a large pod of midget sized
dolphins. None of them over 1.5m (4ft).
Few days later it was a pod of normal size dolphins,
twice the size of these.

Another night its blowing a gale, at least 35 knots. I’m thinking we could make 3 or 4 knots SE into this, but the Crocodile Islands are only a few miles away so the decision was made to reef down and head North. At least we could sleep and not worry about land. After the storm abated we tacked and headed South again, back on exactly the same track the night before, we ended up making zero progress in 12 hours.

Good thing we always keep a large stock of food on board, at least 3 months supply and 6 weeks of fresh water, because two weeks were up and we still had 56 miles to go. We’ve read in the old time cruising books about crews on small sailing boats taking a month or two to cross oceans end up dreaming of the meals they’re going to eat when they finally reach port. We’re were already at that stage! I was thinking lamb cutlets and sausages at that point..  

Anchorage at the Wessel Islands

We made the Wessel Islands, our first anchorage in 10 days, further south in that chain than we wanted, but we’re there! It took us most the next day to get back up along the island to the “Hole in the Wall”, the gap in the islands we needed to pass to continue on to Gove. It’s a fun little gap and we’re looking forward to it. Time the tides right and you're sailing through it at 10 knots. Of course, we don’t have any tide tables so we’ll have to wing it. We arrived at the entrance and proceeded to sail through, it looked ok. About 300m from it we are starting to go backwards….  yeah, not the right time, fortunately the bay back from the entrance is quite protected and we anchor there for a few hours. We try again and get a few hundred metres inside the narrow channel, I swear the current looked right, Susie was completely skeptical saying its all wrong. Well, Susie was right, we failed again. Hmm, we sail back to the bay and settle in the for the night and missed the radio transmission from that pesky Custom/Border Protection plane that flew low over us.

In the morning I woke to see another yacht had anchored in the bay the other side of the point. I suggested to Susie we’ll follow them through, they are surely more organised than us and know the tides. Sure enough this boat weighed anchor and made its way to the Hole in the Wall at 8:30am. It was big modern plastic beast, an Oceanis 47 and they seemed to picked the right time as we watched them progress through without getting blown backwards. So we up anchor and head on after them. As we get closer Ashiki is going faster and faster, by the middle of the channel I see 9.9 knots on the GPS. A gust comes, Ashiki heals over violently and heads for the rocky shore! Susie quickly drops the foresail and boat gets back under control. I think main only is best in these circumstances. In a few minutes we are through the other side, the course for the straits between the next set of islands is more Southerly and for once the Easterly is favourable! First favourable winds in almost two weeks! We raise all panels and Ashiki is averaging 4 knots. The big Oceanis in the distance slowly pulls away from us, that’s the difference more waterline makes. 

Looking back, the Hole in the Wall.

Good thing is those people on the other boat obviously did their homework because we need the current to be with us for the next two straits we have to shoot. The next, “The English Company Islands” is 16 miles away, another “Point William” is 5 mile after that and the tide changes in 6 hours. It’s a good thing Ashiki is sailing fast today because we made both straits within the allotted time and shoot through both at 5 to 6 knots. After the 1st strait Ashiki is surging along beautifully at 4+ knots when I see another large yacht behind us and making ground on us fast, I actually hauled up the last panel on the foresail to give Ashiki more drive and we’re making 4.8 to 5 knots to windward, they gradually pass us, looking to be holding 6 to 7 knots, an R45. A good 15 foot longer waterline than us.

R45 racing past.. and I thought we were going great guns..

That last strait cleared and its only 21 miles to Gove, Ashiki is holding over 4 knots, a day we never experienced in the previous 2 weeks, apart from that 4 hour session with the dolphins. In the distance Gove looked like a city of high rises. There aren’t any high rises in Gove, the refraction on the sea made the smoke stacks of the bauxite refinery look taller. But it did make Gove look kind of prosperous and inviting. We were anchoring off the Gove Sailing Club by 8pm that evening. 

Later we met the couple on the Oceanis 47, from NZ, they had bought the boat in Croatia having never sailed before. That was eight years previous. I thanked them for showing us the way through the Hole in the Wall, they obviously had their act together with tide tables and timed it beautifully. The skipper said “We don’t have tide tables either, we were winging it…”. 

But its interesting to hear them say they go “slow” everywhere, 3,4 and 5 knots (most yachties tend to overstate their speeds but not these guys). I thought the mighty Oceanis would be quicker than that. In comparison, up here in the tropics I would say Ashiki goes everywhere at 2,3 and 4 knots and the shorter WL amounts to roughly 1 knot lower hull speed.

It took us 15 days Darwin to Gove, that is 28 miles/day made good. Really slow, but that’s the reality of sailing with wind on the nose. Put it another way, Ashiki sailed over 700 miles to cover the 420 miles. We motorsailed over 50 hours too, can’t say how much time that saved us, it could be 2 days or a week, it may have got us over a patch which might have taken days if sail only. There were several cruising boats in Gove which had just made the same voyage, they mostly took 5 or 6 days. They tended to motor 5 knots straight into the wind the whole way. We can’t do that. They’d run a fuel budget of a several thousand dollars too (including getting down some of the QLD coast). Something we don’t do either. I think we’re happy the way we do it, Ashiki is a sail boat after all.

Tuesday 6 January 2015

Over the Top

A cruiser in Darwin describe the route East across the top in less than glowing terms, expletive laden in fact. The problem is all winds lead to Darwin, from the West its Westerlies, from the East its Easterlies (work that one out..). Easy place to get to a bugger of a place to leave! Anyway, in November Darwin is about the most uncomfortable place on earth, try sleeping in 35˚ and 85% humidity at midnight.. so its a good time to leave.

Dinah Beach Yacht Club careening poles.
They bring the boat in at high tide, tie it
to the poles and at low tide, the bottom can be painted.
At our previous outpost of (semi) civilisation, McGowans, an aboriginal run camping ground in the Kimberley, Susie learnt some news from family which prompted a change in plans. The cruise to SE Asia will be delayed another year, and we’re sailing to Gosford NSW instead. Which meant we had some things to do in Darwin before the big sail across the top to Queensland. One of them was the purchase and installation of a Raymarine tiller pilot ST2000. We had always planned to install one, an alternative to windvane steering and now was the time since we have 2,400 Nm to sail and we’ll need all the steering help we can get, especially when this voyage needs to be completed before the SE trades start up again in late March (this being late October now). Originally I planned for the cheaper ST1000 which would connect to the trim tab, but since no more trim tab, the beefier ST2000 is the one to go with. We also bought an extra 100Ah battery and another 80W of solar panels to supply power to the new instrument.

I hadn’t completely finished the installation of the solar panels when we weighed anchor and sailed around Darwin’s harbour. No hurry, there’s always time at anchorages for boat work. Besides, the winds were still favourable, coming from the West. We steered Ashiki to the entrance of the Cullen Bay marina where there is an excellent floating pier with water and fuel available, at road house prices too.

Fuelled and watered, we anchored for the night opposite the Darwin Sailing club, a rolly roadstead, where I completed the solar panel installation. We set sail the following morning on the 420 mile voyage over the top to our next port, Gove, still in the Northern Territory on the Western edge of the Gulf of Carpentaria. The plan was to make it to the tip of QLD, Cape York in the month of November. That is 420 miles to Gove then 350 miles across the Gulf of Carpentaria to Cape York. A month should be plenty of time to make it which means we have those two legs over before the cyclone season. 

The winds were flukey, full sail was set all day, winds started with a light NE’er then switched to a NW’ly as we made our way to Van Diemen Gulf with the odd small session of motorsailing during the calms. Ashiki is not a boat set up for serious motorsailing, at sea while she may only sail at 1 knot into the 5 knot breeze, firing up the 6hp Tohatsu will only boost her to 2.8 to 3 knots, which makes a difference, but a far cry from the 5 or 6 knots most other cruisers tend to motor at. At least the Tohatsu only burns 1.1 litres/hour at 3/4 throttle and we carry 65 litres of fuel onboard.

It wasn’t till after dark we entered the strait and later on I slept in the cockpit, in a semi sleep state I remember seeing 6 knots on the GPS, must be at least a 3 knot current assisting in the narrows and a good thing I was awake to negotiate the tanker coming the other direction, the tiller pilot kept us on a dead straight course. It was pure luck the tides were timed right because a glich on Navionics software update have left us without tide data. We had no idea which way the currents would go!

TP at work

Over night winds increased for an hour or so, kicking up a nasty chop, there was a “crack” from the vicinity of the tiller pilot (TP), which had been working flawlessly till then. No more steering suddenly, the wooden tiller pilot mount I had built in Darwin snapped. Because our bearing was as close on the wind as possible, lashing the tiller worked. So rule no.1 with the tiller pilot, either reef down in heavy weather or disconnect it. TP is not really necessary going to windward anyway.

Van Diemen Gulf turns out to be quite the tidal nightmare, and by morning flukey winds and nasty currents meant Ashiki couldn’t make any Northing. A NE’er was blowing and the current against us, it was either sail East on one tack, or NW on the other (backwards), so the decision was made to drop anchor East of Cape Hotham and wait for the tide to change. It wasn’t deep near the shoals, around 4 to 5m and it was an opportunity to fix the mounting point for the TP. I bolted on a piece of hardwood this time, replacing the pine which snapped and the job was done within an hour. Susie made lunch then we hung around, snoozing or reading our kindles. By around 4pm Susie announced we’re facing the other way, the tide had finally turned, the wind had become an Easterly and we can start sailing North.

The top of the gulf was 48 miles away and Ashiki took 24 hours to do it in the light winds and for part of the time, adverse current. A good portion of the leg was 3 to 4 knots, then many hours at 1.5 to 1.8 knots. Running 6 to 7 knots with a near gale and 3m waves up the wazoo in Western Australia is a distant memory! We just made the exit when the current turned again and we were beginning to be swept backwards when we made a mad motorsailing dash towards the coast and dropped anchor for the night, best to wait out this nasty current. Boats coming the other way would have it easy I thought, with winds behind them what an easy sail that would be, but the one yacht we did see, a flashy 70 footer had her sails furled and was motoring!  Hmmm.  But at least we were finally out of Van Diemen Gulf and in the Arafura Sea with Melville Island to port and Arnhem Land to starboard, we had taken three days to cover the first 90 miles, maybe we can do better than this on the mostly straight run for Gove, still 325 miles away. A “straight run”, yeah..  sure!