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!

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