When you arrive in Darwin you quickly become accustom to tides that require locks to be placed at the entrance to the marinas. In order to maintain a reasonable depth in a marina here, a lock system is located at the entrance of the marinas. As you can see in the video, the Lock takes us up nearly 10 feet to the entrance to the marina where the depth is maintained at 3.5 meters which provides 3 feet under our keel.
Checkout Lori being a ferret on crack running around moving fenders and lines.
Across the Top: Part 2
08/20/2014, Croker island
Having crossed the Gulf of Carpentaria without too much weather anxiety, we were feeling pretty good. Yes, it was ugly, but we've experienced worse.
Ahead of us was a 30 hour crossing to Croker Island through still another shallow section of the Arafura Sea. The major difference between this crossing and the Gulf of Carpentaria is the greatly reduced fetch. We had anticipated that this would make a big difference in sea state if the winds decided to blow in the 30s again. Unfortunately, we were mistaken. When we pulled anchor in Two Island Bay, we raised our main sail in 20 knot winds at 6:30am. We pretty much knew this would mean the winds would get stronger as the sun rose; the only question remaining was whether or not they would stay strong or reseed as the day progressed.
After three hours it was getting painfully obvious that we were once again going to have a really bumpy ride. By noon, we were facing the ugliest seas we've ever seen. We experienced waves so steep that they would lift our stern and point our bow downward into a trough at 45 degrees causing the boat to accelerate and shake as it surfed down the face of the wave. If we found ourselves sitting at any angle greater than 20 degrees to the waves, we would get rolled so far that our lee rail would submerge and our spreaders would nearly touch the water. As we rolled off the top of the first wave, we would get slammed by the second wave which occasionally boarded the foredeck sending hundreds of gallons of green water rushing into the cockpit. After a couple of these cockpit filling waves, we were getting quite concerned because the cockpit wasn't draining fast enough to keep up with the onslaught of water. I stood in knee deep salt water hand steering for hours while Lori was bailing with a bucket. I'm pretty certain this scene doesn't fit anyone's concept of fun. I know we weren't having fun and I could tell by Lori's expression that she wanted to be somewhere else.
Eventually we learned how to deal with the steep seas with Lori looking aft to tell me when a big one was coming. This allowed me to fall off our course preventing the rolling of the boat as the wave set ran under our keel. There was no chance that our autopilot could manage these seas and therefore we hand steered for hours and it kept the water out of the cockpit and the boat on a general heading across to Croker Island. The only concern now was the fact that the sun would soon set and we would be facing a four hour period of pitch dark before the moon would provide enough light to identify the cockpit fillers. Fortunately, as the sun set the winds subsided a bit and the steep sets of waves increased their period through the night. By morning, the period increased from two boat lengths to four or five which greatly reduced the deep trough effect which was causing the boarding seas. As the sun rose we still had massive seas that would lift the boat so high and so fast we felt we were on a roller coaster ride. By now however, we were so accustom to this ride that it didn't really bother us anymore. As long as we didn't think too much about the conditions and just focused on the miles clicking off towards our next anchorage, we could relax knowing the worst was behind us now.
By sunset, we were within a couple miles of Croker and we could see fires burning on shore. Not only were the winds causing havoc at sea, but they were also causing brush fires all across the top end. The air was full of smoke and the sunset produced a surreal orange glowing horizon as if the entire world had caught fire during our crossing. As the sun fell below the horizon, the upper atmosphere remained redish-orange and everything else was pitch black. Our entry to our anchorage was calm motoring through 20-30 feet of water using radar, depth sounder and chart plotter only. Motoring slowly we could only wait to find our perfect anchorage spot and drop the hook so we could eat and sleep. We were again exhausted and relieved to have completed another major crossing westward.
So, once again, the wisdom from this portion of our crossing is that none of the weather forecasting agencies for the region have a clue. This is especially true in regard to the seas state. All of the forecasts adjusted their wind speeds up and down, but they never adjusted seas state. In all cases, they report 1-2 meter seas. We would have really enjoyed 1-2 meter seas. If you are planning to sail across the top, be sure to do so when the highs in southern Australia are weak and the be aware that the sea state will become untenable if the winds get above 30 knots for more than an hour.
Across the Top: Part 1
08/18/2014, Thrusday Island to Wessel Island
Going across the top from Thursday Island to Darwin was reported to us by many to be either one of the best sails you'll ever experience, or it would be the worst. The primary reasons for this bipolar characteristic is the shallow water, long fetch and giant land mass to the south that produces an endless series of high pressure ridges resulting in long lasting gale force winds. If you are lucky enough to catch a lull in the winds, you will likely get a nice brisk crossing with 15 knot winds and 1 meter seas. If your luck is like ours, you'll find yourself facing ugliness for the entire trip.
When we arrived in Cooktown while on the East coast, the fuel station attendant mentioned that the windy season was upon us and it ran from June through September and the winds could last for weeks at a time. She also mentioned that as a "rule of thumb" for the locals, if there is a 1035mb high coming off the Australian bight between Sydney and Hobart, the winds would reach 35 knots. If the high was 1045mb, the winds would blow 45 knots. Basically they take the last two digits of the high pressure forecast and that would be the expected sustained wind speed for the period of time that the high lasted.
I kinda chuckled and thought to myself that such a rule of thumb failed to take into account a myriad of atmospheric variations that would alter such a simple view of weather. The funny thing about rules of thumb though is that they generally have stood the test of time and have proven to be correct enough times that such simple concepts are accepted. This is especially true for a group of people that rely on simple rules to dictate when they will take their fishing trawlers out to the reef or stay put in the safety of an anchorage.
Unfortunately I didn't take much heed in the concept of atmospheric digitery and in hind sight realize that I should have. So, if you are a sailor preparing to cross the Gulf of Carpentaria or just sailing around the Whitsundays, consider the wisdom of a "rule of thumb"...I wish I had.
Our experience with these winds started at Lizard Island after we departed Cooktown. We knew there was a strong wind event coming our way and that Lizard offered the best protection from the SE swell that was produced in the Coral Sea and passed through the reef. When we arrived at Lizard, the winds had pumped up to 35 knots with gusts reaching 45 knots. Now the unique aspect of Australian wind events is their potential to last for multiple days and sometimes as long as a week. This is unheard of most anywhere else. Strong wind events generally blow through a region in 4-6 hours anywhere else in the world. However, Southern Australia has the ability during this time of year to produce very slow moving high pressure ridges that travel from the West coast across the bottom of the country to the East coast and then out into the Tazman and Coral Seas where they produce SE winds and swell as they very slowly dissipate massive quantities of energy.
When we finally arrived in Thursday Island at the top of Australia, we were greeted with a week long wind event that pinned us and many others down at anchor. Most of us relocated from Thursday Island to the Lee off Hook Island. The winds blew steady for five days between 25 and 35 knots...all day and all night. There was rarely a break in the wind and it really got old. The Hook Island anchorage reminded us of La Paz because the 4 knot tidal currents shift direction twice daily and anyone with a keel will point in the opposite direction of the current as it flows. The result when combined with strong wind is a boat that heels over whenever a strong gust of wind comes through. It also makes holding an anchor position extremely challenging not to mention how annoying it got when sitting or sleeping at 40 degrees for multiple days.
During our extended stay at Hook Island waiting for our weather window, we spent countless hours studying a multitude of sources to identify the best opportunity to cross the infamous Gulf of Carpentaria. The weather window we chose indicated 15 - 20 knot SSE winds with 1.5 to 2m seas lasting 5 days. This was not what we experienced...and it is important to note that the high pressure ridges crossing Melbourne at the time were 1033 to 1038mb. Should have been thinking about that "Rule of Thumb".
When we pulled anchor and motor sailed out of the Thursday Island passage, we had an enormous current that took us out into the gulf at 11.5 knots. This is as fast as Trim has ever moved. Of course such wonderful things don't last and we eventually slowed to our typical 6.5 to 7.5 knots of cruising speed with 18 knots of breeze on our aft quarter. The crossing was looking quite nice at this point.
Interestingly, as you sail out into the Gulf of Carpentaria you will realize that the water depth remains an amazingly shallow 50 to 65 ft for most of the first 12 hours of sailing. In fact, we were well beyond sight of any land when we came across several enormous oil super tankers just sitting on anchor. The sight was surreal. These ships are some of the largest man made objects on the planet and here they were, obviously full of oil sitting low in the water, at anchor, in the middle of nowhere. I have been told by those in the industry that they are waiting for the right spot price on the market to finally deliver their load of oil to port. Apparently they can sit for months at a time waiting for market conditions to change and the larger the ship, the greater the reward for just sitting on anchor.
Approximately 80 miles out, the water depth started to increase to approximately 150 feet deep. Still shallow enough to anchor in. By this time the sun was setting and we noticed the winds steadily increasing from 15 knots to 20 knots and then to 35 knots. This increase in wind speed was not just a sun downer and it certainly was not in our forecast. We reefed down the main and furled in the geni and found ourselves doing 7.5 to 8 knots in 35 knot winds through the night under reefed main alone. By morning, the seas state had reached 10 to 15 foot short period rollers which were coming from the South and right on our beam. The only way we could manage such conditions was to turn slightly North towards the North end of the Wessel Islands. We had originally planned to pass through the Hole in The Wall further South of the Wessel group.
Into the second day of the crossing it was obvious that our weather forecasts were "for shit" and we were going to be in these conditions till we could reach the lee side of Wessel Island which was another 150 miles and another night of sailing. My big concern was the potential increase in wave height as we approach the shallow waters of Wessel. We had sets of waves coming out of the south that were easily 15 to 20 footers with steep faces and deep troughs. Fortunately, we had a big bright full moon to sail by and we could easily see the big waves coming. However, it required that we stay alert and wide awake all night which was now pushing 50 hours without sleep. We were growing accustom to going 30 hour period without sleep, but 50 hours was asking a lot.
By the midday on the third day out, we could see the grey smudge of Wessel Island on the horizon and we knew we would be anchored in a mater of hours. As we approached the Northern tip of the island, the water started to get shallow again and the waters became extremely confused. We had big swells coming from every direction but North.
Another interesting feature of the sea floor as we approached the northern tip of Wessel was a deep hole shown of the charts right at the point where the two bodies of water meet. As we sailed across the hole, we watched our depth meter reading go from 60 feet to 486 feet and back to 65 feet in just 100 yards. Apparently there is an enormous whirl pool produced that drills out a deep hole. As a scuba diver I tried to imagine what the hole must look like under water and what it would be like to dive into a sandy whirlpool 486 feet deep. I'd imagine the swirling water would suck you down and hold you there until you ran out of air...which at 486 feet would be very fast. Lori doesn't like thinking about such things.
As we rounded the northern tip of Wessel and pointed South towards a calm anchorage known as Two Islands Bay, the water calmed considerably while winds actually seemed to increase. The water was very shallow on approach to the anchorage and we knew we'd be anchoring in 20 feet again. We found that we could get right up next to the rocky outcrops of the shore to within a 50 yards which provided excellent anchoring conditions. The anchorage was stunningly beautiful with ancient 1.5 billion year old layered rocky out crops surrounded by white sandy beaches and nothing to indicate that any other humans had ever set foot here. This was another one of the truly remote anchorages where you felt blessed to experience the solitude and remoteness of the place.
Needless to say we were relieved to finally be at anchor and able to cook a nice meal, take a hot shower, pour a stiff drink and relax to watch the night skies produce a brilliance of colors we haven't seen since Beveridge Reef. After the sun set, Lori and I sat on the front deck with drinks in hand and stared out at our surrounds and decided it was all worth it. The water was gently lapping against the hull, the moon was rising on the horizon over the white sanding beaches in the distance and the Milky Way above was glowing. Life on a boat at these moments is priceless. We slept that night better than we have slept in years.
Waking up in a calm remote anchorage is a wonderful experience. A fresh cup of coffee in hand and clear blue skies on every horizon is a feast for the senses. The Two Island Bay anchorage offers candy for the eyes. The limitless shades of blue outlined by rugged outcrops of rocks with enormous overhangs and trees is texturally pleasing when all you've seen for the last 3 days was giant walls of water.
While drinking our morning coffee, Lori noticed something moving slowing towards the boat from behind. It looked like a couple of sharks with dorsal fins appearing and disappearing as they made their way closer. Eventually, we could see that it wasn't sharks, but rather a giant manta ray feeding as it swam into the outgoing current. Once we saw that it was a Manta Ray and not sharks, we placed the dingy in the water and motored over to inspect our visitor more closely. Amazingly, it let us get to within feet of its big wings before it would turn away. I tried to video the giant underwater, but the waters were too cloudy with silt from the tides. Even so, it was an incredible experience close-up with a giant manta ray in the wild. The big guy stayed around feeding for several hours before he disappeared. Very cool stuff.
Since we were so exhausted and our anchorage was so pleasant, we decided to stay two nights and spend the day exploring the surrounding. We went for a long dingy ride and a short hike across the ancient pre-Cambrian rocks which are said to be 800 million to 1.5 billion years old. Apparently there are trilobite fossils to be found if one takes the time and is so inclined to such pursuits.
Safe Arrival in Darwin
We arrived today at 4pm in Darwin and are safely at anchor in Fanny Bay.
The crossing took 7 days with 1 day (Wessel Island) and 6 nights at anchor.
Maximum winds were 35 knots producing 25 foot seas that lasted more than 20 hours.
Needless to say, we are exhausted!
Detail story to come.
Photo is of Wessel Island Anchorage...incredible place virtually untouched.