The lighthouse at Booby Island, just outside of the Torres Strait
Several weeks ago, we left the Louisiade Archipelago, off the eastern coast of Papua New Guinea, bound for Australia. The trip had all the makings of a difficult sail, with three different challenging parts, each being separated by a number of days at sea in between.
First, to get out of the Louisiades and back into the ocean, we would need to spend a day beating upwind, passing through two reefs along the away. Second, we’d have to pass through the Torres Strait, another collection of reefs, islands, and strong currents scattered along an ocean corridor that separates Australia from Papua New Guinea. Third and finally, was entrance to the Dundas Straight and the following 24-hour long approach to Darwin, which itself would have three legs, with strong currents running in patterns and at times that, as of the start of our trip, we’d been unable to decipher. One cruising guide warned that “[a]t times the whole [of the Dundas Strait] is churned into breaking seas by wind and tide,” where “waves often reach two meters, and being short bring the vessel to a shuddering halt before sweeping aboard.”
With the cruising guides descriptions peppered with words like “treacherous,” “unpredictable,” and “at the mercy of strong flows,” we figured that, at the very least, the passage wouldn’t be any worse than as described! In fact, it was a whole lot better, and made for one of our more enjoyable passages. Here’s how it went.
THE FIRST STRETCH: GETTING OUT OF THE LOUISIADES:
We left the Louisiade island of Panapompom at 8 a.m. on September 14. Sima commented that the weather reminded her of Boston, “lead grey skies with not much color.” It didn’t look too bad, however, and the weather reports didn’t call for anything drastic, so off we went.
We started with a four-mile upwind leg to reach Nivani Pass, our exit from the Deboyne Island Group, amongst which Panapompom is nestled. We had considered and rejected the option of going through a different pass, because although the other pass was both wider and located downwind, it was also further away, and going that route would make our next leg even more up-windier. As we beat toward Nivani Pass, however, we wondered if we’d actually be able to make it through, as the wind was blowing pretty hard from the direction of the pass. We’d have to go sideways through the pass, and if the current didn’t cooperate, it would be doubly tricky. We talked about options, and then decided to press on, as we figured that if we could get close on one tack, we could then change tacks and poke through. If at any time it looked like we couldn’t make it, we could just fall off the wind, retreat, and make the trip to other, more distant pass.
We tacked close to the reef, looking for the pass, but couldn’t find it at first. Most reefs are just below the surface, so you can’t see the waves breaking over them, nor can you see the space where the waves aren’t breaking, until you’re quite close. There it is! -right where the chart says it should be. We got closer, tacked the boat, and then passed sidewaysish through Nivani Pass.
Coming out on the other side, we hauled the sails in tight, and headed as close to the wind as we could, toward our exit from the Louisiades, the Jomard Passage. The wind was a gusty 25 knots, but the seas were not that big as the nearby reefs and islands knocked them down.
Our goal was to make it through Jomard Passage before dark, so that we could have daylight both to see the obstacles in the pass and then, once through, set the sails for the longer downwind passage to the Torres Strait.
We closed on the entrance in good time, but our close-hauled course didn’t take us very close to the entrance. We tacked and hoped that our new course would take to the entrance, but found that we could only move parallel to it, and began to doubt whether we’d get clear the narrow, 10-mile-long passage before dark.
We moved into a position tack again, in line with the passage’s mouth. It was late afternoon when we turned the corner into the pass, hauled the sails in on our new tack, and checked our new course. It looked good! The current was helping us out, and we’d make it out of the passage on our current course if the wind held.
It did. We made it out, set the sails on our new course toward the Torres Strait. We’d timed it just right. As we were doing a melancholic sunset wave goodbye to the last of the Pacific Islands we’d see, we noticed a big freighter heading out of the pass, and then saw three more on radar screen. It was good to have cleared the pass before the rush-hour traffic showed up.
THE SECOND STRETCH: PASSING THROUGH THE TORRES STRAIT
The three-day downwind sail toward the Torres Strait passed pleasantly, and on September 17 we approached the Strait’s first obstruction, a group of reefs called the Eastern Fields. We changed course as we passed by, heading for the next milestone, Portlock Reef. We were a little bit concerned about Portlock, because one of our guides talked about another obstacle, “Goldie Reef,” which was supposed to be “20 miles to the northwest,” right about where we’d be passing. But we couldn’t find a “Goldie Reef” on our charts. We kept a lookout, as the invisible reefs can be the most troublesome. We watched but thankfully neither we nor Leander found the mystery reef.
Several hours later, near midnight, we took a sharp left hand turn in the vicinity of Bramble Cay, and entered the well-marked and well-traveled Great North East Channel, the main shipping thoroughfare between the Pacific and Indian Oceans. We knew that we’d have to keep an eye on tankers and freighters for the next day or so. The first of these to appear was a large freighter called Maseshe Mar, which closed on us from astern in the dark morning hours of September 18.
Paul, on watch, looked at it through the binoculars as it closed to visual range. All ships have a white steaming light facing forward, a green light showing starboard, and a red light to port. If you see a white light and red light coming from behind you, that means the ship will be passing you safely to port. If you see white and green, he’ll be passing you safely to starboard.
With this ship, we saw white, and red, and green, which meant that his port side would pass to our port, his starboard side to our starboard, while the white light would arrive roughly between the “N” and “D” on “LEANDER” written on our transom.
Paul gave the ship a call on the VHF, to confirm that it was aware of our presence, and not nodding off, texting his sweetheart, playing video games, eating bonbons, or doing yoga. The watch answered, and seemed neither sleepy nor upset that we’d interrupted something more important. He was quite friendly, actually. We asked if he knew that we were out there just in front of him, and on which side he wished to overtake us. He was aware of us (well, at least he was now). He asked if it would be OK if turned his 100,000 gross ton mammoth to port and passed our happily bobbing sailboat on its port side? We decided that this was OK, please.
Paul reached to turn off the VHF, but it came to life again. “Unidentified sailing vessel, this is Australian CoastWatch Helicopter 5865. Do you copy?” Paul looked blinkingly into the early morning darkness for the helicopter, but could see and hear nothing. We answered the VHF call. The whirligig customs officer was also quite friendly, for two o’clock in the morning. He wanted our details, which we provided, and he read us form instructions, reminding us not to get off the boat until we formally cleared Australian Customs.
As the day continued, we gradually bore further to port, heading more upwind. Not drawing as deeply as the big ships, we moved out of the main shipping channel, cutting corners to avoid the wind. At about 2:30 in the afternoon, we arrived at the corner of long Bet Reef, and took a right hand turn to travel down its length.
There was a striking sight at as we made the corner – the wreck of a good sized freighter, lying on its side. It appeared to be completely out of the water, its bow angling slightly skyward. You couldn’t see the submerged reef, of course, and the wreck looked like it was suspended in mid-ocean.
The Wreck at Bet Reef
It was late in the day by the time we got to the other side of Bet Reef. We talked about whether to anchor for the night (which the Australians allow, as long as you stay on your boat) or to press on, and try to make it through the entire Strait by early the next morning. If we did that, we’d be passing some of the trickiest parts of the Strait in the dark. Our friends, Rob and Kate on Aries Tor, had suggested Bet Reef as possible anchorage, and that tipped the scales; we altered course, scouted out a good spot, and dropped anchor in about 40 feet of water in the lee of the reef.
As we prepared the boat for the night, we noticed thick clouds rolling in. It began to rain as darkness gathered, and it continued all night. We’d made a good choice by resting!
Bad weather began to roll in soon after we dropped anchor at Bet Reef
The next day broke clear and sunny, lighting up the calm and shallow waters of the Strait like a shimmering turquoise aquarium. The entire area between Australia and PNG was a consistent 50 feet deep, as compared to the cavernous depths of the surrounding Pacific and Indian Oceans. We suspected, and later confirmed on the Internet, that there had once been a land bridge between Australia and PNG, which was now covered by the waters of the Strait.
It was a day of pleasant sailing. We consulted our tide charts as we neared the homestretch, a narrow pass near Wednesday Island and the end of the Strait. The currents were supposed to be favorable, but we weren’t sure, because the flows here are as famously unpredictable as they are strong. It is the point where the Pacific on one side and the Indian on the other meet up against one another, pulling and pushing to their own individual rhythms.
As we moved along, it became clear that we had timed the currents right. We began to pick up speed as we passed by the large islands at the end of the Strait – Seven knots, and then eight, nine, and ten. The flowing water felt more like a rushing river than an ocean. As we passed by Hammond Rock, off of Hammond Island, the current was driving the sea against it so fiercely, and we were going so fast, that it looked like it was sailing by against us in the opposite direction. We glanced at our speed – now 11 and then a consistent 12 knots! This was the fastest we’d ever gone.
The current against Hammond Rock created the illusion that it was moving against us
As we passed the islands and the sea began to open up again, it became as calm and flat as a pond. The late afternoon sun lit the water brilliantly. Birds weaved lazily about. Lighthouses posed on perches atop nearby prospects. We sat near the bow, as Leander headed over the top of the Gulf of Carpentaria and into the Arafura Sea. Sailing can be sublime. Sometimes.
THE THIRD STRETCH: THROUGH THE DUNDAS STRAIT TO DARWIN
We left the Torres Strait, and entered the Gulf of Carpentaria and the start of the Arafura Sea. The strong winds that had accompanied us through the Torres Strait began to diminish. By September 20, the sails were lolling about as the boat rolled lazily in a slight sea. We took in the sails, and began to motor.
An issue arose. The forecast said that we’d have no meaningful wind for the indefinite future. Did we have enough fuel to motor all the way to Darwin, still more than 700 miles away? The alternative was to go to Gove, on the western side of the Gulf of Carpentaria. As we calculated our fuel reserves, we figured that we’d have just enough to make it, or to be close.
We decided to continue on to Darwin. The passage had been plenty pleasant so far, and we figured that if we began to run low before we reached the last tricky part near Darwin, we could shut down and drift slowly with the westward current until we got within fuel range again. As we continued along, motoring relatively slowly to conserve fuel, it became apparent that we’d made the right decision, and that we’d have more than enough in our tanks.
As the winds died to nothing, so did the sea, and it brought to mind a conversation we’d had with our Brazilian friend, Joao, on Guardian. He told us a story of once being becalmed in the middle of the Atlantic.
“It must have been frustrating,” we said. “Nooooo,” he said, lowering his voice. “It was lovely. I took down all sail, and just sat there, ‘anchored’ in the middle of the ocean, not moving. The sea was as flat and as shiny as a mirror. It was boootiful,” he said in his lilting Portuguese accent.
We had a tough time visualizing this. There ALWAYS seems to be a swell from somewhere. At sea, wind and weather can reach out and create ocean rollers thousands of miles away.
But we came to believe him on this sail. By September 22, after two days of no wind, the sea WAS like a mirror. And it was “booootiful.” Everything was different. It was all so flat. The surface felt more like a giant field, stretching off in every direction, than a rolling ocean. The sun was fat and orange and hazy and slow. We saw sea birds, at one point, dancing and weaving a few hundred yards away. Was it our imagination, or did they just seem more careless and happy, like us, with the sea so calm? A tanker appeared and moved across the horizon, hazy and distorted, going the other way. It felt like we were in automobiles, silently moving past one another in opposite directions separated by a farmland plain on a hot summer day. It was really peaceful, and just plain nice.
The sea begins to flatten out. It would later shine like a mirror.
We put out a line and caught a big eyed tuna. He didn’t put up much of a fight. Well, he actually may have, but he had probably taken the hook at dawn, and by the time we had noticed him at 9 a.m., he had drowned. We hoped he went peacefully. He made for good dinners several nights in a row.
We heard a roar one morning, and looked up as the customs plane zoomed past at treetop level. We hustled to the radio, and called it, because no doubt it had been hailing us. It had. We gave them our details as the plane disappeared in the sky. This made the third time we’d been called since we’d entered Australian waters, and there may well have been more attempts, as we very infrequently have the VHF on.
We poured over the tide tables again as we approached Darwin, and began to make sense of the shifting currents. We determined that there would be three parts to this third and last stretch, each about 50 miles long. On the same tide, the current flows favorably through the first stretch, unfavorably through the second, and favorably again through the third. One of our cruising guides had suggested that if we timed it just right, we could pass through each of these stretches with a favorable current. We were hoping for that but, given the distances, didn’t see how it was at all possible.
The engine, by the way, had now been running non-stop for three straight days. We felt good about that, and thankful that we’d been so careful getting it ready in New Zealand. It was being such a workhorse.
We had birds hitch rides about every other night, squatting on the bimini. We remembered having other birds visit us when it was calm, and wondered why. Wouldn’t they have to work harder in the wind, and need a rest on a gusty day? Then we realized that just the opposite is probably true.
A hitchhiker joins us
We calculated that we were going to enter the first stretch with a favorable tide, but that it might turn on us before we got through. As we approached, we hugged the turn around the Australian coast, along the Coburg Peninsula, as tightly was we dared, to try to get into the channel as quickly as possible.
By midnight on the 24th, the timing hadn’t changed, but the weather suddenly did. “There’s a thunder storm over there,” said Sima casually as she went below at the end of her watch. Sure enough, the sky was being lit up by flashes to our West, over the Australian mainland. Sheesh. With our need to watch the coast line closely and our concern about the currents , we wondered if we could possibly add any more drama.
Perish the thought – of course we could.
Paul watched the storm throughout his watch. The barometer was steady, so it appeared that these were just isolated disturbances, rather than the much more unruly and powerful storms associated with cold fronts. It also seemed to be passing well in front of us.
Suddenly, though, a huge rain squall appeared on the radar just behind us. The storm had split in two, with part of it now well in front of us, and part of it just behind. But the storm stayed split that way, and Leander passed safely through its outstretched arms. As the storm passed, the stars came back out, and in the darkened morning hours of September 24, we moved into the Dundas Strait.
With the favorable current, we had accelerated to 7.5 knots by daylight, but it still looked like we weren’t going to make it all the way through this first stretch before the current turned against us. We hoped to at least make it past a bottle neck at Cape Don, where the current runs swiftly, before the current changed.
We did, and land disappeared again as we entered the huge expanses of the Van Diemen Gulf. The tide changed and the current began to flow against us, but not too strongly, and we motored along at about 5 knots. It was now becoming manifest that we wouldn’t be magically timing the tides, and we’d have to face adverse currents and night time travel along the reefs in the second stretch of this third part of our trip.
It took the rest of the day to pass through the Gulf.
We got some company in the late afternoon. Paul had gone forward to do a chafe check, and noticed splashing alongside the boat. “Sima, sharks or dolphins or something!” They were dolphins, as always (we’ve never seen sharks in the open water), and we watched them play during a short visit.
We approached the second stretch as night fell. This part would take us through the North Channel, a bottleneck passing along the Vernon Islands and just south of some submerged reefs.
Sunset in the Van Diemen Gulf
The current was with us as we entered the area, as we moved along at six knots, but we soon lost daylight, and about midway through, the favorable current began to diminish, disappeared, and then began to flow against us.
According to the tables and comments from others, we knew that the currents would run against us at somewhere between three and six knots. Three knots we could deal with, but six would bring the boat to a virtual stop, something that we were not looking forward to in a night time passage among unknown reefs.
With eight miles to go to clear the bottle neck, our speed began to drop. We were going three, and then only two and a half knots. Uh oh. But then, a slight breeze suddenly appeared, and we rushed to put up canvas. The boat gained to a steady three and a half knots, but not much more. That was all we needed, though, and Leander clawed through the last parts of the North Channel, getting out at about 11 p.m. We made a left hand turn into the more expansive Shoal Bay, the entrance to Darwin Harbor now just 25 miles away.
The wind died again, and we pulled in the sails. We slowed the engine, and our speed dropped to about 2.5 knots, with the boat mostly drifting with the current. It was OK going this slow now, because there were no dangers about, and anything faster would take us in before the customs officials went on duty at nine. We took turns on watch, catching cat naps and watching out for buoys and departing fishing boats.
Darwin appeared as the sun rose hot and hazy. We radioed customs, and they directed us to the quarantine wharf at Cullen Bay.
We pulled in at 9:40 a.m., on a windless and oppressively hot morning. We eased Leander to the dock, and Sima stepped onto it, mooring line in hand. She made it fast, and walked back to pick up the stern line.
“Welcome to Australia, mate!” she said, beaming.