Friday, July 31, 2020

Gove/Nhulunbuy - Arriving in Northern Territory

[Kyle]The winds and currents for the sail across the Gulf of Carpenteria were such that if we left in the day, we would arrive at night. To get there in daytime, we would have to depart at night. Neither Gove nor Thursday Island are places you want to enter or exit at night, so the best we could do was leave near the end of the day, try not to go too fast and arrive at first light.

It started out great. There was plenty of wind and a fast (in this case, the flood) current, both from behind, which shot us through the channels between the Torres Strait islands. The islands blocked any swell, so we were left with flat, fast sailing on a beautiful sunny day.

The passage across the Gulf of Carpinteria presented some mixed sky views

We passed the last shipping channel buoy about an hour before the flood switched to ebb. That put us off of the shallow (10-15m) shelf and into the wider and deeper (50m) Gulf. That turned our five knot flood into only about a 0.3 knot ebb. From there, the plan was to sail fast until about the halfway point while pointing a few degrees upwind of our destination. Both things would act as a hedge against the wind shifting unfavorably or unexpectedly dying during the crossing.

We had no problem going fast. The wind was right on the beam in the mid-twenties. Even with a superfluous reef in each sail, we were still streaking along quickly enough to get across just after dark on the second day if our speed held. Just after dark is still dark, so we had no plans of trying that.

As our course was almost perpendicular to the Queensland west coast, it didn't take us long at all before we had over a hundred miles of sea to windward in which the waves could build. After a few hours Begonia was rolling and lurching like we were on an actual ocean passage. That made moving about and sleeping difficult, which left us both looking forward to the far side of the Gulf.

By Day two, the winds were consistently ten knots above the forecasts, which meant our reefs were no longer superfluous, so we had to put in a couple more so as not to disrupt our theme. The winds heaped up the waves from uncomfortable to annoying. At one point or another, everything we hadn't bothered to stow properly found itself on the floor. The decks were constantly being covered with spray and, worst of all, the helm seat was getting regular splashes.

We were still going way too fast, so we rolled up the jib entirely. This does more than just reduce our total sail area by a certain amount, since the airflow coming off of the jib is directed into the mainsail, thus increasing its power. That slowed us down by a couple of knots, but we needed it to be more like five. With about forty miles to go, we decided we needed to heave-to for a few hours.

This unfortunately gave Maryanne a really boring night watch because she had nothing to do other than keep an eye out for other boats and make sure we don't drift into anything. It was like being Captain of a parked car.

At midnight, when it was my turn, we still had a couple more hours left of being hove-to. I used the time to make some strong coffee and to review anything I needed to know about Gove. I had initially planned the super-safe arrival route in from the north around Bremer Island via the channel for big ships. It looked instead like the passage through the gap between the mainland and Bremer would be fine if the currents weren't too strong.

We were seeing AIS targets again for the first time since leaving the Torres Strait. There were three big ships and a small catamaran, all at anchor in or near the harbor. Then from about ten miles behind, a tug and barge popped up on the display. The guy seemed to be heading for the gap as well. I had just got us moving again and was about to call him on the radio when he called me. He confirmed that he was heading that way and asked for as much room as I felt safe to give. He also said, “If you're going that way, you'd better get moving. It's pretty tidal.” I figured he knew what he was talking about, so out came the full jib. We were now going to get there about the same time.

Almost. He passed us just before the narrowest/shallowest point. After the tug went by, with about a mile to go, the current was sweeping us toward the gap through flat but swirly water. Then the current slackened. Then it started going the other way. Standing waves formed behind us to each side and then across the whole gap. Then they started a slow march westward as they built. I was able to keep Begonia ahead of them, but just. The moon had set by then, so I could only see them by their bio-luminescent crests and of course, the sound. The current increased to around five knots. The adjacent land was starting to block the wind, so it got to where the only time we were making forward progress was when surfing down the face of the wave behind us. That wave was getting bigger and closer by the minute. I spent two hours with gritted teeth watching our four-steps-forward, three-steps-backward progress. My worry was that the increasing current would sweep us back into the breakers behind and we would either have to ride them out for hours, or risk turning sideways to them to escape the area.

One long and productive surf got us across the shallowest point into the deeper water beyond. The current slowed considerably there, disintegrating the waves into so many whirlpools. Our speed doubled and then tripled and before you know it, we were back to fighting a piddly little 0.5 knot current. The good news was that the transit had taken so much time that we wouldn't need to heave-to again.

Maryanne had slept through all of my drama and woke to us sailing smoothly over flat water. We did a couple of tacks past the anchored ships as the sun brought definition to the land around us, then we dropped sail and motored the rest of the way into Gove Harbour.

The bauxite factory and dock dominates Gove Harbour

We found space in a big bay filled with widely-spaced boats on moorings. Gove has no marina. Surrounding the bay is a thin strip of low land, which is dominated by a big processing plant to the west. Everything in the whole area, including all of the other boats in the harbor, is covered in red dust. It gave the place a bleak feel that was also quintessential Outback Australian. The Northern Territory is the least densely populated district in the third least densely populated country in the world (only Mongolia and Namibia beat it! - Thanks for the fact checking to Julie S). The population is just under 250,000, which is about the same as Wyoming, the least densely populated state in the U.S. The Northern Territory, however, is the size of Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico and Montana combined. {Maryanne: For my British Friends, the NT has a population just a bit more than Peterborough, yet the size of the state is almost 6 times the area of the UK}. This nets a population density of just under one person per five square kilometers or one person per two square miles, one fiftieth that of New South Wales.

Gove is not a town per se, but a peninsula in Arnhem Land on which the Aboriginal town of Nhulunbuy resides. Nhulumbuy is NT's fifth largest settlement at just under 4,000 people (Behind Darwin, pop. 142,300, Alice Springs, pop. 27.900, Palmerston, pop. 27,600 – a Darwin satellite, and Katherine, pop. 6,100. Just behind Nhulunbuy is Tennant Creek, pop. 3,100). The Northern Territory has a total of only seventy-three pubs. Twenty-eight are in Darwin. Gove has five.

Also on the Gove Peninsula, and taking up most of its real estate, is a giant bauxite mine. The mine has a system of conveyor belts which run for miles across the landscape to the single ship berth at the harbor. There, the ore is poured off of the end into giant freighters while others anchored nearby wait their turn.

Once our boat was secured at anchor and check-lists complete, we went ashore to the Gove Boat Club to clear in officially. We had needed to sail to Gove as our first Northern Territory port in order to check in with the police for our Queensland/Northern Territory border crossing for Covid 19. The officer who met us was completely unconcerned about our virulence, considering our route. We were worried they would be a little edgier as it was just two days after two men were caught arriving here from a Covid hotspot. He explained that their situation was different. They had arrived by plane from Canberra after driving from Sydney, then they lied on their forms about it. They are now quarantining at their own expense at a mining camp outside of Darwin, plus the cost of getting them there.

We asked the officer if there were any crocs around. “No, not here.”, he said, “There's one that lives on the beach over there, but not around here.”

The “beach over there” was not on the other side of the bay or anything. The beach he pointed to was on the other side of the breakwater protecting the dinghy dock. He might as well have said, “Don't mind that croc by the mailbox, he never comes onto the driveway.” Maybe we should start planning the Gove Triathalon, then.

When we were done with the police, we went to the office at the Boat Club. There, we met Sarah, the manager. There was something off about her. Then I felt an uncontrollable urge to get defensive. Wait a minute... I'm the only American in this village! Nope. It turns out I'm not, so is she. She grew up in Baltimore, Maryland. She met a nice Australian bloke while working in Las Vegas and, yadda yadda yadda, after a big fishing trip, she lives here now with him and their giant dog. From her, we learned what all of those people we see along the coast are called. In America, we call them fishermen or fisherwomen. We would have guessed Australians would call them fishies, in the tradition of truckees and bikies. Nope, I guess that could be confused with fishy, so it turns out they are called fishoes (the plural of fisho). All of those mobs of mates in the tinnies are fishoes.

Sarah was so nice it made us almost uncomfortable. She gave us two cards for only one deposit and then practically helped us carry our laundry to the machines. When we were trying to figure out our options for getting to Nhulunbuy to provision (cab, bus, rent a car), she eventually decided it would be quicker and easier for everybody if she took us in her ute (the Aussie abbreviation for Utility vehicle, i.e. truck, SUV) We made plans for a ride the next morning.

We piled into the truck and on the ten mile, dusty ride to town, she gave us the whole skinny on where we would find everything and where was a good place to have lunch. After a bit of shopping, we tried finding the cafe Sarah had recommended, but it was not on the list of the five the town offered. Perhaps I remembered the name wrong. We called her and she explained that our outdated map had called it what they used to call it, not what it's called now. Then she offered to take us there, so we didn't have to walk the mile in the heat. Well, how nice!

Nhulunby Town went mostly unphotographed

Then she said she meet us in ten minutes. She had just finished hanging laundry. That's right, she came all of the way back from home into town just to show us to the restaurant (The Refinery Cafe, run by New Zelanders served some delicious lunches!). Treating her to lunch was the least we could do. After returning us to the stores to do more provisioning, she did a third round trip to pick us and our groceries up, all while insisting she had nothing better to do with her day, which she surely must have.

The Gove Boat Club does dinner on Thursday to Sunday nights. We were planning to leave early Friday, but there was no way we were passing that up. That would be one pub down, only seventy-two to go. Sarah was there, serving beers to the widely spaced clientele with a smile. Her husband, Hayden was also there, finally finished fixing things for the day. It seemed most of the rest of the people within five miles were also there as their chef had a bit of a reputation. It was well deserved. The food was very good and clearly portioned for hard-working miners, not powder-puff boat types.

Hanging out around the boat club

After our meal, we spotted Rachel and went over to chat for a bit. We had met her on laundry day when we tried to nick her pillowcases. We were taking ours off of the line when we noticed we had too many. Rachel was sitting at her ute in the adjoining campsite, so Maryanne walked over to see if our extras could be hers. She came over and after much head-scratching from all three of us, we couldn't agree on which were whose. We eventually took five random ones and gave her the other three.

Rachel was with her husband, Mick, a commercial fisherman. They were on an extended holiday all of the way up from the South Coast. Mick could have been in a movie playing a character called “Mr. Australia”. He was built like he had spent a lifetime lifting hundred-pound things, was so tanned that he was half red and spoke quickly in an accent that Maryanne and I both had to concentrate on to follow. He and Rachel were also super-enthusiastic about everything. He loves his job. She loves her job (teacher). They love their house, their town, their neighbors, traveling and most especially, all of the interesting people they meet along the way, including (or especially – we couldn't tell) us! They made us promise we would look them up when we sail by sometime next summer. How could we not?

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Thursday Island & Horn Island - Torres Strait

[Kyle]It was a beautiful, clear morning when we left Mount Adolphus. For the first time in a long while, we were mostly westbound instead of mostly northbound.

As we emerged from the crescent of the bay, we immediately found ourselves on a collision course with a big tanker headed through Torres Strait. They were crossing from behind, going much faster than we were. We could have paralleled the channel. That would have given us a better wave angle, which would have sped us up, which would made the whole encounter take longer. Instead, we chose the other option. That was to turn slightly upwind to pass slightly behind them (which would also speed us up). This is when it's great to have AIS on board.

Sailing by Cape York

Visually, especially at a distance and due to the difference in scale between the two vessels, it can be difficult to judge collision intercepts until enough time has passed to see a change in relative bearing. AIS is much quicker about this. Thus, when the watch on the ship sees a little sailboat turning towards them and speeding up in an apparent bonehead attempt to cut the ship off, the people at both helms know from their AIS displays there is really no cause for alarm. That is, of course, on the premise that the bonehead in the sailboat is doing that on purpose and will continue to maintain a course that will pass behind the ship.

In these difficult to judge situations, the human brain can let us down by taking the shortcut of looking at which way each vessel is pointing and incorrectly inferring direction and speed from just that. That makes it at the very least a little unnerving for me, the aforementioned sailboat idiot, to aim at big ships while speeding up, but that's all part of my big plan.

In the pre-AIS days, we got yelled or honked at on more than one occasion because of the way we were pointing, not the way we were going. One tugboat operator in Virginia in the middle of the night screamed at us over the radio, “I need to see your port side!”

I countered that there was not much wind and a strong current, so we were crabbing sideways at a sixty-degree angle away from both him and the channel in an attempt to keep from grounding on the shallows at the edge. His response to this was more volume, “I NEED TO SEE YOUR PORT SIDE!!!”

”That's not going to happen, Buddy. We're getting set onto rocks to starboard. Take a bearing. Be assured we are not going get in the way of you or your tow.”


I pretended the radio didn't work after that. He blew his horn at us for a full minute before passing ¼ mile ahead of us when we were in water too shallow for him to even reach. It was 1:00am. I'm sure the people living on the waterfront enjoyed that.

”Whew, that was close!” Our radio was working again, but apparently his wasn't. Ahhh, Virginia...

We passed sufficiently behind the ship in the Torres that we didn't even get any air while jumping his wake. After that, the rest of our journey was traffic-free.

A little further on, we finally doubled Cape York (Doubled is a sailing term. Effectively, it means to pass a point – to leave it astern. It originally referred to a change in the relative bearing of an object. In the days of aviation before pilots were made soft by GPS, we used to use the same technique to measure ground speed.) There it was: the northernmost point on continental Australia. We have now officially left the Coral Sea and entered the Arafura Sea – still technically the Pacific, just south of the South China Sea.

After another few miles, we passed Tuesday and Wednesday Islands. Then we turned left and headed to the anchorage at Horn Island. We were there because anchoring at Thursday Island is not allowed for transients due to the poor holding and strong currents. Thursday has moorings, but they are all private and not for casual use.

We found a big enough spot to swing with the strong tides without interfering with the local fishing fleet on their moorings. There were no other sailboats there apart from one monohull that seemed to no longer be in use. We stayed aboard the rest of the day to see how Begonia behaved in the combination of strong currents and strong winds before attempting to go ashore.

We decided to wait until the next day anyway for the dinghy ride to the ferry dock. There, we had just enough time to fill our water jugs at the tap on the pier before boarding the ferry to Thursday Island. We had to wait because I didn't want to face a lifetime of explaining to people why we visited Thursday Island on a Wednesday.

Thursday Island, referred to by all of the locals simply as TI, was chosen as the main settlement in the area because its central location among the Torres Strait's Islands gave it the most protection from storms and had the best fresh water supply. It is by far the most densely populated, having about 50% of its area developed into a small frontier-like central business district surrounded by quiet suburbs.

TI - Some lovely scenery and the northernmost pub in Australia (The Royal Hotel)

Our walking tour of the area revealed it to be mostly deserted. Covid had killed all of the tourism, which was mostly geared towards high-end fishing charters. What was left was mostly local Torres Islanders, who generally spent their time indoors during the day, presumably avoiding the midday heat (and Covid-19) in their homes.

We climbed the big hill above town to the WWII fortifications there (Green Hill Fort). Thursday was hit hard by the Japanese, to the extent that all civilians were evacuated. It was second only to the terrible bombing of Darwin, which is basically Australia's Pearl Harbor played on repeat.

The Cathedral Church was filled with memorials to the wreck of the Quetta,
and some beautiful stained-glass windows

Green Hill Fort had some interesting history and great views

A lazy explore on a sunny day - we loved it

We encountered a few people about. Most were walking kids in strollers and were being very good about Covid precautions. We tried the local Torres Island Cultural Museum, but found everything but the gift shop closed there.

We took the more modern boat for the ferry between TI and Horn Island

The only thing we really found to do there was a quick shop for produce at the local supermarket and a lunch out at “Australia's Top Pub”, Australia's northernmost pub which, despite billing itself as being practically in the Arctic Circle, is still 200 miles south of all of the pubs in New Guinea. They were very conscientious about Covid, despite the nearest case in Australia being 900 miles south. The food was not amazing – just okay, but it was nice to eat out.

The next day, which was not Thursday, we confined ourselves to a tour of the tiny village on Horn Island. The village is literally three streets, so our tour was a brief one of dried out lawns (due to water restrictions) and empty streets. We went to the Torres Strait Heritage Museum, which was half Torres Islander, half WWII history. There, we learned that pearl diving is really, really dangerous. Also, war. War is dangerous.

When we arrived at the site, which is shared by a hotel, we were met by two Asian women. The older of the two looked at us and said, “Who are you? Where did you come from?” as she retreated behind the safety of the counter. Maryanne tried to reassure her by saying, “We are from a boat. We came from Cairns.” We had called ahead the day before and were told they were happy to open up the museum for just us. Apparently, the message never filtered down to the front desk staff.

Hanging out and exploring at Horn Island

There was a brief pause, and then I could see the poor woman thinking, “Cruise ship!!”. She retreated further.

Maryanne clarified for her that we were on our own boat and that we basically haven't seen anybody except Thursday Islanders for weeks. This did not reassure her, even tough we were both wearing masks. She gave us the stink eye the whole time we were there and made the younger woman open up the museum for us and do everything involved with getting near us. This was after she explained that, “I'm not afraid of anything. I've already died once.”

Maryanne: “We just flew in from Melbourne (A Covid hotspot). The kids were coughing. It was driving us nuts. We just had to get out of the house and go somewhere.” This was absurd because there were no direct flights from Melbourne and the rules would not have allowed us on the island without a mandatory quarantine before we were allowed in public if there were. The young woman got the joke. The older one distinctly did not. Even after we explained it, she clearly thought we were a couple of dicks. I have never felt so uncomfortable paying to walk around a museum before. {Maryanne: I never actually said this at the time, just joked afterwards, Kyle loves to tell a story...}

As we left, I overheard the younger lady saying to the older one that she felt sorry for us because we had come all of this way and had been made so unwelcome. The older woman really seemed like she was otherwise a nice lady, but we could not find a way to convince her that we were not there to kill her.

We then walked the empty streets to the Wongai Hotel, where the attached pub was open for lunch. After signing in and giving our personal details for possible future contact tracing, we found an out-of-the-way table. The food there was much better. We shouldn't have bothered with Thursday Island after all, but since we had come all of this way, the much better pub at Horn Island would have to wait until Friday.

Mount Adolphus Island (Torres Strait)

[Kyle]Happy that Eddie (‘our’ osprey) had made it safely back to his home island, we left Bushy Islet for the sail north to Mount Adolphus Island. Instead of being from way behind as it has been lately, the wind was just enough from the side to allow us to fly both the main and jib together, since the jib was out of the lee of the main. This made for some fast sailing, which was made even more so by a strong following current.

We had ships to contend with as well and had to wait to cross the main shipping lane until three had passed us at once, then move across quickly. It was right about then that Cape York finally came into view for us behind Albany rock. A couple of miles further, we finally crossed the line; we were now north of the northernmost point on the Australian mainland.

That was a hike. Australia's east coast is so long!

Australia (including Tasmania) is often said to be generally the size of the contiguous 48 U.S. States. That part of the U.S. is slightly bigger, but of course, the shapes are pretty different. The east coast of Australia (South East Point in NSW to Cape York) covers a span of almost twenty-nine degrees of latitude. If you go down to South East Cape in Tasmania, then the span is thirty-three degrees. By comparison, the U.S. East Coast from Key West, Florida to Eastport, Maine covers only twenty degrees. The U.S. West coast between the Mexican and Canadian borders stretches just under seventeen degrees. To go thirty-three degrees on that side of the continent would entail sailing between the southern tip of the Baja Peninsula and Petersburg, at the border between British Columbia and Alaska.

Since passing South East Cape just under six months ago, we have put just over 3,300 nautical miles on the log. If I recall, that's more than our entire circumnavigation of New Zealand. Apologies to our Kiwi friends, but it's really starting to look like Australia may be larger.

Sailing north things started to get busier, and then we anchored in a bay to ourselves.

Anywho…, we haven't sailed past Cape York yet, that's next time, but we finally made it north of it. Now we can finally stop our northward push, turn left and start heading west. In the meantime, we decided to stop for a couple of days at Mount Adolphus Island. The large, crescent-shaped bay there keeps the swell out. There is no infrastructure visible on that side of the island apart from a radio tower (not cellular, unfortunately) on the tallest hill, so it looked like a perfect place to rest up a little before heading to what will surely be our busy next stop.

We did do a quick trip ashore, though. On the second day's high tide, we rowed to the nearest patch of sand. We had some nice views, but the undergrowth kept us to the beach. We then rowed over to a rocky ledge on the other side of a stand of mangroves from where we had first landed. There, we were able to follow the bare rock quite a way up and around the bay.

As soon as we approached shore the birdsong was constant and everywhere (although most of them we never did spot, we did see some that were happy to stop for a moment)

We tried to find a trail into the interior but failed and stuck with a coastal walk.

Along the way, we spooked our second live crocodile. We were pretty far up the hill from the water. As we came over a rise, I heard a splash about fifty meters below. I looked up just in time to see the nervous looking creature take a deep breath and dive into the murk. We never saw it resurface. Crocs can hold their breaths for hours if they are not too active. It was a good reminder to, a: Make a habit of keeping back from the water while walking and, 2: Resist the urge to go for a swim to keep Begonia's bottom paint pristine.