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.

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