Tuesday, October 06, 2020

Passage from Darwin - part 1

[Kyle]Western Australia would not wiggle on their hard border closure, the opening date kept sliding, and eventually they gave up even suggesting a date; rumors indicated the border might not open until 2021. Our applications for a Good-2-Go (G2G) entry pass were repeatedly moved up the chain of command, offering a little hope at each step, before being rejected on the basis that we weren't Western Australians and we weren't essential workers and (according to them) this was not essential travel. We needed to get out of Darwin because Cyclone (Hurricane) Season would be starting soon. Arriving even before that would be the monsoonal Wet Season, which was already making itself felt with daily increases in relative humidity. What was hot but dry on our arrival had turned so oppressively sticky that it was not possible to do anything but wilt between 9am and 10pm.

A last night at anchor in Darwin,
and the approximate/planned route ahead to South Australia

Timing our trip south was a bit of a balancing act. The best time to leave Darwin with tailwinds down the coast is probably no later than late August. That works until about Perth. The next problem is getting around the corner at Cape Leewin into the Great Australian Bight. August is deep in Wintertime there, so it would ideally be better to wait as long as possible for Spring or Summer to take hold before doing that leg. That's why hopping down the coast would have been so perfect. As it was, the chance of headwinds were increasing by the day, so we were trying to go as late as possible in Winter to transition to the southern leg as early as possible in Spring. That left us with early September as the best time to leave, but of course we were waiting for our new propeller, so that date came and went as well.

By the time we finally did leave in late September, both the northwest monsoon and the southeast trade winds (which bend to northeast along this part of the coast) were canceling each other out as they filled up a big high pressure area to the northwest of the continent. Our best strategy for dealing with both the calms and the headwinds further down the coast was to head straight away from land until we were way offshore to the northwest at about 11ºS. There, we would exit the lee of Melville Island and could skirt the edge of the calms as we headed west to avoid the headwind squash zone along the coast. At some point, we would either turn southwest to pass around the headwind zone or, worst case, to avoid getting too close to Timor. We knew the Australian Border Force would be monitoring us. We were technically supposed to be on a domestic sail, albeit a long one. We didn't want to arouse any concern by skirting too close to another country's borders.

So, to take advantage of the nightly land breeze (as in: from the land), we left Darwin well before sunrise. In eleven hours, we managed to crawl thirty miles from our anchorage before the land behind heated up enough to reverse the land breeze into a sea breeze. We bobbed around for an hour before the stronger sea breeze bent our course to the west until the land breeze returned once again.

Hitchhiker at sea - a Brown Noddy (I think)

By late the second day, we made it to 11° and were far enough offshore to be out of the sea breeze/land breeze cycle. Our westbound turn brought the wind far enough aft that we could switch from our white sails to our brand-new spinnaker. It stayed up for the next two days, propelling us slowly but surely as the wind varied between just enough to keep the sail filled and nothing at all. Late on one of Maryanne's night watches, she got tired of watching the sail draping limply over our rigging and just brought it down altogether. When she woke me, I planned to 'fix' it and get us moving again. Most of these things pass in an hour or so.

It wasn't until 3:30 that I finally thought it might be worth putting back up. I unfurled it, which as super easy because there was no wind at all to fight me. The spinnaker hung straight down about two-thirds of the time. The other third, the tiniest of puffs would slowly inflate it into a nice balloon shape. We would then accelerate ever so slightly to catch up with the wind, leaving us with nothing moving over the deck. The sail would collapse, we would coast to a stop and then the whole cycle would repeat again. In this manner, I was able to clock almost a third of a mile in the next half hour. Subsequent hours were mostly better, but by the end of the day, our midnight to midnight run was only thirty-three miles. That is pretty tedious.

The weather system we were taking pains to avoid was approaching from the southwest and strengthening. We knew our period of calms and slow progress would not last forever, so we were trying to remind ourselves to enjoy the stress-free conditions while we could. Soon enough, we might be pining for the days when Begonia was gliding smoothly over a sea that looked like a freshly laid out bolt of blue silk. The lack of any real wind made it too hot in the daytime. The sun didn't so much shine as buzzed like a low-hung heat lamp. Our only respite was to cower from its rays in the shade of the bimini. The nights were glorious and cloud-free and perfect t-shirt temperature. With no light pollution and a mirror sea, it sometimes looked like we were floating in space.

Flying the new Spinnaker,
and our daily visit from Australian Border Force Planes

Once a day, just to spice things up, we were given a low altitude flyby by a Border Force plane, followed by a radio call to confirm that we're still doing what we told them we would do. If they had any skepticism about our story based on our heading smartly further from the continent and almost exactly the opposite direction for our stated destination in South Australia, they kept it to themselves. They were always polite and signed off by wishing us a good voyage.

At the end of Day Four, an AIS target popped up ahead of us. It was from gas well complex straddling the eleventh parallel. It was surrounded by a prohibited zone that we would have to avoid. Our best and shortest option would be to go north of it, but I was worried that if we lost the wind there, the current would push us into the prohibited area, so we elected to take the longer southern route.

Wouldn't you know it, almost as soon as we passed the point where we would be able to change our minds and go the other way, the wind shifted, pushing us into the complex. I held out as long as I could, but then had to start an engine to get us around the corner. There, I found a nice breeze, which had us skipping along at five and a half knots for exactly the time it took me to deploy and trim the sails. Then it died back again to nothing. That and our bit of motoring gave us our fastest hour of the day: 4.83 knots. Ten of the other twenty-three were less than one knot, including one six hour stretch of 0.00. Ugh. At least the current was going our way. It was accounting for over half of our westbound progress.

Some amazingly flat calm weather

At sunrise, as we were abeam the center of the gas complex, we received what I thought was a rather testy call from the processing ship within.

”Sailboat approaching the Bayu-Undan gas field, this is Libertade!”

I had a quick look around, because we were clearly, 'Stationary sailboat in the vicinity of...' I could see no other boats, so I answered. It was strange he didn't address us by name like other AIS-equipped vessels did.

”You must immediately proceed to and keep a distance of ten miles from the complex!”

No I mustn't. The charted Prohibited Zone consisted of three circles, each with a three-mile radius, connected by tangents to make a triangle with rounded corners. If they wanted us to stay ten miles away, they should have put a ten-mile ring around the place. This used to drive us nuts about the U.S. Navy. They put up a barrier saying “Do Not Cross!!” and then yell at you for even looking in its direction. If the line you really don't want us to cross is 200 meters from the barrier, then move the damn barrier!

“Okay. We don't have any wind at the moment, but when we do get moving, we'll stay clear of the Prohibited Zone.”

There was a long pause and then, “Roger”

I suspect that what happened was the guy got up, looked out the window and saw an unexpected vessel in his kingdom and as a gut reaction, he demanded that we retreat to a distance that is conveniently one which would put us back over the horizon out of sight. Had anyone bothered to look at their AIS display, they would have seen us creeping up eighteen hours ago, make a noticeable course change to creep around and then continue on a course that was clearly intended to creep away. Even if we had been headed straight at them, it would have taken us something like nine hours to get within match-throwing range.

We spent our slowest day within sight of each other. Occasionally, wind and current would conspire to push us sideways into the complex at 0.2 knots or something. They never called us back to complain, but I felt like I could feel them staring at us. It made me much less sanguine about not being able to control where we are going. Of course, we had a motor or two, which I'm sure they knew, but they never insisted on us resorting to their use. I wasn't about to offer because we may need that fuel later for something way more important than driving out of the imaginary buffer zone of a real buffer zone so we can bob around over there instead.

We had to get around The Bayu-Undan gas field
Pictures taken using a good zoom

Late that night, on Maryanne's watch, some reliable wind arrived and we were able to slowly resume our progress westbound. I was especially pleased to watch the gas complex recede over the horizon because it was really bright and it washed out all of the stars.

We were not the only thing floating around out here, The boat seemed to be 'anchored' in over 1000m of ocean depth

By Day Seven, we had made it to within fifty miles of the island of Timor. It was finally time to turn left to parallel the Australian coast, just under five hundred miles away. The wind veered clockwise from northeast to east and then southeast. We doused the spinnaker and switched back to working sail. We were now sailing across the wind. It was forecast to move even further forward and strengthen soon. Our days of easy sailing and gentle motion would be coming to an end.

Poor Maryanne. Twice a day after poring over the weather, I would modify our route to reflect my best estimate for where we needed to sail. The system building along the coast was increasing in ferocity. To avoid it, we would have to swing wider and wider to get around the worst of it. First, it looked like we would have to go to 110°E. Then it was 108°. Then it was 106°30' or maybe 105°15'.

We always enjoy the sunsets at sea

Every morning, as she prepares to send out our position update, Maryanne asks me how many miles we have sailed and how many left to go. For several days in a row, the sum of the two numbers increased, sometimes by more than we had gone the day before. She always seemed so dejected at the news and I started dreading the moment when she asked me to tell her our distance to go. The shortest coastal route had a distance of about 3,200NM. I had told her before we left Darwin that I expected us to actually end up needing to sail between 4,000 and 4,500NM to get there. We were in that zone now, but that seemed to offer her little comfort. I had to keep reminding her that sailing the long way would be a way better option than cutting the corner and going right into the worst of it. She knew that, of course, but she still didn't like the numbers.

The Border Force contacted us for the last time on Day Eight. This time, it was by scratchy radio only with no flyby. I think we have now exceeded the out and back range of their aircraft from the coast. The distance we can see ships on the AIS continues to amaze us (over 250nm). It seems it is not any special atmospheric conditions but a deliberate effort on the part of the Australians to identify and re-broadcast signals in this area; they must have a very high antenna someplace!

On Day Eleven, we crossed the busy shipping lane between Perth and the Sunda Strait (between Java and Sumatra). Most of the vessels passed too far away to see, but we did sight one every four hours or so. Once we were through the thickest of it, the winds slowly started to build. This was the far northwest corner of the weather we had been trying to avoid. Our speed picked up and we finally had the last of our sub 100 mile days.

Sure enough, by Day Thirteen, conditions were bad enough that we were indeed pining for the smooth conditions and fifty mile days of the past. The seas were building through four meters and the wind was regularly touching thirty knots (34.5mph). We were getting knocked around so badly that we decided to sacrifice an hour and a half's worth of progress and stopped Begonia to heave to for dinner and washing up. We were still bobbing around like a cork, but at least we weren't slamming into the oncoming waves anymore. The sea state was even worse after dinner, so we decided to stay hove to for Maryanne's watch and most of mine. We didn't get moving again until twelve hours after we had stopped.

Life while hove-to

Maryanne reported to me at watch change that she had watched a big fireball break apart and fall into the sea (over the horizon). From her description, it sounded like an extra big meteor. A few hours later, I saw one too! It was probably too slow to be a meteor (most extra-planetary bodies are going at about 100,000 knots when they hit the atmosphere), but it was going way too fast to be an airplane in the stratosphere. The Notices to Mariners delineated an area of space debris a few hundred miles to our southwest. We decided that we had probably been witnesses to satellite de-orbiting events. Well, since we probably won't be getting to a launch anytime soon... Of course, it could also be extraterrestrial aliens sneaking (poorly) down to probe us. That seems exactly as possible as the first because it is also one of the two things that I mentioned.

Later in my night watch, I felt something hit me in the shoulder. Oh, no! Something has fallen off of the mast. I shined my light up there, but couldn't see anything amiss. Looking around the floor at my feet, I found a carrot-sized flying fish wriggling around. Usually, I don't discover them when they are still alive, so I flung it back into the sea before it suffocated. What a story that one will have! When I woke Maryanne at sunrise, she pointed out the impact point on my shirt, which was still covered in scales and slime. No wonder I couldn't get rid of the smell. I must've washed my hands a dozen times!

By morning, the wind and seas were both still building slightly, but both had also backed counter-clockwise enough for us to be able to sail fast across the waves, rather than into them. We spent most of our watches inside because the helm station was regularly getting doused by the errant wave. One particularly bad one hit us worse than we have ever been hit (including the whale). I was asleep off watch and was awakened by being thrown into the wall. It felt like we must have rolled forty degrees, but it was probably only twenty. Everything that wasn't already resting against a starboard wall got thrown to the floor on that side of the boat. The sliding door on the starboard head was even knocked off of its track and thrown through the opening into the passageway. That has never happened before. I called to Maryanne, who called back to say she was fine. I went back to sleep assuming it was one of those rolls that seems much worse from the bed than it does at the helm. Only when I got up and she explained that she had spent the remainder of her watch cleaning up did I get it.

View from the helm-seat

We had two days of fast but uncomfortable sailing where our main concern was holding on. Mealtime stopped being a time to catch up and socialize over some nice food and turned into quick-and-dirty bare bones refueling events with long briefings about what to expect on the next watch. We were all business.

Early on Day Sixteen, in the middle of my night watch, the weather finally started to abate. By the time I woke Maryanne, I had unrolled the jib from three reefs to one, increasing its size from 9m² to 25m² . She was pleased to get the good news that I was expecting us to be able to turn due south within the next few hours. We would be able to avoid going any further west for the meantime, which should save us three hundred miles off of my last estimate. We would probably end up going just a little past 106°E.

By the end of Maryanne's day watch at noon, we were indeed heading south. The skies were clearing rapidly and she had unrolled the jib to its full size. The motion had improved dramatically, which had allowed me to get some nice, deep sleep for a change.

I checked the new forecasts. The consensus was that the storm was now behind us. Ahead would be a few days of light headwinds, followed by a beam reach to about 30°S. Then we should be able to catch some westerlies back to the continent and across the Bight. Since the beam reach would be in stronger winds, I decided to give us a better angle by eventually sailing just a bit east of south in the lighter headwinds. As the wind slowly decreased and veered clockwise, I would turn five degrees and then another five degrees into it every half hour or so.

At 2pm, I turned another five degrees to 55° to the apparent wind. I did my hourly checks and went back inside to look at the last of the weather data to trickle in – in this case the infrared satellite photos. It looked like we would be getting a few days of really nice sailing ahead. I was just shutting the computer down, when...


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