A Sailing Voyage in Australia from Mackay Qld to Darwin NT
The following story is presented as a photo-journal. It’s based on notes and photos taken by me when buying and sailing an 8 tonne, 30 foot cruising yacht from Mackay in Queensland inside the Great Barrier Reef, across the fickle Gulf of Carpentaria and across the top end of Australia to Darwin in the Northern Territory.
At the time I didn’t have any real sailing experience handling a vessel of this size, and certainly not in open waters. Luckily I found Paul Nefiodovas, an experienced yachtsman who was willing to skipper the boat and train me as we went along. A third crew and family friend Brian Irwin, volunteered though he also had no sailing experience.
Captioned photographs and charts are included to give the reader a clearer understanding of what it’s like to embark on such an adventure.
Above: The voyage area.
The vessel’s name is Lowana. She had been built in New Zealand in 1971 and had two previous owners. Between them she’d been sailed over to Australia, up to Papua New Guinea and I think out to the Solomon Islands, but has spent most of her time in Queensland waters. She is what is known as a bilge-keeler in that she had a stabilising fin sticking out from the hull on either side. The fins held her upright when the tide went out and enabled anchoring closer into shore.
Left: Lowana anchored at Magnetic Island, QLD.
Flew to Cairns. No dramas – changed planes to Mackay. Met Brian our third crew member at Townsville when he boarded the same aircraft to Mackay. Got a hire car for 50 km per day at $40.00 per day for 4 days, a Diahatsu Charade. Met in-laws John and Nola Blank at Carolyn’s and Chris’s, also in-laws. Had a small party that night. A good day.
0740 hrs: Left for the Boatyard. A bit irked that the painting has not been finished on Lowana. Waterline and rubbing strakes still not done. Bits of paper still hanging off her. Lots of over spray on decking, turnbuckles, and ropes. Zinc anode nuts and log propeller painted over. No holes in hull had been blocked so there was lots of sandblasting grit right throughout the interior of the boat including mattresses. Other problems – bilges full of oil and diesel, mould throughout on walls etc. Started to clean bilge. Cleaned galley and washed dishes, cleaned of mould. Checked everything and made a list of other jobs to be done. Rained all day.
Continues to rain on and off all day. Changed engine oil and serviced engine. Found that the EPIRB was out of date and the M.O.B. light had no inner workings. The BCF fire extinguisher was unserviceable. Did some more work on the bilges and installed a new 1400 g.p.h. electric bilge pump. More cleaning up throughout the boat. Checked Satnav equipment and blew an internal fuse. Couldn’t get another one in Mackay.
Got provisions onto boat. Tanker fuel truck arrived and got fuelled. Filled water tank and 2 spare water containers. Continued cleaning throughout the boat. Checked condition of sails and the inventory. Cleaned mattresses and cushions. Painter eventually turned up and finished painting Wired up Paul’s hand-held Micrologic GPS.
Bought two new Spinnaker sheets and blocks. Boat launched and found to have an overheating problem. Spent all day trying to get parts and fixing water pump as no water was being pumped through to exhaust. Pump serviced and re-assembled but problem still there. Berthed on a mooring in Mackay Harbour. Stayed on board overnight.
Morning: Got a diesel mechanic out who turned up 3-½ hrs late. He charged $35.00 for a few minutes work to tell us that the water trap was not self-priming and that it was set too high. It seems that for some reasons the seawater level on Lowana’s hull has changed and as a result the water trap had to be lowered to a new position. Problem fixed.
1300hrs: Left Mackay Harbour. Overheating problem again just outside the entrance to the harbour. Most likely caused by the heeling of the boat creating air locks in the water trap. Re-positioned the water trap even lower and we did not have a problem after that. Sailed all day and night in beautiful conditions. Full Sun and Mood, good breezes. Boat handling excellent.
0300hrs: Passing through the Whitsunday Islands group. Full Moon, slight haze, making good time.
0930hrs: Weather turned. Strong winds up to 30 kt (estimated). Large seas building up. Continued all day and night. Boat heeling up to 30 degrees list. Had to pack paper and towels around crockery, kitchen utensils and food stores to stop rattling around. Crew wearing a safety harness when outside. Auto Helm 2000 and GPS functioning perfectly so only a lookout required.
0700hrs: Used the Seaphone off Cape Cleveland near Townsville to contact Jenny Irwin.
1030hrs: Anchored Horseshoe Bay, Magnetic Island. Mackay to Magnetic Island was 200 miles in 45 hrs. Spent a most enjoyable day and night at Brian and Jenny’s. Had a beaut roast dinner and had a great sleep.
Topped up water tanks. Restocked with some food. Jenny had made several stews for us. Took Brian’s Engel fridge/freezer on board and hooked it up. Transferred all meat into it. Showed Jenny the boat.
1350hrs: Anchor weighed and sailed for Palm Island. Some fairly big seas on the passage.
1900hrs: Arrived off the jetty in Challenger Bay, Great Palm Island around 1900hrs and anchored up in calm conditions. Made up a dinner in comfort. Engel working good but heavy on the power. Magnetic Island to Great Palm Island 30 miles in 5-½ hrs.
2100: Left Palm Is heading on the western side of the island group. Reached up to 8 kt under full sail until clear of Orpheus Is. Seas got bigger and had to reef sail.
Managed to fix the Satnav by soldering fuse wire onto the old fuse. Didn’t use Satnav due to using GPS and unnecessary use of power.
0800hrs: Clear of Dunk Is. Good sailing but big seas following.
1320hrs: Off Innisfail. Got some rain in the late afternoon.
2200hrs: Off Cairns. Breeze dead aft most of the night. Seas smooth, weather misty. Drizzle at times.
Above: Chart – Cairns to Cooktown
Pre-Dawn: On final approach to Port Douglas. Intend to repair 2 rips in a Genoa, fix the Reverse gear, which will not engage and check the stuffing box due to taking on a fair bit on water in the bilges.
0600hrs: Moored at Port Douglas in overcast conditions. Had a beaut brekkie, bacon, eggs and leftover stew. Fixed Low instrument (the needle had been bent by the sandblaster in Mackay). Also fixed the latch on toilet door broken during big seas. Topped up water and general tidy up. Marina kind enough not to charge any fee. Sailmaker only charged $20.00 to repair Genoa.
Above Left and Right: Lowana berthed at Port Douglas
1430hrs: Hoisted sail for Cooktown. Beautiful day but poor winds until dark then it blew up and big seas again. Pitch black night. Bit hairy under sail about 7 kt in the narrow sea-lanes. Reduced to Jib only. Heavy seas all-night and motor sailed rest of way. Navigation easy with GPS.
0430hrs: Dropped anchor Cooktown and all got some well-earned sleep. 70 miles in 14 hrs Port Douglas to Cooktown.
Rest of Day: After a sleep went ashore and took a look around. Then spent some agreeable time in the local pub.
Right: The replica HMAS Endeavour which Capt Cook nearly lost on the reefs outside Cooktown. He saved it by draping a sail around the hull and beached it on the bank of a river, now named Endeavour River at Cooktown.
Another day off in Cooktown. Put in 20 litres diesel. Topped up water. Boats BBQ accidentally dropped over the side so kissed it goodbye. Got a few groceries. Aired and dried out boat. Concerned re 12v batteries not re-charging. Very low specific gravity. Bought 2 new batteries, one of 120 AH and the other 90 AH. Topped up LPG gas. Only used ¼ tank.
0800hrs: Brian noticed the BBQ in the water. Russ donned facemask and diver 6 to 7 ft down and got it back. Still in good condition.
0900hrs: Hoisted sail for Cape Flattery. Good run reaching 8 kt motor sailing and up to 6 and 7 kt sometimes on sail only. Beaut day. Good breezes.
1430hrs: Arrived Cape Flattery. Average speed 5.5 kt overall. 33 mile trip in 5-½ hrs.
Left: Bewick Island is typical of many of the islands in the Great Barrier Reef
0600hrs: Hoisted sail for Bewick Is and Barrow Is.
1430hrs: Arrived Barrow Is. Too early to anchor up so pushed on.
1630hrs: Anchored in lee of Rocky Pt islet. Brian got a heavy fish strike on the road on approach to islet but lost it. Distance 63 miles in 10-½ hrs. At times pushing between 8 to 9 kt under sail. Strong winds. 1 to 1 ½ metre seas. Heavy on tiller so did not use Auto Helm.
0800hrs: Lifted anchor and set out for Pipon Is. Only using Jib and motor. Getting 6 kt. Strong breeze estimated 30 kt. Arrived Pipon Is and found about 8 fishing trawlers sheltered in lee. Challenged by Coastwatch aircraft and gave details of boat and our passage.
Morning: Did some handline fishing. Fist fish was a large Remora (Suckerfish) which did a dirty business right throughout cockpit and even reached the navigation table inside! Got a nice Sweetlip for tea. Only stayed a couple of hours. Wind too strong (howling) to venture ashore especially since boats dinghy very unstable. Set off the Flinders group of islands in Princess Charlotte Bay.
1530hrs: Anchored for the night Flinders Is.
Right: Coming in behind the northern island. A yacht can be seen anchored in close near a beach. Mangroves to the right offer potential mud-crabs and good fishing.
0750hrs: Weighed anchor. Motored until clear of islands then motor sailed for 4 hrs to Eden Reef, then sailed rest of the way to Hay Is. Hay Is is a small mangrove covered island with literally thousands of Torres Strait pigeons. Fringing reefs shelf quickly from 17m to 7m.
1700hrs: Anchored up and caught some Tricky Snapper and Redfish for tea. Total distance 48 miles. Reach sail speeds around 6 to 7 kt using full cutter rig.
0630hrs: Hay Is humming with the sound of Torres Strait pigeon calls. At first thought it was wind in the rigging but there was no wind.
Above: Chart – Hay Island to Cairncross Island
0750hrs: Weighed anchor for an overnight trip. Calm day. Breezes about 5 to 10 kt. Motoring. Beautiful day again. Did some washing. Challenged by Coastwatch again. Turned motor off early afternoon until next morning. Coast from Cooktown to Cape York appears to be very large sand dunes, almost like small mountains in some places.
Late Afternoon: The Auto Helm gave out. On inspection the small brass shear pin had sheared off so that the worm gear would not engage. Fashioned a new temporary pin from a fishhook but then had trouble putting the several dozen small ball bearings back in. When we got them in the worm gear kept binding. Unfortunately now forced to hand steer from here on.
0130hrs: Approached and passed through the narrow 1-mile gap in the coral reefs between Piper Reed and Inset Reef. Managed to contact two large freighters coming our way and arranged ‘green to green’ passage. They couldn’t see us visually but had us OK on radar. No problems there. As we entered the gap we listened on Channel 16 VHF as the masters of the S.V Atlantic Clipper going south and another large ship going north were talking about this little radar blip between them. That little blip was us. We pretty quickly confirmed who and what we were.
Rest of night: Uneventful. Lots of doglegs through the reefs but plenty of navigation lights to steer by. Thank god for GPS. It’s nice to know exactly where you are in these conditions. Very tiring night anyhow. Pleased to see the dawn off Cape Granville. Another beautiful day. Had to goosewing sails all day. Making reasonable time.
1700hrs: Dropped anchor off Cairncross Is. Approx 160 miles in 33 hrs. No fish caught here. Had tea and we all went to bed early intending to get up early for the final run to Thursday Is.
Below: Brian on coral bombie lookout duty as we approach Cairncross Island.
0300hrs: Current holding boat awkwardly towards the coral reef. Calculated Secondary Port tides for Cairncross Is and decided that given the way the boat was laying and height of tide, it would be more prudent to wait. Went back to bed.
0630hrs: Some problems getting anchor up. Found it had dragged and we were some 100 metres or more out to sea. A fortunate purchase of a piece of pipe at Magnetic Is helped us winch the anchor up link by link. After some effort finally free and away by 0700hrs.
Mid Morning: Sunny day, little breeze. Taking shortcut Cairncross direct to Albany Reef saving 10 miles prior to the turn towards Cape York.
1100hrs: Yahoo! Auto Helm problem resolved and working. Sighted the Albany Rock light at 10 miles, which marks the turning point across the top towards Cape York.
1130hrs: Pulled the Spinnaker out and set it up for the first time. Very majestic. Revelled in its shade.
Below: Cape York in the distance seen underneath the spinaker.
1500hrs: Spinnaker halyard broke with a bang, sending the spinnaker into the sea. Had to work quickly. Stopped motor and dragged it aboard before it could wrap around the propeller. Reset Jib and Staysail.
1600hrs: First sighting of Thursday Is.
1730hrs: Progress slow is Ellis Channel at Thursday Is. Auto Helm worm gear making a grinding noise but seems to be working OK. Anchored up off the Federal Hotel at Thursday Is. The tides here run very fast about 3 to 4 kt making it difficult to get to shore in our little dinghy with a 2 hp Yamaha. Had a good feed and an excellent night at the Federal Hotel. Brian fell out of the dinghy when we were trying to get back to the yacht.
Morning: Dipped fuel tank. Just over ½ full still. Have only added that 20 lts at Cooktown since leaving Mackay. Have used maybe 50 to 60 litres Cooktown to Thursday Is. Fairly constant use. Total distance approx 388 miles in 7 days. Approx 125 litres of water left in tank. Have used approx 145 litres since Cooktown. Also have 2 x 20-ltr water containers spare. Went ashore and had a quick look around the shops.
1300hrs: Departed Thursday Is.
1315hrs: Uneventful night. 15 to 20 kt winds. Slight to moderate seas. Wind mostly up our tail. Sails goosewinged. Have achieved 128.6 miles for the 24 hrs measured from Thursday Is. 116 miles on the log. We have had a Booby bird following us all last night and today. Has landed on the boat several times and is now asleep up near the bow.
2000hrs: Went to bed with fore hatch op to get some air and guess who fell inside. He was unceremoniously ejected together with any lice he may have had.
0300hrs: Developed a charging fault. The Amp light came on and wouldn’t go out. Found a wire loose. Corrected this but no good. Cleaned and tightened every wire connection that could be found. Some were in very poor state. Still no good. Decided to save batteries and sail for Gove.
0900hrs: Only averaging 1 to 3 kt. Turned everything off except GPS and starter motor. No fault any more! Batteries charging up beautifully reading 1250 specific gravity. Everyone very tired with interrupted sleeps.
Uneventful night. Virtually no wind for most of passage from Thursday Is to Gove except for the first night. Have motor sailed almost continuously. Batteries looking good. Charge rate just under 1275 specific gravity. Nil further sign of the Booby bird. Must have got the shits since being thrown overboard.
0730hrs (NT Time): First sighting of Bremer Is off Gove. Looking for Victoria Islet light for the run in to Melville Bay and Gove Harbour.
1300hrs: Anchored Gove Harbour. 322 miles by log plus approx 18miles current assistance in almost exactly 3 days.
Shopped in Gove for food supplies. Booked Lowana in with Perkins for refuel/water. Had a happy hour at the Gove Yacht Club last night. Checked out Dave Black’s (President Gove Yacht Club) classic yacht built 1939. Beautiful time boat and panelling. Brian fell out of the dinghy again. Paul’s nickname is now ‘Glint’ due to the look in his eye when we talk about putting up more sails. Brian’s now known as ‘Jasdip’ (Just Another Shitty Day In Paradise).
0830hrs: Fuel and water taken on at Perkins wharf. Took on 165 ltr of diesel making a total of 185 ltr from Mackay to Gove. Fairly constant use of motor. Cost $118.00 at .72c a ltr. Refilled LPG gas tank at Metaland 50 yards around the corner from Perkins. Returned to Gove Yacht Club and had a shower. Collected the $20.00 refund on the shower block key.
Above: Chart – Gove to Croker Island
1030hrs: Up anchor for Wigram Is where we will overnight before attempting passage through the Hole-In-The-Wall tomorrow.
1700hrs: Anchored in 6 metres of water in the lee of Wigram Is.
0820hrs: Set off for the Hole-In-The-Wall. It is 16miles away across Malay Roads in the Wessel Islands. Had brekkie leftover mince stew.
1145hrs: Committed ourselves to the hole and dropped the Jib.
1200hrs: By now we knew it was all wrong. According to info received it should have been slack water turning westerly. Boat pitching and yawing violently and current running against us. Very hard work to hold a course on the tiller. Had to drop mainsail so Paul on the helm could see where he was going. Murphy strikes, traveller knotted up so boom swinging violently from side to side. Secured boom and sails so Paul could see.
Right: The cut is only 1 nautical mile long and not very wide. The tide can run up to 12 knots through here.
1230hrs: Inside the cut now. Log reading 8 kt but boat standing still in the head current. Actually passed the same rock 4 times. Can’t go forward or back. Engine doing 2200 rpm flat out and starting to heat up but eventually steadied before it reached the red line. Put up the biggest Genoa but not enough wind to keep the sail filled. Put up mainsail again, poled out the Genoa in a goosewing (wind up the stern) and very slowly started to pull forward at ½ kt.
1300hrs: Just clear of the Hole-In-The-Wall. Still a strong current on the western side but no real problem now. We all had a beer to celebrate. It had taken us 1 hour to do 1 mile.
Evening: Fairly uneventful night. Some large waves at stern lifted the dinghy off its shackle and it dropped down. Luckily had a rope securing it to the Targa so it didn’t goo too far. Making good time. Heading for the southern end of Croker Is. Intend passage through Bowen Strait north towards Raffles Bay and Port Essington early tomorrow.
0120hrs: First sighting of De Courcy Head, Cape Cockburn south of Croker Is.
0300hrs: Decided against Bowen Strait passage. We’ve arrived early. Moon gone down, map scale too small (1:500,000) for any accurate details and too long until dawn. Tide would also be working against us. Too risky. Going up the eastern side of Croker Is.
0400hrs: Have an overheating problem again. Turned motor off.
0700hrs: Very slow progress. Turned motor back on. No overheating problem anymore.
0830hrs: Rounded Cape Croker.
Rest of Day: Straightforward run. Making excellent time across the top.
Above: Croker Island to Darwin
Overnight: Rounded Cape Don and entered the notorious Van Dieman Gulf. Not a breath of wind. Motoring along with a good tidal push.
0345hrs: First sighting of Cape Hotham light.
0600hrs: Rounded Cape Hotham and entered Dundas Strait. Nil wind, very still. Sails down and motoring. Seas absolutely flat.
1000hrs: Passing through the Vernon Islands. GPS dropped out for a little while so went further East around Abbot Shoal before turning south towards Darwin.
1500hrs: Nil public berths available at Fisherman’s Wharf. Grabbed a vacant mooring for the night. Paul contacted owner of the mooring. Headed straight for the Dinah Beach Yacht Club who promptly made us honorary members.
1100hrs: Batteries the most highest charge yet. Brian, Delma, Marg (from next door) and myself had lunch on the boat then took it through the Darwin Mooring Basic lock. Berthed up inside for the next 12 days while Lowana gets a little TLC before she will be taken out and put on a fore and aft mooring in Sadgroves Creek ready to do some more sailing / cruising.