1994 Sailing to King George River

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Introduction

A few years ago I was introduced to the yacht-cruising lifestyle when I’d formed part of a crew in a boat named Wuli (pron wool-eye). The boat had been sailed from Fremantle in Western Australia back to my hometown of Darwin in the Northern Territory of Australia. That journey was the fulcrum which turned me from keen offshore fisherman into a sailboat cruising sailor.

It was an eye-opening experience but even more so was a visit to the rugged and spectacular King George River in the eastern Kimberly region of Western Australia. It had fascinated me being reachable only by sailboat or helicopter, and it was only 36 hours travel time by sea at an average speed of six knots.

The previous year I had bought my own boat, a 30 ft steel, cutter-rigged, bilge keel cruising yacht. With the help of an experienced skipper and a friend we sailed her back to Darwin. Since bringing her home I’d undertaken a rather unfortunate overnight trip which had resulted in two crew members getting injured, which had taught me a lot about shipboard safety. And over succeeding months further honed my sailing skills in Darwin Harbour.

With the arrival of the Dry Season I felt it was time to revisit the King George River.

The following story is presented as a photo-journal consisting of notes taken at the time, complemented with captioned photographs.

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Chart of the voyage area from Darwin to King George Rv in the Kimberley Coast of West Australia.

Crew

Russ Swan Skipper
Bill Hawker
John Hawker
Tamea (Tumma) Jeffreys

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Bill Hawker
Russ Swan – Skipper  
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John Hawker “Tumma” Jeffries at left front.

Wed 23/3/94

Commence organising boat for the trip. Start servicing of engine. Top up fuel and water.

Thur 24/3/94

Bill and I shop for non-perishable stores, eg packaged food etc. Load onto boat.

Mon 28/3/94

Finn Campbell (diesel mechanic) comes out to boat. Checks engine and shows me how to bleed the air in the fuel system. This proves to be a valuable lesson later on. Engine servicing completed. Pick up a new GPS, a Garmin 50 hand-held with a wall mount and attachment for 12v DC power.

Wed 30/3/94

Bill and I shop for fresh stores i.e. meat, fruit and vegetables.

Thur 31/3/94

0730 hours: All crew meet at Dinah Beach boat ramp. Personal gear and fresh stores taken out and loaded onto boat. Final check of engine and boat in general e.g. stowage, final inventory checks.

0930 hours: Leave mooring in Sadgroves Ck and move out into Darwin Harbour. Lift dinghy and secure onto davits. This takes some time due to testing a different system of raising dinghy higher than previously to clear following seas. Other final preparations e.g. bringing out and securing sails, crew briefings on safety and general boat housekeeping etc.

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On Darwin Harbour looking back
at Darwin city.
Sails hoisted, heading west.

1050 hours: Hoist sails off Talc Head and depart Darwin Harbour. Beautiful day, slight breeze, seas 0.6m.

1220 hours: Reach #5 buoy at Charles Point Patches under sails only. Wind dead aft, goosewinged sails. Have lunch of chicken rolls, tomato and onions.

Afternoon: Freshwater pump fails. Find surface rust on an in-line fuse. Clean off and all ok. Notice refrigerator not working. Find the negative wire has corroded and broken off the moulded plastic power plug. Have to cut it open, re-wire, solder and tape up plug. Get it working again ok and it continues to work with no problems for rest of trip. Temporarily install the new GPS to boat power and mount the antenna externally up on the targa rail. Stern gland holding well with very little water coming in and minimum bilge pumping required. Shear pin of the auto-helm beaks caused by binding in the planetary gears. The whole shear pin connection is torn apart. Hand steering from the time being.

1605 hours: Reach Fish Reef light clearing it by 2.5 nautical miles (nm). Set course 235 deg magnetic for King George River.

1800 hours: Have dinner of cryovac Silverside, mashed potato and peas.

2030 hours: Slow going. Only made good 16 nm since Fish Reef light. Average speed 3.5 knots. Seems to be an adverse current and no wind. Also beginning to wish I had cleaned the boats hull prior to starting out, although it had only been done a month ago and didn’t think it would be too bad. Motor sailing now.

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Sunset on first day in the Joseph Bonaparte Gulf – aka “blown apart gulf”. Flat sea. Sea snake on the surface (circled).

Fri 1/4/94

0600 hours: Sight navigation lights of the Wuli, a 64’ timber cruiser owned by Don and Annette Ross who are also going to the King George Rv. Very slow progress during night. Little or no breeze so motoring along instead. Whatever winds we get are from dead ahead and have to tack virtually west or south. Take headsail down once as our own progress through the air was creating a headwind causing the sails to back, effectively holding us back! Fluctuating winds giving us a boost from time to time.

0700 hours: Establish radio contact with Wuli. We learn Don has another family onboard and altogether there are 5 children between the two families. Don has been getting 6 to 7 kts under motor while we are still struggling with 4 to 4.5 kts. He’s just as surprised as I am that he caught us so soon. He quickly leaves us behind after giving me a bit of stick over the radio. Let’s not acknowledge he has an 80hp motor and I have a 20hp motor!

0730 hours: Have a breakfast of cereal, a cuppa, scratch and look around. Water like glass. Boat is perfectly mirrored in the water which is a deep indigo blue. Loads of sea snakes, small ones around 2-3 ft long usually on the surface. They are a light brown colour with black bands and very small heads. Occasionally we see one swimming straight down, to get away from us I suppose. The day is brilliant with just enough of a breeze to keep relatively cool, if not enough to keep the sails filled.

Morning: Bill and Tamea set to work with the cordless drill and permanently mount the EPIRB near the wheelhouse door where it can be snatched up quickly if needed. They also mount the GPS bracket onto the hull above the navigation station. No one sick yet but we haven’t had any seas big enough to talk about.

1050 hours: Have had better runs. Made good only 98.1 nm for the last 24 hrs.

1300 hours: Lunch of chicken rolls.

Afternoon: Catch up on some sleep. Fix the auto-helm using some spare parts left over from a previous fault, and by degreasing planetary gears to get rid of the crud. Get it working better than ever before. No more problems with the auto helm for the rest of the trip.

1800 hours: Mince stew with pasta, fresh and dried veges for tea. Winds treating us very poorly all day, remaining dead on the nose for the whole of the time. This remains the same for the rest of the trip over.

Sat 2/4/94

Early Morning: Sight navigation lights of two yachts to our south. Later find out they were the yachts Hope and Rattle and Hum. They also slowly pass by. Breakfast of cereal and toast.

Morning: Another fine day. Slight breezes head on as usual. Hold a westerly course during the morning. Tack south for a while to get to a final approach position favourable to winds. Tamea occupying himself cleaning anything made of brass or bronze. Another disappointing run for the last 24 hrs. Expect 5 to 6 kts which I know the boat can easily achieve when motor-sailing but only getting about 4 kts. Definitely regretting not cleaning boats hull before departure now. Also seem to be strong adverse currents holding us back. Check fridge contents. All ok.

1745 hours: First sighting of W.A. coast. Watch it get closer during the ‘cocktail hour’. Have dinner of stew with different pasta.

Evening: Have to close with the coast in pitch dark. GPS’s are great gadgets allowing you to do this with careful use of waypoints.

Late Evening: Nose our way into Koolama Bay at the head of the King George Rv. Hope and Rattle and Hum are anchored just inside the entrance on the eastern side in a small cove with a sandy beach. Try to anchor just south of them in the lee of some cliffs but the newly purchased 35lb CQR plough anchor will not hold in 9m of the steeply sloping seabed. The large danforth (sand) anchor won’t hold either. Try a couple of times but it drags each time. Move about 1 nm further south around a bend and set the anchor in about 5m of water. This time successful.

King George Rv Map
Mud map of Koolama Bay at the head of the King George Rv.


Sun 3/4/94

0100 hours: Crew enjoys a couple of beers to celebrate and go to bed.

0700 hours: Easter bunny finds us. Bill and I present crew with choky and lolly Easter eggs. Going to need high tide to get over the sand bar at the entrance of the river but this won’t be until midday.

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Anchored in Koolama Bay. Heading towards the mouth of the river following a channel. Sand bank ahead at left.

0930 hours: Drop dinghy and get it ready. Bill and I take the dinghy and sound the sand bar with a lead line looking for a deep enough channel and take bearings to use when we make the crossing.

1130 hours: Negotiate sand bar and get inside river. Tamea climbs the mast to take pictures. Sip some white wine as we slowly motor up the river taking in the scenery.

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Tamea up in the crosstrees.
Bill climbs up on the boom to keep us in the channel over the sandbar.  
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First view inside the river on the western side. There is a small gorge immediately to the right off photo. Looking upriver. Higher cliffs begin to show.
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Cliffs begin to get higher. ….. and almost vertical. Some (but not many) sections have crumbled over the ages to provide a bit of greenery and good fishing.
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The head of the river around the next bend ahead.  It’s 6 km from the river mouth. SV  Wuli with the pick of the anchorages at the head of the river.

1430 hours: Meet up with other yachts at the waterfalls at the head of the river and anchor up. Tamea and I do some fishing. Tamea catches a nice trevally which he later turns into a superb nummis. Tide too high to get at the oysters. Change over in dinghy so Bill and John can get some fishing in. Have a sleep.

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The falls on the eastern side of the gorge. Falls on the western side of the gorge.

1800 hours: Crew all take a shower under a natural freshwater waterfall. It’s cold and it stings a little because of the height of its fall, but it’s beautiful. The children from the Wuli earlier had earlier climbed up to a rock pool and are calling and waving. Almost have to use the binoculars to see them from our boat.

Three people are camped on the rocks around the base of the waterfall. There are two men and a woman. They had come in two 16 ft dinghy’s from Kalumburu community about four hours travel time away across open waters.

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A small waterfall and large rocks below provide for an excellent shower. The dinghy anchored out front has come from Kalumburu, an aboriginal community some 60 or so nautical miles away across open water.
Lowana takes up her anchorage a bit further downriver behind the other boats.  

1900 hours: Visit the crews of the other yachts on Wuli for a few drinks and social intercourse. Have a great time. Very enjoyable indeed.

2300 hours: Get back to Lowana with a rosy glow and have some dinner. Simple fare, sausages and mashed potatoes. Get a good nights sleep.

Mon 4/3/94

Dawn: Tamea and John go fishing. Bill and I have a leisurely brekkie of sausages and eggs which Bill cooks.

0730 hours: John and Tamea return. No fish but a load of oysters in a bucket so we have oysters with white wine. They’re nice and big and we are pulling 2 or 3 loose ones at a time out of the bucket.

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Breakfast – wine and oysters! The way up to the top of the gorge to reach the head of the waterfalls.

Morning: Square boat away and go ashore. Climb to the top of the gorge and walk around to the top of the falls. There are actually two separate falls and the view is stunning. Looking up at the top does not look nearly so far as it does looking down. Skinny dip in rock pools at the head of each falls.

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John and Russ at the top of the gorge working around to the head of the waterfalls.
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  Looking down the gorge towards the river mouth.  The four yachts can be seen at anchor.
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Russ (top left) and Bill (centre) are dwarfed and almost invisible by the grandeur of the scenery. Bill at the edge of a sheer drop to the river below.
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Skinny dipping in the rock pools at the top of the waterfalls.
Another view of the western waterfall.  
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The top of one of the falls. Another view looking downriver shows the majesty of the cliffs.

Afternoon: Return to boat. Leisurely last afternoon. John and I go fishing. Catch a trevally and an archer fish which we use for crab bait. Set some pots. Have a shower under the waterfall. Leisurely evening aboard.

Tues 5/3/94

Dawn: Bill and John go fishing. Have breakfast on their return.

Morning: Up anchor and move back down river. Collect crab pots on the way but no crabs. Anchor in a bend near the mouth of the shallow eastern arm of the river. Reset crab pots then all troop off in the dinghy to the head of the eastern arm to visit the waterfall there.

This waterfall is not nearly so majestic or high but pretty in it’s own right. Someone has kindly left a thick corded rope hanging down the rocks to help climb up to the top. The going is much harder here. The cliffs and rocks appear to be much more eroded and there are a lot of loose rocks to catch the unwary. At the top the going is very slow while working around to the head of the falls. Big boulders laying everywhere.

We find no rock pools to sit in unless we wanted to work our way quite some distance inland so decided against it. The creek feeding the falls descends from the plateau in a series of levels with mini waterfalls along the way. At the head of the falls is a chasm about 50m deep with long, flat and wide rock plates. There is a very deep rock pool. As usual the trip back to the dinghy seems faster than coming in.

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The first waterfall from the river entrance on the eastern side. This section of river is geologically older and the cliffs are much more eroded. A rock pool at the head of the waterfall, but too difficult to climb down to it.

Afternoon: Get back to the boat. Do some fishing. John gets a trevally, his first fish on a lure.

Evening: A calm night. Some lightning about. Get some light rain overnight so we have to sleep indoors instead of on deck.

Weds 6/3/94

Dawn: Tamea and Bill go fishing. Bill cooks breakfast of sausages, egg and tomato on toast. Overcast day. Wind building up 15 to 20 kts. Up anchor and move to entrance of the river to explore the western arm. Quite bumpy at the entrance. Anchor just inside and at the mouth of the western arm. John and Bill go fishing. John successful again, returning fish to the water excess to requirements. Wait for the tide to change to cross sand bar out into Koolama Bay with an intention to explore the little coves along the western side of the bay.

1330 hours: Leave King George Rv and out into Koolama Bay. Very bumpy outside with huge waves driving up against the cliffs on the western side. Decide not to go over there to check out those bays.  Can see a Navy Patrol Boat HMAS Geelong anchored in the bay.

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Leaving the King George River. Patrol Boat HMAS Geelong at anchor in Koolama Bay.

Afternoon: Contact Wuli on radio. He tellls me all the other yachts are now anchored in the lee of the eastern headland.  We make our way over there and join them. Had some trouble again trying to get the large danforth anchor to set. Made a couple of attempts, laid 45m of chain before it seems to set. Finally anchored in 8m of water but can’t get closer to the beach due to position of the other boats. Connected a safety rope to the last 15m of chain as it’s pretty old and rusty. Two Navy blokes come over to each boat asking questions on behalf of Coastwatch. Very polite and friendly. Go ashore and climb the eastern headland. Take some photos.

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Rattle and Hum at anchor. Some people are ashore. All four yachts at anchor in the little bay behind Cape Rulhieres.

1630 hours: Weather forecast not nice. Tropical low in the Timor Sea expected to degenerate into a cyclone. It’s located 191 nm from us moving west at 8 kts. Winds locally quite strong.

1800 hours: Tamea cooks tea of rissoles, bubble and squeak. Have concerns regarding holding power of the anchor considering the strong winds howling through the rigging and rocking the boat. Set an anchor watch through the night of 2 hrs on and 4 hrs off. Night is pitch black and hard to make out bearings. Other boats turn off lights so it becomes harder to keep track of them. Have to use a torch occasionally to check their position relative to ours. Some anxious moments but GPS assuring me we’re still holding but swinging around a fair bit though. Wuli’s fabric canopy gets ripped and a hatch is thrown back during the night. Glad to see the dawn.

DRAMAS ON THE RETURN JOURNEY TO DARWIN TO FOLLOW ….

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