Thurs 2 Oct 03
0600: Alarm goes off. Light grey outside heralds the coming dawn. A soft noise like a low wind is coming from the little island behind us. Listening carefully we establish that it’s the nesting sounds of birds, lots of them softly calling their mates. The sky lightens whilst checking the engine oils. Have to use the pressure pump to hose the thick, sticky mud off the anchor chain as it comes up. Good thing having this pump and hose. Glad I’d fixed the pump but it’s heavy on the power so the motor has to be run when using it. With the anchor secure we turn the boat to thread our way back out to sea.
0645: Plenty of light. Sun just below the land and starting to peep over. A pearling workboat speeds along the lines of pearl buoys and drops someone off at other small boats which seem to be some kind of work stations anchored along the lines. Assume that’s where they check the oysters for pearls. The first boat crosses our bow and the morning sun lights it up with a dull orange colour. The driver gives us a wave as he or she speeds off.
Am finding it easy enough to make our way back out to sea now that we know where the marks are, but this is not a place I’d like to enter or leave at night and especially not at low tide.
0815: Delma sights some dolphins ahead but they soon disappear. Reach the first waypoint in Bowen Strait. Careful navigation is required inside the strait due to shallows which run right down the middle. Occurs to me that the Makassan’s who once came here looking for beche-de-mer must have lost some people from time to time to crocodiles while they splashed around in the shallows.
Virtually no breeze. Sea like a mirror reflecting blue sky with only wispy clouds around the horizon. A small dinghy is moving along the coast also heading south like us but closer in towards the coast, which is less than a mile away. Slowly overtakes us. Open water at both ends of the strait can be seen ahead and behind us.
0830: The horizon is barely discernible. Just enough breeze from our own forward movement to provide a bit of cool relief. All the land is low lying especially on the mainland with long stretches of beach and backed by trees. Croker Island on the other side has occasional cliffs jutting up along its length that provide some measure of scenic attraction and nicer to look at.
0840: Another pod of dolphins swim by unconcernedly, bobbing slowly through the water maybe 100 metres away. The dolphins here seem to be either very shy or disinterested in boats. I can see plenty of evidence of shallow water further into the centre of the strait, with ripples in the smooth surface of the water indicating the danger areas.
0845: Two-thirds of the way down. Chart says thickly-wooded country and it does look very forested. The trees seem bigger, greener and thicker.
0850: Am startled as we almost run aground. The depth suddenly rises 2.5 metres up from 11 metres then slows as the boat is turned back to deeper water. GPS tells me we’ve arrived at our waypoint. Have to be careful working through here because the only available chart I’ve got has a scale of 1:500,000, so the thickness of a pencil can mean the difference between clear and foul water.
0920: On the last leg to clear the shallow mid channel. There’s a couple of buildings on the mainland at the top of a low cliff, and another on Croker Island on the port beam. Each of these has a communications tower which is no doubt part of the trunk communications system for Croker Island itself. Water still flat. Occasionally a small, long fish bursts out of the water and tail-walks across the top at speed away from us, maybe to escape from some predator.
Our trolling line hasn’t taken anything yet either. Mainsail not much help in the breezeless air but we’ve made good time at 5 kts. Earlier we’d been getting close to 6 kts. Hot again. Have brekky of rice cereal again and coffee about half hour.
Two big fishing trawlers appear ahead. One red and one blue travelling side by side, one with an outrigger extended. Hard to make much more out due to the glare.
0945: Trawlers approach. Contact one of them on radio. They’d come from Gove and say the weather has been good over that way. Very friendly sounding fellow. Wish each other a nice day and arrange a port to port pass.
First small swells push up the strait from Mountnorris Bay up ahead. Breeze also picking up slightly. Still doing 5.1 kts but it’s getting shallower and tighter so special attention is needed for navigation here in the narrow channel. Sandbanks also extend further out into the bay from Point David on Croker Island for some distance so a good lookout will also be needed. There are a couple of houses on the spit of land ending at Point David with some lines of pearling buoys here too.
Water slightly ruffled now. Might actually get to sail and turn the motor off.
1100: Finally break free of the long narrow channel at the base of Croker Island. Approx one mile wide and 3 miles long. Point the bow towards the northern end of Valentia Island at 7 miles showing on the horizon.
Gentle swells deepen as we push into the Arafura Sea. Wind coming directly from the front causing the mainsail boom to wobble back and forth. Pull it in tight with the traveller and the speed drops down to around 4.5 kts. Listen to weather forecast. No change. Delma makes a nice little bowl of nibbles with mixed nuts, sesame seed biscuits and low fat chocolate muffin. Nice – plus a cup of strong tea. Shame we can’t sail. Well we could if we really wanted to make about 1.5 kts and arrive at our anchorage in Malay Bay after dark. No thank you.
Delma stirs. Mumbles something about, “If you gotta do it, you gotta do it,” and goes below. I think she’s about to make some bread.
1125: Look back to see something splashing on the trolling line. We’re definitely dragging something back there so call to Delma that we might have a fish on. Put the motor to neutral and start pulling in the line. There’s some weight on it and a long dark shape like a fin cuts through the water – shark! Bugger!
Open a gate on a side rail to get better access to the fishing line. While doing this Delma sees a big head rise momentarily from the water. Get the gate opened and pull the line in closer. No it’s a big spanish mackerel. The fin I’d seen was its tail cutting the water as it fought to get free.
Get it alongside the boat and ponder how I’m going to get it aboard since I don’t have a gaff or a boat hook. Put on a sturdy pair of fishing gloves then grab the wire trace being careful of the mouth full of teeth and the hooks on the fishing lure, then grab the tail. The tail feels like I’m grabbing a grown man’s wrist. Haul it up and manhandle it into the cockpit. It’s 1.2 metres long and completely fills the cockpit.
Turn the cockpit seat over to make a work bench and put the fish on it. It overlaps both ends. I want to cut it into mackerel steaks but have no cleaver to cut the backbone. Fillet it instead. Delma cleans the fillets and cuts them into more manageable chunks while I clean up the cockpit of blood and slime everywhere.
This takes some time because if it doesn’t get completely and thoroughly removed it stinks later. Hook up the pressure hose and turn it on but the hose decides to disconnect from the pump and sprays water everywhere inside. Mad scramble to sop it up especially from all the electronics.
Drifting south-west towards Point David but still in 8 metres of water. Job finally done.
1205: Underway again. Fish caught, cleaned, a couple of big fillet steaks in the oven and moving again within 40 minutes. Big grin on Delma’s face. Nothing better than fresh caught fish and some fresh bread that was baking while we cleaned the fish.
Lunch is something special today. Six miles to the waypoint off Valentia Island, then a dogleg around the top before a run into Malay Bay for the night. Just as well the fridges are working so well. Even our drinks are icing up if we place them against the iced-up cold tanks in there.
This day is beautiful. Seas still slight with low swells, light breeze head on so no sailing but maybe tomorrow. Decide not to put the line back out. Don’t need more fish now and I want to get to my anchorage before the afternoon sea breezes start kicking in hard.
1230: Afternoon winds springing up already. Some small whitecaps appearing. Sea state still the same. Still motoring.
1300: Wind swings northerly and whitecaps become more widespread. We could change to full sails on this tack but we’re only 40 minutes from our waypoint and then we’ll need to dogleg directly into the wind again across the top of Valentia Island. Now that there’s a bit of wind we can actually use we put a reef into the mainsail and raise the staysail. Immediately get a lift of about 10 degrees on the port bow. Maybe we’ll get to sail the last leg into Malay Bay.
Delma serves lunch. A big chunk of fresh fish fillet, a thick slab of bread, tomato and a lemon quarter. Neither of us can finish the meal. Too big. Save it for later. Waypoint just over a mile away. Beautiful day still. Delma starts cleaning up before she makes a hot brew so that we can be ready for sailing later if we want to.
Change course at waypoint. A more northerly wind holds steady to allow close reach sailing off the port bow. Warn Delma we’re about to change to full sail, drop the engine throttle to idle and pull out the jib furler. Once the sheet is winched in we lean slightly and pick up speed straight away. Motor put to neutral.
1330: Speed picks up to 4.6 kts. Turn motor off. We’re sailing. Ahh … peace and quiet without the motor. Put CDs on to listen to some music. Water burbles alongside the hull and off the stern. Just a gentle forward rocking as the bow hits successive swells. Valentia Island slides by off to starboard. We’re in 15 metres of water and just over a mile to the next turn. Sailing with full cutter rig to windward and heeling to 20 degrees but that’s okay. Normally I’d ease the sails at about 15 degrees but this is just too good.
1400: Change course and on our final tack. Course ESE at 5.3 kts.
1500: Coming up to the entrance to Malay Bay with just over 2 miles to our intended anchorage. Depth shelves up to 7 metres so motor the rest of the way in. Take down all sails and secure them. Fish jumping everywhere and being attacked by wheeling sea birds.
Again it’s low lying land. Stretches of white beach interspersed with small, low red ridges. Annersley Pt to the south has a prominent low red cliff-face but not tall by any means. Moving to the northern side of bay to get out of the swells.
1520: Tiptoeing in cautiously to the NE shore. A barge passes by Cape Cockburn outside heading west.
1600: Scout around carefully and slowly. At least one small dark reef patch reveals itself just off our port bow as we pass by. At this time of day it pays to be careful because with the low angle of the sun it’s not easy to see into the water or any colour change. Depth sounder starts beeping away to alert me and the depth on the screen jumps from 5 metres to 2.6 metres. I’d set the alarm at 3 metres.
Finally secure a spot at 3 metres depth, do a circle to check for any underwater nasties and set the anchor. Secure it, turn off the motor and open hatches and portholes to get some breeze through the boat. Tide flats here make it difficult to go ashore at low tide which is the best time to check for oysters, though it doesn’t look promising anyway. At least we’re sheltered from the worst of late afternoon northerly sea-winds and easterlies, but still exposed to south-west winds. The swell coming into the bay may be a pain tonight. The wind has eased a little but some gusts persist. As the tide comes in and the water depth increases so do the swells. Up, down, up, down. We think we’ll push on tomorrow and head for Somerville Bay just around Cape Croker at its northern tip.
1830: We’ve been sitting on deck just talking and enjoying a cold drink. Have a wash using buckets of salt water. Shampoo does a good job of soaping. Rinse off with a small amount of fresh water. Delma washes some clothes and we string them out along the bow rail.
1845: Sun has fallen below Valentia Island. Nothing special about the sunset though colourful enough. The sun finally goes out with a final gasp in a fiery halo of reds and orange.
Weather forecast not promising – NW winds. Have a nice dinner. Fish fillets of course. Delma crumbs mine just how I like it but just flours hers then deep fires them. Delicious. Put about 8 meals of fish into the bottom of the freezer. There’s also another large container of fillets in the fridge.
Wind keeps up and takes a long time to settle. Thumping noises coming from the bow in the v-berth are keeping me awake. Bump, grind, bump every time Lowana IV rises and falls off the bigger swells that come through. Occasional wind gusts are keeping the waves bigger I suppose. Get Delma out of bed and start the motor. Lowana IV barely able to move forward in gear against the force of the wind and waves so a touch of throttle has to be applied to get the snubber unhooked from the chain. Ease out more chain until I have 40 metres out there and re-connect the snubber. Watch for a while that we haven’t dislodged the anchor then turn off the motor and get back into bed. No more thumping but even as I lay there listening the wind slowly eases and the pitching becomes less frequent. Could have just waited – ah well …
Lay for a long time. Difficult to get to sleep but at last it claims me. Sleep well except when someone with an aboriginal accent starts calling someone else on the VHF radio.
Fri 3 Oct 03
0430: Alarms on our mobile phones go off. The tones get increasingly louder and more insistent until it is actually turned off.
Check oils in motor and a small amount of oil required. Put about a cupful in the gearbox and motor combined. Turn the motor on. Take our clothes down off the life rails though they’re still damp from the night air.
The weather forecast today promises hard weather with moderate NW winds. Pitch black outside. Hard to tell which way the land is. Pick up some stars for direction and check the compass. Bow pointing due west. Good. That’s the way we want to go to the first waypoint. The stars will give us some orientation as I pull the anchor up. Move forward. Breeze blowing already. Delma notices swarms of fish on the depth sounder.
Small swell coming through already. Normally it’s as still as anything. Doesn’t presage for a good day. Start pulling the anchor in. Tide going out. Don’t have to use motor or winch handle. Can pull chain in by hand until there’s only 20 metres out there then start using the winch handle. Chain and anchor came in clean – no mud. Quick glance at stars. Shine torch on my hand to signal Delma to engage throttle and show her the direction to take. I’m now done.
Delma knows what to do. She puts the motor into gear and starts moving off, keeping watch on the compass and for any other directions I might make. Edge out of anchorage watching the depth dropping on the depth sounder. Heaps of big fish start appearing but we won’t be chasing them today.
0520: Underway with motor ticking over slowly.
0545: First faint lighting of sky starts chasing our stars away progressively from the east. Almost at first waypoint near the entrance to the bay. Valentia Island is a pencil thin smudge against the horizon. Annersley Point with its rock shelfs and reef stands out black and stark off our port beam. Cape Cockburn looms larger off our starboard beam.
Reach waypoint and change course NW to our next waypoint about 10 miles away below Templar Island. Swells start getting a little bigger and there are some small gusts of breeze brushing our faces from directly ahead.
0630: Delma is a little bit cross with me. Says I shouldn’t have put us in a situation where we’d have a hard slog against these NW winds if I’d expected them to spring up later. But then what’s the point of an adventure? She’s probably right, although we should be in the lee of Croker Island most of the way.
All the waters to the west of us are expected to get westerly winds making it even harder to get home if we’d gone that way. I wonder how Pete from Kajan is getting on. Did he anchor up last night or did he just push on in one big jump?
Valentia Island is off the port beam with the little Cowlard Island off the starboard bow. Pink glow as sun pokes its head above clouds on eastern horizon. Seas okay so far. Still small swells with rippled surface coming from directly ahead. The further we go the more we come into the lee of Croker Island. The hardest leg will probably be Mission Bay to Cape Croker and around the cape, a distance of about 20 or so miles. Probably have a go at that tomorrow morning. Might be too hard this afternoon when the sea breezes also kick in. Motoring only. Mainsail not up yet because the wind is from dead ahead and it would just flap about.
0830: Situation much the same. Sun getting hot already. Breeze hasn’t picked up. Wind shifts slightly to port on this leg. Thinking of putting up some sail though no real need. Boat is comfortable, not rocking or reeling. Getting an average of 4 kts and content with that. Consistent 16 metres depth.
Just over 4 miles to the bottom entrance of a channel between Croker and Darch Islands, leading towards Mission Bay and the aboriginal community there. Light brekky of cold crumbed fish lumps. Lovely.
0900: Under the lee of Croker Island. Water has smoothed out to a soft undulating with rippled surface. Gentle breeze off port bow. Darch Island close off starboard bow. The land is low here and typical of the country in this region. Highest point is 57 metres. Small stretch of white sandy dunes on SE side. Can see the entrance to the channel now. Small brown cliffs on Croker Island face the channel.
1100: Listen to weather forecast and it sounds promising. Drop speed. Wind is almost non-existent as we make our way up the channel before doglegging back out to deeper water clearing the rocks on the southern side of Mission Bay entrance. Slowly push northwards until the bay opens up. The township of Minjilang can be seen clearly with its scattered houses against a rise of a brown hill and communications towers. With the promise of good weather for tomorrow we decide to anchor up here for the rest of the day and night.
Depth shelves to 7 metres. Drop to idle and move forward to the bow and ready the anchor. Swells curl around the northern headland and so too the wind which is only just now starting to pick up.
1130: Slowly work our way into the NE section of the bay above the township until we reach a depth of 4.5 metres to allow for the tide that will drop later today. Still about half a mile from the shore but that’s okay. We’d need permission to go ashore anyway.
To the south is a red scrape in the foreshore where barges bring supplies and vehicles into the township. Otherwise the shore line is backed by low white sand dunes most of the way around the northern side. The beach is backed by trees ending in a red promontory. Around the corner stands a deep red hill, sparsely populated with bushes and small trees.
1140: Anchor set and secured. Wind continues to build. Small wavelets breaking. We’re going to get some swell here but not as bad if we’d anchored on the southern side of the bay. Motor off. Covers up. Decks too hot to walk on. A cover over the forward hatch soon has a cool breeze flowing through the boat. Take my shirt off. Delma points to a bruise on my left shoulder. It’s sore but I don’t remember how I done that.
1210: Lunch finished. Fresh bread and … fish with tomato and pickled cucumber. Wind has increased a bit more to almost a low moan. Just as well we decided to anchor up instead of tackling the next 20 miles and Cape Croker. Might catch up on some sleep or read, or maybe both.
Flashes of silver on the surface and a splash show the presence of big fish. Sea birds wheel above the surface of the sea. One occasionally plummets into the sea to snatch a morsel, hitting the water with a splash and almost instantly aloft again.
Look at the aboriginal community township. There are low set houses with wide verandas in the usual tropical style. Some are perched on the higher land above the beach to the south where about half a mile away is the barge landing. Among the houses are a scattering of coconut trees and black steel power poles. Here and there are some big tin sheds and there’s an open space of red ground which is probably used as a football field or maybe for ceremonies. Pandanus trees back onto the beach where a red tray-back truck drives along the hard, packed sand near where old timber pylons mark the remains of an old jetty. It looks like a nice peaceful place.
Left: Part of aboriginal township Minjilang of around 300 or so people. It was founded in 1942 by Methodist Overseas Missions to look after children from the so-called “stolen generation”. English and 3 aboriginal languages are spoken here.
1500: Had forgotten the radio sked with BBR this morning and the sked due for this time has failed. Have a little snooze up in the forward berth in the cool air blowing through the hatchway. Delma throws some lollies at me in an attempt to get me up. She knows how to pull my strings.
Wind has changed to westerlies but no real strength to them, probably because we’re sheltered behind the hill above the township. The available breeze is welcome when it comes to cool us off though. Turn the commercial radio on and find a station playing music loud and clear for the first time this trip. So far all stations we could receive have been fading in and out, or had severe static. This station must be on relay from Darwin and serve the Croker Island community. Plays good music too.
1800: Sun sinks towards the hill over the township. It’s been a hot day, probably the hottest we’ve spent at anchor so far. The wind has died down to a gentle breeze and Lowana IV is only gently rocking, barely noticeable to the little wavelets still coming from the shore to the west.
Some cars gathered earlier down at the barge landing but they’ve gone now. No barge came. Rigged another shade canopy. This one has reflective silver on one side and is bigger than the heavier duty white canvas we usually use that only just covers the cockpit. This new one slings under the boom from the backstays almost to the mast and will give shade to the cockpit, wheelhouse and some of the deck as well, plus give standing height in the cockpit and let air through. High streaky clouds indicate stronger winds to come. Hope they hang off until tomorrow.
Evening: Dinner of Thai curry fish and noodles. Once again a simple but delicious meal. Tonight the township lights offer something different to look at. Now and again a blast of rock music comes across the bay but mostly it’s quiet. Wind has died right down and sea is smooth.
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