2004 Sail to Weipa

Standard

 

August 2004
A single-handed voyage
Darwin to Weipa 2004

 

map 1 - voyage area
Map 1 – voyage area.
Distance Darwin to Weipa
 “as the crow flies” in a direct line is 740 miles.

 

Introduction

I’ve long held a dream of doing a solo circumnavigation of Australia.  At 55 years of age I figured I probably should stop putting it off and bite the bullet … just do it.  Besides, I wasn’t getting any younger but still reasonably fit. And I’d racked up a credible amount of sea-time over the last 11 years to be able to deal with most, if not all potential problems.

I put in for Long Service Leave at half pay with the NT Police where I worked, which combined with 2 lots of annual recreational leave gave me 12 months of leave in which to get it done. The plan was to travel clockwise heading east since there would be more ports to stop at if I need assistance i.e. spare parts or whatever.  By the time I get into the more remote areas such as the Great Australian Bight and the West Australian coastline I reckoned I should be pretty well set up and seasoned for it.

I was not to know that this journey would mark the beginnings of a descent into a very dark place. A place where my death seemed perfectly justifiable to me and where my own strength of mind, my will-power in which I took some pride was surprisingly of no use to me at all.

Ever since returning from the South Vietnam War in 1971 I’d known there was something wrong but didn’t know what it was. The issues of PTSD – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other mental disabilities such as anxiety and depression being routinely incurred by returned servicemen was not very well recognised at the time. If at all. Many of us continued to live with a mental ticking time bomb that would ultimately manifest itself sometimes 30 or 40 years down the track.

The following story is presented as a photo-journal. It consists of notes taken either at the time or soon afterwards plus photographs. At times it refers to emotions that I experienced, not knowing that they were the first warnings of approaching acute anxiety and severe depressive trauma. As you may think it’s not easy to open up like this – to expose your inner self, but if this story helps give the non-afflicted an insight into what a loved one may be going through then it’s all to the good.

01 lowana IV
Lowana IV – An 8 tonne cutter rigged steel cruising yacht powered
by a 25hp Volvo diesel motor. Additional solar panels fitted at the bow
could be raised to a horizontal position whilst an anchor in order
to catch more sunlight.

The Start


12 Aug 04

Last day of work. Start preparing my yacht Lowana IV in earnest including fitting a laptop computer for movies and navigation software, a HF radio, steering windvane and a new dinghy. It takes two weeks of solid work with several problems and delays along the way. Fred Sims, a long time sailor friend has been a marvel helping out with various welding and odd jobs. Also purchase and fit a new HF auto antenna-tuner only to find it doesn’t work with the HF radio.

02 packed deck 03 red dinghy
The foredeck ready for sea with the
dinghy stored up on the deck. Red
box at low centre is the a liferaft.
The red dinghy is a new addition. It’s
heavy duty plastic, virtually
unsinkable and extremely stable as I’m
demonstrating here. But it’s heavy weight
proved to make it impracticable for
use with Lowana IV

Sun 29 Aug 04

Go to service the motor only to find I have the wrong filters. Being a Sunday I’ll have to wait until tomorrow to get the correct ones. Tomorrow was to be the day of departure. Work until 2130 hrs fixing and loading boat. Fit two solar panels plus a new 12v electric fridge to back up the existing eutectic system.

Mon 30 Aug 04

Shop around and finally find the correct filters and finish servicing the diesel motor. Finalise other last minute chores that had been overlooked or still outstanding but not essential, just to fill in some time.

Tues 31 Aug 04

map 2 initial route
Map 2 – Initial route

0700: Delma drives me down to the boat. Fred and his wife Beth are waiting at the marina to see me off. Delma with moist eyes whispers to me during a final hug goodbye to take care. Am feeling a bit moved in the emotion of the moment. Head out through the marina lock and into Darwin Harbour.

0830: Contact VKS737 Darwin for a final check that the HF radio is working. This communications network was established in 1993 to provide communications assistance to land, sea or air travellers in remote places. Last year I’d tried to work with another group based in Brunei but contact was intermittent with noisy frequencies. This group offers a much better system with a radio schedule containing a variety of frequencies, different times of day and a number locations around the country to call.

0915: Contact VKS737 Derby base on the HF radio as well to give them details about Lowana IV and my intentions. These are to first sail NW around the Tiwi Islands group and stop at Snake Bay – now known as Milikapiti to visit a family friend who works there. I then propose to travel east to Queensland stopping at overnight anchorages whenever possible.

Rest of morning: Decide to head for Tapa Bay on the west side of the Cox Peninsula in Bynoe Harbour rather than undergo an overnight sail first up.  There’s something different starting out on this trip that I just can’t put my finger on. I’m just not feeling right about it, so maybe an overnight sleep will help get me settled in. Don’t bother with the sails because of headwinds.  In any case I want to run the motor to get the eutectic fridge really cold. As well it will get the ship’ batteries fully charged up, especially a big 200 ampere-hour “house” battery primarily serving the fridge and electric anchor winch.

On the way I find that the new Sumlog instrument for measuring speed through the water isn’t working. Nor is the laptop navigation software working with the GPS either with the computer going into a spin immediately the data cable from the GPS is connected. Just as well I’m stopping for the night. I should probably try to get these things sorted before I go any further.

1330: Anchor set down in Tapa Bay and start to get myself organized packing away loose stores. The last two weeks has really been full-on.  Am feeling sort of drained or out of sorts and well out of my comfort zone for some reason. This is quite unusual. Why should this trip be different to any others I’ve set out on?

1500: Hot. Windy from NW with afternoon sea breezes.

1530: Feeling very lonely. It’s a fairly new sensation and washes over me in waves mostly in spare moments when I’m not actually occupied in doing something. There is a nagging feeling of foreboding and that I shouldn’t be doing this. Nothing I can put my finger on. It’s as if I know I’m doing something wrong. Funny that. As Delma and I get older I think we are closer so maybe the thought of this long separation is playing on my mind at some deeper level. Although we’ve had long separations before? Get busy again by looking at a problem with the aft solar panels.

1845: It’s blowy and I’m still feeling anxious but there’s no reason for it that I can see. I simply can’t relax. Something is really bugging me.  It must be homesickness.  I’ve never really been homesick before so that must be it. But it doesn’t explain the persistent feeling of pending doom. It’s quite unsettling and no matter how much I try to rationalise it, it simply won’t go away.

Haven’t been able to exactly fix the problem with the aft solar panels wiring so put in a workaround by bypassing the meter and on/off switch.  The power will now go directly into the batteries but will still be controlled by a regulator.  Look in the fridge and silently thank Delma for her foresight in preparing a pre-cooked meal. I only have to heat it up. Am not really in any kind of mood to cook something otherwise. Can still get a commercial radio station and TV here but am out of mobile phone range.

Spend a couple of hours looking at the manual saltwater pump over the galley sink but can’t fix it. Will need to change it with the freshwater pump that’s in a hand wash basin in the head once I reach Snake Bay at the north of Melville Island (now called Milikapiti).  Heat up dinner but can only eat half of it and start feeling nauseous. Make a hot chocolate drink and watch a bit of TV before going to bed.

Wed 1 Sep 04

Overnight: Got up several times during the night. Nervous piddles I guess. Wind continued for most of the night and only easing before dawn. Sloppy at anchorage being open to the W and SW with wave slop causing the boat to buck around all night.

0630: Wind from the SE – good! Raise the anchor using the new electric 12v anchor winch. Works well. Underway under motor. Will need to set up a hose next time to wash any mud off the chain. Pulling buckets of seawater up to wash the chain and deck is too time consuming and too much work. It’s also cramped at the bow with the dinghy stowed there.

Happy with the fridge power draw. Still got 12.6v even after running the fridge overnight just on batteries. The little electric motor comfortably draws the fridge temperature down to about 7 degrees Celsius.

0900: Set up sails for the first time. Getting 4.5 to 5 kts. Turn off motor.

1000: Alone well off the coast under sail for the first time. Darwin and the Cox Peninsula dip below the horizon and it’s a sober moment. Wind dying down and the windvane is hunting for air so have to change course to maximise the available breeze. Down to 3.5 kts at times. Good to see batteries are charging up without using the motor.  It means the solar panels are working properly.

Still a bit homesick if that’s what it is but try to keep active and not think about it. The little lamp on a flexible gooseneck stand over the navigation table isn’t working so pull it apart, clean it and get it working again. Am finding lots of things not working because they haven’t actually been used for a while.

1015: Wind picks up and start getting 6.3 kts. Back on course to waypoint.

1330: Feel better after some lunch. Spend time sorting out the many charts by State i.e. NT, Qld, NSW, Vic, Tas and WA. Quite a collection but they’re not complete. At least I’ve got every chart from Darwin to Brisbane even if some are only copies.

Wind drops again as I get the first sighting of Bathurst Island in the heat haze. Had been getting over 7.0 kts under sail at one point but am pushing against a big tide run now. Might even get a bit choppy if the wind rises against the tide.

1430: Not much breeze and down to 3.5 kts or less. Sails are slatting and am off course trying to follow the bit of wind that’s available.  Leave the sails up, turn the motor on and resume a more direct course.  Motoring will at least boost the batteries for tonight. Still receiving a commercial radio station which is good but the remote speakers aft in the cockpit aren’t working either. Something else to look at later.

1600: Challenged by a Coast Watch aircraft. Tell them who I am and my passage intentions.

1745: Hardly a breath of breeze to help progress during the last couple of hours. New flag hangs limp. No point in leaving the headsail up so roller furl it in and sheet in the mainsail hard to the centreline of the boat. Seas are glassy and there’s a very fast head current slowing the boat down as far as 1.6 kts. It’s a mixed blessing since wind on tide here right now would make for rough seas.  I’ve obviously made a mistake leaving Darwin during these big Spring tides. They’re really slowing me down.

1845: Red sun hits the horizon. Heat up a tin of meatballs for some supper. Am still a long way from my waypoint but speed has picked up with the tide changing to about 2.5 kts. Still no wind.

2000: Dark outside but there’s just enough light to make out an horizon. Reach my first waypoint SW of Cape Fourcroy skirting a reefy area to the east. Have memories of a nasty storm in this place just west of here some years ago. I’d had to battle most of the night to get enough sea-room so that I could deploy a sea-anchor.

Am not sure whether to anchor up behind the cape or keep going at this stage. As I ponder this I remember I’d forgotten to put reefing lines into the mainsail so take it down. Safer not to try rigging it up in the dark right now. Should also have had a life-line strung too so that I could clip my safety harness onto it. I seem to have overlooked quite a few things to do in getting ready and that’s pretty unusual for me.

Tide turns and start getting 4.6 kts just under motor but am concerned about having to keep using fuel. However if I change to full sail I’ll need to rig those reefing lines and I won’t have a life-line rigged either. Decide to anchor in a bay to the west of Cape Fourcroy. There’s a full moon in a couple of hours which will be helpful in closing with the land. Work out a series of waypoints into the anchorage.

2300: Anchoring completed and turn the motor off. Get into bed for an early rise tomorrow. Trip today approx 60 sea miles – about 111 km.

Cape Fourcroy: Position: 11.43.53S – 130.03.7 in 8.3m depth. Nice quiet spot out of swells and protected from the north winds now blowing. Swells invading the bay behind Pt. Fawcett. Let out 70m in rope and chain combination to allow for rise and fall of tide.

Thur 2 Sep 04

0630: Uneventful night and a good night’s sleep with only a few interruptions. Look outside through a porthole into a fine morning with wind coming steady from the east.

0800: Finish some chores then add some diesel oil to the motor. Put too much in so have to suck some of it back out using the sump pump.  Batteries reading 12.6v again which is good.  Start the motor and winch the anchor up, wash the chain and stow it away. Install the first reef line into the mainsail while motoring along with the tiller-pilot engaged.

1015: Wind is up to 20 kts already and the seas are short and sharp at about 1.5 metres. Pretty bumpy. Put a second reefing line into the mainsail with some difficulty but it isn’t working properly. I’d forgotten the sail-maker had got it wrong when he’d first put in the reefing eyelets so he’d had to put in a second set of eyelets.  Takes a while and a few time consuming experiments  before I can get the mainsail reefing system to work properly.  With the mainsail properly reefed the boat sits comfortable at around 10 to 15 degrees angle of heel. Unfurl the big genoa headsail so that only about half of it is rolled out to nicely balance the boat and the speed jumps quickly to 7 kts. Lowana IV is knifing through the water and I start to feel some confidence returning.

Midday: Strong winds and big spring tides turn against me. Am a bit off course so put in a tack easterly just enough so that I don’t lose ground but speed immediately drops below 2 kts. Yuk. Take stock of the situation. The wind doesn’t look like moderating and I can’t close with the land anywhere here since it’s mostly unsurveyed waters – just blank areas on the charts. Up ahead there’s a huge mass of reef about 20 miles wide by 10 miles deep off Cape Van Dieman still to thread through. And it’ll probably be night time by the time I get there. Once past that I’ll still have about 20 miles to go to the NE – directly into the heavy winds which will mean more hard tacking. To make matters worse, by that time the tide will have turned and it could be a wind on tide situation. Not nice especially when there is reef all along the coast on my lee side.

Decide not to gamble on the wind dying down and try to find a spot on the charts where I can anchor up until the weather turns for the better.  Pick a spot at the northern end of Aspley Strait but even this is still about 20 miles out of the way, and I’m going to have to fight the wind and tide the whole way to get to it. Bugger!

1630: Reach the northern end of Aspley Strait where red chalky cliffs guard the entrance on the top side. Begin to thread my way easterly through more reef to access the narrow deep water channel.

Dusk: Wind still blows strong in my face as I enter the strait in the fading light. Looks like I would have lost the gamble on the wind dying down if I’d decided to continue on out there. Am looking forward to a nice sleep and maybe a rest day tomorrow I think.

Make it through the worst stretch but have to hunt around for a suitable spot to drop the anchor in the dark. I’ll need around 8 metres depth since there’ll probably be a 6 metres drop in tide tonight and it’s right on the top of the flood tide now. I have no information about the tidal heights here so I’m working on Darwin tides for safety. Tide Tables are another thing I’d forgotten. Damn! The whole area on the eastern side of this strait is shallow and steep-to on the other side. Get in as close to the eastern side as possible for shelter from the wind but it’s still about a 2 mile open fetch of water to the land.

1930: Get the anchor down and glad of it. Have sailed 46 miles today but it’s been a hard slog since just after midday. The tidal current is running fast so I run out a 6:1 scope on the anchor i.e. 6 metres of rope/chain to 1 metres of depth. Set alarms on both the GPS and depth sounder.

2000: Contact Roy at VKS737 Perth and pass my coordinates and intentions for tonight and tomorrow. Good communications. Roy says he’s receiving me loud and clear.

Dip the fuel tank to find I’ve only used 25 litres.  Thought it would have been more since the motor has been running pretty much the whole trip all of Tuesday, half of Wednesday and most of the day today against heavy winds and tides.

2130: Read a book as the moon rises over the shore to the east in a big red glow.

Fri 3 Sep 04

0740: Enjoy a sleep in to face another fine day. The wind has dropped to a breeze from the SE with just enough force to ripple the water. Am not fooled though because it would still be quite strong offshore along the open coast I think.  Might be better to wait here a couple of days to be sure conditions have improved and for the neap tides.  Still feeling quite lonely. There’s no TV or radio available here just CDs and cassette music tapes for company.

Several times yesterday I’d thought, “For two pins I’d go back home”. I begin to think if I had a good excuse I really would go back home. And I’m thinking that I don’t know how people can enjoy this life, forgetting that this is exactly what I normally enjoy doing. For me this trip is proving to be just hard work, lonely, frustrating, filled with problems, anxious moments and decision making – the outcomes of which could be most undesirable.

0900: Make up a list of jobs to do. Notice that the wind is building up and whitecaps starting to appear in the bay. Just as well I didn’t try to set out earlier.

0930: Wind still building and beginning to whistle through the rigging and sending shudders through the boat as gusts hit it.

1200: Keep myself busy all morning doing odd jobs, mainly trying to keep my mind occupied. If I sit still long enough the “shadow” man inside my head starts trying to pull me down with negativity. The weather forecast tells me I might have to stay here tomorrow as well.  Maybe I can make an attempt to reach Snake Bay by leaving on the ebb tide Sunday and then catch the flood tide off Cape Van Dieman. Wind starts to die down but still gusts up occasionally.

Getting hot but I start to enjoy the day a bit better after having something to eat. Take a little nap after lunch then do some work on the computer.

1700: Strong NE afternoon sea breezes kick in coming from the exact direction I need to get around Cape Van Dieman to Snake Bay, assuming I wanted to go now. Made a wise decision to hole up here I think. Haven’t run the motor toay but the batteries are still good at 12.5v.

Evening: Watch a movie on the laptop after dinner before bed but can’t really concentrate on it. My mind seems to be running at a million miles an hour, my heart is pounding, pulse racing and I seem to be short of breath all the time.  Often duyring the day I’d f elt as if my throat was constricted with a big lump at the base of my throat or upper chest. This is bloody ridiculous! There’s no reason for this so what the bloody hell’s going on?

Sat 4 Sep 04

0700: Wind became a bit quieter overnight – at least that I was aware. Slept like a log.  Am tempted to try for an overnighter to Snake Bay tonight. At 60 miles it’s too far to go for a morning start since that would mean entering the reef infested Snake Bay at night. Rather not. Weather forecasts more strong headwinds today and easing tomorrow afternoon. Will give it a go tonight I think.

0830: Spend some time reading the HF Radio manual and listening to the ABC radio on 4.835 MHz.

0845: Wind is still light from SE at about 10 kts but even with that 2 mile fetch it’s still probably quieter here than outside this bay.

0930: Wind building up to a moderate level.

Afternoon: Do odd jobs and some computer work. Rummage through old spares and manage to find an old hand pump I might be able to use for saltwater in the galley sink. Hook it up but it doesn’t work properly after one or two pumps. Disconnect the manual pump in the head and fit it into the galley sink. If the electric freshwater pump fails then I’ll just have to use this one to replace it, then start using a bucket to fetch saltwater from the sea for cooking and washing up.  Only have one bucket on board which would be a sizeable inconvenience if I lose it.

Finally get the GPS and computer to work together after a fashion. Seems the laptop doesn’t want the GPS to do anything other than give a position. If the GPS just does that then the laptop navigation software will work properly.  But if I set the GPS to doing something else like setting it to Highway Mode, the input drops from the navigation software like it’s spitting the dummy or something.

Doubts plague me. Still not sure whether to return home or not. I have an oil leak in the motor which needs watching. Being the Dry Season the winds are predominantly E to SE and a lot of motoring will probably be required. I have no money to buy more fuel if I need it at least until next payday. And in any case I’m not sure if I can get more fuel before reaching Gove anyway. Am also in need of a current National Tide Tables since the tides ranges shown in the navigation software is wrong. I need a new galley hand pump and the sumlog needs to be replaced.  And on top of it I’m really feeling isolated or homesick or something.

Try to tell myself I’m getting better. Sort out a small problem with the HF radio. On the plus side I have all the food I need and can replenish with fresh water fairly easy. Might be able to withdraw money at Snake Bay, Port Essington or Croker Island or one of the other aboriginal communities – maybe, but should be able to use my credit card to buy stuff. I don’t have a permit to land on aboriginal land but that shouldn’t be too much of a problem I don’t think. The oil leak is manageable but I would really like a mechanic to check the tension of the No. 1 cylinder head.

1740: Sit down and make a proper pro and con list about pushing on. There’s too many things I need or which should be attended to. Decide not to try for Snake Bay. I’d be better off in the long run if I go home for a fortnight. Might also see if I can get some crew.

Note: None of these problems should have been insurmountable to an average cruising sailor. Indeed many do it much harder. However in my mind these things together grew to bigger heights than they should.  I was to learn many years later that the ability to make good judgements can be seriously compromised in people with depressive disorders.

Sun 5 Sep 04

Forecast still predicts strong headwinds but should ease tomorrow. One way or another I’m leaving tomorrow morning. Am constantly tempted to leave right now but have to fight it down. Must use good sense instead of emotion. Listen to Macca – a popular Sunday radio presenter on the ABC radio.

0900: Contact VKS737 Derby Base. Give coordinates and pass my intention to stay here today and return to Darwin tomorrow. Operator instantly replies with my name rather than my callsign which well and truly confirms they have me recorded on their system now. Communications quite good with no repeats or words twice procedure needed.

0930: Find that the starboard front solar panel plug has broken clean off and not getting power to the batteries. Must have been knocked off while I was moving back and forward squeezing past the dinghy to the bow. Also explains why the batteries have been okay but a little lower than usual. Takes a bit of time to fix this.

1200: Spend the rest of the morning pulling out and re-arranging food stores. Re-distribute weight around the boat to trim it better. Find it painful to eat or just swallow due to an ongoing problem with a blocked saliva gland duct in my throat. Flares up from time to time and a large lump forms on the left hand side of my throat under the jaw. Hard to spit too.  The day continues pleasantly outside and I begin to wish I’d made an early start this morning when I first got up.

1900: Spend another afternoon doing computer work typing up my handwritten journal of a trip to Port Essington last year.

Forecast looks good for tomorrow. In hindsight I could have gone today had I known but the forecast had been for E-SE winds at 20 kts. If that were the case it would have been harder to get across the Beagle Gulf to Darwin. Never mind.

The saliva gland on the left hand side of my throat is now well and truly blocked causing much pain and swelling. I’ve had this problem for a long time but thought I could live with it for this trip but today it’s really painful. It’s like a bad toothache with the whole lower left of my face and jaw hurting. Just as well I’ve decided to go home. Wouldn’t want it to get worse if I’m miles from anywhere and unable to get medical help.

Batteries are down a fair way but still not below 12v. Run the motor to freeze up the eutectic cold plates in the fridge so it won’t keep using power overnight. It’s becoming apparent that if I’m going to anchor up anywhere for more than two days I’m going to have to pull out the portable generator to re-charge batteries, but that’s okay. Small price to pay to keep food frozen, use the computer and the HF radio for contact and music.

Evening: Cook up some steak and fresh vegetables for dinner – Delma would be proud of me. Watch a movie on the laptop before bed. Toss and turn for a long time before sleep comes.

MORE TO FOLLOW

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