Getting It Strait

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map 9 blythe to warnawi
Map 9 – Blythe River to Warnawi Island via Cadell Strait

map 10 area cadell straitRight: The voyage area described in this post from Blythe River to Warnawi Island.

Tues 5 Oct 04

0700: Weather forecast monotonously the same – easterlies at 10 to 15 kts with inshore afternoon seabreezes 15 to 20 kts. Seas 1.5m. Swells are still rocking the boat but there’s only a faint breeze blowing now.

0800: Work out some tide heights, bearings and times to get over the sand bar into the Blyth River. Contact Alice Springs base. Operator hadn’t been able to pass my message to Delma yesterday at the RDH – Royal Darwin Hospital, saying the number kept ringing out. Tend to believe him since I’ve had trouble myself ringing her at RDH at times. Give him my home phone number and Delma’s mobile number and ask if he would pass a message that I’m anchoring in Blyth River today.

0900: Very glary and have to put some sunnies on. All three boats are under motor heading east to enter the river. For the moment we’re following the depth line before we commit to cross the wide shallow flats guarding the river entrance. Can see a house ashore sitting a little bit to the north of where we’re going. Apparently this is where the traditional owner of the land lives next to the river just inside the entrance.

Boats gather off the entrance and change course to 170 degrees True SSE, heading towards a conspicuous tree marking the left hand or northern side of the river mouth. Pankina takes the lead then Lowana IV.  Olympia is last since she has the deepest draught. During this exercise I find out something new – that if I add .4m to my depth sounder reading, I’ll have the true depth of water i.e. from surface to bottom.  Handy information when using tide tables.

We manage to get across two sandbars with slightly deeper water between them. The water at it’s shallowest is 2m from surface to bottom and Olympia just scrapes over the bar with just 400 mm clearance. It’s going to be even tighter for her tomorrow when she tries to leave the river. In fact we’ll all need to leave tomorrow as it’s approaching neap tides and the tide level’s are dropping. If we leave it too late we’re going to get caught in there for a week or more.

1100: Put the anchor down inside the Blyth River. Olympia invites us all over for sundowners this afternoon.

Takes me about half an hour to get the dinghy off the deck and into the water.  Go for a spin but there’s nothing remarkable about this river. Our anchorage is in behind the first bend near the entrance and sheltered from the wind which is blowing hard outside already. Can’t go upstream very far since it shallows. There are the standard mangroves and some small patches of beach. There’s a deserted hut ashore plus the house we’d seen earlier sitting back a bit further about 100m or so. Renie tells us the hut is used by a local aboriginal community for fishing trips. Also tells us the little creek just inside the entrance is a great spot for mud crabs.

1230: Renie brings over some fish fillets and presents them to me before heading over to Olympia to meet Daryl and Jan. Follow him over there. Turns out I have actually met them before back at the Tipperary Marina in Darwin.

Quite blowy and hot so I’ll have an easy day today I think. Maybe do some washing and a bit of computer work later in the afternoon. Later on I have a nap then take a look at the windvane and make a few small adjustments, but don’t know if I’ve achieved much.

Dusk: Head over to Olympia for sundowners. We discuss getting out of the river tomorrow including times and tides and what we’ll do if Olympia grounds tomorrow on one of the sandbars.

Evening: Cook a big stew back onboard Lowana IV.  Feeling quite tired so go to bed early but have to get up again later for a call of nature. Loud popping noises in the quiet of the night tells me that barramundi are feeding nearby. Suddenly there’s a heavy bang on the steel hull only about a metre from me. The boat shivers and I rocket away with the skin on my arms and scalp tingling madly.

Renie had told me earlier about crocodiles that sometimes hit the sides of boats with its tail as a territorial warning. The same thing had happened to me once before in a secluded bay in Bynoe Harbour to the west of Darwin.  It’s a bit creepy especially when you’ve seen how high saltwater crocodiles can jump out of the water to grab prey.

Weds 6 Oct 04

0700: Weather forecast much the same, perhaps a tad moderating.

0740: Hoist the dinghy onboard and lash it down which takes maybe half an hour. Lots of fiddling required with this system. Tide coming in quite fast with lots of jellyfish floating by.

0830: Waiting for the tide to rise over the bars outside the river. Olympia is putting a boom out over the side and hanging a full water jerrycan off the end. This gives the boat a 10 degree list to the side and a bit more clearance under his keel.

0945: Anchors on all boats brought in. Depth sounder is reading 4.3m depth. Not as deep as I’d like it to get back over the shallows outside. Might be a little too shallow for Olympia. She really can’t afford mistakes and will probably need some luck. In any case we’ll be crossing the bars on a rising tide so that if she does get stuck then she should soon float free.

Start moving against the fast tide already and there are strong headwinds of about 20 kts. Just what we need … not! The water is mud stained once out of the river and there’s no colour change to indicate deeper channels. Pankina takes the lead about 100m ahead with Lowana IV about 100m out to the right. Both boats begin constantly calling out depths while Olympia follows behind in the middle. The idea is to find the deepest water for Olympia to follow.

1030: Going over the shallowest bits at just over 2.7m of true depth. Had been expecting to hit the more shallow areas but it so far looks like we found a deeper channel.

1130: Get through the next expected shallow section with about 3m of true depth. Wind is heavy from the NE with a short, sharp chop of about 1m. Pankina starts heading further out NNW before attempting to head up northerly towards False Point near Cape Stewart. We’re then going to have to round the cape before we can go east.

1145: Mainsail up with 2 reefs and motoring at 3.5 kts over ground. Still fighting the tide.

1200: Motor off and under full sail getting just over 3 kts heading almost due north. Will see how it goes.

1300: Wind has been dying down for most of the morning since we cleared the shallows of Boucaut Bay and Blyth River. Wind has dropped to about 10 kts. Waves are smaller but occasionally one jolts the boat to slow me down momentarily. Renie had tacked back towards the coast earlier and I can now see his sail closer inshore. He tells me on the radio that the winds are more westerly closer inshore and suggests that I come back in. Turn the boat towards the NNE tacking towards a waypoint at Sand Island just to the west of Cape Stewart.

1400: Been underway for 4 hours and have made just 12 nm fighting against the wind and tide. Should reach Sand Island within the next 10 minutes or so.

1410: Change easterly around Sand Island and heading for the Crocodile Island Group. Hot. Lots of reef spawn in the sea again. Stinks a bit and I wonder if it’s more likely to be algae bloom rather than reef spawn.

1630: Get a reasonable angle for a new anchorage location tonight which Renie has suggested. Tack SE and finally getting a good result with 4 kts under sail.

1800: Still close hauled and 11 miles to go. Wind flukey but still getting just under 4 kts. Won’t complain about that. The tide assistance I was looking for to help push me along never arrived. Instead I’ve been head butting against the tide but it’s not so bad now at about half a knot. Seas bumpy with scattered whitecaps. An occasional wave gives me a big thump and the ride isn’t all that comfortable. Am running as close hauled to the wind as I can get and heeling over to 20 degrees sometimes. Perhaps that’s a bit too much on this boat for effective sailing but it means I’d have to reef the mainsail.

1820: At last the tide is running with me. The log finally shows a lower speed than the GPS reading meaning we’re going over the ground faster than through the water. Still getting around 4 kts and sometimes a bit more in the flukey wind but it’s good sailing, apart from having to head 20 degrees in the wrong direction.

1900: The anchorage ahead isn’t going to be an easy one so I think I’ll turn the motor on soon and ease up the sails. I’m tired and might start making mistakes. Notice that the battery levels are low because the electric fridge has been working all day. That shouldn’t be happening if the eutectic system is working. Make a mental note to check the fridge compressor later.

Pull down the headsail and turn the motor on but I can’t get much more than about 3 kts even with the tide push. Both the other boats are closing into the anchorage site while I’m still several miles behind. Lowana IV is a shallow draught, bilge keeler and not a particularly good boat to windward. Trimarans like Pankina can generally sail better than her though they can’t point into the wind quite as well, and deep draught boats like Olympia simply fly by comparison and point better as well.

2000: Daryl says over the radio there’s a danger line with breakers showing on his chart plotter, but it isn’t shown on any of our paper charts or laptop navigation software. Best not to take chances anyway. Pankina and Olympia both start looking for an alternative site but are only finding deep water.

Reefs everywhere, it’s very dark, the wind is blowing strong and the seas unsettled. This isn’t a good place to go wandering around in the dark. I offer to check the western side of the reef to where the other boats are and start moving towards that way.

In a little while the other boats finally locate a spot some miles below Mjrunga Island on the southern side of the channel. Start moving towards their position and by the time I’ve arrived both boats are anchored up. This place is exposed to wind and waves but there doesn’t seem to be much alternative. I’m not happy about this. The only other thing to do would be to just keep going and do an overnighter but I’ve had too hard a day for that. Scout around a bit before dropping the pick taking extra care since the bottom suddenly shelves away to deep water.

2200: Finally manage to get anchored in just over 6m with the wind and tide pushing me back into 5m. Should be enough to allow for the local tidal range. It’s been a particularly hard day and who knows, maybe it’ll be a hard night ahead too. Wind is blowing strong from the NE and with the tide running to the SE it’s setting up nasty cross waves. Bit like a tea-kettle boiling. Bumpy.

Start chasing down noises that will irritate me through the night. Find a couple but it’s almost impossible to find a rattle or scrape on the deck in the noise of the wind through the rigging and waves crashing into whitecaps. Am just too tired for supper and head off to bed hoping that I won’t have to get up if the GPS or depth sounder alarms go off.

Mjrunga (now Mooroongga) Island: Posn: 11.59.834S – 135.01.756E. Total 377 nm. Today 37.5 nm. Max 5.1 kts.

Thurs 7 Oct 04

0745: Underway to Elcho Island. Couldn’t settle last night when I first went to bed. Had to get up several times to a call of nature and again when the GPS alarm went off. After checking coordinates it looked like I was still holding position. Finally figured out in my befuddled sleepy head that it must have been the boat swinging to the change of tide.

Olympia is heading to the northern side of Elcho Island to transit the Wessel Island Group through the Gugari Rip also known as the Hole in the Wall. It’s a small gap between two of the islands at only 1 mile long and 64 metres at its widest point.  It’s essential to get the tides right when trying to go through here as the tides can run up to 12 kts!

Pankina and I will transit Cadell Strait at the bottom end of Elcho Island. Attention to the tides is also required here but navigation is much more challenging with shallows and more twists and turns in the channel than a dog’s hind leg. In addition the navigation marks along the channel are not always reliable due to seasonal storms removing them or physically changing the course of the channel itself.

Calm water this morning. Light breeze from the east – naturally from the direction I want to go. There’s been a squeaking noise in the engine bay yesterday that I couldn’t find. The fridge compressor belt is loose which is the reason the eutectic system wasn’t working so well. And it’s  probably what that squeak was. Start the motor. The squeak is still there … somewhere.

0810: Contact Alice Springs base. Ken the operator reports successfully passing my message on to Delma. Said she’d been excited that I could get a message out and he gives me some information about the Galiwinku aboriginal community on Elcho Island. Tells me it’ll be okay if I don’t have a permit to enter aboriginal land, but to just go ashore and wait for someone to come down.

Set up a radio sked with Olympia on the 8.161 Mhz HF radio each morning. Let Renie know about the sked but he says he can only receive but not transmit on his HF radio. In any event he can relay through me via the short range VHF radio if he wants to pass something on to Olympia at the sked time.

No wind for sailing.

1030: Still no good winds. Seas calm. Motoring with 16.5 nm to go to the next waypoint.

1200: Little bit of breeze coming up and tending more NE. Put up a shortened headsail which pushes me up over 5 kts. Turn the motor off and am dead on course. Always nice when you get a reasonable speed and direction when under sail.

1215:  Pankina maybe half a mile ahead. A Coastwatch aircraft buzzes past but doesn’t challenge either of us. Probably knows who we are by now I guess.

1230: Scattered whitecaps. Breeze good.

Breeze continues to build until it starts to become hard going especially against the tide. Take the sails down when still 2 miles from Galiwinku but there are shallows to cross anyway.

1515: Anchor set off the Galiwinku aboriginal community on Elcho Island. Nice looking place with a large hill. Tanks and towers sitting up there on top. Renie tells me he’s not going to stay here for the night but will be going around the corner to anchor just inside Cadell Strait. Good move I think.

1530: Hanging out some bedding. I hadn’t closed the front hatch coming into this anchorage and a wave had broken over the bow.  Heavy spray had gone inside the forward v-berth, slightly wetting the sheet and mattress cover.  A good reminder to dog down that hatch whenever putting out to sea.

Renie comes over in his dinghy and collects me to go ashore, then goes back to Pankina to Fred and Fran. Am getting vibes there’s been a bit of tension aboard today. Renie had told Fred twice before not to spit into the wind since the spray comes back into the cockpit. Today Fred spat to windward again giving Renie a splatter of spittle. Renie has threatened Fred if he does it again he’ll be thrown over the side to swim for a while. Once ashore it’s clear that Fred’s feeling a bit miffed at the rebuke.

There’s a group of aboriginals sitting under a nearby tree who give us permission to go up to the local supermarket. Start walking up the hill and it’s not long before a local non-aboriginal pulls up in his car. This fellow is a teacher who works in the community and gives Renie a lift to the petrol station to get his two jerrycans filled with unleaded fuel.

Find a phone box and am able to give Delma a ring. She sounds really happy to get the call and confirms she’s been getting my messages through VKS737. The machine cut us off when I can’t get it to accept 20 cent coins.

Return to the corner and wait for Renie. When he does arrive he mentions he’s only been able to get 20 ltrs of aviation gas. They don’t sell unleaded petrol here in the community because of a problem with the aboriginal youths sniffing it. Apparently the avgas just gives them an instant headache. In any case he’ll at least be able to mix his avgas with his remaining unleaded fuel back onboard.

The teacher offers  all of us a lift to the supermarket. I buy two writing pads, two loaves of bread and a small bottle of moisturiser which together cost me $23.00 – very expensive indeed. News travels fast in a small community and people in the supermarket are already talking to each other about the boats anchored down there in the bay. They seem oblivious to our presence and I wonder if it’s a polite cultural thing?

Walk back down the hill to the beach. Renie fills two jerrycans of water and we return back to our respective boats.

Approx 1800: Anchors up and both boats move off to go around the rocks at the western entrance to Cadell Strait proper. We’re looking for a calm night tonight and going to anchor up under the lee of the land.

Set headsail only. Ebbing tide running against us keeping speed down to just over 3 kts. Tricky navigation with lots  of shoals and rocky patches. Some places have tidal overfalls which at first glance look like disturbed water over rocks or under-surface reefs but there’s plenty of water.

Sun sinks under the horizon as we turn the corner and start making our way up the strait proper. Renie takes a shortcut over a marked shallow area but finds plenty of water to around 5m to get across it.

1900: Locate a site about a mile from a barge landing and drop the anchor in around 7m in the very last of the light.

Cadell Strait (west side): Posn: 12.04.163S – 135.34.702S. Total 408 miles. Today 30.9 miles. Max 6 kts through water but a bit more over the ground at times.

1930: Preparing supper. The interior of the boat is thick with bugs and mosquitoes so light up some citronella lamps and mossie coils. The coils seems to work better than the lamps. Can pick up the ABC TV but it’s not very good. There’s been a good signal back out in the bay off the Galiwinku township but at least there’s a couple of commercial radio stations to listen to here.

2200: Do some manuscript editing then off to bed.

Fri 8 Oct 04

0700: Contact Olympia on HF radio. They’d anchored overnight in Refuge Bay to the NE of Elcho Island having spent a lovely quiet night in a  protected anchorage. They’ll be heading for the Hole in the Wall today and intend anchoring on its west side tonight, then transiting through there tomorrow for Wigram Island.

map 11 cadell strait
Map 11 – Cadell Strait with depths showing shallows

0900: Steady going at 4 kts. Report into Alice Springs base. Ken calls this area paradise telling me he’d spent around 9 years here. Picking up Kalma/Karma Radio? on FM 104.3 quite clearly.

Hot already. The guide book I’m using says that some of the navigation marks in Cadell Strait are just posts sticking up, not lit, marked or have any shapes on them. This really could get a bit tricky. Am now four miles in and the sides of the strait are beginning to close in.

0915: Wind blowing approx 15 kts steady from the east straight down the strait. Have to bump up the revs to maintain an even 4 kts speed against the tide run. Rippled water. Glarey going into the sun. Locate the first navigation beacon which is just a post sticking up out of the water.

0950: Reach a sharp dogleg in the course to avoid the 1.8m shallows marked on the chart. The navigation beacon/pole marking the shallows is missing.  Ordinarily that would make this a likely area to run aground, especially at night. However Pankina goes right over the supposed shallows but finds 5.2m depth giving a 3.2m clearance after two hours into the flood tide.

1025: Passing over a particularly potentially nasty area appropriately named The Narrows. The area can be easily identified by mangrove covered points converging into the channel. Djunytjunur Point on Elcho Island marks the northern side. The tide has now turned and is ripping through here, pushing me 3 kts faster over the ground. I must be just that more watchful that I don’t end up getting pushed up onto a mudbank. The fast running water is turbulent, stirring up the mud and there are overfalls from the speed of the water. Looking at the depth sounder is fascinating as the bottom rises and falls sharply for a little while with  a lot of sharp pinnacles suddenly jutting upwards. Observed at least one hole of 32m but the water soon smooths out and I can relax a little bit.

1100: Coming up to the beginning of the shallows at the eastern entrance with the bay opening up into a vee shape. Wind getting stronger.

1120: Fourth beacon is missing off to port.

1130: Pass a navigation beacon with a green triangle on top and depth markings on the post off the starboard side. This marks the beginning of the channel winding out of the strait through the eastern shallows, and which follows closer to the coastline of Elcho Island. Very tight navigation and constant attention to the depth sounder is required to stay within the twisting channel. Shallows lie to each side marked with a zero depth at datum, meaning only the height of the tide itself lies between floating and grounding. This is why it’s essential to be here at high tide.

Further on another navigation beacon with a green triangle on top is mounted on a buoy and swinging crazily on the waves. Nearby is a white pole, possibly the remains of a previous navigation beacon. Perhaps the authorities have left the pole there in case the other buoy ever comes adrift.

1145: In 3.8m true depth. Make a turn heading NNE. Get a bit too close to the zero depth line but apart from a quick shelving of depth there isn’t any problem. The water through the channel itself is a light muddy colour and the sides of the channel can be clearly seen as a line of greener water. It’s a line to stay away from.

1155: The fifth navigation beacon is also missing. This one should have been off to port and is also an important one marking another significant turn.

1210: The next navigation beacon is in place which helps to assure me I’m in the right place, but the important east cardinal mark appears to be missing.

1240: Clear of Cadell Strait and out over the shallows of the eastern entrance with 4m depth. Mainsail is up and motoring with the push of a turning tide at 4 kts.

Note: Cadell Strait – The tide pushes a bit through the western end but eases once into the strait proper. It’s essential if transiting from the eastern side that vessels need to be at the entrance by the beginning of low tide, then maintain an even 4 kts to arrive at the other end towards the top of the tide. High tide is the best if entering the strait from the eastern end.As at 2004 many of the navigation beacons are missing and of those that are present some are just poles sticking up out of the water. The second to the fifth beacons showing on the navigation software chart are missing. The third and fifth beacons are important since they mark shallow areas requiring sharp turns to avoid them.

1400: Have tried to sail for the last hour but the wind has died down to about 5 kts or less. Am only getting 1.5 kts under sail so go back to motoring. Jump onto the radio to discuss possible anchorages tonight with Pankina, and decide on one that’s only 10 miles away instead of the original choice at 15 miles. We should be able to reach this new one while it’s still daylight.

1530: Final run into Warnawi Island to anchor up. Still not much wind.

1600: Renie is still some distance behind persevering with sailing to conserve his fuel. He proposes another anchorage near the SE corner of the island so I turn 90 degrees to go under the southern tip around the lighthouse on the island to scout the area.

1630: Come out onto the eastern side to be met with long swells coming from the NE. Decide it’ll make for an uncomfortable anchorage tonight so let Renie know then turn back around for our first choice on the western side.

1715: Anchored up on the western side of the island. Renie is already anchored and immediately comes over to Lowana IV with his crew in the dinghy. Fred is still there so I assume he hasn’t been spitting into the wind again.

Finish up securing Lowana IV and we all go ashore in Renie’s dinghy for a look around. Take a walk up the beach and along the rocks. Come across the tracks of a large turtle that has come ashore to lay her eggs in the sand. The tracks run both up the beach and back to the water but it’s not immediately clear exactly where she would have laid her eggs. She’s cunningly disguised the site but it looks to me as if she’s created a dip in the sand a little bit off to one side.

Warnawi Island: Posn: 11.47.699E – 136.01.957S. Total 439 nm. Today 30.6 nm Max 4.6 kts.

1630: Have dinner and clean up a little.

1900: Crew from Pankina come aboard for a movie night. Select a couple of movie CDs to play on the laptop computer – one being an animated movie and the other a Clint Eastwood.

1130: Pankina crew return home after the movies and I head off to bed. Unable to relax in this anchorage and swells keep pitching the boat. The area is very steep to. I’d anchored in 12m with 50m of chain to the anchor but just 60m away the depth is only 4m. Toss and turn in bed.

Author’s Note:
Readers may have noticed regular referrals through this journal about an inability to get to sleep, tossing and turning, restlessness and an inferred hyper-vigilance. These are some of the symptoms of PTSD – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder .

MORE TO FOLLOW

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