Crossing the Gulf



 map 18 gulf to weipa
Map 18 – Transit from Gove to Weipa

Weds 20 Oct 04

0600: Anchor aweigh. Chain thick with mud and a large blob encases the anchor itself. Even the pressure hose is unable to remove all of it. Engine hours are 1593 as I turn the boat to leave Gove again. A convoy forms with the catamaran Fly By Night leading, then a motor cruiser name not yet known, Alkira, Fiddler then me. Make my way past Scuttlebug as he’s lifting his anchor.

Ron is close by and gives me a thumbs up as he calls over the radio, “This is going to be a beautiful trip”. Hope he’s right.  There’s a faint breeze as we start the first turn around the main wharf. I’m already having mixed feeling about doing this trip. All of these vessels have the ability to leave me far behind and I’ll be doing this on my own again.

0640: Past the main wharf and all the other boats are already way ahead. Smoke rises steadily into the sky from the smoke stack at the mine so there’s not much breeze upstairs either. Cloudy day but mostly around the horizon. Motoring with no sails set at just over 4 kts.

 0700: Listen to the weather forecast. It’s a bit more promising than the other day when we set out especially on the other side of the gulf. The motor cruiser Escapade is just ahead. Another yacht Parmelia comes up aft on my port side under motor with no sails set. Like me she appears to be also heading for the South Channel under Bremer Island.

Turn around the small West Woody Islet near the harbour entrance heading east. Breeze springing up already bringing wavelets into the strait dropping my speed to between 3.5 to 4 kts.

19 gove mine

Right: The Gove mine looking south. The wharf is at extreme right.

0715: Speak to Daryl on HF but he’s hardly readable. Seems to receive me okay but it’s a very faint signal and the frequency is noisy, but we manage to agree to try again tonight at 2000 hrs. Tell him I’m again attempting the gulf but that I wasn’t sure about it with the conditions being much the same as when we’d set out earlier. He urges me not to turn back to Darwin.

0800: Rob calls and asks for my mobile phone number to give to Renie of Pankira. Give it to him then call Renie directly while I still have a signal. Catch him as he’s leaving Weipa instead of Bamaga where I’d thought he’d been. He gives me some advice about using telltales – bits of ribbon on the sails which indicate how the winds is flowing over them, and that getting sleep is the most important. It’s good to hear from him again.

Ring Delma to tell her I’m on my way but not to be surprised if I do turn back. She asks what I might do if I come back home. I thought I might look at setting out again next year but with crew, or else go to the Kimberley’s in WA for 6 months.

Call Daryl on his mobile and leave a message on an answering machine just to say g’day and thank him for his moral support.

0800: Renie rings back asking me to pass on a message to Rob on Alkira that Kevin and Sharon from the trimaran Just Roamin are in Weipa. They’ve got work there for the next three months and have a motor vehicle to get around in. He gives me their contact number to pass on. Call Alkira but they don’t answer the radio so pass the message to Trish on Scuttlebug in case I get out of radio range.

0810: So far the wind has steadied and waves have flattened a little.

0830: Try to call Parmelia but there’s no answer. Rob has been listening and says he thinks his name is Fritz and is also a single hander. Parmelia is motor sailing like me but is pulling slowly ahead. As they all do …

Pass East Woody Islet which is a nice collection of rocky boulders on the starboard side. The day is quite pleasant out there now. Hope it keeps up. Set up a waypoint off Weipa and key it into the GPS.

0900: Cape Wirawawoi, a sandy projection of land with a rocky tip, low scrub and trees lies abeam to starboard. To the SE a few miles away is Cape Arnhem behind which is Delawoi Bay. It marks the NE point of the Top End peninsula into the Gulf of Carpentaria. The open waters of the gulf are before me now. Two trawlers appear up ahead coming my way with outriggers slung. One looks like it’s got it’s nets out.

20 trawlerLeft: A fishing trawler passes by dragging nets.

0930: The last of the little rocky islands off the SE point of Bremer Island come abeam to port. My rhumb line to Weipa is 095 degrees True which is of course exactly where the bloody wind is coming from!  So sick of getting headwinds right on the nose almost all the time.

Low swells. Slight breeze. Nice day otherwise. Although I’m not a lover of talk back radio all that much, am listening to one of the stations for as long as I can. Set up a speaker out in the cockpit so I can listen to it over the noise of the motor.

1000: Have been considering Renie’s advice. Pay more attention to keeping the boat moving rather than the course, make sure the telltales are fluttering properly and that sleep is king above all. He had told me that if necessary to bear away off course to get a good nights sleep to avoid making bad mistakes. I’m hoping this advise will help me deal with any emotional or psychological problems before they happen. The main thing is not to get over-tired because then I’ll become vulnerable to them.

Do a plot on the big chart covering the whole gulf. Draw in a rhumb line direct to Weipa with 276 miles to go.  Mark my present position and time on the chart at the start of the line under Bremer Island. Lots of empty space there between here and Weipa. Daunting. The Gulf of Carpentaria is a relatively shallow body of water and it doesn’t take much to make it pretty rough. The open water begins now after 4 hours from starting out.

1055: Feeling a bit of déjà vu about the last trip out here – am already feeling fatigued and wanting a catnap already. See the first whitecap beside the boat although the seas are only small. Keep expecting the worst.  Decide that if it cuts up rough again I’ll turn around for sure and go home. And that time might be coming soon if the wind picks up like I expect it to in another few hours. Have hot noodles in a cup for lunch.

1300: Wind swings a bit easterly so roll out the headsail. Seas fairly calm with waves coming through but almost no whitecaps. Hot. Am making under 4 kts which isn’t the best all considered, but at least am going almost in the right direction. Want to get as much easting as I can for the supposedly smoother seas on the other side.

Throw down a bench seat cushion from the dinette and a pillow onto the floor amidships. The cushion doesn’t quite intrude into the galley area and I can get quickly into or out of bed. Will use a countdown facility on my mobile phone to wake me up at periodic intervals so that I can do regular checks throughout the night.

1315: Waves seems to be a little bigger already but still fairly calm conditions. Still getting the commercial radio.

1430: Seas continue to be fairly calm. There’s some whitecaps about but you have to look for them and they’re only little ones. Hot, cloudy, boring. The NT coast is just a small blue ridge on the horizon to the west. Almost on the rhumb line getting up to 4 kts but these waves are slowing me down a little. Turn the boat for just enough angle on them so that Lowana IV can get through them a bit easier without having to force her way. Did I say bored?

1530: Rob from Alkira checks in with me by radio. Says they’re motoring at 5 kts and close to our rhumb line. I’m just under 10 degrees off the line and getting just over 4 kts but catamarans are faster boats so I’m doing okay. In any case I’m fed up with trying to keep up with other boats. Rob tells me they’re running a trailing lure and so far have caught 3 mackerel. They’re going to save them to trade with a mate in Weipa for lifts into town.

The last of the land is only visible through binoculars as a small blue smudge on the horizon. Am now out of mobile phone range but still getting the commercial radio station. Glen Campbell sings a song and thanking God he’s a country boy.  Soon afterwards the clouds clear up and I pass outside the range of the commercial radio station. Am 24 miles out to sea from the Nhulunbuy radio towers.

1630: The expected stronger inshore afternoon sea breeze haven’t arrived so hopefully it’ll be a good smooth night.  I won’t mind even if I have to motor the whole way across.

1730: Notice the stitching on the leech of the furling roller headsail is coming undone. The UV cover has actually unstitched and is catching the wind. Doesn’t look too bad but will have to watch it if it does blows up later.  Conditions are still good though. Am following the rhumb line again with both sails reefed at around 5 kts and just 10 degrees of heeling. Could only be better if I was able to turn off the motor and still be able to keep at least 4 kts on the rhumb line, but I’m not looking a gift horse in the mouth.

1735: There’s an error in my waypoint. Rework it into the GPS and now have an extra 5 degrees on my course to make to windward. No big deal really.

1800: Breeze picks up a little bit and comes around northerly allowing me to point a little higher towards the waypoint. Getting around 5 kts. Prepare for night time. Heave to and turn the motor off after running it for a few minutes at idle to let it cool down a bit. Set the sails but am only able to get 2.7 kts. Could probably do better if I fiddle with the sail trim but I’m not going to.

Check engine oils. Add some oil to both sumps. It might have been okay if I hadn’t checked but I prefer piece of mind. Wipe down leaked oil off the motor. Check the fridge compressor and alternator belts for tension then re-start the motor. Pull in the headsail because I don’t want it ripping apart tonight if the wind comes up and I’m dozing away. Motor sailing at 4 kts on the rhumb line with a single reef in the mainsail but can put in another if I need to.

After 12 hours there’s 250 miles to go and 45.9 miles on the log. That will do considering for the first 4 hours or so I’d been pushing the tide at less than 4 kts.

1845: Cooking tea – loose term since it’s one of those packet meals which only need hot water added. Meal was okay. Almost dark. Will have a little bit of moonlight for the first half of the night.

1940: The night is beautiful outside. Boat jerks just slightly as she travels over the waves which are a little irregular, but of no problem size. Can walk about the boat easily without hanging on for dear life. Even have the saloon portholes open for some fresh air inside. Am still getting 4 kts right on a direct line towards Weipa. Half moon shines on the water. Sipping an orange juice. CD is playing good music. I simply don’t care any more that I’m on a sailboat and not sailing.

2230: It doesn’t last.  Seas are getting choppy but it’s still not that bad. although Lowana IV is struggling a little bit at just over 3 kts. No whitecaps yet but close the portholes anyway as a precaution.

2400: Moon sinks below the horizon, the wind drops and the seas smooth down again. Still only getting about 3 kts. Wind has swung northerly but the waves are still coming from the same direction. Alkira calls on the radio. They’re about 30 miles ahead of me and almost out of radio range so we arrange HF skeds on 8.161 MHz at 0300, 0600, 1200 and 1800 hrs.

Thurs 21 Oct 04

0130: Is that a metal, whining noise coming from the motor? Lift the cockpit hatch and look down at the stuffing box – a metal housing with packing inside to support the propeller shaft where it exits the hull out into the sea. Water is pouring into the boat and the stuffing box is hot and steaming. Grab the grease gun and start pumping grease into it as normal but it isn’t doing any good. Take a closer look and see that the connection where a tube that feeds the grease into the box has come off, and that’s where all the water is coming in. By now there are big gobs of grease down in the bilge.

Grab some tools and turn the motor off. Don’t want some normally un-attachable part of my body getting caught in a spinning propeller shaft and get flung around down there. Climb down inside the engine bay burning my forearm on the hot exhaust pipe in the process. Re-locate the tube and the securing nut and re-assemble. Pump some more grease into the box and check that everything’s as it should be again. Get underway again.

0500: Seriously considering turning around and going back again. Am sick of dealing with problems in the middle of the night. I’d hate to go back, but then again I’m not looking forward to going on either. There’s a lot of empty coast and I’ll have to battle against the prevailing SE winds all the way down the East Coast.

Something else is still bothering me about going on. And I just can’t put a finger on it. Something … It’s almost like a feeling of pending doom.  Maybe it’s the motor and its oil problem. Maybe it’s the cumbersome dinghy. Maybe it’s because I can’t keep up with everyone else. Maybe it’s because Lowana IV simply doesn’t work to windward very well. Maybe it’s a combination of lots of little things. I simply don’t know except that this trip hasn’t felt right from day one and I don’t have enough idea of what it is so that I can deal with it.

0600: About 76 miles east of Cape Wirawawoi and 211 miles to go. Have 84 miles on the distance log for the 24 hours but my position plots on the chart tell me I’ve actually done more than that. Seas are smooth. Am off the rhumb line by about 5 miles to the north so that’s pretty good. Boat speed has picked up during the early hours so there’s obviously a tidal influence even this far out. Alkira has called every three hours to check. He’s steaming along at 5 kts. I’m just on 4 kts still but I don’t have a headsail out.

0630: Drifting for the time being until I finish checking engine oils and topping up sumps. Take a careful look around the motor. All seems okay except for some oil staining the sides of the motor in various places as usual. It shouldn’t be there and is bothering me a bit. Start the motor and get back on course. Pull out the headsail to get an extra half knot speed.

0720: A silvery sea snake with black bands circling its body swims by on the surface. Radio contact with Daryl no good. A pod of dolphins erupt beside the boat, swim off the bow for a short while before leaving again.

0900: Distance to go clicks over to 199 miles to go. The little bit of breeze comes up but is not being kind, coming directly from the waypoint. Would you believe it? To make use of it I’ll need to turn at least 30 degrees off course. Long low swells from the SE.

1145: Coastwatch aircraft comes down low and flies past, circles and then calls me. Quite polite as usual. Seas apart from low swells and rippled appearance might almost be described as glassy. Steering vane hunts for air as the bow rises and falls to the swells. Hot. Roll up the headsail since it’s useless now. Sheet the mainsail in hard and start heading directly for Weipa. Feeling a little bit jet lagged after last night but not too bad.

Right: A small visitor rests its weary wings for a while.
This far out to sea I suspect it must be some kind of tern.21 visitor

1310: Boring, boring, boring. Wonder if I can get a haircut in Weipa? Wind has picked up a bit to give me 4.5 kts or more. Try to fill time by reading but can’t concentrate. Spend the time just sitting alone with the thoughts in my head or wandering listlessly around the boat.

1800: Another night comes and 159 miles to go. Have been getting around 5.5 kts last few hours but it’s dropping down now. Right on rhumb line though which is good. During the afternoon I’d gone through another session of thinking about turning back but rationalised things until I pulled out of it. Am coming to learn that sailing solo is as much a mental challenge at times as anything else.

High wispy, windswept clouds coming from the east. These are cirrus clouds and I don’t like the look of them because they nearly always portend higher winds. Whether they’re going to be helpful or not depends on which way you’re going though I guess.

Finish one of my books. A very moving true story which leaves me feeling quite sad. Check and dress the burn on my forearm. Check the motor and top up oils. I shouldn’t be using this much oil. Find a loose mounting bolt and tighten it.

1830: As the daylight dies it’s quite pleasant outside but I just can’t seem to be able to relax and enjoy it. I find myself thinking pessimistically of the “what-ifs” such as the possibility of higher winds tonight or tomorrow. I must start learning to appreciate the moment and not be so obsessed with might or might not happen. Prepare – but enjoy the moments.

2100: The night continues beautiful outside with moonlight reflecting on the smooth sea. It’s a little harder to hold on to my rhumb line course but am managing to do it and still get 4.5 kts. Someone is on the VHF radio talking about going into Weipa tomorrow. Think it might be Alkira and Scuttlebug. If so that would put them about 100 miles in front of me.

2245: Sea glassy, undulating and smooth. No wind. Pull in the headsail

Fri 22 Oct 04

0445: The VHF radio bursts into life from Customs vessel Harvey Bay calling the vessel at 12.27S and 139.43E heading east at about 4 kts. That would be me!  They do the usual customs enquiries. Look around the horizon but can’t see any navigation lights anywhere. He says he’s 12 miles to the south of me but has a good radar paint of the boat. He asks if I have a radar reflector up and I confirm that I do. Nice to know my radar reflector works so well if someone is ever specifically looking for me.

0545: Sun coming up directly in front of the bow at 095 degrees True. Seas undulating and oily looking, mirroring the reds and golds of the clouds around the horizon to the east. A ship is off the starboard bow heading this way. It’s the first sign of any other vessel since Gove.

0600: Harvey Bay calls the other vessel. It’s the MV Warrender, an 1100 ton roll-on, roll-off container vessel heading for Gove. The Warrender asks whether Hervey Bay had noticed a small yacht near his position heading east. That of course was me. Hervey Bay confirms that they had. The Warrender passes by within a couple of hundred metres or so.

According to the exchange between her and Customs she’s steaming at 9 kts. With our combined speeds of about 13 knots she had come up over the horizon and went past me within half an hour. That’s a serious point to consider. Fishing trawlers are notorious for not posting a watch, relying on an anti-collision alarm from their radar. And they often travel faster than the Warrender. One of them could potentially come up over the horizon at night and be on to me in maybe 15 minutes. But at least I know I put out a good radar reflective signal.

0620: Check motor. Not as much oil on the side of the motor where I’d tightened the mounting bolt. Check fuel. Have 205 litres and have used 80 litres so far with constant motoring for 2 days which means fuel consumption rate of about 1.65 litres/hour. More than normal for this motor. Must be from running the eutectic fridge compressor most of the time. Roll out the headsail with 110 miles to go to waypoint.

0700: Am again feeling at a low ebb. Have pretty much decided that I’ve finally had enough of single handed sailing and don’t want to go on. I’m about halfway to Cairns but the navigation is going to get tricky and the sailing much harder to get there. I simply don’t want to keep going on. For two pins I’d turn around right now but it’s more prudent to go to Weipa and get more fuel. I think I’ll rest there until a weather window opens up and then come back. There’ll no doubt be some long hauls but it’ll be necessary if I am to beat the NW monsoons back to Darwin.

0800: Wind picks up bringing some small whitecaps but I’m managing to stay on course for the present. Find myself revisiting my decision about going back. Agonising over it.

0900: Wind rises from the NE up to 15 kts bringing with it choppy water and lots of whitecaps. Should have turned back when I first saw those high wispy cirrus clouds. Try sailing but can only get 3 kts by turning way off course. Just can’t get those telltales to work properly no matter what I try. Must be the lousy cut of the sail or else the sail cloth is stretched so that its shape has alterned. This is really reinforcing my idea of going home. Don’t need this shit.

1030: Hard going. Hardly able to make 3.5 kts. Sky has clouded over and I wonder if it will start raining too. Waves aren’t too bad but they’re irregular and they bring Lowana IV almost to a halt when she hits a series of them. Reflect on what might have happened had I turned back earlier. Probably wouldn’t have been any better off because by the time the wind has pushed this muck over the other side it would be rough anyway.

The sun peeks out for a moment. Marvellous how such a small thing can hearten you, not that it’s happening too often.

1130: Seas are getting worse, more lumpier.

1300: Sun shining again. Not sure but I think the seas might be easing as well. Too soon to tell. It’s so frustrating and there are forecasts of higher winds tomorrow. Don’t need that. Still just over 80 miles from the waypoint.

Listen to Alkira talking to Forte about refuelling. Can’t contact them. Call Scuttlebug but no answer at first, then hear them calling me back. Can’t connect. A Coastwatch aircraft buzzes by but they don’t call me.

1330: Wind drops enough to put out a little bit of headsail without blowing the boat over. Makes a big difference getting up to 4 kts again, thank goodness. Now if these seas would just abate more.

1430: Alkira calls Weipa Harbour to inform them he’s entering the harbour. Contacted Alkira to let them know where I was and what’s happening. They say they knew I was still coming and that I was alright because they’d heard Coastwatch talking to me.

I’d been thinking Alkira must have already been inside Weipa and the fact that he’s just arrived now cheers me up a little. Seems they’d got bashed around in the blow this morning too. Rob tells me they’re looking at leaving Weipa next Monday sometime.

1630: Wind gone leaving just swells to contend with. Wind vane circles looking for air so pull in the headsail. I’d let it out earlier to be rewarded with an extra half knot for a while.

Dusk: Surprised to see the wind has swung to the NW. Very weak but enough to push on the mainsail a little. Getting good time around 4.5 kts.

2000: Listen to the weather forecast stronger winds north of Point Cullen, which is some distance further north. Forecast for the Weipa area is NE to SE winds, so I don’t know which way to go to take advantage for the last run into Weipa.

Waves have subsided so am able to head directly to my waypoint. Was considering going to Boyd Point which is 17 miles to the south. This would have put me in a position to take advantage of expected south-easterlies later, but that’s not necessary now. Looking good again. Hopefully this fortune will hold until I can get into Weipa tomorrow. 53 miles to go.



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