Gulf, Storm and Near Miss

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map 22 object
Map 22 – Location of object and storms

Sat 6 Nov 04

0530: Rise and shine. Check oils and top up slightly. Set up the water pressure pump, winch in the anchor, secure it and hose down the bow of mud.

0615. Finally … underway to return across the Gulf of Carpentaria to Gove in the NT. Kathy waves from the cockpit of Mimpy and I try to call her and Paul on the VHF radio but they don’t answer. Motoring for the time being because the batteries are down a long way.

There’s a small cool easterly breeze following which makes me hopeful of some good sailing today once clear of the harbour. Call Weipa Harbour Control to advise we’re leaving via the South Channel. They tell me no other boats are booked and we’re cleared to go. On nearing the entrance to the channel we get the full run of tide that slows us down by a full knot. Put up the full mainsail and push the boom out to maximise the following wind then lash a preventer rope to the side rail.  The preventer will stop the boom from slamming across the boat in case the wind gets in behind the sail.

0715: Still in the channel but clear of the shallow areas. Set three waypoints into the GPS following the channel south of Bremer Island near Gove. If we arrive at night we’ll be able to just follow the waypoints and pick up the lead lights to enter the harbour.  Turn the laptop computer off and stow it away since we’ll be working with the GPS and paper charts from here on. Set course to the first waypoint 290 nm nautical miles away. Mostly clear of tide influence now and getting around 4.2 kts through the water and 4.3 kts over the ground.

0730: Weather forecast seems good except they say winds are building to 18 kts in the Torres Strait area today and tomorrow. That’s not too bad but will have to wait and see if it affects us later on with swells. However E to NE winds from 10 to 15 kts are expected on the other side of the gulf right through the next four days. Overall its looking good except for the possibility of some lumpy waves coming through from Torres Strait.

0800: The following wind is barely able to keep up with us. Hot already. Still charging the batteries under motor.

0930: We’re sailing faster than the following wind and the mainsail is bellying in against our own forward movement. Sheet the boom in amidships. Not using any headsail yet. It’s hot and breathless with seas that are green and flat.

1050: Still motoring with no useable tail winds. Adjust all ships clocks back half an hour to Central Standard Time (NT) time even though we’re still in QLD waters. Seas calm with very small swells coming through occasionally. Fred and I sit under the small cockpit shade catching up on each others news as we motor along around 4.5 kts. Alternator is putting out about 6 to 7 amps which I’m quite happy with. The motor temperature is up slightly but that’s still okay because the motor is cooled directly from the sea and the sea temperature is over 34 degrees Celsius.
42 fred at sea
Right: Fred on the bow getting his sea legs back. Bottom right is the life-raft under a red canvas cover. The vertical grey cylindrical object centre left is a dan-buoy attached to a life-ring stowed in the blue canvas bag below it. The white line running fore and aft on Fred’s left is a life-line set up to use during rough weather.

1115: Duyfkin Point, the last of the Queensland coast that we can see slips below the horizon into a smoky haze. Conditions remain the same with no wind and the mainsail slats back and forth so sheet it in harder. Although it’s hot, it’s pleasant enough except for the drone of the motor.

There are five separate containers of snacks on the dinette table including lollies, cakes, biscuits, snacks and nuts. Should have opened the packets and sorted them out ages ago.  Am feeling great now that I have company aboard. Not tense. It’s so good just to feel relaxed again and actually enjoy the passage. Obviously I don’t like my own company too much.

Fred and I discuss my future intentions at some length. I’m pretty sure it’s time Lowana IV and I have a parting and I’ve made a loose plan along those lines. First thing is to sell the plastic dinghy and buy a cheap 8 to 10 foot tinnie to replace it. Then build a targa again at the stern to stow it and to mount the two forward solar panels. That will mean taking off the wind steering vane off to sell separately.

When ready Lowana IV could  be listed for sale with a broker on the East Coast over the Wet Season. If it’s not sold by May next year, Fred agrees to help me take her over there and leave it with the broker. However I’m not yet convinced this is really the way I want to go but at least it’s a plan while I’m still thinking about it.

1230: Headwinds. In spite of the weather forecast we’ve got westerlies. Would you believe it? They’re small but coming from dead ahead … of course. Have a lunch of dry biscuits, smoked mussels, sardines in tomato and cold meatballs.

43 dolphins

Left: A pair of dolphins come by to keep company for a short while.

1430: Westerly winds start in earnest.

1830: Have covered a reasonable 52 miles since starting out. The westerly kept getting stronger during the afternoon and forced us a little north of our rhumb line. Small choppy waves are butting us head on. Speed has been mostly just under 4 kts but presently is barely over 3 kts. Put a reef into the mainsail. Looks like this might continue for the rest of the night since it hasn’t died down at dusk as it would normally do. Actually the wind and waves seem to be building.

We’ve both had a little rest in the early afternoon and are now cooking dehydrated meals in a packet for dinner.  Check engine oils and top up. There seems to be a new leak on the starboard and forward end of the motor somewhere.

2000: No moon. Still getting westerlies but they’ve abated a little bit. Short seas are stopping the boat from building up speed. We’re still 10 degrees or more off course which isn’t too bad and making 3.5 kts average. Apart from our speed and direction it’s otherwise pleasant even if it is frustrating. I’ve pulled the first watch and Fred goes to bed up in the forward berth first. He looks a bit pale again and admits to feeling a bit off.

2100: Fred has just got up to go to the head and then went back to bed. Hope he’s okay. Am mildly puzzled a few times by what I think are sharp flashes of light. Look around the horizon but don’t seen anything. There’s no lightning or black clouds about. Stars everywhere. Think maybe I might have a light fitting shorting somewhere and spend some time peering up the mast at the various lights but don’t see anything unusual. Begin to think I’m having hallucinations.

2200. The flashes have become real and getting brighter. There is a storm cell in the distance behind us and it looks to be growing. Those westerly headwinds we’ve had this afternoon have probably been this thing drawing wind into itself. Not sure which way it’s going to go yet.

2300: It’s beginning to look like this storm might keep coming our way. Get Fred up so I can get a quick nap in case we get hit.

Sun 7 Nov 04

0200: Fred wakes me. The storm is much closer and coming up quite fast from behind, the lightning is much clearer and the thunder quite distinct.  It’s looks really nasty. I keep watch but it just keeps growing. Not sure whether it’s going to go either side or directly over us. It’s times like this I wish I had a radar. Can we run before it?  Not yet. Put our vests on and clip onto the life line. Turn to starboard and try going north for a while but the billowing black clouds overtake us. Turn westerly again but the storm keeps pushing ahead that way too.

0230: This thing is definitely going to go over the top of us. Turn towards the NE to try and cut across the face of the storm and get back around it. The wind suddenly starts screaming at our back. The boat yaws and wallows with waves driving us forward into an inky blackness and plunging down the face of them.  At least once there’s a strange crack or sharp fizzling sound and a smell of ozone on the air.

0245: Something appears briefly dead ahead in the intermittent flashes of jagged lightning. Something big, black and ominous sitting above the surface of the water which can only be seen in the flashes of the lightning, without which it’s pitch black and I can’t see anything.

Another flash of brilliant, fluttering white. It’s dead ahead and I get an impression of a small drilling or derrick platform, or some kind of boat with a mast. Whatever it is, it’s not showing lights and is a substantial size big enough to sink us if we hit it. It’s impossible to maintain a straight course. That thing could be anywhere out there. Can’t see it … can’t see it. Search desperately for another glimpse. Lost in the blackness.

Another lightning flash. There … flick my eyes  across. It’s too late to get a good look but it’s dead ahead and closing fast. Bound to bloody hit it!  It’s gotta be close and I can’t see the bloody thing!  Rip the autopilot off the tiller heedless of damaging it and make a crash turn to port. Another lightning flash. There it is slipping down the starboard side maybe 30 or 40 metres away. Stare intently into the darkness. Spot it one more time pulling away rapidly astern before it’s lost to sight into the blackness behind.

Mark the position with shaking hands using the MOB – Man Over Board function of the GPS. Posn: 12.22.56S – 140.03.02E with a view to reporting its position to authorities. Illegal Indonesian fishing boats are being regularly caught around here. It might have been one of them.

Turn north for a while and after an hour or so the electrical thunder storm seems to be falling behind. There’s more black clouds and thunder still off to the west to try and keep clear of but for now I think we’re safe; seas are still rough but manageable.

0530: More than one storm cell threatened during the rest of the night but thankfully we managed to avoid them. Some had serious lightning in them and seemed to be quite close. Several times I found myself trying not to touch any metal but on a steel boat that’s hard to do. The end result of all this evasion was that we’d been running north to get above the storms and let them pass under us. We’re now 15 miles or so back to the east from where we’d been, plus 24 miles north of our original rhumb line to Gove.

Turn back towards Gove only to find the wind once again coming from the west.  Fred suggests we try for Cape Wessel which is at the top of the Wessel Island group and is a northerly turning point when travelling west from Gove. It would at least give us some angle on the wind. Look at the chart. We’d only have to change course by 13 degrees but I can’t be sure we’d have enough fuel to get home if we have to motor all the way. And I don’t know whether we’ll continue to get headwinds, or no wind, or hit more storms. Decide to continue to Gove for now. If we can sail and conserve fuel we can then look to make for Cape Wessel and go straight home.

At dawn another storm cell moves across our bow on the horizon. Looks like it’s going to be a game of hide and seek all the way to Gove. This is exactly what I was hoping to avoid whilst waiting in Weipa.

0615: It’s a bit deflating. The day is cloudy, almost overcast and we’ve still got headwinds from the SW.  Streaky cirrus clouds are sitting up high in the east presaging even more higher winds later. Nothing seems to be going well for us. Am so pissed off that the weather forecasts are forever predicting E to SE winds and we’re getting SW winds. Swells left over from last nights storms are pushing in from the NE and from the opposite direction as well. It takes two hands and much bracing to move about the boat.

0800: Call Alice Springs base and talk to a female operator. Give her our position.  Seas  have calmed right down to flat except for low swells from the NE. The wind has died and the wind vane is hunting for air so we’re motoring with only the mainsail up. Pull in the headsail as it’s useless. Hot. Cloudy. Sultry. Large ominous group of clouds sitting on the horizon to the east. I’ve seen these sort of conditions before and it’s usually not good.

0900: Weather forecast isn’t good either. Nor was it good a couple of days ago in the sense that they stuffed it up. But they’re now suddenly saying there are isolated storms for today and tomorrow with gusts up to 35 kts.

Contact Coast Radio Gladstone and then Coast Radio Cairns on one of the Distress and Calling safety frequencies on the HF radio. Report the near miss with an unknown object last night and give its position.

1200: Hot. Desultory. Stifling. Wet season-ish. Humid and bugger all wind to use. Mainsail slats back and forth juddering the boat each time Lowana IV rolls on the low swells. Threatening clouds still sit around the horizon to the east. Wind vane at the top of the mast keeps hunting for any kind of air movement and being pulled around in circles as the boat rocks.

1400: Any little bit of wind we manage to get is from the north. There’s also increasing swells coming from the S and NE no doubt due to storms out in those directions. Patchy sunlight and the cloud banks to the east are building up. This day just doesn’t feel right. A welcome cool breeze occasionally wafts across the cockpit under the small shade canopy. The surface of the water is ruffled. I must say I don’t like this.

Despite these observations we’re making fairly good time at 4.7 kts over the ground and 4 kts through the water. Fred is having a sleep, or at least is trying to. Mainsail continues to slat and bang back and forth.  For the next few hours the wind picks up and changes more northerly allowing all sails to be used to pick up some speed to around 5.5 kts or more.

1730: Afternoon continued uneventfully. Wind is dying now with not as many whitecaps out there. The position plots on the chart are so close together compared to the length of time elapsed between them. Irksome journey this. Mostly boring, especially knowing that we’re not even half way yet.

Skies have mostly cleared of the nastier looking clouds. Some high altitude cirrus continues to promise higher winds but these are crossing to the north and may not affect us. Seas sloppy on top of swells but at least the ones coming from the south have subsided. Perhaps they’re just being absorbed by the ones from the NE.

2200: Fred has been feeling a little bit off colour again earlier this evening but insists on pulling his fair share of watches. He’s now had something to eat and feels a bit better. Send him back to bed and don’t wake him when it’s his turn to take watch.

We’re motoring again and pass the halfway mark across the gulf. It’s pleasant once more and the only wind is that which we make by our own forward movement. Boat continues to rock and roll along as the lingering swells pass underneath. Have double reefed the mainsail although there’s no sign of any storms just now. The weather forecast earlier tonight didn’t make any mention of isolated storms tonight but I don’t believe them. However they do say we’ll have more of them tomorrow.

Mon 8 Nov 04

0400: Fred surfaces on his own accord saying he’s feeling better. Black clouds had come up earlier on the ENE horizon. They’re now sitting above the horizon and obscuring the sliver of moon that should be there. It’s nice though when breaks in the clouds allow the moon to shine through. Swells are down and we’re making a fairly consistent 4.5 kts on a direct course towards Gove.

0700: No mention of any storms in the weather forecast. Conditions are calm and hot already. Stop the motor and check oils. All seems okay. Fred and I think we’ve figured out the problem with this motor. Sometimes the oil put into the motor via the filler cap doesn’t drain straight down into the sump. It’s as if there’s some blockage, maybe a bit of sludge or something blocking the oil drain holes. It seems logical to me that if oil is being forced out of the engine block there must be pressure inside pushing it out. The motor is eventually going to have to be completely stripped down, checked and cleaned thoroughly.

1330: The day continues hot with almost no wind. Sea almost glassy with low swells that keep the boat rocking. Steering vane sometimes doing complete circles in sympathy with Lowana IV rolling from side to side. Less than 80 nm to go doing about 4.5 kts or so.

1600: Cross the QLD/NT border longitude at 138 degrees about a mile back. Now officially on NT time although we’ve been using it all the way across so far. No wind to use and the seas still oily looking.

1800: Fred and I have a cold coke in the cockpit then check the oils. No need to top up either sump which is unusual. Still have 58 miles to go.

1930: Night closes in. Heat up a stew for tea. Wash up and settle into night routine. No change outside. Close up the forward hatch for the night. Hot inside.

Tues 9 Nov 04

Overnight: Conditions continue the same. Leave the mainsail double-reefed just in case but there wasn’t any wind to take advantage of.

0730: Reach the first waypoint off Bremer Island near Gove. Change the navigation system over to the laptop. Slow going at 3.3 kts against the current in the channel. Within mobile phone range so ring Delma to tell her we’ve arrived at Gove knowing she’d notify Fred’s wife Beth.

1030: Pass around the main wharf and make the final turn towards the anchorage in Inverell Bay off the Gove Yacht Club.

1115: Select our site and drop the anchor in 5m at low tide.

Gove: Position 12.11.953S – 136.42.005E. . Total distance travelled 1348 miles. Log across the gulf at 315 miles. Max speed 6.1 kts.

MORE TO FOLLOW

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