|Map 26 – Final leg home showing location of storms|
Bashing It Home
0415: Raise the anchor and get under way heading west for the top of Valentia Island. The intention is to transit under Croker Island and head up through the Bowen Strait. The tide is expected to turn in an hours time but can’t be sure what it will be at the entrance to the strait 15 miles away. Ideally we want to be able to use as much of the ebb tide as possible to get up through there.
0600: Sun comes up behind in a beautiful red ball over Valentia Island, reflecting prettily on a few isolated separate clouds above it.
0715: Easy run across to Bowen Strait as we approach the entrance. Hot. Sunny. Weather forecast indicates a possible break in the weather for this area from next Monday, although they’ve been predicting isolated storms for this region all the way home from here. Seas flat. Hazy.
0810: It’s straight forward navigation through the narrow channel provided a close eye is kept on position and the depth sounder. Talk to Ken at the Alice Springs base on the HF radio to tell him we’re now inside Bowen Strait and hope to anchor tonight in Port Essington. He offers to phone the news to Delma so I thank him to do that. No doubt Delma will pass the message to Beth. We’re getting 6 kts of tidal push here so the tides are working well for us. There’s an occasional puff of wind from the N and NE which helps slightly too.
1000: Clear of most of the strait near the narrow channel at the northern end. Set a course NNW towards Danger Point then make a turn west towards Port Essington.
1015: Clear of Bowen Strait. During the whole of the transit we only had to take the auto-pilot off twice to hand steer the boat and look for deeper water. It was just a matter of going from one side of the channel to the other and watching the sounder to find out where the deepest water was. It’s getting very hot with almost no breeze. Shake the mainsail out to full though there’s nothing to fill it. The boat remains level and the flag hangs limply in the heat, but we’re making good time.
1415: Excellent run across the top of the Cobourg Peninsula at around 6 kts with the tide behind us all the way. It’s still going strong ebbing westerly as we turn the corner around Smith Point and into Port Essington.
1530: Drop the anchor down and turn the motor off in 4.5 metres depth at Port Essington. Wind is gusting a little bit. Tide tables seem to be wrong. There’s supposed to be a tide variation one hour 46 mins before High Water Darwin. It should in theory be flooding in but looks awfully like the tide is ebbing.
Port Essington: Total log 1676 nm. Log Gove to Port Essington 327 nm.
1600: Work out the tide runs for the next leg. Still not sure if the tide tables are correct but hope they are. If so we should have a full ebb tide leaving Port Essington tomorrow morning. That should put us into Dundas Strait off Cape Don before the northerly sea breezes come in to stand the water up on us. With luck we’ll get to Cobham Bay before dark to anchor up for the night.
Evening: Usual activities. Prepare for tomorrow. Listen to weather forecast still predicting isolated storms but with increased winds up to 50 kts in Darwin Harbour and up to Cape Don tomorrow. Bit scary. Have dinner. Watch a movie. Early to bed.
0420: Anchor up and away. Fred says he hasn’t seen a single lightning flash to the west during the night. Conditions are calm with a small breeze from NW. The high tide is now ebbing. Good. Start heading northerly to clear Vashon Point before turning west which should take a couple of hours.
0810: Approaching Arraru Point with Trepang Bay behind us. Our next turn will be at Lingi Point visible in the distance ahead. Tide starting to turn but we’re still getting over 4 kts with revs bumped up to 1600 rpm. Full mainsail raised but no wind. A dolphin comes in to visit from the starboard side and swims just in front of the bow for a while, but not long enough for us to fetch a camera. Water is perfectly clear and we can see the animal in fine detail just under the surface. Occasionally it turns to the side to look up and Fred and I. A beautiful moment.
Contact Alice Springs base on HF Radio. Ken hadn’t been able to get a message through to Delma yesterday and has been waiting to hear from us today. Pass our present position and tell him we hope to be in Darwin early tomorrow.
1030: Speed dropped to just over 2 kts over the last couple of hours but is slowly building to around 2.7 kts. A fawn coloured sea snake under 2 metres with black spots on its back slips by alongside the starboard side. It has an extended bloated bulge in the middle so has eaten something recently. Off Popham Bay a blue and white stink boat passes by going the other way. Cape Don lighthouse is visible ahead. Seas are still green with only a little chop but no whitecaps. Quite good at the moment actually.
1500: Tide turning and we’re well across the entrance to Dundas Strait approaching Melville Island.
1530: Full benefit of tide pushing us up to 8.1 kts. Going for it.
1700: We still have about 4 hours of tide running with us, but I’m not happy with continuing overnight with the forecast of storms. Have been discussing our options with Fred at some length, finally deciding to anchor tonight at Cobham Bay. As a compromise we’ll get up early in the morning and make a start.
1830: On approaching our intended anchorage there’s a commercial fishing boat sitting where we want to go. Work our way further into the bay looking for an alternative spot but it’s too deep and a bit more exposed. Head back to the eastern side of Camp Point and by this time the other boat is preparing to move. Find a spot in 5.5 metres of water at the head of a nice small beach. Anchor up behind Cape Keith off Camp Point. As dusk comes on, the fishing boat gets underway and heads off towards the SW following the Melville Island coast.
Camp Point: Posn 11.36.729S – 131.26.171E. Covered 67.7 miles today.
Wind is from the NNW and we’re both a bit worried about a nasty looking cloud bank sitting out that way. It stretches from the west with the sun going down all the way to the southern horizon. It’s likely to cross over us later tonight and with winds being forecast up to 50 kts there is some cause for concern. Decide one of us will get up every hour to check what’s happening.
I’m not entirely confident that even having two anchors out will hold in that sort of wind. If it hits us the wrong way we could be washed ashore so in that case we’d be better off heading out to sea. That’s all very well except Cobham Bay is guarded to seaward by extensive reefs. We work out two “bug out” courses and put some waypoints into the GPS. If we do get hit with something nasty we’ll have at least two options to get away, hopefully out to sea away from the hard bits.
1930: Simple dinner for tonight of baked beans on toast. Do the usual checks. Relax in the cockpit enjoying a Cafe Latté. We see one lightning flash from the cloud bank to the west but otherwise it doesn’t seem very active. Hard to say which way the clouds are moving. Just hope its not northerly since it’s a bit blacker to the south of us. If it comes from that way it’ll put us on a lee shore.
2200: Get up every hour to check what’s happening. Those dark clouds immediately to the south have dissipated somewhat, but the lightning is bright and active in a large black cloud bank behind and it’s getting closer. The wind has turned and blowing straight into our anchorage causing Lowana IV to pitch and wander around to her anchor. Stay up for a while to see what it does and which way it’s going.
Unlash the bigger 65lb Danforth anchor from the bow rail and pull out extra chain and rope. Lay it all out in the dinghy ready to deploy straight over the side if we need to urgently get more claws into the ground to keep us in position. At the moment there’s no sign of any jerking or rattling on the anchor chain to give me cause for concern, but it’s best to be ready.
Fred stations himself in a half reclined position in the cockpit while I try to get some rest in the forward berth where I can listen to the anchor chain. From here the sounds of the chain are magnified through the steel hull and I can tell immediately if the boat starts jerking or the anchor starts to drag. Not much hope of getting any sleep though.
2300: The wind is blowing strong, gusting hard and sending shivers through the boat. There’s a rattle somewhere in or about the mast sending a metallic tattoo of noise, matched in cadence with the waves as they march under the hull. Annoying as it is, it’s helping to stop me from falling into a deep sleep. Not that there’d be much chance of that anyway.
Dark clouds surround the horizon through the west, south and east. The NW sector is relatively clear. A particularly nasty looking storm cell is flashing out towards the NE further out in the gulf. That’s right where we would have been had we elected to keep going and follow the main shipping channel. We’d actually discussed doing just that when we first entered Dundas Strait this afternoon. Can also see numerous small but bright flashes on the horizon to the SE, the direction towards home. Looks to me that no matter which route we’d taken, if we’d decided to continue on overnight we would have ended up running into one of those storms. Getting home at this time of year is a bit like picking your way through a minefield of storms.
0100 Weather has eased leaving waves slopping into bay but the main threat seems to have gone. Fred is hardly stirring. He’s been sitting half awake all night. Tell him we can spare another hour and go back to bed.
0200: Get up and turn on the cabin lights. Fred’s up too. Prepare for sea. Put on a hot cup of tea. Anchor comes up clean.
0230: Underway. We can’t head out to the open sea through a passage in the reefs because there’s a storm cell blocking that exit. Start heading along the coast. We haven’t gone far when another storm cell sweeps in from the north moving across the area we’d just left. Am very thankful about that because it looks particularly nasty with severe lightning. A big black cloud sits off to our front and right stretching from the SE to north. Nasty looking with jagged bits of lightning in them too. Not able to get much more than 2.5 to 3 kts against wind and waves. Fred’s really beat so send him to bed on a mattress laid on the saloon floor downstairs. Boat yawing about but we’re making ground okay all things considered.
0330: Conditions deteriorate badly for the next hour. The storm system is close, very close just off our starboard side and sucking every bit of air it can into itself from the SW, the direction that we want to go. The whole of the coast that we can see seems to be enveloped in serious lightning. Nasty. The wind howls and hard waves bash against the boat constantly. The usually dependable autopilot can’t maintain anywhere near a straight line and Lowana IV wobbles along on a dogleg course. The wind and waves sometimes dominate the boat, sometimes pushing her to one side up to 90 degrees off course before she can regain control and start driving back into it.
The wind begins to shriek and bigger waves hit us head on and slamming against the hull. The poor little autopilot grunts and groans until with a high pitched alarm finally locks up and goes into standby mode. Lowana IV simply can’t maintain direction even with the tiller pushed over as far as it will go. It has to be disconnected from the tiller and the boat brought back manually on course. From here on one of us will have to hand steer.
0400: The tide turns and starts to run with us. Conditions ease a little as we slowly manage to move away from the storm cell, only to find another one. It’s also just to the right over the nearby land and it too, is sucking strong winds into itself. Eventually we manage to start getting past it only to find another, then another. Each of these are sitting over the coast to our right, creating strong headwinds with heavy seas to bash into us as they suck in air from the SE.
There is a constant strong dank smell on the wind from the land. Smells of rain and something else, like mould or rotting vegetation. All we can do is persevere, push on and hope we don’t get hit directly, but it’s getting blacker and blacker right across the horizon in front of us. Unfortunately we’re locked into this course, hemmed in by extensive shoals and reefs closing off any escape to open water off to port and the coast of Melville Island close off to starboard with more extensive reefs systems. And there’s still several miles to go before we can choose which of two routes to take through the Vernon Island, either via the North Channel or via the main shipping channel past Cape Hotham.
0430: The white steaming light of another vessel appears ahead coming this way. Both the red and green navigation lights soon become visible to tell me its heading directly at us. Call the boat on the radio but there’s no response. Call several more times but no response. Alter course to port to try and get to one side of it, but with one eye on the depth sounder mindful of the ever closing reef systems out there. Judging by the very bright steaming light it’s under power and not a sailboat. Wait for a while and call the boat again. No response. Still getting red and green lights so move further out to port although the boat is still some distance off. Keep calling from time to time and eventually a man responds saying he’d just changed watch. Think to myself he’s certainly taken his time about it.
Arrange a green to green (starboard to starboard) passage and he says he’s onto it, but as both vessels close I keep seeing the red light, meaning he’s heading across my bow. If he keeps that course we’ll collide. Warn him several times on the radio but again no response. I’m starting to get into shallower water as I keep manoeuvring to stay outside of him. Hard to tell distances with the naked eye at night but at about 200 metres or so he finally alters course until I can finally see his green light. At last I can straighten up and get past him.
Suppress my irritation to make a remark that it’s a rough ol’ night for him to be making a passage against the tide. He says he’s heading for Croker Island, adding that he’s doing 5 kts and being bucked around in his wheelhouse. Like us he doesn’t have a radar to give him a proximity alarm if another vessel comes near. The fellow seems to be friendly enough and we exchange a few more pleasantries as the distance between slowly lengthens.
0500: The tide run has strengthened to put us at 5 kts over the ground. First brightening of the sky shows the whole quadrant of the sky from east to west is bracketed by low lying and black clouds. Doesn’t look good. Waves are still thumping in from the SW but the wind is very slowly starting to abate.
0530: Fred gets up but hasn’t been able to sleep very well in the uncomfortable conditions. Says he has a slightly sore shoulder from being bumped against the wall. The sky to our front is still blocked but seems to be clearing over the port bow. Nothing else for it but to keep going and wait to see what happens.
0600: Relieved to see the sky is definitely clearing to our front. The VHF radio later crackles to life with a broadcast from Coast Radio Darwin warning of a severe thunderstorm later this afternoon or early tonight. It’s expected to cause damage but hopefully we’ll be in Darwin before it hits.
0725: Reach the waypoint off Beagle Shoal where we have a choice of routes. If could go southerly across the gulf towards Cape Hotham we’ll be going directly into the wind. If we head for the North Channel we’ll need to stay on this same course but the navigation will get tighter through the reefs there. Turn into the wind to test progress and drop down to 2.2 kts against the wind and waves. Decide to take the northern route and in any event it’s 6 miles shorter.
While fiddling around with the mainsail I manage to lose control of the main halyard and it spins away to wrap itself high up around the mast. It’s going to have to be retrieved. And there’s another little job to do. During the night the radar reflector had broken loose and has been banging about against the mast and has to be cut down. It’s not going to be an easy job climbing the mast up to the crosstrees with the boat rocking hard in the lingering waves.
I prepare to climb the mast but Fred says he should do it. I maintain it’s my responsibility and I can’t ask him to take the risk. He responds that if I get hurt or lost overboard then he’d have to manage the boat and he doesn’t know all the systems and gear as well as I do. He argues that it would be easier for me to look after him and get him home than the other way around. Have to grudgingly accept that. Fred dons a safety harness and climbs the mast with me holding a safety line around a winch. It’s difficult for him to hang onto the gyrating mast, but he manages to cut the remaining ropes holding the radar reflector and lower it with another rope to the deck. He then collects the wayward halyard and begins the climb back down to the deck, bringing the halyard with him. Impressive work Fred! Good job!
With Fred safely back on deck we put up the mainsail with 2 reefs in it and resume our course towards the North Channel initially at about 3.3 kts but which slowly increases.
1000: Conditions continue to ease. Seas flatten and the wind dies down so we start to make some very good time with the push of the tide. I’m feeling buggared so get into bed while Fred takes watch, but I can’t sleep and get back up.
1100: Passing through the North Channel at 7.7 kts making excellent time, well in advance of what we’d anticipated through here. Nice to have something working with us for a change.
1200: Current still racing and takes us with it as we start to clear the North Channel. Speed has peaked several times over 9 kts to a maximum of 9.3 kts. Hadn’t expected to get clear of here until around 3:00 pm or so. The day has cleared and it’s hot. Not much wind but the little bit available is now coming from the SE.
1430: On course for Darwin Harbour charging along at over 6 kts still. The Royal Darwin Hospital landmark juts above the skyline off the port bow and we’re once more into mobile phone range. Call Delma to tell her we’ll be arriving between 5 and 6 pm at the Tipperary Marina lock. Call Peter the Lockmaster at the marina to arrange a berth and access through the lock. Fred calls Beth.
1600: Still getting good speeds around 6 kts as we pick up successive flood tide changes approaching Darwin Harbour. Running with a flood tide into the harbour.
1630: Inside Darwin Harbour and ease the throttle to idle. Still getting more than 4 kts down the harbour but there’s no hurry. We need time for the tide to rise a bit more in Sadgroves Creek so we can get into the marina.
1700: Arrive outside the marina to find the lock gates already open and waiting. Beth and Karen are standing on the rocks at the head of the lock entrance waving madly. There can’t be much water over the lip of the lock entrance but there’s enough to allow us to get inside.
1730: Finish securing Lowana IV to the pontoon at our designated berth. Fred had cleaned the fridge earlier this afternoon so all that remains to do is grab some personal gear and lock up. Feel a pang as I usually do turning off each electronic item for the last time. Turn the motor off, close the seacocks and lock up the boat.
1800: Delma will be returning home from the Gold Coast tomorrow. Karen drives me home and later brings some takeaway food. She goes home fairly early so that I can get to bed for a good nights sleep, having been up now for most the night and day.
POSTSCRIPT TO FOLLOW