It’s been a difficult week getting from Cooktown to the northernmost tip of Australia at Cape York as we had some mishaps and rough weather. The East Coast of Australia has certainly been a challenge!
Sunday, June 9th – Cooktown to Lizard Island
We left Cooktown in the now typical 25-30 knot SE wind and 2 to 3 metre seas. We had the waves coming beam on for the first hour or so until we cleared the Cape Bedford headland just north of Cooktown and the kids were feeling pretty sick. Once clear of the headland we turned north towards Cape Flattery and the waves were coming from behind which is a lot more comfortable, and the crew began to feel better.
We were making good time in the strong winds, so I decided to continue on past Cape Flattery, our intended anchorage for the night, and get all the way to Lizard Island as I thought we could make it there before sunset. The wind continued to be strong and by the late afternoon we pulled into the anchorage at Lizard Island for what we had planned would be an extended stay as there is a lot to see and do there. Unfortunately it wasn’t to be.
We anchored in about 4 meters of crystal clear water. There were quite a few other boats already there, so it was looking quite crowded, but our friend Raymond from the catamaran Iris whom we had met in Townsville and again in Cairns, came over in his dinghy to guide us to a good place to anchor. I was a bit surprised at how windy this anchorage was. Even though there is a massive mountain (supposedly) shielding the anchorage from the wind, it was still blowing 15-20 knots.
We were tidying the boat when some folks come by in their dinghy to invite us for drinks on the beach at sunset, which we thought was a great idea. I lowered the dinghy and took the kids over to the reef just next to the anchorage to do some snorkelling, and then I came back and picked up Robin and we went ashore for drinks. It was nice to meet some new folks and find out more about their plans and where they have been. The kids joined us on the beach at sunset and we climbed back in our dinghy and returned to Zangezi for dinner.
I tied the dinghy up behind the boat with the intention of raising it up on the davits for the night, because dinghies tend to bump into the back of the boat all night and make a racket, but at bedtime it was pretty still, so I decided to leave it there as we were going to use it in the morning. Big Mistake!
Around midnight I got up to check on everything. The wind had picked back up to 25 knots, and I found the dinghy had disappeared! Oh crap! I checked the line that was still tied to the back of Zangezi and looked at the end that was connected to the dinghy, it wasn’t broken or cut, so the knot that had connected it to the dinghy (an anchor bend) had somehow come untied!
I woke up Robin and we quickly went over our options.
- Chase after the dinghy and use the radar and a flashlight to try and find it in the dark (highly unlikely)
- Stay put and give up any hope of seeing it again
- We couldn’t think of a third option
Option 1 was a long shot, but we figured we couldn’t do anything on Lizard Island if we didn’t have a dinghy. I suppose we could swim to shore and back, but that didn’t appeal to us, and the shame I was feeling at having made such an idiot mistake as to not put a safety line on the dinghy mad that option very unpleasant. So we decided to give chase!
We pulled the anchor and put the wind directly behind us, cranked up both engines and took off into the pitch black sea to try and find our runaway dinghy. This activity pretty quickly proved futile. The waves were so big, that it was hard for the autopilot to keep us on course. Robin was on the bow with a flashlight peering into a thick sea mist, and I was staring at the radar screen trying to pick a dinghy looking dot out of the 100s of other wave crest dots and starting to feel pretty queasy. Plus we had no idea what direction and speed the dinghy was moving at. After about 2 hours of this we gave up, and decided to look for an anchorage for the night.
We ended up at Howick Island, about 30 miles NW of Lizard Island in a reasonably calm anchorage and got a few hours sleep. I hardly slept at all as I was so miserable about my stupid mistake of not raising the dinghy on the davits, or at least putting a safety line on, and how disappointed the kids were going to be to miss out on Lizard Island.
Monday, June 10th – Howick Island to Bathurst Bay
We were all really disappointed about the dinghy and I was feeling pretty bad about letting everyone down. I called my Father, Greg in Brisbane and asked him to start organising a replacement dinghy and outboard that we could pick up when we arrive in Darwin. He jumped on it right away and within a day he had it all organised. Thank you so much Dad!!!!
To make up for not being able to access the shore or any snorkelling or dive sites via dinghy, I scoured the charts for reefs we could possibly get close enough to, so we could anchor Zangezi and dive directly from the big boat. The first candidate was a reef close by our Howick Island anchorage, so we manoeuvred into position close to the reef and dropped the anchor. We managed to get close enough to dive, but with the strong winds and rough seas it was a bit of a challenge swimming from the back of the boat to the front where we descended down the anchor line. Once we were down it was on OK dive, but the waves made the visibility pretty poor. After the dive, we raised the anchor and continued on until we cleared Cape Melville in the afternoon, then looked for a spot to anchor for the night as Robin and I were pretty tired.
The cruising guides show the best anchorage is way down in Bathurst Bay. The chart shows an anchorage closer up towards Cape Melville. There was a big hill in the middle of the two, and the wind was coming from directly behind it, so I decided to split the difference and anchor in front of the hill. What a mistake that was! Everything started out peaceful enough until the wind shifted towards the East in the night and somehow managed to find a passage between two large hills that caused it to accelerate and come directly at us. I was woken at about 1 am to the sound of the anchor watch alarm going off telling us that our anchor was dragging. I woke Robin and we started the engines and pulled in enough chain to disconnect the bridle, then let out another 15 metres of chain and reattached the bridle. The wind was howling around us at 35 knots but our anchor watch system showed we were holding. We went back to bed, but I hardly slept the rest of the night as I watched the wind climb from 25 to 30 to 35 to 40 then back down to 25, over and over for hours. The highest we hit was 46 knots, which was pretty extreme. The wind was howling and we were getting bounced all over the place.
The next morning, we pulled the anchor in 30 knot gusts and had a heck of a time getting it up, the windlass kept stopping, and we couldn’t figure out if it was jamming, or if there was something wrong electrically. We finally got the anchor raised, and motored away from the “supposedly” sheltered hillside and watched in disbelief as the wind speed dropped from 30 knots to 9!!! Somehow I had managed to place us in the windiest part of the otherwise protected anchorage.
At this point I am thinking I really have no business trying to sail a boat around the Pacific Ocean!
Tuesday, June 11th – Bathurst Bay to Creech Reef
The wind actually dropped a bit today. As we sailed past the Flinder’s Islands it was down to 20 knots, so I decided to try and redeem myself to some extent and attempt to sail the outer reef channel and maybe if the conditions ease we could find an anchorage on one of the famous outer ribbon reefs and do another dive in clear waters. The wind held at 20 to 25 (which is a lot better than 25-30) so we looked for a possible anchorage.
We settled on Creech Reef, which is a ribbon reef at the outer edge where the Coral Sea meets the ocean. It looked really amazing as we approached, dark blue colored water which was almost like ink, then the bright green of the coral reef ahead. We motored into position and found a shallow spot over sand (Gavin could clearly see the bottom 60 feet below). We dropped the anchor in about 10 metres right at the edge of the reef. The reef rises up out of the sea floor like a wall, so it’s pretty scary motoring up to it hoping we don’t run into anything! Once the chain was down, I set the anchor watch monitor and watched as we dragged straight off the reef. Bummer!
So now we had to raise the anchor again, but the anchor up button jammed on, and the windlass started tripping out the circuit breaker as it was coming up. I had Gavin go into the salon and operate the breaker to control the windlass, and Lindsay was relaying instructions to him: “On!” “Off!” “On!” while Robin watched the anchor chain and shouted instructions to Lindsay and I maneuvered the boat over the anchor. That worked for a bit, but then the anchor wouldn’t budge. We were well off the reef, so it wasn’t hooked on anything, so I went to the bow and took a look and found one of the rollers that guides the chain down was completely missing! It must have been torn off in the strong winds at Bathurst Bay. OK, now what? I figured if I could rig a line to pull the anchor roller frame up it would allow the chain to pivot over the single remaining roller, and wouldn’t get hung up on the metal frame, which would be easier for the windlass to pull. I tied a bowline knot on the end of a line, looped it around the pulley shaft and routed it to the mast winch and wound it tight. The lone roller moved into position, and the chain was able to move again. With this solution in place, we were able to raise the anchor all the way.
I then moved us out of danger and asked Gav to take the helm to keep us in deep water while I looked into the jammed windlass control up button problem. The button was toast, so I cut the control handset off the cable and stripped the wires. I found a multi-pole switch in my spares bin and connected it to the windlass control cable and tested it out. It wasn’t pretty, but it worked. We were now ready to try again to attach ourselves to the edge of Creech Reef.
The 2nd attempt was successful and we got the anchor down and holding in a sand patch about 12 metres deep with 50 metres of chain down. There was a lot of wind, and a lot of wave action as the waves from the open ocean swept onto the outer edge of the reef about a mile away and were broken up considerably by the time they reached us, but they were still pretty big. We hung on all night in strong winds and ridiculous motion in the hope that we would be able to dive in the morning. We set the anchor watch alarm and we didn’t drag, but it was another rough night with almost no sleep.
The next morning, the wind was down to around 18 knots, so we decided to give it a try. The diving conditions were amazing. Crystal clear water, a pristine coral reef with tons of sea life. We were all glad we got the experience, and we sure felt we earned it! Robin made us breakfast once we got our gear off and we packed everything away and continued sailing north. The motion of the boat was immediately smooth as soon as we started sailing, with the wind and waves behind us, so we decided to sail the rest of the day and through the night rather than risk another sleepless night at anchor.
Thursday, June 13th – Escape River
We sailed up the outer reef channel during the day on Wednesday and crossed over into the inner channel during the night, then intersected the mainland coast on Thursday afternoon just south of the Escape River. We were all pretty tired so we decided to give the anchorage at Escape River a try. It was a perfectly calm, still and peaceful anchorage. What a relief it was to be still for a while! I slept 12 hours straight which was wonderful. The local wildlife was pretty impressive also, and we were all reluctant to leave the next morning.
Friday, June 14th – Escape River to Seisia
We had an easy sail from our anchorage in the Escape River, around the tip of Cape York and down to the small town of Seisia on the western coast of the peninsula. The anchorage here is very nice, and there are several other boats waiting for a good weather window to cross the Gulf of Carpentaria and continue on to Darwin.
The gulf crossing is renowned for having difficult conditions and large, steep waves. I would like to cross in fairly light winds to try and get a more comfortable ride, even if we have to use the engines a bit. The gulf is 330 miles across, then there’s another 320 miles to get to Darwin. We spent the day today studying the weather reports, doing some maintenance chores on the engines, generator and water-maker, topping up the fuel tanks, and getting some laundry done. Everything had to be ferried back and forth in bags and jerry cans between Zangezi and the shore via our two man kayak (because we have no dang dinghy!) which was quite a chore, and a bit nerve wracking as there are crocs around and the kayak feels pretty flimsy!
The forecast looks like it may be good to attempt to cross tomorrow morning. I need to check the weather one more time later tonight, but it looks like we may be sailing into the gulf at dawn!