My stay in Cairns was a complete blast and by far the highlight of my Australian cruise. Not only did I make some amazing new friends it was also an opportunity to catch up with old friends too. A laid back city with plenty to do in and around town and with the Great Barrier Reef right on the doorstop it was a super place to spend some time. Waiting at the marina office when I arrived were two packages – a new Aries self steering gear paddle and a woodburning of Fathom sailing under the Southern Cross, a gift from my hugely talented friend Oceana. I am so thrilled with the wood burning it now hangs in the cabin and will continue to bring back happy memories of voyaging in the South Pacific last year.
Through Neil and Chris on yacht ‘Tusitala‘ that I had met in New South Wales I connected with their daughter, Bree, who lives and works in Cairns. Spending time with Bree was a lot of fun, not only did she know the best bars and restaurants in town she was kind enough to drive me around on various sightseeing trips including stops at the beachside village of Palm Cove to the north and a hike up to the Glacier Rock Lookout. Thanks so much Bree for the amazing hospitality! The following week Oceana made a late call to fly up to Cairns from Sydney for a short holiday and after Kimi and Trevor arrived in the marina on their yacht ‘Slow Flight‘ we had an unexpected South Pacific reunion. As we hadn’t seen a wild crocodile yet Bree drove us all to Hartley’s Crocodile Park where we went out on a boat to watch a guide dangle a lump of meat over the side encouraging the crocs to jump up. Seeing the strength and ferocity of these creatures at close quarters was a reminder not to go swimming off Fathom for the foreseeable future..
Once Oceana had flown home it was time to get back in sailing mode and as Kimi and Trevor were heading in the same direction we planned to buddy boat the 520 nautical miles to Thursday Island. We left Cairns on the 3rd July and were treated to a farewell rainbow before a brisk 20-25knot breeze pushed us towards Low Islet. On arrival I was surprised to see ‘Bogart‘ in the anchorage and shortly after I had dropped the hook Tony sent me a text asking which pub I was watching the England world cup game at! Being an uninhabited small island I had resigned myself to missing the game so was pleasantly surprised when Tony offered to pick me up in his dinghy at 03.30 that night so I could watch the game through his Aussie TV feed. Very memorable all round especially as England finally won a game on penalties!
The next day was a 41nm passage to Hope Island. The weather was not so good with frequent rain squalls and the wind gusting up to 35 knots. To enter the anchorage a narrow dog leg through the reefs had to be negotiated and just as I was taking Fathom through a large squall passed directly over head reducing visibility to virtually nothing. I could hardly see the edge of the reef but had thankfully downloaded the satellite images before I left Cairns which was a useful backup and meant we got through without drama. Due to the bad weather a 4th July party on Slow Flight was postponed for another day. Early the next morning we set off on the 50nm passage to Cape Flattery which required good concentration crossing several shipping lanes in 25-30kts of breeze. The anchorage at Cape Flattery was good holding although wind bullets fired down from the hills keeping my nerves on edge as the rigging shrieked. A short sail of 20nm on the 6th of July to Lizard Island where we planned to stop for a few days to let some bad weather pass through.
Lizard Island was an interesting stop as it was here in 1770 that Captain Cook climbed up to the 370m summit from where he saw a gap in the reefs and realised he wasn’t trapped and could sail his ship, the Endeavour, into open water and away from danger. Kimi, Trevor and I did the hike and enjoyed looking out at the same view Captain Cook had witnessed nearly 250 years before. Waiting for the strong winds to blow through was a good opportunity to meet other cruisers in the anchorage including Donald and Erika on Wasco who are sailing the same route as me towards South Africa, Michael, Caroline and Joyce on Henrietta, Amy and David on Starry Horizons and Carlos and Linda from Mirniy Okean. Although it had been delayed a few days Kimi and Trevor invited six of us over to Slow Flight for their July 4th American independence celebration. A memorable evening with no shortage of excellent food and ‘Kimi strength’ cocktails. The next day a few of us walked over the island to the picturesque Blue Lagoon and en-route met a local Cooktown resident, Robyn, who offered to be our tour guide and provided lots of local knowledge as we walked around. That evening was drinks on Starry Horizons and an opportunity to become envious of all the living space on a catamaran. Next up was a tour of the coral research station where we learnt about the fish and coral conservation efforts on this part of the barrier reef. Our final evening on the island was spent having sundowners on the beach where I met a local Cooktown resident who was once a crocodile hunter back in the 1960’s and who had also kept a pet crocodile on his fishing boat. A real life Crocodile Dundee!
By the 11th July the wind had moderated but there were still gusts up to 25 knots on the 75nm passage to Bathurst Bay. Fast sailing under just headsail. I left at 03.00 in order to arrive in daylight with Slow Flight leaving a little later as they are much quicker than little Fathom. Another big day and 3am start on the 12th -74nm to Morris Island but at the bottom of the Princess Charlotte Sound there was a big wind hole so most the day was spent motoring. I threw the fishing line out for the first time in a while and couple of hours later pulled in a nice sized Yellow Tailed Kingfish. Trevor offered to cook it up for dinner so once at the anchorage he picked me up and shortly after dinner was served. This was the start of an excellent agreement between us, I would catch the fish and Trevor would cook them!
Between Cooktown and Thursday Island, roughly 400nm, there are no townships the only semblance of civilisation a few houses and a cafe at Portland Roads. This was our destination the following day after a 61nm sail in 15-20 knot trade winds from Morris Island. With Fathom and Slow Flight safely anchored by mid afternoon, Kimi, Trevor and I went ashore only to find the cafe was fully booked from a land based tour group. A bit disappointing but a delicious home cooked curry on Slow Flight was undoubtedly even better. Portland Roads to Margaret Bay was a 41nm passage on the 14th and from there to Escape River on the 15th, another big day and early start at 71nm. In the morning I noticed the fishing line was tight only to find a small shark had taken the lure. I managed to unhook it and let it go without losing any fingers. Then early afternoon another bite, this time a biggie, a beautiful 80cm yellowfin tuna. I excitedly called Slow Flight on the VHF to inform them dinner had been caught and once at the anchorage Trevor did the rest. Sushi for starters followed by Tuna steaks, rice and veggies. It doesn’t get any better!
It had been quite a slog up the coast so it was with a fair amount of excitement and satisfaction that Fathom and Slow Flight sailed past Cape York, the most northerly point of mainland Australia on the morning of the 16th. This area reportedly has the strongest tradewinds in the world but we only saw an agreeable 15 knots from the SE. The currents run very strongly through the Torres Straits so we had to time our passage along the Flinders Passage to the anchorage at Horn Island accordingly. All went well and we found space in the busy anchorage mid afternoon. This is true crocodile country and sure enough the next morning a large 4.5m croc could be seen sunbathing on the mud bank at the edge of the anchorage. The next few days were spent provisioning, catching up with other cruisers and taking the ferry over to Thursday Island for a tour. A really interesting place with a melting pot of different peoples and cultures, mostly originating from the pearl shell farming days. A completely different feel to mainland Australia and more like being back in the Pacific Islands.
There wasn’t a great deal going on at Horn Island, two shops and a bar the highlights so I was looking forward to getting to Darwin. First light on the 21st July, Fathom and a small flotilla of yachts including Slow Flight and Starry Horizons left the anchorage and headed out into the Prince of Wales Channel on the flood tide to go our separate ways. I headed west while they pointed their bows towards Indonesia. It had been an absolute pleasure to buddy boat with Kimi and Trevor since Cairns. A potentially tough couple of weeks had been made much easier. They had kept my water tanks topped up with fresh water from their watermaker, invited me over for numerous dinners and given me lifts everywhere in their dinghy so I didn’t need to pump mine up. Such great company and good fun, I will really miss them. But maybe not the Slow Flight hangovers!
It was quite a contrast heading offshore on a 650nm passage after three and a half months of coastal day hops but felt good to get into the rhythm of being at sea again. The first day out from Horn Island the breeze gave up and the motor was required but thereafter it was decent sailing in 12 -18 knots across the Gulf of Carpentaria to the Alcaro Bay anchorage at Cape Don where I arrived five days later on the 26th. On passage I had been looking out for the P&O cruise ship ‘Pacific Aria’ as Nick and Gail, who I had stayed with in Mooloolaba, were passengers. Late afternoon on the 25th the ship appeared ten miles astern as an AIS target on the chartplotter so I called the bridge on the VHF and asked the Master to pass a message to Nick and Gail saying all was well with me and to wish them a nice cruise. The Master replied saying he knew all about me and had been looking out for Fathom! Our respective headings and speed meant the ship was due to pass 5 miles to the north so I gybed and changed course to ensure our closest point of approach would be just under one mile. After sunset in the last of the evening twilight the ship passed close alongside and we took photos of each other. The Captain called back on the VHF to say Nick and Gail were standing amidships waving. They were a lot closer than it appears in the photo. A really nice moment.
After sailing slowly overnight so as not to arrive at Cape Don before sunrise I was pleased to see Wasco in the anchorage on arrival as well as a catamaran called Showtime that I had met down the coast. Despite being in a bit of a daze after very little sleep over the last couple days it was good to have a couple of beers on Wasco that evening and catch up with Don and Erika. Back to Fathom for a few hours sleep before the alarm went off at 01:00, a very early start in order to work the tides through the Van Diemen Gulf to Darwin. By 02.30 Fathom was motoring along in a calm and with enough sea room I took a series of 15 minute naps. I woke up after one of these naps to find the boat headed NE when our course was supposed to be SW. It turned out Fathom had been going round in circles since I dozed off as the electric tiller pilot had turned off and the engine noise had drowned out the off course alarm. Don and Erika a few miles behind had assumed my erratic course was the result of catching a large fish! The tides all worked out as planned and despite a long day of motoring I reached the Fannie Bay anchorage at Darwin just behind Wasco and in time to see the blood moon rising in the east. The next morning I took Fathom to the waiting pontoon at Cullen Bay marina in order for a treatment solution to be put into the raw water inlet pipes before being allowed through the lock into the marina that evening.
It is hard to believe that 3,226 nautical miles have passed under the keel since arriving at Brisbane in November, including the trip south to Sydney Harbour and Pittwater, then north again to the Torres Straits inside the Great Barrier Reef and across to the Northern Territory. Such a HUGE country! From strong adverse currents, thunderstorms, howling head winds and exciting bar entrances in New South Wales, to fast trade wind sailing and reef dodging in Queensland it’s been quite a trip and I’ll admit fairly tough at times sailing solo. But a great experience nonetheless and a nice contrast to long ocean passages. I’ve met some amazing people, made some great friends and sailing alongside various buddy boats has been a lot of fun and made the trip much easier. Having reached Darwin, my last port of call in Australia, it was time to catch up on some sleep and start preparations for heading out into the Indian Ocean. There is a lot of sailing to come.