Darwin would be the last semblance of civilisation before heading off into the Indian Ocean so much of my time there was spent preparing Fathom for the potentially tough miles ahead. The sleepy, laid back town is quite a contrast to the Aussie cities I had visited in Queensland and New South Wales. People are generally more friendly and relaxed in Darwin although sometimes this means it takes a long time to get anything done – “it’ll be all right maaate, no worries” is the answer to most questions. I had visited for work back in 2012 and it was pretty much as I remembered it except the lack of trees following the cyclone that hit earlier this year.
There is a very high tidal range in Darwin, 6-8m at springs, so anchoring requires some planning. I decided to take Fathom to Cullen Bay marina where it would be easier to work on the boat and get about. Due to the tidal range the marina is behind a lock and before being allowed to enter a treatment has to be poured into all the raw water inlet pipes and left for ten hours to kill any mussels or other organisms which may infect the marina. Once inside it was full speed ahead on boat jobs. I removed the mainsail and my neighbours in the marina, Mike and Chrissey on catamaran ‘Ohmless’, kindly gave me a lift to the sailmaker so he could repair the small tears in the upper panel. Mike also gave me a lift to the camping store with gas bottles to get them refilled. I climbed the mast to do a rig check, adjusted the rigging and changed the engine oil. One of the Raymarine ST2000 tiller pilots used for steering the boat under engine or in very light winds had failed beyond repair so I decided to order another one (I like to have two working units) which had to come from Melbourne and would take about 8 or 9 days.
I’m ashamed to say that I dug the fold up bike out from the bow for the first time since leaving the U.K. Cycling to town and the supermarkets from the marina isn’t much slower than taking the bus, plus Darwin is very flat so it was well worth it. Great to get cycling again and do some exercise and I enjoyed some rides along the coast to the Mindle street markets and to the sailing club at the north of Fannie Bay which has a very good Sunday carvery for 20 bucks. The weather was warm, dry and sunny without fail and Darwin knows how to put on an impressive sunset. I spent some time with Don and Erika on Wasco before they headed off to Cocos Keeling and met some other cruisers in the marina so it was an enjoyable time.
However, not everything went to plan. While checking the gearbox oil it turned out the plastic dipstick had snapped with most the thread still screwed into the metal gearbox casing and the top part with plunger completely loose. I spent a while working out how I could unscrew the plastic part from the gearbox – it had snapped inside the casing so there was no way to grip it from above. Some cruiser friends in the marina lent me a releasing drill bit, which turns the opposite way to a normal drill bit and as you turn it it grips and you wind out what ever is stuck. I gave this a go with a hand tap as opposed to electric drill and very, very slowly began to turn the bit. Then all of a sudden DISASTER! The bit fell out of the hand tap and dropped INTO THE GEARBOX!! I could not believe it and now the worst case scenario whirling round in my mind was that Fathom would have to be towed out of the lock to a boat yard miles away, the engine hoisted out, gearbox removed and turned on its side to remove the bit. I apologise to everyone in Cullen Bay marina, and the surrounding area, for the loud expletives that could probably be heard from Dock E that morning. But what this voyage has taught me, on the many occasions when things don’t go to plan, is stop, don’t panic and put the kettle on. By shining a torch through the one inch hole in the gearbox I could just make out the drill bit leaning vertically inside the casing. Thankfully it hadn’t fallen all the way to the bottom or onto its side. I dug out a telescopic magnet from the toolbox and knew I had one attempt to try and pull it out. If the bit fell on it side it would never come out of the hole. Gingerly I lowered the magnet into the gearbox and felt it grab the bit, very slowly and with a shaky hand I raised it up and to my great surprise the bit came out perfectly! Lucky lucky boy, disaster averted! My marina neighbours suggested I go and do the lottery that evening. The problem still remained of how to remove the plastic from the thread of the gearbox and in the end I managed to do this by pushing a blade of a pair of scissors into the plastic and unscrewing as I applied downward pressure so they gripped. Should have done this in the first place! A new dipstick was ordered, the last one in Australia that matched the gearbox model as it turned out, and would be sent up from Melbourne. I really should have done the lottery that night.
The second thing that didn’t go to plan was the mainsail. I picked it up from Gary the sailmaker after he completed the repairs and that afternoon set about installing it back on the mast and boom. While putting the battens back in I gently straightened out a kink and immediately a 6 inch tear appeared! It was now evident that the sail cloth had deteriorated significantly and was incredibly weak. I called Gary and he told me he was unfortunately too busy to make a new sail but I could bring it back and he would have another look at it. The other sailmaker in Darwin was also too busy. Back at the sail loft Gary had a look and confirmed the sail was well and truly shagged. Thankfully he changed his mind and in view of my itinerary to cross the Indian Ocean before the next cyclone season and told me he should be able to make a new mainsail within 7 days. A big hit to the wallet but with something so important this was definitely a blessing in disguise.
True to his word a week later the new sail was ready and I installed it without any issues. I had asked Gary to install 4 reef points in view of the potentially stormy weather ahead and because there is no trysail onboard. The last job remaining was to clean the hull. The good point about jumping over the side in the marina is that there are no crocodiles or sharks to eat you, the bad point is that there isn’t a big flow of water and its a marina and despite not being allowed i’m sure some ‘things’ end up in the water…. But with such a long way to go I needed a clean hull so spent a few hours diving on the hull at the dock. Thankfully only some slime to clean off so not too difficult but it was not a pleasant experience. I write this many weeks later and am still alive so as they say in Darwin “no worries”. A final food shop, top up with diesel and water and Fathom was ready to tackle another ocean. After checking out with Customs I walked down to the beach that evening and stood on the rocks to watch my last Aussie sunset. I had seen so many over the last months it was hard to believe that this was the last one. Sailing single-handed from Sydney all the way up and across to Darwin had been quite a challenge and harder work than I had envisaged but a memorable experience nonetheless. Such a bloody huge country I was well and truly done with coastal sailing for the time being and ready to be heading out to open ocean once again.