23 May 2007—30 June 2007
Nowhere to go.
I had five days until I needed to take my final course of vaccines and they had to remain refrigerated at the Airlie Beach Pharmacy. I gave myself this time to find another yacht before moving on and continuing the search. Once again I was scribbling over photos and posting them at the yacht club and marina. The most logical solution was to pick up a boat en route to Darwin to join the Darwin to Kupang rally or the Darwin to Ambon Yacht Race—both set to depart Darwin July 21. Getting to Darwin with time would be my best opportunity to get to Asia via Indonesia—140 yachts are entered in these events this year—but it was essential that I grab a ride on one of the boats coming up the east coast, because it would take a super-human effort to get there on time cycling.
I flicked through the crew book in the Airlie Beach Yacht Club and found one entry dated a week prior by a guy called Grant. He was sailing over the top end to Perth and looking for crew. It took a couple of days to get through, by which time he was in Townsville and on the verge of departing for Cairns. He gave me the ok and said to be in Cairns in four days.
By the time I took my last shots I was out of time. So unfortunately to make the yacht before it set sail I was left with no choice but to catch a bus from Townsville to Cairns (300 km), which was a decision I didn’t take comfortably. I simply couldn’t miss the opportunity to get to Darwin to join the rally; the alternative may have resulted in me failing to find a ride out of Australia this season, and I wasn’t going to sacrifice that for an insignificant section of Queensland highway that will be double backed on my return anyway.
Meanwhile In Cairns, unbeknown to me Grant was trying to sort out the generator, which was currently out of action. He was now waiting for a part to arrive from the States, which could have meant Wednesday or Wednesday in three weeks. Grant was a 50-something-year-old New Zealander who’d clearly made a packet with several enterprises over the years, including construction. But he spoke most enthusiastically about his business rounding up wild dear by helicopter to sell to graziers for breeding and harvesting. Grant had close to no experience sailing but he’d just spent $515,000 on a 3-year-old, 43ft catamaran (Nowadays), and was on his way to Perth to meet family. Also on board was Marcel, a 20-year-old German backpacker with some experience. Grant had recruited Marcel from a hostel in Airlie Beach to show him the ropes, so to speak. Grant was also seeking crew, girls only, and various young backpackers were responding. The problem was that they were saying yes to everybody and before long we had a crew of eight but six was the optimum amount on that boat. They put pressure on a young Swiss girl and she left. Then they tried to dump Emily (19, British backpacker), but she wouldn’t budge. Next they worked on me but I wasn’t going anywhere unless I found an alternative.
The prospect of departing Cairns was (possibly) imminent so I remained productive. At the bank, after mentioning the journey, the young Korean employee told me to go to the Japanese restaurant and visit a guy called Sammy. I crossed the road, walked to the end of the block and around the corner. The restaurant was closed but the door was ajar so I entered. An agile and fit looking Japanese man appeared from the kitchen. I guess he was in his 60s. He had long hair tied back in a ponytail and a friendly aura.
‘Are you Sammy?’ I asked.
‘I was told to come and see you.’
I told Sammy what I was up to and he broke into a big smile. He showed me to a wall where he had half a dozen enlarged photos of various Japanese adventurers—friends of his—trekking to the poles, and cycling and kayaking through remote parts of the world. He’d captioned the photos and remarked about one guy that had died after falling into a crevasse in the arctic. After some chitchat he pulled out a thick pile of 8 x 10” photos and handed them to me. The photos were of Sammy and friends undertaking amazing bicycle journeys around the world, but many of the photos were of Sammy himself taken on his great bicycle odyssey. At 26 he departed Japan on an eight-year journey around the world that took him through 70 countries. There was Sammy dragging his bike through the Sahara, and again in the foothills of the Himalaya… Sammy handed me a glass of Coke as I scanned around the restaurant. Opposite, taking up half the wall was a massive National Geographic map of the world. He showed me his route, which was as proportionally big as the map. Although he’d experienced much of the world he lamented that he hadn’t had the opportunity to travel Russia or China (it was impossible in those days). He still plans to cycle them today.
Miraculously, the generator part arrived Fed-Ex from the States a day early. It was installed, the crew was on board, a month of supplies stocked, and we were set to go, then the generator failed again and we were back on standby. God, this could go on forever! I had to be in Darwin by early July to find a boat and to organize the paperwork. To complicate matters further, Grant had no itinerary and made it perfectly clear that he had no clear plan—we could arrive in three weeks or six—and everybody was receiving different information regarding his intentions.
Around this time I met Fredrick, a Fiji born New Zealander who was sailing to Darwin to join the rally. He was legging it there because his yacht (Endless Dream) needed work. He was by himself and was seeking help to negotiate the Great Barrier Reef and the shipping channels, and to share night watch. He was aiming to get to Darwin by July 2, which meant there was going to be a lot of sailing around the clock. I half-heartedly turned down the opportunity, reluctant to get aboard another single handed vessel; however, Fredrick didn’t need crew until Lizard Island, several days north of Cairns, so I had time to see how it would pan out on Nowadays.
The electrician returned and rectified the problem with the generator and by midday, June 7, we were under sail and taking advantage of the SE trade winds. Catamarans may not be as much fun to sail as mono-hulls but they’re a lot more comfortable to live on due to their upright position and added space. I spent a lot of time lazing on the trampoline, watching the numerous islands of the Great Barrier Reef pass by. We made a brief stop in Port Douglas to collect the remaining crew. On board was Grant, Marcel, Emily, Isabel (32, German), Celia and Georgie (both 21, British), and myself.
That night we anchored in a spectacular bay at Cape Tribulation, surrounded by deep green mountainous jungle. Grant woke early and bad-tempered. Before any of us had risen, he’d raised the anchor and was motoring out of the bay with the tender in tow—he hadn’t bothered to winch it up on the davit. Bewildered, I looked at Marcel, ‘Why are we dragging the tender?’
‘I’ve already told Grant but he won’t listen.’ Marcel said, with a shrug.
Needless to say that by the time we had arrived at Cooktown at midday, both side attachments had been torn from the inflatable, rubber tender due to the pressure of being dragged for hours through two meter seas. To make matters worse, the tender line, which had come loose, had now wrapped around the propeller shaft. This went a long way to cheering Grant up. It was my job to dive under, free the rope and access the damage. All was good but it was increasingly clear that when it came to sailing, Grant couldn’t tell the bow from the stern.
In June 1770, James Cook’s ship the Endeavour sustained serious damage to its wooden hull from running aground on Endeavour Reef south of Cooktown. The crew spent seven weeks on the site of the present day Cooktown, repairing their ship, replenishing food and water supplies, and caring for their sick. After some weeks, scientist, Joseph Banks met and spoke with the local people, recording about 50 Guugu Yimithirr words, including the name of the intriguing animal the natives called gangurru, which he transcribed as ‘Kangaru’. The kangaroo was first seen by European settlers on Grassy Hill during this trip. By good fortune, we had arrived on the anniversary weekend of this historic event, which is annually reenacted. The streets were alive with bands and local events such as the homebrew competition and the downhill billy-cart race (complete with plenty of stacks and injuries), and everybody (I mean everybody) was drunk. Remote and historic, there is a lot to like about Cooktown.
A few miles before arriving at Lizard Island we caught a big Spanish Mackerel. After dropping anchor Grant filleted it. Blood was dripping from the rear deck and before long we had half a dozen Black Tip Reef Sharks circling the boat, getting increasingly excited as scraps and entrails were thrown overboard. We then tied a line to the tail of the skeleton and Celia lowered the remains of the Mackerel. The sharks snapped into a feeding frenzy. They went berserk—ripping at the skeleton so hard they were jumping out of the water. This went on for several minutes while a few big fish were cleaning up the drifting scraps. These were small sharks, about two meters, but they could rip you apart in seconds. ‘Right, who’s up for a swim then,’ I asked. These animals were beautiful. The Mackerel‘s fate was the BBQ. It was superb and it provided enough meat to feed a crew of seven twice.
Georgie, Celia and I were sitting in the tender chatting and gazing at the vivid constellations above. ‘Can I ask you something? This is kind of embarrassing,’ Georgie said.
‘Knock yourself out.’
‘We’ve been talking about snorkeling here, and mmm…do you think it’s dangerous to go snorkeling when you’ve got your period?’
I thought it was a great question but the answer seemed pretty basic.
‘Are you kidding? Didn’t you see what those sharks did to that Mackerel today?’
‘Yeah, right, I thought so,’ Georgie said, disappointed.
‘Put it this way: of course you can go snorkeling, but don’t expect me to go with you. I’ll definitely watch though!’
I admit that I really don’t know anything about sharks except that a few drops of blood brought those animals in with us, and although some people say that sharks aren’t interested in human blood (which perhaps is like saying: humans aren’t interested in eating testicles—sure, but some do) It just didn’t seem to be an intelligent thing to do.
None of us knew what was going through the mind of the skipper; we were staying one night at Lizard Island then we were staying three. Frederick zipped across in the tender in the morning. He seemed to know exactly what he was doing and so did I. I turned to Isabell, ‘You should join us. You’ll be virtually guaranteed to arrive on time. There’s no way you’ll get there before the 6th on Nowadays, and besides, this guy knows what he’s doing’. She soon decided to jump ship as well. Later I was doing yoga on the beach with Celia, and then I took a walk. On my return I noticed Fredrick taking Isabell and Emily across to his yacht. I briefly thought about swimming out to the boat, which was about 300metres off shore, but a possible encounter with those reef sharks made the idea less than appealing. Then again, I’d heard no warnings about the sharks so they can’t be man killers, right? I started swimming and all the while thinking I don’t want to see any grey, shadowy shapes coming my way which is why I kept my head above water most of the swim. I reassured myself that I could always turn back, that was until I got half way and kind of nervous. Do I breaststroke and make less splash but go slower or do I freestyle and splash but go faster? I did both unable to make up my mind. 50 meters to go I hit the gas. Some say these sharks aren’t dangerous to humans, others say a shark’s a shark. Regardless, I saw these animals in action and I defiantly wouldn’t want to get into a scrap with them. (Survival theory states it’s better to make less splash.)
Endless Dream is a Radford 450: 45ft, steel, mono-hull, Australian designed and built ocean yacht. The boat was six years old although the interior was still incomplete. Frederick explained his systems on the boat, all of which were solid and logical. Isabell and I were defiantly jumping ship and to my surprise Emily had made the snap decision to join us. As it turned out no one was happy on Nowadays, though to what extent I wasn’t yet fully aware. Despite the negative atmosphere, the five of us crew were getting along really well. Celia and I went snorkeling several times over the days, which was good enough to take your mind off anything.
Grant expected me to go because of my time constraints but he’d shot himself in the foot by the way he was dealing with the others. He now had two more jumping ship and another two on the verge, and he was less than happy about it. I was packing and the girls were dividing the food while Marcel was squabbling over how many cans of Coke and casks of dreadful quality wine—known as ‘Goon’ to backpackers—we were allowed to take. Going to Endless Dream, on the other hand, was like going home. The atmosphere was relaxed and Fredrick loved the fact that crew had jumped ship and come aboard his vessel. From that point on, to everyone we met, he referred to us as the ‘jump-ship crew’ with a burst of laughter. The Endless Dream humor was infectious.
The cruising season was underway and there was a lot of sailing action about, as yachts were heading north up the Great Barrier Reef en route to Darwin to join the Rallies. Camaraderie was developing. I’d personally got to know a few boats since Airlie Beach, plus there was a lot of communication going on between the boats within our vicinity. Eighteen yachts were anchored at Lizard Island sitting out rough weather. That first night on Endless Dream several groups met on the beach in the afternoon for drinks before going to the island bar. On our return every one was pretty well inebriated, especially Fredrick. Six of us (including Gorgie and Celia) zooming along in the tender built for five, trying to workout where the yacht was while Fredrick was screaming out verses of Bob Marley’s ‘No woman no cry’. There wasn’t a single cabin light illuminating from any of the boats but that didn’t stop Fredrick, who was determined to keep the party going, from putting a call out over the net, ‘All vessels, all vessels, Endless Dream, Endless Dream. Party on board. All welcome!’ Of course, no one responded and if there were any complaints due to noise disturbance we wouldn’t have heard them through commotion emitting from Endless Dream.
Now aboard Endless Dream we had an itinerary and an ETA for Darwin (2-3 July). Fredrick planned to stop in Gove, Northern Territory, for a few days to visit family but other than that the plan was to sail around the clock and to put as much distance behind us as possible early on. Over those days the seas were fairly inconsistent but our main concern was to keep the boat on track and between the set waypoints. This is very important for two reasons: the ships and the reef. The main shipping channel that runs inside the calmer waters of the reef is used by recreational vessels like ours as well as tankers, which, from the viewpoint of a 45ft yacht, appear to be enormous. The only other option is to sail outside the reef, which most avoid due to conditions. So our job, apart from sailing, was plotting the charts every hour and sometimes half-hour in tight passages and to confirm our position with the Sea Map (computerized, GPS map), and also to share night watch.
I was becoming increasingly excited to round Cape York. I couldn’t remember ever seeing a photo of the northern point of Australia and studied the chart wondering how it was. But first we needed to get there and the Great Barrier Reef is no place to get complacent, which soon became apparent on two occasions. There were many ships moving up and down the reef, more than Fredrick had come across in ten years of sailing. One ship of concern had both green and red lights on its starboard side, which was totally confusing. They also gave no response on the radio forcing us to either change course or become tanker fodder. The following night we were on another collision course, this time with a container ship. Fredrick put out a call to ask what side the ship wanted to pass. They responded red to red, which was impossible. With further discussion it was agreed to pass green to green.
On the day of the cape we had mild seas and winds but it was overcast which concealed the coast up to Albany Island. We timed it well to sail Albany pass at high tide. Spotless scenes of tropical jungle, palms and golden beaches flanked the passage. Within the hour we’d rounded Cape York marked only by a white lighthouse. It felt good; I’d made it to the far-flung north and was finally heading west.
We anchored at the small outpost of Sacia for a night before making the crossing of the Gulf of Carpentaria. For 24hours the winds had dropped to a frustrating 5knots and seas 1-1.5metres. We were going nowhere fast but within time the winds steadily rose to 30knots and seas to 2-3metres. We had three reefs in the mainsail and the headsail was almost all in, and we were still doing a respectable 7-8knots. Half way across the gulf we were taking a pounding; 4metre seas with the occasional 5metre wave, some heavy showers and poor visibility remained all the way to Gove. It was great sailing! We spotted a large sea turtle a couple of miles from the heads and shortly after a crocodile going the same way, perhaps in hot pursuit.
All I knew about Gove was that it was in Arnhem Land and therefore had a large aboriginal community. What I didn’t know until I saw it loom out of the night sky like a great, dirty Christmas tree was that Gove—located 10 km west of Nhulunbuy—is the location of a massive Bauxite mine and Alumina refinery (Alcan Gove, subsidiary of Alcan). I was told some of the Aboriginal community—but not all—are getting filthy rich in the process as beneficiaries of land right treaties. Fredrick had worked there and through a friend of his we visited the workers village twice. 2000 people warehoused in 2000 tin containers. The money may be good but the workers I saw returning from their 12-hour shifts resembled zombies. Some routinely go straight to the village bar after their shift purely to get drunk. Being there, it wasn’t hard to see why.
Since I was there I took a tour of the mine and refinery. This began with a video, which consisted of about 10% on safety for visitors, 30% on the complex process of extracting alumina from bauxite ore, and 60% propaganda on mine rehabilitation. The information presented was highly exclusive. The mine does have a rehabilitation process but that’s only part of the story. It didn’t take long—a few drinks at the yacht club with an Alcan employee—to hear stories of illegal burning of dangerous oils at night to hide black smoke, and dumping of wastes into the ocean via the water treatment facility.
‘They use two types of fuel to heat the boilers,’ I was told. ‘Day fuel, a more refined fuel that releases less emissions and clear smoke, and night fuel, crude oil/liquefied coal/bunker fuel…it’s buck cheap and it’s the only place in Australia, I think the world, they burn crude oil to heat boilers’. He went on, ‘sometimes the refinery emits SO2 (sulphur dioxide). You only ever smell it once, the second time you’re gone. SO2 is serious shit, ay!’
Of course, if the tour guide knew any of this we weren’t going to hear about it. ‘Only sea water returns to the ocean, however it’s a bit warmer, about 40c,’ the tour guide explained, referring to the water treatment facility. She went on to illustrate the virtues of this nature altering process, ‘It’s great for fishing. The barracuda love the extra warmth’. In light of the claims made by the Alcan employee—should a great-whopping industrial plant fail to be a sufficient deterrent—I wouldn’t be eating barracuda or anything else that comes from that bay.
During our final night in Gove we had a communal BBQ with the other crews, suffice to say we all woke hung-over which we partially cured with a breakfast of bacon, eggs and horrible canned spaghetti. This wasn’t helped by our 7:00 a.m. departure. The Wessel Islands stretch northeast from the main land like a spit of land for almost 100 Nm. To pass west you either have to take the extended passage over the top or pass through the Hole in the Wall: a natural break like a corridor, about 40 meters wide and 2 Nm long. There’s no room for error, so to do this, the conditions have to be right and it’s necessary to run the passage at high tide. It was a beautiful day sailing. Once the yacht was set it required almost no adjustment leaving her crew to laze on deck and admire the craggy cliffs as the abundant islands drifted by. Once through the Hole in the Wall, we came south a few miles and dropped anchor by a beautiful white beach. At dusk we went ashore for a swim and to collect oysters. Life was pretty good.
By the next day, five other yachts had arrived and the winds were blowing a gusty 30 kn. No boats were moving and neither were we. The next passage was going to be up to 48 hours, and if you can avoid taking a beating you may as well. We did an oyster hunt in the morning, then I took a long walk along the beach. I found a fresh water stream and a water hole deep enough to take a dip—a perfect setting to relax if it wasn’t necessary to remain vigilant for crocodiles. A small group had taken a walk to the Hole in the Wall and seen a three-meter croc’ in one the inlets. We had another communal BBQ, this time on the beach, and naturally talk of crocodiles arises.
‘You see,’ says William, from Silent Wings, ‘a croc’ only needs to eat once a week so he has the whole week to plan dinner. He’ll sit and watch you go to the beach for a swim, then he’ll watch you do the same thing the next day. On the third day he knows your routine and will take you out, drag you away and store you under a log for a few day to soften you up…he’ll eat your guts first ‘cos that’s already soft but the rest of you he’ll let rot for a while.’
Although this isn’t exactly ground breaking news the topic of conversation has relevance in the Northern Territory, and now that we’re here, it’s prudent being mindful of the perils of the land. As Fredrick says, ‘You don’t fuck around in the Northern Territory.’
The BBQ was going well. We cooked, ate, drank and chewed the fat. In our company were two 60-year-old English guys from a catamaran called Island Fling. We first met them in Sacia. They had been on the sea for two years, which may or may not explain why on this night they were squabbling like an old married couple. One was drinking profusely and eating fish, trying to force-feed his mate who wasn’t drinking and becoming increasingly annoyed because he ‘doesn’t eat fish’. We had a bonfire blazing and Fredrick was playing the usual covers on the guitar: Sail Away With Me Baby, David Gray; Hallelujah, Leonard Cohen (the Jeff Buckley version); etc. then he got onto his ad-lib stuff—always about our story (the jump ship crew) and the stories around us. Before long the Englishman had knocked back a full bottle of rum and was making a fool of himself falling over people and speaking rubbish until his mate dragged him away. Naturally, conversation swung towards crew dynamics and how it would be sailing with a-bottle-a-day-boozer.
The gale force winds remained, plus showers and again no boats were heading out except Island Fling, which unsurprisingly had raised anchor at 4:00 a.m.—I hate to think how he was feeling in those seas. I took advantage of another day of solitude to explore the coastline, this time south. I walked miles along this beautiful, changeable landscape: rocky outcrops, strewn and pilled boulders, white sandy beaches followed by beaches of shell and corral, windswept sand dunes and mangroves. Further, the sand appeared solid but it sank like snow. It was as if I was the only person to ever go there. This is a part of the world only accessible by boat and it is conceivable no one had been there for a very long time. I couldn’t see any signs of crocs but I was weary. It was a place I needed to be.
By the third night the gale had intensified. We spoke about the need to be aware of our position should we shift in the night. I asked Fredrick if he uses the GPS alarm but he quickly brushed it off as ‘another useless gadget’. I silently disagreed because I’d already experienced the benefits of the gadget on Seawanhaka. We were all asleep when a call came through.
‘Endless Dream, Endless Dream, Salewa.’ Now I was half asleep. ‘Endless Dream, Endless Dream, Salewa. Copy.’
The call went out twice more before I managed to drag myself up to take the radio. ‘Salewa, Endless Dream. Come in.’
‘Endless Dream you are dragging anchor, you are dragging anchor.’
‘Roger that. Thanks Salewa.’
I woke Fredrick then climbed out to the cockpit. We’d dragged 150 meters in 10minutes and were heading straight for an island. If it wasn’t for the skipper of Salewa needing to take a midnight leak we could have run aground. Fredrick and Emily sat up for at least an hour trying to figure out how to set the GPS alarm—they never did work it out. The moral of the story is that if someone rights-off a very useful technology as a ‘useless gadget’, it probably means they haven’t figured out how to use it yet.
We departed early and it took 33 hours sailing through lumpy seas to arrive at our next anchorage, Malay Bay. The next night we were at Black Point. The skies were clear, bringing about temperate days and cool nights. We had less than 48 hours to go and we were bringing her home. Everyone was in high spirits with Darwin just over the horizon and for me a new chapter. Two hours prior to dusk we pulled in a large Queen Fish. We hadn’t caught a thing on Endless Dream despite casting double lines most of the way and loosing several expensive lures. The timing was spot on.
It was a beautiful fish, and big, but it was hard to admire it in its present condition—slapping around on the deck with a gaff hooked through its head and blood oozing from its mouth. I’ve always hated the sight of a suffering animal, made all the worse by Fredrick’s failed effort to finish the job with a flexible filleting knife. Isabell, troubled by the scene also, was urging the skipper to make it quick.
Fredrick gave up on the knife. ‘Get me that bottle of rum,’ he called.
I thought he was going to knock it over the head. Emily bought out the bottle.
‘Right, I’ll hold it, pour a bit into the gills,’ he said, struggling to get the fish into position. ‘No, No! Don’t do that. Pour some into the cap first. Don’t waste it.’
They eventually got a shot of rum into the gills and the fish went limp.
‘That kills them instantly,’ said Fredrick proudly.
‘How does that work?’
‘I don’t know but I learnt that technique in Fiji.’
I’m not convinced it works, however, because sometime later the fish started slapping around again—more than could conceivably be explained as twitching nerves. I think the bottle over the head would have been more practical.
We had the fish but no BBQ onboard. Never the less the skipper whipped up a great Lau-Lau (coconut curry) made with fresh roasted and hand ground spices. The sea was almost dead calm and the blood red sun disappearing beyond the horizon as we sat around the deck eating the Lau-Lau. It was a perfect end to a crossing of the Top End. All that remained was one more night sail and we’d be in Darwin by the morning. Two vessels, 24 days, 1,357 Nm of remoteness and isolation, other than Cooktown, which is practically the end of the line in Queensland, we came across a mere two frontier settlements. It’s impossible but to realize how special this part of the world is. There is virtually nothing up here, except wilderness, beautiful wilderness.