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Martin & Sue

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Crocodile Phobia? Escape River, Cape York and the Gulf

 

The weather window for crossing the Gulf (a notoriously rough stretch of water) looked good for 3 days time so we decided to try and try make a short dash for to Cape York – only a distance of 20nm. However, as we tried to ‘escape’ from Escape River (under the watchful eye of a cunningly hidden crocodile disguised as a log) the winds gradually picked up and we were soon getting gusts of over 25 knots. A very tentative ‘poke our nose’ out to see what the sea state was like and we very quickly decided to postpone our departure until the morrow! We radioed this information to the other boats and they took our advice and stayed put. The day passed quickly with small jobs mingled with long periods of relaxation and some more croc spotting.  

 

 

Who is this croc kidding - it might look like a log but we know better!

 

Above: A nice pair Rod!

Below: How will we find our boat?

 

At 4.30pm ‘Two Up’ (a Cat very similar in size and design to ours) was having a get together on board their boat and this was a great chance for us to meet a lot of the other cruisers – many of whom were joining the rally. By the time we were ready to head back to our boat it was pitch black – and no, not again, but we had forgotten to turn on our anchor light before leaving. Luckily it was only a very short distance and Donna from ‘Two Up’ could shine a torch over to our stern to light our way – but too bad about any crocs hiding in the darkness on route!

 

Above: The crew!

 

The next day the winds had eased and we made our escape – as did most of the other boats. In convoy we headed towards Albany Passage – a shortcut to the Cape between the mainland and Albany Island. This Passage has a reputation for having very strong currents and timing entry on a slack tide is required to avoid either a bumpy, ‘brown corduroy’ type ride against 4-5 knots of current – or worse still, a roller coaster ‘shoot’ through the passage with the strong current pushing from behind. However, on this day our timing was perfect and it was a very serene trip through spectacular scenery in company with the other boats. 

   

 

 

And then – finally – there was Cape York. This was a special milestone for all the boats - but especially for us as we had made the longest trip of them all by sailing from Port Phillip Bay. Some boats stopped and took the opportunity to anchor for lunch – and we were contemplating doing the same when the radio crackled into life. ‘Mandolin Wind, Mandolin Wind, this is Raven, Raven on 16’……’Avoid the area where we have just been – we have touched bottom and we’re lucky to get off!’ Very grateful for the warning we had a quick crew pow-wow to decide whether to stop or not. Two things turned out to be the decider in our group decision. Number 1: There was no champagne cold (‘Come on boys, whose job is it??’)  and Number 2: the radio crackled into life again and …..’This is Meridian of Sydney – we are aground’. What, not again. You will recall that this was the same boat that had the grounding troubles just recently in Escape River. Does trouble follow this poor guy around?   

 
 

 

That decided it. Not wanting to join the ‘grounding club’ – and confident that several other boats had already gone to Meridian’s aid – we pointed the nose west and continued on to Seisia – the jumping off port for the dash across the Gulf.

 

 

Left: The Cape !!!

 

Seisia had a surreal atmosphere and it was quite eerie entering the harbour as the wind had died out completely and a heavy smoke haze filled the air (apparently from the fires lit by the local aboriginals). As we made our way cautiously through the shallow channel that lead into the narrow harbour, we passed by a rickety jetty with its many children dangling their legs over the edge fishing. Other children played in the shallows along the beach front – hopefully keeping a watchful eye out for crocodiles. The surrounding landscape was dusty red and the buildings scattered along the foreshore had a decidedly dilapidated appearance. We passed a few dusty, dented 4 Wheel Drive Toyotas as we carefully dodged the several wrecked boats rotting on the water’s edge in an effort to find a suitable anchoring spot.

 

 

Just as we prepared ourselves for the big trip ashore to check out the local sites (shouldn’t take too long!) another catamaran came in and anchored behind us. The skipper obviously had suicidal tendency for we watched in stunned disbelief as he dived into the murky water to cool off. Hadn’t he heard all the warnings about crocodiles – or was he just thick. Takes all types, I guess.

 

Our exploration of Seisia, as predicted, took very little time. After heaving the dinghy up on the sand a safe distance (as we didn’t want to become crocodile bait ourselves if the tide rose and floated the dinghy out into deep water), we trudged through ankle deep red dust towards a few outbuildings. We quickly found the Service Station (closed although it was only  4 in the afternoon) and then the supermarket – which had a surprisingly good selection of goods. Prices were on the expensive side but not outrageously so considering the distance the goods had to be transported. An interesting sign inside stated that children under 15 would not be served during school hours – one way to try and get the kids into school. After a quick shop we returned to our dinghy along an overgrown, narrow path along the beach and fortunately found our dinghy still high and dry.

 

 
 

 

Our planned trip across the Gulf for the next day was dependent on the weather forecast and luckily our 3G aerial on top of the mast enabled us to download the latest from the internet. We would have liked to have visited Thursday Island (TI) whilst we were in this part of Australia for we had heard that it is a very interesting, colourful place. However, there were two major obstacles preventing us from doing so. Firstly, any yachts who visit TI or the surrounding areas are deemed from a quarantine point of view to have left Australia – and therefore have to surrender all fresh produce, canned meats and milk products on their arrival at Darwin.  Not surprisingly, this prevented any rally boats bothering. Secondly, the ferry price for the return trip from Seisia to TI was $110 per person – an outrageous amount that no self respecting Yachtie would part with! So, unfortunately, we had to scratch TI off the ‘to do’ list.

 

 

 

Next day arrived with an OK but not perfect weather forecast (when is it ever perfect?) so we set off for the 3 day trip across the Gulf to Gove. We negotiated the relatively shallow Endeavour Straits under motor as the winds were light – however, by nightfall a breeze of 15knots had arrived and we were sailing along nicely with the seas on our port beam. We had decided on two hourly watches and with the pleasant conditions it was easy travelling – especially once the moon rose at around midnight. Before then we were treated to a stunning star display in the cloudless, black sky – made even more grandiose by the dramatic music playing in our ears thanks to the ever useful iPod.

 

During the next day, between snatches of sleep during our off watch time, we were amazed by the number of sea snakes we saw floating by. From the safety of the cockpit it was hard to believe that these golden, rope like creatures carry some of the most poisonous venom in the world. By evening the wind had picked up and we put a double reef in the main – then later half furled the headie in an effort to slow the boat down. It made for a bouncy ride and it was difficult to sleep with the pounding of the waves against the inside of the leeward hull – plus the large seas meant we could not open any hatches so the cabins were fairly stuffy.

 

 

 

We travelled in a loose convoy with 3 other yachts – and had pre-arranged a twice daily radio sked between us all . It was heartening to hear that the other yachts were experiencing the same confused seas as us – and comical comments such as ‘Never look behind – then you won’t see how big the waves are!’ helped lighten the mood as the wind swung more westerly and we had to beat into the seas.

 

By daybreak on the third morning we were all glad to see land ahoy – and we were soon in the shelter of the coastline as we made the long trek past the refinery and into to Gove Harbour . As we prepared to drop the pick we were amused to find suicidal flying fish hiding in the anchor well – lucky we found those before they started to go off!

 

 

The trip across the Gulf had taken us 52 hours and we had averaged a respectable 7.2 knot per hour. Being the first of the convoy to arrive we had the luxury of a shower at the Gove Yacht Club, plus a quick cleansing ale, before being joined by the later arrivals at the bar for happy hour and the traditional meat tray raffle!

 

 

Above: the Alumina plant at Gove

  Above: ship loading at Gove
 

 

Gove Harbour sends mixed messages to boats seeking shelter. It is a very well protected, roomy bay – but has some nasty rocks that do not appear on any of the cruising charts. There is also ample evidence of past horrors – with several wreckages half submerged plus one clearly visible mast sticking out of the water – bearing testament to a number of sailboats that didn’t make it. Confident in our new Rocna anchor, we were happy to leave the boat the next day to explore the nearby town of Nhulumbuy. However, another boat (also from Melbourne) came back from their own excursion to find they had dragged several hundred metres and we were all astounded (and thankful) that they had managed to avoid hitting any of the other yachts at anchor.

 

For our ‘big day out’ we decided it was easier to hire a car as we had fuel to purchase and it was 12 km from Gove to Nhulumby. Manny, from Manny’s Car Rentals’,  duly arrived at the pickup point outside the Yacht Club as pre-arranged – and in true NT fashion gave us the vehicle with no pre-payment or deposit and no requirement to see anyone’s license! Well, the car wasn’t exactly Avis standard either – being a twin cab that had certainly seen better days. I was quite fearful of my light coloured shorts when I saw the red dust stained, torn seats so was glad we had brought along an old towel to wipe ourselves dry after the wet dinghy ride ashore.

 
     
 
     

 

A tour of the town took less than 10 minutes – there is certainly very little to see other than the lookout that gave us spectacular views across the Gulf we had just crossed. No-one was allowed to explore outside of the town without a permit and the one shopping centre (I use the term loosely) was fairly agricultural – although we did manage to find a shop that sold coffee (again, I use the term loosely as I asked for a double shot and the latte still came out a light white colour!)

 

 

 

We had been pre-warned by others that we would need to visit the Native Land Council to get permits to cruise between here and Darwin. Dutifully, we fronted up to the appropriate counter – only to walk away thinking ‘it is all too hard’. The problem was that we had to specifically name each anchorage we wished to visit (along with the exact date) – then the officer would ring each of the traditional owners to see if they would grant permission. This could take up to 10 days depending on whether a particular traditional owner was around. Having read the fine print we noted that we were free to anchor anywhere as long as we did not go ashore – so we dodged the paperwork and decided on this option.

 

 

Back at the boat – having parted with a $50 note and $5 for fuel for the hire car – we spent a relaxing afternoon onboard making full use of the phone and internet coverage.Martin also managed to find time to transform himself into 'Martina' the hairdresser to do a spot of coverup work!

Happy hour soon arrived and it was back to the club to share yarns with the other crews. The boats we had left behind at Cape York several days ago (remember the boat that ran aground) had still not arrived although we heard on the grapevine that a couple were expected the next day. Interestingly, we found out that poor ‘Meridian of Sydney’ had not had much luck when it comes to groundings – for we were shown a magazine article about a rally to the Louisiades that gave details of their being stranded on a reef for 4 days before being maneuvered to safety!

 

 

 

Sure enough we were just upping our anchor the next day when ‘Two Up’ arrived after a very rough crossing. The delay in leaving Seisia meant that they caught the full 3 days of 25+ knots and the associated rough seas.

 

And so we started our slow meandering westward towards Darwin. For the rest of this part of the trip we will only be doing short hops between secluded Islands. We have heard that the scenery is spectacular and the fishing is also ‘idiot proof’. It’s a shame we can’t go ashore for walks but never mind – there are probably crocodiles on the beaches anyway!

 

 

Right: Gove anchorage