Clearing out of Australia is a pretty straightforward process, unless like us you’re going to be gone for more than 12 months, in which case apparently you need an official “Export Declaration Number” for the boat. We’re told that trying to organise this yourself is akin to being dumped blindfolded in the wilderness without a compass. So we take the advice from customs and hire the services of a local agent, Damien, from Alpha Cargo Solutions who does the paperwork for us in a blink of an eye. Then it’s off to Marlin Marina to await the arrival of Border Force for our clearance. Apparently they need three officers to ensure we leave the country, but it takes all of five minutes and we’re done.
Then comes the hardest part – saying goodbye to Nick who’s come bearing flowers and a beautiful card for my birthday. The farewells are heart-wrenching and don’t get any easier no matter how many times we do this. Blinking back tears we motor out to the channel and then go through the routine of raising the mainsail.
Immediately we see we have a problem – during our stay in Cairns we’d taken the sail bag off to do some repairs, which meant undoing the reefing lines and the lazy jacks to slide the bag out. Somewhere in the process of re-assembling everything we’ve missed running the first reefing line through the cringle at the back of the sail. The only way to rectify it is to drop the sail and run it correctly. Ok no problem, except now we’ve left the shelter of the inlet and the wind is blowing a steady 25 knots. We lower the sail which is when problem no 2 emerges – we must have also missed one of the lazy jack attachments when we inserted the batten back through the sailbag, because now one of the lazy jack lines is swinging free, the bag has spilled the sail all over the Bimini roof and we have a right royal ‘fustercluck’ on our hands. The only way to fix it is to turn back, or find shelter in the lee of Cape Grafton approximately 3 miles ahead.
Never ones to admit defeat we soldier on, Bruce hanging on to the loose lazy jack while I grit my teeth and steer into the short choppy seas, wincing as I listen to the sail scrape and slide over my newly repaired and washed bimini canvas. Those three miles seem interminable but finally we make it to shelter, drop the anchor and start to sort out the mess. At this point Bruce is muttering about selling the boat and buying a caravan, and we’re both questioning our sanity. We fix the reefing line and the lazy jack line, but now we have a third problem. The bimini top is ripped in several places from the sail and reefing blocks sliding across it. Taking it off to sew patches is going to take way too long, so we macgyver it by cutting the patches and gluing them on. It’s now three hours since we left the marina and we’ve travelled precisely 8 miles. Not exactly our best effort! While the glue dries we take the opportunity to have some lunch, and a celebratory beer to toast my birthday. Ha!
With our composure somewhat regained we set off again and all is now well – except the wind is forward of the beam and we’re bouncing and bumping across a lumpy beam sea. But we’re fast. We’re flying along at 9-10 kts with one reef in the main and half the jib and despite our slow start we cover 176 NM in the first 24 hours. As we near the limit of Australian territorial waters we get a fly-past from the Border Force plane – geez these guys really want us gone! They call us up to confirm our identity and that we’re still headed to PNG, wish us a good day and they’re off. Now it’s just us out here in the Coral Sea, with the occasional cargo ship trundling past. Oh, and a booby bird who hitches a ride on the bow during the night. The wind and swell ease and the next two days are good fast sailing, averaging close to 200NM per day. In fact we need to slow down to avoid coming into the Louisiades at night-time so we furl up the jib and we’re still doing 5-6 kts.
As we approach the islands we have to traverse Jomard Passage, a very busy shipping lane. It’s 3am and my watch (of course!) and suddenly the screen is lighting up with a zillion AIS targets (Automatic Identification System for ships) – there’s 5 big Chinese fishing trawlers in my path, 3 cargo ships coming down through the channel and another 7 coming up. It’s like rush-hour in George St, and I’m the piggy in the middle. I decide speed is of the essence so I pull out the jib and pick my way through like a fox evading the hounds. I breathe a sigh of relief once we’re clear of the channel and give myself a little pat on the back for not needing to wake Bruce up. This, I’m sure, is only a taster of what to expect once we get to the Singapore Straits.
As dawn breaks we see the outline of the low-lying Duchateau Islands to the east of Jomard Passage – these are the uninhabited islands of the Calvados chain, which will be a good first stop to rest up for a couple of days. It’s taken us 2 days and 21 hours to cover 510NM and we definitely need some uninterrupted sleep and some chill-out time after the past few hectic weeks.
The entrance through the reef is wide and pretty straightforward and we put the anchor down just off the beach at Kukulaba Island. It’s gorgeous with white sand and clear aqua water, just what we’ve been dreaming of. Welcome to the Louisiades!