The Hard Yards

Spoiler alert: Despite the deafening silence on the blog for the past few months, we made it back to Australia in one piece! It’s just been a very, very, busy few months…. 

As it turned out, our last long passage on Toucan was one of the hardest we’ve done, both physically and emotionally.  Knowing we were selling the boat was a tough emotional gig – we wanted the trip to be pleasant, not only for our sakes but also for the boat because we were anxious to deliver her home in the best possible shape. But as it turned out, the challenging conditions meant we were on tenterhooks most of the time.

We were also stuck between a rock and a hard place with our timing. We needed to get home before the south-easterly winds kicked in (traditionally at the end of April when cyclone season ends). Go too early and you risk the chance of being caught in a late cyclone; too late, and you have the headwinds to contend with.  We’d also had to change insurance companies and our new insurance started on 15th April and only covered us for Australian waters, so we really needed to be in or near Thursday Island by then.  Which all meant that after checking out of Sorong at the end of March, we didn’t have the luxury of day-sailing down the coast – we had to hightail it out of Indo waters, which meant….(ominous music)…. overnight passages.  Sailing at night in Indonesia is hazardous, to say the least. Apart from all the plastic garbage and stray fishing lines, there are unlit FADS (fish attracting devices) which are usually large wooden or bamboo platforms sometimes anchored miles offshore in ridiculously deep water, and of course the myriad fishing boats.  All of which do not make for relaxed night watches.

We retraced our route to Triton Bay on the SW coast of West Papau, where we’d had such fabulous diving last year. This time, all we could afford was a brief overnight stop before tackling the next long leg – 358 nm to the northern entrance of Dolak channel, which provides a short cut through to the Arufura Sea and Thursday Island.  We motor-sailed most of the way, copping the all-two-frequent squalls which became a feature of this trip.

Approaching the entrance at night (of course, says Murphy) our screen lit up with a myriad AIS targets – the local fishing fleet.  Thankfully, it’s now law in Indonesia for all vessels to carry AIS, but it’s often not clear which are the fishing vessels and which are their net markers, or even whether they’re underway or at anchor.  We gingerly picked our way through the fleet and dropped anchor in a spot we thought would be out of everyone’s way so we could wait for the tide and daylight to navigate the channel.

The northern side of Dolek channel, chockers with fishing vessels! The blue triangle is us.

Dolak channel looks skinny on the map, but it’s actually very wide although not very deep, and the strong tidal flow means timing it well if you want to make any headway.  We had to wait until mid-afternoon for a favourable tide but it got us to our first stop at the fishing port of Wanam by dusk.  

The wharf at Wanam
The by-now-all-too-familiar Indo fishing vessel

Before we even got the anchor down, we were approached by an official looking boat carrying several people in uniforms. Uh oh.  We’d checked out of Indonesia in Sorong, so we weren’t sure if we’d be read the riot act for stopping (in Australia, once you check out, you’re not allowed to stop anywhere).  But these guys were super friendly – they checked our papers, took the obligatory selfies, and then asked for “a souvenir”.  We were genuinely puzzled – we offered them our “boat card”, beer, even our old Aussie flag, but all were politely declined.  Perhaps it was money they were after, but in the end they were content with taking some of our empty and unwanted jerry cans off our hands. 

Our friendly welcoming committee at Wanam

 It took us another full day to wend our way down the channel, dodging floating logs and debris, and then at first light the next day we made it out of the very, very, shallow bar across the entrance (less than a metre under our keel, even at high tide!).  We’d been poring over the weather charts for days, trying to pick the best of a bad bunch of weather windows.  But all our efforts were in vain, because the wind we got was nothing like the forecast.  Instead, it was from the SE and strong, so we pounded through the breaking waves across the bar, hoping and praying that we didn’t break anything.  We’d already had one incident during a squall on the approach to Dolak, where the clew of the mainsail (the bottom bit at the back) disintegrated, so we were now having to sail with one reef in the main.  As it turned out, we didn’t need any more sail up – the next 3 days we pounded to windward, experiencing squall after squall after squall, all the while trying to dodge fishing boats.  It was akin to a game of space invaders – just when you thought you had a clear run, another half a dozen boats would pop up on the AIS, forcing us off course yet again.  One very large fishing vessel was dragging nets that stretched 8 nm!!! I kid you not.  

Fishing vessels with nets everywhere, and always just where we wanted to go. The diagonal line across the left lower corner is our intended route, but we were frequently forced off it by the fishing fleets.

We’d hoped to get checked in at Thursday Island before the Easter weekend, but we watched helplessly as our ETA got longer and longer.  At one point, it looked like we were heading to Weipa because it was the only course we could hold.  To say we were not happy campers would be somewhat of an understatement. The squalls were relentless and brutal, packing punches up to 40 kts and it was impossible to stay dry in our cockpit.  Bruce even seriously contemplated turning back and heading to Darwin……

The squalls came through with monotonous regularity

We made it to Thursday Island on Easter Friday morning.  My log entry says ” I’ve never been happier to see land”. 

Land ho!

 But our celebrations were a bit premature – the authorities refused to clear us in outside of normal business hours, which meant waiting at anchor all weekend, looking longingly at the pub ashore and rationing out our last remaining beers.  Welcome to Australia! 

During the passage, the alternator on the starboard motor had also given up the ghost.  Normally, we’d easily charge our batteries from the solar panels, but with the overcast and unsettled weather we were experiencing we didn’t fancy our chances of getting to Cairns with only the one small alternator on the port engine.  There was nothing available in Thursday Island, so we called our eldest son, Nick, in Cairns and champion that he is, he organised for a new alternator to be flown up asap. It still took several days, but finally by the end of the week we were ready to head south.

When we were finally allowed ashore, we enjoyed a few days of R & R at Thursday Island
That first drink at the Grand Hotel was just…grand
Toucan at anchor, Thursday Island
Green Hill Fort, built to deter the Japanese in WWII
The sea turtle sculpture on the foreshore, highlighting the importance of these animals to the traditional livelihood of the Torres Strait islanders
Not a sign you’re likely to see anywhere else in Australia

After leaving Thursday Island, we were desperate for just one good sailing day, but it wasn’t to be.  The first 24 hours we motored most of the time, and then the wind built (on the nose, of course) and the squalls started rolling in again.  

Here comes another one…

By nighttime of the second day, with the wind now a steady 20-25 kts accompanied by torrential rain, we’d had enough and took shelter behind Lloyd Island, near Lockhart River.  The wind and rain continued all night. The next morning it seemed to have settled, so we upped anchor and poked our nose out from behind the island, only to get slammed by another 40 kt squall…. back to the anchorage we went with our tail between our legs. Finally, we got going late in the afternoon and headed down the outside shipping channel between the reefs to get a better wind angle – it didn’t help much and the short, sharp seaway left us pounding uncomfortably to windward.  We also discovered that neither our lower navigation lights or the tricolour on top of the mast were working, after two ships called us up to let us know. Terrific. Thank goodness they could at least see us on AIS.  The pounding became so uncomfortable that we decided to make the risky move of cutting through the reefs to get to the inside channel.  We used our satellite charts to guide us and got through safely, but conditions were no better on the inside of the reef.  We even tried to heave to at one point (which is essentially a manoeuvre to stop the boat) but we obviously didn’t have the technique down pat as we were still doing 3 kts towards the reef, in the middle of a 40 kt rain squall.  Good grief, how much more of this could we bear?  Finally, we inched our way to the protected anchorage of Stokes Bay in the Flinders group of islands and dropped the anchor with a sigh of relief.

Our tortuous route to the Flinders group of islands, dodging reefs and squalls

Our problem now was that the SE winds were forecast to remain strong for the next week at least, and maybe beyond.  How long could we hunker down at Stokes Bay? It’s a completely uninhabited island with no means to re-supply. We’d only provisioned for a week at maximum, thinking the trip to Cairns would take no more than 3 days.  We went to sleep that night feeling miserable  – we were so close and yet so far.  

The next morning, I was up before dawn as usual and decided to check the weather one more time.  Lo and behold, the forecast had changed and it looked like we had a window to get to at least Cooktown and perhaps Cairns.  The next 36 hours the wind died completely so we motored – frustratingly slowly (at least it wasn’t 40 kts and raining)….but our slow progress  meant our weather window was closing fast. By late evening, the wind and squalls returned and our last night at sea was one to remember, for all the wrong reasons. They don’t call it Cape Tribulation for nothing. To get any angle at all, we had to tack backwards and forwards across the busy shipping lane.  Another nasty squall had us trying to put a second reef in the main on the edge of the shipping lane while half a dozen huge behemoths rumbled past us.  And then there was the fishing boat without AIS that nearly ran us down…..

It seemed like every single mile of the passage was hard won, but finally, on 27th April, after almost a month since leaving Sorong, the welcome sight of the distinctive Yorkey’s Knob came into view, and before long we entered the calm inlet leading to Bluewater Marina, Cairns.

Approaching Yorkey’s Knob
The welcome sight of Bluewater Marina, just ahead
Time for a new sail bag after the old one took a beating

What a relief! And what a joy to be reunited with Nick and Sally, and later in the week Rob and Teneile.  It was wonderful to have the family together again, and boy, was it good to be on dry land!

8 Replies to “The Hard Yards”

  1. What a great read (and congratulations on winning the battle with the elements). Once more I found myself with one tab of your blog, and another of Google maps, following the incredible journey.

  2. oh boy Di. That passage was an endurance.. It must have been terrifying some of the time being at the mercy of the elements like that. You can’t pull over until it passes! I’ve had moments like that but not on such an epic scale!
    At least that’s behind you now. You won’t miss the scary bits! Good luck with your return. Home awaits!

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