Saturday, September 18, 2010

Sailing the Coral Coast.

Our next step was now to sail from Cairns, on the East coast of Australia, to Darwin on the North side. This meant sailing the northern part of the Australian East coast up to Cape York and the Torres Strait by sailing inside the famous Great Barrier Reef, which was made even more famous in the movie “Finding Nemo”. So while wrapping up in Cairns we were very excited and looking forward to go sailing in these paradise waters we heard so much about and anchoring on the lee of a sand island in waters so clear you have the impression the boat is floating in mid air and finally at the pinnacle of our fantasy we would snorkel among colorful corals where we would find Nemo hidden in his anemone. But we hadn’t come out of the six mile long channel leading out of Cairns that we had a very clear reality check; the wind was blowing! During the week or so we took to reach Cape York we had to sustain winds with an average speed of 25 knots going 35 knots at night. The night anchorages were by all standards the crappiest ones we’ve ever seen and consisting, in the best cases, of a sand pit sticking out of the water offering no wind shelter and barely any wave protection. We sure were sailing fast with such wind strength and that’s what we needed since the whole area is formed of scattered reefs we were forced into specific channels, which were very busy with the continuous stream of cargo ships sailing along the Australian coast. The reefs here are not coral reefs but rock reefs and while anchored in the middle of a rolly anchorage and sustaining near gale force winds the last thing that came to our mind was to put our fins and try to find Nemo in those crocodile infested waters and anyway even if he was there he would be probably suffocating in those sandy waters offering less than 10 feet of visibility. So, to say the least we were very disappointed by this part of Australia but on the plus side I should mention that reefs offer an excellent protection against the ocean swell and combined with the constant wind and currents we were making very fast progresses all the way.

I might sound a bit negative here in my description of the area but one thing we cannot take away from this part of the Australian coast is the magnificent beauty of the landscape. The high humidity level gives beautiful sunsets and the rocky shores present red, yellow and white cliffs standing straight like guardians of the sea. We took the time to take a walk on Flinders Island where I was hoping to sight some crocodiles but to Danielle’s relief we saw none :-(

After the Coral Sea we then reached the Torres Strait, which is the channel between Australia and Papua New Guinea, allowing us to transit from the Pacific Ocean into the Indian Ocean. The trick about Torres Strait is that there are islands and reefs everywhere and the water between them is very shallow. The most straight forward way to transit is to pass through the “Prince of Wales” channel keeping on port Wednesday, Thursday and Friday islands. Now here’s a little quiz for you erudite folks; on what days of the week were those islands discovered by the first explorers? The crossing of the strait went very smooth as we timed our passage with the tidal stream, which can reach up to three knots, and all we encountered along the way was actually not a cargo ship but a submarine! With 35 feet of water in the channel they obviously had to surface for the crossing.

With the Torres Strait behind us we then entered the Gulf of Carpentaria in the Arafura Sea on the North side of Australia. This is a huge shallow gulf which required about two days to cross. At this point we had given up on the idea of stopping anywhere in these deserted aboriginal lands and were sailing directly to Darwin. After the Gulf of Carpentaria we sailed, for one day, the coast of the Northern Territories then entered another gulf called the Van Diemen Gulf with tidal streams flowing up to 4 knots at its entrance and exit. This part was straight forward beside the weird gusty winds we had in the first half of the night and the daily calls from the customs plane checking our identity and whereabouts as the Australian Authorities exercise a tight control of this border used a bit too often by illegal immigrants trying to find a better life in Australia from the poor South-East Asian countries. All along the way we had to plot a detailed route to follow and plan the daily anchorages. Here you can see Danielle working on the navigation software to analyze the charts and ensuring we make the most of each day as our time window in Australia is quite limited due to the cyclone season starting in October in the area.

By lack of seeing any Kangaroos so far we took the opportunity to eat some at least! Where in the world could you find Kangaroo steaks on the shelf at the grocery store??? The meat of the marsupial was actually pretty good and we fixed it roasted in the oven with carrots and potatoes. It was yummy and tender and no, it doesn’t jump in the stomach afterward!