Slow passage to Darwin

Dear Reader, may I suggest you grab yourself a coffee and make yourself comfortable for this tale of a long slow passage across the Bight…


Thursday 29 September


The Arafura Sea lived up to its reputation the first night. When the tide eventually turned east, what wind there was kicked the waves up in a horrid short chop against it. The result onboard Temptress was a jerky rolling that knocked the light breeze from the jib causing it to slap and bang unhealthily. We headed up and headed up northwards time and again with small turns to starboard trying to keep some pressure in the sails, sneaking a few degrees back to port when we could until some 15 miles north of the rhumb line between Endeavour Strait and New Year Island we gybed to head south again.

A large clump of sodium lights proved not to be a well lit fishing boat but a large cargo ship “not under command”, drifting around, presumably whilst her engineers tried to fix an engine or her steering. I felt a little sorry for them, even at night on deck it is warm enough to seek out a cooling breezy spot at the edge of the cockpit; down below in the depths of an engine room it would be unimaginably hot. From time to time the ship appeared to be moving; mostly in our direction. Our courses seemed to close in like magnets, eventually after several changes of course on our part Temptress passed with half a mile or so then left the ship behind only for the watch to find that we were now slowly approaching the Carpentaria Shoal buoy. The shoal itself bore us no danger as it is some thirteen metres deep at its shallowest but a buoy big enough to carry a light that can be seen from over five miles away is! I went off watch at 4am making it the skipper’s problem; we missed it.



In the morning as I showered I wondered if we should try more sail like the mainsail, which we’d not used since arriving off Cairns, together with a spinnaker. Great minds think alike; the skipper as he made my morning coffee suggested the very same. Before breakfast we hoisted the main and poled out the jib as an easier option than retrieving the spinnaker and its sheets from the forepeak. By the time breakfast, bubble and squeak with a fried egg on top, was eaten Temptress was making almost five knots through the water on a course just twenty degrees south of the bearing to our New Year Island waypoint; finally we felt we were making progress in almost the right direction.

The breeze ever fickle and beyond our control gave up as the morning progressed and by ten thirty Temptress was motoring all sails down in flat seas. Her crew were hot with sweat pouring down their faces from the slightest exertion. In conditions like these we have to carefully monitor our fluid intake – copious glasses of isotonic drink interspersed with gulps from the water bottles we keep topped up in the cockpit stowage bags. Air temperature water is better than chilled for rehydration. We can expect conditions like these all the way to Singapore and possibly beyond.

Ships log Friday Sept 30 10:30am – position 10 57.10S 140 35.61E, distance from Cape York 114nm



Spinnaker up
Spinnaker up

Motoring continued all night until just before dawn on Saturday (October 1st) when a welcome F3-4 from the ENE sprang up. Temptress was down to quarter of a tank of diesel plus the jerry cans we carry on deck, not enough to motor all the way. As soon as there was sufficient light the skipper was woken and the sails put up, the jib poled out to starboard, the main on a preventer to stop a crash gybe which could break the boom even in these light breezes. The seas by now were flat calm just the odd awkward swell to knock the jib awry. With Temptress making four or five knots and another half knot or so of tide pushing us west it is even so going to be a long slow haul to Cape Wessel some 98 nm west not to mention hot. By seven am the aft sun shade is down to keep the low sunrays out as best we can, we debated on the dense bright blue ( actually turquoise but the skipper says that’s a made up colour) netting’s merits as a square sail!

Later in the morning as the breeze grew light the sail plan was changed; the jib was furled and up went big blue our largest spinnaker. Not quite the right direction as we were heading north west but at least Temptress was still moving just – at three knots it could be next Saturday before we reach Darwin. The first mate spent the morning making bread using the pressure cooker method as it makes big crusty loaves for about the same amount of gas as the thermal cooker method but still a lot less than the oven. The thermal cooker makes great bread but in small quantities and the downside we’ve discovered is that the lidded tin doesn’t make a good enough seal for sailing in sloppy conditions and the end result the last couple of times has been slightly soggy bread. The pressure cooker placed on the heavy frying pan cum griddle seems to work very well as a baking pan on the stove top, taking just forty minutes to produce an excellent crusty loaf.

At lunchtime we gybed back towards Cape Wessel as the wind was becoming more easterly, it’s a well practised procedure which we take at cruising speed ie slowly step by step ! Then adjust everything so both sails set well and off Temptress goes on her new course. For you sailors we do have onboard a pair of guys as well as a pair of sheets but when cruising as we only have the one pole and there are only the two of us it is just as easy to use just two spinnaker control lines. We also slightly over trim the kite so we don’t have to sit out in the sun on deck trimming it all the time – Temptress may go a tad slower but we are much cooler!

Soon though the wind died and Temptress was motoring again. There was a dodgy moment when we were taking the spinnaker down – as the pressure on the halyard was released by me the shackle holding up the snuffler gave way leaving the halyard at the top of the mast and the heavy connecting rod at the top of the snuffler nearly brained the skipper as he sat on the dinghy sorting out the foot of the sail. Fortunately it missed landing with a thump on the deck. Another task for Darwin will be to retrieve the errant halyard from the top of the mast. If we need to fly the kite again before then we’ve a second spinnaker halyard.

The maths are back always a sign that a passage is slow – 460 nm at four knots is 115 hours which is four and a bit days sailing. More importantly we need to arrive at the top of the Dundas Strait (390 nm or three days 18 hours away) when the tide is flowing north to south which apparently starts four hours before high water Darwin and turns the other way around two hours after high water Darwin. Fortunately such is the importance of the tides around here that our Queensland tide table purchased in Cairns includes more distant tidal stations like Darwin. High water Darwin on Tuesday Oct 4 is at 20:15 local time (UT+9:30), on Wednesday the high tides are 07:58 and 20:23.

Then there is the motoring maths, we took advantage of the calm waters and topped the main tank up from five of the 20l jerry cans carried on deck. There is now around 400nm worth of fuel in the tank and just 60l left in the cans. We could motor the whole way but it would an expensive trip even if we are able to purchase duty free fuel before Temptress departs for Indonesia. Another small problem is that two of the newer Jerry can caps have split, hopefully we can find replacements in Darwin.

Ships log 09:30 am Saturday 1 Oct – position 11 02.58S 138 18.21E, distance from Cape York 245 nm



Yet another glorious sunset
Yet another glorious sunset

Sunday morning dawned absolutely flat calm, we guessed so as overnight the brightest stars or planets had been reflected in the seas surface; there was no moon. Around 4am the ships log records Temptress’ passing of the Cape Wessel light, no land was sighted. The island chain it sits at the top of is long and thin, main land Australia is over sixty miles further south so no land was in sight as the sun rose.

Taking advantage of the calm seas the crew set about some household chores – sweeping the cabin soles (floors), cleaning the forward heads (bathroom) and setting a trug of laundry to soak. When we eventually arrive in Darwin we will have more than enough to do sorting out the paperwork for departure from Australia and for entry into Indonesia. And fixing things….. On the way forward to retrieve the washing line and pegs from their perch atop the wine boxes and snorkelling gear in the wetlocker the first mate noticed the watermaker wasn’t chugging away. Odd I thought as the skipper said he’d put it on after his shower. I checked the switch, it was on, I redirected the water flow to the spigot in the forward heads but it produced nothing, definitely sick! I turned everything off and reported to the skipper.

Half an hour later and the master cabin was stripped with the mattress and drawers stacked elsewhere in the boat, half the wooden board that supports the mattress removed too. Kevin with his Chief Engineering Officer’s hat on started checking the power supply at various points. After lunch the hunt for the fault went on whilst the First Mate got plenty of exercise running up and down the companionway stairs between watch-keeping on deck and turning the watermaker’s master power switch on or off. Eventually some 45 minutes later Kevin proved using a portable 12v power pack to run the watermaker that the fault lies in one of the two sets of power cables that run from the master switch to the watermaker. As the cables run from the companionway under the main cabin sole past the engine which is located under the mid ships saloon sofa then forward to our cabin it’s not a job to be done at sea in the middle of the day with the engine hot and running. To many things to have opened up including removing the heavy companionway stairs and it is far too hot. Both the smaller water tanks under the main cabin sole are full so we have 310 litres of fresh water which is more than enough to last until Darwin as long as we are careful.

Ships log 23:31 Sunday 2 Oct 10 57.14S 134 47.27E, distance from Cape York 447 nm



Thunderstorm brewing
Thunderstorm brewing

A NE’ly breeze sprung up in the night and for a few brief hours we sailed. It was good to have engine off as the boat cooled down sufficiently to make sleeping more comfortable. By 4 am however the wind had gone and it was back to using the iron sail, motoring is slower than sailing. Sunrise found us some sixty miles east of New Year Island our next way point, the tidal flow has been pushing Temptress more south rather than west requiring a few course corrections to avoid ending up in the unnamed bay that lies east of Cape Wessel. No sight of any shipping or land, we could be anywhere!

It is another 180 miles to Darwin once we reach New a Year Island. Looks like a Wednesday arrival off Darwin if the tides in the Dundas Strait are favourable when we reach it.

We ran out of onions a couple of days ago, an oversight on my part – when provisioning in Cairns I’d counted the meals ’til we reached Darwin but not added any contingency. With the delay caused by the anchor windlass failure our fresh food supplies are dwindling rapidly – one carrot and four small potatoes plus two thirds of a pumpkin and three eggs. In the ice box are a chicken breast, some beef strip (I know this as stirfry) and several bags of wahoo. The fish stocks in the ice box look to outlast the crew enthusiasm for wahoo. There are are only so many ways you can prepare wahoo or pumpkin even with a bilge stuffed with tins of meat, veg and fish. Last night was fried wahoo with mash and mushy peas (we recommend Cole’s sachets of the latter as a bit of a treat). Lunch today will be pumpkin soup with home made bread.

Over lunch we sailed but the fickle breeze faded away as quickly as it came and it was back to motoring. By nightfall serious conversations were taking place about whether there was sufficient diesel onboard to get Temptress to Darwin. The calculations say not, the prospect of trying to sail any distance in virtually no wind is a grim one. The good news was that before supper we reached New Year Island marking good progress west.

Ships log Monday 3 Oct 16:30 10 tw.79S 133 11.46E distance from Cape York 540nm



During the 1-4am watch a breeze started to fill in from the south or east south east, light but sailable. At the watch change the jib was unfurled and with the main already up from yesterday’s attempts at sailing we were soon making four knots with help from the tide. A spectacular lightening show was making its way west too but fortunately stayed over the land a few miles abeam. Temptress was sailing past the low mangrove clad Coburg Peninsula, the northern most part of the Northern Territories. One of the interesting factoids that Alan Lucas in another of his cruising guides mentions is that Australia is very flat – he states that the average elevation of the land masses of the planet is some 700m where as the same calculation for Australia is just 300m. In fact the mountains of Queensland which reach the ocean around Cairns are some of the highest land a sailor in Aussie waters will see!


By morning a brisk breeze forward of the beam had us bowling along at some six knots in flat seas, the strong flood tide giving us more than another knot. Hopefully this breeze will get us to Darwin and our fuel worries will be just that. However having arrived at the north end of the Dundas Strait a day earlier than we expected the tide turned against us as Temptress approached Cape Don. The clocks have been flogged to help with tide times – Darwin is in the slightly odd UT+9:30 time zone rather than a full hour’s difference in Cairns.

We’ve just over a hundred miles to Darwin and with shades of the power station overlooking the Alderney Race between France and Alderney, the local light house is going to be our viewing for the next several hours despite the breeze; four knots through the water, just under three over the ground an equation that is only going to get worse as the ebb progresses. The skipper pointed out that the last time we had to fight a tide like this was off the Irish coast! At least the seas are flat.

After sailing fairly fruitlessly against the tide, at mid afternoon the wind gave up. Our progress over that past few hours had mostly been sideways towards Melville Island to the west. With no other means of even standing still against two or three knots of tide the engine had to go on. The last 60l of diesel had been poured into the tank after lunch giving us half a tankful. Our first call in Darwin is most likely to be a fuel pontoon.

It set the pattern for the rest of the day, sail a bit, motor a bit. Then the wind got up enough to drop a reef in the main, we went for the 2nd one as a precaution, good job we did because a few hours later at the ten o’clock watch change the wind did some crazy things. It was a dark old night, the new moon had set soon after the sun and to the east thunder storms raged. As I came on watch Kevin was furling the jib because it was blanketed by the main after a sudden wind direction change so not doing anything useful.

Within seconds the wind gusted at 30 knots and the heavens opened. It had been to dark to even see the cloud overhead. Around us the flat seas boiled white and waves suddenly crashed against the hull. A thundery squall had caught us heading down the funnel between Melville Island and the Coburg Pennisula towards the Vernons. After a hectic half hour we got the main down – my abiding memory will be standing on the lower mast step with one foot on the next step up, hanging on to the main with both hands, a sail tie gripped between my teeth, finding myself pinned to the mast by the folds of the sail which had been blasted sideways. Kevin in the cockpit couldn’t see me enveloped in the sail and I couldn’t respond to his yells due the the sail tie, nor could I free an arm to even wave a thumbs up back to him. The boat bucked and bounced in the tempest but eventually between us the main was tamed and we headed slowly back on course in a thick tropical downpour with the wind alternating between calms and thirty knot gusts for seemingly every angle.



What now? The choices were stark; either turn north into the horrendous seas being whipped up by the strong southerly tide running against the mostly northerly winds or carry on with both driving us forward down the funnel towards the mile wide east-west running Howard Channel between the reefs and islands of the Vernon Islands. Soaked to the skin we reluctantly decided on the latter, surely the squall soon would move away west as we’d seen happen over the land on previous nights? Slowly we headed onward motoring in nil visibility, Kevin eventually decided mugs of hot tea were not working and he went to change into dry clothes to remain warm. The lightning and the heavy rains continued though wind slowly abated to more moderate and steady conditions. Our only guide was iSailor running on a towel wrapped iPad, we counted down the Abbott Shoal port hand buoy then the light houses either side of the channel, one to the south, two to the north.

Approaching the next green buoy where we’d turn south towards Darwin the AIS alerted us to a small ship heading in the opposite direction; from its course it was obviously using the same buoy as a waypoint. We altered course and they must have seen either us or our AIS transmission as they rather obligingly let us slip through close to the buoy before heading up round the north of the Vernons – local knowledge presumably to keep them out of the strong tides in the Howard Channel. Eventually around five am the rain eased and the loom of the city of Darwin started to appear ahead. We slowed Temptress to ensure that dawn had broken on Wednesday morning (sunrise wasn’t until 06:30) before we attempted to reach the shallow anchorage in Fannie Bay off Darwin. Once the anchor was set, we breakfasted and then headed to bed, it had been a long night and not one we want to repeat for a while but it was the only major squall we have ended up in the midst of since leaving Panama so we count ourselves lucky.

Ships log: Wednesday  Oct 5 o6:45 12 25.39S 130 49.07E distance from Cairns 1213nm