June 8, 1984 we departed Cairns early. By keeping a close watch on the range lights astern, cautiously we negotiated the long, narrow fairway dredged through the expansive shallows and obscured by murky water. The 20-knot trade winds laced with slanting rain lashed out fiercely.
The mountains surrounding the city are largely responsible for the local copious rainfall and the corresponding densely vegetated rain forest. As the moisture laden trade winds strike the hills, they are lifted and cooled adiabatically below the saturation point. Clouds and rain ensue. How the tourist brochures could proclaim the city of Cairns as "The Sunshine City" defied the imagination.
Beam trawler at dawn.
Once away from land, Suka turned downwind and ran northward, wing-and-wing. Within a few hours she had left the cloudy gloom far astern, and now sailed beneath sunny skies. Later that afternoon she rounded Low Islet's coral reefs, motored toward shore into its lee, and set her bower into 12 feet of water. The German yacht Hasardeur and the South African one Tenacity had arrived earlier. The Swedish yacht Crypton, the Americans aboard Joggins, and the Brits aboard Quark arrived later. All were bound across the Indian Ocean, and would be traveling more or less together in the ensuing months.
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Here I spent a few hours effecting repairs belowdecks. In order to prevent the propeller from free-wheeling as we sailed, I would stop the prop by gripping the shaft tightly in my hand. Then I would brace a stick between the hull and a bolt on the prop shaft. I had tied a lanyard between the stick and the hydro-lift muffler support, to prevent the stick from dropping into the bilge, which was deeper than an outstretched arm. But while making way into this anchorage I had tried a new method of removing the shaft stick: starting the engine and throwing the transmission quickly into reverse. At that, the stick's cord had somehow wrapped round the propeller shaft, only to rip away the muffler support. This called for rebuilding the wooden framework, and fashioning a new shaft-stop stick. And while I was at it, I removed and re-caulked the cockpit drain that had been leaking into the engine compartment. Also, because this opportunity was the first one in several weeks, I slipped overboard and scraped the barnacles, coral, and algae growing tenaciously on the propeller.
The night was somewhat rowdy; the fleet reeled to buffeting winds. Sleep came fitfully.
The 62 miles to the next anchorage required an early start. At daybreak Jenny woke me saying, "There goes Quark." I sprung out of the bunk, and started the engine. Emerging topsides, we hove the ground tackle, and brought the brig under way within minutes. Silently, Tenacity had stolen away earlier. The remaining yachts departed within a few minutes of us.
This was our first occasion to sail in the company of other boats, and we enjoyed the camaraderie, via radio. The group participation lent a great deal to the spirit of adventure.
From dead astern, the fresh trades whisked the fleet along at hull speeds throughout the day. After the eager yachts had sailed through curtains of slanting rain, they broke free into a world of sunny, azure skies, only to plunge into the next cloud burst. This was Jenny's and my first occasion to sail in the company of others, and we enjoyed the camaraderie. The group participation lent a great deal to the spirit of adventure.
Flying the big genoa poled out opposite the full main, Suka sailed the fastest she had ever sailed. The knot meter however, refused to budge over a corrected reading of 7.3 knots. While accelerating down the face of a particularly large and steep roller I remarked that obviously we were traveling faster than what was indicated. Inspecting the gauge, Jenny gave it a thwack, whereupon the needle jerked comically a few more increments across the dial.
We were not racing one another. Rather, the members of the flotilla were gleaning the utmost boat speeds because the consequences of not reaching the next anchorage before nightfall. This stretch was infested with coral reefs, and was no place to be caught groping about at night, particularly for those of us without insurance policies.
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Closing the small harbor at Cooktown, the members of the fleet followed the leads and motored cautiously ahead, wallowing in banefully choppy seas. As Suka crossed the entrance bar, her sounder indicated a mere two feet of water beneath her prancing keel.
Within the protected refuge lay 18 massive beam trawlers driveling rust stains and undulating clangorously. In five columns, these were rafted abreast one-another to a large navy ship berthed alongside a concrete wharf. The nearby turning basin was barely large enough to contain one anchored sailboat, presently in residence. So when six sailboats arrived within 10 minutes of one another, their skippers found themselves with nowhere to hide. A great deal of disorganized milling about ensued. Crews sounded the seabed and deployed anchors. Vessels drifted adversely in the current. Anchors were weighed, and the skippers resumed milling about. One yacht finally made fast its tackle fore and aft, and most of the others rafted abreast it. Meanwhile, Suka rode tenuously to her bower.
Motoring his dinghy to our group's aid, a resident yachtsman offered pilotage up the shallow river. The others took advantage of the assistance, but I demurred, feeling claustrophobic enough without risking grounding somewhere upriver. So with somewhat more elbow room Jenny and I set bow and stern anchors semi-securely mid channel.
Feeling none too impregnable, after dark we relocated and made fast alongside one of the beam trawlers. The owner of this vessel was a scruffy but amicable chap, unshaven and drunk. Somewhere within the trawler city emanated the din of what must have been a round-the-clock booze binge. Radios blared in competition with the rumbling of mammoth diesels. A schnockered deck hand retched over a nearby rail. The fleet lay interconnected rather precariously with innumerable warps, old and rotten, but the steel trawlers were so stoutly built that their skippers did not seem to worry about their vessels contacting one-another, should a mooring line part. However I had to be mindful about Suka's frail mizzen boom protruding vulnerably toward the trawler aft. Using a topping lift, I pivoted the boom high overhead and out of harm's way. Then I rigged a long wooden pole extending aft, and fastened a few empty buckets to it's inboard end. Should the pole come into contact with the trawler astern, this Rube Goldburg contraption would signal any danger threatening Suka's self-steering gear.
Midnight in trawler city.
The night was full of unfamiliar sounds. Diesel generators rumbled, strained mooring lines groaned, compressed rubber fenders grunted, and throughout the long night the fishermen's utterances identified their incessant milling-about, uneasily close at hand. Suka's motion was altogether foreign, as arm in arm she waltzed with the fleet. Her mooring lines demanded incessant adjusting, permitting us only fitful catnapping. Clearly, the brig was a misfit here; nevertheless, the place did afford her some measure of security.
With no compulsion to linger, we started the engine at the first hint of dawn, despite a vicious wind, which discouraged the other yachtees from setting out that day. And later they related dispiriting stories of mooring troubles endured throughout the day. After a long night's dreading the early morning exit across the bar, Jenny cast off and I steered along the lead markers that indicated the shallow entrance. Reaching deeper water brought genuine relief, but after Suka had sailed from under the lee of the protecting headland, green waves began erupting over her windward gunwale, and soon the spray had drenched us through.
Reaching open water, we turned downwind and steered northward. With this change in heading, the brig then ran free before the flurry, nimbly backing up and over each oncoming crest.
Navigation chart secured with a lanyard to prevent loss by a gust of wind.
A few hours into the morning a rain laden squall smashed the ketch hard abaft the beam, and sent her crew scrambling. Then even though she carried only a deep reefed mainsail and a jib, the brig continued flinging herself ahead at a prodigious speed. This was fabulous sailing. Remarkably, the trade winds had been screaming northward, paralleling the coastline, continuously for a month, rarely blowing at less than 20 knots, and occasionally like today blowing nearly twice that.