“Why yearn with passion and with pain
To storm the sky?
Why suffer, sullen goals to gain,
And fear defy?
"'tis not for glory or for gain
We darkly die."
“Why join the reckless, roving crew
Of trail and tent?
Why grimly take the roads of rue,
To doom hell-bent?
"Columbus, Cook and Cabot knew,
And yet they went."
“Why bid the woolly world good-bye
To follow far,
Adventurous under evil sky
And sullen star?
Let men like Mallory reply:
Because they are.”
-R. Service, Dauntless Quest
Chapter 11: Darwin
Australia's northern outpost
Suka, photo by John Houk "Joggins."
Having rounded the Cape York Peninsula we had reached the end of the continent, and at last had put the Coral Coast and the great Pacific Ocean astern. Ahead lay the shallow Endeavor Straits, leading to the Arafura Sea, far beyond which stood the Australian city of Darwin.
June 25, 1984: The wind was on holiday, so Suka's crew declared one for themselves. Ashore at Possession Island we found fresh tracks, or rather fresh furrows, plowed by big crocodiles that inhabited the island. Peppering the beaches were the smaller imprints of goannas. Persevering through the undergrowth, and circumventing the occasional 10-foot tall termite column, we climbed to the island's highest point, where a rewarding view expanded away in all directions. Far to the north we could barely discern the Papua New Guinea mainland, before which lay the 85-mile wide, island and reef festooned Torres Strait. Turning south, we could see Australia's Cape York dominating the scene with its lush green hillsides and white sand beaches. The area was remarkable in its beauty and remoteness. As yet the place was commercially undiscovered.
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The Endeavor Passage
The next morning we made sail in the company of Tenacity and Joggins, and began tracking through the Endeavor Passage. This is a safer and shorter route than the Torres Strait, as it avoids the vicious currents and the shipping lane that passes by Thursday Island to the north.
Early morning, making sail.
We passed one and half miles from Tarrau (Parau) Island, then one and one third miles from Red Wallis Island before sailing nine miles to clear the Torres banks. The sea's depth throughout the thirty mile passage averaged a scant twenty feet, but Suka did not come close to grounding, at least that we knew of.
Photo by John Houk
“Despite the fact that Suka's full complement of sails was drawing hard, and that she was laying a foamy wake well astern, we were moving backward.”
Once free of the shoals, we headed out into the Arafura Sea, now in the shipping lane - void of ships. Late evening we approached a light station, fixed to the seabed and identified on the chart, and here we noticed a strange phenomena. The tower began pulling ahead like a ship making way, and eventually it disappeared over the horizon far ahead of us. Despite the fact that Suka's full complement of sails was drawing hard, and that she was laying a foamy wake well astern, she was indeed moving backward. The culprit was the remarkably swift retrograde current. In a few hours, though, the tide changed, and later that night we overhauled the fixed light ship and made our way out into the gulf.
These waters are fraught with poisonous sea snakes, and we often saw the banded serpents slithering along the surface. Once, a large shark approached, and swam effortlessly for a few minutes pacing Suka, nose to our fishing lure. When I pulled the jig slowly ahead, the shark followed. And when suddenly I let it go, hoping to suggest that the lure was attacking the shark, the beast struck the lure mightily. The wire line jerked from my gloved hands, and the rubber inner tube, attaching the line to the primary winch, stretched nearly double its length. Then the creature was gone. I hauled in the line expecting to find it severed, but found instead that the lure was attached, although it showed deep battle scars, and its hefty steel hook had been nearly straightened. Instead of a J-hook, it was now resembled a sagging L.
Suka flying her Gennaker.
Tenacity had fallen behind, and Suka was now keeping pace with Joggins. During the night the wind lessened so we motor-sailed onward. The sat-nav had ceased to operate, so come morning I hauled Jenny aloft on the mizzen halyard, and she retrieved the unit's antenna. But try as I did, I could not persuade the diabolical machine to operate, meaning that we would have to deliver it to a repair shop in Darwin.
Calm waters, Jenny works aloft, retrieving the sat-nav's antenna.
The wind freshened enough to propel the ketch at three knots, so I switched off Perkins. But Joggins continued motor-sailing and that night pulled so far ahead that we could barely discern her masthead light on the horizon.
Well, there was nothing for it but to try to catch her. This feat required the better part of three days, and proved the most vigorous sailing we had accomplished. In markedly increasing winds we flew as much canvas as we dared, and then some. Suka, with her heavy ballast, full keel, and big three bladed propeller now dragging uselessly in the slip stream, began overtaking the more modern cruising sloop with its lighter displacement, three-quarters keel, and folding prop. Joggins was not meandering, but Suka was much the stiffer ship, meaning that she could carry more sail in heavy airs. And more power aloft resulted in greater boat speed. But of course we would have never been able to catch her had not the winds been cracking.
In the dead of night we bore down hard on Joggins, and finally passed her by. At the time we were flying Suka's big genoa, poled out opposite the full mainsail. In such boisterous conditions she was conspicuously over-canvassed. Suddenly with a BANG the genoa burst free of the pole, and began flogging violently. We ran forward and dowsed the sail, and then the pole. It seems that a carabiner, attached at the pole's eye - through which rove the genoa sheet - had exploded under the stress. We used a carabiner here to mitigate the incessant chafe. I re-fitted double carabiners, and set the sail again. But by then Joggins had passed us once again.
Stowing the genoa.
Jenny works on the jib sheet.
In ever-increasing wind and seas, we shortened sail and left the shipping lane, and steered instead for the Cobourg Peninsula. Deeply reefed, Suka sailed to weather in near gale conditions, and passed behind the peninsula several miles off-shore. We could only hope that the rigging would hold together, as our choice here seemed to be to either sail hard to weather, or to miss Darwin. The Dacron jib sheet was so taut that it felt like a steel bar. Green water cascaded onto Suka's decks, and despite Jenny and I wearing foul weather gear, the spray drenched us through.
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As always, though, Suka proved worthy to the task. She beat her way into the lee of Croker Island where, although land was out of sight, we knew we had sailed behind it because our seas reduced by two-thirds. We pointed Suka as high to the tempest as she would go, without luffing her sails, and the resulting tack delivered us to the next headland, the so-called "Port" Bremer. Joggins's skipper had not reached to weather so aggressively, as he was understandably leery of approaching the dangerous reefs that lay unseen below their horizon. Accordingly, he found himself too far off-shore to beat into our bay, in the brunt of such powerful winds. So he and Virginia decided to proceed to the next bay. Jenny and I approached this headland, and after a long series of windward tacks closed the coast, then lowered the anchor in reasonably calm water. Neither of us had slept or eaten much in the previous two days, so the respite was marvelous.
This was perhaps the most remote place either of us had been. The scenery surrounding the bay seemed timeless. Studying the countryside through the binoculars imparted the impression that time had lapsed a few hundred thousand years. Yet signs of human life were not absent. In the barely discernible distance a few columns of blue-grey smoke drifted skyward, revealing the presence of Aborigines. Perhaps due largely to fatigue, I felt no urge to venture ashore.
We spoke with John and Virginia on the VHF that evening, at our predesignated time, and they reported having reached an anchorage, but that Joggins had experienced a few near encounters with uncharted reefs within the bay. We agreed to rendezvous in Popham Bay the following evening. And John reminded us to check the water's depth beneath Suka's keel, as the tide would be dropping some 15 feet that night.
July 1: Daylight found these weary seafarers fast asleep, and in that condition we remained until the hedonistic hour of 8 a.m. I awoke confused, unable to determine where we were: a befuddled condition precipitated no doubt by the life in the fast lane. Reoriented, I rose, and we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast. We could afford to dawdle today, as Popham Bay was but 40 miles farther on.
Sailing with Hasardeur.
We took leave of the roadstead and soon encountered the German sloop Hasardeur. Together we romped happily, zigzagging around rocky shoals while watching the compelling scenery glide silently past. The wind grew light, so we hoisted the cruising chute. The afternoon was one of grand sailing in beautiful weather, and in calm, protected waters.
Sitting thoughtfully in the cockpit, I wrote in the journal:
“Sailing reputedly constitutes ninety five percent boredom and five percent sheer terror. I would allot the terror quotient six or maybe seven percent, but I find the sailing rarely boring. Even far out at sea there is always something new to experience, whether an astounding sunset or sunrise, the porpoise frolicking at the ship's bow, the strange fish hauled aboard, or the booby birds waddling about the cabin top. And at night we revel in the brilliance of the stars. How could one be bored, engulfed in such wonder?
“Anyway, sailing along this wild and forlorn stretch of coast, in the company of our German friends is a profound and delightful experience. We count ourselves privileged to be here, even though my sat-nav and auto pilot are again kaput.”
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We tacked widely and sailed into Popham Bay, located near Cape Don. Joggins was in, and Hasardeur arrived shortly.
We rose before daylight and discovered that our German friends had sneaked away. In total darkness, I steered by the compass heading I had taken the previous day, and in this way we motored cautiously out the long and narrow, reef-fringed inlet. Joggins followed close astern.
We reached open water at dawn, and when a south-easterly breeze began wafting forth we made full sail and carried slowly out to sea. Suddenly, though, we left the protected zone of zephyrs, and collected a tremendous wind that heeled Suka far over and sent her careening along in a flurry of spray. Then we sailed straightway into a seething patch of overfalls. These "haystacks" were the effect of a powerful wind acting against a strong current that flowed from relatively shallow to abruptly deeper water. Thus, we found ourselves thrust back into the seven percent without the slightest warning.
The water's turbulence was incredible. Spray from the waves that smashed at Suka's hull reached to the main mast spreaders. She was screaming along, heavily over-canvassed, yet until she finished crossing the overfalls we could not safely crawl forward to shorten the sails. So we hung on.
Joggins turned back, and Virginia called on the VHF that they were returning to Popham because of an engine failure. After much deliberation, Jenny and I decided to return with them, in order to render assistance if needed.
Sailing in extremely high winds.
“We came about in winds so fierce that the mast's inner forestay tang punched a great hole in the genoa. Not tore, punched. On later inspection we found that the ragged hole appeared as though a battering ram had gone through it.”
We came about in winds so fierce that the mast's inner forestay tang punched a great hole in the genoa. Not tore, punched. On later inspection we found that the ragged hole appeared as though a battering ram had gone through it. Bravely, Jenny crawled forward and set to work on the heaving, spray-flung foredeck, dousing the genoa and hanking the jib to the headstay, while I wielded the helm. Then, once Suka counterpoised to her smaller headsail, her crew could work together reefing the mainsail, which by then was showing a few tears of its own.
Properly hunkered down, Suka flung herself across the rough waters in frequent explosions of hurled spume. Pointing tight and heeled well over, her progress through the water was excellent, but the adverse current reduced her speed over the bottom to a crawl, and it was not until mid day that we plopped the plow doggedly back into Popham Bay.
John came over the radio, chiding me for using Suka's engine and not entering under sail, as he had.
Our statistics for the day's sailing: 6-1/2 hours at sea, trip Log 30.3 nautical miles, distance made good: zilch. Something minor had affected Joggins' engine, and John easily remedied the problem. Jenny and I spent the afternoon indignantly mending sails.
I rose at 3:00 am the next morning and stepped outside. The wind was blowing half a gale, and the day's sailing prospects were entirely unappealing.
At 5:30 a.m. we awoke to a shouting. "Suka! Hey Suka! You guys awake?" I stepped outside to find John standing aboard Joggins nearly within rafting distance abeam. Unable to reach us on the radio, he had weighed, and motored close by, in order to rouse us. The wind had slackened markedly, so we made a fire-drill type departure. I started the engine and flipped on the masthead and binnacle compass lights, while Jenny weighed and shipped the anchor. Assuming the helm, I engaged the clutch and began groping cautiously out the channel in the darkness. Again, Joggins followed.
Once into open water we found that the wind was not as vehement as before. Even so, we set sails well reefed this time. And knowing the whereabouts of the overfalls, we steered clear of the worst of them. Once into clear water we blasted away close-hauled under jib and deep-reefed main. The going was wildly unpleasant; the motion was so severe that holding on was an act of industrial fortitude. To assuage the situation, throughout the morning I recited aloud various fragments of a Robert Service poem:
“It wasn't much fun,
but the only one
to whimper, was Sam McGee.”
Often a green wave would roll aboard, inundating Suka's weather deck. How glad we were for the protection of the relatively high center-cockpit. An aft cockpit sunken below deck level would have been converted to a wading pool - hardly the appropriate amenity for the occasion. Moreover, sometimes the ride was so rough that Suka's ballast began clanking within the keel, much to our alarm.
“He turned to me, and "Cap," says he,
'I'll cash in this trip, I guess.'”
But Suka loved this spirited sailing. Romping along at hull speed, she playfully tossed aside the combers, and cavorted in the oncoming chop like a cat playing with a mouse. She had much to teach her greenhorn crew about sailing, if only we would ease the reins and allow her to demonstrate her prowess. And we were finding that indeed, Suka had a personality, one of actions and responses. She seemed as fond of this seafaring life as we were, and not once had she failed us.
“Now a promise made
is a debt unpaid,
and the trail has
its own stern code.”
Traveling in close company with Joggins, we kept in close communication with her crew. Our premise was that four pairs of eyes were better than two for scanning the emptiness ahead for any lurking reefs. And of course Jenny and I were glad to receive John's infrequent sat-nav fixes.
“And on I went,
though the dogs were spent
and the grub was getting low;
The trail was bad,
and I felt half mad,
but I swore I would not give in;”
The wind subsided gradually throughout the day until by the time we approached Cape Hotham it died altogether. Ironically, then, we closed the coast in a flat calm. From my journal:
“The winds hereabouts show a cosmopolitan behavior: morning roaring forties and evening doldrums.”
Having traveled 62 miles this day, how reassuring it felt to lie at anchor upon calm water once again.
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Ours was a 5 o'clock departure the next morning. With fresh quartering winds and a moderately stout adverse current, we navigated the infamous Clarence Strait. Then at noon the skyline of Darwin began emerging in the distance ahead. A few hours later we boggled at the sight of a city of modern high-rise superstructures.
“The police officers boarded and informed us that we were under suspicion of larceny.”
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July 3: In an afternoon calm a police boat intercepted us, and escorted us into Francis Bay. Immediately after we had set the anchor, the officers boarded and informed us that we were under suspicion of larceny. This came as a surprise, but because we had not stolen anything we were not worried by their probing the nooks and crannies of Suka's interior. Realizing the error, the plain clothes officer in charge related the story: It seems that back in Cairns a thief had stolen a quantity of electronics from a yacht moored in the anchorage. One of the items filched was a sat-nav of the same brand as ours. As a snare, the police had placed a note on the yacht club bulletin board, advertising a sat-nav antenna for sale, on the theory that whoever appropriated the sat-nav would be looking for an antenna. Jenny and I had wanted to buy a spare antenna - because ours was so unreliable - and our response to the advert had been the only one. Why the police did not search Suka there and then, in Cairns, remains a mystery. Instead, they had tracked us daily by Coastwatch aircraft the entire way to Darwin. However, in fairness they had also tracked all the other yachts, as part of their routine surveillance. The friendly officers departed Suka all smiles.
We met John and Virginia in town, and enjoyed a round of hamburgers, then suitably glutted Jenny and I returned to Francis Bay and retired aboard. We slept oblivious through the night, while Suka rebounded, taut against a buoy. The locals had extended us temporary use of this buoy, saying that because of extensive dredging hereabouts, the holding was poor.
The day previously we had joked with John and Virginia about wanting to go for a pleasurable day-sail as soon as we arrived in Darwin. Who in their full mental capacity, we bantered, would enjoy more sailing for fun, having spent a month of arduous sailing from Cairns? But our joke became real when we discovered the need to relocate from the buoys, and sail ten miles out and around the shoals, and into Fanny Bay, which Suka had been ordered to bypass the previous day.
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So with both the full main and jib drawing hard, Suka fairly flew into the offing. I wielded the hand-bearing compass, and Jenny managed the protractor and drew the appropriate lines on the chart, while I called out various bearings. Soon we beat into Fanny Bay, and after sailing quietly among scores of yachts that peppered the expansive anchorage, we deployed the hook without using the engine.
During a long stay in port, this skipper seems to spend considerable time repairing the vessel's electronic devices. And while carting Suka's sat-nav to a repair shop, I reasoned facetiously that weighing and filling away seems to have a drastically adverse effect on those repaired contraptions, perhaps as the result of breaking the electrostatic contact with the earth. But who knows, the failures might be attributable merely to a scourge of Parkinson's Law - ie, work expands to fill all available time.
We were surprised at how large and modern was the city Darwin, with its population of some 63,000. And despite its size, we found it a most interesting place to visit. Typically, our mornings began at the bus stop, awaiting the 30 cent ride into the city. During our two-week stay, we took advantage of the bus and taxi services, and also reeled many a mile underfoot.
Most buildings here were of recent construction, as a terrible hurricane had obliterated the former city in the 1970's, reportedly with winds to 160 miles an hour. Today, Darwin is a thriving metropolis, full of towering high rises echoing the cacophony of construction. And incidentally, the buildings are beefy.
Fanny Bay is immense, yet like many of Australia's capacious bays it is silted and positively shallow. Spring tides here occur twice monthly, one at the new moon and the other at the full, and their ranges are about 20 feet. So during a spring low the sand flats dry nearly a mile off-shore.
Suka lay anchored one and a half miles out. In the mornings we motored the dinghy 15 to 20 minutes to shore, while bucking the off-shore wind and waves. After a day in town, ours was another 15 to 20 minute ride back across the expansive anchorage, this time while bucking the evening on-shore wind and waves.
Painting Suka's bottom while on the the grid.
The great tidal range does, however, provide the opportunity to haul-out onto the local grid. Due to the loss of anti-fouling toxicity in the mediocre bottom paint we had applied in Bundaberg, Suka's bottom had grown fecund. Hauling out onto the grid was easily done. At high tide, one maneuvered the vessel to the grid, close ashore, and made her fast to the posts using stout warps and well secured knots. After placing a few heavy weights on the grid-side deck to encourage the vessel to list slightly in that direction, the crew simply sat back and allowed the falling tide to bring the vessel's bottom to bear upon the sea bed, and then to expose it completely. The yacht club had built the grid and piped fresh water to it. They managed it and charged 15 dollars a day for its use.
With Suka moored to the grid, I donned snorkeling gear and dove beneath the hull. There I lashed two stout planks to the keel's bottom, securing lines from the planks to the scuppers. Suka would rest on these boards, in order that we might paint most of the keel's underside. Then at the next tidal cycle I would shift the planks fore and aft, and we would paint the keel's remainder. In this respect the grid was more suitable than a slipway. However, the brief time span at low tide required that we work fast. The end of the second day found the tide rising around our chests, as nearing the last of our strength we rolled on the last of the red paint. Several hours later Suka was once again afloat, and was motoring back into the anchorage - where the tide rises and falls without charge.
Cleaning Suka's bottom with the falling tide.
One afternoon we abandoned our ship-related projects, and rented a Cessna 172. Flying over the capacious anchorage was a thrill, and we enjoyed passing over some of the out-islands.
Cessna 172 rental.
We fly over Fanny Bay. Suka is in the center of the photo.
What follows is an example of the radio banter between John Hauk and myself, as our vessels lay at anchor.
“Suka Suka, this is Joggins calling.”
"Good evening, John, switching over?" We changed to channel 68, the intra-yachtee VHF frequency.
"Hi Ray. How 'er you guys doing over there?"
"Oh, pretty good John, except for one small problem."
"Oh yea? What's that?"
"Well, we've been trying to find our position all evening without much luck. Have you had any recent fixes on your sat-nav?"
"No, we've been running on DR all evening ourselves."
Fanny Bay on a rental windsurfer. Not much wind, but still fun. Photo taken by Jenny aboard Suka.
Our life raft in for it's annual servicing.
Potluck dinner with friends on the beach.
Yachtees rarely admit being superstitious, yet few will embark on a Friday. The customs officers told Jenny and me that seldom were they called upon to clear a departing vessel on a Friday, although they were busy during the other days of the week. Suka's was the singular entry on their agenda this day. Then after their amicable visit, we set sail.
Our nine month stay in Australia had left us with a bounty of fond memories. Now we were ready to sail onward. Yet not without some trepidation, for ahead lay the difficult and extended passage across the infamous Indian Ocean.