Torres Strait & Northern Australia
Transiting the Torres Straits.
The strait is a narrow section of sea, dotted with hundreds of rocks, dozen of islands and reefs, typically strong trade winds (20-30 knots) equally strong tides ( up to 5 knots) not proportionally North East - South West flow. It sounds like a bit of nightmare. Although there is possibility to anchor the Australian customs do not allow stopping prior to clearing into Australia.
Approaching the strait we noticed that cargo ships traffic was increasing, sometimes we saw 5 or more ships. We were lucky as the wind died down to nothing just as we approached the entrance to the strait. A sea bird landed on the boat for the evening, taking off at sunset. The bird returned the following evening, but as it made a mess on deck, I tried to scare it off the boat. I got so close to it that I could have grabbed the bird with my hands, but it wasn't bothered. The marine life is spectacular with plenty of bottle nose dolphins, rays and lots of huge fishes. We saw a shark chasing the lure.
Graham devised a great system to get us through the straits so the actual trip was easy, despite my worries. All the waypoints were input on the GPS and with the track mode on the autopilot the boat took care of the navigation, all we had to do is to keep an eye on the radar, for the incoming traffic, and make sure we were on track, which was done via Maxsea. Things got even easier at night time; with the navigation lights it was easier to identify the route. It got slightly tricky identifying the incoming traffic, the cargo ships were easy. More confusing was to identify the navigational lights of a boat towing a barge.
We arrived in Thursday Island the following morning, getting into the anchorage required some alertness due to shoals and reefs. Although it was early morning we had a beer to celebrate, while we waited for customs to come aboard. Customs does not allow the crew ashore prior to clearing in the country. Australia has a reputation for being a bureaucratic country, one of the reasons we wanted to give the country a miss... So we were a bit prepared for the customs "visit": 6 people hopped on board and literally went through every inch of the boat from outside and inside, questioning about everything that wasn't of their business. Although very friendly and polite they were looking for cues and reaction, very cunning. An hour later they departed with the rubbish, odd garlic, onions and $AU 240.00!
Thursday Island is a very strange place, very red neck backwards island, there are 4000 people mostly working for customs and quarantine, patrolling the borders with Papua for drugs and people smuggling. There is an 1890 fort with spectacular views over the adjacent islands. The prices for everything were abysmal, so we were eager to press on. After couple of days we left for another long passage, 850 miles to Darwin.
The trip started with not much wind, but gradually steady trade winds came back and we had a nice jolly with 15-20 knots behind us and calm seas. We couldn't ask for more. The batteries were a different issue, they were holding less and less power. At this stage the fridge was turned off, as it was empty that did not bother us. The autopilot was purely running on the generator, left on for a good part of the trip. One nice morning Graham woke up to realize the tachometer wasn't working, so now there was no charge at all to the batteries. We concluded that the alternator has broken. The spare alternator was fitted whilst sailing, not an easy job since it is near the engine in a very awkward place. A task difficult enough to do at a marina let alone out at sea. After swapping alternator over, both were so tired that we decided to break the trip and anchor for one night. Land was 35 miles away and Coburg Peninsula had lots of anchoring possibilities. Coming closer to land we realized that the whole peninsula is a natural reserve and anchoring is prohibited. At that stage we didn't care anymore. We just had to hope that Australian customs airplane didn't fly above our heads. This is the only country where customs airplane checked on us almost every day, very comforting...There is nothing better than a good night sleep, except that this was one hell of a rocky night. We wondered if we would have slept better at sea. We left before the sun came up to avoid the early morning Australian Customs aircraft patrol. Ahead of us was the Van Diemen Passage, two more days and we would be arriving in Darwin. Approaching the passage the current was on its peak and once we turned into the passage we also had headwinds, after 1 hour we went nowhere. Tiredness took over and we abandoned the attempt, heading to the other side of the island with the knowledge that this would mean another day at sea and more headwinds for 100 miles. Looking back, we should have anchored and waited for the tide. However both of us were so tired and fed up, not the best state to make good decisions. We were fed up even more so when we turning around Melville island again we encountered the same situation, strong winds and current against us. How is it possible to go south? The one factor on our favour was the little wind early morning, before it picked up gradually to strong Southerlies. Taking advantage of these few hours with no wind, we motored like hell southwards to make as much progress as possible. There was a lot of traffic heading into Darwin, some of ships were difficult to identify. As morning came up, for our amusement we found out that we had some battle ships as neighbours! The wind came back with full blast. This was becoming a nightmare and morale was very low, we could see Darwin, just couldn't get to it. A procession of battle ships passed us, we found out later that there was an exercise at sea involving 10 countries, now they were heading back. Struggling we were making headway, but what worried us now was fuel, or the lack of it. The fuel eventually run out, the engine splattered and stopped. There was only 5 miles to go, sails went back up and we tacked into the anchorage. That was the fun of the day! Then anchoring by sail, it was actually the highlight of the day. Fannie Bay, the anchorage, was open and there were no reefs, so it was very easy to sail in. We were absolutely exhausted: 3 weeks at sea and two long passages with no break.