Mainland Circumnavigation

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We purchased Suprr, our Nordhavn 46 in Southern France in 2003. During the next four years, we cruised the Mediterranean for two seasons and then crossed the Atlantic to Antigua, spending two seasons in the Caribbean. The next phase was a Panama Canal transit and passage along the Central American coast to the Sea of Cortez. The final phase of this adventure was a Pacific Ocean crossing to Hawaii and then island-hopping to our home in Sydney, Australia.

THE JOURNEY BEGINS

Our latest adventure was a circumnavigation of mainland Australia.

We departed Sydney in April 2010, as we had arranged to meet Don McIntyre and his crew on the Talisker Bounty Boat in the Coral Sea in May. They were doing a re-enactment of Captain Bligh’s trip from Tonga to Timor in a small open boat.

In April 1789, William Bligh was captain of HMS Bounty on a voyage in the South Pacific near Tonga. There was a mutiny on his ship and Bligh and 18 sailors loyal to him were set adrift in the ship’s launch. Captain Bligh navigated this 7-meter launch more than 3,600 miles from Tonga to Timor using only a quadrant and a pocket watch—no charts. This journey that was completed in 47 days has been described as the greatest open boat voyage in maritime history and Bligh as an exceptionally capable naval officer.

Filmmaker Stuart Kershaw joined us in Cairns and we cruised north to Restoration Island, keeping in touch with Talisker Bounty Boat by satphone. As they approached Bligh’s Passage, a break in the Great Barrier Reef where Captain Bligh safely transited, we went to meet them. The passage is relatively narrow with breaking waves on both sides. Once we were through the passage and into the Coral Sea, Stuart could commence filming Talisker Bounty Boat. We spent the better part of a week filming their approach to Restoration Island, their cruise north to Cape York and Horn Island in Torres Strait, and their departure for Timor. This footage was to be used for a documentary.

After leaving Torres Strait, we crossed the Gulf of Carpentaria and island-hopped across Arnhem Land and into Darwin.

THE “SLEIGH RIDE”

We had been warned about the strong tidal currents that can work in your favour, or not, depending on your timing. Approaching Darwin, many yachties use what is commonly referred to as “the sleigh ride.” This is a flood-ebb-flood, 18-hour tidal sequence. To engage this sequence, we departed Port Essington at the start of a rising tide to pick up westerly flowing water in the Arafura Sea, rounded Cape Don into Dundas Strait still with strong current, and into Van Diemen Gulf to arrive at a central point at the top of the tide. The Gulf has two entrances: Dundas Strait and Clarence Strait. On the ebb tide, we exited Clarence Strait into Beagle Gulf. We next met the incoming tide at Beagle Gulf to take this into Port Darwin. We would normally travel about 6 knots, but on this segment, we were doing upwards of 10 knots. It was very enjoyable to use the tides in this way.

EXPLORING THE KIMBERLEY COAST

From Darwin, the next part of our journey was along the Kimberley Coast. This part of Australia is remote and considered by many as the last remaining wilderness. It has spectacular scenery with ancient eroded river gorges, towering red sandstone cliffs, many islands, and abundant wildlife. As this area is a long distance from the east coast of Australia and not on the world cruising route, very few cruisers visit, and hence, not many people get to view it from the sea.

There are only two places where motor vehicles can gain access to the coastline. One of these is McGowan Island Beach Resort (a primitive camping ground with good fishing). The manager explained that he barges in fuel from Wyndham and transfers it into his road tanker. To refuel our boat, we nudged into the sandy beach on a rising tide and the long hose from the tanker was passed to us.

Throughout the Kimberley Coast, territorial saltwater crocodiles are in abundance. They are known to chew on inflatable dinghies, even with people in them! For this reason, we also had a tinny (aluminium dinghy) that we used in areas we knew crocodiles to inhabit. When you encounter a crocodile, by all means, stop to observe, but if he starts to take interest in you or starts to approach with jaws open, then you must depart rapidly!

Sharks and crocodiles do not allow swimming in the ocean and bays. We did, however, enjoy numerous swims in waterholes and in the freshwater streams, above the reach of the crocodiles.

Throughout the voyage and especially during the Kimberley Coast leg, fishing proved to be a very exciting pastime. Tuna, queen, and mackerel—all good eating fish— became part of our daily diet.

In the western part of the Kimberley, north of Cape Leveque, we saw many humpback whales. They provided a panorama of breaching, tail-slapping, and other whale antics and were happy to approach the boat and check us out. What a memorable experience! They migrate from the Southern Ocean up the west coast of Australia to calf and to enjoy the warmer waters.

Pearl farming is a big industry along the Kimberley Coast. Very good water quality, protected bays, and shallow depths provide an ideal environment for oyster growth. Paspaley Pearls, who has extensive farms in the area, is internationally regarded as the largest source of South Sea pearls.

On a couple of occasions, we went ashore to view Aboriginal art, found in many sites along the Kimberley Coast. This art is usually done on rock walls under overhanging cliffs and depicts animals, humans, mythical beasts, weapons, and food. Some of this art has been dated at 17,000 years old.

FINISHING STRONG

On a circumnavigation, it is prudent to leave the tropical north before the cyclone season and arrive in the Perth area before the strong southwest winds develop, normally by October.

We believed the most appropriate time to cross the Great Australian Bight was February/March because it is warm and the weather systems are more stable and reliable. At other times, the Southern Ocean has the reputation of strong winds and big seas because of its exposure to Antarctic low-pressure systems.

We left the Perth area in early February and headed south to go around Cape Leeuwin. This is the junction of the Southern and Indian Oceans and the intersection of the currents can produce extreme conditions. Fortunately, the conditions we experienced were moderate and we arrived safely in Albany.

The Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) has a reliable site for marine and ocean forecasts that we rely upon. We departed Esperance on the “back” of a high and arrived at St. Francis Island (one of 19 islands in the Nuyts Archipelago) 600 nautical miles and four days later, prior to the strengthening winds as forecast by the BOM. This stretch of ocean, exposed to the south, has no protected bays or islands for shelter, so we were very happy to arrive at St. Francis. This route-planning technique proved reliable for the rest of the trip to Sydney.

During our four-day crossing of the Bight, the only evidence of other vessels was light on two occasions, probably fishing vessels.

The Nuyts Archipelago was first discovered by Peter Nuyts of the Dutch East India Company in 1627. St. Francis Island was run as a sheep station and was also used for growing crops such as alfalfa, wheat, and barley, but in 1972, it was dedicated as a conservation park. We spent six days sheltered in Petrel Cove while the winds blew in excess of 30 knots. We were able to go ashore, enjoy the beach, fish for King George whiting, be entertained by the Australian sea lion, view many bird species, and walk to the deserted farm house on the escarpment and enjoy the magnificent view.

We spent several days at the Port Lincoln Marina. This area is known for its fishing, prawning, and tuna farming. One of the activities is to go on a boat to view the great white sharks that are common in this area. We also visited Coffin Bay, famous for its oysters, and enjoyed sampling some.

In South Australia at Encounter Bay, we wondered at the chance of the English Captain Matthew Flinders meeting up with the French expedition lead by Nicholas Baudin over 200 years ago. Both men of science, they were leading voyages of exploration to circumnavigate and chart the land then known as Terra Australis. They exchanged scientific information and charts, despite the fact that France and England were waging the Napoleonic wars. During our circumnavigation, we read passages from their journals with much interest.

The most southern point of mainland Australia is Wilsons Promontory, which juts out into Bass Strait. Bass Strait is another notorious stretch of water where the Southern Ocean and Tasman Sea meet. Relatively shallow depths and strong winds produce uncomfortable seas. We needed to wait in Oberon Bay for a suitable weather window. With an early morning departure from Oberon Bay, we witnessed the lighthouse and cottages on the headland bathed in brilliant sunshine.

The trip along the New South Wales coast was memorable because of the very large, long-frequency swells coming from the Southern Ocean; this was quite a contrast to the short, sharp chop more commonly experienced with wind-induced conditions. We finally arrived in Pittwater in May 2011, after a 13-month voyage.

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