Our passage towards the Torres Strait took us through a north westerly channel out of the Louisiades, then south along the Jomard Entrance, a busy shipping channel used by cargo ships plying between Japan and Australia. We had decided to sail to Raine Island on the Great Barrier Reef of Australia, and use that entrance, before sailing north through its protected waters. The alternative is the Great North Eastern Passage, the preferred route for heavy shipping traffic, which we were eager to avoid because it is offshore for longer with no port of refuge should it be needed.
We left with 20-25 knot south easterly trade winds for the 480 nm passage, and apart from 3-4 metre waves which made life uncomfortable, all went well until we were 170nm from our intended anchorage at the Great Detached Reef. We were hit by a large wave on our bow, which caused the boat to gybe, or swing through the wind across our stern so backing the genoa. Bob immediately disengaged the autopilot and steered Pipistrelle through another 180 degrees, so we were back on course. We then discovered that the autopilot would not engage, and after more investigation, found that the clutch was the problem, something that we thought had been repaired properly in NZ.
So we took it in turns to helm and hand steered for 36 hours, in 2 hour watches! Not a problem apart from the concentration required, and ensuring that all the other essentials like food, drink, battery charging and sleep were catered for. We also needed to ensure that the person off watch woke up in time to relieve the person on watch. Our hearing is not good enough to rely on phone alarms, so Bob set up a string to run from the compass binnacle to the berth we had set up in the saloon. It was tied at the binnacle, and had a loop to put over the wrist of the person sleeping.
Bob finally got his head down, and was so tired he was instantly asleep. What had he forgotten, yes, you have guessed it, was to put the loop over his wrist!! So Elaine did her first estimated two hours on the wheel, pulled the string, and felt nothing, so pulled more, and more, and more, until the loop arrived without Bob! Luckily Elaine has good vocal chords, and it was not long before these reached Bob’s sub conscious, and he relieved Elaine immediately, with profuse apologies! After that the system worked.
Lop To were behind us, and sailing in the same direction, and were soon in VHF contact. During the night they caught us up, and took up station ahead of us so we could follow them, far easier than peering at the compass, course and wind direction continually. Late in the afternoon we arrived near Raine Island, but it wasn’t until 22.30 that we anchored in darkness close to the coral reef, and fell into bed, Elaine with her newly presented Expert Helms(wo)man’s Award!
The following day Bob replaced the motor with a spare, and after another night to recover, we set off for the Torres Strait, using the waypoints and anchorages recommended by Ken Hellewell, whose guide we had used in Tonga and found valuable. Whilst the waypoints are accurate, the description of the anchorages left a lot to be desired. With spring tides and strong trade winds, at night the reefs were covered, and the anchorages were like anchoring in the open sea – a nightmare – and then a current set in turning us broadside on to the waves……. Only when we reached York Island did we have a comfortable night.
The Torres Strait and its myriad of islands appeared to us to be an inhospitable place. York Island is 20nm from the Prince of Wales Channel, through which the tides sluice at up to 8kn, so timing is vital. Luckily for us the tide started flooding north shortly after 0900, so enabling us to complete a daylight passage. All the islands and the Australian coast are fairly low, and the lack of trees reminded us of the west coast of Scotland on a dull day! There are significant overfalls off the majority of the headlands, and most of the water is only 8-14 metres deep, and therefore is an aquamarine greenish colour.
The channel is well marked, and for long periods we were achieving 11kn over the ground, with a maximum of 12.2 kn. We were soon out into the Arafura Sea, where a lot of shipping was waiting to take on pilots for the passage through the Straits. Even here the water is shallow, and we selected the Varzin Channel for our exit route.
Then it became very pleasant, with relatively smooth seas, beam reaching at 7 kn, but the Arafura Sea is shallow – just 19 metres in places – and turquoise. The maximum depth is about 150 metres. Having not seen any depths on the echo sounder for years while on passage, this was slightly different.
The passage to Saumlaki, Indonesia was fast and rough, with winds of 25-30kn for most of the way, and seas of 3-4 metres in height. One highlight was the ever vigilant Australian Coast Guard. One of their planes flew over at low altitude on the afternoon of 24th July, and then called us up on the VHF to pick up passage information from us (last port of call, next port of call, country of registration). In return we were supplied with two pieces of ‘hot off the press’ news from the UK. One, the Duchess of Cambridge had given birth the same day to a baby boy! Two, the Ashes were going well for England!
We installed AIS B in New Zealand (Automatic Identification System), and the B denotes that we transmit our boat details as well. This replaced the receive only AIS we had before. For the first time since the installation, we were called up late in the evening by a cargo ship, asking what our intentions were, as we were on a collision course! As it happened we had the mainsail with a preventer on, and the genoa set, so could not tack so that we pass port to port, which was what they wanted. We safely passed each other starboard to starboard, but again it highlights the effectiveness of this excellent technology.
We arrived safely in Saumlaki at 12.50 on Saturday 27th July.