CAIRNS – LOW ISLES – COOKTOWN – LIZARD ISLAND – CAPE MELVILLE – MARGARET BAY – ESCAPE RIVER – CAPE YORK – HORN ISLAND/THURSDAY ISLAND
After nearly two weeks in Cairns finishing off the big boat jobs and doing final preparation, we set sail to complete the final leg of the Queensland coast: 500 nautical miles up to Thursday Island!
We started with the short hop to Low Isles, a couple of coral cays not far from Port Douglas. The weather was lousy, but we were welcomed by a couple of resident batfish, and the snorkelling was good. From there we headed to Cooktown for a quick stopover. There were three giant Queensland Grouper hanging around the jetty waiting for a feed … meanwhile we went in search of a feed also and wound up having dinner at the Sovereign Hotel. (And local tip: the Cooktown IGA is suprisingly well stocked with all sorts of things, including vegan food, smoked meats, and everything else in between!)
While sailing past Endeavour Reef into Cooktown, we looked up Captain Cook’s journals from 1770. In addition to the expected log info (“…at noon were were about 3 leagues from the land and in the latitude of 15 minutes 37 degrees south…”), Cook describes other aspects of their life at sea. He mentions that one of his stewards got into a fight when drunk and had parts of his ears cut off. The perpetrator ended up being a midshipmen who was busted back to an able seaman for his troubles. Anyway, the maritime history of the area is fascinating.
Next stop was the bucket list destination of Lizard Island. Cook called it that because “the only land animals we saw here were lizards and these seem’d to be pretty plenty”, but it’s obvious why it is a yachtie favourite: clear azure water, sandy beaches and a calm anchorage. The snorkelling (straight off the boat) was awesome: at least a million fish, giant clams, nurse sharks, stingrays, starfish, etc. And we made friends with the resident reef sharks (by feeding them custard apple!) The other highlight was the climb up to Cook’s lookout for sunrise.
From Lizard Is we still had nearly 400 NM to go til TI and only 6 days to do it, so we had some big sailing days ahead. We set sail from Lizard by moonlinght and covered 70 NM to Cape Melville for great beachcombing on Chilli Beach; then an overnight sail to Portland Roads, where we had a quick rest; then 40 NM to Margaret Bay where we found the start of the “blue walk”, where people have marked out a walking track using mostly blue junk that has washed up on the beach; then 70 NM to Escape River to dodge the pearl rafts and spot our first croc. We had some great success trolling along the way – hooking up a spanish mackerel and a yellow-fin tuna! (And stay tuned for my ceviche recipe).
The “blue walk”, Margaret Bay.
Thanks to the SE trade winds, it was a downhill run the whole way. We had some amazing sailing days with just the code zero up cruising along at 7-8 knots on a magic carpet ride. But as all sailors know, the wind can often be less cooperative, and some days it bounced around, meaning constant sail adjustments and/or accidental gybes. Then the weather forecast showed the trade winds building to a strong wind warning, so we wanted to be safely at anchor at Horn Island when it started to blow. We motored out of Escape River just before dawn and were greeted by 30 knot gusts earlier than expected, but we got the sails up and it smoothed out a bit for our transit through the Albany Passage. We rounded Cape York and made a very quick detour to the northernmost tip of Australia to tick another item off the bucket list (and get the photo)!
Then it was time to venture into the Torres Strait, and hope that we had timed it right with the tides and currents. They are apparently the most difficult to predict in the world, because the Arafura Sea to the west is slightly higher than the Coral Sea to the east, which buggers everything up where they meet in the middle. But if you get it wrong, you can be trying to go against currents up to 7 knots (and we only do 5 knots under motor)!! Fortunately, we had positive current running with us as we headed into the channel between Thursday Island and Horn Island, so it was all good. There is a tiny anchorage in the lee of Horn Island and there were already about 30 boats crammed in (many who are doing the same rally as us), but we squeezed in next to our buddies on Harmonic and kept our chain as short as we dared due to the limited swing room. It turned out to be not enough when we dragged in the middle of the night! So we up-anchored and found ourselves a new spot (near our other buddies Xamala). We have a jabiru and a 4 metre croc as neighbours.
Yesterday we switched out crew. Sondra and Peter flew out, and Jess and Adrian flew in! As all of us except Andrew were first time visitors to the Torres Strait, we’ve been checking out the local attractions: the views from Green Hill Fort (constructed to protect us from the Russians…), the Gab Titui cultural centre and art gallery, and the All Souls and St Bartholomew’s Church, which has a memorial to the ship Quetta which sank in the 1800s, and a “world famous” crayfish pie from one of the bakeries. And we had a beer in the northernmost pub in Australia.
Today we are heading back over to TI to see the Border Force folks and check out of Australia, and in a couple of days we do the puddle jump to Indonesia as part of the Wonderful Sail 2 Indonesia rally!! It might be a while til we find enough internet again to upload the next instalment, but stay tuned!
*shout outs to the lads at 51 FNQR Charlie Coy who looked after us while we in Torres Strait and took us for a spin in a remote patrol craft so Andy could check out the new wharf he was involved in constructing.