West coast cruising but not as you know it –


With dreams of cruising the east coast, in the January 2017 Cruising Helmsman edition Justine Porter discusses how there is plenty to see before you get there.

After numerous farewell parties starting in November we finally could not delay our departure from Gove. Knowing those south east trade winds were very close to setting themselves, we readied our 48 foot Mumby catamaran Shima for our adventures to the east coast of Queensland, destination Hervey Bay.

It was March and a fabulous weather window had opened to make the jump across the Gulf of Carpentaria. We sailed down the coast to Bawaka and enjoyed two days of more farewells in this gorgeous inlet. At 0630 the sun peeked up over the horizon and a favourable wind beckoned us to leave. With full sails set and a steady course set for Seisia near the Cape we watched the dolphins come across our bow to lead the way.

The Gulf proved to be a challenge, from favourable winds that took us 120 nautical miles, to a sudden becalming as the winds changed their minds and decided to smack us in the face. The seas built itself into a frenzy. Shima, now reefed to the third, scooted along taking it in her stride.

By day three we had 25 knot easterlies that slowly settled by the afternoon, allowing us to shake out the reefs and haul the main, re-evaluate our position and, exhausted, we decided to just head for the coast. At 0200 after 348 nautical miles we dropped the pick near the Pannefather River on the west coast of Queensland.

West coast cooler

Excited to finally be in Queensland we had no idea that this west coast was going to be our playground for the next six months. We continued north in variable winds and intermittent storms, stopping at MacDonald river for a five hour walk along the beach collecting bottles and, when the sand got too hot, trying to find matching ‘pluggers’ along the way. It seems people mostly lose their left plugger.

We arrived in Seisia five days later sailing with an easterly breeze and slipped in from the south avoiding a long trip around Red Island into the channel proper; advise given to us from the Wildcard crew (commercial mackerel fisher family) and easy due to our shallow draft skipping over the sandbar. By now we were realising that sailing in reverse of what everyone else is doing is going to be the spirit of Shima.

Seisia, named after the first initial of six brothers from Saibai Papua New Guinea, is a tiny town that is a popular stop for those trekking to Cape York. The anchorage is between Red Island and the mainland. The holding was excellent in sand despite the relatively strong tidal flows. It is a short dinghy ride to shore near the jetty and an easy walk to the few shops.

Silver is a talkative character at the servo who will drive your jerry cans of fuel and gas back to your dinghy free of charge. With the small supermarket close by you can get everything. The campground was quiet as the tourist season had not cranked up and they happily allowed us access to the coin operated washing machines.

The takeaway shop had the most delicious and fresh tucker for such a remote locality, the highlight was being able to order freshly baked sourdough and the massive hearty hamburgers, what a treat. The fishing club had cheap drinks and we were able to glean a lot of information including the fact that those pesky SE trades were here and would not let us out now.

The locals see few yachts so were thoroughly welcoming. So the weather prevailed forcing a change of plans: let’s go explore the 400nm of Lee beach this west coast can offer. But first a twinkle of gold at Possession Island beckoned us, named by Captain Cook when he took possession of the east coast of NSW.

We nipped below the edge of Brady Bank and took an anchorage on the western side, tucking in between the reef that surrounds the island. Going ashore near Cooks monument was the only sandy area but, as the tide zoomed away, we had a rocky edge to carry the tender over.

The island has two main gold mines, one that is now home to the eastern bent wing bat. Walking through the island we found many old artefacts of the long-forgotten mining days: pottery, picks, bottles but no gold.

The tides in this area were very confusing as we were used to the very predictable tides of the Northern Territory, even the tide charts for this and the Torres Strait acknowledge its fickleness.

Leaving, we thought we had figured the tidal flows out to pass great and little Woody Islands into the boat channel to Thursday Island in the Torres Strait. As we entered the channel using the Jardine rock beacon as a guide, the tide was going completely in the opposite direction to what we calculated. But not strong as we rightly decided to make this passage close to slack water.

This glorious channel is full of life, the seagrass bed inhabits dugongs a-plenty and the mangroves on POW Island turn into red cliffs and waterfalls. Then, as TI becomes visible, man lets you know he is here. Helicopters buzz between Horn and Thursday Island with numerous ferries going to and fro, fisherman and pearlers zoom around this well-marked channel.

This waterway really is alive and a careful watch was essential. Thursday Island anchorage is notorious for poor holding most likely due to the grassy beds, but we experienced excellent holding between Rebel Wharf and the main jetty.

Slotting in next to the Border Force boat, they conveniently advised us of the quarantine requirements: when leaving TI you buy your groceries from the Ibis supermarket, take your receipt to the easily-found green customs house, fill out your departure information and they fax it to your next stop on the mainland. There is no formal entry requirements.

ANZAC day commemorations were incredible, with traditional island dance combined with military precision and local foods. Acknowledgment of the sacrifices these proud people made in Kokoda and other battles was a humbling experience.

A day trip to Friday Island pearl farm with a delicious nine course Japanese lunch and a tour of the pearling industry was delightful and interesting, worth every penny spent. We easily cleared quarantine in Seisia and headed south, buzzed by a Border Force helicopter and then watched with amazement as they landed on the beach for a few minutes, Mother Nature must have called.

We bounced down the coast stopping for walks along the beautiful beaches, catching our dinner, found an old dugout canoe in excellent condition and explored the old wreck that was an old lighthouse ship, how ironic. The calendar now overboard, we arrived in Weipa.

Checked in with VTS (informative, friendly and would go to chat channel to hear of our adventures, love these guys) and motored through the eight mile of channel into a very cramped anchorage. The holding was good but we had to squeeze in just outside the busy shipping channel, which made for impressive viewing as the bauxite ore carrying ships came past daily.

A five kilometre walk to the town to restock and enjoy a meal was pleasant and mostly shaded. Fuel was an easy walk from the jetty and we were able to use the laundry at the single man’s quarters for a bribe. There are no real facilities for the cruising yacht but water can be found at the wash-down and the locals were very tolerant.

Someone drilling a hole through a coconut.
Harvesting coconuts. Pic – Justine Porter

The edge of the anchorage is covered in mangoes and coconut trees and we took advantage, my DH having been previously frustrated using a machete, decided to take the drill. Two quick holes and the coconut juice flowed freely filling up four two litre containers; unfortunately the mango season was over.

Moving on

Checking the charts the Gulf becomes quite shallow but the rocky reefs disappear and sandbars become our main obstacles. Huge chunks are completely uncharted and soundings were unreliable as surely they had changed since Flinders sailed here. Most of the soundings are from the 60s but several from the 1880s were a surprise, making us feel like intrepid explorers.

A close watch of our sounder as we bounced south along the coast showed gentle contour changes with sandbar hazards near river mouths. At times it was so shallow we were forced to anchor two miles off the coast in only three metres of water. Leaving deck lights on at night seemed sensible.

We visited Ina Creek, the Watson River with its massive lung jellyfish population,…


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