Vanuatu to Australia

Through the Gates of the Outback

Thursday, June 30th, 2016
Date:June 30, 2016, 4 a.m.
Position:11 49.50 S, 136 31.16 E

I did 12 hours of hand-steering in ocean swells today and the blisters on my hands to prove it. We pried the anchor out of the clay at Gove at first light, and set sail for Cape Wilberforce. Capes, like freighters, have many very interesting and powerful names. I’d been warned about Cape Wilberforce and the sharp seas that can stack up around it. We gave it a wide berth today and thank god we did. The day started out with light winds but quickly established itself into a brisk 25-knot trade-wind. We stood off the cape by 2 miles and the seas did stack right up. Wilberforce itself looked like a massive wall of crumbling Lego bricks, with waves slamming into piles of square boulders at its base. At the cape is a narrow constriction, our first of three passes for the day. Each pass must be timed correctly for the tides, as great currents up to 12 knots sweep through these lands. The first two passes need to be done on the flood and the third pass, the infamous Gugari Rip a.k.a.”the hole-in-the-wall” must be timed to arrive at exactly during the first hour of the ebb tide. To do so at any other time of day, the guides warn, would “require a change of underpants once you got spit out of the other end”. The Rip is only three boat-lengths wide and one mile long. It cuts right through the long chain of Wessel Islands and its seaward side is exposed to the full fury of the trade winds.

All of this nonsense needs very sober planning and I had spent hours making pages and pages of notes and calculations, and I’d scoured the internet for personal accounts of the passes. Alarmingly, much of the info conflicted, with differing advice on timing the tides. It was a process of sifting the good advice from the bad. I was comforted in the morning when two other sailboats left the anchorage shortly after us, so at least I came to the same conclusions as two other captains.

We shot past Cape Wilberforce with great success and once through the pass, the seas flattened out a bit and we had fantastic sailing. I’ve always wondered what the Wessel Islands looked like=85 The islands are windswept with a few trees here and there clinging on for dear life, with great rusty-red bluffs alternating with lime-green savannah grasses. Like the Torres Islands, they are set in a shallow emerald-color sea. The land and seascape were so surreal, and kind of repeated itself mile after mile, that I felt strangely that we were in a Nintendo game, with Privateer as the player timing the passes. “We’re on level 5” I told Kelse and Taz in the afternoon. Cloud shadows played across the jade waves giving the swells an emerald tiger-stripe appearance.

We sailed through the second pass “a polite miniature of Cape Wilberforce” as our friends on S/V “Tuuletar” called it, with no problem. Soon we were sailing the final 15 miles to the infamous Rip. The other two sailboats tacked to the north to take a wider pass through the Wessels while we pressed on ahead. By my calculations we were about an hour early for the ebb tide, so we hove-to about 4 miles off in front of the Rip. The trades really started cranking again, and we could see that the cliffs in front of the Rip entrance were being throttled by huge breakers exploding upward into mushroom-like clouds. It’s amazing the island is still there at all, given the force of those waves.

We’d been in radio contact all day with the other two sailboats, and as we were hove-to we heard them chatting to each other as they went through their pass to the north–our canaries in the coal mine… It was not good. “So much for the tide…Getting really big!…Massive over-falls=85must be still at full flood but I can’t tell-currents are full against us.” Basically, it was exactly the wrong conversation we wanted to hear as we were hove-to off a lee shore about to enter the Rip. The last thing we wanted was to get pinned in a field of violent over-falls at the base of those cliffs, caught between 12 knots of adverse currents and against a full trade wind. And we wouldn’t know what it would be like until we got right up there into it. If we waited too long, the risk is getting sucked into the channel with such force that it pulls the boat sideways and you have to use forward and reverse gear to keep off the cliffs as they rush by at 12 knots. We had already done that one before in British Columbia, and yes it did require a change of underpants afterward, and also two shots of whiskey at 7am=85 Decisions, decisions=85 I kept us hove-to for another half-hour and sort of split the difference with all the differing tidal calculation prediction advice, with an erring on being slightly into the ebb. Rather get sucked into flat water than chopped up at the entrance. I turned to Kelsey and said “I have faith in my calculations”. We started the engine as an extra precaution, let go the sheets, and made sail for the entrance. We aced the Rip! We sailed past the mushroom-spray breakers and into smooth water at exactly the moment of high-water slack tide. Our timing was perfect, to the minute. Throughout the whole channel we didn’t have a knot of current one way or the other. This was excellent, as the scenery was unreal and we appreciated having the time to enjoy it, rather than shitting our pants. Jagged cliffs of thin layered stone stacked hundreds of layers high. Remarkably the upper layers of stone project outwards in 15-foot overhangs, where the ledges themselves are only about a foot thick. In the lee of the islands we had a flat sea and a perfect sailing breeze. We looked back on broad sandy beaches and saw crocodile tracks crisscrossing the dunes. The croc tracks were unmistakable with the trench where the heavy tail dragged, flanked by massive footprints. It reminded us of the Grizzly bear tracks we see on the beaches of Alaska, but outback style. Crazy country out here! We’ve got a relatively clear sea in front of us now and are back under self-steering with the Monitor. We’ve got a few hundred miles to sail to Port Essington, and if all goes well we should have about two nights at sea before arrival. The trades are supposed to remain fresh and intensify to potentially 30 knots day-after-tomorrow, so we are reefed down and using our trusty “Coral Sea” sail plan. The windy ride continues=85

June 24

Friday, June 24th, 2016
Date:June 24, 2016, 4 a.m.
Position:11 9.62 S, 139 20.35 E

June 24

June 23

Thursday, June 23rd, 2016
Date:June 23, 2016, 4 a.m.
Position:10 35.84 S, 142 14.43 E

June 23

Anchor down by Thursday Island

Monday, June 20th, 2016
Date:June 20, 2016, 4 a.m.
Position:10 35.84 S, 142 14.43 E

The sun rose as we threaded our way through the Torres Island archipelago and we got our first real glimpse of Australia. The islands a sunburnt rusty red and lime-green vegetation set in a turquoise ocean. The whole ocean here is very shallow at only about 30-40 feet deep, making for spooky navigation. Finally, we dropped the hook at the protected Horn Island anchorage, across the channel from Thursday Island. Another great voyage come to an end.

We radioed the Australia “Border Force” and soon Privateer was swarmed by big brother, a presence not felt since leaving the USA. Luckily, we cleared in at a small port here, and the procedure was relatively painless. We have to report to customs again at each Australian city we visit, so I will withhold my judgment until we leave Australia.

We are surrounded by mangroves and eucalyptus trees and strange bird-song that sounds like something out of the Amazon. More importantly, there is a GIGANTIC SALTWATER CROCODILE sunning himself on the nearby beach, easily 20-feet long. It’s a bit unbelievable. There will be absolutely no swimming for us in this part of the world. The saltwater crocodile population is prolific here. A quick scan with the binocs reveals another croc even closer, about 100 feet away, staring directly at the boat with his jaws open.

We quickly learned as much as we could about how to behave around crocodiles. Never get behind a crocodile, look for “croc slides” on the beach and never go near them, don’t lean over the water or the side of the boat, always take a different route to shore in the dinghy (they recognize a pattern and set up an ambush), do not swim anywhere at any time, and get out of the dinghy quickly when going to shore. Kelsey and I have felt vulnerable in our dinghy in Alaska around the Grizzly bears. We’ve had a Grizzly swim by an oar-length from the dinghy and had them come charging toward us in the shallows. But the saltwater crocodiles will take some getting used to. Unlike the Grizzlies which almost always flee when our presence is discovered, the wily crocs are totally undisturbed and act more like a cat stalking its prey. Even more disturbing is that when we passed by the one on shore in the dinghy, the 20-foot long crocodile slid backward unto the water in one smooth motion, until only his nostrils were above water, and then he disappeared. We opened the motor up to full throttle.

Kelsey, Taz, and I spent the evening stretching our legs on land at the small community on Horn Island. At first glance, we notice that many houses have a scant under-story with open garage or are completely elevated 15 feet off the ground. We guess that this is for bugs but are not sure–in Vanuatu the thatch huts were elevated several feet off the ground to keep the wild pigs from running through. Also, almost every house and building has bars and grates over every window. Again, we don’t know if this is to keep out people or animals. There is also a proliferation of chain-link fencing and barbed wire. People’s houses look like some sort of casual prison yard. The heat, even in the late evening, was stifling, and we lingered in the little air-conditioned grocery store inspecting the astronomical prices. A case of Coke? $40. Wow. It came as quite a shock to see the little shelf of expensive plastic-wrapped pre-cut and wilting fruit, after our experience at the abundant and vibrant Vanuatu market. 1,500 miles and a world away. True, Australia has a harsh growing climate. It’s like that movie “the Martian”.

Change of Oceans

Sunday, June 19th, 2016
Date:June 19, 2016, 4 a.m.
Position:11 38.00 S, 143 52.00 E

A day of major significance and milestones for Privateer and Crew. We made it across the Coral Sea and crossed over the Great Barrier Reef. We threaded our way through the Torres Strait, and now have just passed Cape York, Australia’s northernmost land. Cape York divides the Coral and Arafura Seas, and in the greater picture, divides the Pacific Ocean from the Indian Ocean. Privateer has now entered a new ocean, and will shortly anchor down at her second continent!

We approached the Great Barrier Reef at sunrise, gliding along wing & wing at 5-6 knots. We knew we were getting close as there was a sudden proliferation of bird life at sea. Skipjack tuna leapt out of the waves as massive schools of flying fish went airborne to escape their predators. Then we could hear a faint roar, almost like a rumbling waterfall, of the waves breaking over the reef. Finally, we saw the line of breakers on the horizon about a mile away. The weather cooperated and we had a textbook entry through the pass, where our depth suddenly shallowed from 8,000 feet deep to less than 100 feet. It was a fine day.

Inside the reef, the seas and swells flattened right out and we blissfully glided along at 6 knots on flat water. It felt like we weren’t even moving, except for the gurgle of the bow wave swooshing past the hull. We spent the afternoon putting the boat in order. She looks better now than when we left Port Vila, and really she looks better than she ever has. We have come a long way.

We plan to make landfall on Thursday Island early tomorrow morning, and clear through customs & quarantine. Thank you Coral Sea for the exciting ride! We surfed every single wave all the way across. Offshore passages tend to have either good angels, or demons. We’ve had our good angels on this passage and we are coming into port more refreshed than when we set out.

1,500 NM Wing-on-Wing

Saturday, June 18th, 2016
Date:June 18, 2016, 4 a.m.
Position:12 27.00 S, 145 45.00 E

Well, it looks like this is going down in Privateer’s record book as her longest tack, and the longest duration spent wing-on-wing. 1,500 nautical miles! We surfed every wave across the whole Coral Sea. Last night Kelsey took it to 13.3 knots. We are now on the home stretch to the Great Barrier Reef, with timing lining up perfectly for a mid-morning arrival so we can spy the entrance through the reef in daylight. The winds have mellowed down to 20 knots, with partly cloudy skies and an almost-full moon. Textbook.

Our long surf did come at a cost, however. Last night was a rough one for me. Constant squalls in gale-force winds and ceaseless course adjustments and sail changes kept me awake until I was borderline hallucinating. I took to swearing at the F—ing Coral Sea–isn’t it enough wind and squalls already?? Kelsey, as always, stepped right into the thick of it and helmed the boat from midnight all the way through 6am. I thought something was wrong with the clock when I woke up, refreshed. Kelsey always pulls through in the wild times. We do what needs to be done as a team, watching out for the other. As our friend Dan from South Africa says, “There’s no off-button at sea. When it’s on, it’s on.”

Wing-on-wing is described as a difficult point of sail to maintain, requiring great concentration. This is true, but the Monitor really takes the concentration aspect away and allows you to relax. You do need to be very careful as you set the vane gear, to take care not to back-wind the boom into an accidental jibe. But once it’s set, it’s magic. I’ll never forget the first time I set the gear wing-on-wing, I didn’t trust it. But after an hour of keeping the boat pegged at the exact desired wind angle, and realizing it did a much better job than I, (no human error) I came around. With 25 knots of wind behind her and her wings stretched out, Privateer the magic carpet ride takes off over the waves and surfs the troughs. We’ve had solid 25-30 knot conditions for the entire crossing with a few 35s and 40s–a bit boisterous, but a great ride. No complaints here–glad we weren’t going the other way!

Taz is really starting to understand a lot of the world and communicate more deeply with us now. The little sponge has been taking it all in and pointing out things that we didn’t remember introducing to him. He’s also getting “a bit cheeky” as they say in NZ, testing our reactions to things he knows he shouldn’t be doing. Mommy the tickle-monster comes to get him, though, and his little stand-offs usually end in gut-busting laughter. He seems, oddly, to get around the pitching cabin better than Mom and Dad. He really does have great balance, and a natural grace to his movements. He takes it all in stride–just another normal day on the high seas.

Title of log entry

Friday, June 17th, 2016
Date:June 17, 2016, 4 a.m.
Position:12 46.00 S, 148 20.00 E

The seas are a raging inferno of sloppy swells and steep wind waves. Squall after squall after squall snuck up on us, looming above the horizon before unleashing torrential downpours and 35-plus knot winds. Fortunately, we are are going with the wind! Like a demented metronome we tick-tock into the troughs and launch off the swell faces. We are making fast progress however, another 150-plus miler. At least we’re getting somewhere fast.

The Beguine came over the horizon today and we passed within a mile of each other. They’re headed toward the same waypoint as we are, and it’s nice to share a bit of rough sea with fellow mariners. Taz took a bath today in his inflatable tub, down below on the cabin sole (floor). He loved the sloshing water. But he stayed in for one wave too long. The boat took a pitch in a sudden squall and all of the bathwater sloshed right out of the tub and into the bilge! It was a very definitive end to the bath-time. “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater” is the phrase that came to mind.

Tomorrow the winds should lighten up just a touch and we will jibe the boat over on starboard tack, and come up on the Great Barrier Reef slightly from the south. Just one more day on the bouncy ocean and then we’ll have flat (& shallow!) water from the Raine Island reef entrance to Thursday Island, for another 131 nautical miles onward from the reef entrance.

Straight shooting

Thursday, June 16th, 2016
Date:June 16, 2016, 4 a.m.
Position:13 23.00 S, 150 51.00 E

The winds went light this morning and we stretched Privateer’s wings fully out, and sailed along beautifully at 6-7 knots in the sunrise. Soon after the sun came up the winds filled in again. We took in a reef in the main and went single-reef in 20-22 knots. We’ve been running wing-on-wing for the last 1,100 NM now, certainly a record for Privateer! We reeled back another 148 miles from noon-to-noon since yesterday. Kelsey did a 12-knot surf on her watch. Arrow Privateer flies straight across the Coral Sea.

Taz didn’t go down for his afternoon nap today, so Kelsey had to do a heroic 12-hr “watch” with him, while I handled the boat. In the evening she gave him a bath in his inflatable tub. She couldn’t fill it too full, though, with the boat rocking the water sloshed up and over the sides. Taz really loves his baths and learned how to pour water over his head and scrub himself today.

We had a breakage on the boat today when a blue-beaked booby flew into our wind generator. It was a gruesome scene–blood spattered all over the cockpit and the poor bird landed on the tiller, which was engaged by the Monitor. For a few seconds it looked as if the bird would be decapitated by the control lines. Finally he managed to get free, and eventually flew away after recovering for a few hours. One of the blades on the wind generator is shattered now, effectively cutting off our wind power. The bird was a bad omen that made me very nervous, and I learned later in the day that my Mom had broken her foot at the same time as our bird incident!

We rely on solar panels, wind generator (windmill, a/k/a “the bird-grinder”), and engine alternator/charge controller to replenish our ship’s battery bank. Lately, the charge controller has been acting up. So with our wind down and questionable charge controller, we are now relying only on our solar panels. These work well for 6 hours in the morning, giving us about 60 amp-hours each day through the two panels that are in full sun. But in the afternoon the sun goes behind the as we sail West, and cuts off all solar input. The refrigerator alone uses about 60 amp hours of power per day, so we will have to shut it down for about 50% of the day until we can get the wind and charge controller back on-line. Electronics and Sailing are two words that are never meant to be used in the same sentence. Microchip circuitry and Chinese wiring jobs are no match for the powerful, corrosive sea-spray that permeates every aspect of our lives at sea.

The good winds are forecast to hold (incredibly) for another few days and settle down to a gentle breeze (hopefully) as we pick our way through the Great Barrier Reef and the Torres Strait. We are on our final 500 miles of greater Pacific Ocean sailing. Once past Cape York, Australia’s Northernmost extremity, we enter into the Arafura Sea and into the Indian Ocean…


Wednesday, June 15th, 2016
Date:June 15, 2016, 4 a.m.
Position:13 59.00 S, 153 20.00 E

We smashed out a whopping 165 miles under sail today. Even better, the 25-knot winds held so steady that we didn’t have to touch the sail trim or the Monitor for the entire 24-hour period. We stayed pegged right on course. It almost felt like we were cheating. I took full advantage and caught up on my rest as the boat surfed over the seas. It’s getting warmer now as we sail into the low-teen latitudes, and this afternoon when the cabin was closed up the heat down below was stifling. Cracking the forward hatch even an inch open in these conditions would lead to an inevitable 20-30 gallons of saltwater pouring in. The nights are cool and pleasant, and we spend the hot days under the protection of the shade awning. We don’t wear a scrap of clothes.

We’re sailing over the Coral Sea basin now, a flat area of sea-bed about 15-16,000 feet deep. The only way I can describe the color of the water is Electric Purple, like that flavor of Gatorade that you want to try but know you probably shouldn’t. When the sun hits behind the cresting wave tops, it turns the tips of the purple waves a deep emerald blue, like the ice in the glaciers of Alaska. It’s a stunning combo. To round out the picture, several dozen dolphins cruised just under the electric purple crystal swells and torpedoed their way around the boat for an hour or so. Looking back in our wake, one dolphin was leaping and making back-flips and cartwheels as the sun went low on the horizon.

I’m always amazed by the variety of oceanscapes, and how one area of the ocean feels completely different than the other. It’s like walking through a forest: you’re always in the trees, but you can walk 1/2 hour down the trail and the entire aspect of the forest will change from friendly to gloomy, from scary to familiar. The oceanscape changes constantly in a similar manner, and it is for this reason that I will never got tired of sailing across the endless, shifting horizons.

Each night we pull the moon back a little further in the sky and have it for an extra hour or so on the night watch. Taz is so proud of himself every time he spies the moon. He’s always the first one on board to spot it rising each day. “MOOOEY!” he shouts with a stiffened arm and pointing little finger quivering to touch the moon. As I write, the moon is setting, beaming shafts and patches of eerie light down on the ocean. It’s like a UFO searchlight, quietly scanning the surface of some distant unknown place.

162-mile day

Tuesday, June 14th, 2016
Date:June 14, 2016, 4 a.m.
Position:14 28.00 S, 156 7.00 E

Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Squallday. All day long we were dogged by squalls. There wasn’t much more than about 30 knots in them, but it was enough that we had to roll in the Yankee each time one passed through. The roller-furler got a good workout today! I would have just kept it rolled in between squalls, but our speed has been so good through the night last night that I could see we were about to break 160 miles from noon-to-noon on the GPS–great speeds for a small cruising boat. We surfed down wave after wave, catching 4 & 5 waves in a row. WHoosh!! We accelerate of the wave faces at 12 knots. Privateer has an exceptional surfing hull–her heavy displacement assures that she never gets going too fast and out of control. Finally at noon we did the calculation: 162 miles in 24 hours, for an average speed of 6.75 knots. Not bad for a downwind run, the slowest point of sail! If we’d had the winds at 120 degrees I’m sure we would have shattered the record on Privateer. Also right at noon, we passed the 1/2 way mark across the Coral Sea.

Aside from the squalls it was fine sailing until about 3 pm, and then the winds and seas picked up to a sustained 30 knots. Again, since we are running downwind, it’s no sweat. But we still had to reef down & hold on for the ride, and keep all the hatches buttoned up tight. Taz likes to see how long he can stand up for without holding on to anything on the boat. When he does fall he squeals with laughter and immediately gets back up again. We tried coloring with the crayons again today but he had “the demon” look in his eye and stuffed all the crayons into the bilge. When he sleeps in these conditions, he kicks one leg out at 90 degrees to keep from rolling around in his bunk. He’s a natural!

I found today that if we run just a scrap of Yankee sail out on the pole to windward (15-20 square feet) it really helps in keeping the bow pointing downwind, balances out the rig, and eases the load on the Monitor vane. It also lets us keep course but present the boat at more of a 140 degree wind angle which just keeps the staysail out of the wind-shadow of the main. So I’m dubbing this peculiar sail plan of double-reef main, storm trysail, and Yankee scrap our “Coral Sea rig”.

There’s a very strong area of high pressure building over Australia right now. We’re on the upper edge of the high. The higher the pressure at the center of the high, the more wind we’ll see at the edge. Generally, one knot per millibar. This high is about 1040 millibars, so somewhere south of us in the Tasman Sea is probably getting about 40 knots. We’re far enough north that we’re just feeling the peripheral effects of the so-called “squash-zone” and using the wind pattern to our fullest advantage.

We are fully into passage mode now. 1,500 miles is a nice length passage. It’s long enough to fully transition to the sea, but not too long. We’re hoping our SE winds blow for a few more days for the downhill remainder of the passage. So far so good!