Through the Gates of the Outback

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

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