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3rd Report for  2006:        

Australia, from Cairns to Darwin and the Ashmore Reef

(September 6th-October 20th)




Our original plans for Australia had been for a much longer stay. We would have sailed further south to maybe Brisbane and after a break at home explored Australia by car and plane and eventually sailed up the coast again to get through Torres Strait to the Indian Ocean as soon as the cyclone season is over.





This long cyclone season however, was the main problem with this plan as one cannot safely pass around the northern tip of Australia before May and consequently we would have had to skip visiting Asian countries, or add another year to the voyage.


Mahi-Mahi, who had similar plans as us, started the discussion and after considering all factors we altered our plans while in Vanuatu. Alternative choices were to skip Australia all together and sail via the Philippines, or sail through the Louisiades, then Torres Strait and only visit Australia in Darwin. 


In the end we chose to sail to Cairns in Australia, so that we would have a good stretch of the Great Barrier Reef to explore.

We had been warned about much red tape and hassle when entering Australia, but had one of the swiftest and friendliest clearing procedure in a while.


Cairns also turned out a really nice place. While it is a tourist center in the tropical part of Australia, it also offers all services and supplies. It has a nice marina, right next to the public beach front. This public beach front has a huge open, public pool and several gas powered barbeque sites, just to use as you like and all for free and all super clean and well maintained.



We had an anchor and a spinnaker to repair and a water pump to replace, and it was all done very quick and very well, so that we could have left Cairns within the 5 days we had planned. But the place was so nice, we stood twice as long!




Eventually we took off for a fantastic sail north to Low Island, the place were Australian hero Steve Irwin had been killed by a sting ray, just two weeks earlier. Low Island is a little lighthouse island with an adjacent somewhat bigger island that cannot be visited during bird nesting season. But the real Low Island sees 2000 visitors a day! All those come by day trip boats, the first around 10am and the last leave by 4 pm. At other times the island is all yours, except for the staff of the small research station and so we had two nice visits there before we moved on.







We left Low Island shortly after midnight to follow Mahi-Mahi who had sailed by a couple hours earlier coming from Cairns, and wanted to anchor at one of the outer reefs for diving. We had some 90 miles to go to Ribbon Reef #9. Sailing inside the Great Barrier Reef, even at night turned out less challenging than expected. Around the inside shipping lanes, the charts are spot on and very accurate, and traffic is modest and easy to deal with. Other areas are charted to various levels of accuracy and reliability, but the chart legend tells you when and how it was surveyed. Near the outer rim, surveys are less detailed and it is advisable to move there during daylight.








Not only was it easy sailing inside the Great Barrier Reef, the fishing seemed good aswell as we cought a nice big Wahoo.


Mahi-Mahi reported poor anchorage at Ribbon #8 and that they would go on to #9, and so we followed and anchored there at 2pm. We had some really nice diving before weighing anchor the next day to move on to the famous Lizard Island.


Lizard Island is the one place that every Aussie that you ask about anchorages behind the Great Barrier Reef ravels about. It is indeed a very beautiful island with about everything, from mountains with great view, like Cooks Lookout, to sandy beaches and sheltered lagoons. 




It is also the northernmost turning point for local yachts that come up the shore during the trade wind season and wait there until the strong south easterlies die, usually some time in October. 

And so the main anchorage is well filled with yachts, but by no means overfilled. Lizard Island is also a nature preserve and so many things like having a beach fire is forbidden. Yet the Aussie cruising fraternity have their regular beach parties with snacks and smoked fish and whatever you bring along.

We had some very nice days at this island: One day we hiked to the other side and one other morning together with the Mahi-Mahi Crew and the Nowadays Crew up to Cooks lookout. From there one can quite well imagine all the difficulties Captain Cook must have had when he tried to find a way out of what seemed an infinite reef.


Up on this hill, the crew of Nowadays told us all that they had decided to end their world cruising tour here in Australia. They felt the passage from Vanuatu to Cairns was too rough and they had been very concerned that their catamaran might cut under a wave and topple over.


Nowadays is a smaller version (43ft) of Mahi-Mahi, so it could well be that it felt different under those conditions.

In any case, it was bad news for the Mahi-Mahi family, as the kids of both boats got along so well, and from Australia onward there were much fewer "Kid-Boats" under way. So, the two families were having a last few days together while we on Taniwani leisurely cruised on toward the Torres Strait.










We broke up the trip into three day sails and one final day and night run to Mount Adolphus Island. All of this sailing was really nice, reaching in medium strength trade winds with barely any sea running inside the vast reef.


From Mount Adolphus Island it is only a short hop to Thursday Island, the northernmost official port of entry into Australia and the only larger settlement up there. We anchored across the channel at Horn Island and took "Dolly" our dinghy into town. 



It is yet another world: A mix of first world Australia and Pacific Island without their usual tidiness and friendliness. Doors are heavily padlocked and all windows have massive steel grids, the people more grim looking and less inviting.


Still it is an interesting place to see and we were very impressed by the style of the local artists, painters and sculptors. A much more European taste than what you see in the Pacific or Asia. Having had to guess, one would have said it came from Finland.





We paid two visits to that place, which every time included a wet ride back in Dolly, then, on Monday morning, October 2nd, we heard Mahi-Mahi on the radio. They were coming into the shipping channel from the south and wanted to just go on all the way to Darwin. And so we finished our breakfast and headed out the little channel between Thursday and Friday Island where we met Mahi-Mahi and together we sailed westwards out of the Torres Strait.

We had low expectations regarding the wind and expected it to die out as we move further away from the Pacific and the Torres strait. But we were again lucky: A quite good wind held more or less until Darwin and the last day we were pulled by a strong tidal current through the Van Diemen Gulf. Going through the Van Diemen Gulf is the shortest way to Darwin, but many books suggest to go an extra 140 miles around Melville Island, because of the strong currents and the difficult passage through Clarence Strait. In addition to this we had spring tide of 7m in Darwin.


During our swift passage we had daily visits by the Australian customs plane, which is labeled "Rescue". After some visits, they know the boats and just come on the radio to say: "Hello Taniwani, you look beautiful today under spinnaker."



We had calculated our possible windows and then pushed a bit to get faster into Van Diemen Gulf where we had an easy and very swift ride, at times doing 12 knots over ground - nothing spectacular though.

We reached Darwin mid afternoon and called the Marina at Cullen Bay. They told us to hold off until 6 PM as there was no space in the entry basin and so we anchored in Fanny Bay for a few hours. Eventually we were let in and asked to raft up our two boats. So Taniwani went alongside the dock and Mahi-Mahi tied up to us. We did this so that Taniwani would have a bit more water at low water, when the entry basin almost dries out.



The entry into the actual marina is through a lock and the water level inside the marina is kept within about 1 meter difference. Northern Star, who had come to Darwin a week earlier had already arranged a place in the marina for us, but we were not allowed to enter until the fisheries department had checked and decontaminated our boats.

The big concern is that boats arriving from other areas would bring in the infamous "black stripped mussel". It had done several million of damage to the marina facilities and now no boat from outside the region can enter without prior treatment. This treatment is free, but it sounded bad when we heard that one would have to remove all hoses from all sea cocks and so on.

But a friendly man turned up and together we went through all our water in- and outlets, poured stuff into sinks and toilets and flushed engine and generator cooling systems with it. In the end we found ways to do this without removing hoses, by opening the strainers and filling it in right there. The magic stuff is said to be normal dish washing detergent and it is supposed to kill such mussels and their bread in less than 12 hours.

We took it easy and asked for locking in a day later. Taniwani had done so many locks and we didn't expect any trouble in this one, but it became a rough ride up the ugly wall. We had taken fuel on the outside dock and then entered almost at very low water so we had to come up a long way. The lockmaster seemed in a hurry and flooded the lock very quickly and so for our short handed crew it was a bit of a hassle - but it all ended without scratches or problems.

It turned out it was worth all the hassle as the marina berth that Northern Star had arranged for us, was a private one, connected to a nice private house with its own swimming pool. The owners were away and were renting pontoon and pool through the marina office.


This was a really great place: Mahi-Mahi and Taniwani tied up on opposite sides of the pontoon and then we could sit in the pool, have a beer and look at our boats. In this heat it was really good news.

It was easy to spend 8 days in this place. By comparison, Darwin feels a bit smaller and more remote than Cairns and boat parts and the like are also somewhat more expensive. But Darwin has a nice open market along the beach, with lots of food stands and other stands selling various things, from aborigines art to plastic shoes. It also features some nice musicians and bands, so that everybody will find something to his liking. We went there several times.

Driving out of Darwin one soon realizes how vast and remote this part of Australia is. We made a car trip some one and a half hours south, to a river where they take you out on river boats to see the huge saltwater crocodiles.  

They dangle some meat on a line over the water and raise it when a crock comes. As a result the crocks jump out of the water, almost full length. A pretty spectacular view, just a few meters from the monsters.

And finally we had a nice evening on Serenitè, a lovely 70-footer. Carlo, a very nice Italian, who we first met in Cairns, had also invited Freedom, singer from the open market and together with them and the Mahi-Mahi family we had an unforgettable evening anchored out in front of Cairns. We wouldn't see Carlo again as he went off to Chagos and the Maldives on his way to the Med. We will only get to these places some time in 2007.



For us it was also time to move on, and our next destination was Bali. We now had the Indonesian cruising permit, which usually takes about 6 weeks to obtain. It was swiftly done by the agent in Bali Marina whom we had mailed from Vanuatu. 

We left Darwin on Saturday, October 14th. Late in the year we had to expect little or no wind and rainsqualls, but again the weather turned out more favorable. It was light wind sailing and our first 24 hours came out at 144 miles, exactly 6 knots average - not too bad for almost no wind. But it got less than that and the next two days we fell to 138 miles each.



Going on like this, it became clear to us, that we wouldn't make it to Bali before Saturday morning, and then we would have to stay at anchor until we could clear in on Monday. 

The nicer alternative seemed a stop at the Ashmore Reef. This is a larger reef, with some three little islands, about half way from Darwin to Bali. It belongs to Australia and is well guarded, and Indonesian fisherman are only allowed to fish there with motor-less traditional sailing boats. 

The other problem Australia had was refugees from the East Timor crisis would land there and claim asylum in Australian territory. So nowadays there is usually a customs ship there. One of these had overtaken us in the last night before Ashmore, checked over radio who we were and told us that we would meet them at the reef the next day.

The entry to the best anchorage is complicated, with many turns between hundreds of coral heads. Probably to facilitate their own entry, the Australian Customs had laid out numerous red and green markers that one can follow into the reef anchorage. The only small problem was making out the color, when going into the low sun as all markers have the same shape.
But we made it in with no problems and took one of the many mooring boys, they had been laid out for visiting yachts. But there were no other yachts and the crew from the customs ship told us that we were the first yachts they met here.


Soon after we were settled, a few folks from the customs ship came over to hand us brochures and regulations for the reef which is a nature preserve. Off course they also loved to stay for some small talk and a beer.

Next day we went for a tour to the only island on which one is allowed to land. It was very nice and the huge number of nautilus shells that was washed ashore looked really great. Snorkeling near our boats was also excellent with many turtles and various types of rays. 

We saw the turtle tracks going up the beach and thought of spending a night ashore to see them come up the beach, but then you never know when they come and it is not really allowed to stay ashore during the night.

We liked it here and decided to stay another day. We were invited to the "Hervey Bay", the customs ship, for a tour and coffee and cake. We returned this hospitality and invited the whole customs crew to a sand spit, for beer and wine, which they are not allowed to carry. Lara and Marco from Mahi-Mahi gave their special Pacific Islands Fire Dancing show. It was a nice evening.

The Captain of the "Hervey Bay" told us that they would leave in the morning to check on an other island and will only be back in the evening. He was sort of hinting that we could use the opportunity to see some of the restricted parts of the reef but could off course not seriously suggest that.

Our plan was to leave the next day, as the wind now looked promising, but certainly the crew of Mahi-Mahi wanted to make a dinghy tour to the east motu before taking off. So Harald went with them, and Beate and Lara waited on the boats. 
It was worth the trip as one could see so many birds from very close. As busy as on the Selvagem Islands some years ago, but more variety with frigate birds, tropic birds, boobies and several others, all sharing the little desolate island.

Soon after that, both boats weighed anchor and sailed out the reef towards new and exotic destinations.

Click here for the next and last report for 2006, which covers Bali, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand.

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