The Big Empty
A veteran singlehander returns to a stretch of the lonely Australian coast noted by Captain Cook for its trials and unexpected pleasures.
I left New Zealand because I wanted to sail oceans again, not along coasts. The end of my first passage found me in Cairns, Australia, about to sail 400 miles along a coast. But this is a special coast.
From May to October, you can reach all the way to Cape York, at the northern tip of the peninsula, across water sheltered by the Great Barrier Reef with almost guaranteed east to southeast wind and good anchorages—all but the penultimate one. In the 1980s, I passed this way in my previous boats, Chidiock Tichborne and Resurgam and remembered it as one of the great sails in the world.
After clearing with the officials in Cairns, I remained in the Marlin Marina for six days, enjoying fresh food in the restaurants that line the shore, performing boat maintenance, and provisioning.
I hadn’t been in Cairns for 21 years. Of course places change in that time, but Cairns, which had been a big country town, was changed out of all recognition. In the interval, the marina had been destroyed by a cyclone and rebuilt inside a massive concrete seawall, and Cairns had become a resort with a landscaped shoreline, hotels, casino, and even a Louis Vuitton store.
I’d been assigned a downwind slip and wanted to leave it before the wind came up. At 0615 on the day of departure, I pushed The Hawke of Tuonela halfway out against a breath of pre-dawn air to clear the bow of a neighboring day-trip boat and was through the looming breakwater entrance at first light.
By 0700, enough wind was coming off the high land to unfurl the jib and cut the engine. On The Hawke of Tuonela, the mainsail isn’t the main sail. It would be set only once before Cape York and twice all the way to Darwin.
In a couple of hours, the wind backed from southwest to southeast, and I jibed. Pleasant sailing before a 15-knot breeze and one- to two-foot waves, but that’s what I remembered and expected: sailing at its level best.
I’d been told that Port Douglas, 25 miles north of Cairns, had grown dramatically, too, and I wondered if I’d find the Low Islets filled with day-trip boats.
As the sand cays rose—slightly—above the water before noon, I saw several masts. A mile off, I furled the jib and started the engine. When I rounded the reef, I was surprised to see that the boats were on moorings, which often complicate an anchorage. Two were day-trip boats, but the other two looked like cruisers.
Passing close to the first of these, I called, and a man came on deck and confirmed that some of the moorings were public and free. Another man appeared on the next boat and said there was a mooring beyond him. These are industrial-size moorings, with hawsers as pendants. He considerately climbed into his dinghy and putted over to hand the pendant up to me. It was too big for The Hawke of Tuonela’s cleats, so I temporarily draped it over the windlass drum until I could rig a bridle.
Thirty-five miles of perfect sailing. Time for lunch.