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.
Racing Against Darkness
The Low Islets are a pretty anchorage, wide open to the north, but the cays provide good shelter from the trades and are the home to many birds and a small lighthouse.
With a glass of wine in hand, I watched the sunset over the mainland seven miles to the west of us. The Great Barrier Reef was eight miles east. The land was still high and would be until near Cooktown.
Renewing my acquaintance with Alan Lucas’ excellent—I’d say indispensable—Cruising the Coral Coast, I expected to take 10 or 11 days to reach Cape York. I was well within the tropics—Cairns is at 17 degrees south, and Cape York is above 11 degrees south—so daylight and darkness were about evenly divided.
There was no need for me to be off at first light the next morning to reach Hope Island 38 miles north, except that I hadn’t tied the tiller down tight enough and the rudder woke me early, and I like being under way at dawn. I also like to reach anchorages with time to spare in case of the unexpected, a policy whose worth was about to be proven. So 0615 again found me on deck, dropping the mooring and powering past the other boats. Lights were on in their cabins, so I expected they would be away soon.
The dawn wind was again off the land, and I cut the engine and was sailing under the jib within a few minutes. As the sky lightened, I saw rain falling from dark clouds ahead, which drizzled on us as they moved offshore. Sails appeared behind us.
Rain persisted, sometimes light, sometimes heavy, and the wind weakened. When our boat speed dropped to two knots, I turned on the engine and powered for half an hour, until the wind filled from the south. I set the jib again and we were doing six knots.
At 1000, we were off Captain Cook’s Cape Tribulation, so named because their tribulations began there. The sky was mostly overcast, and rain was falling in several places but not on us. We’d sailed the other boats below the horizon.
By 1100, the wind had increased to 18 knots, and I was beginning to have doubts about Hope Island. I’d been there in Resurgam and remembered an approach through coral heads.
An hour later, Hope Island was in sight and beyond consideration. The wind was gusting to 24 knots, and rain was falling behind us. Not a reef day. Captain Cook’s sentiments exactly. Endeavour Reef, where he went aground, was five miles due east.
My alternate choices were Cooktown, where Endeavour was towed by her workboats to be repaired, 15 miles away, or Cape Bedford, 33 miles distant. Because Cooktown’s anchorage in the Endeavour River is small and shallow and because, with the growth of the town, it might be crowded, I headed for Cape Bedford.
In what became a race with darkness, I had to partially furl the jib to enable the tillerpilot to maintain control, as the wind increased to 26 knots. Conditions were on the edge of the tillerpilot’s capability. At sea, I would have used the Monitor windvane, but we had to pass between several reefs and coral patches that afternoon and needed to steer compass courses. In this, the chart plotter proved invaluable. I simply moved the cursor to the next channel ahead of us and had instant bearing and distance.
The wonder of modern electronics was somewhat tempered as I watched the autopilot tiller bracket bend from the force of two- to three-foot waves pressing against The Hawke of Tuonela’s big spade rudder.
With a boat speed of six and a half to seven knots, we flew north, and the math was promising as Cape Bedford became visible at a distance of 17 miles with three hours of daylight remaining.
My Spade anchor went down in 15 feet of water in its lee with a few minutes of twilight remaining.
We’d come almost twice as far as expected, covering 74 miles in 12 hours. If I’d planned this, I wouldn’t have let us loaf along at three knots for half an hour in the morning.
Not a beautiful day, but beautiful sailing.