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.
The Hawke of Tuonela was in a peculiar mode, neither passage nor harbor. I’d left the good slipcovers on the cushions and was sleeping in the V-berth, though on a sleeping bag, because I felt too grubby for sheets, and I’d put a passage pillowcase on the pillow.
Bags of provisions were stowed on the cabin sole in front of the V-berth and on the quarter berths. The solar panels were on the quarter berths instead of on deck because the batteries were getting sufficient charge from running the engine when leaving and entering anchorages. And objects left on the upper berths in the main cabin and in the galley didn’t need to be secured.
The sky cleared after sunset, and just over half a moon was shining when I took my evening drink on deck. The rigging was an illuminated spider web. I was facing the Southern Cross. At sea the last few days before arriving at Cairns, I’d seen the Big Dipper. I turned north, but it wasn’t visible.
To my left were the dark shapes of the two buttes at the end of Cape Bedford. Several miles away to my right was a single light. This is Aboriginal land. From here for thousands of miles, all the way around the northern coast of the continent and almost all the way down the west until Perth, there are only four or five towns. In the United States, this distance would stretch from New York City north and west and south to Los Angeles.
Having come so far in one day, I sailed only 20 miles the next, anchoring behind Cape Flattery, so named by Captain Cook with rare irony because after repairing Endeavour, they flattered themselves that their troubles were over.
While there are few people in northern Australia, there is much mineral wealth, and those who are there, other than Aboriginals, are usually mining. A Japanese company runs a silica-sand strip mine near Cape Flattery and exports half a million tons of sand each year from a jetty on the south side of the cape. From where I anchored on the north side, I could see several work boats to my west, but any buildings were obstructed by a hill.
That afternoon, I removed the tillerpilot bracket and inspected it for cracks. In our first year out of Boston, we’d broken several brackets. It appeared to be sound, so I bolted it back in place. I checked for spares and found I still had three.
I also reassessed my plans. I’d traveled so far so fast that I was off schedule. The next logical stop was Lizard Island, 18 miles to the north. Lizard is a high island with a good anchorage, an expensive resort, and a climb to Cook’s Lookout, where the good captain sought and found a way back to open water through the labyrinth of coral in which he was trapped. Those sailing this coast for the first time shouldn’t miss it; I’d been there twice and was in a moving-on mind-set.
At Cape Flattery, the coast, which has been tending north, falls away to the northwest for 70 miles, then scallops west for 50 more before turning north again for Cape York.
I was 15 minutes late the next morning and didn’t get the anchor up until 0630. I switched the engine off a few minutes later. I realized that it would have been easy to sail off the anchor and only started the engine in case I had trouble winching in the chain against the wind. I wasn’t certain how far I’d go that day, and I ended up once again going even farther.
A sunny morning of 15-knot trades sped The Hawke of Tuonela along a coast of low hills and sand dunes and at noon brought us to our first possible anchorage at Howick Island, an offshore sand cay. I anchored here in Chidiock Tichborne; in The Hawke of Tuonela, I couldn’t find less than 34 feet of water at low tide and decided to continue on to Ninian Bay 22 miles ahead. But when I got there, Ninian Bay was closed. The wind was too far east, turning it into an unprotected lee shore.
After a brief exploration of a spot marked as “trawler anchorage,” I turned north for Cape Melville. With only two hours of daylight left, I’d reach it near sunset, then have to work my way around a two-mile-long, one-mile-wide shoal on its west side to anchor in its lee. This would definitely be after dark, but the sky was clear, and we’d have a waxing gibbous moon.
The last orange glow faded to black as we passed between Cape Rock and Boulder Rock at the tip of Cape Melville, and I made Captain Cook’s mistake of flattering myself that my trials were over. Although we had to harden up to a close reach as we turned south, I expected to find smooth water and decreasing wind in the cape’s lee. Instead, the wind gusted to 29 knots, the waves became jagged, and enough spray came over the deck so that I raised the dodger for the first time since Cairns.
With depth sounder and chart plotter, we painfully punched our way around the shoal and anchored in 18 feet of water near high tide an hour later. The anchor set instantly, but I let out 100 feet of chain, more than my usual 3-to-1 scope.
The chart plotter indicated that we’d covered 77 miles. The howling wind confined my evening drink to the cabin.
Again, a short day followed a long one. It was only 15 miles to one of my favorite anchorages along this coast, at the Flinders Islands group on the other side of Bathurst Bay, the first of the two scallops west of Cape Melville.
The anchor was fouled on something that morning, and I had to power from side to side to free it. Later, I read that almost all the land in this region belongs to three national parks (I imagine they’re very rarely visited; there isn’t a paved road for hundreds of miles). One of them is used for crocodile conservation. I’m glad I didn’t have to dive to recover the anchor.