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 Flinders Islands are continental islands, high hills rather than sand cays, and the anchorage is in a channel between them. It’s a pretty, peaceful place that I had all to myself.
Anchored before noon, I caught up on a few minor maintenance jobs, then enjoyed the solitude and space, which usually I only find at sea, but which here also enter the mind from the vast, empty land. I’m often struck by the ugly clutter of modern urban life. There’s a soothing purity to emptiness.
I was off early the next morning for a last leap west across Princess Charlotte Bay, followed by a turn north to Morris Island, 60 miles in all and, unexpectedly, 60 miles we’d do under power.
The wind never was more than slight. Usually it couldn’t even fill the jib, and when it did, it added only three-tenths of a knot to our speed. It was a perfect day for powering, if that isn’t an oxymoron.
We passed a trawler early and then two more anchored behind a cay halfway across the bay. I moved around the deck seeking shade and listened to music on noise-canceling headphones, bought for long flights but useful for banishing Yanmars as well. (Later experimentation established that I could still hear the audible engine alarms with the headphones on.)
True blessed silence finally came in late afternoon when my anchor went down behind Morris Island, a sand cay covered with low scrub and a lone palm tree on the west side of an extensive reef.
Another boat was already there, a Valiant 40. I didn’t see the crew, and I anchored 100 yards away.
At sunset, I was on deck. No music. I had heard enough during the day. The only sounds were ripples lapping on the shore and cranes wading in shallows and calling “Kelrupp. Kelrupp.”
After its unaccustomed usage, I checked the engine fluids and fan belts the following morning and heard the other boat getting under way. By the time I winched in the Spade, the Valiant 40 was a mile or two north and west. Although we’d share a few more anchorages, I didn’t actually meet its owner, Jim, until Darwin.
This stretch of the coast and reef offered several possible stops spaced at 20-mile intervals, and I was determined not to power. After its rest day, the wind now provided the best sailing of the passage, with 14 to 16 knots on a broad reach encouraging me to set the mainsail as well as the jib and bringing us in late afternoon past Restoration Island, where Captain Bligh made land on his open-boat voyage after the mutiny, and to Portland Roads before dark. We covered the same distance as the day before—60 miles—but sailed 57 of them. Better.
For reasons that I’ve never understood, there’s a tiny settlement on the hillside of Portland Roads.
Three local boats were there before me, and the Valiant came in later. A small private helicopter arched over the hills and landed on the tiny beach.
The noise brought me on deck, where I found a divided sky: To the south, it was dark with rain and a rainbow; to the north, clear and sunny.
I stayed on deck and raised my glass to the much-maligned Captain William Bligh, the second greatest open-boat sailor of all time.