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.
Another day, another 47 fast miles found us behind Cape Grenville, only 90 miles from Cape York, and faced with the worst leg of the journey. Other than continuing nonstop, the sailor has only two choices along this stretch of low, sandy coast: cover 70 miles to the Escape River, and a few more across a bar to anchor, or go 47 miles to Bushy Islet, which Coral Coast describes as miserable. Not wanting to race all day, cross a bar facing into the sun, and have to make my way up a river in twilight, I’d stopped at Bushy Islet in both Chidiock Tichborne and Resurgam, and miserable it is.
At high tide, Bushy Islet almost disappears and becomes hang-on rolly. There’s never a problem leaving Bushy Islet early.
I didn’t bother to turn on Hawke’s engine, and we sailed off the anchor at Cape Grenville later than usual. I didn’t want to spend any more time at Bushy Islet than was necessary. The Valiant was already gone.
Pushed by moderate, 14-knot trade winds, we were anchored at dreaded Bushy Islet by midafternoon, and it wasn’t bad. It was, in fact, good. The water in the lee of the small sand cay was smoother than Portland Roads. But it was low tide.
With a seven-foot range, the high tide at midnight would find the mile-long reef and most of the cay submerged.
Enjoying the unexpectedly pleasant conditions while I could, I sat on deck. The low mainland covered with scrub and patches of white sand lay four miles west of us. Cape York was 45 miles north, a bit farther to the anchorage, depending on whether we went through Albany Pass or followed the shipping channel outside Albany Rock.
In anticipation of severe rolling at high tide, I slept that night in the main cabin rather than the V-berth. It turned out to be unnecessary. I woke several times, and near midnight I got up and didn’t even need to grab a handhold.
Bushy Islet, which has lived in my memory for decades as one of the worst anchorages I’ve ever used, behaved itself all night, or at least until 0300, when I sailed off the anchor and headed north under jib and the full moon.
A ship was passing as we spun away from Bushy Islet, and there was a dim loom of light to the north that I assumed was the settlement at Thursday Island, in Torres Strait.
The Hawke of Tuonela sailed through lovely pre-dawn coolness to a Schubert sonata, and dawn found us off the Escape River, from which two boats were emerging. To starboard, silhouetted against the rising sun, a tug pulled a barge south.
The shortcut through Albany Pass wasn’t on for us that morning, being directly downwind through an area of overfalls, where the Arafura and Coral seas collide. The jib was constantly on the edge of collapse and jibe, so I turned 30 degrees east to sail the shipping channel at a more comfortable angle.
The tillerpilot became hysterical trying to compensate for conditions it didn’t understand. The overfalls weren’t extreme, but eventually I had to take the tiller myself. Even with 16 knots of wind in the sail, The Hawke of Tuonela’s deck canted wildly and often to windward as we bounced over bands of dark and tortured water.
At 0945, the light on Albany Rock was abeam, and we turned west to reach the anchorage in the lee of Cape York.
Cape York isn’t a dramatic headland, merely another hill tapering to the sea. But there’s always satisfaction in rounding a significant cape, the extremity of a continent, even if it isn’t quite up to Hope or Horn.
The sail from Cairns, I realized, had lived up to my memories. I let my mind wander south and knew that I’d never sail that coast again. And I must confess to being glad that ahead, beyond Torres Strait, lay open water.
Webb Chiles divides his time between sailing The Hawke of Tuonela, a 37-foot Heritage One-Ton sloop based in New Zealand, and a Moore 24 on Lake Michigan. Five of his books are available in Kindle editions, including The Fifth Circle, from which this article is excerpted. Keep up with Chiles at his website (www.inthepresentsea.com).