Australia’s heat and diverse landscapes were the backdrop for lots of work and some great fun from April through August 2009.
Ellen’s cover story “Following Cook and Slocum: Voyagers Head North Inside Australia’s Great Barrier Reef” in Ocean Navigator’s Jan/Feb 2013 issue, chronicles the first part of our time in Australia. During our voyage up the Queensland coast, we followed both in Captain Cook’s wake, slowing wending our way north, and in Joshua Slocum’s wake, making a nonstop passage despite dire warnings!
At the end of August 2008, we’d cleared into Cairns and left Heretic in a hurricane hole while we went back to the States for Ellen to finish her Yale degree, to work and add to the cruising piggy bank. Seth also taught Ellen to ski, but that’s another story. In April 2009 we arrived back in Cairns to find Heretic safe though mildewed.
The only apparent damage was that the Aussie sun had destroyed her varnish. We were a little too quick to rejoice, though: a piston in the engine had corroded and seized the whole thing! At first we thought we’d have to haul out to fix it—a hugely expensive proposition—but, to make a long story short, Seth took apart the whole engine while I repaired the varnish, and off we went by May 1.
Our first stop was Michaelmas Cay, an sandy islet between Cairns and the Outer Barrier Reef, a bird rookery and impressive dive site. From there we sailed to Port Douglas and anchored in the mangroves where we were thrilled by the abundance of bird life and somewhat less thrilled by the resident 12-foot-long man-eating crocodile.
In Port Douglas we did quite a lot of work replacing our temperamental wind generator with 120 watts of hard solar panels. (See Ellen’s feature “Wind vs. Solar” in the November 2013 issue of Blue Water Sailing.) Then we day-sailed to Cape Tribulation, so named by Cook because he stove-in Endeavour there, the Hope Islands, and the old gold rush village of Cooktown.
Cooktown was one of our favorite stops in ‘Oz.’ It’s located on the Endeavour River where James Cook repaired his ship in 1770. It’s a little tricky for boats because the silting river makes it easy to run aground (we did), but the friendly town has lots to offer, from museums to hiking trails.
We left the Endeavour River at 2AM to catch the right tide across the shallow entrance bar and set our course for Lizard Island, 50 miles away. The national park is only 13 miles from the Outer Barrier Reef and thus far enough from the coast to be free of crocodiles! Thinking only of being able to swim and snorkel again, we hadn’t realized that most of our sailing friends would also be gathered there, some of whom we hadn’t seen since Panama over 2 years before!
The snorkeling was all we had hoped and we were especially interested to hear a talk given by the head scientist at the coral reef ecology research station. Increased water temperatures, particularly ‘hot spots’ on the surface, acidification due to absorption of CO2, and a sharp increase of Crown of Thorns sea stars posed the greatest risks to the Great Barrier Reef.
But the GBR is still stunning! With some new friends we made the trip to the Outer Reef where we dove at Cod Hole among Napoleon wrasses, reef sharks, and potato cod, very friendly and very large (330 lbs) grouper who are so curious that they swim right up to scuba divers.
After some hiking and some bucket laundry at Captain Cook’s ‘poole of good, sweet water’ (Cook’s Journals) on Lizard Island, we made a fast passage up to Cape York, the northernmost tip of Australia, stopping only once at the impressive red rock islands of the Flinders Group.
After a two and a half day passage, we made landfall at Seisia, a Torres Strait islander town on the west side of Cape York.
From there we intended to make the passage to Darwin direct, but ended up stopping at the windswept Wessel Islands to resurrect ourselves and our torn sails after crossing the Gulf of Carpentaria (which Seth re-named the Gulf of Misery and Suffering…). Once past the Wessels, we had a pleasant—even too calm—passage to Darwin.
We hauled Heretic out of the water as soon as we arrived and spent five weeks living in the boatyard. What we thought would be a quick bottom paint job turned into massive hull repair when we found that the gel coat covering the fiberglass was blistering and, worse, that a large part of the fiberglass itself was totally rotten. Stripping the paint and preparing the surface with grinders and sanders took the most time, as did cutting out the rotted glass and rebuilding it. Consequently, all we saw of the Northern Territory was industrial lots and strip malls.
But finally our purgatory of Tyvek suits, respirators, and chemical gloves came to end. We launched and almost immediately cleared Customs and headed out into the windless Arafura Sea, the first leg of our Indian Ocean Crossing.
Read about earlier adventures on the South Pacific page 🙂
All text and photographs © Ellen Massey Leonard and Seton Leonard, 2015, All Rights Reserved.