The Big Empty


    I left New Zealand because I wanted to sail oceans again, not coasts; yet the end of my first passage found me in Cairns, Australia, about to sail four hundred miles along a coast;  but this is a special coast. From May to October you can reach all the way to Cape York across water sheltered by the Great Barrier Reef with almost guaranteed east to southeast wind, and good anchorages all but the penultimate one.   In the 1980s I passed this way in both CHIDIOCK TICHBORNE and RESURGAM and remembered it as one of the great sails in the world.

    After clearing with the officials in Cairns, I remained in the Marlin Marina for six days, enjoying fresh food in the restaurants that now line the shore, performing boat maintenance, and provisioning.

    I had not been in Cairns for twenty-one years.  Of course places change in that time, but Cairns, which had been a big country town, was changed out of all recognition.  In the interval the marina had been destroyed by a cyclone and rebuilt inside a massive concrete seawall; and Cairns had become a resort with a landscaped shoreline, hotels, casino, and even a Louis Vuitton store. 

    I had been assigned a downwind slip and wanted to leave it before the wind came up.  At 6:15 a.m. on Tuesday, May 13,  I pushed THE HAWKE OF TUONELA halfway out against a breath of pre-dawn air to clear the bow of a neighboring day-trip boat and was through the looming breakwater entrance at first light. 

    By 7:00 a.m. enough wind was coming off the high land to unfurl the jib and cut the engine.  On THE HAWKE OF TUONELA the mainsail is not the main sail.  It would be set only once before Cape York and twice all the way to Darwin.

    In a couple of hours, the wind backed from southwest to southeast and I jibed.  Pleasant sailing before a fifteen knots breeze and one to two foot waves, but that’s what I remembered and expected:  sailing at its level best.

    I had been told that Port Douglas, twenty-five miles north of Cairns, had grown dramatically, too, and wondered if I would find the Low Islets filled with day-trip boats.

    As the sand cays rose--slightly--above the water before noon, I saw several masts.  A mile off I furled the jib and started the engine.  When I rounded the reef, I was surprised to see that the boats were on moorings, which often complicate an anchorage.  Two were day-trip boats, but the other two looked like cruisers.

    Passing close to the first of these, I called and a man came on deck who confirmed that some of the moorings were public and free.  Another man appeared on the next boat and said there was a mooring beyond him.  These are industrial size moorings, with hawsers as pennants.  He considerately climbed into his dinghy and putted over to hand the pennant up to me.  It was too big for THE HAWKE OF TUONELA’s cleats, so I temporarily draped it over the windlass drum until I could rig a bridle.

    Thirty-five miles of perfect sailing.  Time for lunch.

     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 light house.

    With a glass of wine 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’s excellent, I would say indispensable, CRUISING THE CORAL COAST, I expected to take ten or eleven days to reach Cape York   

    We were well within the tropics--Cairns is 17º South and Cape York above 11º 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 had not tied the tiller down tight enough and the rudder woke me early, and I like being underway 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 6:15 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 a half hour, until the wind filled from the south.  I set the jib again and we were doing six knots.

    At 10:00 we were off Captain Cook’s Cape Tribulation, so named because their tribulations began there.  The sky was mostly overcast and rain falling in several places, but not on us.  We had sailed the other boats below the horizon.

    By 11:00 the wind had increased to 18 knots and I was beginning to have doubts about Hope Island.  I had 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 24 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 the ENDEAVOUR was towed by her boats 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 with the growth of the town might be crowded, I opted for Cape Bedford.

    In what became a race with darkness, I had to partially furl the jib to enable the tiller pilot maintain control as the wind increased to 26 knots.   Conditions were on the edge of the tiller pilot’s capability.  At sea I would have used the Monitor, but we had to pass between several reefs and coral patches that afternoon and needed to steer compass courses.  In this the chartplotter 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 big spade rudder.

    With a boat speed of 6.5 to 7 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’ of water in its lee with a few minutes of twilight remaining.

    We had come almost twice as far as expected, covering 74 miles in 12 hours.  If I had planned this, I wouldn’t have let us loaf along at 3 knots for a half hour in the morning.

    Not a beautiful day, but beautiful sailing.

    THE HAWKE OF TUONELA was in a peculiar mode, neither passage nor harbor.  I had 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 had put a passage pillow case on the pillow.

    Bags of provisions were stowed on the cabin sole in front of the v-berth and on the quarterberths.  The solar panels were on the quarterberths instead of on deck because the batteries were getting sufficient charge from running the engine 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 a half 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 Cairns I had 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 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 would be from New York City north and west and south to Los Angeles.

    Having come so far in one day, I sailed only twenty miles the next, anchoring behind Cape Flattery, so named by Captain Cook with rare irony because after repairing the 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 a half million tonnes 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 tiller pilot bracket and inspected it for cracks.  In our first year out of Boston, we broke 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.  Having come so far so fast, I was off schedule.  The next logical stop was Lizard Island eighteen 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; but I had been there twice and had a moving on mind set. 

    At Cape Flattery the coast, which has been tending north, falls away to the northwest for seventy miles and then scallops west for fifty more, before turning north again for Cape York.

    I was fifteen minutes late next morning and didn’t get the anchor up until 6:30.  The engine was switched 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 would go that day, and ended up once again going farther.

    A sunny morning of fifteen knot trades sped THE HAWKE OF TUONELA along a coast of low hills and sand dunes, and brought us to our first possible anchorage at Howick Island, an offshore sand cay at noon.  I anchored here in CHIDIOCK TICHBORNE; but in THE HAWKE OF TUONELA I couldn’t find less than 34’ of water at low tide, and decided to continue on to Ninian Bay twenty-two 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 would reach it near sunset, and then have to work my way around a two mile long and 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 would 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 chartplotter, we painfully punched our way around the shoal, and anchored in 18’ of water near high tide an hour later.  The anchor set instantly, but I let out 100’ of chain, more than my usual 3-1 scope. 

    The chartplotter said we had covered 77 miles.  The howling wind confined my evening drink to the cabin.

    A long day was again followed by a short one, only fifteen miles to one of my favorite anchorages along this coast at the Flinders Islands 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 I imagine very rarely visited national parks--there isn’t a paved road for hundreds of miles--one of which is used for crocodile conservation.  I’m glad I didn’t have to dive to recover the anchor.

    The Flinders Islands are continental islands, high hills rather than sand cays, and the anchorage is in a channel between them, a pretty, peaceful place that I had to myself.

    Anchored before noon, I caught up on a few minor maintenance jobs, and 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 am often struck by the ugly clutter of modern urban life.  There is 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, sixty miles in all, and, unexpectedly, sixty miles under power.

    The wind never was more than slight.  Usually it couldn’t even fill the jib, and when it did, it added only .3 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 sound-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 did not see the crew, and anchored a hundred yards away.

    At sunset I was on deck.  No music.  I had heard enough during the day.  The only sounds:  ripples lapping on the shore and cranes wading in shallows calling “Kelrupp.  Kelrupp.”


    After its unaccustomed usage, I checked the engine fluids and fan belts the following morning and heard the other boat getting underway.  By the time I winched in the Spade, he was a mile or two north and west.  Although we would share a few more anchorages, I did not actually met its owner, JIm, until Darwin.

    This stretch of the coast and reef offered several possible stops spaced at twenty mile intervals, and I was determined not to power; but after its rest day the wind provided the best sailing of the passage, with 14-16 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 is a tiny settlement on the hillside of Portland Roads.  Three local boats were there before me, and the Valiant came in later.  As did a small private helicopter, which arched over the hills to land on the tiny beach. 

    The noise brought me on deck, where I found a divided sky:  to the south 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 Bligh, the second greatest open boat sailor of all time.

    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 non-stop, 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 CRUISING THE 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 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 is never a problem leaving Bushy Islet early.

    I didn’t bother to turn on the engine and sailed off my anchor at Cape Grenville later than usual.  I didn’t want to spend any more time at Bushy Islet than necessary.  The Valiant was already gone, so I assumed he was heading for the Escape River.

    Pushed by moderate 14 knot trade winds, we were anchored at dreaded Bushy Islet by mid-afternoon,  And it wasn’t bad.  It was in fact good.  The water in the lee of the small sand cay smoother than Portland Roads.  But it was low tide.  With a 7’ range, the high tide at midnight would find all 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 further 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 not to be necessary.  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 3:00, when I sailed off the anchor and headed north under jib and 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 the 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 short-cut through Albany Pass was not 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 30º east to sail the shipping channel at a more comfortable angle.

    The tiller pilot became hysterical trying to compensate for conditions it didn’t understand.  The overfalls were not extreme, but eventually I had to take the tiller myself.  Even with sixteen 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 9:45 the light on Albany Rock was abeam, and we turned west to reach the anchorage in the lee of Cape York.

    Cape York is not a dramatic headland, merely another hill tapering to the sea; but there is always satisfaction in rounding a significant cape, the extremity of a continent, even if it is not quite up to Hope or Horn.

    The sail from Cairns had lived up to my memories,   I let my mind wander south and knew I would never sail that coast again.  And I must confess to being glad that ahead, beyond Torres Strait, lay open water.