The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Sometimes, you want to bang your head against a bulkhead. Sometimes, you want to murder the other person on board. And sometimes, you just have to laugh at yourself, your expectations, and the realities of trying to sail around the world. In our 3-week, 1,150-mile voyage from Cooktown to Darwin, we did all of that. With a nod to Clint Eastwood, here is the tale.

The Good

When planning the first part of our voyage, from Cooktown to Cape York, the northernmost point on the continent of Australia, Eric and I weren’t counting on an easy sail. This is the last stretch inside the Great Barrier Reef with its attendant reefs, rocks and shoals. In addition, while the wind direction is ideal—southeast trades consistently at your back—the wind speed tends to intensify the farther north you go. That’s because after blowing unopposed across 9,000 miles of Pacific Ocean, the trades now funnel toward and through the narrow Torres Strait between Cape York and New Guinea and into the Arafura Sea. We’re talking 30 knots for days at a time. Toss in tricky tides and contradictory currents, and a boat can get caught battling adverse conditions or confined to a rolly, desolate anchorage to wait out the latest blow.

We were elated, therefore, that the weather forecast when we left Cooktown on 19 July showed a nearly 2-week window of incredibly congenial 10-20k winds, occasionally reaching 25k. Determined to make the most of it, we hot-footed up the coast. Wake up, sail, anchor, eat dinner, sleep, get up, do it all over again. We took only two layover days to get the wind out of our ears and motorsailed when it went awol to keep up the pace. It made for some long days with pre-dawn starts, but since the coastline is low-lying, barren and almost completely uninhabited, there was little reason to linger or go ashore. Here and there we snagged a bit of Internet to update the forecast, and to our delight it held steady for the duration.

Another nice surprise was that the Great Barrier Reef, which merges toward the coast as you trek north, noticeably buffered the ocean swell. With waves less than a meter, we had smooth sailing by day, and, with two exceptions, a comfortable anchorage every night. Some of our anchorages were no more than the lee of a small sand dune island. While the dune blocked the swell, the breeze flowed over the dune and kept us cool. Rarely did another boat join us. For those who like to consult maps, our stops along the way were: Cape Flattery, Howick Island, the Flinders Group, Morris Island, Lloyd Bay, Margaret Bay, Shelburne Bay, Bushy Islet and Mount Adolphus.

The Flinders Group. We tried to hike here and got attacked by biting ants.
Morris Island. Look how calm the water is.

Indeed, company was scarce overall. In the 400 miles to Cape York, we spotted a total of perhaps 4 far-off sailboats, a like number of fishing vessels, and 2-3 freighters a day in the coastal shipping channel. Dolphins were infrequent and didn’t hang around to play. Brown boobies and black noddies were pretty much the only birds. Once in a while, a silvery fish leaped clear of the water. Some overcast and sprinkles aside, the sky was bright blue with puffy clouds, the water sparkled azure, and we read or listened to podcasts as Corroboree glided along.

Eric read aloud to us while I was at the helm.

Then, a spell of excitement halfway up the coast when we got buzzed, loud and low, by an Australian Border Force (ABF) plane. They circled three times in our area, and we heard them on the VHF radio contacting other, out-of-sight boats in routine ID calls. When they didn’t call us, we felt slighted. Hey! Don’t we matter? Apparently not. Three days later another ABF plane swooped overhead and straightaway disappeared. The nerve! Once again it seemed we were unworthy of notice. Until ten minutes later, the plane long gone, ABF hailed us by name on the radio. They requested our last port of call, our destination and our USA port of registry, then thanked us and signed off. Since every foreign vessel must register with ABF on entering Oz and continue to report every three months thereafter, they knew all this already. It was fun, nevertheless. We’ve never talked from the boat to an airplane before.

On 29 July, after a morning spell of rain, fog, gusty wind and choppy seas, we exited the Great Barrier Reef. Eight hours later, we anchored in sunshine at the pleasant green island of Mount Adolphus. The next morning, double-reefed, we scooted past Cape York, a milestone for sailors. The cape farewelled us with a smidgeon of rainbow, only to smirk at us with a contrary 2-3k current for several hours afterward. Never mind, we made it, and at 1500 we dropped the hook in calm water off the jetty at Seisia, on the west side of the Cape York peninsula.

A tiny place, Seisia serves as the port for the inland settlement of Bamaga and also is home to a large waterfront campground/caravan park. The town has one grocery store, a corner gas station for diesel, and great 4G Internet. The campground has a laundry and hot showers, both available to grotty sailors. In short, everything we needed to relax and regroup before embarking on the nonstop, 750-mile voyage to Darwin. To top it off, we had a friendly visit from an ABF patrol boat. We slept soundly each night, grateful for a safe, almost serene voyage—so far.

A supply freighter at the Seisia jetty
A personal visit from an ABF patrol boat

The Bad

I’ve always said I prefer open ocean sailing to dodging the hazards of a crowded coast. That was before the Gulf of Carpentaria, the huge gulf that hollows out the top of Australia. Again, we had a favorable weather forecast of southeast trades of no more than 25 knots. We departed Seisia on 3 August and motorsailed without complaint when a light wind and contrary current made for slow going the first day. But by midnight on my watch, the wind had become so fitful I had to wake Eric to lower the jib and double-reef the main to keep the sails from sling-slanging. It took an hour for the wind to return to the southeast, and with our sleep and watch schedules already disrupted, it was not an auspicious start.

The next day Eric discovered during a walkaround that the rubber mast boot he had devised in Townsville had a tear and one of the mast wedges, which the boot encloses, had popped up halfway. Congratulating ourselves on this early catch, we debated several courses and determined to take off the torn boot and pound the wedge back in place. While I held the boat into the growing wind and swells, Eric effected the maneuver and reclamped the rubber belt above the wedges. Good on us! Please note: Eric assured me that removing the boot would not make matters worse.

Eric’s sexy mast boot with waterproof zipper.

The following morning found us in 25k winds and 3-4 meter swells that had built up in the long fetch across the gulf. Riding up and down swells is always tiring and uncomfortable, but under the double-reefed main, still manageable. Until Eric went forward to check how the exposed mast wedges had held up overnight, and I heard the dreaded, “Oh, shit!” Barely a quarter of the wedges remained in place, the others popped onto the deck or fallen down to the cabin floor below. This had left the mast dangerously unsupported at deck level in the pitching sea. We immediately switched on the engine and turned the boat into the wind to take the pressure off the sail. We spent the next hour with me at the helm, Corroboree bucking into the wind and waves, while Eric, at the mast, reinserted the wedges and added a second clamp to the wedges themselves. White crests sprayed over the bow and into the cockpit, drenching us both.

Once the mast boot came off, the exposed wedges fell out on deck or dropped to the cabin floor below. Adding the lower clamp around the wedges got us to Darwin.

Outwardly, I exhibited patience. Inside, I was pissed. The purpose of the mast boot was to prevent water from running down the mast into the boat, and in that respect it had worked. But in the process Eric had removed the mast boot tape that formerly helped keep the wedges in place. Though we had to replace the tape several times as it wore out, it had served us well for over 15,000 ocean miles. Now it seemed to me that the sleek rubber mast boot was an instance of the fancy engineering of which Eric is fond, at the expense of the basics. If it works, don’t fix it! Still, the danger passed, I was prepared to keep my grievance to myself. But barely had we collected ourselves back in the cockpit when Eric looked up at the main and announced that the reef line had snapped. We’d have to repeat the whole into-the-wind/bucking-waves routine to retrieve the line and fix it.

The Ugly

At this point, according to Eric, I lost it. No, I didn’t lose it. I deliberately, forcefully, adamantly let go. “That’s it! I’m done with the voyage! When we get to Darwin, I’m getting off the boat and I’m not getting back on! This isn’t fun, this isn’t adventure, it’s hard, exhausting, stressful work. It’s masochism!” I have to say, it felt great. Eric, wisely, humbly, said only, “I understand how you feel.” But to get to Darwin, we first had to fix the reef line, and I steeled myself to take the helm. At which point, Eric looked up at the main again and said, “Oh, wait. The reef line isn’t broken. It’s just tucked out of sight.”

That did it. Stand back, Clint Eastwood. I stormed below, sat at the nav table and cried. Then I stood up, faced Eric through the hatchway, and declared, “I am going to fucking kill you!” Then I slumped again at the table, shaky from the stress. Maybe I did lose it, because every time Eric has to go on deck in bad weather to reef sails or make a repair, my mind floods with the fear that he’ll get hurt, be knocked unconscious, or, in spite of the harness, be swept overboard. How will I save him, sail the boat, get us to port? Almost everything on Corroboree is too heavy and unwieldy for me to handle alone. I am on tenterhooks the entire time, my mind racing through the drill: Maneuver toward him, throw the lifeline, drop the dinghy for him to crawl into, haul him aboard. So from the helm I call, “Take your time! Watch your footing! Wave coming—hold on!”

The Good

Once across the 400-mile-wide Gulf of Carpentaria, the wind and waves gradually abated, and the remainder of the voyage was blessedly uneventful. The scenery was again uninspiring, hence no further pictures. Forty miles out of Darwin and not a whisper of wind to be found, we anchored overnight at Cape Hotham, reached the Darwin quarantine bay the following afternoon, and filed our paperwork to enter. On the morning of 10 August, Corroboree passed through the lock to Cullen Bay Marina and we tied up at our berth.

The mast wedges stayed in place, a new roll of boot tape is on order, and I didn’t murder my husband.

We will celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary on 27 August.

All is forgiven 27 August 1971