(Mon 30th Sept – Friday 4th Oct)
Each step of our adventure has its own challenges and we faced this next stage with some trepidation. The distance from the Montebellos to Broome is some 400 nautical miles, if you travel in a straight line, or 420 nautical miles roughly following the coast. Our research indicated that many boats day trip up this stretch, anchoring each night. If we chose to do that it would take about a week to complete the trip to Broome. The alternative was one continuous leg of about 3 days. We really wanted to get to the Kimberleys (sorry Pilbara, but we have already explored there in our younger days). We did debate not calling in to Broome at all, as we had read that the anchoring/mooring was tricky, but I hadn’t been there before and I had in mind buying a pearl necklace to match my pearl earrings (bought for our 30th wedding anniversary). We decided to go to Broome and do it in one leg to get more experience with longer trips; but to hedge our bets by taking the slightly longer but closer to the coast route so that we had the option of anchoring up if we found the going too tough.
I thought I might mention here how we manage travelling without stopping with only the two of us, the cat is not helpful in driving the boat. Some boats don’t have a formal watch routine, some even sail single-handed and rely on electronics to alert them to other vessels. But our philosophy, like many others, is to have formal watches with one of us ‘officially’ on watch at any one time. The biggest problem then is how long do you set the watches for? Too short and you can’t get a decent sleep when off watch, too long and the ‘on watch’ person may have a problem staying awake. There is no definitive answer to this and each boat will have their own routine that suits them. For us it turned out that 3 hours is the goldilocks zone, and I like routine, so we keep the pattern for the whole day. In a 3 hour break we have time to catch a solid 2 hours of sleep after organising meals, engine checks etc. Neither of us starts to feel tired until the last half hour of a 3 hour shift and we have worked out the time blocks that best suit us. As I mentioned in a previous blog we operate best at different times of the day; I’m a night owl and Peter is a morning person. Having said that, as I am on the 3 to 6am shift, I have now seen more sunrises in the last 3 months than in my previous 30 years. Peter has always said they were nice and they really are quite uplifting (you really notice how fast the Earth is rotating when watching the sun race up into the sky at the horizon first thing every morning).
So decision made, we left the Montebello Islands and after the excitement of catching the Barracuda, we settled down to the long cruise. As it transpired, we were a lot busier than we anticipated until we got past Port Hedland.
But first we picked up another hitchhiker. This Sooty Tern used the boat as a staging platform for his fishing for 24 hours before joining a passing flock. I guess he just wanted to rest his wings, as they can stay out over the ocean without landing for 3-6 years.
This whole area is littered with gas platforms – big mushrooms sticking out of the ocean with their attendant service vessels. I do think Mother Nature has a wicked sense of humour or is testing the human race, why else would such pristine waters and islands also be so rich in oil and gas? Although we had read about them over the years, it was very different seeing them for ourselves. They really are massive and they also have large exclusion zones for vessels, so part of the navigation exercise was picking our way between them without adding on too much to our travel time
As we approached Dampier the AIS started lighting up with large numbers of ships, some up to 300m long. Avoiding theses took a bit of concentration and careful navigation, as we not only had to avoid moving ships but also whole areas where they were parked up. Once we passed Dampier, Peter and I relaxed again but it did not last long, as we then had to pass Wickham and then Port Hedland. We reached Port Hedland on the second night while I was asleep. Peter had to avoid multiple ships, on multiple headings, going different ways. These things are doing 13 knots and are relatively close together, and we can only do 6.5 knots, so timing is very important. It was also a big lesson on how much we rely on the radar and AIS to safely navigate these busy regions, especially at night. I was also struck by how quickly things could go from ‘just us and the ocean’ to ‘that’s a lot of blips all in one spot on the screen’ (AIS blips show as green triangles). I took a photo of the plotter screen showing 64 blips, yes 64 ships, in the vicinity of Port Hedland! I haven’t included that photo as it is difficult to see what I am talking about. Peter fell asleep almost instantly after he came off watch on the other side of Port Hedland – it was a bit stressful.
After all that excitement we realised the time was passing pretty quickly and we were soon into our third day and approaching Broome. We had read and been told many times that it is all about the tides in Northern Australia. It turned out we were heading into Broome on the day before the biggest tide of the year, some 10m between low and high tide, so we decided discretion was the better part of valour and stopped at a place called LaGrange Bay to anchor up for a few hours so that we would reach Broome on an incoming tide and not have to fight the tidal current which we had heard can be quite fierce.
We nearly mucked this up. For the non-cruisers; anchoring is more than just dropping the anchor over the side until it touches the ground. It needs to have enough rope/chain next to it to allow it to dig in, then there is a whole science (and at least 3 books in our boat library) about how much more rope/chain to put out so that the boat doesn’t get bashed up and down by waves and doesn’t put too much strain on the anchor (you don’t want to be actually hanging off the anchor, anchoring is more about hanging on the end of the chain). To work this out sailors use a ratio of the amount of rope/chain to the depth of water from the boat (more calculations there if you have a high boat and a couple of chapters about using snubbers, which we do, but I’ll talk about them another time). The actual scope number varies between sailors, the type of anchorage etc. etc. We are conservative and if conditions permit we work on 5:1. So if we are in 5m of water we put out 25m of chain (our anchor has all chain rode attached to the anchor with a short length of rope at the very end attached to the boat for cutting us free in an emergency – I hope never to need to see that rope). This is where we nearly mucked up at LaGrange Bay. We anchored in 4m of water late in the evening and were quite tired. We put out 20 m of chain (4×5=20) but as we settled down for the night we both realized we had not allowed for the tide, which at our current spot had another 6m to go. This would have been quite embarrassing, as when the tide reached its peak, our scope would have been reduced to 2:1 (4+6=10m depth) and we possibly would have woken up to the sound of the anchor alarm saying we were dragging which is NOT how we want to wake up. Anyways we put out another 30m of chain and chalked up another lesson.
We set off again about midnight and arrived at Broome around 10am. Broome is situated on Roebuck Bay and the underwater topography is fascinating. As you approach the Port, you travel from 15-20m deep into a channel called Roebuck Deep which on our sounder was in places over 90 m deep, but relatively narrow. Phone reception was not good until very close, so I was a bit worried about getting in contact with Anthony, call me Zorba, about the moorings in Broome. Poor thing we disturbed him on a public holiday – you lose track of these things (I only noticed when I opened my diary to write in the mooring number). We ended up on a mooring with lovely clean lines (I’m often covered in slime by the time I sort some mooring ropes out – but not here) just in front of Town Beach.
We ate our scrambled eggs (a little habit we have gotten into at the end of each long passage; Peter cooks while I open up the boat) and we settled down to relax for the first time in 3 and a 1/2 days.
That night the boat rocked quite badly with the wind and tides working against each other, so the next day we experimented for the first time with our flopper stopper. We hadn’t used them before as we have up to now usually anchored in shallower water (they need 5m of depth to work properly). Now was the time to give them a go. More technical talk, but this is what the ‘masts that aren’t for sails are for’! A flopper-stopper is a large hinged stainless-steel plate that hangs in the water off one of the lowered masts. We only used one but we can put out one on either side of the boat (then we would look like the prawn trawlers that people keep thinking ‘Opal Lady’ started life as). As the boat tries to rock from side to side, the flopper-stopper works as a brake. We were really pleased to find that not only is it easy to deploy, but it works an absolute treat – no more uncomfortable rocking, just the gentle type we love.
Our mooring was about 1km from the local town beach and as you can see in the picture below, at high tide it looks great with plenty of water, but …….at low tide there is a good 500m of mud flats as the water drops over 8m. This means that we can only access town beach 2hours before and after high tide. If we miss that window you are stuck in town until the next day (my backup plan was to book into the nearby resort). Because of this we couldn’t do any tours and even when we got the timing right there was still a fair bit of dinghy-dragging required. Despite this we had a good look around the town and I finally got to buy my pearl pendant – Yay! We had a lovely lunch at the famous Matso Brewery and Peter was very happy as we spent some quality time there (nearly missed the tide that day).
While we were there low tide was around evening and each night the local hover craft would come skimming across the mud flats – that is the type of tender this boat needs (apart from the considerable cost and weight and storage room and mechanical nouse required – but in principle it is a good idea ) .
Anthony/Zorba called past to see how we were going and to check if we needed anything (he was out in his boat sending divers down to check the moorings – I wouldn’t be diving that water with the current and turbidity!). We had a discussion about taking care with the tides when rounding some of the points further north and he offered his help if we got stuck any where along the way. It is noticeable how many very friendly, genuinely helpful people we have come across during this trip.
The Osprey in the picture wasn’t very friendly. He spent ages up there, pooing on my solar panel and throwing us the evil eye when we suggested he fly off. He was a good looking bird though
After several days of rest, recreation and stocking up on fresh fruit and veg, we were now ready for the Kimberleys.