The Kimberleys II – Prince Regent River and Swift Bay

Tides and Whirlpools Rule

October 2019

After checking the charts, and the tide records we had previously downloaded, we decided to leave Sampson Bay at just before 6am to work with the tides. Again, the first part of the trip was in very calm seas and Peter put out his lures; eternally hopeful that boy (Opal Lady’s cruising speed of 6.5 knots just happens to be perfect trolling speed). 

As we approached the channel between Augustus and Jungulu Islands, Peter finally caught the fish he had been dreaming of, a huge Spanish Mackerel. And what a fish it was! My heart was in my mouth when I saw how big it was and I was so hoping that he didn’t lose it – Peter would be devastated. As it came in closer, I was running between the helm (to make sure there was absolutely nothing we were going to hit) and the stern of the boat to help Beloved.  He gaffed it perfectly on his first attempt.  As you can see from the photo, Peter is pretty pleased. It ended up being 1.1m long and weighed 21 kilos.  I then continued to drive the boat while Neon helped Peter to fillet the fish. This is where the guidelines from the fisheries became problematic, as a 300mm slab of a fish this size was huge and would provide us about 3 meals at once – a good thing we like fish, and Spanish Mackerel is a very tasty fish too.

Now started the interesting part of today’s trip, as the tide had turned and we were travelling through the channel between the islands. The current was quite strong and for a period we were travelling at 1.5knots rather than our usual 6.5knots – we were ready for this, but it was only the beginning. Our aim for today was to travel up into an area called the St George Basin, just before the narrow section of the Prince Regent River proper.  But it was becoming apparent that this would not be possible. Although our speed had increased after exiting the channel, we found that the currents were becoming stronger again and more unpredictable as we approached Brunswick Bay (which the Prince Regent River empties into). Not only that, but we kept coming across huge eddies that moved the boat around something fierce; 30 tonnes of boat swung around 90o in some instances.  Peter picked up that the cat and I weren’t happy, so at 2pm near a place called Uwins Island, we decided to call it quits for the day.  We turned off the main channel into what turned out to be a picturesque little bay (just before somewhere ominously called Whirlpool Point).  There was a very distinct cut-off point between the active channel and the quiet bay – you could actually see where the waters met – it looked really odd (and would not be the first time we would see this along this coast). 

You can actually see the where the channel and the bay meet

It had been a long day and we were very glad to be safely anchored up. The outgoing tide was revealing huge stretches of mud flats, with all the associated fish and bird life coming alive around the edges.

I shall digress for a moment to explain another one of the features I really like about Opal Lady.  All the doors are fitted with insect screens that are rolled up during the day and zipped down each night (they are black and also quite good left loose for shading the floor during the days).  The screens do cut some of the available breeze, but are absolutely necessary to keep out the bities that live in the surrounding mangroves.

The next day we set off to have a look at the Prince Regent River. What an adventure – we soon found out why Whirlpool Point had been so named!  The tide was with us and we were soon travelling at 12.5 knots, yes 12.5, which is the fastest Opal Lady has ever gone while we have owned her.  Not only that, but there were many large whirlpools along the way. They looked quite innocuous (not like on Pirates of the Caribbean) but there was enough power in each to throw the boat around badly again.  I was on watch and had decided to steer manually this time and not to bother with the auto pilot, as it had spent a great deal of yesterday complaining.  [The boat is usually directed by the autopilots – some computerised boxes that use hydraulic rams to control the rudder; not as impressive as a salty old captain standing at the wheel, but far more accurate to a course – unless they keep bumping into whirlpools].  I was picking my way between the whirlpools, and trying to predict which way we would be turned to start a counter turn.  Beloved was providing noises of support (or worry) and offering to take over (as it is very tiring steering a boat this size manually), but I was finding steering was quite good for coping with stress and I was quite liking the feeling of success every time I beat a whirlpool. The scenery was again quite speccy at first, but I had no time to look around.

They don’t look that bad

We finally reached the Prince Regent River proper. To be honest we did not find it that impressive, compared to what we had seen already.  The Fisheries people had warned us against going too far upstream at this time of year (with the dry season well upon us there were lots of rocks and other submerged obstacles to deal with). With that in mind we turned around to give ourselves plenty of time to return to our anchorage from the previous night. Peter was piloting now and had the opposite problem to me as the tide was against us, so progress was very slow. At one point the current was so strong we were only making 0.5 knots! At least that gave us plenty of time to look at the scenery.  We have gained a real respect for the power of the currents (and learnt so much more about what to look for and how to deal with troubled waters).  We agree wholeheartedly with what we had heard from others, that travelling and anchoring in the Kimberley is all about the tides – ignore them at your peril.

Not a great photo, but we weren’t getting any closer

We didn’t get back to our anchorage until late in the afternoon, tired but feeling quite happy with ourselves.  Not long after we had moved into ‘relax mode’, Peter started yelling, and I soon saw what he was looking at… our first crocodile.  Not a monster, being only a couple of metres long, but it was a real croc!  It just sat there and stared malevolently at us from about 50m away.  We kept watching it until dark and I think Peter was right in likening it to a Weeping Angel from Dr Who. [For the non Whovians out there – Weeping Angels are stone statues that don’t move as long as you look at them, but if you turn away, they move towards you, until they get you]. Well this croc had a similar modus operandi, only moving when we weren’t looking at it, and then it would move about a metre each time. Eventually it disappeared into the water, somewhat unnerving even though we were on a 30tonne boat.

The next day we departed for Montague Sound. This passage had  to include an overnight run because we would not be able to leave the anchorage until around 10am (due to the tides).  There were also so many islands in this area of the Buccaneer Archipelago that we decided to take a longer route around the outside, so we could avoid any unknown shallow areas.

A screenshot from our plotter

[Another aside:  When you get to looking at the detail of the marine charts for the Kimberley, there are huge areas labelled ‘Unsurveyed’.  As a result, whenever we get close to structures, be it the mainland, islands or shallow reefs, we are extra careful and feel our way in slowly, as we have found that the depths may not bear any relevance to what is on the charts.]

The overnight run was fine; with the usual dead calm seas in the mornings, becoming choppy but not uncomfortable in the afternoon, before settling down again in late evening.  Not another boat was seen on this leg, but there was plenty of bird life and the occasional whale to keep us occupied.

Little mangroves trying to grow anywhere

Our next anchorage was at Swift Bay.  We were quite excited about Swift Bay as it looked like it had quite a lot to see (from the Kimberley Cruisers Guide), so we planned to stay for 3 days and have a good look around.  This anchorage was very picturesque. After navigating a prominent reef and searching for a suitable location which wasn’t going to leave us high and dry at low tide, we anchored up and had the celebratory scrambled eggs.

Unexpected anchormates

As soon as we anchored up, we were visited by a very large shark and later his friends, which built up to 3 of them over the next couple of days. We had no idea what type of sharks they were at the time (in Darwin we identified them as Tawny Nurse Sharks), but as the largest one was nearly as big as our tender, we were a bit wary of them.  They stayed around the boat for the whole 3 days, constantly cruising around us.

The next day we lowered the tender, asked the sharks politely to leave us alone and set off to explore. We knew there was a lot of Aboriginal art in the area and were keen to see some, as well as get onto dry land for a while. Going ashore here is not as simple as it sounds. The key consideration was again the tides, as if you get your timing wrong you can be stranded on shore for hours with your dinghy high and dry waiting for the tide to come back in, or floating a long way off shore impossible to get to without going for a paddle in the croc infested waters.  To deal with this, Peter had made up a dinghy anchor system, which allowed the boat to be left floating off the beach while we were away (using a little anchor and float) and then be hauled in when it was time to leave (using a line attached to shore through a pulley at the float). We tried it out and it worked a treat, which was great as it was very hot and humid so a long unplanned sojourn onshore would have been very unpleasant.

Peter is pulling the dinghy back out, I’m standing ready with the boathook

The second consideration is crocodiles. You may not see them but you have to assume they are there, so we had a whole procedure for getting out of the dinghy which included scoping the place we were going to land and then not staying in the water any longer than we had to (I also took to carrying a boat hook just in case I needed to do some prodding on a reptilian nose).

After a bit of detective work (and following the little cairns left by others cruisers), we managed to find some of the Aboriginal artwork.  It was conveniently located underneath a large overhang, with a bit of a breeze, so we spent some time there in the shade admiring the Gwion-Gwion (or Bradshaw) artwork; some of this type of artwork can be over 17 000 yrs old.  It was quite impressive and with the amount of room there, it was easy to imagine a large family group staying there in the distant past, close to good fishing grounds, sheltered from the sun and rain in the wet season.

Previous visitors have left little cairns

The next day we saw our 4th and final other boat during the Kimberley trip. The sailing vessel ‘Infanta’ pulled into the bay and parked up about 100m from us. We were heading out fishing and called over to say G’day and introduced ourselves to Gavin and Kerry.  We then headed off to be comprehensively smashed fishing-wise by small mackerel and large cod. Peter had lots of fun.

About to lose another lure to the mangroves

I got to do more studying of rock formations.  In places it looks like the rock has a skin disease.

‘Infanta’ in the evening

Gavin and Kerry came over in the afternoon with a bottle of bubbly and we caught up on what we had both been doing since leaving Perth.  They were also heading to Darwin, but were staying in Swift Bay for a day or two while we were heading off the next morning.  After they left, we loaded the dinghy aboard, which should have been straight forward by now, but ended up being another learning experience. As the dinghy was being lifted over the port side it hit the mounting frame for the port flopper stopper and to our dismay we learnt that there was enough room for the whole flopper stopper to fall through the gap in the frame. It was not a great feeling watching it drop straight into the bay, and of course as we hadn’t been using that side, it was not attached to the chains and was lost for good. Grrrr!.  More procedures in place to prevent this happening again, but once we get over to the Eastern States we will have to get a replacement made.

Not where I would choose to do a balancing act

Just as we had calmed down, we realised that we couldn’t find Neon…again.  I was walking around calling his name when I heard a plaintive voice coming from outside.  I was a bit confused to see Neon looking straight back at me through the flyscreen, I couldn’t at first work out how he was levitating up to the height of the door window.  Then I realised what he was doing – he was balancing on the 1 ½ inch wide surround to the boat…with three sharks circling in the water below.  That cat is going to be the death of me. 

Governor Islands

The next part of our trip was made up of travelling by day and anchoring at night.  We had numerous channels, currents and islands to negotiate as we travelled through the Admiralty Gulf and Troughton Passage, which we preferred not to tackle at night. The first night we anchored at Parry Bay.  The second day out was a hard slog; mind you it was 28 degrees and 82% humidity at 5am.  We were amazed with how much water we were drinking each day.  Late in the afternoon we finally pulled in to anchor off the low-lying Governor Islands.  More really interesting geology; the leggo blocks of stone were all pastel shades and very densely packed.  This was also one of our more shallow anchorages meaning we could not use the flopper stopper (it needs at least 5m to work properly). Luckily the wind died off and a good sleep was had by all.

We have slowly been developing a set of procedures (more so after each one of our ‘learning’ experiences).  This photo shows the last thing I do when we have anchored for the night.  The postit note is to remind me to find (and record ever so informally) the safe exit bearing for the anchorage.  If we have to leave quickly in the night , I have an escape course to steer using the ship compass.  I also find it really useful in those early morning starts when I am not at my best and Peter has not yet started up the ship computer.

The next day’s travel was a bit weird. We had read and been told that travelling past Cape Londonderry could be very challenging, especially if the wind and tide were opposing. Everybody recommended staying well clear of the coast in this region. With this in mind, we decided to stay well west of Stewart Island, which lies off Cape Londonderry, and to stay in 40m of water for extra safety. There was no real wind to speak of, but as the tide turned, we went from 7.5 knots down to 3 knots and from crystal clear deep blue water to a strange mud coloured water which was continually welling up from the bottom, in 40m of water! We had not seen anything quite like this, so far from the coast, so we were very happy when we came out of this unusual event into clear water again.

By evening we pulled up at Disappointment Cove in Koolama Bay just outside our final and major destination, the King George River.

Cruising Comments:

This is a record of our experience/what we found, and not intended as a recommendation for others. Water depth is measured from the lowest point on the hull of ‘Opal Lady’ (+1.6m for actual water depth to the surface).

Two hours out of Sampson Inlet the sea changed markedly (as we travelled into the St George Basin). Foam on surface and became like a washing machine, 15 20.674S 123 26.319E, in 38.3m water, 2 hours before high tide. These conditions continued as we travelled further North East towards Prince Regent River.

Anchored out of main stream of Regent River, at 15 14.665S 124 52.483E, in 15m (high tide 3m) with 47m chain out.

This Post Has 8 Comments

  1. Oh my gosh it sounds too awesome for words. Pete, I not sure if you have had your birthday, but welcome to the club all the same. What are you guys doing for Christmas? Are you planning on seeing your kids?

    1. Greetings Jennie, Peter moved into the 60+ age group last week. It is a Beilby Christmas this year so the Toads are joining us for Chrissy on the east coast at Peter’s parents. Hope all is well with you and yours. Suz

  2. Once again your adventures sound incredible! Those whirlpools sound pretty crazy. Enjoys all that delicious fish! X

    1. Greetings Lisa, Crazy is the right word to describe those whirpools. Suz

  3. Hi Peter, Suz and Neon!

    Great to hear that Peter caught a nice Spanish Mack! It’s my dream catch too! I’ve had a couple of my friends in the Whitsundays catch a few beauties on live bait and after seeing the end result and the story it became my goal too! To this day it is still the best fish I have ever eaten, straight from fillet to pan!

    1. Greetings Ben, Neon enjoyed the Spanish Mackerel too (though truth be told he is not that fussy). Thanks for reading. Suz

  4. Another interesting read Suz! I can totally relate to your steering the boat the counteract the stress. Did this several times myself on those rough passes from Rottnest! It’s all about control! 😁
    Loving your pics of the rock formations too! The block separation of the Governor Islands pic is definitely speccy!
    Looking forward to your next installment.

    1. Greetings Vona, Good to hear someone else feels the same about dealing with stress. Suz

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