Setting off from the tranquil cruising grounds of the Whitsunday Islands, we hoisted the sails on a 1500nm odyssey along the tropical east coast of Australia.
Our island-hopping route takes us through the myriad channels of the Great Barrier Reef, calling in at places made famous by early explorers including Cook, Dampier, Flinders, Torres and Bligh. Eventually, we turned our Seawind 1250 catamaran west, just south of Indonesia, skirting Australia’s most northerly point, Cape York, and then across the remote northern coastline of our island continent towards Darwin.
Our crew – skipper Royce and myself as mate – are hosting four guests, who we sort into groups for night watches.
The 41-foot Seawind with its four cabins, two bathrooms and large downstairs galley is an ideal catamaran for our large group.
Heralded by a 6am sunrise, the peaks of Magnetic Island, our first stop, appear on the horizon.
A trip ashore for a swim in the 20C waters is our respite before a sail in light breezes past the Aboriginal settlement on the Palm Islands for a night approach to Hinchinbrook Island, part of the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.
As I study the plotter while steering towards Zoe Bay in darkness, I reach for my Raymarine Thermal Marine Scope.
As we’ve no radar fitted, it proves a useful navigational aid, and with a 700m-plus range for boat-sized objects, its single lens shows outlying rocks and an anchored sloop.
Later in the voyage, I’ll use it to check the sails during night watches and spot approaching crocodiles. Also handy!
Daybreak reveals mountainous, jungle-clad hillsides with no sign of human habitation apart from a large sign on the beach warning of saltwater crocodiles.
Needless to say, our dinghy trip up the river is made cautiously, with eyes peeled for croc slide marks along the banks and sandals worn for our wade ashore in case a stingray should strike.
Barrier Reef Snorkeling
After an hour’s climb to a high vantage point, we gaze out on our lone yacht far below, and opposite, to a hillside stripped bare by Cyclone Yasi’s winds that devastated mainland communities in 2011.
It’s a timely reminder that we are entering tropical latitudes (18-degrees South), where the cyclone seasons runs from November to April.
Later that afternoon, we sail northeast to snorkel on the inner Great Barrier Reef, weaving our way among coral heads before anchoring in four metres of water.
I fin over the reef, gazing at pristine corals – brain, staghorn, plate and bright soft species – encountering orange-striped clown fish, parrotfish and majestic rays.
Afterwards, wanting to take advantage of the breeze, we speed north for the 100nm overnight run to Cairns, the most northerly city on the east coast, calling in briefly for a swim and stroll on the coral-encrusted beaches of Fitzroy Island.
Dodging armadas of backpacker filled boats blasting pulsating music, we depart Cairns with one reef in the mainsail as the 20 knot breeze pushes us north at 10 knots.
The slab reefed main and roller-furling genoa is all we require to propel us north, so Royce and I are glad to avoid the complication of spinnaker.
This 170nm leg takes us to one of the few places Captain Cook came ashore during his 1770 voyage - Lizard Island.
As night falls a few lights twinkle in Cooktown on the mainland, where the great navigator beached his ship Endeavour after colliding with the reef.
At this latitude, the coral nears the coast, narrowing the passages, so good navigation is critical. Unlike Cook, who had to rely on a brass sextant and a later version of John Harrison’s famous clock for longitude, we carefully input waypoints on the more precise Raymarine HybridTouch plotter, skirting the edges of the reef as we snake our way north, encountering little traffic apart from the occasional ore carrier and trawler.
The following day, Blue Lagoon on Lizard Island glistens bluish-green with dark corals as we pass in the afternoon sun.
On the wide golden beach, a catamaran is being scrubbed, while kids motor along in dinghies and snorkel tubes bob along the nearby reef.
Up the beach, sailors mingle at the afternoon’s social gathering.
Many will stay here for weeks, awaiting the northerly change in October for the sail south. Meantime, a barge service from the mainland is their main supply line, and for us, the last one before Thursday Island.
Snorkelling around the reef, I encounter huge groupers, my fins brush the gaping mouths of giant clams and jittery reef sharks dart across the sand.
Cook came here in August 1770, but was not happy – having just spent months repairing Endeavour, he was “altogether at a loss about which way to steer”, so he spent the afternoon climbing the 359m peak to Cook’s Look.
His reward – and ours – after a two-hour climb through dense bush and over rock, was a vista north of pale blue sea, signifying coral reef as far as the eye could see.
But luckily for Cook, there were some dark-blue gaps.
It was here – through the narrow strait now known as Cook’s Passage – that he managed to escape through a break in the reef into the Coral Sea.
Looking at the charts for our night passage, the course skirts Cape Melville and the nearby Flinders islands.
Beyond here, navigation is critical as the inner Barrier Reef channel narrows considerably.
Matthew Flinders came through in August 1802, during an inadvertent circumnavigation of Australia in his leaky ship Investigator, but was forced back to Sydney for repairs.
In the dawn of yet another clear morning, we skirt a chain of sandbar islets, seeking an anchorage for snorkelling.
We choose Sandbar No.8 National Park Island, a coral-strewn mass of scant vegetation and untrammelled beaches, walking around its edges to avoid disturbing the birdlife.
Overhead, boobies swoop, sooty terns dart and huge frigate birds patrol the area.
Drama occurs in the water, when one of guests has a close encounter with a tiger shark, which luckily occurs among the shallow coral, allowing me to scoop him safely into the tender.
But it's another reminder of the dangers and remoteness of this region should the need for help arise.
Later, snuggled in my bunk, I check my smartphone’s Navionics chart, which shows the outlying reefs around Pandora Entrance and Bligh’s Passage.
After the Bounty mutiny in April 1789, Captain Bligh and 18 loyal crewmen were cast adrift near Tonga in an eight-metre, two-masted boat.
Equipped with only a quadrant, a pocket watch and scant provisions, with no charts or even a compass, they sailed west for 47 days, transiting the gap in the Great Barrier Reef during the 3618nm voyage to Timor, demonstrating extraordinary navigation skills.
Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said for the pursuit vessel, HMS Pandora, which sunk nearby with the captured mutineers on August 29, 1791 – coincidentally, the same day that we sail past, some 227 years later.
Transiting Torres Straight
We thread our way through the inner Torres Strait on a fast-moving tide towards low-lying Cape York, tracing palm-fringed coves and anchoring just beyond the cape.
Ashore, we meet weary offroad drivers who’ve made the 1000km dirt track pilgrimage to Australia’s northerly point.
Cook passed this way on August 22, 1870 to stop at nearby Possession Island, an unassuming hummock where next day, he raised a flagstaff, proclaiming “possession of the whole eastern coast (of Australia), from latitude 38 degrees south to this place”.
After our rocky landing at Possession, we sail over to nearby Horn Island for coldies in the pub’s beer garden.
Surrounded by a high steel fence (to prevent crocs from eating the guests), we relax over barramundi and chips.
The following day, after motoring the mile or so to Thursday Island, capital of the 274 Torres Straits islands, we stock up on stores.
I also walk to Green Hill Fort, last manned in World War II during the Japanese invasion of Indonesia, a mere 75nm north.
Heading west, lonely Booby Island is our last landmark before the 300nm Gulf of Carpentaria crossing.
Settling into shipboard life for the crossing, I busy myself in the galley – freshly caught Spanish Mackerel on a bed of couscous, with pesto, washed down with crisp Adelaide chardonnay.
Idle on my 4am watch with a full moon showing, I use the iPad’s SkyView app to identify stars.
So keeping our course parallel to the Southern Cross constellation, we edge our way west, passing through acres of orange coral spawn, activated by the full moon.
A day later, the sudden whoosh of an aircraft overhead alerts us to a low-flying customs patrol plane, checking us out.
We call them up on VHF channel 16 to advise of our next port: mining settlement Gove/Nuhlunbuy, on the far side of the Gulf.
Reading An Intruder’s Guide to East Arnhem Land in my bunk, I learn about the troubled history of Gove and its surrounding Aboriginal homeland, East Arnhem Land.
Traditional landowners the Yolngu people have encountered many foreigners over the centuries: the first known Europeans sailed past on Dutch ship Duyfken in 1606, and Indonesian fishermen in Pacific proas – similar to catamarans – were regular visitors.
Our stop in the sheltered bay at Gove, dominated by its bauxite processing plant, is more prosaic.
We’ve called in to visit the Gove Boat Club and make a run into town for dinner, passing hectares of pre-fabricated houses for the fly-in workers as the taxi carries us along a narrow road.
We enjoy a final pub beer before our last leg to Darwin which will be mostly offshore in the Arafura Sea, once we’ve threaded our way through the shallow Gugari Rip between the Wessel Islands, a 500m 'hole in the wall’ where the tide seethes.
The high-sided Gugari passage finds an adverse easterly flow, but our single knot of ‘Speed Over Ground’ allows plenty of time to take in the bushy shoreline and sandstone caves while wallabies hop under pandanus palms.
It’s a quintessentially tropical scene, which must have fascinated early explorers such as Englishman William Dampier, who visited here in 1688 during the first of three world circumnavigations.
Dampier has been described as the first natural historian of Australia.
Cursed with a leaky HMS Cygnet, the colourful buccaneer steered his unreliable vessel west of Darwin, which gave the crew time to marvel at strange Kimberley boab trees and study the local Aboriginal tribes.
Emerging from the Gugari Rip we anchor, resting the overworked diesels while I forage for leftovers and convert them into bubble and squeak for a very non-traditional Aussie breakfast.
This pristine wilderness is governed by its traditional Aboriginal owners and the low-lying islands are a haven for marine life.
Edging the Gemini RIB among mangroves, we watch small crocs slide past and farther up a creek, baby sharks sunbathe in the sandy shallows.
The Folly of Port Essington
Sailing west for two tranquil days with light winds brings us to our last major obstacle before Darwin – the Cobourg Peninsula, and to Port Essington, where early British pioneers settled briefly. Motoring the dinghy past the settlement’s cairn on Smith Point, I suddenly see a saltwater croc bigger than our four-metre dinghy approach from below, but thankfully, it slides past harmlessly as I nervously put down the large axe I'd been holding.
Relieved and feeling in need of terra firma, we motor ashore to the Black Point settlement for a chat with Aboriginal ranger, Cynthia, who shows us around the small museum’s collection of artefacts, including depictions of women in Victorian dresses and equally inappropriately-clad men wearing stiff collars, illustrating the folly of Port Essington.
Established in 1831 several miles up the estuary – which sailing ships had difficulty reaching in the adverse wind and current – the hamlet grew to 24 houses.
The arrival of explorer Ludwig Leichhardt’s expedition in 1844 was the struggling settlement's zenith, before encroaching jungle and soaring temperatures caused its abandonment in 1849.
Instead, Darwin rose up around the more amenable Fannie Bay, our final port of call, which takes another two days of sailing and sunbathing as light tropical breezes carry us across a mirror-flat sea.
Nearing the populous centre, we can smell the spicy mix of city life and see the glow of massed lights, still merely a speck on this most lonely of coasts.
We’ve seen some of the most pristine wilderness in the world and sailed some of its most tranquil waters in the wakes of my nautical heroes.
Which confirms, to paraphrase Waldo Emerson, that the journey itself can be as satisfying as the destination.
HEAD: Pilot Books
Cruising the Coral Coast by Alan Lucas
Anchorages from Cairns to Darwin by Leslie Richards
100 Magic Miles of the Great Barrier Reef by David Colfelt