4th July 2006 was Independence Day – James’s graduation from the University of Bath. It’s a 30 hour journey from Cairns each way, and about ₤1200 for a short time in UK, so in the end I went and Nicky enjoyed the delights of Cairns and the Atherton Tableland with Elaine.
James nobly picked me up from Heathrow at 5am and next day we were sipping tea with my mother admiring the lofty view to Glastonbury Tor, then making gooseberry and blackcurrant jam in a laid back country way. The University provide 2 tickets for the ceremony, so in place of Nicky, James’s friend Ben flew in from Amsterdam where he is finishing his LLM. We explored pubs and the famous Roman Baths (only re-discovered about 150 years ago and already 30 feet below pavement level), and dressed James in academic garb. The University was looking particularly fine with pleasant views over duckponds and the like, and the ceremony itself was in Bath Abbey, a splendid location seeped in history. Thunder storms roamed around overhead, and just as James received his degree, there was a tremendous roll of thunder – no doubt a symbol of ……..we will have to find out…..
James had to move out of his student house, so I was assistant packer and mover for 2 days, then James flew out to Sydney, and I drove to West Peckham in time for Sunday lunch at the Swan. It was all very English, cricket on the green, most of our friends came along at some time or other and I introduced them to a favourite student drink of mine – Guinness and Cider, (poor man’s black velvet) so by the time I rolled back to Ken and Rosemary Gunn’s for dinner and the soccer World Cup Final I was really very content. Ken chairs the Parish Council, and knows almost everything about the village.
During the course of James’s final year, I had sent advice on careers and selection to him in various emails. I realized after a while that if I put them together, I already had the makings of a book. An Oxford based publisher was sufficiently interested to advance a pleasant if not life style changing amount to publish it, so I visited them to arrange the details – how to get proofs to me in Indonesia etc. The book, working title “Get That Job!’ or The Job Seekers Bible’ covers all aspects of job selection from career choice to cv’s, interviews, assessment centres and headhunters, and is planned for publication in April 2007 with a launch in August or so when we get back to UK.
You may remember that the one repair I had carried out by professionals in Brisbane was the replacement of 2 seacocks. Well, one started leaking in Cairns – the guy had forgotten to put plumbing paste on one of the joints – I was outside when they were doing this bit, holding the external part so couldn’t see what was (or wasn’t) going on. Luckily I was able to diagnose the problem, and refit it without having to take Intrepid out of the water. I also replaced the GPS aerial – it was going to be important.
Its roughly 600 miles from Cairns to Cape York, the tip of NE Australia, and Captain Cook ran aground half way up because he was sailing at night and in the time it took to cast a lead, (20 metres) the Endeavour struck a reef and very nearly sank. Only by putting a sail encrusted with horse shit under the Endeavour did she stay afloat. Since we didn’t have the horse shit, (come to that I am not sure why the Captain did either), we decided to generally avoid sailing at night, especially as the channel between the ferocious coral of the Great Barrier Reef and the rocks of the mainland is winding and narrow, often less than a mile wide, and large ships rush along it at 20 knots.
Port Douglas is 35 miles north of Cairns, developed by Christopher Skase, an Australian financier in the 1990’s when the property market crashed. He fled to Majorca where he died in 2001, still owing $1 billion. Port Douglas, is today a pleasant enough tourist town with nicely modern buildings, and a jumpy feel to it, as if it all might go wrong again. A few years ago 2 American divers were left on a reef by a tour company that ‘forgot’ them, so perhaps its as well to be edgy. The marina is very friendly though, with lots of designer shops just 50metres from Intrepid, and the Court House, a barn of a pub/hotel with cold beer on tap We hired a car and drove north to Cape Tribulation, (so named because ‘that is where all our troubles started’ according to Captain Cook). Its an uninspiring cape, and the sealed road stops here, but we did venture into the lowland tropical rainforest, which because Australia has been seperated from the rest of the world for so long, has zillions of unique creatures mostly insects and plants, but also rare Cassowaries, an emu type bird. We didn’t see any, but Denis and I had seen one in Mourilyan Bay before we realized how rare they are.
From Port Douglas, its 80 miles to our next port, a tricky distance as we had to arrive in Cooktown before nightfall and you only get 12 hours of daylight in the tropics, so as soon as we could see even the faintest sign of navigational marks, we untied and were off.
When Endeavour struck the reef, Cook looked for an estuary to careen her (lay her on her side in shallow water so that repairs could be made) – and found a good site in what is now Cooktown, the river itself now called Endeavour River. We had SE trade winds, and arrived one hour before dusk, to find that cyclones had altered the sandbanks from our pilot book, so anchored rather uncomfortably near the centre of the channel, but still only about 15 metres from a sandbank. Cooktown is a raw frontier town. After Cook left there was no development for over 100 years until gold was discovered 200 miles inland. A complete town was built in 5 months, much of it by Chinese who often carried 200lb loads over rough roads, and all too often died on the way, or were driven out by miners. Today a few visitors make it up the graded roads on the way to Cape York, we were one of only two yachts. We explored the botanic gardens (laid out in 1890’s for the recreation of gentlefolk), and the 4 hotel/motel/pubs that remained, drinking and fishing are the main occupations here, and ate at the 2 oases of civilized life – the Bowls Club (most northerly in Queensland), and RSL (returning servicemen’s league). 65% of the Aus soldiers that went off to WW1 to fight for England died or came home a casualty, the highest rate of any nation.
The next 3 days we cruised north by day, anchoring off remote uninhabited islands, where James and I conquered the world at Risk, but first off Lizard Island where the accommodation is either a rough camp ground or 5* luxury villas. I snorkeled the reef just 20 metres away, then we climbed the 300 metre peak. Captain Cook had climbed up the same peak to find a way out of the Barrier Reef after he had repaired the Endeavour, and it’s a fabulous sight – all aquamarine sand, browny/yellow reefs and dark blue ocean assembled in some random jigsaw puzzle. Cook cant have been overjoyed, but he did find a way out. Then 2 even more remote islands to anchor by, and by this time James was hankering for even more adventure so as if it wasn’t enough to sail up this narrow 2 way channel by day, we decided to do it by night, achieving 150 miles in 24 hours rather than 3 days. It was certainly interesting, at one stage, where the channel splits, one half going out to the Pacific, the other continuing north inside the reef, I found myself at 4am in pitch dark facing 2 ships incoming from the Pacific, and a third coming from behind while I wanted to go straight on. No traffic lights, so we made VHF contact, I moved right, and we moved onto our correct courses, all at 20 knots (Intrepid under sail at 7 knots technically having right of way, but no desire to enforce this, even if we could).
Cook named the coast here after southern England, so we passed Portland Roads, Weymouth Bay and so on, until we arrived at Escape River which could have been out of a flim set for a tropical river. Sandbanks all over the place, mangroves on shore, pearl farms, crocodiles galore (though we didn’t actually see any). We anchored a mile up river as a gale battered the estuary, then discovered that our alternator wasn’t working. Generating electricity on a boat is always a puzzle and problem – electricity and sea air just don’t get on, all boats have generator or alternator problems at some time, so we carried not one but 2 spares. Problem was that when I installed the main spare, it didn’t work either. However our Duogen wind/water generator was working, so we set off down river – and stuck on a sandbank in the middle of the river. Luckily it was a rising tide, but still it took half an hour to get off, while we wondered how to repel crocodiles if Intrepid lay over in the sand.
Then north through the narrow Albany Channel, which has 6 knot tides and a vastly complex set of tide tables which Nicky valiantly fought to understand, then round Cape York, the top of Australia, past Monday, Tuesday, and Wednsday Islands to finally arrive at Thursday Island, the ‘capital’ of the Torres Straights Islands, which stretch like gigantic stepping stones north from Cape York to Papua New Guinea. And indeed that is what they are, used by illegal immigrants and pests and plant diseases as a route into Australia, so we buzzed by a Customs helicopter before even anchoring, and had to check in with Quarantine. The anchorage is exposed, and tides run at 5 knots and more, so we asked for a mooring, but they were all taken, so we anchored with 35 metres of chain and went ashore for dinner and a marine electrical professional.
Well of course, there wasn’t one – TI is pretty remote, a bit like a tropical Shetland island or Sark, or similar. We found a very palatable dinner OK, but TI is so small (4000 people) that the few electrical professionals are land based 240V people, and the only marine people service outboards. So James and I had a go, and diagnosed most of the problem (a faulty insulator), then with bits and pieces of help from various very friendly technicians who all said they knew nothing about marine electronics, we installed our 3rd alternator – and it worked - its not very powerful but its enough to get us to Darwin, (not sure what we would have done if it hadn’t) and we have the Duogen which in a typical day generates more electricity than we use, just by being towed behind Intrepid as we sail.
One of the by-products of repairs is that you meet locals in a way tourists don’t. Snowy managed a sheep station until he retired to Thursday Island to be near his son and daughter (who is cook on a shrimp boat based in TI). Snowy’s wife died 3 years ago, so he is now ‘looking after’ a 17 year old Torres Islands single mother, and repairs taxis to supplement his A$400/week pension. The Torres Islanders are Australia’s 2nd indigenous people, and are very different from Aboriginals, and bitterly resent being called (as they often are, even by ill-informed ministers) Aboriginals. Torres Islanders are generally curious, hard working, but the Aus Government provide new mothers with a A$4000 benefit to help care for the baby – and this often works as an incentive to have a baby – hence the large number of single mums, including Snowy’s girl. Thursday Islanders like the money the Aus government pumps in for a cultural centre, hostel, and large numbers of customs and quarantine staff from the mainland, but the net effect is to raise prices of everything from rents to food. The few tourists who do arrive come from Cape York on a day trip by ferry or occasionally fly in (A$1000 return).
James appreciates being off the boat when restaurants and pubs are available, so we ‘pub-crawled’. The Torres islands stretch all the way to PNG, so TI is for some the ‘big smoke’ a place to meet more than the same people on your own island, drink a cold beer at a bar and relax. The Torres islanders and whites seemed to integrate pretty well, and it was a Torres Islander who won the first land rights case (for the island of Mabo) in the Aus Federal Courts, which paved the way for the Aboriginal land rights cases following.
And finally we were off, 60 miles due west across the Gulf of Carpentaria, in 25-30 knot trade winds from the SE, which produce 3 metre waves and conditions very similar to mid Atlantic. A customs plane buzzed us at mast height as we left Aus waters temporarily, but James assured him that we were not illegal immigrants or emigrants, and then caught a shimmering flashy Spanish mackerel, which is just brilliant seared with chips, so as I write we have already done 250 miles, at 6-7 knots in 3 metre high lumpy seas coming at us from all directions which makes it difficult to sleep or cook!
We should arrive in Darwin on 10th August, for now we wish you a very happy northern summer from a bumpy Intrepid.
Andy, Nicky and James Gibb. .
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