Rough & Relentless – The Arafura Sea


We left Cape York in good spirits, ready to tackle the Gulf of Carpentaria and the Arafura Sea. This was to be our first crossing far away from land, with no bolt-holes if things turned sour. It’s about 350 nm from Cape York to the top of the Wessel Islands, and then similar distance from there to Darwin. This area is renowned for strong trade winds (actually one of the strongest trade wind spots worldwide), but from the south-east / east, which would be behind us all the way. The weather forecast predicted south-easterly winds of around 25 knots for the next couple of days, and we decided to head off.

Well … our pleasant sailing trip took a turn for the worse the further we got from Cape York. The wind increased as predicted and the Arafura Sea became a bit of a cauldron. The fetch wasn’t far enough to create long period swells, and we were continually being hit by short steep swells from behind. In addition, there was a very uncomfortable side swell that would send waves crashing into our port beam, or slap under the bridge deck. As a result, the boat battled to get into a smooth rhythm and it was really uncomfortable. There were also patches of rain – but generally just squalls that would pass over fairly quickly.

Rain on the way

We had to limit the time we spent preparing food, playing games, sometimes even reading, as it was important to always keep the queasiness at bay. Josh probably fared the worst in this regard, but still heaps better than at the start of our trip!

Poor Joshi feeling wretched

After 3 horrible days we passed the top of the Wessel Islands. Around this time we used our satellite phone to get an updated weather prediction – the wind prediction had now increased (30-35 knots). If only we’d known this before passing the Wessel Islands – we could have anchored on the lee side and waited for the weather to pass! However, we definitely did not want to turn around the beat into the wind and waves so had to keep going. There was no danger really, as the winds were in our direction, but a respite would have been nice. We did vow to check the weather more regularly (i.e. daily) in future – even if the thought of staring at a computer was enough to bring on a bout of queasiness.

As time passed the days seemed to blur into one. We did a lot of sleeping, reading, staring at the horizon, watching the waves, watching some movies and documentaries and playing the odd game (when the sea gave us some respite). School was pretty much out of the question – I had no energy for it, nor did the boys, and none of us could have cared less at the time. I battled to sleep at night due to the sudden slapping of waves, and felt exhausted most of the time. We ate decently – iron-stomached Rob whipped up some meals when the sea became really rough, and Paul provided the much-loved almost-daily bread. We had a lot of fish in the freezer from our flurry of catches earlier on in the trip, so we enjoyed lots of Thai curries and fried rice dishes.

One thing that gave us immense pleasure (strangely) was fantasizing about the meals we craved the most. Rob’s pick was undoubtedly Ultramel custard. Noah dreamed up some amazing desserts, generally including Nutella and strawberries. Marco lusted after Coke, Paul mentioned homegrown pears from the orchard of his childhood home. Fresh, crunchy salads were up there, as were Magnums. Anything icy cold too. We felt strangely satisfied after these conversations, and then went back to our lukewarm water, crackers and raisins (ok, with the odd Timtam thrown in).

The conditions probably reached their climax on the 5th or 6th day from Cape York. The sun had just set, and the wind increased to a consistent 30-35 knots. The sea was really messy and some big waves were crashing into the cockpit from all sides. I find it worse in the dark as you can’t see where they’re coming from, so they really take you by surprise. Rob had just served supper and we were sitting in the saloon with the doors open when a wave broke over the stern and crashed across the cockpit right into the saloon – mainly onto me! I saw it coming in slow motion – a spray of white coming out of nowhere and lurching towards us. The boys thought it was fantastic and couldn’t wait for the next wave. Luckily there wasn’t another one quite as bad, but it was a rough couple of hours until the wind abated.

We generally had the jib up and no mainsail. We hardly had to gybe as the wind direction was pretty consistent, but had to watch for an unsuspected gybe with the messy swells. The boat handled the conditions well, and the autopilot kept us on course throughout.

After about 6 days we reached Croker Island, which finally presented us with an anchorage and some rest. We didn’t go ashore – it’s Aboriginal land and one needs a permit to land there, but mainly because we were also too tired to even think about exploring. The sunset was incredible – so red and fiery, reflecting the colour of the land around us. We slept very soundly in calm waters after an exhausting week.

Even the sunset looked like an Aboriginal flag

We spent the next morning doing some schoolwork and filling up the water tanks. We replaced the filter in our watermaker and it worked brilliantly. It seems that the water in the Cairns river was really silty and had totally sullied our previous filter. We left Croker Island at 4pm to make it to Cape Don and the Dundas Strait by 4am the next morning. The currents in Van Diemen’s Gulf are very strong (up to 4 knots in places), so it’s best to time the passage with a convenient current. By arriving at 4am we had calculated that we would enter the Dundas Strait with the strongest current, and indeed, we raced through at 11 knots in very light winds. The current eventually slackened and we ended up having to motor part of the way, making it to Cape Hotham before sunset.

Cape Hotham was really peaceful and serene – apart from a visit from a bunch of rather drunk, foul-mouthed louts in their tinny. I’m not sure whether they thought we’d be keen on a party, or whether they were trying to pick a fight, but after being ignored they eventually left. We hoped this wasn’t a precedent to what we could expect in Darwin.

From Cape Hotham it was one more day to Darwin – through the Clarence Strait and Vernon Islands. The currents here are very strong, so again we had to time our passage. We zoomed through at up to 13 knots in a perfectly calm sea and gentle breeze – finally wonderfully enjoyable sailing conditions! The boys even climbed the mast and took in the views from above, whilst I sat on deck and just appreciated it all. Finally Darwin came into view – and what a welcome sight it was! We made it to the Fannie Bay anchorage after dark, so dropped anchor far out, with 10m of water under us to allow for the massive 8m tidal differences.

What a voyage this had been (especially for the boys and me) – we hadn’t put foot on land since Cairns (about 12 days before), we’d endured a relentless week of rough seas, we’d kept seasickness at bay (mostly), we’d kept our spirits up (ok, not always) and we’d navigated through some tricky straits. I won’t say it was enjoyable – in fact, the adjectives “tired”, “queasy”, “bored”, “smelly”, “dirty”, “hungry”, “gatvol” came into my mind quite often during the trip, but it felt like an achievement to have endured and to have actually made it! And now I was totally ready to get out and explore Darwin!

Happiness is … a smooth sail into Darwin






2 thoughts on “Rough & Relentless – The Arafura Sea

  1. Mary

    Congratulations on a safe arrival in Darwin….sounds like you had a baptism by fire!!
    Enjoying your blogs. Cape Town is very cold right now and the days are extremely short.
    We are off to the Timbavati this week, looking forward to being in the bush again after 10 years!


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