Monday, July 07, 2008

July 6, 2008 - Darwin Dash, Day 9

After a week at sea, it is possible to forget that there are colors in nature other than blue and white. So it was somewhat startling to see a shock of aquamarine in the water as we approached the Great Detached Reef. Our first indications that we were nearing land began last night. The seas were very confused - as they should be with the westward flow of the entire Pacific Ocean coming to a crashing halt against the Great Barrier Reef. At daybreak, we were surrounded by birds, several varieties of boobies and terns, a sure sign that land is near.

Just as we passed through the Raine Island Entrance to the Great Barrier Reef, an Australian Customs Plane flew low overhead. It banked and circled back over us. A few minutes later the radio crackled to life. Customs asked some questions about who we were, where we were from and where we were going (much like Gauguin in his most famous painting). Then the officer read some prepared remarks, reminding us not to step on land before clearing in. I asked if it was all right for us to anchor for the night behind the reef. He said no problem. Then I asked if it would be permissible for us to have dinner onboard another vessel that had also not cleared in yet. He said that would be fine too. He was very courteous.

I wish that I'd had the presence of mind to ask the customs officer if he had any idea how many boats come through this pass each year. Back in the 1800's, it was the favored pass through the Great Barrier Reef, because it sets one up for the best wind angle for making their way to the Torres Strait. But before GPS, it was hard to find the pass. Raine Island is very low. There isn't a tree or bush on it. Many ships were lost on the reefs around Raine Island trying to find the pass. In the 1840's, a ship full of convicts arrived to build a tower on the island to make it easier to find the pass. But now the tower is crumbling, and hardly anyone passes this way anymore. The Age of Sail is over. Coal, steam and diesel powered vessels don't need to worry about wind angles. These days, most boats now take the Inside Passage, working their way up the Australian Coast from Brisbane or Cairns, or down from the entrance near Bramble Cay, close to Papua New Guinea. By all accounts, the Raine Island Entrance is rarely used these days.

From the top of the Great Detached Reef it was a tough 7 mile motor into 25 knot tradewinds and big, steep chop to get into the protection of the reef where we anchored for the night. Once we were anchored, I did some laundry and Sten set to work repairing our main sail. A few days ago, a nylon strop that attaches one of the intermediate bat cars to the sail frayed through, likely a result of our longstanding luff vibration problem.

At sunset, Kika pulled into the anchorage. Earlier, we had asked them over for dinner. But this anchorage is not a destination for any of us, it is merely a pit stop in a two week long voyage. So none of us was planning on inflating our dinghies. Kika volunteered to blow up their inflatable kayak and paddle over for dinner. While we were still on our way here, that seemed like a good idea. But after we were anchored, with 25 knots of wind howling through the rigging and several knots of current flowing under the keel, I called Nick and suggested that the kayak might not be the safest mode of transportation. If they couldn't paddle against the wind and current, without a dinghy in the water, we wouldn't be able to come get them without upping anchor to motor after them.

A few minutes later, Nick called back and said that he and Charlotta had decided to swim over. The radio went silent as I sat there running through the parade of horribles in my mind - drowning, shark attack, and salt water croc attacks featured prominently in the parade. But apparently, when you dangle rib eye in front of people who've been living on fish for too long, they will not be deterred by one worrywart. Nick and Charlotta were swimming over before I had hung up the radio.

We had a great time catching up after our passages, but too soon it was time for them to head back to their boat. I offered to make up the forward bunk for them, but they were confident about swimming back. Kika was anchored a bit up current and upwind from Mata'irea, so Nick and Charlotta had to pull hard to make it back to their boat. I held the dive light on them the whole time. Even so, we were relieved to see their dark shadows climbing up the side of Kika's hull.

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