Wednesday, July 30, 2008

July 29, 2008 - Kupang, West Timor, Nusa Tenggara, Indonesia

Kupang waterfront

We were one of the first of the rally fleet to arrive in Kupang. Being at the front of the pack is a totally unfamiliar experience for us. We're much more used to bringing up the back of the pack than leading the way. We expected more boats to leave early from Darwin to take advantage of the wind before the weather window shut down, but it seems like everyone else waited for the official start on Saturday to depart. There were only two other boats here when we arrived last night.

This morning the first of the big multi-hulls started to arrive. Shortly after they anchored, officials from Quarantine started working their way through the fleet. We were the second boat visited. We filled out some paperwork, handed over a copy of our crew list, and stamped everything with our ships seal (I think this is the first time we've been asked for it by officials anywhere). One of the Quarantine officers took a look through our fridge, while the other looked at our medical kit. They initially asked for a list of the contents of our medical kit, but they were fine with the fact that we couldn't produce one. We offered refreshments. One of the officers enjoyed a Diet Coke. The other officer said that he liked coffee. Making hot coffee would have taken a while, so we offered him an iced coffee. His expression upon tasting it was a fantastic grimace of displeasure. He looked up at Sten with a pleading look in his eyes, and uttered one request: "Sugar?"

Meanwhile, a grey Customs boat had anchored in the Quarantine area. They didn't have a dinghy or small boat to visit the yachts, so we all took turns going over to Customs boat to pick up Customs officers to ferry back to our boats. With half a dozen boats in the anchorage, this worked fairly well. But by late afternoon, as more yachts arrived, we could hear the tension in their voices as they negotiated with each other over the radio about who was next in line for Customs. With 100 more boats arriving tomorrow and the next day, things are going to get tense around here. To avoid the drama, we'd get out of dodge, but we can't. You see, all of the rally boats, including Mata'irea, have been impounded.

Impounded with a smile

It appears that Sail Indonesia failed to bribe the right officials this year. Customs took our original clearance from Darwin and some paperwork that we filled out for them. Then they slapped a big white sticker on one of our hatches to indicate that our vessel had been impounded pending completion of the clearance process. If we leave Kupang before Sail Indonesia, Customs, the Governor, and the Tourism Board figure out who owes who what, we could be fined 150,000,000 Rupiah, which is approximately $16,000 USD. So we're all stuck in Kupang until they get it sorted out.

But Kupang is kind of a great place to be stuck, at least for a few days. It is the capital city of the Nusa Tenggara region of Indonesia. There is so much energy here. From the first call to prayer at 4am, the city never shuts up. You can either plug into the energy, or bury your head in agony. We chose to plug in and dig in. Horns honk all day long as colorfully painted vans (called bemos) whiz by, blaring music from giant speaker systems. We spent the afternoon wandering around town, eating from little carts on the street selling everything from fried tofu to soup to ice cream. The food is cheap and delicious. Two little bowls of ice cream cost a total of 10 cents. Lunch was less than $2 for both of us. Dinner was so cheap that Sten had two. For less than $4 we feasted. I'm never cooking again!
Tofu delivery!
Yup, that's a vat of tofu. To eat here, you've just got to let go of Western notions of sanitation (zen attitude entirely due to pre-arrival Hep A boosters).
And that's a vat of deep fried tofu. The whole time we were at her stall, this lady never stopped laughing

Everyone here is so friendly. Walking around town, the Indonesians thought we were the funniest people they had ever seen. Everyone keeps laughing at us. It seems like they don't get many tourists here. Sten towers above everyone. So as soon as he walks into a store, everyone inside starts cracking up. And I don't think they see many voluptuous (such an nicer word than pudgy, don't you think?) blondes around here. One middle-aged lady walked up to me on the street, pinched my chubby upper arm, and ran away laughing. I was so startled, I jumped and gasped, which just made everyone at the bus stop start crackling. Later on at the night market, two ladies making nasi goreng (fried rice) reached over and ran their hands over my shoulders and patted my hips. My Bahasa Indonesia is a bit rusty, but I think they were saying "nice curves." Either that or they really liked my khaki skirt and ratty brown Gap t-shirt with the unraveling hem.

"Hello Mister!"

We arrived in Kupang with concerns about how the clearance process would go. We had read accounts about Quarantine and Customs asking for handouts from cruisers' liquor cabinets in years past. But the men who visited our boat today were friendly, cheerful, and absolutely professional. We've been listening to other rally boats complain about the process on the radio. One boat called it a nightmare. So I guess it is just a matter of prospective and experience. Compared to all the paperwork we had to do in Panama or Vanuatu, or the excessively thorough quarantine process in Australia, Indonesia has been a cake walk. Now, if only we could get this impoundment sticker removed from our boat . . .

July 28, 2008 - Passage to Indonesia

This morning the wind filled back in and we were able to spend the last day of the trip under sail. With the flat water and perfect breeze, today has been some of the best sailing of our trip. To make it even better, we had a special guest appear off our starboard bow this afternoon.

The Timor Sea is pretty shallow. But today we crossed a deep water trench just before we reached the island of Timor. As we sailed across the trench, we spotted a sperm whale. It was absolutely amazing to see one of these leviathans. There just aren't that many of them left in the world. And those that are spend just a few minutes of each hour on the surface breathing, before diving miles deep to hunt for giant squid and other food.

We saw the huge creature spout three times. Then it tilted its massive head down and its tail rose in the air as it dove. We were too stunned to reach for the camera. But it looked just like the pictures we posted in our March 13, 2008 report about the whale watching trip Sten took in Kaikoura, New Zealand, which is one of the few places where sperm whales are regularly spotted. Coming across a lone sperm whale, the world's largest predator, in an unexpected place today, has been one of the highlights of this trip.

Pilot whales playing around us as we wait for the sperm whale to resurface

As night fell we approached Timor. The local fishing boats were out in force. There was no moon, so I was relying on our radar and their lights to be able to spot them. As the screen became cluttered with radar returns from a dozen boats, I woke Sten so that he could work together to weave our way safely through the fleet. As we approached Kupang, I said "It smells like Colon, and not the good kind." Smoke from trash fires leave a heavy fog of pollution hovering over the water, just like in our least-favorite Central American city. By 2am we had the anchor down.

Every little red dot is a fishing boat

Monday, July 28, 2008

July 27, 2008 - Passage to Indonesia

We've been motoring since late last night. During the pre-dawn hours of Sten's watch he had to maneuver around an unlit vessel of some sort. We figure that it was an Indonesian fishing vessel that was in stealth mode because it had illegally crossed into Australia's territorial waters. Australia takes border patrol very seriously. There is even a show on prime time television in Australia (and New Zealand) all about intercepting illegals and quarantining goods at airports throughout Australia. Early this morning, at the 200 mile limit of Australia's fishing zone, we passed an Australian war ship patrolling the boundary. Right on the other side of the line, there was a fleet of Indonesian fishing boats working the shallow waters of the Timor Sea.

Our first night out, when we were still trying to sail, we had radio contact with a ship. I explained that sailing dead downwind with our sails winged out, it would be easier for us to alter course to starboard, than to risk jibing by altering course to port. The officer on watch was your typical Aussie - super friendly. We got into a conversation and learned that his vessel was a supply ship returning from reprovisioning the offshore rigs at Bayu-Undan. You can imagine how thrilled he was when I told him that there were a hundred more sailboats behind us for him to maneuver around. Most of the day today we have had the offshore rigs in sight. It was my first time seeing rigs, but Sten had seen them before off the coast of Angola when he was working on the Joides Resolution, a deep water drill ship. Although the closest we got to the rigs at Bayu-Undan was 4.5 miles away, that was apparently too close. We were contacted by radio and requested to alter course to honor the 5 mile exclusion zone around the rigs.

One good thing about motoring is that it allows us to eat well. The flat water is very conducive to cooking underway. And having the motor running was a perfect excuse to plug in a waffle iron and make waffles in the cockpit for breakfast. Washed down with tall glasses of iced coffee, it was one of my favorite passage meals ever.

Over breakfast Sten and I were talking about our short stay in Darwin. Sten commented that "this trip has changed my definitions of what makes a place exotic or remote." He went on to explain that when he was asked by CAT to work in Melbourne a few years ago, he jumped at the opportunity to work someplace so far away and different. But after seeing places like Beveridge Reef and experiencing the unusual cultures of the out islands of Vanuatu, both of which are difficult to get to and so very different from anything we'd ever seen before, this time around, Australia seemed very accessible, familiar and comfortable.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

July 26, 2008 - Passage to Indonesia

Technically, the Sail Indonesia rally started this morning at 11am. I'm sure it was a sight to see - over 100 boats starting together, spinnakers flying. But we weren't around to see it. By that time, we'd been underway for 20 hours and were 120 miles Northwest of Darwin.

We weren't too keen on sailing in close quarters with so many other boats, so we'd actually been planning on starting a little later than the rest of the fleet. But on Wednesday we pulled down a grib file that confirmed earlier weather forecasts predicting negligible winds for the rally. The earlier we left, the longer we'd have before the fans shut down and we'd have to turn on the engine. At nearly $6 a gallon for diesel, we decided to try to get some winddriven miles under the keel before we had to start motoring. So, as soon as we cleared out with Customs on Friday morning, we headed back to the boat and got her sorted so that we could get underway.

It was several hours of work before everything was stowed. We left Darwin with light air and the current assisting us. Late afternoon, the seabreaze set in, canceling out the prevailing southeasterlies. Then the current turned on us. To avoid spending the night drifting back towards Darwin, we turned on the engine. We motor sailed for a few hours, to get away from the influence of the land. Eventually, the wind filled back in and we were able to turn off the engine. Ever since, we've been sailing, slowly, but still sailing.

Each day we and the other rally boats are reporting our positions, which will be posted on the Sail Indonesia website (

Friday, July 25, 2008

July 25, 2008 - Darwin, Australia

This is a bad thing

Welcome to drag city! The past few days the wind has built up, making this shallow anchorage uncomfortably choppy. Boats are dragging left and right. With 120 boats in the rally and another 30 non-rally boats in the anchorage, we're all anchored quite close together, so there have been a few collisions. And from here on out, the anchorages just get smaller. Let the games begin!

July 24, 2008 - Darwin, Australia

Daily controlled burns create amazing sunsets

After two and half months in Vanuatu, one of the least developed places we've ever been, we arrived in Australia with two weeks to get ourselves and Mata'irea ready to drop off the grid again. Between tackling our work lists during the day and catching up with old and new friends at night, we've been running hard since we arrived here a week ago. We are wiped. But the long hours have paid off. We've got a boat full of food and booze, a freezer full of meat, cabinets full of clean sheets and boxers, fresh oil in the crank cases, full diesel, unleaded and propane tanks, shoulders aching from Typhoid and Hep A boosters, Indonesian Social Visas in our passports, unread books on the shelf, and an envelope stuffed with Indonesian Rupiah. After we pick up our fresh fruit and veggies at the market on Saturday morning, we'll be good to go.

Darwin has been a blast. We could easily have spent a lot longer here than two weeks. As the woman who cut my hair our first day here said, "Darwin is a party town in a matchbox." There is something happening every night of the week. After work, the tables that line the sidewalks in front of bars and cafes fill with workers pouring out of offices and from construction sites. Longshoremen and construction workers sporting florescent vests and dusty Blunnies (Blundstone work boots) rub shoulders with office workers in their smart suits and shiny shoes. As the night wears on, they move to different venues to continue the festivities. It is a hard drinking town. But there are a few weekly events that are family friendly. Every Saturday morning the Parap market is filled with locals shopping for fruits and vegetables, and snacking on crepes, satays and laksa (our new favorite thing - an aromatic Malaysian noodle soup, lavishly garnished with seafood or meat, chiles, herbs, limes and veggies, all of which is swimming in a rich coconut broth - delightful). The food stalls reflect the refugee populations that have settled in Darwin - from Greeks to Vietnamese boat people to East Timorese.

On Thursday and Sunday nights, the scene moves down the road to Mindil Beach, where twice as many food stalls compete for space with stalls selling any kind of Northern Territory souvenir you could possibly want - and several you wouldn't want. We're assuming here that none of you want a kangaroo scrotum gear shift cover for Christmas, but if we've got that wrong, just let us know. An hour before sunset, the market fills as people select their dinners from the stalls. Then they wander down to the beach to watch the sunset.

Who knew pollution could be so beautiful?

Darwin is a city on a human scale. It is a town big enough to host big events, but small enough that everyone can take part. Those events run the gamut from low to highbrow. A week before we arrived, the whole town turned out for the V-8 races. The day before we came in, the annual beer can regatta was held. 3,000 people lined the beach to watch people race boats that they constructed from beer cans - some more seaworthy than others. The pictures made us really wish we'd been here for it. Two days after we arrived was another big event - Ladies Day at the track. At first, I couldn't figure out why all the stores in town had fantastic headgear on display. Then we learned that most of the women in town had been spending the past few days visiting hairdressers, spas and boutiques to get all dolled up and go show off their best outfits to each other at the horse track. Later this month is the Darwin Cup Ball, which is the largest outdoor ball in the Southern Hemisphere. It is almost enough to make us want to stick around. But Indonesia beckons.

Friday, July 18, 2008

July 18, 2008 - Darwin, Australia

I've just finished uploading pictures from our last few days in Vanuatu and our 16 day passage to Darwin.
To see the rest of Sten's monster marlin, click on the June 2008 archives link. For pictures from the rest of the passage to Darwin, click on the July 2008 archives link. And to see what kind of trouble we've been getting into these past few days, check out Kika's blog.

July 14, 2008 - Darwin, Australia

We thought that New Zealand Quarantine was thorough when they cleaned us out last fall. We were expecting a similar experience in Australia. Yesterday, I made an offhand comment that it was a good thing that we had three sweet potatoes left so that we would have something to give Australian Quarantine. We could not have been more wrong. Compared to Australian Quarantine, the Kiwis barely looked at us.

We've never had a more thorough Customs and Quarantine experience. Between the three Customs officers, one dog handler (and his two dogs), and two Quarantine officers, Mata'irea has rarely had more people (and pets) on board. Everyone was very professional and courteous, but the rules they were implementing are strict and they adhered to them all.

The Customs officers were thorough, but quick. They reviewed out medical kit (which had one of the officers in stitches - "You could open a clinic with this!") and put both the valium and injectable morphine under seal in a cabinet. We didn't find anything offensive about their process or the outcome. They even gave us a recommendation for where to get a good bacon cheeseburger. As long as that seal comes off the cabinet without lifting the varnish, I'll be just fine with our Australian Customs experience. Quarantine was a different story entirely.

The two Quarantine officers (a supervisor and a trainee) were on board for several hours. They went through every storage space in which we keep food - regardless of whether it is fresh food, dry goods or canned goods storage. Now, keep in mind that we're only going to be in Australia for two weeks. The boat is not getting hauled out and none of the stuff on board is ever going to touch the Australian continent. I'd deem Mata'irea's threat to Australia's biosecurity to be minimal. Quarantine clearly didn't see it that way. Here is what they took:
  • sweet potatoes
  • whole onion
  • ginger root
  • sliced onion (in the fridge)
  • eggs
  • leftover lasagna
  • leftover pizza
  • fried banana chips
  • dried cherries
  • dried blueberries
  • sun dried tomatoes
  • walnuts
  • pecans
  • pistachio meats
  • whole pistachios
  • pine nuts
  • bay leaves
  • cloves
  • vanilla beans
  • whole nutmeg
  • poppy seeds
  • white sesame seeds
  • coriander seeds
  • cardamom seeds
  • wildflower green tea
  • dried mac 'n cheese mix
  • yogurt from Vanuatu
  • rendered bacon fat
  • popcorn
  • woven fans from Epi
There took lots of other stuff too. But I didn't see it go into the big yellow Quarantine bags because I was upstairs dealing with the Customs paperwork.

One of the two big bags of goods confiscated by Quarantine

We didn't expect any of this stuff, except for the sweet potatoes, onion, ginger, popcorn, and the yogurt and eggs from Vanuatu to be taken. Most of the items that were taken were either on board when we arrived in New Zealand, or were similar to items that New Zealand Quarantine allowed into New Zealand.

This all wouldn't be nearly as offensive if the rules were implemented consistently around the country, but they aren't. When friends of ours cleared in at a port on the East Coast of Australia a few weeks ago, they were allowed to keep raw meat. We weren't even allowed to keep cooked meat. Our lasagna and pizza were confiscated because it had cooked meat in it. If someone can explain to me what threat cooked meat poses to the livestock industry of Australia, I'd really appreciate it. Ditto on the bacon fat. I mean, seriously, bacon fat? Other than to my waist line, what is the threat there?

I understand that they needed to take our bay leaves and cloves. Apparently, both those spices can carry a fungus called guava rust, which can infect eucalyptus trees. Their removal was certainly justified. But most of our spices' only crime was that they were not in "commercial packaging." If I had poured these spices from St. Martin into old McCormick spice jars, they would have passed muster.

They took every nut they could find, regardless of whether they were in their shells or just meats. They also confiscated all of our dried fruits and vegetables. What threat does a dried vanilla bean pose? Vanilla doesn't grow spontaneously. It has to be pollinated by hand to create bean. The Quarantine officers at least had the decency to be apologetic about taking the vanilla. But they took it anyway.

To add insult to injury, we had to pay $240 AUD (approximately $233 USD) for the privilege of having our larder cleaned out. When we left New Zealand, the Australian Quarantine fee was $160 AUD. It is now half again as much as it was three months ago. In addition, I'm going to need to spend at least $200 AUD (approximately $194 USD) to restock my spice cabinet and dried goods. This makes Australia officially our most expensive clearance experience to date.

We know several boats that decided to go to Port Moseby in Papua New Guinea rather than to Australia to restock before continuing on to Indonesia. The combination of Australia's 96 hour notice rule and the draconian enforcement of the Quarantine rules creates a hell of a disincentive for cruisers to bring their boats and provisioning dollars to Australia. It is really saying something when people would choose to go to one of the more dangerous cities in the world to buy their rice and pasta rather than Darwin or Cairns. But I just don't think Australia is listening. The Australian meat industry and institutionalized bureaucracy are much more powerful lobbies than a couple of cruisers. Clearing our boat alone provided work for at least six government employees. Compare that to New Zealand where we were cleared by two people, or Bermuda (and almost every other country we've ever been to) where we were cleared by one official.

After we finished up with our spring cleaning, courtesy of Australian Quarantine, we headed into Darwin to do our duty free fuel paperwork at the Customs office, to make some appointments at the Travel Clinic, get our hairs cut, and, most important of all, rustle up some bacon cheeseburgers. We were still wiped out from passage, so it was an early night on Mata'irea.

Monday, July 14, 2008

July 13, 2008 - Darwin Dash, Day 16

Bush Fire

To get from the Arafura Sea to Darwin, on the shores of the Beagle Gulf, it is necessary to transit the Van Diemen Gulf. Timing the approach to the Van Diemen is crucial, as it has strong currents flowing through it. But unlike the Torres Strait, where we could just pick a rising tide and ride the flow west, the currents in the Van Diemen are influenced by both the tides in the Arafura, which only rise and fall 6 feet, and the tides in the Beagle Gulf, which can rise and fall up to 24 feet. The trick is to hit the Dundas Strait, the entrance to the Van Diemen Gulf, 4.5 hours before high tide in Darwin. Keep your boat speed up, and you should have favorable currents in the Dundas Strait and then again on the other side of the Gulf at the Clarence Strait. In the middle of the Gulf, you'll have some counter current, but it won't be as strong as the favorable currents in the straits.

A few days ago, Nick on Kika sent us an email with the Darwin high tides and the corresponding times to arrive at the Dundas Strait. Nick noted that there was diurnal inequality in the Darwin tide cycle. Some days there is one high tide in Darwin. Others, there are two. If we chose the wrong high tide, we'd have a shorter period of favorable current to transit the Gulf. I worked through two additional sources of tide information and confirmed his analysis. We all decided to try to time our entry to the Strait to have a longer time to transit the Gulf. We knew we had the theory right. So how did it work in real life?

We ended up arriving an hour earlier than planned at the mouth of the Dundas Strait. We entered the Strait with half a knot of current against us. It eased off, and soon we had a favorable current. We were able to sail for a while, then the wind came forward and then promptly died, and we motor sailed for the rest of the day. At times, we had 3 knots of current assisting us. After clearing the Clarence Strait, we rode the flood tide into Darwin. Sten kept congratulating me for nailing the timing. I graciously accepted his praise, and made a note to myself that I owe Nick a round or two for making me look so good.

Spending the day motoring through flat water gave us a chance to clean house. Sten worked on deck most of the day, washing the salt crust off of everything he could reach. He also inflated the dinghy and got it ready to launch so that we can get off the boat as soon as humanly possible once Customs clears us. I spent most of the day cleaning down below. It seemed a waste of a hot engine room not to use it to raise some dough, so we made pizza for dinner, which had the added benefit of allowing us to cook up the last of the meat in our freezer - some ground beef and sausage. There is very little left on board for Quarantine to take. Luckily, we have three sweet potatoes left so that they'll have something to show for their visit.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

July 12, 2008 - Darwin Dash, Days 14 and 15

Around lunchtime yesterday, we passed Cape Wessel, marking our transition from the Gulf of Carpentaria into the Arafura Sea proper. Behind the shelter of the Cape, the waters smoothed out a bit and the motion of the boat became much more comfortable. There is a huge difference between the chop created by 300 miles of fetch and that created by a 50 mile fetch. One thing we like about the Arafura is the color of the water. We're still in less than 200 feet of water (which is a bit disconcerting - usually offshore the water is so deep that our depth sounder doesn't give us a reading). In such shallow water, the refraction of the light through the water gives it a beautiful turquoise tone.

When we left New Zealand, I thought that I had over provisioned us for the coming months. But cooking practically every meal on board these past two and a half months has made a big dent in our stores. Still, when we did the final market run three weeks ago in Luganville, I didn't realize how short we were on some staple items. Two days ago we ran out of UHT milk. We primarily use milk in our coffee and in breakfast foods, like eggs, pancakes or on top of oatmeal. So I mixed up a batch of powdered milk to use in cooking. When it was done, I held it up to Sten and asked "Why is it yellow?" He took one look at it and decided to try to use soy milk in our coffee. Can't say we recommend that either. So this morning, he whipped out the container of CoffeeMate that he insisted on buying for some exhorbenent amount of money in Papeete, for just such an emergency as this. I don't understand why corn syrup solids taste more like milk than powdered milk, but we're sticking with the CoffeeMate.

We're almost out of vegetables. Yesterday we used the last clove of garlic. This morning we ate the last three little plum tomatoes. Now the only fresh vegetables we have left on board tonight are three small onions and three sweet potatoes. Unfortunately, neither of us knows what to do with a sweet potato.

Our real problem is that we've run out of snack food. Over the past few days we've eaten the last packets of crackers, and the last two bags of potato chips. And as of this morning, we're officially out of chocolate. Thank god we have four cans of Diet Coke left. I can make it through night watch without chocolate (barely), but take away the DC and we both cease to function.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

July 10, 2008 - Darwin Dash, Day 13

According to our cruising guide for this area, we should be blasting along through swell-free seas. "Because the Cape York Peninsula is to windward . . . , sailing under its lee is one of life's great experiences."

What a crock. The combination of 25-30 knot winds, shallow waters, tidal currents, and the long fetch across the Gulf of Carpentaria creates a washing machine of confused seas. There is no rhythm here. Mata'irea is getting tossed around like a toy boat in a spa. Cushions won't stay in place. Bottles, pans and plates are clanging around in the lockers. Waves keep hosing down the cockpit and its occupants.

While on watch last night I noticed a bird flying around our transom. I realized after a few minutes that it was trying to find a place to land to ride out these nasty conditions. It briefly alighted on the life sling, but flew off after a few minutes. I figured it was off to find a boat that wasn't jerking up and down and twisting from side to side like a bucking bronco. But a couple minutes later it was back. This time it tried the top of the BBQ, but found that to be too slippery. Then it landed on the bimini. I told it that as long as it could comply with Mata'irea's No Pooping On The Bimini Rule, it was welcome to catch a ride. In the morning I discovered that our overnight guest had terrible manners. Not only did he fail to abide by the NPOTB Rule, he left little gouges in the bimini where he had dug in with his claws to hold on as we bucked and kicked our way West through the night.

July 9, 2008 - Darwin Dash, Day 12

"What would the memory of my sea life have been for me if it had not included a passage through the Torres Strait . . . along the track of the early navigators?" - Joseph Conrad
Pilot Whales

With two and a half knots of current assisting us, we shot out of the Endeavor Strait into the Gulf of Carpentaria, both of us relieved to have the Torres Strait behind us. While I agree with Mr. Heart of Darkness - our circumnavigation certainly wouldn't have been complete without a passage through the Torres Strait in the wake of Captain Cook - we're awfully glad to have this right of passage behind us. The last few days have been some of the most challenging of our trip.

In the end, despite the obstacles, we feel that we made the right choice in taking the less traveled southern route from Raine Island through the Great Barrier Reef and into the Torres Strait. We shaved many miles off this passage to Darwin by not going all the way up north to Bramble Cay to pick up the Great North East Channel. We avoided most of the commercial shipping traffic and much of the adverse current that gives the Torres Strait its infamous reputation. We also had a better wind angle and calmer seas for the 135 miles from Raine Island to Cape York than our friends on Increscent Moon have had in the Great North East Channel. For the past two days they have been beating their way down from Bramble Cay in 30-35 knot winds, while dodging a dozen ships. We'll take downwind sailing over beating any day of the week.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

July 8, 2008 - Darwin Dash, Day 11

Last night, when the tide came up, our anchorage behind the reef ceased to be as protected as we hoped it would be. Our cruising guide had described this anchorage has having a clean, gently sloping bottom, but instead we found a foul mess of coral and poor protection during the 2am high tide. I had trouble falling asleep, as I was was still traumatized by nearly parking the boat on the reef. But eventually, I was able to nod off. Sten fell right to sleep, helped along by a glass of gin (I'd call it a gimlet or a martini, but really, it was just a big ol' glass of gin), but around 11pm, the hobbyhorse motion of the boat jerking heavily on the anchor chain woke him up. And then we dragged. Sten spent the next few hours on anchor watch. This morning found Sten exhausted from anchor watch and me still anxious from yesterday's drama.

Luckily, the sailing today was terrific. We scooted along through turquoise waters, doing well over 8 knots with the assistance of the current. A pod of dolphins frolicked in our bow wake. Once we reached the Adolphus Channel, we found ourselves in deep and steep chop created by the combination of big breeze, lots of current and shallow waters. In these conditions, we had to hug the east side of the channel to allow a sheep ship to pass by us. We could feel the thrum of its engines as it passed to windward.

Just about that time we caught sight of Kika, as they were entering the Albany Pass. They left the anchorage behind the reef an hour before us this morning (as required by the rules of the Heavy Displacement Cruising Boat Division of the inaugural Over the Top Race, as written by me) to handicap Mata'irea for her longer waterline length. We might have caught her, but Kika got a boost from the flat water and current whizzing through the Albany Pass, and she passed the lighthouse at Cape York just in front of us.

At Cape York we departed Kika's company. She will be continuing on through the night towards Darwin, but we needed to pull in and make a few minor repairs before we jumped off on the final 750 mile leg of the passage to Darwin. We dropped anchor in Simpson Bay. The hills around us are covered by dry scrub, interrupted by a few giant ant hills and Aboriginal dwellings. There are pearl buoys dotting the water behind us. Torres Islanders are net fishing in the shallows in front of us and speeding by in their tin boats. Out on the reef, we could have been anywhere, but this, this feels like Australia.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

July 7, 2008 - Darwin Dash, Day 10

[Over the past 24 hours we've been debating whether we should post the account below on our blog. Primarily, we are concerned that it is going to freak out our family and friends. Also, if our insurance company gets wind of it, they'll probably raise our rates. And frankly, as the negligent party, I find it embarrassing. But as I said to our friend Brian after he and his partner ran aground in Bora Bora, "I love it when other people make mistakes. That way, I can learn from them without risking my own boat." (admittedly, this was not one of my most tackfull moments). So in the hope that someone out there learns something from our mistakes, here goes.]

We left our anchorage behind the Great Detached Reef at daybreak. With the wind behind us and the current with us, we ran north-west all day through murky, shallow waters. Occasionally we had to gybe Mata'irea around a sandy, barren cay or a particularly shallow shoal, but for the most part, the sea around us looked as empty as the open ocean. However, the chart showed hazards all around us. The cloudy water and lack of visual clues to the shallowness and unevenness of the sea floor under our keel was unnerving.

By late afternoon the sunny day had become overcast. We were sailing along at 8 knots, wing-on-wing, with the jib poled out to port and the main to starboard, pushing to get into an anchorage behind a reef before sunset. Rather than follow the GPS waypoints in our cruising guide, which would have taken us over the northern edge of this circular reef (shaped a bit like a flat-topped mesa rising out of the sea floor), we decided to cut the corner, saving time so that we would have better light in which to anchor. At the time, changing our course to be able to anchor in good light seemed like the safety-conscious choice.

Our charts had been spot on all day. I was watching our track on the chart plotter and the angle of the wind on the wind instruments, trying to keep us a safe distance from the reef, which required me to keep turning us to port a few degrees, without backwinding the poled-out jib. According to the chart, we were about a third of a mile from the edge of the reef. Then, while still looking at the plotter, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a dark spot on the water. I focused on it, and immediately realized it was a rock on top of the reef, and it was about 50 feet from us. From that moment, I operated on pure instinct. I'm not trying to make myself sound like an action figure here, it is just that I didn't think through the steps necessary to get us away from danger.

"Sten, I need your help." I shouted as I reeled away from the chart plotter, threw myself across the cockpit to jam the autopilot into standby, and grabbed the wheel, spinning Mata'irea hard to port.

Assuming that I was having a problem keeping the jib from backwinding, Sten looked up from the fish he was cleaning to glance at the sails and called out, "Turn the other way."

"I can't." I simply said as I steered us away from the reef, a boat length away.

A minute (that felt like an hour) later, once we were a safe distance from the reef, I let out my breath in a big whoosh. It was only then that I realized that I had been holding it. It wasn't until I was certain that we weren't about to lose our boat, and our home, that I could breathe again.

This is the chart for the area. The green area is where I expected the reef to be, approximately a third of a mile away. Instead, it was a whole lot closer than as charted. The red line shows the sharp turn I took to avoid the reef.

So how come I didn't see the reef until it was almost too late? We had been in 85 feet of water, but the reef rose straight up from the depths, like a sheer cliff face. We were protected by other reefs to windward, so there was minimal swell breaking on it to alert me to its proximity. If it hadn't been low tide, exposing rocks on top of the reef, we would have lost our boat today. I don't even want to think about what would have happened upon impact to Sten, who was filleting a fish with a razor sharp knife at the moment I saw the reef.

Here are the lessons we learned from this experience:

Don't become too focused on charts, instruments and sails. I was so intent on monitoring our course on the chart plotter and keeping the sails filled that I wasn't looking around us. Even though we'd hardly seen anything above water all day, I still should have been looking around for visual clues to confirm that the reef we were closing in on was as far away as the charts showed it to be. I should have also been scanning for any uncharted hazards.

Leave early and sail fast. Shortly after leaving the Great Detached Reef, an hour later than we intended, we calculated our estimated time of arrival at our intended anchorage and figured that we were going fast enough with just the main up. It wasn't until the day started to get cloudy and the wind lessened slightly, that we polled out the jib to keep our speed up. We'd been doing 7.5 to 8 knots all day, but we were slow to react when the wind moderated. There was about an hour or two when could have been going faster. The faster you go on a day sail, the closer you'll be to your destination if and when the conditions change.

In tight conditions, don't carry a sail combination that makes it hard to maneuver. There is only a relatively narrow wind angle in which wing-on-wing works. Steer beyond those angles, and you backwind the jib or jibe the main. In close quarters, the more maneuverable you are, the safer you are, even if it means being under-canvassed and therefore slower.

In areas that call for eye-ball navigation, both people on board should be focused on navigating; four eyes are better than two. Now, I had the watch. I knew Sten was focused on cleaning a fish and that I was responsible for getting us safely to the anchorage. I'm not trying to put any of the responsibility for this nearest of misses on him. I fully accept the responsibility for almost destroying our home. But we've decided that in the future, there will be no fish cleaning or other distractions in close quarters when an additional set of eyes could be of assistance.

Deep water isn't dangerous; shallow water is. We understand that for coastal cruisers and folks who have never been offshore, the deep ocean seems fraught with danger. But frankly, on a solid cruising boat, the dangers of the deep are few and far between. In our experience, the closer we are to shore, the more likely we are to find trouble.

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.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

July 5, 2008 - Darwin Dash, Day 8

We're pushing to try to get into the Great Barrier Reef before sunset tomorrow night so that we can anchor up and catch a full night's sleep before tackling the Torres Strait. We've got as much canvas up as possible, and are really pushing Mata'irea. Our friends on Kika decided a few days ago to aim for arriving at day break the following morning. So they have a couple of reefs in and are rolling along nicely.

4 nights ago we were 120 miles behind Kika. Every night on our radio schedule we check in with Kika and a few other boats. We check in before Kika. By the time we talk to Kika, Nick has already compared both of our positions and calculated how much mileage we've each made that day. The highlight of our day these past few days has been hearing how much mileage we've made on Kika. Competitive, much?

We passed Kika this morning. But then Nick and Charlotta decided that getting a good night's sleep sounded pretty good, so they threw up more canvas and started to haul. Overnight tonight we were always within a few miles of each other.

Last night on the radio, Nick asked how we had celebrated the Fourth of July. I joked that I'd tossed some tea in the ocean. Nick then said that he had prepared something special for us and proceeded to serenade us over the radio with the Star Spangled Banner. On a trumpet! Definitely one of my more memorable Fourths. And it sure beat the one I spent in the office.

July 4, 2008 - Darwin Dash, Day 7

With our tomatoes fading fast and too much fish in the fridge, it was time to make some ceviche. This is the ceviche recipe that I use as a guideline. It comes from Rick Bayless's "Mexico - One Plate at a Time." Since I usually don't have all the ingredients it calls for, I improvise. The key points are:
- use a bit of olive oil to give the fish a glistening appearance and to give good mouth feel
- add a bit of orange juice or sugar to balance the tanginess of the lime

1 lb fresh fish (we prefer mahi mahi), cut into 1/2 inch cubes (or smaller)
1 1/2 cups fresh lime juice
1 med white union, chopped into 1/4 inch pieces

Marinate the fish in the lime juice and onion for 4 hours to cook through or less to leave a sashimi-like center (we prefer our fish raw, so we usually only let it sit in the lime juice for 30 minutes to 1 hour). Drain off the lime juice (you can marinate the fish up to a day in advance, but don't let it cook in the lime juice for more than 4 hours - it gets too acidic). Just before serving, mix the following ingredients in a separate bowl, then toss with the fish.

1 lb (2 medium large or 8 small) tomatoes, chopped into 1/4 inch pieces
Fresh hot green chiles to taste (2 to 3 serranos OR 1 to 2 jalepenos) stemmed, seeded and finely chopped (can substitute canned chiles)
1/3 cup fresh cilantro/corriander (dried does not really work as a substitute, but cilantro paste is okay)
1/3 cup chopped pitted green olives
1 large or 2 small ripe avocados, peeled, pitted and diced
1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil (if not adding olives or avocado, use a touch more oil)
3 tablespoons fresh orange juice OR 1/2 teaspoon sugar
salt to taste
serve with tortilla chips (or saltine crackers, tostadas, or thin slices of French bread)

That's all fine and good if you have a grocery store near by. Here are some suggestions for making this recipe work 100's of miles from the nearest market or store:

I carry jars of Frontera brand tomatillo (green) salsa on board. In a pinch (if I have no fresh cilantro or cilantro paste), I substitute 1/4 to 1/2 cup of tomatillo salsa for the cilantro and chiles). Tomatillo salsa mixed with diced avocado, tomato and onion also makes a more than passable guacamole. A spoonful mixed into some heavy cream and simmered for a minute or two also makes a nice sauce for grilled fish.

Since I often don't have any avocados or tomatoes on board when we're making this on passage, I substitute whatever fresh veg I happen to have - cucumber, green peppers or jicama add nice crunch. Canned diced tomatoes do not work as a substitute for fresh (too mushy). Diced medium-ripe mango pairs nicely with mahi mahi.

Friday, July 04, 2008

July 3, 2008 - Darwin Dash, Day 6

Coral Sea Sunrise

We must be passing through some shipping lanes. The last time we had this much activity on our radar was on our approach to the Panama Canal. At one point on my watch last night I had three ships on our radar screen, one of which was close enough that I felt the need to hail them on the radio, just to make sure they knew we were out here. There was no response, but then I didn't really expect one. As long as my voice crackling over the VHF makes whomever is on watch take a closer look at their radar screen, that's good enough for me.

We have seen so few ships on our travels in the Pacific. We're both a bit nervous about the cruising we have ahead of us these next few months in much more heavily trafficked waters. A few nights ago Sten commented, "I might be able to cross an ocean, but I don't know the rules of the road." I responded that "I'm sure they are just like racing rules, but you know, with really big boats." Figuring that there might be a bit more to it than that, we pulled out a laminated card that we purchased 3 years ago with the right of way rules on it and had a refresher course.

Dinner tonight was fantastic. We had aged rib eye (well aged after 2 months in our freezer) in a sauce that was a riff on au poivre. Delicious.

On the net tonight we learned that we have made steady progress on catching up to Kika. Two nights ago they were 120 miles ahead of us. Tonight it was only 65. We might be cruisers now, but the latent racer in each of us can't resist the challenge of trying to catch the boat in front of us. We've just got to keep in mind that we can't call "buoy room" or "no barging" on any of these ships out here.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

July 2, 2008 - Darwin Dash, Day 5

We've been running wing on wing for the past few days. The wind has started to come forward, so Sten extended the whisker pole to hold the jib farther forward. He also put up the staysail. That thing hasn't been out of the bag in a very long time. It is a wrinkled mess.

We found some tomatoes and green peppers that were about to kick it, so we had western style scrambled eggs for breakfast. Then I counted up the eggs we had left and the number of miles to go and put the kabash on using any eggs in anything but baking.

Key Lime Custard

For the past few days we've been passing through the Coral Sea, which is bordered by Vanuatu and New Caledonia to the East, the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea to the North, and Australia to the West. After an amazing year, we've departed the Pacific Ocean. We might be sadder about having that storied body of water behind us, but the Coral Sea has been too welcoming to spend long reflecting on the Pacific. The sailing has been terrific, and we're catching more fish than we can eat. Before lunch we picked up two wahoo, but we still had some yellow fin left from yesterday, so we tossed them back. After another sushi lunch, we landed two more yellow fin. We kept one of them and released the other. While Sten was cleaning the yellow fin, he tossed the lines back in the water, to get them out from under foot. Within minutes, we had a skipjack on the line, flashing his electric blue back at us. We released him and hauled in the lines for the day.


This afternoon we made popcorn and watched some DVD's. During our night watches there was quite a bit of shipping activity showing up on the radar. Sten watched two ships pass each other about 16 miles away, then had to alter coarse to allow one of them to pass a mile ahead of us.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

July 1, 2008 - Darwin Dash, Day 4

This morning we shook both reefs out of the main sail, dislodging our extra crew member "Stinky McStink." Once shaken from his hiding place, Stinky tried to hitch a ride on top of the bimini, but we weren't having any of that. So off he went, into the deep. After lunch Sten was cleaning up the cockpit. He was sorting through the various detritus that gathers in the pockets on the inside of the dodger - candy wrappers, chip bags, old plastic bags, clothes pins - when he came across another flying fish. This one was much smaller than Stinky, and completely desiccated. He must have been in there since our run from New Zealand. No wonder we've been a fly magnet for the past six weeks! The big news of the day is that we caught a lunch sized yellow fin tuna - one of our favorite sushi fish. It has been 13 months since the last time we landed one, just as we were leaving the Galapagos.

We rolled along in light air for the rest of the day, averaging between 5.5 and 6 knots. At 8pm tonight, we still had 800 miles to go to the Great Barrier Reef and another 1000 or so from there to Darwin. At this rate, this is going to be a very long passage. We're hoping for more wind tomorrow.