September 30, 2014

The sea is so wide, my ship is so small

It's funny how the same words can mean so many different things during a passage. The old Irish fisherman's prayer 'the sea is so wide, my ship is so small' is one that comes to mind every time we head to sea.

At first, on this passage, it was a lament about distance: A complaint that even after traveling, seemingly nonstop, for two months the distance from Cape York to Darwin was still almost 1000 nautical miles. That's like sailing from Tonga to Vanuatu without the benefit of Fiji in the middle. And when we reach Darwin in a couple of days, we'll still be in the same country.

Each time we request a weather report, the words become like a plea to the weather gods. We were crossing the Gulf of Carpenteria: a shallow body of water known for high winds, steep seas and inaccurate weather reports. Every day the prediction was for 10-15 knots with 1-2 meter seas. Not one day yet have we gotten that weather. We've had other weather-some was too calm, some offered up sickeningly steep seas that made my stomach roil as our boat plunged straight down off a wave, some was too windy. But the weather reports in this part of the wide, wide sea seem meaningless. Still we plead for fair winds for our small ship.

When we were escorted into the Arafura Sea by a large pod of dolphins the words were closest to a prayer of awe. Dolphins are a good omen to sailors. And as we watched the creatures dance in our bow wave while we crossed the imaginary line from one sea to the next, they seemed like a symbol of all the wonders the oceans have to offer. A reminder that the sea contains so much beauty and sometimes the only way to encounter it is to venture out in our very small boat.

The prayer of awe became words of acceptance when the sea became too big and we decided to stop for a rest. We can reef our sails, try to believe the weather reports, sail as safely as we may but the sea can make you tired sometimes.

Land has its own hazards though and when a fault in our starter battery meant our engine didn't start when we needed it most the prayer/lament/plea/words of awe became simple truth. Our small boat is our shelter on a big ocean; a fragile shell that's only as safe as we are skillful.

By sail alone we skirted the reefs and made our way up a blustery channel to safety.

And now we sit in our small boat. The engine is fixed, the weather report says it looks fine to carry-on. We'll sleep soundly tonight and tomorrow we'll venture back out into the wide sea.

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September 25, 2014

Into the Arafura Sea

With about 12 knots behind us we're making steady progress across the Gulf of Carpenteria. The shallow body of water at the top of Australia is notorious for delivering up a parting slap-so we've been watching the weather carefully-trying to get a sense of when conditions would be favourable. We waited out a few days of 15-20 forecasts, knowing that in the Gulf these come up more like 20-25 with nasty seas. But we're off.

Seisia was a good reintroduction to developing countries. Cut off for half the year by the wet season and only reachable by four-wheel drive, or once a month by bus, or twice a week by freighter it is the definition of remote. The kids, who spoke only a little bit of English, appear to be a mix of Aboriginal, Torres Straight and PNG cultures. They were fun to watch as they played and dove from the village pier. I think Maia was envious of the fun they had in the water-but we were too aware of the area's well-publicized crocodile attacks to let her join in.

My only disappointment was we never saw the wild horses. There were signs of them (and signs about them) everywhere. Letting us know if we fed them they'd get belligerent and steal food ("eat you bread"). Mostly we used the time in Seisia to catch up on laundry.

We still have several hundred miles left to Darwin. But we're taking the last bit in long hops. Tonight is our first overnight since arriving in Australia over 2.5 years ago.

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September 23, 2014

Will Sail for Food

Shortly after we dropped anchor I saw a shrimp trawler pull in. We’d been waiting for this moment. Ever since cruising friends gave us a tip: go with a bucket, they told us, and $20 in small bills. Then after shooting the breeze for a bit—it’s lonely being a fisherman on the remote Queensland coast—ask how much shrimp your money will buy. $5 bought us a generous kilo of enormous prawns. We could have had more—but our fridge was too small for the pre-measured packages that were flash frozen as soon as they were caught.

Maia is becoming a great bread baker
A drinking coconut
And the kilo would be perfect for a celebratory meal at to top of Australia (which coincided with our anniversary). The menu: prawns, risotto Milanese and sautéed broccoli followed by chocolate mousse. Not bad for a meal that came on a trip with a month between grocery stores.

I recall visiting maritime museums as a kid. It was always the food that was displayed in the galley’s of old sailing ships that fascinated and appalled me; tins of butter, potted meat, ships biscuits. Everything was serviceable and simple—as though food was fuel and not sustenance.

Twenty years ago, as we prepared to sail off on little Ceilydh, the books I read that told me how to outfit my galley seemed to take a page from those old ships. They offered up undemanding recipes made from bland ingredients, potted meat, it seemed was universal. Serve it over potatoes (powdered or tinned were both acceptable options) with tinned peas; you could finish with cling peaches or fruit cocktail for dessert. If you wanted to be fancy (or change it up) add curry powder or an onion.

Dutifully I bought a case of canned ham (I couldn’t bring my self to buy spam). We ate one and decided there had to be a better way.
the food should match the extraordinary journey
There are two types of thought when it comes filling the pantry of modern cruising boats: 
1) Food is everywhere, because everyone eats. So don’t over shop.
2) Buy everything you can before you leave because not everyone eats what you want to eat.

Food is everywhere. But often we look for it in the wrong places. The dusty grocery store in Seisia, where green beans cost $12 a kilo and we’ll buy them anyway—because over a lifetime of eating green beans they probably only bring up the overall cost by a fraction, isn’t what we’ll remember when we think about food on this coast. Nor will it be the well-stocked grocery stores in Cairns and Airlie beach.

Percy Island fruit became gorgeous marmalade
What we’ll recall are the foods we’ve stumbled across—the fruit that was piled into my arms by Kate, a homesteader on Middle Percy Island, the coconuts Maia climbed for, the fish given to us by friends on Arjenta, the bush tomato relish we found in Cairns, and those prawns. We sail to experience the riches of the world around us; to find the flavours and textures of each new place. 
We’ll leave the potted meat for someone else.

September 18, 2014

A Rocking Detour--Stanley Island Aboriginal Art

It began like so many of our adventures do; a casual mention over drinks and a few half-recalled details. “It’s cave art—there are supposed to be 19th century sailing ships, dugongs and turtles.”

When I persisted, we managed to narrow down the island; Stanley Island in the Flinders group and get a few directions, “go in through the mangroves until you find the trail.” Even the government website was a bit light on details, “This walk on Stanley Island begins at the Mangrove Landing in Owen Channel. The track crosses to the northern side of the island, continues along the beach and meanders through low woodland.”

Owen Channel, it turns out, is over two miles long. Fully half of Stanley Island has mangroves along this length. We anchored at one end and made our way down the channel by dinghy, bashing through big seas in high winds, completely soaking ourselves through, while playing eenie meenie with the mangrove landings (ahem, small croc-infested beaches…)

Mangrove Landing
Being a pessimist I suggested we start with the furthest beach, which after we crossed the fringing reef, turned out to be a long dinghy drag through shallow water (We’re in an area that tells us to bring up our dinghy at night because crocs are known to bite them.) Then we anchored the dingy and went exploring behind the mangroves and looked up a hill for signs of a trail. This is where we found the park signs telling us we had found Yindayin. (Not to complain—but if I were putting up a sign for a water access only park, I’d probably put it where you could see it from the water…)

From the sign we set off through a kapok orchard, if you’ve ever seen those old kapok lifejackets these are the orange-sized fruit where the fluff comes from; past meter-high termite mounds; and skirting the Castle Peak cliffs. We wound our way through huge middens with silver-faded shells; and past discoloured signs that told us about the island’s bush tucker, eaten green and fresh this was tasty, this cured tooth pain, this bore fruit.
kapok orchard and fruit
When we reached the beach on the other side Maia warned me that this better not be like the cave art we trudged up a desert cliff to see in the Sea of Cortez—there, the reward for our heat-stroke inducing hike were red handprints of a rather nebulous pedigree found in a cave full of bat guano.

After admiring a few shells we found the trail up from the beach and reached another aged sign, this one explaining that an elder from the Yiithuwarra people, and the last baby to be born on the site, had helped interpret the site. He also drew the last image to be created; a dugong, some 60+ years ago.

Following an overhanging cliff we reached ‘ships shelter’. Awe is a word that should be used sparingly. But as I took in the cliff face that curved around and over me—forming a wide cave with natural air conditioning—I was awe-stuck. Sailing ships: painted in red and outlined white overlapped each other and obscured other images. Some ships had the distinct sterns of 18th century European galleons; while others had the more exotic eastern curves of Macassan praus; still others brought to mind early 16th century Portuguese ships. Layered with the ships were other signs of daily life; an eagle ray, crocodiles, dugongs, turtles and symbols that were too surreal to discern. 
Then we signed the guest book--discovering we were about the 40th group of people to visit this year.

Following the cliff side further into the center of the island the cave deepened into what had been a living place for over 2900 years, right up until WW2. The people who had lived here experienced the tragedies we now know about; some of the men were inevitably lost in the beche-de-mer, pearl and trochus shell industries, the children were sent to missions, illness took a tremendous toll.

But before all of that, while the island still had everything the people needed to survive, someone captured the moment of contact and recorded strange ships as they sailed by.

Close Only Counts in Crocodiles and Hand Grenades...

Aka-Evan was right.
This post should actually be about the aboriginal cave paintings we visited on Stanley Island-but that one needs photos, so I'll keep it back. Actually this one could also use a photo or two. But you'll get it in words instead, until we hit a mobile signal.

Currently we're anchored off of Morris Island. You won't find it on a map. It's located offshore, where Australia has sharpened into the Cape York Peninsula and is a little bit of sand, with three palm trees, a fringing reef and the old grave of a pearler. It also has thousands and thousands of Torres Strait Pidgeons nesting on its tiny surface. And when we came into anchor, Evan insisted he saw something long, dark and strange in the water. But it didn't concern me, I wanted to go ashore to see the birds and visit the grave. I like lonesome graves.

In my defence, Ev has been a bit hyper vigilant about crocodiles, and a turtle did surface near where he was pointing out his long strange shape just few moments later. But when Maia and I headed to shore (Evan opted out. Hmmm…) and I saw a strange dark form chase after some leaping fish, I passed it off to a weird wave/turtle/big dark fish. But I did contemplate what self-defence weapons we had in the dinghy (anchor & oars).

Shore was as cool as you'd expect of a tiny island that you could walk around in under 20 minutes. We visited the grave, soberly commenting on how nicely the shells and old bottles marked the surface. Maia threw pumice boulders into the sea. We watched the birds. And then we found a fresh basking print from a crocodile. Branded into the sand at the water's edge, it must have been made just shortly before we came across it. So after taking a few photos (I know… But I was trying to convince myself it was a dinghy print. But Maia pointed out that dinghies don't leave scale and face marks in the sand. Or big claw prints. Or have tails.) we beat a retreat.

The plan was to walk as high on the beach as we could and dive behind one of the palm trees if Salty showed up. As we walked (briskly) I reminded myself that while salt water crocs grow to > 5 meters and eat anything and everything up to Asian Elephants (yup, looked that one up...) most crocs found in the Barrier Reef's islands and reefs are juveniles < 3 meters who left the mainland to look for habitat. And, indeed, the 'dinghy print' (if a dinghy had a scaly head, tail and big feet...) looked like it would only suit a fairly small cruising boat. Happily we made it back to the dinghy and the boat. Charlie will be locked in tonight. I still want to see my croc in the flesh though. Sort of.

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September 16, 2014

Late, Later, Latest

somewhere down there is our boat...
The distance chart at the top of Captain Cook's lookout on Lizard Island told us we were 1620 km, as the crow flies from Brisbane (and well over 11,000 from San Francisco) which seemed like a respectable distance. But then it noted we're still 1610 km from Darwin. That took a bit of the sublime out of the amazing view of the endless string of barrier reef that Cook had climbed up to look at.
signing the log book at Cook's Lookout

The balance with cruising is to see enough of an area/ region/country/hemisphere without bumping into the seasons that guide your movement from one place to the next. We already know that we're one of only a handful of boats still headed to Darwin. And we only know of two others on their way to Indonesia (this year…) So far no one can actually tell us what happens if we're late. But EVERY single person we mention our plans to comments on our lateness. So it seems we'll be finding out.

Feeling the need to keep moving means we're picking and choosing our stops and staying only briefly when we do stop. Cooktown wasn't really a must but it was on the way to Lizard and broke up the trip nicely. And who's going to turn down the chance to pose with a large assortment of Cook monuments, their numbers rivalling both the number of pubs in the town and potentially the number of residents as well.

Worth the hike...

Lizard turned out to be both a fantastic and haunting spot. On of the features of the island is the ruins (now more ruined-but I'll come to that) of Mary Watson's cabin. The young woman, her baby and a Chinese worker escaped their home in a tub after Aboriginal people returned the island and drove them off. They survived a voyage in an iron tub to a nearby island where they died of thirst. She became a bit of a folk-hero, a symbol of Australian strength in adversity.

The photos we saw of the ruins included a good portion of a wall. What we saw were a heap of stones. It's not surprising; the same category 5 cyclone that sat over the island for 11 hours in April-uprooting many of the trees, closing the famed resort and damaging the vital research station-did the damage.

The cyclone's surge also tore through the pristine coral-much of it containing vital research projects. House sized boulders were toppled and entire reef were wiped clean of all life.

But the research center is up and running. The resort is being rebuilt. And the park is taking the opportunity to encourage native plant growth on the island. Despite the coral loss the reef still sports heaps of life; big diverse fish, six varieties of giant clams, turtles, rays and sharks. And the research centre is waiting eagerly for this year's coral spawn.
Cape Melville

Now we're tucked behind Cape Melville. Last night, as we rounded the piles of huge boulders that make this part of Australia look like an unfinished construction site, the winds hit 35 knots and we scurried for cover. Then we read that the winds howl like that frequently and boats get trapped here for days on end. So this morning's calm has an eerie feel to it.

Technically we should be heading off and making more miles. But 15 miles from here, on a remote island there's Aboriginal rock art of some importance. Personally, I can't resist visiting it. So we'll arrive in Darwin one (more) day later than planned.

This is coming via SSB--so I'll add in photos when we see the next bit of internet.

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September 11, 2014

The Reef at Last

Anchored on the Great Barrier Reef

We’ve been sailing north inside the Great Barrier Reef for about six weeks, but yesterday was the first time we actually saw it, dove on it and anchored beside it. Further south the reef is a bit thin and it’s well off shore. (Running a length equivalent to the US west coast, the GBR isn’t a continuous reef, but hundreds of small reefs linked together like a pearl necklace, with gaps.) Once you hit Cairns though, the reef starts to close with land, the water warms up to a more pleasant 24C and it becomes easier to visit. Easier, but not easy.

hanging out with a turtle
The Barrier Reef is what divides the north coast of Australia from the Coral Sea—and having sailed on the Coral Sea, I can tell you it’s a moody piece of water that alternates between calm beauty and frothing nastiness. This means when you visit the reef you need at least a few days of sustained calm to make it work. Otherwise you’ll find yourself anchored in heaving seas with invisible (but deadly) reef all around you. For context—the one place Captain Cook went aground and tore apart the Endeavour was on Endeavour Reef, two reefs over from where we woke up this morning.

Lots of sailors who pass through this area are content with anchoring behind islands and exploring the inner reefs. But I really wanted the experience of dropping our hook in what looked like the middle of the ocean, miles from land. The tour boats do it all the time, but they have speed in their favour: they head out early in the morning and return to a safe harbour by dusk. But because we’re on the move north, we didn’t want to go in and out of the same place.

So in Cairns I nervously watched as a high built in the Tasman Sea, the sign of the end to a sustained period of calm. As soon as we finished all our chores: we had our luff tape on our genoa replaced, our scuba gear serviced and new seals put in the outboard… We set off for Low Island and then Turtle Bay on Tongue Reef.

The reward was anchoring in an endless expanse of sea and then taking Maia for her first extended dives in three years. Her confidence and joy underwater were gratifying to see. The reef itself was lovely—lots of corals, though not as much colour as we saw further south. The fish life too was smaller and sparser than we hoped. Strangely, much of the reef is only a Habitat Protection Zone—which means you can fish as much as you like (no trawling) and even collect aquarium stock!
Despite the lack of abundance, our dives were beautiful. The night sky held a bright moon and the seas stayed calm. This morning the wind started to rise after dawn and we turned north. It’s clear the wind patterns are beginning to change and the season for travel up here is coming to an end—the time’s come to hurry ourselves on to Darwin.

Sunrise on the reef--no land in sight

September 9, 2014

How to be a traveler, not a tourist, in five easy steps

a hike in the woods brought us to an abandoned homestead

They caught me off guard. We were standing at a lookout, tracing the path of a waterfall down a cliff face when we were asked to move out of the way so a young woman could take a photo in the exact location we were standing in. So we shuffled over a meter to an almost identical spot and watched as a queue formed behind her. And then one-by-one each person held their phone out (many phones even had a telescoping handle to get the best angle) and they snapped a selfie or two.

most waterfalls are better in person than on the screen...
It was Maia who noticed that most people never even looked out at scene they were documenting. They had their back to the falls except for when they were queuing for their photo.

being tourists for Maia's 13th birthday--we went on the skyrail to Karunda then took a historic train home
As odd as it sounds, we really don’t spend much time being tourists. All those fantastic attractions and restaurants that you visit on your holiday? We pretty much bypass them. When we hit a tourist hot spot like Cairns, our time is spent locating where to take our garbage and recycling, doing laundry and finding the best grocery story within walking distance of the dinghy dock. If we still have time after getting the outboard serviced, the sail repaired and the SCUBA stuff checked out we might splurge on a museum or head to a national park for a hike.

the trip was beautiful and we met some wonderful people
Part of the reason for skipping most of the must-dos, is tourist activities are really expensive. When travel is your everyday life, and not a vacation, those expenses can add up fast. Another reason is that all too often those tourism activities feel manufactured and predictable: as though you could sleepwalk through the experience and just show up for the selfies.

most of our adventures are the free variety--and usually we learn about them from a local--the Mossman Gorge
The chance to encounter something new is why most of us travel.  But it seems as though our relationship with travel is changing. We’ve exchanged exploring and serendipity, for top tens and bucket lists. Instead of immersing in a place, all too often we seek out the highlights then find ourselves in a line six-people deep waiting for a photo-op.

Don’t get me wrong—sometimes the highlights are really awesome. The waterfall we were looking at was Barron Falls, one of the stops along the Skyrail Journey—a fantastic 7km Gondola ride through the rainforest. And I realize that not everyone has the opportunity to travel for months and years on end.

Another free spectacle--the burning of cane fields
But we all can travel like travelers and not tourists. We can skip a few of the highlights and let ordinary serendipity take hold. And we can pay attention to the places we are: really pay attention.

Maia was the first to grab hold of this lesson. She had been instagramming her day (it was her birthday) with her friends so they could see her selfies; on the gondola and in front of the waterfall. But as she watched her fellow tourists focus on themselves, rather than the place they were, she tucked away her phone and became a traveler.

Here or our top five tips for being travelers and not tourists:

1)      Do what the locals do. Ask the people you meet what they do for fun, not where they send the tourists, but where they spend their days off.
2)      Don’t over plan. Even if you are heading off on a tourist excursions leave plenty of room in your day for travel to happen.
3)      Leave your camera, cellphone etc behind. Experience travel with all your senses, not through a filter.
4)      Talk to people. And not just other tourists. Talk to the shop clerks, your waitress and people in the parks and gardens. Ask questions—lots of questions.
5)      Head out with no destination in mind. We find all sorts off cool things by heading out on walks and reading signs and chatting with people as we go.