Tag Archives: Gulf of Carpentaria

Gove and Nhulunbuy

Gove is another Rio Tinto bauxite mining site, but quite different from the operation on the other side of the Gulf. Whereas the town of Weipa was purpose-built in the wilderness to service the mine, there were already existing settlements on the Gove peninsula when the miners came so they had to fit in around what was already there.


REFINED

Around the harbour itself are situated the Rio Tinto Alcan bauxite refinery and alumina loader, the Perkins delivery barge terminal, fields of sodium hydroxide tailings, and the Gove Yacht Club. Everything else is in Nhulunbuy Township a dozen kilometres down the road.


YACHTS AND TAILINGS

The yacht club gave us a warm welcome, and for a few dollars we purchased temporary membership which gave us access to a shower block and laundry, as well as a key to get in the back door of the pub which was handy when the front door was locked against drunken and screaming aboriginals, an all too frequent occurrence.


GOVE YACHT CLUB

The clientele of the club was a mix of aboriginal drinkers from the dry townships down the road, visting yachties like ourselves, and workers at for Rio Tinto who chose to live aboard rather than in town. The harbour contained quite a few wrecks of old liveaboard boats that had sunk when their tenant moved on to another mining contract.


GOVE HARBOUR FROM THE YACHT CLUB

The taxi service from the yacht club into Nhulunbuy was enormously expensive, so by far the best way to get there was to hire a car for the day. The cheapest service was run by local resident Manny (08 8987 2300) who charged us fifty dollars for the day’s use of a decent Hilux Twin-Cab, immediately saving us money over the cost of a taxi each way.

The ute enabled us to provision, although not to buy alcohol because the township is dry and you need a special license just to buy it from the supermarket.


FORBIDDEN FRUIT

One of the recurrent conversational themes at the club was how difficult it was to get fuel from the Perkins barge dock. Not only was it tricky to manoeuver in and out, but there were quite a few tales about how reluctant they were to service yachts at all. We threw some fuel cans into the back of the ute and filled up at the service station in town.

Nhulunbuy had little character and could be described as a number of houses of various sizes scattered around some small apartment blocks. There were a couple of small and run-down malls offering a supermarket and take-away food, a bank, a few clothing stores and a post office. The civic pride that was so obvious in Weipa was missing here, and the streets were lined with discarded junk.


DOWNTOWN NHULUNBUY

Since we had a car, we braved the “no entry without a permit” signs to visit the art gallery in neighbouring Yrrkala. The gallery was interesting, and so was the museum of artifacts and the photographic record of the conscripted aboriginal forces in WW2, but the gallery prices seemed to us to be rather high. It didn’t seem to hurt their business, though, because the building was scattered with brand new computer equipment and bark and wood paintings that had been packaged up for delivery to satisfied customers.

We spent several evenings at the yacht club and met a lot of interesting people. A bunch of backpackers had recently been abandoned there after crewing for a yacht whos skipper had promised them flights back to Perth from Gove. The yacht had sailed off into the sunset leaving them stranded on the beach, and they’d made the best of it by working at the club. Some kind soul had put them up on one of the boats in the harbour.

We also met Jan and Neville on Panache and Selina and Stephen on Westward II, as well of course Paul on the ‘big grey cat’ who entertained us with tales of his extraordinary life sailing from place to place. Gerry and Alan gave us a tour of Black Gold, probably the highest-tech power boat in Australia, which can run on practically anything – old sump oil, chip fat, coconut oil – because it has been built around a miniature hydrocarbon cracking refinery and computer controlled blending station. On the outside it looks like a rich man’s plaything. Very impressive indeed.

Time passed, and it became clear that Gove is one of those pleasant black holes where your life can slip away in a blur of alcohol and gossip. Some yachts had been there for years. Even the GPS didn’t know what time it was, never really deciding whether we were in Northern Territory or Queensland.

The only real irritant were the sandflies. Almost completely invisible, they were always attacking our lower limbs. We tried nets and mosquito coils and sprays and even set off an insect bomb on the boat, but they were completely unstoppable. According to the chemist in Nhulunbuy, they weren’t actually biting us, but were peeing on us and their pee is really toxic. Bronwyn was particularly susceptible, and all her sandfly sores turned into violently itchy welts.


ATTRACTIVE TO FLIES

It’s a feature of aboriginal life that they love to set fire to things. You can always tell if an island on aboriginal land is inhabited because of the enormous pall of greasy smoke that hangs over it, and here on the mainland it was no different. Every piece of bush was continually burning. Even when a roadside verge had already been reduced to stark black sticks, somebody on the way back from the pub would still try to light it. Long term yacht residents talked of weekly deck washes to remove the stray ash, and indeed Pindimara wasn’t looking too clean herself.


FOOTPRINTS IN THE ASHES

We woke one morning to find the whole peninsula in flames and the anchorage disappearing into the smoke. We took one last trip to shore to load up with water, hand in our key and say goodbye, then set our sights on destinations westward.

Across the Gulf of Carpentaria

It was time to embark on our first proper ocean passage. Although we have done many multi-day non-stop passages, we’ve never really been more than 20 miles from land and there’s almost always been some island or cape within a few hours sailing that we could hide behind if the weather turned nasty.

The trip from Weipa to Gove is a 300-mile straight line across the Gulf of Carpentaria, with no islands or shelter of any kind. We already knew from our voyage to Weipa that the weather in the Gulf was very changeable, but although our GRIB files reflected this, there was nothing really nasty in the forecast for the next few days.

We set off up the channel out of Weipa harbour, carefully giving the working dredgers a wide berth, and crossed into the open sea with a good following wind. The water was so clear, and the seabed sand so yellow, that the terns wheeling about our mast became magically green in the reflected light.


RARE AUSTRALIAN GREEN TERN

Dolphins came to see us off, jostling each other to get the prime position just under the bow. For some reason, a dolphin’s idea of a good time is to have five tonnes of yacht crashing repeatedly down on his head. Each to their own, I guess.


ME NEXT! ME! ME!

The flat landscape of Cape York soon dropped over the horizon, and we were alone in the blazing heat. The instruments told us that the boat was moving, but there were no points of reference and we might as well have been standing motionless in an eternity of blue.


NOBODY HERE BUT US CHICKENS

Later that afternoon, the wind died and left us becalmed. We began to take the sails down in preparation for starting the motor, and then noticed a curious rippling in the surface of the mirror-smooth sea. We looked around a little nervously at the clear blue sky. Nothing was visible, but we were very aware of a breathless pause. Something was about to happen.

Suddenly the cockpit was full of insects. Hundreds of them swarmed all over the boom and the Hydrovane sail, and spun in a motley cloud above the targa. I examined the nearest handful and saw that they were small brown beetles. I assumed that we had encountered a migratory swarm, but then Bronwyn shouted “Ow!” as something bit her, and we realised that there were dozens of different species of all shapes and sizes. In addition to the beetles, which seemed to be a kind of grain thrip, there were enormous black and white horseflies, dung flies in yellow and green, a variety of moths, and some big and evil-looking red-headed wasps. There were even some flightless creatures, scuttling ants and spiders.

In short, it looked as if something had sucked up all the insects from a crop field, carried them twenty miles out to sea, and then dumped them on our boat.

Some years ago, I watched small dust-devils sucking up hay and making crop circles in a field in Belgium, and only a few months ago we saw a waterspout that dropped its load of sea water onto Capricorn which was passing by, so I can only imagine that something similar happened here. The sea is surely a very strange place.

No sooner had we swept the nastiest of the insects overboard, then the wind shifted 180 degrees and we were hurriedly re-hoisting the sails to go close-hauled. It was time to go sailing.

For several days and nights we continued, with fair winds and with none at all, with large swell and small, alternately running, reaching and motoring as conditions dictated. We didn’t see a single other vessel.


KEEPING A VIGILANT LOOKOUT

When the wind was blowing, we let Harriet the hydrovane do the steering, except when the wind dropped too much and the size of the swell exceeded the force of the breeze and made the boom slap at the bottom of every trough. Eventually I worked out a way of tying the boom down, which solved that little problem.

The wind tended to die off completely at night. We came to hate the periods of extended motoring, for the following swell demanded full concentration to stay on course, hour after hour after hour. I cursed the Raytheon dealer in Sydney who was supposed to have repaired our autopilot, but who just wasted our time instead. Our problem was exacerbated by the lack of landmarks, so that instead of simply aiming for a cape or a lighthouse we had to stare continuously at the compass, which is a very tiring way of motoring. At night we had a full moon, which was good for visibility but bad for steering because it washed the stars out and gave us nothing to steer by.

When the sails were up, even without the hydrovane the yacht was balanced and we were free to get up and walk around. Under motor, we were glued to the helmsman’s position. Our backsides became raw from sitting on the hard cockpit seats in the rolling sea, forcing us to adopt ever stranger seating positions in an attempt to bring some new part of our anatomy to bear that wasn’t already red and raw. I cut up some foam and made deck cushions, which made a tremendous psychological difference but which in reality only took the edge off the pain.

The third night was the worst. Turn and turn about, our spells at the wheel became shorter and shorter before we had to call down for a change of watch. Repeatedly rousted from less than two hours of sleep, we rested our chins on the wheel and stared at the compass through scratchy, red raw eyes. We were so tired that the boat was veering as much as sixty degrees to either side. Shortly after dawn we gave up, killed the engine and just let her drift unmanned while we both collapsed gratefully into blissful oblivion.

When we awoke, the sun was high in the sky and the sea was a still as a mill pond. We made breakfast and then fired up the motor again.

The day passed slowly, with no signs of life either human or animal. And then – Land Ho! A distant beach shimmered on the horizon.

We now have some inkling of how those early sailors must have felt when their destination hove into view after months at sea. Our hearts swelled, and we began to grin maniacally. Land! Land! Finally we had something to steer for, and we began to talk about what we would do when we reached land. Would there be showers? Would there be cold beer, would there be steak? Which would we have first?

The shoreline crept closer, until we could distinguish the passage between the mainland and Bremer Island, where aboriginal fires were burning. We’d heard that this was the traditional place for teenage delinquents, who were taken there to re-learn cultural values if they had transgressed against society. If this was still the case, then they certainly seemed to be busy at the moment.

A small yacht sailed out from behind the headland, crew waving cheerily as they passed. Sweaty, smelly, salt-encrusted and weary, we waved back. We had arrived.


WHERE THE HECK DID YOU COME FROM?

The Katadyn Makes Water

We are the proud owners of four thousand dollar’s worth of Katadyn Powersurvivor 40E desalinator, but so far we had never managed to get it running properly. With the coast-hopping segment of our voyage behind us and some long non-stop passage-making ahead of us, I really wanted to get it going. The opportunities for filling up with clean fresh water over the top end and down the west coast will be few and far between.


KATADYN POWERSURVIVOR 40E

The problem with water-makers is that you can only test them when you are out in deep clean ocean, because any trace of organics (as found inshore) or chlorine (as found in tap water) can permanently and expensively kill the osmotic membrane. Since arriving in northern Queensland, we had been pretty permanently sailing through orange algal bloom, which is no good at all.

The story so far was that sometimes it made water, and sometimes it just blew bubbles, and there didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to it. I variously re-plumbed, bypassed and short-circuited different parts of the machine in accordance with the instructions in the Katadyn manual, and after carefully following the troubleshooting flow diagrams, sent it back to the dealer for testing.

The dealer fired it up, said that there was nothing wrong with it, and sent it back (a process that spanned several weeks and as many marina office drop boxes). I plumbed it back in, and hey presto it worked first time. We waited a couple of days and then tried again, and sure enough it refused to make any fresh water at all. It seemed to only work when I was testing it, not when I actually wanted some water. The dealer didn’t have any opinion apart from “there’s something wrong with your installation, maybe an air bubble somewhere”. Thanks a bunch.

Far too late in the day, I thought of consulting Nigel Calder’s excellent “Boat Owner’s Mechanical and Electrical Manual”, and found that the limiting factor was whether or not the unit could build up enough water pressure on the osmotic membrane. Since the unit doesn’t have a pressure gauge, there’s no way to tell whether it has or not. Mr Calder opined that there is a direct correlation between the amp-hours in the house batteries and the pressure in the unit, but unfortunately the distinction between ‘the batteries are charged enough’ and ‘the batteries are not charged enough’ is too subtle to be picked up by our boat’s instrumentation.

Before installing the unit I had done the math and knew that I would need to run the tow generator at the same time as the water-maker in order to get enough power, which is what I had been doing. On paper it looked fine, but perhaps the reality was different.

I experimented some more, and after considerable frustration and more than one occasion when I announced that I was chucking the whole thing over the side, I settled on first running the tow generator alone for an hour or two to make sure that there was enough reserve in our (apparently already fully charged) batteries, and only then firing up the water-maker.


IT’S WORKING!

Finally, the Katadyn makes water. We can now reliably make five litres an hour. If the sun is high over the solar panels and we’re pulling the tow generator at over five knots, then we can run the unit for three or four hours without unduly stressing the system. Since we can get by on about 15 litres of water a day, we are now borderline self-sufficient in fresh water. Hurrah!

Weipa

Weipa is a Rio Tinto company town of 3500 souls (a third of them children!) that exists to service the largest bauxite mine in the world. Many of those bulk carriers that we encountered in our journey up the reef were carrying bauxite ore to the smelters that we visited in Gladstone, so we were interested to see this end of the process as well.

From the chart we could see that there are two rivers that flow past Weipa, Mission to the north and Embley to the south. The Embley River is the shipping channel and well provided with navigation markers. The Mission River is much, much closer to town but has no markers and nobody in the literature seems to mention it as a potential anchorage. We went with the herd and put our anchor down in Embley across from the ore loader, in a large natural harbour ringed with beaches and mangroves.

We could see some houseboat moorings against the north shore, and there seemed to be a couple of other yachts anchored over there, but they were close to the ore loaders and we decided instead to shelter under the lee of the southern shore. The anchorage was calm, comfortable and quiet, except at the bottom of the tide when there was a 4.5 knot rip but it only rocked the boat for an hour or so in the morning. Occasionally a Panamax-class bulk carrier came by, but the harbour is big enough that we didn’t really notice, except when they eclipsed the sun.

The only way to shore is by Evans Landing, a public jetty that gives access to Steve the houseboat guy’s premises and little else apart from a telephone box, which you will need because the only realistic way into town from there is to call a taxi. Evans Landing was a mile away across the bay from our anchorage, but not a problem for our little 3 horsepower dinghy as long as we avoided low tide.


AN ANCHORAGE FAR, FAR AWAY. CAN YOU SEE OUR MAST?

Naturally the first thing that we did when we got to shore was to hunt down the pub, in which we were stymied because there is no pub, or indeed any real town centre. Since Weipa was originally just housing for the mine, it hasn’t grown up around a traditional centre, and has more the feel of a bunch of haphazard suburbs.


SPQ (SINGLE PERSONS’ QUARTERS)


CHURCH, ALSO USED AS CYCLONE SHELTER

There are, however, two clubs. Several people told us that the reason that Weipa has a Golf Club and a Lawn Bowls Club is because these are the two sports that you can perform while drinking.

We randomly chose the Bowls Club, and had a great time and met (and drank with) a large number of interesting and colourful characters.

CRAZY WEIPA LASS BRONWYN AND MOIRA

We also managed to eat some local prawns. This may not sound much of a feat, but all the way up the Queensland coast we have been trying to eat local seafood, only to find that all their catch is frozen and sent to the city. When the local restaurants need fish, they have to import it frozen from the usual sources.

The Weipa Bowls Club had Banana Prawns straight from the Gulf of Carpentaria. They were excellent.

A couple of days later, we got on a tour bus and went to the mine. It was another fascinating trip, not least because it is a far cry from your traditional open-cast mine. Bauxite is near as dammit just lying around on the surface, so all the miners really have to do is come along with a scoop and pick it up. Of course, it is slightly more complicated than that, and they get to use some very big scoops…


TOO SMALL FOR BAUXITE. THIS LITTLE CHAP IS FOR MOVING TOPSOIL


BELLY LOADER PASSING BY WITH 170 TONNES OF ORE


BRONWYN BEFRIENDS THE TRAIN DRIVER

Tomorrow we’re heading out on an extended passage across the sea to Gove. Since the Bureau of Meteorology clearly has no idea about the weather in the Gulf, we haven’t read the weather but we have downloaded some GRIB files which tell us that we will have decent winds during the day but nothing but motoring at night.