Monsoon Goodbyes

Our yacht, Pindimara, had been on sale for a few weeks in Darwin, and had in fact already attracted the interest of a couple looking for a production cruising yacht. We were, however, painfully aware that she was stuffed full of our junk, and that we had left all the sails and cushions and cupboards open in an attempt to keep her aired during the hot Darwin summer, so that she looked more like a Chinese laundry than somebody;s pride and joy.

Chinese Laundry
Chinese Laundry

We took a few days off work and flew up to Darwin to move all our gear into storage and give the boat a bit of a scrub; after all, she’d by now been sitting in the marina for almost five months and we thought that she would probably need it. In actual fact she was in fine fettle, just a little damp from several months of tropical humidity which had settled in the bilges. Her decks were tolerably clean and we had suffered no cyclone damage.

Then the monsoon arrived, a monster that settled in across the entire northern half of the continent. Being tolerably well travelled, I thought that I’d seen a bit of rain in my time. This was fundamentally different. Firstly, the air temperature in Darwin’s summer months is up close to forty degrees, and humidity is hovering in the nineties. When the rain comes, it’s warm. And in a monsoon, it’s moving sideways. Reports started to come in of minor tornadoes, and photographic evidence of fish raining out of the sky. There was so much rain that the marina started to fill up and overflow from the run-off, and the boats were bucking at their berths as the water poured in through the storm drains and out through the sluice gates to the sea.

The lock master, Keith, was kept very busy monitoring the levels and adjusting and readjusting the sluices, as well as pumping out sinking boats and rescuing overwhelmed pontoons. Despite all this, he very kindly allowed us to use his office as a sort of half-way-house for our gear, because we had to get it off the boat before we could do anything, and although we had brought many cardboard boxes we only had a limited number of plastic containers that could withstand the torrential rain.

We worked out a system where Bronwyn sweated below as she uncovered ever more boxes of supplies and packed them into plastic containers, while I ran with them back and forth up and down the slippery marina to the office. Whenever the rain paused for a moment, we piled all the boxes we could into Keith’s ute and took them to a storage locker, where I unpacked again and then repacked into cardboard boxes before returning to the marina with the empty plastic ones for another load.

However fast we worked, there were always more lockers to open and more gear to check and to move. It took two days to shift a five-year accumulation of gear and stores. The food was particularly exciting; we had a rough idea that we had a few months worth of stores left aboard, but we could have eaten well for almost six months with the stuff that we found. Some of it was pretty exotic, but its hard to move food across state quarantine lines in Australia, so rather than try to ship it back to Perth, we gave most of it to a delighted Keith.

A lot of the gear that we removed consisted of useful bits and pieces that we had kept in the lazarette in case we needed to repair something; spare sets of oars, bits of marine ply, old rope, propeller parts, broom handles and so on. Rather than dump this gear in the skip, I placed it neatly nearby, thinking that perhaps somebody else might like to keep it. To my amusement, the length of time that each part sat by the skip became shorter and shorter as other yachties began to regularly check what was there. After a few hours, I couldn’t even walk the length of the pontoon without somebody calling out “Are you throwing away that old rope?” and taking it off me.

We became especially popular when we started giving away fuel, because our tanks were full and we wanted to ship the empty deck jerry cans down to Perth. Bronwyn had a similar experience when she started putting dried food, books, and boxes of cleaning products in the marina’s launderette. This was all perfectly familiar, of course. Some of the gear was stuff that I had myself picked up from skips along the way.

Finally the boat was empty, and we began the long process of scrubbing, cleaning and polishing from the bilges to the mast. Still dodging monsoon squalls, we were forever opening the hatches to let in some air, and closing them again to guard against horizontal rain. I was so thoroughly wet that I didn’t dare enter the cabin for fear of dripping water into the bilges, so I crouched under the dodger as each squall rolled over.

Finally, only twenty minutes before we had to leave to catch our flight, we were done. Pindimara looked like a million dollars, and pretty similar to the way that we’d first seen her, all those years ago.


We had thought that we would be shedding some tears, but in the event we never had the time. To a large extent we had got over the grief of parting over the previous months, while we were negotiating with the dealer and putting together a suitable collection of photographs. It’s still hard to look back at those pictures without our eyes misting over, but if there’s one thing that we have learned, it is that the sea is now in our blood, and we will be back.

Penniless in Perth

The onset of Darwin’s cyclone season coincided with the extinction of our cruising budget. That we were broke was no surprise, as we’d always known that our little pot of money was going to run out in November 2009. We had originally hoped to have got past Darwin by then, cruising the Kimberleys and then finishing up by selling Pindimara in Perth, but that wasn’t the way that it worked out.

Cruising is like that. You stop where it looks interesting and stay as the weather and your whims dictate; timetables are vague and often thrown out of the window. We had had a spectacular year and were more than satisfied with everything that we had achieved.

Having secured a (hopefully) cyclone-proof marina berth, we now had to decide between returning the following Easter to complete the voyage, and selling her right there in Darwin. In either case, we were committed to paying monthly marina fees at least until the end of the cyclone season, so we had to first find gainful employment.

We could, I suppose, have picked up lucrative contracts in our old discipline of computer programming, but despite the obvious financial incentives, that would have felt like a step backwards from our new lives. Over the year we had gently pursued other opportunities, and both had at least tentative offers of employment in Perth, about 1500 miles away down the west coast, and so after a quick jaunt to Europe to visit friends and relatives we relocated to Western Australia.


From research on the internet we’d already decided which suburb we wanted to live in, so we checked into a cheap hostel nearby and went out on foot to find an apartment. It didn’t take too long to visit every realtor in the area and to determine the minimum rent that we should pay for a unit in reasonable condition. We saw some lemons, of course, but gradually increased our range in increments of $50 rent per week until we found one that wasn’t actively falling down, at which point we rented it.

Cruising had fundamentally changed the way that we looked at houses. Even the smallest was far larger than Pindimara, so we weren’t especially interested in the size of the lounge or the number of bedrooms. We were only anchoring for a while, not making a purchase, so we didn’t pay much attention to decor. We just looked for a few simple criteria: gas cooking, good natural lighting, and a sensible use of the cooling Fremantle Doctor wind that blows every afternoon. The first flat that we found that fulfilled all of these simple criteria, we took.

Furniture was easy, with simple functionality being the order of the day: cheap table, chairs, desk, sofa, and an expensive mattress. Having spent the previous year storing all our fresh food in a 42 litre Engel outback fridge, we ignored the monstrous walk-in fridge-freezers on display and purchased a small bar fridge instead. Our only real concession to land-bound life was to buy a simple washing machine.

Within a week of arrival, we had somewhere to live, a bicycle for transport, and the promise of jobs.


The Darwin Build-Up

It was quite incredibly hot. Darwin was going through ‘the build-up’, which is the crossover period between its two seasons. The humidity starts ramping up from the dry season (hot, dry) to the wet season (hot, wet), making the weather more and more muggy but without providing the release of actual rainfall. For the greater part of the day it was literally too hot to move, and we found ourselves sitting in a stupour beneath our electric fan. The boat needed to be cleaned and prepared, but even the smallest task brought rivers of sweat pouring down our backs and legs. Occasionally we made a foray to the cafe so that we could sit under the air conditioner. In the city around us, Darwin’s residents began their annual peak of suicides and murders.

This was crazy. It was time to move on. We made use of the cooler periods of the morning and evening to hose months of accumulated salt from the fibreglass. In preparation for the cyclones we removed everything from the deck, stowed the foresail, lashed the mainsail to the boom, and doubled up all the mooring lines.


In preparation for the humidity of the wet season, we ate or discarded our remaining fresh goods, filled the fuel and water tanks, sprayed the bilges with mildew preventer, laid cockroach traps, lifted all the seat cushions and topped up the batteries. The marina laundry took a beating as we washed every piece of fabric and packed it all away into vacuum bags.


In the hot periods of physical lassitude we spent hours on the internet looking at flight schedules and job opportunities, and then spent a few minutes packing for a round the world trip. That’s one of the great things about living on a boat; if you have to catch a plane, you don’t need to spend a lot of time deciding what to bring. Everything that you own goes into a small bag, and off you go.

We arranged for Keith the wonderful and obliging lockmaster to occasionally check and ventilate the boat over the next six months, got in a taxi, and headed for Singapore.



There isn’t too much to do around Tipperary Waters marina, although the two cafes on the shore are very good and we understand that a bar will be opening soon. The Dinah Sailing club down the road is the only place to get a drink, and although friendly enough it isn’t exactly spectacular. However, public transport is cheap, and it only costs two dollars to get the bus into town and about ten to take the taxi back again.

After so long in the back of beyond, it was surprisingly great to get a good dose of civilisation. We had some excellent tapas at the Moorish Cafe in town, and together with Rob from Ku Ching we tackled the enormous seafood platter at Crustaceans On The Wharf.

We also had a good party session up and down Mitchell Street, which is the restaurant and bar district, and met some fun and interesting people (that’s you, Carlee).

It’s funny that we’re seeing a completely different Darwin to our last visit. That time it was christmas and there was nobody here and nothing was open. Right now in September, the place is hopping. Last night we went to the famous market at Mindle Beach. As well as the crowds milling around in the market itself, there must have been ten thousand people sitting quietly on the beach watching the sunset.


We’re very aware that the wet season seems to be coming early this year. It is very hot and very sticky, and although it isn’t actually raining, the sky is continually threatening.

Two yachts that were heading for Perth recently gave up and turned around and came back, saying that conditions are impossible. Since that’s the direction that we’re heading, we’ve spent a lot of time canvassing the local cruisers, and even though we’re aware that one man’s “impossible” is another woman’s “fun sail”, there is a solid consensus is that we’re looking at a very hard trip down the coast.

Faced with a rough ride, and aware that since we’ve started rushing along the coastline we haven’t been enjoying ourselves half as much as we ought to, we’ve decided to leave Pindimara in Darwin for the wet and cyclone seasons, and to come back and finish the trip in the middle of next year. Not only does it give us a chance to do some work and replenish the coffers, but it also means that we’ll be able to take our time cruising the Kimberleys rather than continually rushing along and checking over our shoulders for a cyclone.

The tides of Beagle Gulf

Carefully timing the tides, we went to bed for some rest before getting up and leaving at midnight. It was a starry but moon-less night, there were almost no lights on the shore of Bathurst Island, and there was no wind at all. The backwash from the steaming light off the back of the furled foresail gave a strange, misty air to the world, so that we seemed to be coccooned in an ethereal blanket. We may have left a little late, as I forgot that it would take nearly 2 hours to get out of Gordon Bay, but the tide sucked us out and then gave us a 3.5 knot boost toward Darwin.

Despite the complete absence of any wind, the water got quite exciting, a roller coaster ride. At one point we were smashing through standing waves and I was wondering how Bronwyn, even though she is a champion sleeper, could possibly be snoozing in the fore-peak. As far as I could imagine, she must have been in the air half the time. Then the whole yacht went airborne off one wave and ploughed into the next, washing the decks of the accumulated mud and ash, and replacing them with sand and shells. A tousled head appeared in the companionway. “How fast are we going?” she asked, before heading sleepily back to bed.

A little later the propeller didn’t seem to be able to get any traction. Bear in mind that it was completely black. I peered into the small pool of light cast by the stern light, and could just make out that the water was bubbling and boiling beneath us. Presumably there was so much air in the thrashing water that the prop was cavitating.

Sliding sideways into the Beagle Gulf, I suddenly had an inspiration and realised that I might be able reprogram part of the autopilot to display the GPS ‘course over ground’. Then I could judge the tidal set without continually going below to check our position on the chart. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before. It worked a treat, and while I was at it I added a display for the water temperature. For the record, in the middle of the night in September, it was 27 centigrade. No wonder it is popular with crocodiles.

The sun came up, and the sea became flat an placid in all directions. We couldn’t see the shore and were completely alone.


Suddenly an enormous cargo ship appeared, in a great hurry to get somewhere. It passed us by and disappeared again.


Time passed. There was not a breath of wind. We motored.

The tide started to pick us up as planned for the final approach into Darwin, slowly increasing the boost until we were doing over 10 knots.


We could see the Darwin skyline, but we couldn’t get a mobile phone connection. Broadband internet was working, though, so we used Skype to call the closest marina, Cullem. They explained that although they did have a free berth, we would be charged $240 for the privilege of opening the lock gate. I think not. We called Tipperary Marina, who were able to fit us in at a more reasonable price. Although they were another four miles upriver, the continuing tide made mincemeat of the distance.

The approach to Tipperary was interesting, up a river which dries out at low tide. We maintained radio contact with Keith the lockmaster, and as we were passing a seemingly unbroken rock wall, he asked us if we could see him waving. Eventually we spotted him in the dusk, and realised that there was an all-but-invisible break in the wall. It was like the Gulgari Rip all over again, but this gap was only seven metres wide.

We negotiated the lock without any problems, and found ourselves in a trim and tidy little marina full of smart long-term liveaboards. Keith was wonderfully helpful and did a great job of making us feel welcome.

The showers were excellent.

Decisions at Gordon Bay

We had an exciting ride out of Snake Bay in a strong nor’easter which took us at 7 knots to Cape Van Diemen, the northern tip of Melville Island. For the rest of the night we followed the coastline southward, riding the winds until they faltered in mid morning. We were starting to notice an opposing tide, so rather than waste fuel we anchored off Bathurst Island in about 70 square miles of sheltered and shallow water. Only the southern part, Gordon Bay, has been named or charted, so we dropped anchor there in about 10 metres and spent the rest of the day pottering around. I really should have been doing my schoolwork, but after many night watches with my iPod I had finally almost finished organising our music collection, so I finished off that job instead.

Although we still carried a couple of month’s worth of dried and tinned ingredients, we were desperately short of fresh food. We ate our last orange, leaving us with one sweet potato and two onions. It was decision time. Wyndham or Darwin? We had to provision at one or the other before tackling the Kimberleys. Each town had its advantages and disadvantages.

Darwin has evil spring tides, an approach route that leads into the teeth of the trade winds, and nowhere simple to stay. The choice there is between anchoring in Fannie Bay and dragging the dinghy through half a mile of mud, or booking through the lock gates into one of the marinas. Because of the drying tides, all of Darwin’s marinas have lock gates that only let you in and out at certain times, considerably restricting your freedom. On the other hand, if we could get into a marina then shopping would be easy.

Wyndham lies at the bottom of the Bonaparte Gulf and was still several days away. The winds in the Gulf are notoriously inconsistent, and the GRIB showed that we would encounter confused light winds coming from every direction. The only place to anchor is in the strongly tidal river, the jetty is apparently only useable for a few hours each day, and the actual town is a taxi ride from the river. After provisioning, it’s a long hard slog back out of the Gulf. On the other hand, we’d never been there before and it has the dubious pleasure of having Australia’s hottest average temperature (32C).


The trade winds were set to slacken. We also fancied a meal in a restaurant. We chose Darwin.