A Stormy Night Entry into Cooktown

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We were breaking the rules of course and we knew it. It had begun in early August, 2005 after we had received an e-mail to “phone home, urgently”. We were about to sail from Fiji when we received the news that our oldest daughter was pregnant with our first grand-child. Whilst the grand-mother-to-be was dancing with unabandoned joy, the grand-father-to-be asked tremulously, “When is the due date?” The declared date of 23rd. May did not elicit the expected joy. “Bugger”, I thought, “exactly when we are supposed to be transiting the Torres straits.

OK, here’s the plan: We push the envelope a little by leaving Bundaberg, Australia, before the “official” end of cyclone season – say, near the end of March. (Australian cyclone season actually runs November through April). We then sail like hell for Darwin. Just 1,200 miles northish inside the Great Barrier Reef to Cape York; turn the left indicator on, and then another 900 miles or so west to Darwin. We park our Amel ketch, “SV DoodleBug” at the Darwin, marina; fly back to Houston, Texas in the US of A; hug the new mother, kiss the new baby, back on the plane to Darwin and off across the Indian Ocean. Easy peasy! What could possibly go wrong?

 

If you haven’t worked out the broken rule yet, it is that you should never sail to a schedule. Our departure from Bundaberg was delayed by category 5 cyclone “Larry”, followed closely by “Wati”, a mere category 2 cyclone that turned south and paralleled the coast off Bundaberg. We finally set sail and after two weeks of sailing in almost continuous, driving rain, arrived at the port of Cairns. By the skin of our sailing teeth, we barely avoided setting sail into the path of another category 5 cyclone, Monica, that went ashore a couple of days later on 19th. April, in the far north of Queensland, near the Lockhart River.

 

Now for those readers who can’t be bothered to look up these Australian towns, I will make it easy. Bundaberg is about half way up the “right” side of Australia and Darwin about half way across the “top” of the continent. From “Bundy” north runs the Great Barrier Reef. I knew that fellow sailor, Captain Cook, had explored the east coast of Australia in 1770 and had become trapped inside the reef. As you sail north of the Keppel islands, the bulk of the reef is some 80 miles offshore but this distance narrows to a few miles as you approach Cairns. Depths are around one hundred feet in the passages between the reefs but again, as you sail north, the reef funnels in and passages between the hazards become narrower and shallower. Cook managed to get within 50 miles of Cooktown before his vessel hit a reef and was badly damaged. According to our charts, the reefs rise near vertically from the seabed and so if you are adrift for any reason, dropping an anchor is not likely to be a particularly effective emergency procedure. This was of concern to us as the recommended shipping lanes are quite narrow and squeeze down to half mile gaps between reef hazards in several places. Yachts will share these passages with commercial shipping, as well as fishing trawlers and Sod’s Law dictates that you will generally share the tightest transits simultaneously with the largest freighters. This is absolutely guaranteed if the conditions are driving rain and at night.

 

As soon as he was able, Cook escaped from the confines of the Barrier reef, just north of Cooktown and sailed into the open sea. We too considered this option but a late season cyclone might trap us with the reef system to our backs and no place to hide. At least there were a couple of hurricane holes along the coast we might possible seek shelter in – usually rivers with mangrove swamps – provided of course that we braved the hazards of navigating inside the reef.

 

The town of Cairns lies just over 700 miles north of Bundaberg and Cape York, the northeastern point of Australia that marks the access to the Torres Strait, lies nearly 500 miles north of Cairns. We had been sitting in Cairns for over a week, waiting for the passage of Cyclone Monica to our north and had both our fill of rain and of waiting. We decided that we needed to “make up ground” and would “one shot” as far as the Escape River. Thus we set sail with this destination in mind on 20th. April, 2006 at 0900 hours and my log shows that the barometer had risen to 1013 mBars; the temperature was 80F complete with 8/8 ths. cloud cover plus rain squalls. Two hours later we were headed northwest, with the winds from the SSE, oscillating between 15 and 25 knots. The waves were 8 footers, short and choppy. SV DoodleBug was broad reaching with 150% Genoa, reefed main and mizzen at just under 8 knots and with a wicked roll.

 

By 1400 hours the wind had dropped slightly to 15 knots and swung to the ESE. We were still holding 8 knots but now almost beam reaching with reefed Genoa and mizzen (the classic ketch rough weather sail configuration of “Jib and Jigger”). The waves were dropping to the 4 to 6 foot range, still short and choppy and we felt comfortable with these conditions, as they matched the weather forecast we had received in Cairns that morning. The rain still bucketed down and made visual navigation all but impossible. We passed a freighter which had been less than a mile away before it was spotted visually and first seen on radar at less than 3 miles, due to the rain and necessary rain filter settings on the radar. These conditions also made the radar useless for spotting smaller vessels, such as fishing trawlers but we assumed that cyclone Monica had forced the latter into port. Similarly, we had seen no other sailing vessels, either at sea or in the various anchorages we had visited as we sailed north.

 

By late afternoon, the wind was back in the south, increasing in strength and with building seas. This was not in the forecast. DoodleBug surfed down 10 foot seas that had a light green milky look. The waves were steep but not yet breaking and unless conditions deteriorated, were not yet a problem. The first sign of trouble was when we spotted a dock piling, adrift in the heaving waters. This was a sizeable timber and could easily have punched a large hole through a fiberglass hull. Fortunately we spotted it and were able to change course in time to miss it. By now the waves were becoming streaked in foam and the tops were beginning to curl. The water depth between the various reefs was around 70 feet and I am sure that this shallowness was causing the steepening of the waves. We then spotted our first tree. It had silvery bark, long leafless branches groping in all direction and a bole that was feet across as we hurtled towards it. What a nightmare! If a collision did not puncture the hull directly, I envisioned us trapped and entangled in branches as the seas continued to build.

 

Dusk approached and we spotted more trees amongst the waves. Cook could have easily used these trees to repair the Resolution, or perhaps make a start on an aircraft carrier. The wind continued to build; gusting to 30 knots with the wave tops breaking. It was now becoming clear to us that the recent cyclones had uprooted these trees and the flooded rivers had washed the debris into the body of water between the Barrier Reef and the mainland. Our problem was that you cannot dodge trees that you cannot see at night. There was not enough sea room to heave to in the narrow navigable channel between the reefs and DoodleBug was still hurtling over the sea bed at better than 8 knots. Time for a change in plans. We were fast approaching Cooktown on the Endeavour River

 

Could we possibly make a night entry into Cooktown? There was almost certainly a river bar on the Endeavor River but our electronic chart indicated a dredged channel through this barrier, plus navigation markers. There remained however three more problems. First, Cooktown had received the brunt of two recent cyclones. Had the navigation markers survived and if so, had they been moved by the storms? The second question concerned the charting itself. Was it correct? Satellite positioning or GPS, places your position perfectly on the surface of the globe in terms of latitude and longitude. This in itself is useless if your chart does not match. Almost all “original” charts were positioned used a sextant and astronomical observations, in order to calculate the necessary earth coordinates. For our navigation purposes, the latitude of these old charts is usually spot on but the longitude calculation may historically have been in error by up to a mile. The general rule is that any country worth invading would probably have revised charts with corrected mapping. On the other hand, a piece of rock decorated with a few bird droppings and a couple of coconut trees may be mapped way out of position – but this is not a description of Australia. Nevertheless, we had never been into Cooktown harbor before, thus our chart accuracy was unconfirmed. Finally, there was the question of water depth. What was the predicted tide height? Would we have enough water to float DoodleBug over the entrance bar?

 

For the first question, the existence and position of the navigation markers would not be known until we made the turn into the mouth of the Endeavour estuary and lined up with the dredged channel, as they would be hidden behind the headland of Grassy Hill while we made our approach from the south. The radar would probably be useless for marking and confirming the position of the navigation markers, because the wave heights we were experiencing would bury these reflections in the general clutter. We should however be able to compare the radar image of the land masses with the chart and thereby confirm the accuracy of the charting. The tide tables indicated that we would arrive at low tide but a quick calculation maintained that entry would still be possible – provided we did not stray from the middle of dredged channel.

 

We carefully laid in the course on our chartplotter, since this was going to be a full “instrument” landing. We would not use the automatic tracking feature of the autopilot during the last mile or so of our approach but instead depend upon the displayed chart position of the vessel versus the plotted course. We have found in the past that having the course plotted as a guideline is a good precaution, as it is easy to become disoriented at night, particularly in unfamiliar territory and especially in heavy seas and poor weather conditions.

 

The wind was now steady at 30 knots from the south and the seas were in the 10 to 12 foot range. The turn from the preferred shipping channel towards Cooktown had already put these waves on the port stern quarter but the final approach, the channel into the estuary was oriented southwest to northeast. The waves we were experiencing would then be directly on the beam – at least for a while. We would need to shave the point of land on the port side close to, before we began our turn, in an attempt to avoid the worst of these. The chart showed no hazard symbols for rocks or coral and the sea bed we assumed would be mud sediments from the river. If we missed the dredged channel, or the channel itself was too shallow, we could not possibly “stick” for long with the waves we were experiencing. If we were to hit bottom, we would attempt to spin DoodleBug around clockwise with the engine and head back into deeper water and possible shelter behind Cape Flattery some two hours away to the north.

 

A few miles away we started the engine to make sure it would indeed start and then a few minutes later, checked the engine compartment to make sure that there was no spraying fluids or smoke, just a quietly ticking engine. We next dropped the remainder of the reefed Genoa, leaving just the mizzen sail to steady the roll and perhaps provide emergency propulsion in the event the engine should fail.

 

As we moved closer to land, we kept scanning the radar both for obstacles and to check that the reflection of the landmass matched our chart. The measured values from the depth finder provided a third dimension, again to match to our GPS position on the chart. In the distance we saw flashing navigation lights but were they in position to indicate the dredged channel? For this exercise a waterproof chartplotter, visible from the helm, is vital. You need to be able to get an instantaneous position fix on the chart and although we were approaching with autopilot steering, my hand was poised, ready to hit the “manual” button and grab the wheel for the clockwise spin if we grounded. I was steering by hitting the autopilot buttons corresponding to course changes, in increments of either one degree or ten degrees, port or starboard. The pilot response time was set to its fastest setting.

 

My eyes flipped between the radar, depth sounder and chart plotter; were we “above” or “below” the plotted approach line? DoodleBug was “crabbing” up to 30 degrees from the direct course to offset a strong current. I glanced out of the cockpit and through the spray smeared wind shield, reminding myself that this was not a video game! The First Mate was on watch next to me and we were both wearing lifejackets with harnesses and tethers. She lowered her voice and spoke calmly to me, “Aren’t we on the wrong side of those lights?” I am always impressed when she does this, instead of screaming the question hysterically. The cockpit was by now rolling crazily and Doodlebug was pitching and slewing from side to side as she fought the waves. “No”, I said, “Looks like we are but we are crabbing. We should go between them”. Another quick scan of the instruments. I look up. “Damn! Where did that green light go?” “There!” She pointed. “Well, where’s the bloody red one?” Again she pointed.

 

For several minutes this went on. Another course adjustment on the autopilot to correct for the cross current; position good, depth still good, radar clear; all the while the waves heaved and crashed around us. Suddenly it felt easier. The mizzen was down and we were on engine alone with the waves no longer hurling us around. Ahead we saw the sprinkled lights of a small town.

 

We crept into the river channel near the town and dropped anchor at 2115 hours, effectively blocking the channel exit. We called on the radio but got no response on the hailing frequency. There would be nobody leaving tonight anyway but nevertheless, we left our deck lights on, as well as the anchor light. In the past 12 hours we had covered 100 miles but now it was time for bed.

 

What we did we do wrong? Well, obviously, we had a schedule and were sailing to this. The only other cruisers we had seen north of Bundaberg were previously met friends aboard Swiss registered S/V Titum, at the Cairns marina.

 

What did we do that was right? We had a back up plan in that we could have sailed north for another couple of hours to Cape Flattery, if entry into Cooktown turned out to be impossible. We carried a spare battery operated GPS as well as paper charts for the event that there was a loss of the chartplotter / GPS system. We had closed the water-tight collision doors aboard DoodleBug and were wearing self-inflating life jackets with strobe lights, as well as harnesses and tethers. Our life-raft had been serviced a few months earlier in Bundaberg. We had tested our Epirb and checked the contents of our “abandon-ship” bag.

 

In the sailing community, there has been much debate regarding electronic instrumentation. A common criticism is that it somehow makes navigation “too easy”. My feeling is that modern technology does not diminish the challenge of sailing; the risks and adventure of the sea are ever present. What this technology does is enable you to do things were not feasible in earlier times. We found that night sailing inside the Barrier Reef in bad weather to be some of the most uncomfortable and hardest technical sailing we have experienced. There is often little margin for navigation error and every year boats are lost for reasons unknown. Traditional cruising guides maintain “daylight passage only”, as dead reckoning navigation may not be possible due to lack of landmarks, navigation markers, cross currents and weather. We were most nervous over the lack of backup if we lost our electronics for whatever reason. Although we did have a spare GPS and paper charts, navigation would still be problematic in a tight passage. Today, I might carry an iPad with chartplotter “App” as a backup and keep it in a safe dry place in the cabin below.

 

Six weeks after our Cooktown adventure we were anchored at Thursday Island and chatting to a member of the Australian Coast Guard. When the subject came up of our night entry into Cooktown at low tide, he maintained that this was not possible with our given keel depth of six feet seven inches. He stated that the channel we so carefully aimed for had silted up long ago and had not yet been restored by dredging. What had floated us over the bar was simply the fact that the Endeavour River was in full flood at the time of our passage and provided us with the necessary extra volume of water. This intelligence can be added to the fact that on the 23rd. April, we had re-anchored in the Endeavour river following an aborted departure the previous day, wherein we had been caught by a sudden squall and our Genoa had been ripped. We had been waiting for this to be repaired when we received news that our grandson had been born in Houston, Texas, exactly one month earlier than his supposed due date.

 

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About the Author: Ed is a retired geophysicist. He and his wife Annette completed their circumnavigation 2004-2009 aboard their Amel Super Maramu ketch “S/V DoodleBug”. Their grandson who provoked the situation described in the article, is now entering first grade.

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