Thursday, 16 June 2016

Opua NZ to Mackay Australia

Opua NZ to Mackay Australia 14 May – 28 May 2016

We set out on Saturday 14 May at noon for our 1800 mile trip from Opua to Cairns in near perfect conditions.

The first Few Nights

We sailed for the first twelve hours in a good wind and it all looked good. We had our pre-prepared traditional first night meal of chilli con carne which just required heating and some rice to be cooked. Need to keep everything simple on the first night and we know that it takes a couple of days to settle into a routine, especially overnight where we alternate watches of three hours each.

Wind died overnight and we started motoring north to get some distance between us and NZ. Over the next 4 days we sailed in any wind over eight knots in flat calm water and motored when the wind dropped below this. In the first 5 days the wind never got over twelve knots so progress was slow and we spent a lot of time motoring.

The first low hit NZ six days after we left and Opua  was subject to 50 MPH winds but we were five hundred miles north by then. We picked up thrity knot winds across the beam and a steep sea for two nights which made sleeping difficult. I had to wake Catherine up at 4am to put further reefs in the sail on the first night although the forecast showed nothing but light winds!  Two days later the wind died and we were back to motoring in glassy seas but starting to worry about fuel. We had used three quarters of our tank capacity in the first six days and no wind in sight.

To Kill a Mocking Bird

On the seventh night I was on watch in a crystal clear sky mesmerised by the clarity of the stars in the night sky when a bird starting circling us. It kept trying to land on our wind generator but diverting at the last moment and once again circling the boat. It was interesting for the first hour but then starting to get annoying as if flew low over the cockpit. Then it did manage to land on the wind generator for a second before taking off straight into the wind generator’s vanes. A loud clunk and flying feathers was the last I saw of the bird and in fact the last anyone would see of it.

An Active Front Approaches

On day eight we heard on the forecast on the SSB radio that another deep low was approaching NZ and would give rise to a series of active cold fronts spreading out from Fiji right across to Australia. It was a very active cold front with strong winds, squalls and lightening, giving rise to 5 metre swells in Fiji. With the previous experience of an active cold front etched into our memories, we prepared for the worst and even considered diverting to Bundaberg which was a lot closer than Mackay. 

However, we would just arrive in Bundaberg as the front hit - it would be better to be at sea with plenty of room to manoeuvre rather than closing the coast so we continued towards Mackay.
We went through our standard procedure – shortening all the sails early, preparing a meal that we could just heat up the next day and checked every line and secured everything that might move on the boat. And we waited, and waited. After 48 hours, the highest wind speed had been twelve knots even though there had been a lot of ugly looking clouds. The clouds gave way to sunshine once again and back to eight knot winds. A total non-event!

With 400 miles to go, all we needed was some wind. We were on track to arrive on Friday morning which we would just be ahead of a NW wind that was developing in the Capricorn Channel at that time. Nothing to worry about, ten to fifteen knots  and forty degrees off our course so we could still sail directly up the channel.

The Capricorn Channel

Two days later we entered the Capricorn Channel for the last 200 miles of our journey which is all within the Great Barrier Reef. On the Thursday night the winds rose to 25+ Knots from dead ahead which meant we had to tack up the channel (some 100 miles wide at this point). A one knot current had developed against us and the wind and waves had started to build quickly. It was not long before our boat speed over ground fell to three knots with the boat struggling against the wind, waves and the current. We had to make wide tacks to keep the boat moving and we were now faced with a procession of cargo ships coming up and down the channel.

With steep waves crashing over the front of the boat, we could only tack by using the engine to turn the boat and even then it was not easy. Overnight in the now 30 knot winds we had managed to close the distance to Mackay by twelve miles in twelve hours. This continued for the next twenty four hours as we laboriously tacked back and forward trying to make some headway. Sleep was near impossible as the boat pitched and rolled in the sea.

On the Friday afternoon, a plane flew low over the boat and the coast guard contacted us by radio. They could see we were struggling in the weather and just wanted to make sure that we knew that it was illegal to stop or anchor within Australian Coastal waters before we had cleared in at a designated port. Welcome to Australia!

On the Friday night, we were eight miles before we could turn out of the Channel and head the last sixty miles directly towards Mackay. The forecast was for the wind to die on Saturday morning and we had so little fuel we could not risk motoring. So we used the engine for two hours to head as close to the wind as we could, almost straight into the waves which was very uncomfortable and the boat shock we hit wave after wave and the water cascaded down the sides of the boat.

As we reached the turning point around the rocks in the channel (well-lit as they are a major navigation hazard), we could ease the sails as we came round 60 degrees to port. The motion of the boat became transformed and our boat speed increased to seven knots – and heading in the right direction!

We got within twenty miles of the coast before the wind died, the sea became glassy once again and the sun was out. We motored slowly to conserve what little fuel we did have and spent three hours sorting out the boat – lines everywhere, water everywhere and the inside of the boat looked like it had been in a washing machine.

Clearance into Australia

We tied up at the Quarantine dock at 12:00 on the Saturday exhausted. Customs and Immigration officers came on board and were very friendly and very thorough. After ninety minutes on board, the boat once again looked like it had been through a washing machine with every cushion removed, every cupboard thoroughly searched and both of us interrogated separately (in a very nice but very pointed fashion) – clearly checking that we had not stopped on route and checking our stories independently.

We had to wait a further two hours before Bio Security visited us and a slightly easier and shorter inspection followed – and then we were free to berth in the marina.
We had talked about going out for a meal that night but when it came to it we were both far too tired. We did however get some fish and chips and managed to stay awake until 8pm before we went to bed. Fourteen hours later we woke up, still feeling tired.


Our plan had been to do nothing on the first day except get on the bus to Mackay and have lunch. It was Sunday and there were no buses but the lady at the Marina Office offered to lend us her car for the day. So we decided that we would provision for the Whitsundays which would be a two weeks visiting islands with limited or no facilities for provisioning. Shopping is not our idea of a relaxing day but it had to be done at some point and it would mean we could leave Mackay sooner rather than later – not somewhere to hang around. And we were keen to sail up to the Whitsunday Islands which are reported to be one of the best cruising grounds anywhere.

The guide book says that Mackay has nothing to offer and suggested it was only good for provisioning but we still wanted to have a look round for a day. The next day when we hired a car, the receptionist questioned why we would want a car for the whole day –there is nothing to see here. For us, a drive out to see the countryside was worth the effort and we were happy to find somewhere to walk. We even saw a Kangaroo or was it a wallaby – not sure which but exciting nonetheless.

That night we met up with some friends (Rob and Kay) we had met in the South Pacific for drinks and dinner. They live in Mackay and keep their boat in the marina. They gave us a list of islands to visit, which ones to avoid and the best routes between the islands, depending on the weather. So on Tuesday morning we said goodbye to Mackay and headed off for a couple of weeks of island hopping.

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