Trip Reports

Torres Strait, No Chaser (04-Oct-2001-15-15):
3:15 PM local time, Thursday, Oct. 4th (0315 Oct. 4th UTC) 10 38 S 138 31 E. Temp. 83, Humidity 77%, Cloud Cover 05%. In the Arafura Sea.

Warm Greetings from the crew of Maverick.

We completed our transit of the Torres Strait Tuesday at 2320 local time and have traveled a distance of about 200 miles into the Arafura Sea. We have crossed the largest ocean on earth, encompassing an area so vast that all of the landmasses put together would fit comfortably inside it. It feels as though we have gone through a portal to another part of the universe and a door has closed behind us, cutting us off from the waters of home. The sea is paler and there is a haze on the horizon in every direction. The puffy tradewinds clouds have thinned out, there is an austerity to the sky, and the light seems foreign.

The Torres Strait is the name for the meeting place of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Here, bodily fluids are exchanged as the two large masses of water commingle with the rise and fall of the tides in the maze of islands and reefs between them. For the sailor it comprises a rite of passage, not perhaps in the same category as the two great capes, but in the wrong conditions just as dangerous.

The hope for our transit, however, was that it would include none of the wrong conditions. As Mr. Shrode and the Captain waited fitfully through the high winds for the right weather, fishing boats came into Port Moresby complaining of heavy seas and, on Thursday, a gale. We had spoken on the HAM radio to "Pik" on Mara who was hove to inside the Great Barrier Reef in thirty knots, having survived the gale on the outside. We thought as the wind subsided Friday we would leave and wrote to you of our departure, but it kept blowing until Sunday. On both Friday and Saturday we had all but started the engine and cast off the lines before we got a last minute "no go" from local sailors helping us watch the weather.

On Sunday our astrologer, shaman, psychotherapist, aroma therapist, and proctologist said it was time to go, and indeed even that most mysterious of auguries, the weather fax, seemed to give the same indication. With the feeling one might have getting in the barrel before going over Niagara Falls, we cast off the lines and motored out of the marina. A challenge the Captain had thought about for years was about to be met for real, come what may. Outside the reef we for a while encountered mild conditions but soon the wind freshened to 30 knots and the seas built to ten to twelve feet. Even so, they weren't nasty and it was just a boisterous ride. The worry with the wind, however, was that the omens were wrong after all. Two hundred miles later, on Monday afternoon, we approached Bramble Cay and headed up to see if we could fetch our first waypoint. Turned out it was a close reach. The Captain consulted his table of obsessive calculations and picked plan 21 Charlie.

Though there are a number of navigational problems in the next 130 miles, the bottom line is that you have to get to the entrance to the Prince of Wales Channel, which spits you at last out of the area, on a west-going tide and preferably right after slack. Since we were determined not to go through in heavy weather, taking the first window after the wind abated meant that we had to go through the Strait at springs, which would certainly not have been our first choice. This made it even more imperative that we not face an east-setting current. We knew from HAM contacts with Mara that Pik was now anchored, waiting for weather, at Rennel Island inside the reef. We made a slight alteration in our plan to join him to await our window for the reason that we would have to anchor next to an unlit reef off an island in the middle of the night, and seeing the location of another boat might help us orient ourselves.

Although the moon was almost full, the skies were overcast when we arrived at Rennel Island and it was too dark to see a boat. We couldn't raise him on the radio but started slowly motoring from leeward towards the island until Lookout Terry Shrode, on the bow, thought he spotted something. Heading over there we saw it was indeed a sailboat, and tried to hail Pik but it was late and he was sound asleep. We made a guess and dropped the hook.

Pik, whose real name is Anton Willem Van Stokkum, has been cruising single-handed in his junk-rigged schooner for 17 years, all of it in the Pacific, and he and his boat are as salty as they come. He was going around the world, just like us, but on a different schedule. We caught up with him just as he was making the jump as we were to a whole new ocean.

The next morning, talking to him on the VHF, we discovered that his plan was the same as ours, and this the Captain found reassuring. Our target was to enter the channel after slack at 2109 local time, and from where we were anchored we figured it would be about twelve hours, give or take an hour or two for current velocities we could not predict. We weighed anchor at 0900 and began a beautiful day of sailing in about 15 knots with sunny skies and flat seas. Every leg was a reach, as we passed Arden Islet, Roberts Islet, Cocoanut Island, Richardson Reef, Bet Reef, Panther Shoal, Moresby Rock, Ninepin Rocks, and Beagle Rocks and finally arrived at Alert Patches, the area right before the entrance to the channel, which was our target. We passed it at 2118, nine minutes into a favorable current, an acceptable degree of precision after sailing over 300 miles.

All the planning we did was of course based on another, less pleasant scenario. But the conditions made it a pleasure cruise, and even shipping was light that day so there were no moments of concern as a very large ship and you share tight quarters with a substantial current. Going through the channel itself took almost exactly two hours. There were high fives; we had safely passed through the feared Torres Strait.

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