Monday, 5 September 2016

Into the Coral Sea - Magnetic Island to Herald Cays

20-21 August 2016

We’d originally planned on leaving for the Louisiade Islands about August 8 but due to arriving late in Townsville after our steering breakage, (Disabled and adrift in Upstart Bay ), then a week of bad weather and our fun and games with Australian Border Control, (Bad weather + bad bureaucracy = How to waste a week at Orpheus Island), here we were lifting the anchor from the sea bed in Magnetic Island’s Horseshoe Bay in the early hours of Saturday the 20th and finally getting underway for our big adventure.

We had a very early start from Horseshoe Bay at Magnetic Island.
The forecast indicated we should have nice sailing conditions for the next two days with a moderate south easterly blowing. These would see us on a nice reach getting to our planned stop at North East Herald Cay mid afternoon on Sunday. We intended to spend at least one rest day there and explore the island before heading on to PNG, depending on weather of course. We tend not to put too much faith in forecasts looking more than 48 to 72 hours into the future as they almost always change. In this case it turned out we should have adjusted our scepticism metre to about six hours.

The sun rose as we made our way towards the Magnetic Passage through the Great Barrier Reef.
We set full sail in the predawn light and settled on our course to pass out through the Great Barrier Reef via the Magnetic Passage. The wind was around a steady 15 knots from the predicted direction and we experienced a very pleasant sail throughout the morning averaging about six knots. Shortly after midday, the wind began to swing to the east and was soon forward of the beam slowing our progress to just on five knots through the next watch. When the breeze also eased the combination of  wind angle and lack of strength, along with pushing into a metre and half easterly swell, reduced our pace even further. Bearing off to improve the wind angle wasn’t an option as we were surrounded by reefs. We were forced to start the engine and motor-sail to maintain pace.

Once the wind turned from south-east to east we were committed to an upwind slog.
We did hook a nice mackerel passing between the reefs but unfortunately something even bigger dined on it before we could reel it in to the boat. Fish head soup anyone????
Conditions got worse in the evening when we cleared the Magnetic Passage and had to alter course towards the east for a long windward slog into a stronger breeze and growing seas to clear Flinders Reef. We were running three hour watches through the night with Karen teamed up with Anthony and Rob with Lynda. Both teams were kept busy maintaining sail trim as the wind swung back and forth through about 30 to 40 degrees.
Conditions made sleep difficult for the off watch crew but we were all grabbing what rest we could. The seas were now near on the nose in the two metre plus range and without our 80 horse motor chugging away we would have been going nowhere. Once during the night the motor just stopped by itself but we were soon underway again after Rob did a quick bleed of the injection system to clear an airlock. We put this down to the fuel in the tanks getting frothed up and aerated as we bounced around in the lively seas.

Our need to clear Flinders Reefs saw us heading even more upwind. It was good to turn the corner.
Sunrise is always very welcome after a night at sea, particularly a rough night.
It was daylight before we could finally turn more northwards around Flinders Reef and towards Herald Cays. With the new day the wind dropped out to single digits, sometimes as low as four knots. The swell was still in the 2-3 metre zone slowing our progress even further. With a lot of miles still to go to reach our anchorage we reluctantly pushed the throttle forward to A. ensure we reached the Cays in daylight to anchor safely amongst the coral heads and B. generate enough apparent wind over our sails to steady the boat a bit in the swells.

We then made steady progress through the morning until Karen noticed an alarming drop on our oil pressure gauge. Rob immediately shut the motor down and went to investigate. In the engine room he discovered the deep catch pan under the motor awash with oil. Not good. We clearly had a leak but, being thrown around all over the place in a hot engine room, now was not the time when it could really be located easily. A check of the dipstick confirmed the motor was low on lubricant so in went about two litres of the good stuff and our oil pressure instantly returned to near normal so on we went. Within an hour or so we could see the pressure gauge dropping once more so Rob again added more oil to the engine. This process had to be repeated two more times through the day. The fuel system also needed to be bled again when the motor once more stopped by itself.

Seas breaking on the reefs of Herald Cays in the distance.
It was a welcome relief for us all when the sea state started to ease as we began to get some protection from the big reefs of Heralds Cays about lunch time. By Four PM we were on final approach to our planned anchorage at the North East Cay. The seas were flat, the sun was peeking through the broken cloud cover and the water was crystal clear making sighting potential dangers much easier.

The first of the low coral cays coming into view.
The Herald Cays are surrounded by extensive reefs that provide excellent protection from the south, south east and east.
Rather than risk the motor stopping unexpectedly as we manoeuvred to anchor, the fuel system was bled of any air again just in case. Karen then carefully helmed Our Dreamtime in towards the island as Rob relayed directions via radio from his perch high on the bow. We were able to anchor in just under 10 metres of water in good sand just short of a row of bombies about 500 metres from the island. The water was so clear we could see our anchor chain all the way to the bottom and stretching across the white sand into the distance. There were a couple of dark patches on the sea floor but investigation revealed these to be small areas of rock a long, long way below the surface and of no danger.
We updated our Navionics electronic charts just before we left and found them to be quite accurate for our anchorage at North East Herald Cay.
Magnetic Island  to Herald Cays – 194.6 Nautical Miles (360.4kilometres) - 33 Hours 57 Minutes - Average Speed 5.7 Knots – Max Speed 8.4 Knots
Lynda, Anthony and Rob were all on coral watch as we approached North East Herald Cay.
Karen happy to be at anchor in the calm water behind Herald Cays.

Forget the ration of rum. Well deserved bubbles time on arrival at Herald Cays.
It’s safe to say there were four very tired sailors on board, extremely happy to be snug at anchor in calm water after what had turned out to be quite a strenuous passage.  Once the boat was all secured, the bubbles and snacks came out in time to enjoy with the sunset. Once the western sky went black as the sun disappeared we were treated to an amazing view of the star filled universe. 360 kilometres from the mainland there was a complete absence of artificial light. Combined with the very clear, pollution free air, the sky was so clear the Milky Way stretched away into infinity brighter than you could imagine while millions more stars than one normally sees shone brightly from horizon to horizon.

We tried to photograph our view of the sky but the movement of the boat made time exposure impossible. This shot of the Milky Way we found on the web provides a small idea of what we witnessed at Herald Cays.
Despite being truly mesmerizing, it was not enough to keep us from our bunks for long and we were all soon making much needed deposits in our sleep banks before exploring the island’s delights in the morning.

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