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Captains Log - Leg 7 - Groote Eylandt to Darwin

Date  Events
18 June '02 AM tuesday, weighed anchor and sailed on a fair SE wind after waiting for new steering cables to arrive by barge. The barge came but they didn't, "Gulf Time" was the culprit it seems, the people of the gulf work to their own timetable because of the difficulty of regular transport. Everything gets there eventually. I am told that they will be waiting for us in Nhulunbuy.
We sailed initially for Chasm Island, the site of the Flinders discovery of the aboriginal cave paintings, the first seen by European eyes in this country.
We applied for permission to land on Chasm, however, it was refused on the basis that Chasm is a sacred site, a burial ground and place of spirits. It has been a closed site for 38 to 40 years and not even the elders go there. We were therefore content to circumnavigate the island slowly, soaking in the spirit and filming and photographing everything we saw. It is easy to understand the spirituality of the place up close,the chasms, the row upon row of what appears to be man made terrace ramparts of a giants dimension, although they are all natural. The whole is unlike anything we have found anywhere else in the gulf. Yet for all the dread it boasts these beautiful golden beaches. Suitably awed and impressed, not only at the natural wonder before us, but at the sheer endurance of Flinders and his men, unaccustomed as they were to the wet season climate, clambering over that torturous terrain. The original indigenous population must have had equal difficulty in bare feet.
We then sailed, again downwind, for Morgan's Island, next to Woodah Island in Blue Mud Bay. We anchored 3 miles off both islands at 0120 on the morning of June 19th. Anchor watches being kept all night as usual.
19 June '02 The morning found us anchored in the teeth of a very strong SE wind. Because of the extensive shoals, we, like Flinders, anchored 3 miles off the two Islands. I deemed the size of the chop and the distance from shore as too risky to launch the Zodiac and so we had to be content to, again, soak in the atmosphere. The following impressions were made:
Morgan's Island is surprisingly large and heavily wooded and is very high.
The SE slopes appear to be low scrub and bushy grass and are very steep.
There are larger trees along the skyline, however the back of the island was unseen by us.
There are many beaches and accessible landing places to be seen, although careful reading of the journals shows it most likely to be at the western end closest to Woodah Island.
The island was named after one of Flinders Marine corporals who succumbed to "Coup de Soleil" or sunstroke, having spent the afternoon ashore without his hat. Woodah Island is long and lies 2 miles distant from us. Due to those same aforementioned shoals, we will make further observations while underway. It is frustrating that what is currently the lee side of the Island is totally unsurveyed and therefore off limits to us. What is obvious are the numerous beaches along it's length and, once again, no apparent change to either island since Flinders time.
At 1230, we weighed anchor and after washing huge quantities of Flinders' bright blue mud from the cable and anchor, we motored into the teeth of the S'Easter until we rounded the end of Woodah and could set sail. Blue Mud Bay is very appropriately named. The rest of the day was relatively uneventful. Yet another downwind passage. It's on days like this I reflect the comment most often made by voyage crew "didn't they get impatient, what if they were going to be late?" It's a sad reflection of today's society that EVERYTHING seems to have a time or deadline attached to it. That's probably the hardest thing for people to get used to when they come on board. Our intrepid reporter from the last leg was the epitome of that. Once most people have been on board for a few days, they start to shed that and start thinking only in terms of what we are doing today, when's my next watch? How long till lunch? and when can I sleep? They then start to realise that that it doesn't matter when we get somewhere, the daily routine on board is the mortar that holds the voyage together. It is still hard to imagine life on 'Investigator' with no schedule or dates of any kind whatsoever.
We sailed all day and at midnight entered the approaches to Nhulunbuy harbour, formerly Gove, on Melville Bay, the harbour Flinders called the "best harbour in the gulf."
21 - 23 June '02 Alongside at Nhulunby,all the usual cleaning & revictualling chores, mail, papers etc. Great stories from Nicholas Rothwell of The Australian. Nhulunby is a very friendly place indeed. On Saturday night, we held a reception hosted jointly by the ship and by Nhulunby Rotary Club. These receptions are an opportunity for the local community to network in a different environment, visit the ship and meet myself and the rest of the crew. They also receive an insight into ‘The Flinders' Story’.
On Sunday, the whole crew took the day off and joined the local population in the annual beach volley ball tournament. Because of our late entry, permits were rushed through by Aboriginal Land Corporation and places were found in teams and a great day was had by all. One team came in a respectable 3rd in the volley ball and 1st in the Tug of War. Must be all the ropework on board! Trim and I elected to do the serious work and mind the ship. A tired but happy crew returned on board at 20.00 armed with a variety of prizes, including a belt sander, T shirts, etc.
Nhulunby Harbour is the harbour mentioned by Flinders as the finest harbour in the Gulf. It was also the harbour where Flinders wrote of those notorious Northern Australian green ants - "these malicious little creatures whose vengeance is never satisfied...." Their nests are wonderful constructions that have to be seen to be believed.
24 - 27 June '02 We fuelled this morning and at 1200 after last minute faxes etc and with the assistance of the local work barge acting as a tug, we hauled off the wharf against the unexpectedly strong South Easterly tradewind. We then made a more dignified departure, motoring right up the harbour and leaving in proper style under full sail. We sailed a course across Melville bay towards the delightfully named English Company Islands, so named by Flinders to honour one of his many patrons, the famous British East India Company.
We passed peacefully downwind through the strait between Brombie Islets and Cape Wilberforce. (When Flinders went through he was, unlike our tradewind, sailing against the NW Monsoon. His only comment was, meaningfully, "after numberless tacks..."
Those with a modicum of knowledge of square riggers will appreciate the difficulty of tacking a full rigged ship like ‘Investigator’ through a passage 3 times as long as it was wide.
We then ran down the equally delightfully named Malay Roads heading for the Arafura Pearls pearling complex and that other memorable island from Flinders time, Pobassoo Island. We reached Elizabeth Bay, the site of the farm tonight, and after an escort into the bay past the lines of oyster nets, we anchored in this most pleasant of surroundings.
The Arafura Pearls complex is truly amazing, clinically clean and employs 27 people raising their own pearlshell stock and following the whole process through to the harvesting of the completed pearl. Their plant is ultra modern, uses multiply filtered seawater and is right in the wilderness with access only by boat.
The staff at Arafura were extremely friendly and gave us a complete guided tour enabling us to follow the process from shell spat to being able to hold the final outcome, a large perfect pearl. Holding the pearl, it's easy to feel the power they can have over people and easy to see why pearls, and the pursuit of pearls, have incited such positive and negative responses in myriads of people over the years.
After lunch, we weighed and sailed down the Malay Roads to Pobassoo Island, the scene of the meeting and exchanges between Flinders and the Macassan Trepang fisherman. This is a part of this great country that hasn't changed at all. Some forty years before Flinders, the Macassans began meeting at the island before running south into the gulf. In order to identify the particular beach, they planted a Tamarind tree just above the beach. Well, I can report that we stood on that same beach, at that same tree soaking up the passage of time, we even collected some empty tamarind pods. It's at moments like this that there is a real sense of history, the reality of Flinders presence, the eternity of our vast landscape and the insignificance of our own presence on this land of ours. As a matter of interest, trepang is still being fished, but by Australian fishermen now, and I believe the market is still much the same as for the Macassans in Flinders' time.
We weighed anchor after dinner, sailing down past Astell Island and then Inglis Island turning into Brown Strait where, when dawn broke, we found ourselves running past the Wessell Islands making 6 knots. We ran on, hour after hour, passing finally out into the Arafura Sea. We then set a course westward toward Darwin. At 0245 on Thursday, we were challenged by our first Northern Australian "Guardian", a Customs vessel out on patrol. Later in the morning, we were challenged again by an Air Force P3 Orion, followed a short time later by HMAS Melville, on patrol from Cairns to Darwin. One tends to think the ocean is empty here, but "Big Brother" is watching all the time. On we sailed in perfect passage making weather. We set a course for the bottom of Apsley Strait, between the Tiwi Islands of Bathurst and Melville, north of Darwin. Our destination was Ngiliu, the principal settlement.
28 June '02 We finally turned south down the Dundas strait, heading for Bathurst Island. Bathurst Island is some 40 NM north of Darwin. we will catch up with an old friend and supporter here, John Cleary and his wife Veronica, John was a Minister in the Tasmanian Parliament during the construction period of Windeward Bound and was instrumental in much of her success. As I write this, we have a gentle following breeze and the sun is low over the water laying a golden path down to the ship. Another glorious tropical sunset.
We arrived at the Medina Inlet, the entrance to Apsley Strait at the turn of the tide, but in total darkness. This was a major difference between us and the early explorers such as Matthew Flinders. We have the newest charts, including the latest electronic chart package in order to navigate their way into the 10 mile winding channel, they had nothing to work with other than their seamanship and instinct. After a careful blind pilotage we arrived at Nguili and anchored at 0230.
29 June '02 By the time we awoke this Morning, the tide was roaring past at about 8 knots, enough to have the Zodiac, tied alongside, planing. It became prudent to hoist it out of the water and wait until the flow eased before venturing ashore. We had a visit later that morning from John & Veronica Cleary, and two guests from Tasmania. It was good to see them again and after coffees etc, we started to go ashore. The Tiwis gave us most amazing welcome, hugs all round as we stepped onto the beach, the delightful kids queuing to be photographed, and once they discovered they could look at the digital photos instantly, wanting to take photos of their own.
Bathurst Island has been a Catholic mission since before the 2nd World War. It played a major role in warning Darwin of imminent air raids. The church is a gem, all gorgeously rough hewn island architecture with the altar area totally painted in Tiwi art with Jesus and the apostles depicted as Tiwis. The people reflect this marrying of cultures with it seeming to bring out the best of both. We were delighted to take on board 4 Tiwi girls for the remainder of the leg to Darwin. They were delightful, so happy and they spent considerable time trying to teach us, especially Jason, their language (with limited success I might add!) They are wonderfully bi-lingual, speaking English as happily as Tiwi.
We weighed at 20.00 as the tide turned and retraced our steps down the channel and out into the open sea and our first visit to Darwin. the Tiwi girls took a delighted interest in all that was going on and willingly participated where and when required. We arrived as planned of the Channel rock buoy to be met by the Darwin Pilot Boat named ...’Matthew Flinders’. An hour later we were snug alongside and looking forward to some much needed leave after a very hectic, but extremely rewarding, first 4 months of the voyage.
I will be in Hobart for most of our time in Darwin, however, logs will continue upon my return.
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