For all you non-sailors reading this: believe me, 25 knots of wind from behind the beam is normally not a big deal. In fact, that is oftentimes the very best sailing conditions if the high winds are just starting and haven't had time to build the seas-- the boat rides flat instead of being heeled over and we go fast and smooth. This is called broad-reaching and we like it. Sailing when 25 knot winds are ahead of the beam is called close-hauled or up-wind or beating; and beating is exactly what it is because both you and the boat take a beating in those conditions. It is not pleasant and we try to avoid that if at all possible. Sailing when 25 knot winds are directly on the beam is called beam-reaching and is okay except the boat heels over quite a bit and your muscles will start to ache from being constantly stressed trying to hold yourself in a sitting position. All of this is further complicated because wind angle is determined by the apparent wind, not the true wind direction. But that is getting a bit more complicated than non-sailors need to know. Suffice it to say that we had anticipated having 25-knot winds from behind the beam for the final 2 - 2 1/2 days of this passage. It should have been pleasant and fast sailing conditions.
Saturday night during my watch we encountered a fishing vessel way in the distance to starboard. Seas were already building although the wind was just beginning to increase. At first I couldn't tell what it was -- just a slight lightening of the horizon that eventually became a white light. This concerned me because this light was in perfect alignment for Wreck Reefs. Our electronic charts were purchased 5 years ago and do not indicate a light on those reefs but it was entirely possible that Australia had put a light out there; although that seemed remote since these reefs were several hundred miles from Australia. So I was watching this light with interest when suddenly we sailed right past a rapidly blinking white light only a couple of feet above the surface of the water! This blinking light wasn't more than 300 feet from the starboard side of our boat and it scared the living daylights out of me! I had not seen it at all in the building seas until it was right next to our boat!
Of course, it was perfectly clear to me now. That light well off in the distance must be a fishing boat and that rapidly blinking light down on the water surface level must be the beacon indicating the end of his lines. Long-line fishermen can tow lines many, many miles (remember the book/movie The Perfect Storm). What was disturbing is that because of the building seas that rapidly blinking beacon light marking the end of his lines was not visible until it passed our boat. That meant our boat could just as easily have run into that beacon or passed on the wrong side of the beacon and fouled the fishing lines with our keel or prop or rudder. That would have been a very bad situation. So we had simply lucked out and passed just 300 feet on the right side of the darn thing. Why does the drama always happen on my shift? Bill never encounters fishing boats during his night watches.
As the winds increased, so did the seas. We had not taken into account that SE winds would be blowing across the current which flows from north to south down the eastern coast of Australia. This wind blowing across and at angle against the current caused the seas to build rapidly. Soon we were in 15 to 18-ft waves that were stacked one upon another and coming from every direction. Large waves were literally swirling all around us and tossing our 27-ton boat around like it was a plastic bathtub toy. This continued from Saturday midnight until Monday mid-afternoon, making our lives most uncomfortable. Intermittent rain helped to make our lives not just uncomfortable but down-right unpleasant. The only good change was that it was not quite so cool at night as we neared the coast of Australia.
About 80 miles before entering the Capricorn Channel we crossed the designated shipping channel that runs outside the Great Barrier Reef south from the Torres Staits. This was one of those times when we were reminded how much we appreciate having AIS. Cargo ships were coming from both sides and it was great to be able to see the forward vectors indicating where there ships would be moving. I love being able to click on a ship and see its name and size. The AIS also has a neat feature that will show us exactly where the closest point will be between a target ship and our boat. This is very useful. A total of 12 ships crossed near us during the time we were around the designated shipping channel. We only had to contact one ship to advise him of our location. I altered course and we passed behind him. When Bill talked to this boat they were not even aware that we were right off their port near their stern. I don't know how they could not have seen us because it was bright sunshine, but they were not aware of us at all. Another ship (the M/V AUDAX) was headed north and was on a collision course with us. We were on the starboard side of his path so Bill hailed AUDAX advised them of our location and projected paths, so the AUDAX altered course to pass behind us. Here are a few screen shots of our chart showing a few of the AIS tracks of ships that crossed our path.
We made the turn northwestward up into the Capricorn Channel and sea conditions very slowly began to improve. By Monday late afternoon we were maybe 100 miles up the channel behind the Great Barrier Reef and the seas were no longer swirling. Seas had finally settled into a definite direction and we were surfing large waves from directly behind us. Hey, this was nice! How wonderful to have a calm afternoon of sailing for our final day of this passage. Winds were still 25 knots but were well behind the beam and the seas were steady even if they were large. These conditions were perfect for reading and taking turns napping. Gave me an opportunity to toss all the left-over meals that we had not finished during the passage and to tidy up the galley. Only one more night and we would be in a marina! We both were beat.
But our final night of this passage was anything but boring. We continued to see heavy shipping traffic because Mackay is a port that handles a lot of cargo. Still thankful for our wonderful AIS so we can safely monitor this cargo traffic and stay out of the way. The distance from the outer reef and the smaller inner reefs and coastal islands was narrowing. The southern entrance into the Capricorn Channel is about 100 miles wide between the Australian coastline and the Great Barrier Reef. We passed the Northumberland Isles on the left and around midnight made our slight turn left to point directly toward Mackay. The distance between Pine Peak Island where we turned and the western edge of the Great Barrier Reef is less than 12 miles. Felt strange to be in "close quarters" again after being on open sea for a week. But so far everything was matching our charts perfectly. All the lights marking various islands and reefs were blinking right where they were supposed to be according to our charts.
Around midnight -- why do these things always happen around midnight??? --- I noticed a white light well off to our port side that was not indicated on our charts. Over the next half-hour this light changed to green. It slowly became obvious that this was the green light of a tri-color. A tri-color is mounted at the top of the mast on a sailboat which increases the distance at which it is visible to other boats. A tri-color shows green to the starboard side, red to the port side and white at the stern. So it was very obvious that a sailboat was approaching and that I was on his starboard side and that we would cross paths at some point. By watching this green light I was soon able to determine that we were on a collision course. Another note to non-sailors: if an object remains on the same point on the siderail of your boat as you are sailing along, then you are on a collision course. If the object moves forward or backward on the siderail of your boat as you sail along, then you will either pass in front of that object or that object will pass in front of you. Really simple way of knowing if 2 vessels will safely pass one another or if they are on a collision course. We were definitely on a collision course with this sailboat!
By the "international rules of the road" we were the stand-on vessel in this encounter. There is no such thing as a "right of way" vessel. There is a stand-on vessel and a give-way vessel; and both are responsible for taking whatever actions are necessary to avoid collision. The stand-on vessel is supposed to maintain course and speed and the give-way vessel is supposed to do exactly that -- alter course or speed in order to give way to the stand-on vessel. But it was rapidly becoming apparent that this other sailboat was not altering course or slowing down. We were closing upon one another, each traveling at speed of 8 knots so the distance was diminishing rapidly. I tried hailing this boat 3 times on the VHF but got no response. By this time he was getting WAAY TOO CLOSE!! Bill was asleep downstairs and I yelled to him what was happening and asked that he come up top. Bill grabbed the 2,000,000 candle power light and started flashing it onto the other boat. That is when we could plainly see it was a catamaran about 40-42 feet long. I started the engine and powered hard down forward.
The catamaran driver (I refuse to call him or her a captain) finally realized what was happening and did a quick turn to his right. He missed hitting our stern by less than half a boat length. That is the closest we have ever come to a collision during all our years of sailing.
I don't know if the bright light Bill was flashing onto their boat raised their attention or if it was the sound of our engine starting and powering hard that did it. We never saw the person driving the boat and could not get the name of this catamaran. They never responded to VHF hails so they obviously were not monitoring VHF channel 16 as required by law. I strongly suspect that the person on watch was asleep; and I absolutely cannot understand how anyone in charge of a boat could fall asleep when sailing between all this reef. Seems like the stress alone would keep you awake.
The rest of the night was uneventful and Bill tried to go back to sleep. That is when the wind shifted direction to directly behind us and I had to deal with sails. All that activity convinced Bill that further sleep was fruitless and he relieved me for watch an hour early. I crashed into deep sleep for 4 hours while Bill motored past all the moored cargo ships near Mackay. At 5 a.m. I took over and let Bill grab an hour of sleep before our arrival. As daylight creeped up we were both in the cockpit and almost to the port entrance when it began to rain. We did a 180 and re-traced our course back out until the rain stopped because we did not want to enter a strange harbor when we had poor visibility.
We officially docked at the Quarantine and Customs assigned berth for clearance at 1000, exactly a week to the very hour since we departed Noumea. We were both exhausted and very, very glad that there are no more long passages in our near future.