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Darwin to Cairns by boat: Crossing the Gulf of Carpentaria

“First watch of the crossing! See you later NT!”

My final Facebook post before we lost signal had been jovial and upbeat, but as is usually the case with social media the smiles were slightly faked.

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After getting stranded in Gove we had missed our favourable weather window. Rather than lovely calm seas, we started the crossing in conditions that we would never have ventured out in had we not been on a strict time scale.

With every roll of the boat, every wave that smashed against the hull and every stomach plunge as we tipped over the swell my enthusiasm diminished. All I wanted was to be still-for-one-damn-minute, to have a wee without being thrown off the bloody seat or for everything in our cabin to roll on the floor and get lost.


 

Ridiculously, I hadn’t counted on just how wide the Gulf was until we flew over it. As the planed reached 30,000 feet and the Queensland coast disappeared into the horizon I kept looking for signs I was about to get my first glimpse of the Northern Territory. An hour in to our flight an there was still no sign, in fact we didn’t catch sight of land until our plane made it’s descent in to Gove. A body of water that took a very big, very fast plane 90 minutes to cross? How long would it take in our much smaller, much slower sailing boat?

Quite a while as it turned out.

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Cooking dinner was a nightmare. In most boats the stove top is designed so it moves as the boat tips, meaning that your pans are always stable even when the floor isn’t! Not this one, it was a fun game of trying not to fall seasick or scald yourself with dinner and we were very thankful that my Mum was used to battling conditions like these after her Round Britain Experience.

Another fun thing was that our bed was positioned over one of the fuel tanks, a tank that was now empty. This meant that each time the hull smashed down on to a wave the boom reverberated through our entire cabin, it was like trying to sleep through an air raid and I took to napping in my Mum’s bed when she was on watch or curling around the outside sofa.

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Thankfully my initial nerves had gone and when the waves calmed down we were blessed with beautifully starry skies. It took just under three days to reach the other side and in that time we failed to see a single other craft on the water which made avoiding obstacles a lot easier! We did however receive a visit from the customs plane, making sure we weren’t bringing any illegal immigrants in to the country…no sir just two Kiwi’s, a Welshwoman and a Pom!

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When we had reached the halfway point we all cheered, it was far easier after that. My initial pessimism ebbed away and the endless blue horizon surrounding us 360 degrees took on a better light.

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One of the best things about the trip was getting to catch so many fresh fish for dinner and the crossing didn’t let us down. Mikey pulled in a lovely tuna and we shashimied it up to give my Mum her first taste of proper sushi. We’d even stocked up on wasabi and soy sauce in case we did strike lucky! From now on my sushi train dinners were not going to taste half as good…

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Mum’s verdict? Lovely! If only we could pair it with a nice crisp white wine. Sadly we had a no drinking rule while we were on the move, but the sushi was so beautifully fresh that we enjoyed it anyway.

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The tuna was quickly blown out of the water however when Mikey pulled in the biggest fish he’d ever caught, a fish that people spend thousands of dollars trying to catch…


We’d been sitting in the Gove boat club when he announced it. “I’m going to catch a sailfish on this trip,” Mikey said, or rather slurred. As previously mentioned we’d found the best way to deal with being trapped in Gove was to get drunk. There was a stuffed sailfish on the wall, displayed as a trophy, and it was probably bigger than any of us. We gave each other little sideways glances, yeah right mate you’re going to catch one of those on a hand line, sure.

So when hallway across the Gulf he shouted for us to grab the camera because he’d caught a monster tuna we thought nothing of it. Well, perhaps we thought hurrah more sushi! but otherwise nothing out of the ordinary. But as he pulled and fought to bring the fish in and the bluey-black shape came closer to the surface we realised something – it wasn’t a tuna, it was a sailfish!

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Usually fishermen would have gloves, special lines and other fancy fishing equipment (okay, I know nothing about fishing except how to cook it when it’s dead) but Mikey managed to land this highly sought after fish simply using a $5 hand line and $3 lure. It’s the fishing equivalent of winning the grand prix in a mini. Although the bill of the sailfish is like sandpaper so after getting his hands torn to pieces I bet Mikey was washing for a pair of gloves…

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Although sailfish make for good eating – apparently – because of our lack of freezer space and also possibly Mum and I telling Mikey it was too beautiful to eat, after a very quick photoshoot the big beauty was released back in to the wild, probably for some yuppie bloke to catch in a few weeks time and put up on his wall!


So, yes, it wasn’t all bad. It would certainly have been a lot more enjoyable had the conditions been better, but they weren’t and so what’s the point in complaining. By the time we reached land on the other side I was pleased to see my adopted homeland of Queensland come in to view but the sense of achievement I had was worth a few nights of constantly interrupted sleep and 3am watch alarms.

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Sure it’s not like crossing the Pacific or even the Tasman. but for me it was a much larger hop than I’ve ever done before; I’m proud of myself being my far the most inexperienced person on the boat to have made it. And to have made it without even a nip of gin too, I might add.

As we turned north and set our sights on the top of Australia we were joined by a pod of playful dolphins for almost half an hour.

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I’m pretty sure they turned up to give me a metaphorical high five.


This post is one of many about my experience of sailing from Darwin to Cairns. Click here for the rest of them!

 

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