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Torres Strait

The temperature in the Coral Sea continued to escalate. The sun bit down ferociously and we responded in turn by smothering our skins with sunscreen and wearing progressively bigger straw-brimmed hats. Captain is always telling us to wear shirts. Squalls frequently moved in on the ship with little forewarning – and provided a strange kind of relief from the humidity. During one particularly stubborn squall I stood with Josh on the bridge where he was on lookout. It was noon and the horizon was the dark grey colour of a stormy dusk, the lightening cracked and the thunder growled just above our heads, the waves crashed excitedly against one another and the hull of the ship. The majority of the rain had passed at this point – through the wind still howled in the sails – and as Josh handed me the lookout he commented that although sailing through squally weather was none-so-bad on a tall ship like ours, it was doubtlessly a little uncomfortable on a smaller craft.

Indeed it was hard not to think about one small boat in particular, as we had practically followed her voyage since Fiji. Captain Bligh and 19 crew had sailed these waters on a 23-foot launch after the mutiny on the Bounty condemned them to the ships launch. They quite miraculously made it the 3,700 miles from the Friendly Islands (off Tofua, Tonga) to Kupang, West Timor. We would soon enter “Bligh’s Entrance” to Torres Strait. The Torres Strait is one of the greatest thoroughfares in the world, yet unlike the Panama Canal it is not human-made. It separates the Coral Sea from the Arafura Sea and the South Pacific from the Indian Ocean. It’s natural tidal currents and streams move along at 6 knots and can greatly aid transit – if the timing and the conditions are right.

When the sun rose on the 4-8 watch on the morning of November 10th we could see the mountains of Australian-owned islands on the horizon. The cloudy day did not mar their magnitude nor the reality that our proximity to Oz meant that we would soon be passing over large sections of the Great Barrier Reef. We were indeed close enough to be buzzed several times by low-flying Australian helicopters and Coast Guard ships out patrolling the borders of their national sovereignty. The Captain and Mate Mike held a class on Torres Strait -urging vigilance and spatial awareness. The Torres Strait is frequently used by ships and boats of all shapes and sizes, but it is not without its dangers. In fact ships over a certain tonnage are required to take on a pilot to guide them through the trickier sections and access to other areas forbidden to most cruisers. Some of the waters in and around the Torres Strait remain uncharted to this day and those that are charted are marred with sand dunes, reefs, islands, shallow waters, shifting currents and tidal streams, with buoys and shipwrecks, strategically placed warnings. While tides are diurnal on both sides of the Strait the tidal streams can be either diurnal or semi-diurnal and high water and low water occur at differing times on either side – causing water to flow through the channel at a speedy rate in the direction of the low water. Add to these factors a strong current and depth affecting sand-waves and you have an interesting channel passage.

The conditions looked perfect for us and the tidal currents appeared to be on our side. Our goal was to get through Prince of Wales channel by sundown. Alas this was not meant to be, we were just an hour or two too late to make the tides before they shifted. And night was coming on. Rather than fighting an uphill battle at night through the narrow channel, the Captain anchored us for the night in the lee of an island – and wait for the tides to shift as well as bright daylight. We would get underway at first light in the morning some distance from the channel. As we made our way to our bunks for the night the wind picked up and the rocking waves created the illusion that we were still sailing along. The new moon hung heavy and orange just above the horizon and the lights from buoys and distant ships speckled the entrance to the channel.

At 4:45 am we all stood by the windlass – blinking as our eyes adjusted to the dark and yawning in unison. Our sleepy silence was shattered when Mate Mike called “heave away!” Perhaps not the gentlest way to wake up in the morning – it sure beats the effectiveness of the cold shower and the hot cup of coffee. “Down to starboard!” The sweat was prominent on our brows. We grunted with effort, our lethargic muscles tensing and relaxing with each movement. Up and down, up and down, up and down – until the bell rang, signaling that the anchor was off the bottom. We let go and stepped back, panting. The 4-8 watch took the deck as we began our motor-transit of Prince of Wales channel, but most of the rest of us remained on deck long after we were allowed to go back to bed. The sunrise was spectacular and we all sat on the foc’sle head watching its colours spread and evolve.

We were not alone on the channel during our transit. At one point a tug lay behind us and a tanker flanked us on the left. Another tanker off our starboard bow was escorted by a pilot or the Australian Coast Guard as it changed its heading and retreated into the distance. I wonder where their journey’s are taking them? By noon we were through Prince of Wales channel and officially in the Arafura Sea and the Indian Ocean.

I am afraid to report that it is just as hot in the Indian Ocean as it was in the South Pacific…maybe hotter.

Watch muster -Prince of Wales Channel
Watching the sunrise
Watching the sunrise in Torres Strait

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