Cape York to Torres Strait
It’s Friday night, we are in the deep north of Cape York and looking forward to Passing Torres Strait on Saturday. Ben & I are both resting after dinner, thinking the other was on watch. As we passed between two reefs, there was a sickening sound of the keel scraping along the bottom of Inset reef. I jumped up to steer us back into the channel and it was too late as Galaxy ran aground and came to a stop heeled over. There’s no room for errors like that in these waters – add in the effects of some fatigue and the result is certain.
We must have both had a look of dread on our faces as the trip, the boat, even our lives flashed before us. What I meant to say was, “This is bad. Really bad” and what came out was completely different. None of which was going to get us off the reef. The wind seemed to be blowing Galaxy further on to the reef so we brought the sails down and attempted to motor off without success. The tide was coming in with a few more hours to run – I knew we needed to get off by 11pm or we would be stranded high and dry. I called on the radio for assistance from ships nearby. No response, so I called the Duty Officer at AMSA in Canberra, on the satellite phone. Having established we were not taking on water, we had power, life raft, etc., he put out a call for assistance. The nearest fishing vessel with AIS was a few hundred miles away as he dryly noted, “there’s not much up where you are.” The matter would be handed over to Queensland Police to deal with. So, we were on our own until the Police responded – unlikely in the next two hours and by then the tides would have done their work and we would possibly be dealing with a salvage situation or a wreck.
Waiting for help to arrive had a definite outcome, so the best option was to see if we could get off the reef by using the sails to heel the boat over enough to free the keel and allow Galaxy to float off on her topside. Ben & I tried the mainsail with one reef, then full mainsail, then mainsail with headsail before we got enough heel for the boat to move. Unable to reverse, somehow, we needed to turn the bow around to face toward deeper water – it couldn’t get any movement downwind so we bumped our way through a tack and bumped over the reef in little hops until we reached deep water. After a couple of hours of fear and dread, it was a moment of excited celebration for Ben & I.
Galaxy seemed to be OK, albeit grazed and bruised, so we decided to continue on to Darwin, rather than anchor and go for a night dive. I imagined the Betoota Advocate headline: “Sailor survives reef grounding to become tomorrow’s crocodile shit”. In any case, there aren’t many facilities before Darwin to assess or repair any damage.
There are two ways to hit a reef; the “not so good” way is a dead stop and most likely to result in some structural damage, the “good way” is when the boat continues to move forward and then leans over as it is sitting on top of the reef. Fortunately, Galaxy hit the good way and being a heavily built boat, the hull and keel is designed to take an impact at 6 knots. While the bumping and scraping sounded horrible, there wasn’t the full weight of the boat in the impact. The 11 x 1” stainless steel keel bolts look sound and there was no water coming in the bilge to suggest the 21mm thick fibreglass had been damaged. As Ben noted, “Lucky your boat is built like a brick shithouse.” Indeed.
We continued up Cape York, awake with adrenaline and hypervigilant, to Torres Strait. Twenty-four hours following grounding on Inset Reef, we had navigated the shipping channels of Torres Strait, sailed against strong tidal currents and avoided the reefs. We were now into to the open waters of the Gulf of Carpentaria; the SE trade winds continued to provide good sailing and it was time to breath out and catch up on some sleep.