Day 335

It's time to make a break for the shore. The forecast calls for a brief shift in wind direction lasting just long enough to potentially make a final push through the Great Barrier Reef. I'm not entirely confident in the weather break, but I gain some confidence when I see the wind slowly shifting southeast as predicted. I'm contemplating the duration of the anticipated wind shift, what angles I can expect during the shift, and the overall wind speed. It's not looking great, but if I miss this window, it's looking much worse for the following 3 or 4 days. In a different world, I might've waited for a better window, but today my family and friends are landing in Cairns, giving me a little taste of get-home-itis. I obviously don't plan to sacrifice safety, but I'll probably have to push the limit of my capabilities should I commit. It's still about 2 hours before the wind should reach its final angle-intensity arrangement, so I take the opportunity to rest in anticipation of an arduous day ahead.

I wake at 10:45 AM and make a final assessment of the weather. The wind shifted southeast enough and the wind speed is calm enough. The waves aren't going to help, but I should be able to make the angles I need. It's slightly precarious, but I decide to commit. Once I detach from the mooring, there's no going back. I'll either make safe waters, or I'll end up drifting north of my planned destination. The intention is to aim for the shark and crocodile infested waters of Mission Bay, anchor overnight, then make a break for Cairns first thing in the morning. Luckily, if I can't make the cut to Cairns, I still have divert options to the north. I take a final look at the gray skies, prepare for immediate rowing, then make my way to the bow. I open the bow hatch, pull in the line attaching Emerson to the mooring buoy, reach the shackle and disconnect. I'm back on my own. I quickly run the line over the top of the bow cabin and back to the rowing area. I close the hatch and immediately start rowing away from Flynn Reef towards Cairns. It's 11:00 AM.

The first few minutes show that with no rowing, I'll drift well north of my intended destination. This is slightly disconcerting. Rowing with both oars at moderate intensity, I'm still about 10 degrees short of what I need. This is more disconcerting. Rowing with both hands on the starboard oar at a slightly increased intensity gives me what I need, sometimes slightly more. I should be ok. As I'm getting a feel for the 20+ miles ahead of me, I spot a diving catamaran attempting what looks like a close pass. When the catamaran is within shouting distance, I see the tail end swing towards me, exposing the stern and 20+ people giving me not one, but two jubilant cheers. I wave back. Yes, I think I'll be ok. But nature has yet to have her final say for the miles ahead. Of course, this means squall after squall, and nudge after nudge north of my intended course. After 6 hours of rowing, it's nearing 5:00 PM, the overcast sky is darkening, and I'm barely maintaining.

As the skies give way to darkness, I attempt a quick rest break. The second I stop rowing, I immediately start losing angles to the north. I can't afford breaks. I eat as quickly as possible then get back to it. Quitting isn't an option at this point. It's the last major push towards shore on day 335 at sea; I'll row until something breaks. Up to this point, I've only lost a one or two degrees off my desired course, so there's still a chance I can make my planned destination. The hours press on, the squalls keep coming, the miles slowly count down, and I begin to feel the effects of fatigue. I'm approaching Cape Grafton with the hope that I'll reach somewhat sheltered waters once I'm clear to the west. However, instead of shelter, I encounter currents from the south which seem accelerated by the underwater terrain near the cape. I can no longer hold my course; I'm suddenly off by 10, then 20 degrees. The currents are bad. No matter how hard I row, nature is taking the upper hand. It's almost 01:00 AM and time to think about diverting.

It's clear the initial marina of choice is no longer in the cards. I stop fighting the winds and currents and adjust my course for Yorkeys Knob Boat Club, the next available marina to the north. I'm no longer working non-stop, which finally gives me a second to realize that I'm fully embraced by the glimmer of  cultural lighting for the first time in nearly a year.  I see the lights of anchored ships, the clearly defined shoreline, and the various navigational lights defining safe passage though the harbor.  The entire scene is further accentuated by the orange city lights reflecting from the low clouds above.  I made Cairns Harbor; I'm clear of the Great Barrier Reef.  I'm not safely anchored in Mission Bay as planned, but I'm in Cairns Harbor.  I row for the next 2 hours admiring the lights around me until I clear the main shipping channel.  The clock reads 2:45 AM and I'm 5 miles from my new destination of Half Moon Bay; it's about time for some rest. 

After 16 hours of nearly non-stop rowing, I find a spot on the charts that should be clear of corals; I don't want a stuck anchor in the morning. I see 30 foot waters, drop the anchor, and glide safely to a stop. I make sure I'm not drifting and get ready for sleep. Day 336 will be upon me within hours; I should probably rest before the Australian Volunteer Coast Guard arrives in the morning. The QF9 Flotilla in Cairns is generously planning on escorting me during the final 5 miles. Before resting, I update the Coast Guard, my shore team, and family of my new anchor location and new destination. Since Half Moon Bay isn't an official port of entry, I also need to get additional approvals through the Australian Border Force. It's going to be a busy morning. It's now past 03:00 AM, it'll be here before I know it.

Keep After It

P.S. I'll finish the final day in the next post.

 

Day 334

Attached to the mooring buoys on the northwest side of Flynn Reef. 

Attached to the mooring buoys on the northwest side of Flynn Reef. 

Day 334

The coastal mountain ranges of Queensland, Australia are in sight.  They're enticingly close, and quite a sight they are.  It took 331 days for them to come into view, but they're not quite in focus yet.  I'll have to finish the short remaining distance of my journey to enjoy them with full clarity.  I'm 99.5% complete, 30 miles from Cairns, and miraculously, securely attached to Flynn Reef.  I never imagined such a scenario would define my first encounter with the Great Barrier Reef, but I'm here nonetheless, anchored in the waters of Australia.  And yes, the Australian Border Force is aware of my presence.  I've already been threatened with $5,000 fines if I don't communicate my intentions more clearly!

I anticipated the possibility of encountering winds from the south or southeast as I approached the shores of Australia.  I added about 50 miles of travel to ensure I approached from the south.  Everything was working as planned, I just needed the actual weather to match the historical weather expected for this time of year, and I'd be home free. This did not happen.  A large high pressure system moving slowly east over the Great Australian Bight created a firm ridge of high pressure over Queensland waters. This resulted in forecasted strong wind warnings of 20 to 25 knots from the south to southeast, sometimes reaching 30 knots.  This forecast was fulfilled, and then some.  

I might've managed those winds fine if I didn't have the Great Barrier Reef to contend with.  I tried to find the best SE to NW approach through the reefs, but the options are limited.  The best I could plot in order to minimize time within the reef and optimize angles, still required a turn directly west.  I've never encountered these reefs before, never navigated through them, so I didn't know exactly what to expect.  I was overly cautious, especially considering the difficulties of 30 knots on a rowboat.  10 miles from my planned reef entrance, Flora Pass, the winds died down to 15-20 knots.  This was perfect.  It gave me a chance for a quick nap before going all-out through the reefs, and gave me hope that I could still make that cut west, even with winds from the south.  Unfortunately, when I woke, the winds were back in full force. 

I arrived at the entrance to Flora Pass around 2:00 AM.  The temperatures were in the low 70's, the winds were back up to a steady 25, easily holding 30 at times, gusting even higher.  The absent moon made for black overcast skies, rain showers were everywhere, and the visibility was close to zero.  Waves easily boarded the vessel and saltwater spray was nearly constant.  It was time to get after it.  I went full waterproofs, even complete with waterproof socks (that weren't so waterproof), and my waterproof gloves (totally not waterproof at all).  The wet wind still gave me chills through the layers as I was getting pelted in the face with spray and rain.  All my previous tests at holding a westbound course approaching this point were a complete success.  Now the winds are a little too strong and a little too close to south.  Using both oars, I'm not making the angles I need.  I drop the port and try both hands pulling hard on starboard with a full deflected rudder; I gain a few more degrees.  Still not enough.  

I maintained a decent path to clear the first two reefs, but a little closer than planned.  I'm reaching the point of the westbound turn and it's decision time.  Unless the winds suddenly drop or shift in my favor, the turn isn't going to happen.  I obviously can't bank on it, so I call the local Australian Volunteer Coast Guard for advice on potentially anchoring on a reef.  It's either anchor or drift back out into the open ocean without a sea anchor (it blew out trying to hold in 30 knot winds two weeks prior).  The problem is I've never anchored on a reef, the charts are very ambiguous regarding water depths surrounding the reefs, and I have no idea what they look like approaching from a 4 foot eye level.  I have to try.  The sun is now up and for the first time, the sea is an amazing turquoise after months of deep blue.  

I stop my one sided rowing and let the seas take me north to the first potential stop, Milln Reef.  I need to anchor on the downwind side, yet the strong southerly winds will not allow a turn directly east or west, so this presents a problem.  I pass well clear on the western side of the reef, then turn east as aggressively as I possibly can, striving for the shallow waters on the north side.  I can't make the cut; I miss it entirely.  The shallowest water I saw was 80 feet, way too deep for me to anchor.  But now I know what a reef looks like and I know the limitations of my charts.  I also know what the breaking waves look like near the shallows.  I'll try again on the next reef north with a tighter margin.  

I see breaking waves outlining the shallow waters of Flynn Reef to my north.  I aim as close to the western most breakers as my nerves will allow.  I don't want to miss this one.  Without rowing, I'm still hitting 2 knots, with no chance of stopping via oars.  My goal is to skim the western edge and immediately cut inside to the northern shallows.  I then see a mooring buoy on the south side; it distracts me towards the east at the last minute.  I'm now quickly drifting close to 100 meters inside my aim point; this is bad.  Suddenly I'm surrounded by breaking waves and a depth meter rapidly decreasing from 45 feet, 20 feet, 9 feet, 4 feet, then -- feet.  Uh oh.  I brace and wait... ccreeeak.  Yep, I just hit the reef - though it was brief, less than a second of contact.  Let's say the keel gently kissed the reef.  Thankfully, the depth is right back, but rising way too fast.  I see 20 feet, drop the anchor and hope for the best.  200 feet of line comes to an end and the boat slowly coasts to a stop.  In 80 foot waters.  Right next to a mooring buoy.  

That obviously did not happen as planned.  Luckily, there was no critical damage; that easily could've been catastrophic.  But I honestly don't know if I would've caught the shallow waters without that ordeal.  I'm now tied to that fateful buoy and can sleep soundly while I wait for these winds to turn in my favor.  Not drifting or moving after 331 days is quite strange, but very pleasant, especially with those Queensland mountains in sight.  

Keep After It 

Day 313

Melty solar panel. A loss of 17% solar power. Or I can risk it and push the melty level.

Melty solar panel. A loss of 17% solar power. Or I can risk it and push the melty level.

Day 313

I was bent down clearing water from the center footwell when a flying fish landed on my back.  Nothing further on that development except to know that a fish flopping on a bare skin back feels...  like maybe it shouldn't be happening.  My Whale Gusher bilge pump is now broken beyond repair, so it's buckets and sponges here on out.  The rubber baffle which allows for suction is now full of holes.  I'm now less than 700 nautical miles from Cairns.  I got a lucky break south from what is now Tropical Cyclone Ann, helping my approach angles tremendously.  Ann left my company as she was transforming from a tropical storm into a cyclone.  That doesn't mean I didn't get a fair amount of punishment in the form of high winds and waves.  I made it through relatively unscathed with the exception of one unfortunately placed breaking wave.  

The winds were holding steady in the high twenties when a large squall made an appearance.  This pushed the wind up to high thirties with frequent gusts into the forties.  After about 25 minutes in these conditions, I sat opposite the chart plotter assessing the winds and my orientation to the waves.  Emerson has a tendency to get sucked into high winds, leaving me broadside to the waves.  I'm assuming this happens because my boat is shaped somewhat like an airfoil.  It seems the wind passes around my boat faster on the windward side, creating lower pressures and a pull towards the wind.  Regardless, I was a little too broadside for comfort.  Since it appeared we were handling the waves just fine, I briefly opened the hatch door for a blast of fresh air.  The timing couldn't have been worse.  

The rain was coming down hard, yet suddenly it went quiet.  That could mean one of two things - the rain suddenly stopped or I'm sitting low in a trough, there's a steep wall of water between me and the rain, and it's falling in my direction.  It's well past sunset and the moonlight has no chance of piercing through the cloud layers above, so I can't see a thing.  I have one battery monitor gauge remaining that tends to act finicky, but seems to work fine.  As I'm paralyzed in the midst of the silence, that gauge, without provocation, spontaneously and eerily illuminated the blue LED backlight as if to say "times up."  Because a split second after that LED came on, a large steep wave crashed directly broadside into the port side of the boat.  The rain certainly didn't stop.  

Luckily I was sitting on the same side of impact with my feet planted opposite, because I was suddenly standing over the electrical panel pushing hard with my legs, arms preparing for a fall.  The noise was terribly loud, nothing but violent thrashing.  The boat rolled 75-80 degrees, and as if in slow motion, I see a sheet of water in front of my face illuminated from behind by that same blue LED.  Anything not secured has found a new home in the top right corner of the boat.  After what feels like an eternity, the trashing slowly subsides and the sheet of water finds its way towards my feet.  This is good, Emerson is slowing rolling back to vertical.  The rain returns.  The LED extinguishes.  I assess.  The footwell is nearly full of water, my bed is sopping wet, the electrics are still operational, I'm not hurt.  But there's now an awful creaking sound.  I have to exit the cabin and determine the cause.  

I exit to find the two operational oars still securely in place.  Unfortunately, I left the forward half of the canvas protection raised.  I find the right side is dangling by the lower zipper, and the left side is dangling by the top snaps. Luckily, the left side was partially unzipped and the wave just finished the process.  I quickly remove the canvas and notice the right side is dangling by the zipper because the snaps were ripped clean off the boat.  I toss them in the aft cabin; I see there's nothing hindering the rudder mechanics.  The creaking is too loud.  I can't see the waves, the rain is pelting me, any new sound or lack of sound sends me into a low brace, preparing for a similar impact.  I peek over the sides and find the cause of the creaking.  The impact has dislodged my spare oars from the side of the boat.  On both sides.  These are secured by a forward cubby and an aft lashing.  The blades of the oars are at least 6 inches deep in the cubbies.  Not anymore; they are now dangling by the aft lashings, being dragged behind the boat. 

I can't pull the oars in by hand, I simply don't have the leverage.  I can only reach two feet down the nearly 11 foot oars.  I can't let them be, those lashings will only hold for so long.  I grab my parachute anchor retrieval line; it has a heavy metal clip.  I attempt a loop around an oar and let gravity and the flowing water send the clip down below the surface.  Luckily the loop tightens and catches far enough down that I gain enough leverage to yank the oar to safety.  I repeat and tie them all off well above the waterline, then return to the flooded cabin.  I can finish stowing the oars in calmer conditions.  I'll spare you the details of the ensuing indoor cleanup.  Suffice it to say, it took me about 2 hours.  The only casualties in the ordeal were two cracked spare oars and the skin on my right pinky.  I failed to put on gloves and left a hole in my finger somewhere in the midst of pulling oars to safety.  And I lost some potatoes.  Water flooded two compartments, one with food.  

Everything is dry and back to normal, though remnant currents from Tropical Cyclone Ann continue to help me along at excellent speeds.  She takes some and gives some.  I can't help but imagine if I were in a different, lighter rowboat, I would've tumbled over during that spell.  Emerson is remarkably stable, and for that, I'm grateful.  In also did a full food inventory and found I've been saving better than I thought.  I have about two months left without fishing, so I'm no longer concerned about food.  I actually increased my food consumption to better match my pace.  I'm now abeam Cairns, so I'm also feeling better about reaching my destination as planned.  As of now, I'd estimate the shores of Cairns will be in sight between 1 and 11 June.  Until then, I'll keep after it.  

Paddle On

Day 280

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Day 280

You may have noticed my progress take a turn towards erratic and unpredictable.  I've left the comfort of steady trade winds and found a low pressure area with adverse conditions.  I just didn't expect the adverse conditions to continue for this long.  My 9th month at sea was the 2nd worst in terms of mileage.  I barely made 300 miles of progress, as compared to my best month, covering over 1000 miles.  I didn't expect these conditions to persist, mainly because historical weather patterns indicate entirely different conditions.  Perhaps El Niño had some influence.  Unfortunately, it's not looking much better anytime soon.  Despite not getting any closer to my destination, I've managed to arc around to the south, creating better approach angles to Australia, which will help tremendously later.  

I don't particularly mind the delay, with one exception - food.  I left with a 10 month supply, water intrusion ruined a few weeks worth, I'm 9 months in, and I most likely have another 2-3 months remaining.  I knew this was coming, so I cut back my consumption months ago.  Even with the cut back, my body measurements are still looking great.  I recently implemented the next round of cut backs.  I can feel this one much more, but my energy levels are still sufficient.  I still have plenty of food, there's nothing to be alarmed about, but continuing to persist in a black hole of progress does create some level of anxiety.  And yes, I'm fishing.  Since my goal is unsupported, I won't be getting a resupply.  I'll either stop early, go the distance, or get forced onto a different shore by the whims of nature.  

Speaking of nature, it seems birds of the sea like hunting in higher wind environments, or at least something greater than 5-10 knots.  When the winds calm and the seas die down, the birds disappear.  Except for one. There's this all-brown bird with a two foot wingspan that flies solo and loves the calms.  The cruising altitude for this guy is probably 6-12 inches.  It's right there in ground effect, the cushion of air created between his wings and the surface of the ocean.  I've seen one actually bounce its belly right on the surface and continue flying.  Whether it was on purpose or not, I don't know, but it looked hilarious.  It makes sense to avoid the bigger waves when cruising that low.  Unfortunately, no Boobies to speak of recently.  

The bioluminescence has behaved rather predictably lately, with the exception of occasional deeper amorphous blobs of illumination.  Maybe it's the surface waves causing the amorphous appearance, since they illuminate around 10 feet under the surface.  Instead of rapid flashes, these blobs illuminate suddenly and brightly, and maintain consistent brightness for upwards of 10 seconds.  They are 5-6 feet across and look like a giant shimmering green light bulb.  Eventually, it all extinguishes at once.  When rowing, you can definitely tell when you're in a higher density bioluminescence area by the reaction to the oars.  It can get so dense that green swirls around the oars are just the beginning.  It's really intense when the oars are lifted from the water to reset and the water dripping from the oars are nothing but splashing green dots, Avatar style.  

I had another encounter with a Sunfish, those goofy looking, docile creatures.  They are the largest fish in world and apparently have more bones than any other fish.  They'll swim right up to you, probably looking for an assist on parasite removal before swimming back into the depths for a jellyfish hunt.  It'll be a slow motion hunt, but a hunt nonetheless.  I also had a few days with Right Whales, also known as Black Whales of the Baleen variety, according to my Sister's research assist.  One calm morning I turned on my water maker and the humming vibration must've attracted a curious one because a few minutes later, I heard a loud exhalation right outside the cabin.  It was calm enough that I immediately went to stand on top of the boat for a clear view.  I stood to find a 20 foot creature circling my boat within 10 yards. It surfaced to spout several times, which is when I noticed two blow holes and a V-shaped spout, which was the identification giveaway.  I went to grab my dive mask for a closeup view, but it was gone before I got the chance.  Additional whale sightings were further in the distance, but still quite impressive.  

The days are now getting shorter.  Sunlight maxed out at 12 hours and 10 minutes near equator with the sun directly overhead.  I'm guessing it was greater than 12 hours because the earth is a little wider than tall due to rotational forces.  As the Southern Hemisphere approaches winter, historical weather trends become less favorable for my planned completion.  The winds become more predominantly out of the southeast, which will make continued progress south more and more difficult.  Once I'm established in the Coral Sea with steady winds, I'll have a much better idea of when I'll land where.  Until then, I'll keep after it.

Paddle On

P.S.  As a reminder, you can have an immersive tracking experience using Google Earth thanks to David Burch at Starpath School of Navigation.  For instructions, see http://davidburchnavigation.blogspot.com/2019/01/Tracking-Jacob-Adoram.html 


Day 255

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Day 255

The silence is almost painful.  There can't be anything else like it.  Maybe there is, but I've never been fortunate enough to stumble upon such intense serenity.  The seas are calm, the night crystal clear.  The visibility is only impeded by the physical limitations of my eyes.  The seas aren't just calm, I'm standing on a silvery dark blue mirror reflecting the heavens above.  I haven't been fortunate enough to enjoy such profound stillness until now.  The wind is non-existent for the most part.  Occasionally, there's a gentle breeze barely able to brush a sound into existence, confirming my ears are still functional.  Otherwise, it's just the scene before me and the ringing in my ears.  It turns out I have mild tinnitus.  

The moon is waxing, nearly half full.  It's nestled above the head of Orion at the moment.  Looking at the constellation, I'm reminded of the three little stars directly below and almost perpendicular to the belt.  They are 1,500 light years away and are actually massive clouds within the Orion Nebula.  The three shining dots are a nursery for future stars.  The center of the three is a cloud of gas and dust 90 trillion miles across.  It houses infant stars with such intense energy that winds are created in excess of 5 million miles per hour.  The wind is so powerful that it stunts the growth of smaller stars, creating massive shock waves.  That's one "star" in the Orion constellation.  If I think too long about it, nothing makes sense.  We can thank the Hubble space telescope for those discoveries.

The moon is cradled by a small halo, half the diameter of the moon itself.  There's some moisture in the high altitude skies, but not much.  The half moon illuminates my surroundings with an intensity bright enough to see every ripple of the sea and every contour of the clouds.  I take 360 degree scans of the mirror I'm standing upon and see an occasional ripple the size of a speed bump roll in from the distance and continue past me into the dark, beyond the reach of my senses.  They rock my boat gently, creating occasional sound number two, the subtle displacement of water as my boat regains equilibrium.  Otherwise, there are no fish jumping, no surfacing whales, no bioluminescence, no disturbances, just the reflections from above. 

Looking east, there are 3 cumulus clouds in a formation like the top three winners-stand at the Olympics.  The center the tallest, the two outside stepping down in height.  The bases are all equal, hovering only 100 feet from the surface.  The altitude of cumulus clouds over the sea is still a novelty after all those years of land-based cumulus viewing.  They create distinct shadows, almost too dark too see what's lurking below.  I can't detect any cloud movement, cloud growth or dissipation, they are just resting there, beautiful, puffy, silver-white formations.  They too, are silent.  Even so, it feels like they are saying something.  

I stare at the 3 clouds until there's a dark flash.  I don't see anything until it's past me, maybe 10 feet to my left, slightly aft of my shoulder.  Then I hear it, just for a second, then it's gone.  It sounded like someone threw a wild pitch a bit too close to my head.  All I could make out is a dark colored left wing, not even a head or body, but some kind of night-qualified airborne predator definitely buzzed the tower.  If it was flying blind, it probably would've hit me directly in the chest before I saw or heard it.  Luckily that didn't happen, I'm guessing that would be unpleasant for both parties.  These sea birds can blend into the environment remarkably well.  Once I was 10 yards away from a dozen birds sitting on the water.  I didn't see them until they all took flight together, right in front of my face.  It was slightly startling. 

Other than low altitude cumulus clouds, there's nothing obstructing my view of the surroundings.  Looking in every direction, the shimmering mirror reaches to the horizon itself.  It's a distinct line, a mysterious demarcation reminding me of The Truman Show.  In reality, the line is where the earth curves away from the line-of-sight capabilities of my eyes, only 3 or 4 miles away.  Looking above, the moon obscures the brightness of stars, but not enough to block the clear path of our own Milky Way.  Between the occasional water displacement and gentle brush of air, I've never experienced anything quite so remarkably void of sound.  With no cultural lighting, no boats in the immediate vicinity, no land for hundreds of miles, and no aircraft above, I've never experienced anything quite so remarkably void of human influence.  It's really quite amazing.  

Paddle On