Shark Bay May 2009


Day 1
 - We got away from Dowerin around 10am after a couple of days making final checks and packing Sandpiper. The trip to Shark Bay was uneventful, although we made very slow progress around Wongan Hills and Northampton. I felt as though I was driving a manual rather than an automatic with the frequent gear changes and monitoring the tacho. Fuel consumption was also poor, with a moderate to fresh Nor-Easterly keeping us working hard at most times. We spent overnight in a camping area between Geraldton and Northampton.


Day 2 - We set out again the next morning and arrived in Denham around noon. Driving in across the 130km from Overlander, the occasional glimpses of the water in a moderate Easterly were very inviting. With fuelling up completed and a few last minute provisions stowed, we set off for the 25 km across Peron Peninsula to Monkey Mia. The breeze had swung to the South East and had dropped to moderate so the plan was to sail with it to spend the night at Cape Rose, some 5km North. Rigging Sandpiper was completed without a domestic or even having to lower the mast. It has been 2 years since last launch and it took a while to remember all the little tricks but in the end we were well pleased. Launching was a bit of a worry, with a three quarter tide and little slope on the ramp but in the end she floated off so well Christine tested the water temperature while gamely hanging on to the rope. I parked the car and trailer, giving the disc brakes and springs a liberal spray of lanolin before joining Christine.

Sailing Sandpiper off Dirk Hartog Island

The outboard started easily and we eased out from the ramp and down through the mooring area past the famous dolphin beach. Once past the channel sticks, I started to turn Sandpiper into the wind to hoist the sails. With horror, I noticed a complete lack of a tell tale stream from the outboard. I immediately shut down and lifted the cover. A suspiciously hot engine looked back at me accusingly. I played around a bit, pulling off a few hoses and checking for blockages but remained convinced that the water pump was cactus. I swore a few times, especially since I had checked the water pump flow before leaving home.

By this time, the South Easterly had blown us some distance out so we faced a sail back to the beachto assess our options. With the anchor down, we prepared to hoist sail into what was now a fresh breeze. I went below to lower the keel. More panic as the keel refused to budge. I had terrible visions of extensive corrosion freezing the keel in place and may have even expressed such pessimistic thoughts with vigour and crude words. We both worked furiously with screwdrivers to remove the many screws and bolts holding the table top and aluminium cover over the top of the keel housing. Finally, we gained access to the keel, put full weight on it and felt a gratifying slip as it took up the slack. After a few more pushes, it suddenly decided to move up and down freely, so we said a few thanks to Neptune and set about the job of sealing up the keel housing again.

Back in action, we raised sail and ran on 3 short tacks straight back into the shallows and anchored up for the night, refusing to deal with the problem of the motor until morning, after a game of scrabble and a few red wines had cleared our heads.

Day 3 - The wind swung back to the expected North East and freshened during the night, creating a bit of a roll but giving a mostly comfortable night. In the morning, I checked the spares and was delighted to find a spare impellor under the port bunk (many thanks to the previous owner Joe). I set about the job of removing the lower leg of the outboard, only to discover that the impellor was in pristine condition. I reassembled everything and restarted the engine. This time, it gave an old man's dribble from the tell tale. After removing the thermostat and spraying it liberally with CRC. All back together and the outboard produced a strong stream and all was pronounced fixed.

Quoin Bluff South - Dirk Hartog Island Shark Bay WA

By mid-morning, we sailed North towards Cape Rose, with only a mile or so under our belt, the wind died to a whisper and we motor sailed for a while before finally dropping the sails altogether. Unfortunately, the sea remained very lumpy from the evening breeze and being beam on, we rolled uncomfortably. Reaching a favourite (but secret) fishing spot, we found that a strong tidal flow kept us beam on to the remaining rolling chop. Sandpiper rolled like a stuck pig. We had trouble even hanging on at times so it was a quick fish to nail dinner then leave. Fortune smiled at us and second cast produced a beautiful 45cm black snapper so we up anchored and motored North to Guichenault Point. The sand spit here extends NE for miles but the tide was fairly ghigh so we raised the keel and eased over the flats into the deeper water tucked up behind the mangrove complex. This is one of our favourite anchorages. We are on the water, comfortable, have caught our own dinner and we can get radio to listen to the footy. It's a hard life.

Day 4 - In the morning, we did the usual personal chores and set off motor sailing North in a light Easterly breeze. Some 5nm North, we rejected stopping at a favourite (but secret) fishing spot because of the persistent rolling Easterly swell, no doubt caused by the strong winds earlier in the week.

Rounding Cape Peron produced the usual dramas in times of strong tides with considerable overflows and rips causing me to work the tiller hard at one stage. Once past the Cape and into the Western Gulf of Shark Bay, we dropped sails and began to explore the various shallow corals and reef systems down to Gregories. Dropping anchor for lunch, we enjoyed a wonderful snorkel on a small inshore reef system that was alive with large bluebone (blackspot tusk fish).

I had another swim on Gregories Reef and stopped to fish a few likely looking lumps that produced around a dozen hard pulling blue-lined emperor  and a few pink snapper (all released).  All this while listening to the West Coast Eagles beat Melbourne. Tough life!

We anchored up inside Castle Well Hill for the evening and were joined by a 10m Cat. Before darkness set in, we assembled the Porta-Bote and set it up in case we felt like going ashore.

Day 5 - The next morning we spent at leisure, running the generator for a bit to top up the batteries, cleaning and sorting our tiny home and marvelling in the fact that we were able to access the internet via NextG way up here. I assume I am picking up Carnarvon rather than Denham, because any move South lost the signal.

By mid-morning, we sailed Westwards to Broadhurst Reef for a bit of a fish and a snorkel. Unfortunately, when we got there, we found the water discoloured from the strong tidal flow at present and so we had to content ourselves with a bit of fishing. After catching a few snapper and one mackerel (all released) we started up the motor to head South into the moderate breeze. Once again, there was an absence of a tell-tale so I shut down and we elected to sail back to the Castle Well Hill anchorage to investigate. A slow 3 knot sail was very relaxing. We even stopped off at an old soak right on the point and wondered at the history of such a water supply sitting on the edge of a desert-parched coastline. Once back at anchor, I opened up the thermostat cover, found it to be OK and found everything to be fine. A bit of stiff fishing line reamed out the tell-tale and all was fine once again.

We spent another very relaxing afternoon at anchor in idyllic surrounds.

Day 6 - The Easterly has now built up to fresh, making a return to the Eastern Gulf uncomfortable. We discussed movement and pondered whether to head down to Big Lagoon. In the end, with fish stocks down, we decided to stay in the area one more day, exploring in detail the many beautiful patches of coral along the Gregories/Cattlewell coastline. We had a wonderful sail at 5.5 to 6.5 knots into the tide on a comfortable reach. We are pleased with our sail handling, getting much better at spending the day without using the motor (which seems to delight in not pumping water).

I caught 4 nice black snapper on a patch of coral near South Gregories and went for a snorkel over it, hoping to find a crayfish. Unfortunately, the crays in this part of Shark Bay seem to have been all eaten years ago. I was impressed by a couple of huge coral trout easing around under the boat but they didn't seem interested in taking a bait.

Sailing back to our night anchorage, we eased into Cattlewells to watch a local professional fisherman shoot a big net around what appeared to be a school of whiting. The skill that these guys display is awesome and their fishery is a World class model of sustainable self-management. They have restricted the number of units that can operate and are very careful not to overfish either the whiting or mullet that keep them going.

Within a half mile of our anchorage, the wind suddenly died totally, leaving us becalmed to wait for the sea-breeze. The motor was currently having one of its "I won't pump water" episodes. Knowing that the 'tween winds calm can last over an hour, I decided to see if the Porta-bote would tow the yacht. We had previously wondered if this would work. Away we went, with the little 3.5hp engine purring away. Once Christine pulled Sandpiper's keel up and manned the rudder, we move along at a steady 1.5kn. No sooner were we underway, than the sea breeze arrived. You can't win.

Day 7 - The Easterly has persisted and even strengthened. The weather report has a strong wind warning out for Barrow Island to NW Cape but I think they forgot about the Gascoyne Coast because they describe us as having fresh gusty winds. While standing outside in a raging blast, I listened to a Carnarvon radio station say the current winds were light Easterly. What rubbish. The Internet site www.seabreeze.com.au predicted another two days of very fresh Easterlies follow by 4 or 5 days of calm.

We decided to reef down and sail South to Big Lagoon. Christine set up the reef (we hadn't had to use it so far this trip) and we motored off the anchor to seek deeper water before hoisting the main. With the sail nearly up, there was a loud bang and the wire came snaking out from the top of the mast. The splice of the halyard onto the wire had parted. This is clearly our own fault because we had replaced but the wire and the halyard before leaving. So far, our effective preparation maintenance record is not great. The sail flapped madly in the wind and we struggled to control it down to the boom again. To our horror, we saw a huge tear where a batten had caught on the cabin edge. Not happy! 

Abandoning plans to sail South, we decided that a return to Monkey Mia was on the books to see what help we could find. With the strength of the wind, the Eastern Gulf would be very uncomfortable, but we decided to head North to sit under Cape Peron waiting for the wind to ease as predicted in the afternoon. Under a full jib along, we still sailed at 4.5kn North and anchored at Bottle Bay for lunch. There was a 39' keeler there and I went over for a chat. Two guys from Carnarvon had been at sea for 5 days and were just waiting for the winds to drop before heading back home. We were soon joined by an even larger yacht, appearing to come in close hauled from Dirk Hartog. Christine announced that the amount of heel they were suffering was unacceptable. She demands upright sailing.

The wind refused to ease. We stayed on at Bottle Bay, fishing, exploring the Internet and reading. A bit of research and a couple of phone calls determined that the sail would need to return to Perth. Hopefully, we could avoid the 1500km round trip by using express freight. We also face the prospect of feeding the wire back down the mast.

The night was a rolly one. The wind held us off shore but a Northerly swell had set in, rolling us beam on. It was a long night.

Day 8 - The wind had definitely eased yet remained moderate to gusting fresh. We had breakfast then up anchor to motor North and around Cape Peron. On reaching the Cape, the sight of the huge rolling breakers over the tidal overfalls turned us around. This was out of our league. We skulked back to tuck behind a small headland until 11:30 and tried again. The Cape was much better but still a fairly scary experience. A group of 4 wheel drivers watched us with interest as we worked our way around into the Eastern Gulf. The little Porta-bote struggled on gamely behind, climbing waves and surfing down others. Once out of the tidal race, the seas resumed normality and by staying in relatively shallow water, we had a comfortable motor sail South to Guichenault Point for the night anchorage.

In the afternoon, we took the Porta-bote and explored the mangrove lagoon on the point. The tide was one of the highest I have seen and we weaved our way through deep into the complex. The mangroves here are cleaner than the muddy slushy complexes further North. They tend to exist in clean white sand areas and produce some wonderful areas with clear water.

After the discomfort of the previous night, the calm of the anchorage was much appreciated.

Day 9 - We awoke to a moderate to fresh Easterly and lazed around waiting for the winds to further abate. By 10:30, we decided it was OK and raised the anchor, setting a jib to assist us on a motor sail North East following the Guichenault spit to a point where there was enough water to cross it. The seas inside Herald Bight were calm but across the flat I could see a line of what looked like breakers. Not Possible! I have seen some nasty chop on the edge of the spit before but never breakers. With the sounder showing 4.5 feet, we eased across the shallows, dragging the rudder but moving steadily towards home (Monkey Mia). As we approached the deeper water on the East side of the spit, the water looked worse. When the depth reached 10 to 12 foot, we were battling a really nasty rolling short chop, some breaking . Punching straight into the waves proved the best option, as some were big enough to roll us beam on. We pushed on. By 25 foot depth, the seas were horrendous.  We were motoring, quartering the waves and making steady progress towards Monkey Mia (18nm distant) but watching for rogue sets of breakers that needed steering straight into. By the time the depth reached 30 foot, we had managed to get some keel down and set a bit of jib. This reduced the corkscrewing motion to acceptable levels, although Christine still showed distinct signs of wanting to get off.

We motor-sailed South at a steady 4.5-5 knots in a gradually easing sea. By the time we reached Cape Rose, the sea was almost flat. Christine cranked up the Internet and spent and hour or so catching up on some business contacts and arranging orders for some clients while I gave the cockpit and surrounds a much needed cleanup.  We pulled in to Monkey Mia, sorted a few things through then went ashore to replenish a few supplies and gather a few things from the car. A drink at the "Monkey Bar" capped off a thoroughly enjoyable week of cruising. Back on board, we got a call from our friendly sailmaker, with whom we organised to get the main repaired. This would mean hanging around Monkey Mia for a week and cruising on motor and jib. It's a tough life but someone has to do it.

Days 10 to 12 - We drove into Denham to vote in the WA Referendum on daylight saving and to pick up a few more supplies. While in town we also enquired about sending the sail to Perth but found that nothing would get out on a courier or delivery service for 3 or 4 days. Luckily, this timeline coincided with a prediction of 4 almost windless days so our decision to hang around Monkey Mia was a good one.

For the next three days, we relaxed, motored around in glassy conditions and fished. On one occasion, we motored off to explore some new fishing grounds. Some 2 miles off-shore, I noticed that steam was issuing from the outboard once again. I immediately shut down and investigated. I managed to remove the  thermostat and immediately, the pressure came back on. Satisfied that the thermostat was the problem, we continued to motor but within minutes the tell-tale ceased again. Not willing to risk damage to the engine, and having absolutely no wind in sight, we again used the dinghy to tow, this time getting Sandpiper up to a respectable 3 knots.

Back on the beach, I removed the leg and inspected the water pump impeller (for the 3rd time) and it looked fine. Despite this, I replaced it with a new one. The effect was dramatic. The motor even pumped water as I was pull starting it. It no longer piddled water like a man with a prostate problem but emitted a strong reassuring stream. I should have done this days ago.

The motor remained good, until the gear lever cable decided to part (yes I did service this motor but I wouldn't recommend me). This means leaning over to the outboard and changing gears with a socket spanner. No main sail and half an engine. Time to pull out of the water and head North to Exmouth to await parts arriving.

Over the three days, we had some great fishing. We put in the net one night and got 2 mullet each over 50cm long. Another day, we fished the channels towards Faure Island and I caught two big cod only 5 minutes apart. We kept a couple of big black snapper for the trip North and let the cod go.

Retrieving the boat onto the trailer is always an issue for us. The most common problem is the boat rotating and not centering on the rollers. This time, we followed the theory that the boat must winch on and not be allowed to flat on at any stage. We retrieved it a third of the way, moved the car and trailer up the ramp a bit, then kept going. The winch worked harder but the result was good. We got it on the trailer in one go.

We drove back out to Overlander Roadhouse then North on Highway 1, stopping at Bush Bay for the night, in company with many caravans, Winnebagos and camper trailers. It is with considerable regret that we have left Shark Bay having only sailed a small part of the Eastern Gulf and the top end of Peron Peninsula. There is so much water to cover, that a full month would not do it justice. However, we came to Shark Bay knowing that it would be little more than a shake-down cruise and that we have sailed all there is to sail in Shark Bay on previous visits. From that perspective, the trip has been a great success. We certainly have identified lots of things that need attention, replacing or repairing. Time is also pressing, with work commitments further North beckoning, it is time to move on.