Dampier June 2009

Pre-launch - Wespent a day in Dampier, picking up the much needed main sail from the Post Office. The efficiency and cost factor of using Australia Post over Toll Transport was a real eye-opener. I will always trust Australia Post from now on if I really want something in a hurry. It was so good to finally have our main means of propulsion back with us and the repair job was excellent. The day was grey and gloomy, with a decent rain shower wetting everything in Karratha. We compared notes with another couple from Perth who were towing a power-boat around behind a truck witch a caravan on top. Needless to say, their rig attracted attention. They were keen on catching some fish so we all rejoiced in the weather report, forecasting variable winds to 10 knots for the next 4 days.

Day 1 - The next morning, we de-camped and headed for the Dampier public ramp. We had previously debated whether to use the public facility or contact the Hampton Harbour Boating Club and organise visitor membership. On our last visit with Cape Rose, we had launched at the boat club and left our vehicle on the premises. After the manager of the Dampier Transit Caravan Park had agreed to let us park our vehicle down the back, we opted for the public facility, a short 1km walk from the caravan park.  Launching was completed with a minimum of fuss, although we both expressed concern at the steadily increasing Easterly wind, which was definitely gusting at more than the promised 10 knots.

By the time we motored off, the wind was 15/20 knots and we decided to set off with a reef in our newly restored main. The sail handling skills that we were so proud of back in Shark Bay abandoned us and we took an age to get the main up with a reef set correctly. Even so, we were not happy and decided to reorganise some hardware on our first stop. We ran before a steady 20 knot breeze along Mermaid Strait (after the ship Darwin was in when he visited the area) then along the bottom of East Lewis Island. The sea was comfortable enough but the sky was a dull grey in colour and the sun had gone missing. The temperature was not in keeping with the latitude either and so we tended to complain a bit. Much of the early part of the sail was spent watching the movements of tug boats and workboats. With their flat bows, these beasts can produce a really nasty bow wave and wake. On our last visit, we experienced the wake from a large tug breaking over the bow of our RL24 and it was an experience we were not wanting to repeat. The size of the iron ore and salt carriers up this way is awesome. The rules may say that sail power has right of way but the last person to test that is now an artificial reef. We stopped for a while to have lunch over a likely looking patch of reef but it yielded only small bluebone and a small chinaman cod.

The intention was to sail North between West Lewis and Enderby Islands to anchor at Malus Island. Once into the strait, a strong tide opposed to a 20 knot NE breeze produced a nasty short steep chop, so we decided to explore Enderby Island and find a suitable anchorage. The problem here is the tidal range, which often means anchoring in an area likely to bottom out at low tide. Finding clean sand bottom is difficult so it was with great pleasure that we identified a suitable spot. Tidal calculations suggested about 2 hours of dry around sundown but floating in 4-5 foot at sun up with a rising tide. We marked the spot, having made a visual inspection for clean sand then motored back out to a reefy spot in 30 foot to try for some dinner. Alas, the fish did not cooperate and we had to content ourselves with defrosting some snapper from Shark Bay. Cooked up with some rice, asparagus and satay sauce it went down a treat. Our tide calculations proved correct, and by sun down we were high and dry on a sandy bottom.

Day 2 - The night did not live up to expectations. The wind freshened around midnight and went to the SE, exposing us to a chop in the high tide. By morning, the wind had climbed to 15 knots and the only thing keeping us from real discomfort was the low tide. We were just floating and had to wait an hour an a half for enough water to motor out. By this time, the wind was 20 knots and we motored straight into it in an annoying drizzle. It was COLD. We crossed the 2 miles to West Lewis Island and find a place to anchor up in the lee. The passage proved to be remarkably comfortable, probably because the tidal current was running at 1.5 knots in the same direction as the wind and it flattened the seas somewhat. We settled into a beautiful little bay approximately half way along the Western Shore of West Lewis Island. We later learnt that it colloquially named Karratha Bay. It had a good depth of water close in although the number of coral lumps were a bit of a worry. We planned to explore in the dinghy to find some cleaner water for when the tide dropped.

Once anchored, I prepared a small line for a spot of fishing while Christine prepared lunch. First cast produced a small spanish flag and as I brought it up, it was savagely attacked by half a dozen plump squid. Christine hastily found a squid jig and we caught 4 squid in a couple of minutes, taking care to avoid ink as they came aboard. It was great fun and the prospect of lashings of "salt and pepper squid" spurred us on.

We went ashore to clean the squid using clean beach sand. There are two very well appointed beach shacks here, both showing signs of much love and attention. The bay also contains 5 or 6 moorings, which seem to be in good repair. The shoreline was a teaming mass of hardyheads, corralled up by a few predators. I tried flicking lures through the mass but nothing would oblige and I lost interest after seeing one of the attacking fish was only a longtom.

In the afternoon, I took the dinghy and worked my way around the bay, eventually finding some good looking bombies in 15 foot. These produced a miniature fishing wonderland, with every cast producing something different; mangrove jack, coral trout, blue spot emperor, spanish flag, fingermark, tomato cod and chinaman cod. Great fun but nothing big enough to keep. Eventually, the line really took off and I landed a beautiful 54cm spangled emperor, more than enough to feed us for a couple of days.

Towards evening, the tide started getting seriously low and our calculations showed that we would dry out. We moved in on one of the moorings. Normally, I won't use an unknown mooring but the shallow water allowed us to see that the rope was in perfect condition, the chain was made of 20cm links and the whole lot was attached to a locomotive wheel. The surrounds were clean sand so we sat outside for the evening, watching the sun set and seeing the flats appear around us. As the water retreated, the hardyheads came under intense pressure from the birds and we marvelled at the skill of a white-breasted sea eagle as it dined at will. The seagulls simply sat and waited for a black-capped tern to do the hard work then chase and harass the tern until he dropped his catch. By nightfall, we were sitting far from the water but happy and content, knowing that the morning low was much higher and should see us floating when we woke up. The squid was excellent.

Dampier Archipelago June 2009

Day 3 - The night was an improvement on the previous one but still not without a bit of rocking. The morning brought light Easterlies and after a quick breakfast we prepared to hoist the main and sail to Rosemary Island, some 4 nm away. Alas, the main would not go up and an inspection revealed that the new rope to wire join on the halyard had come through the top pulley and was now outside the mast. This was because I had led the wire right to the end of the boom while at anchor to prevent that annoying clang on the mast during the night. It comes out of the mast easily enough but nothing would induce the join to slip back though the narrow opening and into the mast itself. Muttering a few oaths, we went through the process of lowering the mast, along with removing the boom and a lot of rigging to allow us to slide the mast forward enough to get to the end. Once done, the join slipped into the mast with a bit of persuasion and the mast went up again.

After this hour's delay, we set off again, sailing and motor-sailing across to Rosemary. At one point, we came across the Georgeff Reefs in a freshening breeze and we chickened out of finding our way through the coral, tacking well out to sea again to get around them and entering Norbill Bay. I am amazed at how much of the waters up here are still uncharted given the population and the amount of shipping. Norbill Bay is the best anchorage we have seen so far, with protection from three quarters, a reasonable depth close in and a good clean bottom for drying out. It contains the usual well-appointed shack. Over lunch, we debated whether to stay in this idyllic spot or push on to a planned overnight at Malas Island. In the end, we opted to explore the Georgeff Reefs seeing as the wind was dropping and decide from there which way to go.

We cruised around carefully amongst the rocks and bombies of the reef, hoping for some clean water with corals for snorkelling. Eventually, we anchored in 15 foot on the edge of an extensive shallow area and I had my obligatory fish. This place was alive with fingermark. They hit baits on the surface and below, giving a good account of themselves. I caught over a dozen up to 38cm and kept a small one for Christine, knowing she loves fish off the bone. A quick swim proved to be a disappointment however, with a lot of rock evident but very little in the way of coral.

With the wind an easy 10 knots in the NE, we sailed the 3nm over to the Western End of Malus Island, anchoring up in an area that Google Earth suggested was a reasonably clean bottom. I went off in the dinghy to troll around the edges and tide rips on a nearby point. I had some fun with a couple of barracuda around 70cm long that fought hard on light gear.

As the tide dropped, the nature of the bottom became clearer and numerous small staghorn corals and little rocks made us nervous about bottoming out. Tidal calculations suggested we would make it but as night fell and the 8:30 low approached we decided it was going to be too close to call. We upped anchor and motored out, eventually finding flat bottom in 13 foot. This exposed us to a little more chop as the breeze cranked up during the night but it was still a better than average spot. In the channel beyond us, three large ships lay at anchor with all deck lights ablaze throughout the night. We could pick out the glow of other vessels over the low hills of adjacent islands and it made us wonder just how much of the World's energy is being consumed by idle and empty ships at anchor.

Day 4 - We awoke in choppy conditions, caused by our decision to seek deeper water offshore. Things improved a little as the wind swung to a true Easterly and we worked through morning chores before electing to motor around to the East side of Malus Island to try fishing some very heavy reefy bottom we had passed over the previous day. We had a scare when trying to raise the anchor. It swung free at first but then firmly wedged up against a coral and jammed hard. Facing my third dive to retrieve it, I told Christine to wrap the chain on the bollard and stand back. With a bit of "woof" from the engine, the coral lost the fight. I felt a bit of regret about the coral and took solace in the fact that I usually go for a dive.

Once on the reef, the bottom image on the sounder was so rough I baulked at anchoring and tried drifting. The wind gusting to nearly 20 knots and we scooted along at 1.5 knots. Drift fishing was out of the question. We watched some others pull in some big squid from shallower waters but we still have several meals from before so we motor sailed close hauled along the Southern coast of Malus Island, through to a peaceful anchorage at the Eastern end of Whaler's Bay for lunch. Whaler's Bay contains the biggest concentration of beach shacks we have seen, at least a dozen. Many had boats moored nearby, not surprising since it the start of a long weekend in WA. As we had lunch, several more power boats arrived in the area and headed for the line of shacks.

After lunch, we decided that the wind was easing and moving to the NE so we could attempt to cross the main shipping channel to the Southern end of Angel Island to seek an anchorage for the night in Sea Ripple Passage. We nosed around the point and were met with a large short chop which was most uncomfortable. I tried a long tack to the South East, aiming for Withnell Bay and allowing for a tack back to the North East to keep the waves on the quarter. We sailed on this way for half an hour but tide and the heavy seas conspired to  produce a nett gain of only 1.5nm from our anchorage. Christine gladly agreed to abandon the channel crossing and we took shelter behind Mawby Island, using an existing mooring to rest over some heavy reef in 25 foot of water. I fished for a while, catching the usual assortment of reef fish. Eventually, we did our sums and decided that time was running out to do the 8nm across the channel and elected to sail around the Northern side of Malus and back across to Rosemary Island to anchor in Norbill Bay for the night. Running before the wind and tide was a delight, and we soon covered the 5nm.

Two power boats came from around Lady Nora Island and preceded us into Norbill Bay, anchoring close to shore. A couple of families spilled out across the beach, obviously having a wonderful time. By the time we were anchored and cleared away, a young guy swam over to us and introduced himself as Steele, an electrician from Karratha. We later swam ashore and chatted with both families. They were planning to all (nine of them) sleep on board their 6.25m boats. I felt that this was a brave decision but the family bonding was to be applauded. A third boat appeared and four young bucks were soon carving up the tranquil waters of the bay with a ski-boarding display. They had a bay several kilometres in length but, of course, chose to ski around the other anchored boats. I left them to it and went off in the dinghy to troll on the point. This exercise produced a wolf herring, poor food but great bait. By the time I returned, the skiers had retired to the beach for other liquid pursuits, abandoning their boat on the beach. I noted with some satisfaction that it was just on high tide.

 Day 5 - The wind shifted to the SE during the night, the only quarter that Norbill Bay is exposed to. The two families had departed in the early hours, either to take advantage of the calmer winds before dawn or because the lack of sleep got too much. The skiers were huddled in a group on the beach, looking at their boat lying on its side on the sands, some 15 metres from the water. We had breakfast in comfort.

The morning was spent watching the skiers make numerous attempts to manhandle their boat to the water. They paced up and down, made macho noises as they heaved and pushed and made tiny bits of progress. By 11:00, the wind had dropped a little and we prepared to motor around Rosemary to Tich Point for some snorkelling. As we left, the group finally got the boat to the water. I cannot understand how someone can own a boat in an area that has 4m tides and not be vigilant about planning for them. Still, this may have been a big learning experience for them. Tish Point presented a sheltered spot with clear water and what looked like a promising reef. Unfortunately, the reef was all rock and no coral, but there was at least an interesting amount of fish life so we enjoyed a snorkel.

From there, we sailed South to West Lewis Island and Karratha Bay, the scene of an earlier anchorage. The long weekend had brought the locals out in force and a half a dozen boats were moored along the beach. Picnics and beach cricket were in full swing. We tried for some squid but only had one come around and he did not display sufficient interest in the jig. We motor sailed with a jib to the SW corner of West Lewis then along the Southern shore to a lovely little bay just North of King Point on East Lewis Island. This had a good depth of water close in and a perfectly clean sand bottom, although with the neap tides now on this was unlikely.

Day 6 - We woke to calm conditions (a first in Dampier). Unfortunately, there was a wall of black to the West, telling us it was time to leave. After breakfast, we pulled the porta-bote aboard and disassembled it. The seats and transom all pack away down below, in the starboard quarter berth, while the boat itself is lashed against the cabin on the starboard side.

By the time we left the anchorage, the wind was about 10 knots from the East, which meant we motored straight into it for 4nm back to Hampton Harbour. Despite steering straight into the chop, the trip was pleasant enough, with the tide flattening the seas. We arrived at the launching ramp to find it relatively quiet, a good thing because we would be forced to tie up to one of the four finger jetties while I walked a kilometre back to the caravan park to get the car. Coming along side was accomplished without some of the "words" which have been known to accompany such actions and I was soon back with the car and trailer.

Sandpiper can be a beast to get on to the trailer at times and this was one of those times. It would come up so far then the stern would be drift away from the jetty and the hull would start to lie over on the starboard side. I have loaded the port side to counter such things as the outboard and porta-bote on the starboard side. I have experimented with different trailer depths. It just has a mind of its own. By the time we were into our third attempt, the number of boats waiting to retrieve had grown considerably, no doubt due to the looming wall of darkness rapidly descending on us. At last she sat on the trailer, off centre, but still with the keel supported by rollers and we took that as best we could do. We drove up to the car park to de-rig and the heavens opened.

The rain was warm and the wind had dropped, so we just worked anyway, relishing the fresh water shower and laying out all the lines for a much needed fresh water rinse. By the time we were ready to leave, Sandpiper looked cleaner than she had for days. We drove up to the Dampier Caravan park. They didn't have a spot for us, but we grabbed a hot shower, unhitched the boat out the front, and drove into Karratha to stock up on things before heading off. By night time, we were in a lovely little overnight parking stop on the banks of the Sherlock River.

We leave the Dampier Archipelago pleased with our trip but with a sense of disappointment. I had visions of unspoilt beaches with clear waters over beautiful corals. It is not like that. There is a lot of rock, a lot more rock than coral in most places. Fast tidal runs and the proximity of mud flats reduces water clarity in many places. The incessant Easterly winds reduce the time available for calm exploration of shallow waters, especially in a sailing craft that does not manoeuvre well in tight places. The large tidal range means that good anchorages for small craft are governed by the availability of a clean bottom.  Circumstances prevented us from getting over to the Burrup Peninsula, Flying Foam Passage and Sea Ripple Passage so we are left with something to explore. Never-the-less, our trip was most enjoyable. SOme of the scenery is truly spectacular and there are some delightful places to stay. We ate as much fish as we wanted and released many more along the way so I can't complain about the fishing. Perhaps a little more research into the ideal time of year to visit is warranted. Will we be back? I'm sure we will.