Exmouth August 2009

Day 1

We drove in to Exmouth in the early afternoon, having completed the trip from Derby in 4 days, which included a couple of days at 80 Mile Beach. We planned an overnighter in a caravan park but found them to be all full to the brim. Fortunately, the Shire was running an overflow camp ground at the recreation centre and we set up there and took advantage of the much needed warm showers. We stocked up on provisions, checked the email and ensured that money was still being paid into the bank (because we were certainly taking it out). A quick drive by a suggested storage unit for car and trailer storage proved positive and we settled on using it the next day.

Day 2

The weather was all that BoM had promised, with 5-10 knot SE winds. The preparation and launch went well and I drove the car back to the storage unit, a distance of around 3km. The owner, Ron, obligingly gave me a lift back to the marina and we eased out between the fleet of prawn trawlers and other fishing vessels. Once outside the marina walls, we were greeted by a lumpy sea and an outboard that suddenly changed revs and did not seem to respond to the throttle as it should, I motored slowly around to the lee side to investigate, concerned that my recent replacement of the throttle cable had left some setting out of whack. With the cover off, all appeared normal and the revs returned to normal, suggesting that we had picked up some weed and cavitation caused the revving problem.

With every scrap of sail hoisted, we set off to the East to make the 15nm crossing of Exmouth Gulf to Y Island. With sail only, we managed around 2.5 knots so we sailed with a bit of "mothers little helper" and enjoyed a steady 5.5 knots. Along the way, we were entertained with the humpbacks. One group was breaching continuously, while later, we came across another pod doing that strange lying on one side andwaving a flipper in the air. Later, we observed another pod doing tail slaps, creating explosive sounds that could be heard across many miles of water.

The chart indicated the presence of reef off the South-East of Y Island and this certainly proved to be the case. Despite giving it a wide berth, we soon came up against an area of shallow bombies and spectacular coral lumps of all colours and hues. We dropped anchor, donned the snorkelling gear and dropped over the side into the most amazing coral garden I have seen. It absolutely teemed with fish; coral trout, emperor, sweetlips, small cod and all manner of tiny reef fish. Under the big plates were tropical lobsters. What a shame we were still a few miles inside the Gascoyne Fishery area which has a seasonal closure on rock lobsters.

After a dive, we skirted around the reef and headed for the Eastern Shore line, marked by a sand beach and having the appearance of a good night anchorage when viewed on Google Earth. It did indeed afford good protection against the now steady North Westerly sea-breeze and promised  reasonable protection against the expected morning Southerly. Clean bottom was hard to find and we ended up anchoring carefully over coral lumps in a small sand clearing. A shore anchoring was ruled out by the presence of a long but strong surge up the beach. As the tide dropped to a sunset low, a wonderful reef walking opportunity opened up further down the beach. We resolved to stay around for a couple of nights, put the "porta-bote" together in the morning and go ashore to walk across the exposed reef.

We tucked into a wonderful feed of what would have been lobster if it hadn't been closed season before settling down for the night. The wind dropped to a glassy calm. The tide moved through strongly, holding us across the last of the remnant wind wave and low swell, making us roll. "This will ease soon," I announced. Alas, the action persisted so we eventually did one of those horrible night moves. We headed inshore to seek protection from the low wind swell, found a patch of clear ground and anchored up in much the same conditions that we had abandoned. It was a long sloppy night. We rolled slowly and persistently.

Day 3

The morning brought a 10-12 knot South Easterly breeze. The tide held us across the waves so we continued to roll. Despite the movement, we unpacked the porta-bote and assembled it across the cockpit, launching it over the side. With the motor installed, we set off to the beach for a walk and a snorkel over the shallow coral gardens. First stop was a wreck on the South Western corner of the island. It proved to be the remains of a trawler, no doubt the victim of a cyclone. A good topic for a bit of research.

Back to the point and we snorkelled over the huge expanse of staghorn corals and marvelled at the sheer variety of corals present. More lobster were seen under the plates, some too big to consider extracting. Christine swam around in circles with the digital camera in its underwater housing, snapping everything in sight. There were not as many fish as the previous day but for a snorkel straight off the beach it surpasses anything I have seen before. Once on board, we enjoyed another meal of what would have been lobster if they were in season.

After lunch, we sailed the 2 miles North to Eva Island, another small atoll with plenty of corals surrounding the sands. On the Eastern side, the coral forms a shallow ledge extending a hundred metres or so from the shore before plummeting straight into 7-8 metres. We trolled this drop-off and the giant trevally pounced on the lure. A large GT cost us one lure before I had fun with a smaller one. It grabbed the lure right next to the boat, beating its dozen or so mates to the lure. I quick photo and back into the water.

The shallow reef on the Northern side proved to be another wonder and we wasted no time in going over the side once again. I watched the emperor and small coral trout swim up to me with curiosity and marvelled at a huge school of fingermark hovering over an enormous brain coral. What a paradise. Once again, the lobster were in abundance.  

With the wind gone, we motored back to Y Island, choosing what looked like a much better anchorage on the Northern side. A good clean sand bottom was welcome although after the previous night we would have preferred a shallower anchorage and to dry out on the low. The wind dropped further and the sea turned to glass, always a good sign when anchoring up. A low wind swell persisted, and persisted, and persisted. We rolled, we rocked, it was a worse night than the previous one. I could not believe it when I got up at 2am for a toilet break and had to hold on to everything in sight as Sandpiper rolled like a pig. I checked the sea and it was oily glass but punctuated by the same wind swell. The tide conspired to hold us across the waves. This would be our last night at Y Island.

Day 4

We wasted no time in leaving, motor sailing under full canvas East towards Tent Island. The chart showed an interesting looking inlet at the Northern end of Tent Island which held some promise as a CALM anchorage and we were both desperately in need of a calm night. Along the way, we checked out Somerville Island, finding it to be similar to the others in the area. We ruled out a visit to Gnandaroo Island, expecting yet more of the same.

The Northern part of Tent Island hold many annoying shallows, and we picked our way into the targeted inlet. All charts I have seen have an area of unsurveyed water in this part of the world and the presence of brown water along the Eastern side of Exmouth Gulf reduces the effectiveness of Google Earth. Never-the-less, we eventually made our way into the un-named inlet to find it adequate for an overnight stay, with a lot of very clean sand, more shallows than deeps and a lovely open beach that advertised its charms with the presence of several camp fires. Unfortunately, it was not long before the sand flies also advertised their presence with a few "pings". It was back to the chart and the decision was made to sail South to check out Simpson Island, a long and narrow coastal island that appeared to offer protection. As we attempted to motor off, I suddenly lost gear control, the motor being stuck in reverse. A quick re-anchoring and an inspection showed that the linkage had become undone. Obviously, I had not done up the locking nut well enough when I had reconnected it following service of the water pump. A quick fix and it was back in business.

With a light Northerly blowing, we eased Southwards under a jib a little motor. As we rounded the South Western tip of Tent Island, we were puzzled by the presence of  two people standing on the end of a long jutting rock spit. Closer observation showed they were fishing, but there was no sign of a boat or vehicle anywhere. This is one of the most isolated parts of the WA coast outside of the Kimberley and how they came to be there is a complete mystery. They watched us sail past before walking back along the rock spit and disappearing inland. We remain puzzled.

We hooked and lost an un-named fish which jumped and looked more like a tailor than a mackerel. This would be a long way North for tailor but it is not impossible. We will never know.

After following the West coast of Burnside Island, we negotiated a series of shallow channels with numerous large coral bombies to find a night sanctuary on the Eastern side of Simpson Island. Here we enjoyed a truly calm and peaceful night. We dried out over clean sand and I had fun stirring up the numerous octopi I encountered in the small pools that remained. They seem to think that changing colour and squirting water is an effective defence but I left them to be in the end. Nearby the boat were a couple of huge live conch shells (giant trumpet shells) and the biggest live baler shell I have yet encountered. On shore, the charms of the place were once again indicated by a number of camp sites.

Day 5

As soon as the tide was deemed high enough, we picked our way South to negotiate the Southern end of Simpson Island to regain access to the Gulf. This proved easier than entering from the North and even though Christine needed to remain on the bow keeping a sharp lookout for corals, we had little trouble finding our way out. The chart showed a series of shoals that promised some fishing opportunities so we planned a trip via three shoals across the Gulf to the Bay of Rest, a trip of around 25nm.

The Raymarine ST1000 auto-tiller decided to misbehave at this point. In storing it the previous evening, I had retracted the arm all the way into its socket. It was refusing to emerge again, having jammed solid. It did do this once before but a bit of pressure eventually resolved the issue. Not this time, however, and I steered while Christine got stuck into it to free it. Once apart, the problem became apparent. A rubber gasket at the base of the piston ensures that it cannot retract too far. The gasket was breaking up and the jam was the result. We unscrewed the securing mounts and freed the jam before using some cable ties to act as stoppers at the base of the slide rods. With a 25nm mile trip on the motor in front of us, I was very grateful that the problem was solved.

The jib went out but played little part in our trip, the Gulf remaining glassed out for much of the time. Cody Shoal and Campbell Shoal proved a disappointment. The water shallowed on both but I could not locate any reef of significance. Larkin Shoal had a large area of coral and we joined two power boats drifting over the lumps. The fish were not cooperating, however, and we soon abandoned it to head to Schofield Shoal, a patch I had fished with success on a previous trip. A few whales entertained us along the way.

By the time we reached Schofield Shoal, the wind wad freshened from the North and it directly opposed the outgoing tide. The seas became very lumpy and after a couple of abortive attempts to anchor over some promising ground, we resolved to go on into the Bay of Rest and come out the 3nm tomorrow to fish. The trip in was all downwind under a full jib, the poor little porta-bote dancing along behind.

The Bay of Rest is well named and had provided some much needed respite during a run of heavy weather on a previous trip. We entered the calm waters and followed the channel down to a point where we could find clean sand in a depth that allowed us to dry in the night but would see us floating in the morning. A number of small boats cruised around the mangroves and sand flats in search of fish. With the tide dropping, huge areas of flats were exposed and some enormous expanses of low reef and rubble beckoned invitingly. I decided to try some of the ever-present octopus for bait the next day and set off with a bucket and hook. With three occies in the bucket, I came across a large depression around an oyster covered rock. There sat the largest mud crab I have ever seen, a veritable monster. I lifted him with the hook and tromped off back to the boat with my prize. Who needs lobster when you can have mud crab. He was so big, one claw each sufficed for dinner, with the body meat supplying lunch the next day.

Day 6

After a lazy start and another hopeful look for another mud crab, we motored down to the head of the channel and I snorkelled over the shallow corals. These are not as pretty as those on Y Island but still contain a healthy fish population. A number of large estuary cod were seen as well as a cheeky little coral trout. Despite the number of fish seen, line fishing with octopus bait proved to be a waste of time so we continued on the 3nm to Schofield Shoal. Here I caught a couple of nice blue spot emperor that would provide a lovely meal of fresh fish.

In the distance, a couple of pods of whales cavorted. A pair to the South moved steadily closer, passing us within 150m. At one point, I remarked that they were really quite small. Later, as one of them arched its whole body clear of the water and lifted the tail flukes high, I revised that statement. I never really get used to the sheer bulk that a whale presents. Imagine rowing up to such a beast in a small wooden boat and throwing a steel harpoon into its side. Our ancestors did some incredibly brave and stupid things.

As we fished, the overcast sky took on a far more sinister appearance to the west. The forecast had suggested rain well to the South, but light winds around North West Cape. The winds remained light and in the North but after lunch, the appearance of the oncoming weather started to be really alarming. With a rain squall over Rough Range clearly coming our way, we up anchored and motored at full throttle back towards the Bay of Rest. A full jib helped us achieve 6.5 knots into an outgoing tide. I grew hopeful that we would gain the sanctuary of the inlet before the weather reached us.

Two miles out, the wind went from the North to the West and strengthened to 25-30 knots. Things got awful very quickly. I am still staggered by just how quickly the waves rose from wavelets to close packed rolling horrors. Sandpiper is usually a very dry boat but I got wet in no time flat. The jib came in and we watched the distance to go crawl down on the GPS. Even when we did reach the entrance to the Bay of Rest channel, things did not improve. The waves continued for another half mile into the inlet. Suddenly, we were into calm and it was with much relief that we anchored in shallows, stripped off our soaked clothing and went below to warm up. Outside, the drizzle settled in.

Fifteen minutes later, I was suddenly aware that the wind had dropped. Emerging outside, I was amazed to find that the waters around us were glassing out. How can things change so quickly? How can the waters calm so rapidly. The answer must lie with the strength of the tidal flows in the Gulf, which have both the capacity to lump up a sea in a matter of minutes or to flatten it just as quickly. The rest of the afternoon saw a Westerly breeze come and go but the worst was over. Later, the weather people admitted that they got it wrong. I was just so pleased that we headed in when we did. We spent another wonderfully peaceful night in the calm shallows of Bay of Rest. At least all but 2 hours of it was peaceful. On the midnight high tide, an annoying swell rolled all the way down the inlet and gave us that hateful rolling motion.

Day 7

Our fuel was reaching a low point due to all the motoring over the last few days and more bad weather was threatening so we decided to head back to Exmouth and the safety of the land. At dawn we were high and dry so we used the couple of hours before floating time to disassemble the porta-bote and generally clean up Sandpiper. All went well and by the time we were ready, the water had arrived. It took only a bit of pulling and wading to reach the main channel and then motor sailed North to fish a couple of shoals along the way.

The fishing proved slow, as did the trip. The wind had turned to the North, giving us nothing and we ended up motoring into the tide without sail assistance. We managed a steady 5 knots. A stop for lunch and another fish gave the tide time to slow and turn. As the ebbing tide gained strength and the wind swung to North East, we were able to use some sail to help us, ease the motor down to a dull throb and make over 6 knots. By the time we reached the marina, we were holding a lovely 7 knots.

We had less than the usual drama coming alongside the jetty and securing the boat to allow me time to go off and retrieve the car. A power boat came along side at the same time and I begged a lift from the fisherman. In no time, I was back with the car and trailer. Even the retrieval on to the trailer went well. We often have two or three goes at it to get Sandpiper to sit straight but this time we used the topping lift to put pressure on the mast and overcome the tendency to rotate in the last third of loading and she ended up sitting perfectly straight on the trailer for the first time in 3 or 4 retrieves. We drove back to Exmouth and set up in the Overflow Caravan Park, all the regular parks still being full up. A warm shower, a meal down at the local Italian Restaurant and then blissful collapse.

We were both so pleased that we had managed to revisit "The Gulf". The Rivoli Islands will remain on our list of "must visit locations" and although we didn't end up making the trip up to Serreriur Island it is always good to leave something to bring us back to this part of the world. Ningaloo Reef and Coral bay gets so much publicity and attention. Exmouth Gulf is hardly heard of as a scenic wonder but we can vouch for it to stack up against any stretch of water we have cruised.