Voyage to Samarai

route.jpg (68K)
Index of slides.

Of course, we did it completely wrong. "Never sail on a schedule," all experienced cruisers are quick to advise, "wait for the weather." But we had a schedule: visas expiring and Endless Summer to export by 15 November and, ironically enough, the various cyclone seasons. Possibly "Never sail on a schedule" is a little bit like "save 10% of your income" a piece of advice that everyone gives and no one takes. At any rate, the last week in Townsville wore us all to a frazzle: getting the boat ready, provisioning, watching the weather, and keeping the kids busy.

So, it was a frazzled and not altogether ready crew that mustered in Saturday morning, 15 November, slipped the docklines and watched forlornly from the cockpit as Castle Hill grew smaller and smaller. Actually, Karin and I watched forlornly and the kids cavorted 'round the boat. We were looking at almost six months to the next real "civilization" where boats could be repaired and boat owners could order a to-go capuccino while estimating how bad the bill was going to be. Between Townsville and Guam, we would have to be pretty much self reliant. Some places might have more services than others but any sort of major repairs would be "a drama" as Ozzies are wont to say. But there is a first time for everyone and at a certain point, further preparation becomes an act of avoidance. Like math where I always trusted that I could re-derive anything I needed, I now had to trust that I would be able to handle whatever situations might arise.

The very first situation arose almost immediately when we noticed that the log (speedometer) was reading zero knots even though we were motoring along briskly. This had happened once before after a lengthy stay in a marina and I had fixed the problem by diving under the boat and scraping off the paddlewheel. However, with the marine stinger season at full chat, and the wind chop up, snorkling didn't seem like such brilliant plan. So to plan B: remove the log from its through hull and clean it off inside the boat. The log's through hull fitting is specially designed to facilitate this procedure. It has a rubber one-way flap which keeps the leakage of water to a minimum. Only problem was that I have two more or less identical through hull fittings, one for the log and one for the depth sounder. I say more or less because only the log fitting is designed for in-water removal. Eeny, meeny, miny, ... A geyser of water announces that I have guessed wrong. After gaping at the light blue ocean flowing into my boat for a couple of gallons, I shoved the sender back into the through hull and tried the other one. The one-way flaps worked like a charm and, after a little scraping, so did the log paddlewheel.

The second situation arose not ten minutes later when we switched on the auto pilot and got the dreaded "compass data missing or unreliable" error. Not again. I checked connections, switched instruments off and on to no avail. Despair. Cancel trip. Return to Townsville to fix the boat and sink into a quagmire of conflicting visa/GST burocracies. Before turning around I decide to check one last time. Something must have changed. The previous week, I had secured the compass wire with wire ties but that couldn't cause this error. Double check the connections anyway. Wait. In the cabinet with the compass are several bags of cereal - we throw the boxes away - with metal clips on them. Metal clips with magnets. I tossed the offending bags and clips on the settee and ran out to check the auto pilot. It ran flawlessly. Didn't turn it off for the next 3 days. And I felt as close to seasick as I've ever felt.

The weather forcast didn't look great, 20 - 25 kts out of the SE but on the charts it looked like the isobars had opened slightly and the ship's first wishful thinking technician figured as follows:

  1. In the morning, when we're in the shallow water inside the reef, the winds are usually light.
  2. Mid-day, the wind might start to kick up but we'd be snaking our way through Magnetic Passage and hence under the lee of the reefs through which we were snaking. Better not to think about the other reefs in our lee.
  3. Later in the day, we'd be outside the reef but clear of the malign influence of land (sea-breeze etc.) and in very deep water which doesn't react so violently to wind.
As it happened winds were lighter than forcast, never exceeding 16 knots which is exactly what the pilot charts suggest. After a couple of hours of waiting for the winds to come up, we shook out the first reef and loped along at a steady 8 knots. As we cleared the barrier reef, the soundings dropped away and the ocean turned the most magnificant shade of deep indigo blue. "Blue water" So that's what they mean.

For lunch, I made a very bland fritatta (potatos, eggs, tomatoes, 1 clove of garlic, mint) and everyone was able to keep it down, even Tristan who had earlier discovered a bag of cookies, wolfed half of them down and just as rapidly back up. In light of his earlier transgressions, I must give him full credit for the stylish manner in which the deed was accomplished.

Just before sundown we saw waves breaking on Myrmidon reef, one of the isolated reefs outside the Great Barrier Reef. And a mast. I radioed the "sailing craft just east of Myrmidon Reef," and we chatted for a bit. They were the Foundation One conducting scientific research on coral reproduction. So nice to hear a companionable voice in all that emptiness. As it happened that was the last ship we were to see for the entire passage.

Sunset, time for lights. Tristan flips the tricolor switch and the panel indicator lights for both tricolor and running lights come on. Hmmm.... Outside the running lights are on, but the tricolor isn't. The sound of one heart sinking. But almost immediately, I know what was wrong. Back in Townsville I'd installed a grounding cable on the mast. Since Endless Summer has no natural ground point sufficient to absorb a lightening strike, it is possible that lightening could come down the shrouds and then blow through the carbon fibre chainplates, effectively destroying the boat. To forstall this, I bolted a heavy aluminum cable to the base of the mast and then led it down through the deck to the anchor locker from whence it could be lowered into the water when needed. But it was that hole in the deck that was the cause of our current problem. I had nicked the mast electrical wiring with the drill. At the time, it hadn't looked serious but it was obviously worse than I thought.

This looked miserable. The anchor locker is up front, just aft of the netting. I'd be completely exposed to any seas that might come aboard and the space that I'd have to work in is cramped. Probably the wind would freshen. Whinge, whinge. I pulled on my foul weather gear, put a head lamp on, and stuffed a knife, crimper and crimps into my pockets. Trevor had thoughtfully installed work lighting in the anchor locker and it was with this light that I sliced open his beautiful shrink wrap and set to work repairing the damage. Thankfully, only one wire was cut clean through so it was just a matter of crimping the damaged wires back together one by one.

Actually it was sort of peacful there in the anchor locker. Anchors exude a sort of phlegmatic calm. They are heavy and confident that, in the end, they will get their way and cease this floating around nonsense. No waves came aboard and the wind remained moderate. I stripped wires, crimped, and then taped the whole lot back up. Back in the cabin, flipped the tricolor switch and everything worked.

Three Nights at Sea

And so began the first of three nights at sea. Each night, I'd take the first watch, 'til midnight or so then Karin would come on until 4am and I'd finish up the night. We got pretty good at cat-napping to the egg timer: check horizon, wind direction, possible squalls, and then to sleep for 15 minutes. Coming through the reefs we set the autopilot to follow a compass course. The wind was so stable from the ESE that we just left that way all the way to Brumer Island. We never had any squalls, but on the second night we did drive through a line of clouds with humidity so high that it was difficult to define where water ended and atmosphere began. Condensation beaded on every surface. It was actually cold at 4am and I broke out my wool beanie for the first time since the ill-fated trip from Bundaberg to Gladstone.

The only navigational challenge was staying clear of Flinder's Reef on the first night. Easy to avoid with the help of a GPS waypoint. It is hard to imagine using Magnetic Passage in the days prior to GPS. We had light overcast so you would have to rely on dead (cough!) reckoning alone to steer a reasonably accurate course (variable currents, blah, blah) for 18 hours. Gives one a whole new appreciation of the days of wooden ships and iron men. I've always maintained that it is far better to be lucky than skillful but what if both were required? Just the sort of nasty conjunction that Neptune might require. We recorded our position on the hour and plotted it on the chart every four hours. Everyone looked forward to a new plot and the kids always took the dividers and stepped off the remaining distance in terms of the speed with which we had just completed the last 4 hours. And Karin or I would always remind them that their computation was only valid if the wind continued to blow in the same way. And they would always roll their eyes as if that was the stupidest consideration one could make.

While we had often seen flying fish along the coast, we now routinely startled huge schools (flocks?) of them, several different varieties to boot. They fly to avoid predators (mahi mahi among others). Frequently, they shoot out of the water, glide for a bit, then dip their tails back in the water for another boost. The ones that land on deck overnight are supposed to make a tasty breakfast when fried but the only ones that came aboard Endless Summer were sardine size and quite dried up and unappetizing by the time we found them.

Perhaps it is making a virtue out of necessity, but one of the nice things about passage making is a large expanse of time in which to stare out at the ocean think. Not just fidgety little thoughts like what might be wrong with the starboard sump pump but any sort of expansive thought project you care to dream up.

Generally, we tried to cook one large meal about mid day. For the rest, eating was an ad hoc affair. I did manage to make pop overs one morning and they actually turned out OK in spite of all the bouncing around.

The winds grew steadily milder as the trip went on. On the third day it was mostly under 10 knots, we rigged the screecher for the day and had a nice stretch of 9 - 11 knot averages. As the wind changed direction very little, we had been using the autopilot's compass mode. However, with the screecher up we switched back to wind-vane mode because even slight gusts or changes in wind direction produced alarming bursts of speed. As the swell was quite small, we tended not to surf as we had earlier between Hook Island and Cape Upstart and with the windvane pilot steering I felt more comfortable that the autopilot would eventually do the right thing when the wind changed direction.

Essentially, we had a three-day beam reach direct from start to destination. After clearing Flinder's Reef we set Otto to follow a direct course to Brummer Island and rarely touched it thereafter.

That day under screecher was exactly what we needed because Nicoline sighted Brummer Island around 9 the next morning. Without the screecher run we would have had to run into Samarai in the dark. As it was, we had a pleasant sail along the shore of the PNG mainland, marvelling at the lush tropical landscape. Brummer Island marks a major gap in what is known as "The Sunken Barrier Reef" which fringes much of the eastern PNG coast. As it is sunken, one could probably sail right over it and save a few miles but in light of numerous "inadequately surveyed" warnings on the chart, we decided not to tempt fate by sailing a more direct route.

The coast was dotted with small villages and we sighted many outrigger canoes As I later learned, the canoes are still carved out of a single log, preferably rosewood. They're about half a metre deep and extremely narrow; barely wide enough for the occupant's knees. The paddler sits on a small block of wood placed across the gunwales. Adjustable seating, thus. The outrigger really is just a log and it is lashed with heavy monofilament (or anything handy) to "beams" which are really just sticks. Yet one finds the natives miles out to sea in these contraptions. They know the local (tidal) currents and make use of them to fish offshore banks with a minimum of paddling or sailing. I never found any tide tables for sale and the tides were quite irregular.

As we entered the China Straight we met 4 new fishing trawlers coming out. We had heard them on the radio talking to Samarai and it sounded as though they were fishing because they kept asking about other traffic in the Straight. Not wanting to get tangled up in their fishing gear, I called them to ask what they had in the water. As it turned out, they were not fishing, just delivering new fishing trawlers from China down to Australia. We agreed to pass port side to port side and I teased them about sending 4 new boats down to Australia when all the fishermen down there were going broke.

We anchored off the decaying warfs which front Samarai at about 1 in the afternoon having sailed some 580 nautical miles in just a touch over three days. As we had radioed ahead, Felix, the customs officer was waiting for us on the town warf along with about half of the local population. As soon as we were done anchoring, I rowed in to pick him up and we completed the check-in formalities under the bimini. Felix laboriously filled in the forms and stamped our passports with his official stamp. Not counting the 6-pack of beer that we gave away afterwards, the only fee was 50 Kiner (about $15) for quarentine.

Samarai is a tiny island, about a tenth of a mile square. In colonial times, when Papua was a part of Australia, basically another state like Queensland, Samarai was the capital of what is today the Province of Milne Bay. As it controls traffic through the China Straight, the most direct north-south passage east of the New Guinea mainland it, it is a natural site for the manifestation of great power colonial ambition. However, shortly after Papuan independence, the provincial government was moved to Alotau on the mainland and Samarai started to decline. Today, the original waterfront is more or less in ruins. Most of the local boat traffic uses a new small boat jetty.

For 5 Kiner a minute I was able to use the internet hookup of the Samarai Trading Company, the town's only store, to send word that we had arrived safely. Even if one accepts listless betel nut chewers in place of goateed hipsters it isn't really an "internet cafe." You just get to use the boss' computer for a bit. For about the same price we purchased a phone card and used the public phone to for a very brief conversation with Karin's parents.

The next day we explored the town a bit. At the south end of the main street, there is a market "on most days." There was a nice selection of local fish and produce on sale, but as we were still well stocked, we confined our purchases to a a couple drinking cocoa nuts and a basket of cherry tomatos. Huge mango trees shaded the overgrown streets. Kids in need of a snack would grab a stick and throw it at one of the hanging bunches of mangos until one of the fruits fell. We hiked to the top of the island, marked, for some inscrutable colonial reason, with a large hexagonal cement plug.

Near the top where were were casting around for the trail we met a man who was, as all sensible people do at mid day, sitting in the shade under his house. He put us on the right track and told us to come back and visit. When we did return, we discovered that he had cut not one but four drinking nuts from one of his palms. With a practised flourish of the machette he opened them for us. Cocoa nut milk is amazingly cool. Or perhaps, we were just very hot. We chatted a bit with our host and found out that this house - on the top of the hill - used to belong to the colonial governor.

A Slight Change of Plans

After going through formalities at Samarai, Karin and I had a long talk about our trip. Basically, it wasn't working for either of us. I was stressed with the pace of travel and the demands of skippering and boat maintenance. Karin was also suffering from the pace and carried the added stress of being less in control of the boat than I was. And, she was seasick, not horribly, but always a little nauseous. Uncomfortable.

Instead of enjoying our time in port we seemed to spend it doing things we "had to do" to make the next leg of the trip a success. To top it off, the boat was showing no signs of being over its teething troubles. One of the autopilot displays refused to work in apparent wind mode, we found a leak in the starboard head through hull that will require a haul out to repair, and then there was the half-cup of hydraulic fluid that leaked out through the light fixture underneath the port-side helm.

A lot of my stress had been in trying to get the boat ready enough for the 4000-mile trip to Guam, the next place with "reasonable" repair facilities and access to US mail order spare parts. And here we were just a few hundred miles into the journey with a couple of potentially serious problems and who knows how many more on the way.

The Captain's Report

The Captain is again pleased to report that a difficult passage was accomplished without even a single fatality although there was an altercation amongst the fo'c'sle hands involving a chess game and the exact instant that a move could or could not be retracted.

Morale is a little low. Floggings will continue until morale improves. Either that or a double portion of grog, the captain will decide presently.

Yachtie Details

Weather Strategy

The basic strategy for the Townsville - Samarai leg is to wait for a high to move off the east coast of Australia towards New Zealand. As soon as the SE winds from the associated ridge start to drop off, one can be reasonably confident in having moderate easterlies for the duration of the trip. It worked for us.

PNG Guides

We used the following resources during the trip:

Dim Dims and Dolphins, Trevor & Elizabeth Kerr
We found this little spiral bound guide at the Navigation Store in Townsville. In New Guinea we heard that the authors now live in Townsville so perhaps we'll look them up when we get back to Australia. It provides fantastic mud maps for a large number of anchorages in the Louisiades and along the PNG mainland. Don't leave without it.

Cruising Guide to Southeast Asia Volume II, Stephen Davies & Elaine Morgan
While very expensive, this guide provides the best detail of major harbours throughout PNG.

Landfalls of Paradise, Earl Hinz
Earl is a bit hard on PNG, Port Moresby in particular but does go into reasonable detail on the main harbours. I wouldn't buy this book just for PNG, however.

Photocopied notes available from Australian Customs, Townsville
They gave us a bundle of notes collated by other cruisers when we checked out. Nothing earth shattering but some nice tidbits of information.


Anchorage off Samarai is quite comfortable in SE winds but would probably be unpleasant in any other weather. In addition to basic supplies, telephone and internet connectivity are available from the general store. Local produce and fish is available at the market which takes place most days.

Basic victuals can be purchased at the town's only store. Diesel and petrol are available on the warf.