Judith Thomson describes the last leg of a two-and-a-half-year voyage.
Across through Shark Bay, we were chased by a squall until we dropped anchor in the lee of intense red Pindan sandhills.
The cliffs jutted above narrow creamy beaches and reefy green seas – beautiful, but windy again. I was anchor-watching when Aurora dragged her anchor at 0430, with 80nm of windward slog to our next anchorage.
Don and I arrived at Blind Strait late in the afternoon. It was well-named. The rough water made the channel invisible and the lateral marks shown on the chart didn't indicate the edge of the channel – they were almost haphazardly plonked on the reef that bellied out between the marks, so it was a really unpleasant surprise to bump a couple of times. After sundown, we reached the misnamed Shelter Bay and spent the next 11 days in winds above 30 knots.
The rigging howled like a World War II air-raid siren, pitching higher as the wind increased. The mast shook in the heavy gusts – Aurora lay over and trembled, trying to please the current and the wind.
On day seven, after maintaining a continuous anchor watch, we were exhausted. Then our luck changed again as it had so often on this voyage. The charter motor-cruiser Odyssey anchored nearby. After a quick radio chat about the forecasts, Nic offered us a hot shower.
“We'd love it, but we daren't put the dinghy in the water – the wind is so strong I think it will blow off to the island,” I replied.
“Wait – we'll pick you up in ours.” They zoomed across in their big, powerful dinghy for hot showers, fresh water, extra diesel, trips ashore and new company. Finally we both made the run for Geraldton – Odyssey did it in less than half Aurora's time but used a lot more fuel.
We had been warned about the Zuytdorp Cliffs:stay well out to sea because the big swells hit the cliffs and rebound. You get a very confused sea there. After the long blow, we expected a rough sea, but by midday it had moderated enough to make some good progress.
This stretch would take more than 40 hours, so we set up our watches for the night ahead.
It was cloudy, rain-veils greying the horizon, the edge of another front colliding with the coast 500 miles farther south.
In the Kimberleys, the sunsets had been transient spectaculars, brief fiery dramas rioting on the cliffs. Now 14° farther south, the sun foundered more leisurely with an orchestra of colours, purples, magenta, rose and scarlets highlighted with a pale gold fan. A fat altocumulus, luminous after shedding its rain, reflected the light to the water . . . we were sailing in a crimson sea.
“At last,” I told Don gleefully, “the coast from here to Geraldton slopes off to the south-east. Surely the wind should move around to the southwest and we might actually get some good sailing!”
“We'll need it,” Don frowned. “I'm worried about the amount of fuel we've got in the tank – we'll have to empty that jerrycan that Nic gave us into the tank or we could run out of fuel coming into Geraldton. It would be hopeless trying to bleed the engine if it gets rough again.”
We needed the engine to charge the batteries after the heavy power draw overnight with lights, radar, radio and autopilot working. Aurora was heeling to port, with the seas pouring along her deck over the fuel filler bung.
“The only way we'll get the deck dry enough to fill the tank without getting salt water in the diesel is to hove to,” I said.
Don agreed. We still had lumpy waves, but Aurora came up and jogged quietly northwards. He was very weary and seasick, so I pulled the jerrycan out of the locker and heaved it across to him.
He leant out of the cockpit to dry the deck, removed the cap on the can and inserted the pourer. As he turned his back for an instant to remove the bung, a wave shunted us sideways, the can flew off the seat and sprayed diesel all over the cockpit. I jumped up to grab it off the floor, skidded in the stinking mess and crashed down hard. It hurt. I clenched my teeth, furious, frustrated and overtired.
Less than a litre of diesel had spilt, but it took more than an hour to clean it up, trying desperately not to spread it further on our shoes and hands. Finally we poured the rest into the tank. Don eased into the seat beside me and put a well-oiled arm around my shoulders.
“That wasn't meant to happen,” he murmured.
“I'm very sorry . . . such a mess. Are you okay?”
By midnight the loom of Geraldton lay to the south-east. It was rough again, a gale drenching Aurora with flying spray, navigation into the harbour complicated by massive black waves blotting out the mooring lights on bulk carriers outside.
When you get inside the harbour, past the dredge, look for the McDonald's sign – that'll show you where the entrance to the marina is, Nic had advised us. At 0230, McDonald's was closed, lights off, unaware they were a beacon for lost yachts. The GPS found the way in, we came alongside a jetty, adjusted the spring lines to take the surge and slept.
Nic welcomed us next morning. To put her bow to the surge and prevailing wind, we needed to reverse into the pen. Four times we tried and each time Aurora's bow was pushed away by the current. Even with the Odyssey crew and other onlookers, it seemed impossible. Then I had an idea – what if we put a line over the bow to Nic's big dinghy, holding its power on so that it would act as a kedging anchor? It worked. Finally Aurora was tied up securely.
For a wonderful change of pace, we had a cruisy 40nm sail down to Port Denison, a crayfishing and holiday village full of farming families taking their annual couple of weeks by the sea.
Sue and Bill drove up to spend the long weekend with us. They brought the best weather we had seen since the Kimberleys. Sue laughed: “You can think of nothing else but going – to take advantage of this light wind.”
“Well, after all the howling souwesters we've endured, is it surprising?” I groaned.
On Monday, with light enough to weave through the crayboat moorings in the harbour and avoid the pots outside, we left in wonderfully soft conditions, winds so gentle that we had to motorsail for the first 24 hours, and set course for Fremantle.
Sue and Bill followed us on land and peered out to sea, but we were way out beyond the reefs. With the misty, humid sky we had disappeared into the horizon.
After the weeks of battering, we didn't want to run into another change whirling in from the west so we kept going overnight, despite the risk of fouling a craypot line. With no moon, it was very dark and occasionally a set of white floats loomed out of the darkness, startling us into flicking the engine into neutral.
On our last morning, Don photographed our last sunrise, cooked bacon on toast for our last breakfast, we plotted our course on our last chart, then a favourable sea breeze with a little west in it puffed in at a perfect 10-18 knots and we blistered down the coast, with Aurora racing along at seven knots. It was an exhilarating finale.
When we rounded the familiar breakwall into Challenger Harbour's calm water, a big lump in my throat squeezed a few tears down my cheeks. Don and I hugged quickly then turned back to preparing Aurora for her new home. Around the next corner and we were overwhelmed – stunned to see a crowd gathered at the end of our jetty and Sahaja taking photos madly from the wall ahead. We were amazed to see so many of them – our incredibly faithful wake-watchers who had dropped their busy days and come down to welcome us in.
Katherine proposed a toast to us. In reply, I raised my glass and spilled champagne on the deck. “A toast to Aurora III. She was perfect . . . allowed us to gain the experience we desperately needed . . . never gave us a frightening slap around the ears. She is a strong, graceful and comfortable little ship and she got us here safely!” After a voyage of 6500nm, we logged off.