By Fiona Harper.
Sitting out the cyclone season
Cruisers heading north, who find themselves waiting for the cyclone season to finish do have an alternative to sitting out the hot windy summer in Fremantle. There are a number of safe options for those who find themselves ready to venture north in summer before the cyclone seasons officially ends in April.
According to the West Australian Cruising guidebook, 20 metre waves have previously been recorded off the Pilbara coast. The strongest wind gust ever recorded is a colossal144 knots during cyclone Olivia in 1996 at Varanus Is, NE of Onslow. Lives have been lost, and vessels have disappeared without trace. This is serious weather to be avoided by all mariners.
Cyclones dominate the conversation during the southern summer amongst cruisers, and those who make their living from the sea. Fishermen, pearl farmers, cruisers and charter boat operators all offered opinions on their own experiences. Everyone it seems has their own ideas on when is the safest time to venture north, and where is the safest place to wait out the end of the season.
Onboard Nilubon, John and I found ourselves constantly asking ourselves these two vitally important questions as we planned our journey, waiting to depart Fremantle heading north around the top of Australia. Due to many delays in completing our yacht, an Alden 48 ketch, we missed the annual migration north in autumn, when the cruising season generally gets underway. Many cruising yachts sit out the cyclone season in Fremantle, enjoying the excellent facilities and hospitality at Fremantle Sailing Club. Having sat through one blustery summer (and winter!) in Fremantle, we were not prepared to sit through another.
With the final work being completed in mid November, we were finally ready to head north. After so many delays we were keen to get moving, and decided to slowly make our way up the West Australian coast over the summer, without voyaging so far as to find ourselves in the cyclone belt. But how far could we travel before cyclones became a major concern?
There are many resources available to those with an interest in cyclones, their patterns and their likely behaviour. The Bureau of Meteorology (www.bom.gov.au) has a good website with loads of valuable information.
The BOM advises that the 'official season' is from November to April. Historically, however, cyclones have occurred in almost all months of the year in the eastern Indian Ocean. Most cyclones that form on the north west coast tend to cross the coast between January and March.
We also found on the BOM site a very useful and interesting visual aid, the Cyclone Forecast Track, with clear and simple graphics to explain their predicted movement. This was very useful in understanding if and when we were likely to be affected by strong winds. However this was only of any use in locations where we had an onboard internet connection, which was not always the case. Using the Telstra CDMA network, coverage is only available when located close to coastal communities or settlements.
The marine weather service broadcast via HF radio by BOM and Wiluna Radio was comprehensive and always current. Weather forecasts were updated twice daily and covered the entire West Australian coast. Warnings were updated hourly, as were cyclone co-ordinates, which were plotted directly onto our own weather-plotting chart. Wiluna Radio advises mrainers both the predicted and existing winds at many locations along the coast at least every four hours.
The West Australian Cruising Guide produced by FSC offered comprehensive information on weather and tides, and has some background on cyclone patterns and behaviour specific to the WA coast.
We spoke to many professional mariners, park rangers, cruisers and locals in trying to understand where we might find a safe haven, in the unlikely event that a major cyclone snuck south.
The Park Ranger at Steep Pt was surprised to see a yacht heading north rather than south in December. Pams house, located on the waterfront at Geritson Cove in the southern end of Shark Bay overlooks a number of good short-term anchorages and regularly sees cruisers heading south after cruising the Kimberleys over the winter. ?Come November, the yachts are lined up out the front waiting for the right weather to shoot out through Steep Pt, heading south to Fremantle. Not too many are heading north at this time of the year,? Pam said, as she recommended Monkey Mia as a good anchorage with protection from the south, but with little facilities in the way of fuel or provisions.
The nearby main town of Denham proved to be poorly located for seafarers seeking shelter. The waterfront town has a large fishing fleet, serviced by a fuel jetty at the end of the dredged channel. However, being located on the western side of Peron Peninsula meant the shallow anchorage is exposed to the prevailing winds. A large fetch built up by the constant SE – SW winds make this town and all its conveniences untenable during the summer.
Peter Morgan, who owns and operates Blue Lagoon Pearls in Shark Bay, has been pearling for years as far north as Broome. He advised that 'the second week in May' is when he considers their pearl farm pontoon safe from cyclone hazards. The pontoon is moored in Red Cliff Bay, just west of the Monkey Mia resort, and it is here we found a good anchorage to sit out two months of the season.
The anchorage offers excellent protection from the vicious southerly winds that pummel this coast all the way to NW Cape over the summer. To the north and east are reed beds that dry at low tide, and offer some protection from the fetch that quickly builds up in the shallow waters. We anchored 50mtrs north of the jetty in 5 mtrs over sand. The Bruce anchor and 40 mtrs of chain held our 25 tonnes securely in consistently strong winds varying from 25 to 40 knots. Dept of Fisheries does have one cyclone rated mooring located here, officially for the use of departmental boats during the winter. The skipper on the charter catamaran Shotover, Scotty has spent 12 years in Shark Bay, and has seen a number of cyclones dissipate before they arrived at Monkey Mia.
50 miles further north, Carnarvon Yacht Club has just completed stage two of their marina, located slightly inland up the Fascine Channel. This proved to be a welcome safe haven from the southerlies, with an incredibly warm and welcoming group of volunteers working hard to upgrade their facilities. The strong community spirit here would be an enormous benefit were a cruiser to find themselves victims of a perilous cyclone. An added bonus to holing up here for an extended period during the summer is the thriving horticulture industry, and the ridiculous abundance of mangos and other fresh produce available.
Cyclones are notoriously unpredictable. They vary both in their size and their intensity. Both large and small cyclones can cause death and devastation to mariners. Venturing into northern waters, at any time of the year, requires careful planning and plenty of research, but particularly so during the cyclone season. However, it is refreshing to know it is possible, with care and a conservative approach, to start the long journey north outside the conventional cruising season.