Sailing the Coral Sea – Fiji to Indonesia

On the morning of the 3rd May we ghosted under full sail from our anchorage towards the gap in the encircling reef leading to the open sea, commencing our 3000 nautical mile (5400km) passage to Indonesia. We set our course northwest, to skirt around the more southerly islands of Vanuatu and then onwards to the Torres Straits which separate Australia and Indonesia. As our crossings have always been accompanied by light winds, we allowed thirty days for this leg to Indonesia.

Our first few days brought variable conditions – some good SE breeze but also very little wind and some of that from ahead. Not good for a sailing boat! On the 5th we heard female Kiwi twang calling Moondust’s name on the VHF radio. New Zealand’s Air Force Orion, not visible to us, was querying our well-being as they had picked up a faint emergency signal from an EPIRB (emergency position indicating radio beacon).

We often had squalls on the horison.

The winds picked up to around 25 knots and with only 325 nautical miles of the passage behind us, the ship’s log notes alarmingly on the 7th: “Mainsail stuck up the mast with two reefs in…big swells from the port quarter”.  Despite using the considerable winching power at our disposal, we couldn’t raise or lower the sail – quite scary! The only positive thing was that the sail was stuck in a position where its area would withstand winds of up to around 30 knots, which were unlikely from the forecast. Happening at last light, we furled the genoa and sailed under mainsail alone that night, deciding to request an emergency stop in Port Vila, Vanuatu, the next day, to make repairs.

Emergency stop in Vanuatu

Via a passing cargo ship we got the contact details of the Vanuatu port and health authorities to whom we wrote explaining our problem and requested emergency access to a calm anchorage so that I could get up the mast and try to release the sail.

The next morning we discovered that the top mast slider holding the head of the mainsail to the mast track had snapped in half, allowing the head of the sail to be pulled backwards at an alarming angle by the pressure on the wind. This had cleared the snag and we pulled the sail down, making our way to Port Vila under genoa, dropping anchor in the quarantine area at 1400h. Vanuatu was still closed to visitors.

View of one of the resorts at Port Vila from the mast.

Whilst waiting for clearance to go ashore, Karin winched me up the mast several times to assess the situation to try to make repairs with the limited spares that I had on board. We also contacted friends Ulla and Pelle in New Zealand via our limited Iridium Go email facility and they kindly conducted an internet research regarding the model and stock availability of the affected part for us, as we had not yet been able to go ashore to buy local sim cards for our phones. Monday turned to Tuesday and so on… until finally on Friday a health team visited Moondust, performed rapid antigen Covid tests and declared us healthy and able to go ashore when we got official clearance to do so.

All the while, our interaction with the small craft customs officer had been polite but intermittent and ineffectual, effectively confining us to Moondust. It was very frustrating, as we by then knew we needed to get ashore and have the broken slider welded. Late on Friday afternoon he sent us email, which was sufficiently ambiguous to suggest, along with the negative RAT results, that we were permitted to land. We quickly withdrew some local currency, purchased sim cards and got the broken part to a welder who had it back to us by the next morning.

We managed to stock up on fresh produce and wine in Vanuatu.

The waterfront at Port Vila.

Some prolonged work up the mast finally saw the repair effected and we were ready to go by Sunday. Or so we thought! By lunchtime on Monday we had waited long enough for approval to leave and in desperation we took the initiative and trooped into the Customs office, much to their surprise, where we were cleared.

It was now 16th May and we were thankful to be on our way, having some good winds for the next five days. However, four days out of Port Vila the repaired slider broke again! We took down the mainsail and resolved to sail the remaining 2500 nm under genoa or gennaker.

From 22nd May to June 2nd we had extremely light winds and sometimes no wind. Over one three-day period we only made 57 nm towards the Torres Straits. With such vast distances to cover, it seemed pointless to me to use the engines and I preferred to wait for the wind. Karin did not agree when the current was taking us back and when she became tired after so many nights of broken and insufficient sleep!

When there is no wind, the sea becomes like a mirror!

A friend hitching a ride!
A pod of dolphins came to say hallo.

Torres Straits

We used some of that quiet time to plan our route through the Torres Straits, which is at the north end of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. It is quite an extensive area littered with reefs, sandbars, coral, shallows and islands, forming the major barrier between two huge oceans – the Pacific and Indian. Thus, we knew we could expect strong tidal currents and possibly rough seas, should the wind blow contrary to the direction of current flow. The main shipping channel runs from the north east, near the coast of Papua New Guinea in a south-westerly direction towards Cape York, the most northerly point of Australia. However, that route would take us much further south than we wished to go.

I had created satellite charts of the whole area, which provide greatest accuracy for navigation, and I could see that it is too big to pass through in daylight, meaning at least one night spent in this complex area, strange to us. At that stage, we only had one engine operational as the port engine refused to start, which meant that we had to avoid major currents, which could flow at up to seven knots! Luckily, the delay at Vanuatu meant that we would not be transiting this area at spring tide. However, it was important to understand tide times and their effects on current speed and direction. Back in South Africa, Colin Sindle was a major help in assuring that the areas that we had planned to negotiate in the dark were indeed deep enough.

Our route through Torres Straits.

We focussed our passage intentions westward on Basilisk and Napoleon Passages, aiming to pass through Basilisk at last light and sail slowly overnight in water generally not deeper than 13-18m to the latter passage that we hoped to transit at first light.

A southeast wind rocketed us up Pandora’s Passage to the entrance of the shipping channel, which we reached on schedule at midnight on June 3rd, where at East Cay the wind dropped as we had to turn and sail southwest. Three different sources of navigational information on different devices were a great comfort in those pitch black, confined waters! We were opposite Basilisk Passage by the late afternoon when we turned out of the shipping channel and passed between the islands as it got dark. Then the wind picked up and the current turned NE, which meant a very uncomfortable night. The first few hours were spent in very shallow, choppy waters, crabbing across our direction of travel in our effort to slow down, so as to not reach Napoleon Passage before it was light.

Notwithstanding the discomfort, things worked out perfectly and we were able to sail most of the way through Napoleon Passage before the wind died, and we had to motor. Portions of this route on our charts appeared to be only just deep enough for Moondust, but in reality we never had less than 8m of water under her keels.

The shallow water of the Arafura Sea is a beautiful turquoise.

Once out of the passage we sailed west, always in shallow water with a strong tidal current setting us back for six hours and then assisting us for six hours. By evening, when the wind died completely and the current turned against us, we were 20nm offshore but only in 13 m of water. Loathe to loose ground, we dropped anchor and got a bit of rest. The tide changed and the breeze picked up around midnight, but when we tried to raise the anchor, the windlass failed to operate. Due to successively cloudy days our battery power was limited, so it appeared that there was insufficient voltage to operate the windlass. We pulled on our gloves, hastily hauling in the chain before the current built up.

Over the next eight days we had mostly light winds, which made for slow progress. At one point I put out a fishing line and was rewarded with a bluefin tuna!

A nice size Bluefin tuna.

Arriving in Indonesia after 40 days

Finally Saumlaki, our Indonesian port of entry, was within reach and we made landfall there on June 13th, some 40 days after leaving Fiji. One is obliged to hire an agent to facilitate Indonesia’s clearance procedures. Whilst this made Indonesia the most expensive country we have yet visited, the agent’s local representative certainly smoothed the way through the formidable bureaucracy and sometimes impenetrable language barrier.

We were very happy to be in Indonesia at last!

We spent four hectic days there, trying to get as much rest as possible at night, whilst attending to essentials during the day. Finally, fearing we would be late for my son’s arrival, we set sail 700 nm westwards once more, towards the home of the Komodo Dragons.