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 The Lonely Gulf by Jenny Maruff


 Story & photos by Jenny Maruff,
SY “Tropical Cat”


Over the last twenty-five years, Dud and Dave have raced multihulls in and out of Moreton Bay, cruised the Coral Coast and sailed in Indonesia. This year they investigated the Gulf of Carpentaria from Karumba to Seisia.

Dave flew into Karumba on August 19th. We had a welcome coffee and cake at the Sunset Caravan Park café, then later we went to the Sunset Tavern to drink a light ale and to watch….the sunset!. We had dinner at the Fish Café over the road from the pub. It was cheap because the food came out wrapped in paper parcels so there was no washing up but the place lacked ambience.
Next morning we motored around to a jetty on the Norman River to see Roger, the fisherman on CAROLE ANNE who gave Dud and Dave GPS co-ordinates for several rivers that emptied into the Gulf. We managed to get away at 11.15am. The wind was light so we motored most of the 20 odd miles to Smithbourne Creek but we couldn't get in because of the sand banks so we anchored outside and rolled around a bit.
The beaches in the Gulf are white and sandy but the terrain is flat and low lying with scruffy trees. There are two lovely times of day-- Sun-up at 7am and sunset at 6.30pm. I have lots of photos of these.
We sailed away from our anchorage near Smithbourne Creek at 7.30am. It was blowing from the NE at 10 to 15kts. For a while we are making 6 knots, then we had to motor as the wind petered out. An afternoon SE came in so Dud and Dave put the spinnaker up. We caught two tuna on the trawling lines. I curried one and froze the other. The spinnaker came down at sunset and we motored in to the mouth of the Nassau River. Again we couldn't get in so we anchored just to the north of the mouth. We had done over 60 miles.
It was sunrise when we left. The wind was E 15 to 20kts early but varied all morning. We scooted along quite nicely and by 1pm we were at the Mitchell River. They say third time lucky. At 1.30 pm we were anchored in the river, thanks to Roger's instructions and enough tide. We saw a 4m crocodile at the water's edge. He hung around all day so Dud and Dave decided to fish from the boat. No luck! They cautiously lowered the dinghy and put in a couple of crab pots. No luck there either!
We left at 6.45 am. The breeze came in from the NE but then became variable. We were doing speeds of 8, 10 and 12kts so kept going all day. We anchored north of Cape Keerweer at 6.30pm just as the sun was setting. We had done 82 miles.
It was another early start next day. We had a comfortable sail to the Archer River which was easy to get into. We anchored by12.30 pm and had lunch. The crab pots went in but returned empty. I reckon that the bait was so smelly that no self-respecting crab went near it. There were a few people about. They went up and down in big tinnies but were not friendly. I wondered if they regarded us as intruders. Around a bend was Aurukun. We could see 4 wheel drives on the beach. When we motored out next day we saw an Aboriginal camp at the river entrance. As we sailed off into the breeze we saw a large motor cat coming out of the river. Where had he been hiding?

We had just sailed past Boyd's Bay, when a big mackerel jumped onto the trawling line. Dud pulled him in but the fish thrashed about and got off the hook and back to the water. Damn! We continued on to Weipa and anchored down from Evan's Landing. We went ashore about 4 pm. Dud and Dave bought a thread-making tap from the hardware store for a job they were doing on the boom
Everything is red in Weipa. We could see piles of red dirt (bauxite ) behind the main wharf where the ships came and went continuously. We could hear the conveyor belts loading them up at all hours of the day and night. The beaches had red gravel rather than white sand. We washed red dust off our feet and off the decks.
The shopping center is 4 kms. away. We started walking to it after 8am. We were halfway there when we got a lift. Most people do not pick up hitching yachties. Maybe this is because they believe everybody has a car and if they are walking they are doing it for exercise. At the shopping center, the Post Office was closed as it was Saturday but we were able to get scripts filled at the chemist. (In Karumba it takes a week.) At the Fishing and Camping shop, we bought a gaff hook. There is a great bakery in Weipa where we bought hot pies and cold drinks before tackling the food shopping at Woolworths. We had to wait ages for the mini cab taxi because it is the only taxi and he had to go out to the airport and back. When he picked us up, he had three more passengers for the airport. One man was from Perth, one from Melbourne and one was from Brisbane. They had been fishing together and had had a terrific time.
That afternoon, Dud filled containers with water from the jetty. Dave did the washing at the Laundromat and I swept the carpets and tidied up. We were looking forward to pizza for tea from the café near the garage. Dud popped in to check it out on his way back with the fuel. The boss said no one had turned up for work. Pizza was off. That was a minus but we had a plus. We were able to watch TV.
Weipa is pretty dead on a Sunday so we left before dawn and followed the stern lights of a ship down the channel. It was high tide which meant that we could cut across and head North. The winds were annoyingly light. We anchored offshore for lunch and a rest. At 3 pm, we set off again and in two hours we were at the Pennefather River which was easy to get into. Dud and Dave did some line fishing but only caught a remora. There was a lovely sunset that night which compensated for the meager 30 miles covered.
The Pennefather is in an Aboriginal reserve but we saw no one. There is a big house at the entrance which I photographed as we motored out next morning. The shore line now had more shape and undulation. We sailed past the Wenlock, the Skardon and the McDonald Rivers but we couldn't get in because of the tide so we continued on to the Doughboy where we anchored at 4 pm. It had been a pleasant day with fresh breezes and flat seas and we had done 42 miles.
We left before 8 am. There was sunshine and bird calls, herons wading and sea hawks circling. The Coast Watch plane flew over us as we sailed out. The SE wind increased to gusts of 30kts but the seas were flat and the boat zipped along. After passing Crab Island we headed into shore for lunch. We had done 35 miles in 5 hours. At 6 pm, we motored out around some banks and across the mouth of the Jardine River where we anchored for the night.
We woke to a thick pall of smoke. The Aborigines were burning off in the hills beside us. We left for Seisia. By 8.45 am , we were anchored beside two monos and a tri. We went ashore to the Caravan Park and had long showers and washed our hair. We ate hot pies at the café. Bliss! I love Seisia.
That day we put in an order at the Meat Processing Plant. They would cryovac the meat and freeze it for us. Dave hitched a ride to Bamaga while Dudley and I returned to the boat. He spoke to the people from the monos. Don and Bev, June and David seemed friendly so we asked them over for sunset drinks. Dud and Dave gave them the GPS co-ordinates for the rivers between Seisia and Weipa.
Our trip up the Gulf was over. Next morning, Dave picked up the meat while Dud got the boat ready. Then we left for Thursday Is. We were back in the hilly terrain of the end of the Great Dividing Range.

I asked Dud and Dave what they thought of the Gulf of Carpentaria:
Would they do it again? Dud said NO. Dave said YES from Seisia to Weipa. The landscape was quite attractive and there are heaps of fish
Was it a pleasant sailing experience? They said YES. The winds were offshore and the seas were flat. Winds were mainly E SE but wind strength and direction were never constant.
What about anchorages? It is possible to anchor anywhere offshore because of the prevailing wind and shallow depth but it is not always easy to get into the rivers because of the sandbanks. There is always smoke from fires lit by unseen aborigines. One is always cautious when walking on the beach because of crocodiles. Alcohol restrictions apply in aboriginal communities

Few boats cruise the Gulf of Carpentaria. Unless one is a keen fisherman, it is not attractive to the average boatie. I found it a lonely experience.