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Around the World with Captain Mercer: Good-Bye Cairns

Captain Jonathan Mercer

Thursday, March 1:

The telephone next to the bed woke me up, a glance at the bedside clock, O Lord, 2 a.m., time for a quick shower and then to the bridge to prepare for departure Cairns.

The inevitable coffee in hand, I walk to the bridge. It’s still raining, this surely is a damp place during the rainy season. I study the charts once more; although we (the bridge team) always conduct Bridge Resource Management prior to any voyage, it is always useful to have one more look at charts before departing any port.

I had asked for the pilots to be here a little early, so that we can run through the manoeuvre requirements in the confined river space we have available. I have 2 pilots, one who will con the Amsterdam out and the other to watch the leading lights that mark the centre of the channel; this will be astern of us, so it involves going from bridge-wing to bridge-wing in order to see where we are, relative to the sectors. The way a ‘sectored’ light works is that it has 3 colours, white if one is central and then green or red, depending whether one is left or right of centre. Of course, when we are entering, it is ahead of us and therefore clear to see, when departing, it is astern of us, hence to pilot on the bridge-wing. Additionally, we have an officer aft, (back of the ship), he has a clear view of the sectors and therefore he can let us know what
lights he sees over the VHF radio.

Having completed our discussion with the pilots and with all guests and crew on board, it’s time to let go our lines and get out of the port. There is a ‘tight’ turning basin in the river, in theory, it has enough length for a ship 350 metres long, we are 240m, however, the depths over near the far bank, even with the tide, make it necessary to stay as close to the berth as possible; that way we know we are staying in ‘safe’ water.

We are starboard side alongside, so I come off the berth and when there is sufficient clearance from the concrete, (or in our case, wooden pilings), and the bulbous bow, I can start the swing. Pushing the stern up a little faster than the bow, I let the stern get high, so it’s near the centre of the channel and while doing so, ease the bow towards the pier. If it all goes as planned, I should clear the pier by around 40 metres and the stern will be just where I want it, ready to make headway and on the small leading-lights that mark the first 1/2 mile of the river. I use the bow thrust on reduced power, it is, after all, 3:30 in the morning and guests are sleeping, any more power and the vibration will wake those in the forward staterooms, can’t be having that, can we……

The 180 degree swing complete and voila! Smack on the leads, (I do so like it when it all goes as planned) and having done so, we start to creep out past the Marina and moored tour boats, not a soul to be seen at this hour of the morning. The pilot takes the con and as we progress up the channel and the ‘sector’ light information keeps coming in, minor adjusting of the course to compensate, ensuring we stay mid-channel.

Eventually, we reach the sea-buoy and our pilots disembark, one of them has to get back and catch a flight to some deserted spot further north, to take a bulk carrier out, their pilotage area includes ports hundreds of miles away.

We spend the day weaving between islands and reefs, some marked, others not. Not having sailed these waters before, I was expecting to be able to see the shoals and reefs in the crystal-clear water, however this is not the case; one knows they’re lurking out there but to all intents and purposes, apart from islands, one would think that we are in the open ocean, there’s little sign of what is hidden just below the surface.

One does see the occasional reminder though, we pass a few rusting hulks, ships high and dry on what appears to be water, in fact they are sitting on reefs; I’m sure there is a story behind each one of them.

We pass Lizard island, named by Captain James Cook during his voyage of discovery and so named because he found ‘lizards a plenty’ when he landed. So we continued northwards throughout the evening and night, making for the Torres Strait and the Prince of Wales channel, our exit route to the west.

Friday, March 2:

The sea is flat calm, massive black cumulonimbus clouds dot the horizon and here and there it is pouring down, however we suffer only the occasional shower.

By 9:15 a.m we are up off the north-east tip of Australia and the entrance to the Torres Strait. The channel is buoyed and has good marks, it needs to be, either side of us are shoals and reefs, which we negotiate. To the unknowing, it would appear we are weaving in seemingly unnecessary patterns across the ocean.

The Straits are surprisingly shallow, even in the navigable channels, averaging around 14-20 metres at their deepest part. During the last glacial period, this area was a land-bridge between Australia and what is now Papua/New Guinea. Due to the lack of depth, the water is capable of heating up quickly and this heat has the capability of providing energy to what may well become a cyclone, they ‘breed’ here. Fortunately, the sea is like glass and no cyclones for us today.

We clear the Straits at 11:30 a.m and set westerly courses across the Arafura Sea, next stop, Slawi Bay on Komodo Island, Indonesia. We are scheduled to arrive there on Monday, ready to see the ‘dragons’….guest are told not to bring meat or snacks made of meat ashore and stay in groups, amongst others; I need a sword and shield, St. George, the dragon slayer can sally forth and save the damsels (or the snacks)….

More later……….

  • Dave in NJ

    Captain Mercer: I’m a many time HAL cruiser, wish I were with you now. I just wanted to let you know how much I appreciate the time it takes from your busy days to make these posts. Though many cruisers have little or no interest in the technical matters of navigation and ship operation, I (and I’m sure many others) find it quite interesting. Looking foward to more of your commentary.

  • Jill

    I’m really enjoying your blog. I love your style of writing and the technical details of sailing in and out of the ports. I’m so glad you are getting off the ship to see the places. They are on my bucket list.

  • Kelly Koper

    As the Captain of my “little” 40′ sailboat, I too stayed “very close” to my charts. Electronics are fine but paper charts make a beautiful coffee stain holder.
    Thanks again for taking time to blog.

  • Jonathan

    Dave (and Jill), thank you. It is comments such as yours which make the effort worhwhile. My best wishes, Jonathan.

  • Rene Samson

    Captain Mercer, I have been reading your posts since the very begining, I beleive, quite a while ago now. When I was a kid, (I am 65 now!), I dreamt of becoming a Sailor and spend my life travelling the oceans on whatever could float. This never happened and I did find some compensation in cruising. For me, the best cruises I had have been the Trans-Atlantic where one spends many nights at sea aqnd often wakes up to see the magnificent ocean with no ground in sighit and sometimes 3 or 4 days without even seing another ship. We were on the Noordam last spring from Fort Lauderdale to Rome and it was such a pleasure.
    I have to say that I never get enough of your comments on the day to day life at sea. You make my dream come true by letting me understand the life of a Sailor, moments to moments. Please continue this fantastic chronicle and I hope that in the future, I will have the chance to be on one of your ship and participate in the adventure you are describing.

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