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From good ship Banyandah - a Coral Sea sailing tale

by Jack Binder on 27 Jul 2013
Banyandah easy sailing in the Coral Sea - Exploring the Coral Sea Jack Binder
Banyandah is an 11m 12 ton cutter-rigged sailing boat which Australian sailors Jack and Jude Binder seem to have been sailing for most of their lives, admittedly with a couple of breaks for issues such as educating their kids. Here they tell of their latest exploits, an exploration of the reefs of the Coral Sea off the east coast of Australia. Read and delight in the story, but marvel at their amazing pictures:

Good ship Banyandah is presently speeding through the scantily sounded waters between Pandora Entrance and Torres Strait, blown by strong winds upwards of 33 knots according to the weathermen. But to us, it feels more like gale right up our tail. An intense, nearly stationary high-pressure cell has driven us rocking and rolling these last seven days, ever since leaving East Diamond Islet, 600 nm ago.

Our mission:
To explore Coral Sea reefs and islets, film their exotic beauty and wildlife, and compare from a layperson’s view any changes we perceived from our previous visits out there in the 70s and 80s. Winter is not a good time for such an undertaking; the SE trades are reinforced during June, July, and August. But we had our own time restraints, plus we wanted to film the seabird winter breeding season. Therefore we decided to pray for the best and take what was given, admitting we’d be lucky to get ashore on any of those exposed sand islets, and accepting our expedition may only prove to be a rough, fast trip to Torres Strait.

We are delighted to report that providence smiled upon our venture. In a nutshell here is what we achieved:

Cato reef
Ballina direct to Cato Reef, 380 nm took 72 hours. Nasty lumpy conditions kept us from landing but we surveyed two trade wind anchorages, both with boat channels leading into the lagoon and the island that’s extraordinary tall for a sand cay, six m above sea level, covered in grass and creepers up to one m high. A shiny metal building houses an automatic weather station. A large family of Common Noddies was observed.

Wreck reefs
An overnight sail took us to Wreck Reefs, 67 miles further north, where again we experienced poor conditions, too dangerous to dive on the historical wreck site of HMS Cato and Porpoise. Early summer would be the best time to explore them.

To our great delight we found a niche out the reef adjacent to the cay, sufficient to anchor Banyandah in 40’ coarse sand, coral heads on all sides except for the hundred metre wide entry. Well protected from trade winds, the water nevertheless quite active.

We explored Porpoise Cay, 275 m long, 90 m wide and three m high, vegetated with low grass and a succulent similar to Pig’s Face without pink flowers. White Masked Boobies were courting and nesting on its sandy fringe while brown Common Noddies nested within the foliage. About 20 pairs of Brown Boobies watched from the half tide rock on the windward edge. Pieces of black coal along the flotsam line lay amongst mankind’s bits of plastic, and embedded in the congealed half tide rock, bits of metal were rusting away. The coal and metal very likely from the wrecks.

Kenn reef
Another overnight passage took us 65 nm to Kenn Reef, where the lessening easterly breeze evaporated, leaving a blissful calm sea. Located over 500 km from the Australian mainland, Kenn Reef covers an area of approximately 40 km², shaped like a boot 15 km long and eight km along its southern edge. The southern reef is the largest with three emergent sand cays in the SW part. The only permanent land, tiny Observatory Cay, about l00 m by 50 m and 2 m high has no vegetation. We found an excellent anchorage for all winds except northerlies with easy access to these cays from an extensive shallow patch over the purest white sand. But getting to this spot required careful visual navigation to avoid large numbers of coral heads before passing over a shallow sand spit.

Mellish reef
The 233 nm voyage to Australia’s furthest bit of real estate took 54 hours of easy sailing, landing a scrumptious Green Job fish just after sighting its white line of breakers. Mellish, lying about 1100 km east of Cairns was our main focus, and Heralds’ Beacon, its sand cay 600 m by 120 m rising just a few metres above the high-water mark was wildly active with clouds of seabirds as we anchored in 40’ fine coral sand near an above water coral boulder that marks the boat channel into the lagoon. With barely swinging room to reef awash ahead and breaking coral patches well astern, a nuisance southerly swell attacked our beam-ends, especially at low water when it created an uncomfortable roll.

Our first footsteps on shore opened a floodgate of memories as we recalled ferrying base camp equipment and ham radio gear onto this very isolated sand islet, devoid of all vegetation when last seen in early 1982. A devastating cyclone a month earlier had levelled the islet, killing all the larger seabirds. Our hearts soared seeing it this time; well vegetated and crowded with thousands of seabirds. Brown boobies filled the sky above us, while White Masked boobies bobbed heads courting along the sandy fringe or sat on eggs, or shielded frail featherless hatchlings.

Several flocks of Common Noddies in their thousands chatted noisily. But in far greater numbers were Sooty Terns, recognised easily by their triangular, white forehead patch, nesting in the low grassy vegetation. Our rough estimate counted 15,000 birds, far greater than ever seen. Heart-warming realising that Nature can recover when left alone. Heartening too, because food enough must exist in the surrounding seas to support so many creatures, giving us hope that Earth can survive the human explosion.

Our second day dawned grey and windless, perfect for our jaunt to the north end of the lagoon to look for the remains of the French warship Duroc, wrecked there in 1856. Providence again smiled upon us with a negative tide at midday, perfect to walk the seaward edge where we believe the Duroc had struck. A steam vessel we hoped to find her boiler or metalwork.

Imagine being 1100 km from help and piling into a ten foot tinny equipped with basic survival kit then powering five km away to explore a raw, exposed bit of Nature - just the two of us! Watching our treasured sanctuary grow smaller, we pondered what it must have been like for those unfortunate souls stranded on this reef over a hundred and fifty years ago. Three long boats had been immediately dispatched with 33 men to seek help from Copang, while the Captain, his wife and child remained on Heralds’ Beacon with about 40 men. For the next 50 days, exposed to the harshest conditions and suffering hunger, thirst, and sickness, they laboured building a 45’ boat that they named The Deliverance then set off for Timor. All survived.

Unfortunately the negative tide did not expose the reef, forcing us into the water to make our search. We found plenty of manmade debris, but no boiler. What we found which might have come from the Duroc was solidly lodged in living coral and appeared to be part of a cooling column.

Lihou reef
After eight days at Mellish we sailed for Lihou Reefs, 252 nm west using a light southwest wind that increased to 20 knots making our landfall rather bumpy. Lihou is a series of reefs connected by shallow, narrow passages, unsafe to enter. Our last night, hard on the wind with those reefs a dangerous lee shore getting closer as we aimed for the last reef robbed us of sleep.

Nicking into the lagoon through overfalls was exciting, but we could not find an anchorage close to the nearby sand islet, forcing us to anchor behind the main barrier reef exposed to both sea and wind. The Banyandah sat comfortably enough, fortunately unaffected by current, bobbing up and down in two’ to three’ swell. The islet too distant to entice a visit, we sailed next day.

East diamond
We had read East Diamond Islet has a spectacular anchorage, and in photographs we’d seen bushes upon which several specie of seabirds were nesting. At the end of our day sail from Lihou the breeze faded and we motored into a well-protected anchorage bright with white sand. A light structure rose out the cay and everywhere the air was alive with many specie of seabirds, featuring the most Frigatebirds we’ve ever seen. A 2006 report put the numbers at 2,500 Lesser Frigatebirds, a thousand pairs of Red-footed Boobies and very large numbers of Black and Common Noddies, Masked and Brown Boobies, Black-Naped Terns, Sooty Terns, Wedge-tailed Shearwaters, several Red-tailed Tropicbirds and a few Great Frigatebirds.

On shore several species were breeding, including Frigatebirds and Red-footed Boobies, several different species in the same small tree, so our cameras rolled and clicked for the next five days. We climbed the light structure, and walked our GoPro down the cay, aloft on the parafoil kite. Jude in heaven when talking to all the creatures as we made a doco explaining the habits and features of each group.

After four weeks in the wilds, as if on cue a new wind system arrived. Forecast strong winds sped us north for Torres Strait. Our 'mainsail from hell' stayed aloft only until midnight when the wind reached 20 knots. After that, two headsails poled out kept Banyandah running straight as an arrow towards Pandora Entrance 550 nm NNW.

Every day we downloaded a new weather map via our HF and each day the high-pressure system grew more intense until on our third night we had 40 knots up our tail. Our windvane, Sir Aries, took it in his stride, so all we had to do was hang on and not get hurt. The hammock I made in Ballina proved a most valuable new addition. Strung between aft cabin bulkheads, once in, we were at home in bed getting the rest so needed on heavy weather voyages.

Four days, almost to the hour to traverse 550 nm and escape the Coral Sea’s heavy seas by rushing through a two-mile gap in the Outer Barrier Reef at Pandora Entrance, and finding a mess of obstructions to dodge.

Jude loves her stats; in 35 days from Ballina, Banyandah made good 1730 nautical miles, anchoring 14 times at eight reefs, our new Manson Boss anchor biting first time every time. We burnt a grand 50 litres of fuel and consumed 100 cans of beer and twelve bottles of wine. You’ve got to admit we’ve got our priorities right!
Jack and Jude

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