The First Small Boat Crossing of the Gulf of Carpentaria.
by Eric Stiller 
(via Ron Arias, Dieter Stiller, and Bob Huszar)

Right from the start we were in it. We launched from Bondi Beach in Sydney on March 10, 1992, and in the first two months we hit the tail end of a cyclone, which threw up waves almost 17 feet high. We capsized in monstrous surf. We mangled our rudder and on two separate occasions broke our mast. We are both covered with salt water rashes and blisters. Tony's developed a painful fungus under his nails and I've already dropped 22 pounds. Fortunately, this section of the coast is rather well developed, with towns every hundred miles. So when we do make land, we usually load up on calories and fat. I've gotten to the point where I can devour a gallon of ice cream in a single sitting.
 Despite it all,  we're averaging 30 miles in the course of ten hour days and have flown through the 1200 miles of Great Barrier Reef, arriving at our 1/4 way mark and the point of our greatest danger, the 400 mile crossing of the Gulf of Carpentaria. 

 We arrived at Cape York, the western most reach of the gulf, on June 10 and took a week and a half down time to rest and reclaim some body mass. We began our crossing on June 20, from Thursday Island. The seas were flat and there was no wind, an unusual circumstance for this time of year. In a few hours we ran into an even more unusual westerly, which nudged us all the way to Boobie Island, 20 nautical miles WNW of Thursday Island. We followed Magellan GPS course, until the radio antennae of the island became visible.
 Boobie Island is one of the last manned lighthouses in Australia. We arrived in pitch black and nearly circumnavigated the island to find the one and only landing area, where we could set up our Bivvy sacks and sleep.
 The next morning we paid our respects to the lighthouse keeper, asking for weather information. He informed us, however, the only information he receives is what he sees outside. That morning he saw 17 knots from the southeast. When we asked how rough the seas got?  He nodded sagely and said rough. When we asked if it was just large swells or swells with chops and confusion, he nodded to chops and confusion.
 We thanked him for his insights and bid him farewell, taking our butterflies with us. Tony half rhetorically asked aloud could we do it?  And I half rhetorically answered, "We'll see when we get there."

 We put in and immediately started paddling into a sea of confusion. I was optimistic that once we got into deeper waters everything would settle down. However, after the first few hours, it became apparent that what I had hoped was just shoal sea, was the sea we were going to encounter the whole way, and it was a chaotic intersection of overlapping waters. There was water on, in, and through every wave.
 Very quickly we were greeted by our first `thwack', the top of a wave shearing off on top of us. These `thwacks' were consistent in occurrence, but random in direction. They would strike from both beams, plow right over the bow, or dump on the stern, or any combination of the three.
 This was a foreshadowing of the week to come, a constant 5 days of 20 to 25 mile winds, with 8 to 12 foot waves, with every 3rd and 4th wave a breaker. 
 It became clear that real rest was going to be rare and sleep all but impossible. Even if we could achieve a comfortable position, the motion of the sea was so confused, and the `thwacks' so consistent, it soon became an act of courage just to close your eyes. So much for our plan of alternating shifts of sleeping and paddling. 
 And if that wasn't enough, we soon discovered that the nights were long and cold. Really cold! Not arctic, but a bone-chilling drain of heat that sucked the life right from your core. Pile, drytop, parka, rainpants, woolhat and hood, barely got your through to the 8:00 am reappearance of the sun. Fortunately, Tony found his Australia Sport Suit made the big difference. Unfortunately, mine had been sent back to Sydney, in anticipation of tropical heat. In addition, we were undoubtedly more susceptible to the cold since our nutritional intake was limited to the snack foods we were able to store around our seats.
 Another problem was maintaining a West Southwest heading with a wind gusting from South to Southeast. Leeboards helped a lot, but the angle of cutting across and sometimes through waves gave no room for day dreaming.  This course was always 20 to 30 degrees different from what the boat would have found ideal. We refereed constantly to the compass, which became most trying at night, when we were unable to see the boat's line on the waves and the stars, our only other reference, were lost in the haze.
 During the daylight hours, we could average 35 to 40 miles, while our 12 hour nights would crawl by with 25 miles or less. The hopes of a quick 4 day crossing quickly died. We were in it for the duration and we dejectedly prepared for a full 5 nights on the water. Not that we had any options. Landing was out of the question, since we were too far out to make it in. Besides which, the entire perimeter of the Gulf of Carpentaria was the breeding grounds of the giant salt-water sea crocs. 

 By night two, the hallucinations started, `commercial breaks' we called them. You'd be rolling along, sometime even be in the middle of a sentence, and your mind would simply tune out anything you were doing, and then tune back in with a start, refocused and slightly refreshed. The episodes became more frequent as night progressed and less frequent during the day. Tony described his `time outs' as suddenly being in a much more pleasant environment, usually on dry land, after which he would always feel a lot better about his present situation. Mine were similar.

 By night three, the inability to significantly change positions and the constant rubbing of salt-encrusted, wet clothing started to wear down all the tender little points we suddenly discovered all over our bodies. Very quickly those `points' reddened, turning into rashes along the inner arms, top of the hands, and waist. The worst were the deep ulcerating holes along the spine and coccyx which made even the easy tasks, like sitting, a lesson in agony. By the 5th night, uncontrollable body shivers were the norm. We were, for all intent and purposes, trapped in an 8 x 3 prison, unable to move, unable to eat, and unable to sleep; I counted 5 hours total sleep for the whole 5 days. 

 Early on the 5th night, we saw the dunes of land in the distance. What a thrill, the Magellan had kept us true. Pilots must have a similar sensation when coming out of cloud right over their destination. By this time, we were 23 miles away, which in our minds seemed like the end. This was a mistake, as our mental guards started to come down and we imagined ourselves to be home free. And sure enough, about an hour later, the winds shifted to the southwest. We had to close-reach at 2 1/2 knots, just to stay on course. As we started to get closer, the water grew shallower, resulting in an increase in the frequency of the `thwacks'. The wind was strong, we were cold, we hurt all over, and we both screamed.
 Meanwhile, the dunes of Gove Harbor started coming agonizingly closer. We were still hopeful, with just a little more time we would get there. Nope, wrong again. As daybreak came, we found ourselves in a stall. The tide had started to ebb and the wind was building against us, and slowly we began loosing ground. We were near the end of our rope and in a quagmire. What to do? Do we put out a drift-stopper and wait 6 to 7 hours for the tide?  Waiting was unimaginable. Do we paddle?  Paddling seemed impossible because of the rashes and the pressure point sores. Do we set off the EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon)?  We considered it, but knew that would shame us forever. Ultimately, there was no choice. We needed to clear room for proper paddling, so we began the process of de-rigging, which seemed a monumental task in our state of mind.
 Initially, the paddling felt good, but this sensation only lasted minutes at a time, and energy faded fast. Problem was, we had hours of hard, against-the-tide paddling, not a few minutes of an intermittent sprint.
 Eventually, hours later, numb and feverous, we made shore somewhere west of Nhulumby. We were gathered up by an angel of mercy who bathed us and fed us. But even with her tender ministrations, it took us days to even walk properly. The deeper wounds will take much more time, and as to the scars that Carpentaria left on our psyche, all I can say is: We did it and we're alive. 

 Best wishes from Oz  - Eric Stiller & Tony Brown

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