July 19. Wind: SE 25 knots. Heading: 210M. Position: 09°18’33”S 159°14’50”E
Skirting the westernmost point of Guadalcanal, Coral Sea Corner as we later call it, the wind accelerates to thirty knots and all hell breaks loose. No longer protected by land, we are now exposed to the full force of the southeast trades sweeping unchallenged across the Pacific from South America. The seas around us become steep and confused, upshot of the confluence of winds, tides, and currents ricocheting between the islands. For every mile we pedal south, we’re losing six west.
Then it starts to rain. Heavily.
I awake at first light on the second day to a hollow clanking sound, like a cowbell. Our camp kettle is floating in six inches of water, bouncing between the plywood storage bins. A half-eaten bowl of waterlogged porridge is on the move along with my sandals. Outside, the wind shrieks. I look up. April has been pedalling since 3:00 am, steering in total darkness, wrestling the toggles back and forth to keep Moksha from broaching and capsizing. Sceptics denounced the idea of having a woman aboard without nautical experience as irresponsible and reckless. Yet here she is, powering away. Fortunately, she’s taken the trouble to get fit before coming out, an expedition first!
Her exuberance is gone, though. So, too, the carefree tone in her voice as she gives a rundown of the second graveyard shift. “Started to feel queasy about five o’clock.” She takes a swig of lurid green isotonic drink from her water bottle. “Also, I think I’ve worked what out my biggest fear is.”
“Not feeling a hundred per cent, and not being able to give a hundred per cent.”
I corral my sandals, and begin bailing with the stray porridge bowl. It’s hardly worth the effort. As fast as I fling it out, the water comes back in either as rain or crashing waves. It’s more for my sanity. I know from past voyages how the sound of water slopping in the bilges will grate on my nerves after a while.
Getting to Cairns was never going to be easy. The Coral Sea has a long-standing reputation for being one of the most violent, unpredictable bodies of water in the world. Even in the early planning stages, poring over pilot charts of the South Pacific, my attention was immediately drawn to the little wind rose icons. For July and August they displayed four, sometimes five flags set at four o’clock: force 4 to 5 from the southeast. In of itself this is no big deal. Moksha can handle much stronger winds, up to gale force 10. The problem is gaining 500 miles of southing to reach Cairns, the nearest port of entry on the Australian mainland. Making headway against such winds will be a far greater challenge than I first imagined.
The alternative is to aim for the port of entry on Thursday Island in the Torres Straits, the narrow neck of water separating Cape York from Papua New Guinea. But with twelve-knot tidal streams and a minefield of reefs to negotiate, the risk of being blown off course and wrecked is too great.
So Cairns it is.
Nevertheless, watching the waves slam against Moksha’s port beam one after the other, sending torrents cascading through the hatch, a gnawing doubt takes shape in my mind.
What if we can’t make Cairns?
Everything seems to be against us. The wind is blowing us northwest. The waves are pushing us northwest. Most worrying of all, a one-and-a-half-knot current is taking us northwest, a force immune to Moksha’s streamlined shape above and below the water. The entire Pacific is in cahoots, bent on ejecting us out of its watery domain and onto the reef systems east of Papua New Guinea. Even if we manage to miss these, the serrated jaws of the world’s largest living structure, the Great Barrier Reef, stretching some 1,600 miles along the Queensland coast, lie in wait 500 miles further to the west.
To avert disaster, we need to pedal one mile south for every two we lose west, making it necessary to keep Moksha’s bow pointed firmly south—180 degrees magnetic. R&R is a luxury we can’t afford. Even spending time to enjoy a meal is out of the question. For every minute the cranks don’t turn, Moksha drifts fifty yards closer to the reefs. There is no margin for error. No cushion. Without a motor or a sail, there is only one option.
 A prerequisite for entering any country with water as a border, proclaimed port of entries are equipped to clear foreign vessels through customs, quarantine, and immigration. In Australia, making landfall in an unauthorized port incurs thousands of dollars worth of penalties.
All Rights Reserved – © 2012 Jason Lewis