The first time I sailed around Cape York I was kitted out in full wet weather gear more commonly seen in cooler higher latitudes. Reefed down to tiny handkerchief-sized sails, white knuckles straining against the pressure on the helm, we bashed and crashed our way around the Cape into south easterly trade winds. Navigating our small yacht southwards, I barely had the chance to reflect on the significance of sailing past Australia’s’ most northerly point. Gusty winds whip northwards up the Cape York Peninsula, making it a difficult passage for small boat sailors heading south down the east coast of Australia.
The second time I rounded Cape York, beneath a striking scarlet sunset, was far more civilized. With chilled sauvignon blanc in hand on a calm, windless sea, dusk fell quietly over MV Trinity Bay as we slipped gently around the cape.
We’d left Cairns a few days earlier on the weekly Sea Swift voyage to service remote Torres Strait communities. Vying for space amidst the shipping containers, 4WD vehicles and a fuel truck, shiny new aluminum dinghies (also known as tinnies) glisten in the sun on the fully laden cargo deck.
“We’re carrying a couple of TI Commodores which we’ll unload at Thursday Island,” says Captain David Baume, referring to the fleet of tinnies strapped down forward of the Bridge that will soon become the ‘family wagon’ for some fortunate Torres Strait islanders.
“A lot of people in the Torres Strait don’t own cars, but they just about all own small these runabouts,” Dave explains to our small group of passengers. Manning the Bridge of MV Trinity Bay kitted out in khaki’s and thongs, Dave has navigated the shipwreck-strewn waters of the Great Barrier Reef for 27 years.
Departing Cairns mid afternoon, once all cargo is loaded and secured, we spend two pleasant nights cruising the Great Barrier Reef before rounding Cape York and entering the Straits. Leaving the barely-there coral cays of the Reef in our wake, we’re soon amidst lushly forested, hilly islands. Dawn heralds our arrival into the Straits: the real purpose of our six day voyage. The horizon is dotted with islands, many of which are home to isolated communities who rely upon this weekly supply service.
While mail, newspapers and urgent freight are flown in to Horn Island, most essential supplies arrive by sea. Part of Trinity Bay’s cargo includes refrigerated containers containing fresh fruit, vegetables and groceries. Though cargo is definitely the main purpose of our voyage, passenger transport comes a close second. Most of my fellow passengers are onboard for the return voyage from Cairns simply to experience the novel pleasures of freighter travel. Along the way we also drop off crew, fuel and water to other Sea Swift vessels, including a mid-ocean transfer when the Lockhart River barge rendezvous’ with us offshore.
Onboard there are 16 passenger cabins accommodating a maximum of 45 passengers. My fellow passengers are an intrepid lot, ranging in age from a young couple with a four month old through to a much-travelled 85 year old lady travelling solo. All are onboard based on recommendations from friends or family, a sort of coconut telegraph that keeps cabins full, particularly during the cooler dry season (April to October).
Passenger cabins are spacious, comfortable and air-conditioned, many with ensuites, others with own vanity basins and shared bathrooms. Meals are taken in the aft salon which is the social hub of Trinity Bay, acting as restaurant, bar and social gathering place. With large panoramic windows, tea, coffee and snacks are available in the saloon 24 hours a day. Though she’s far from a luxury cruise liner, meals quickly become the highlight of each day. Hungry, hardworking crew members (and idle passengers) require regular sustenance. The Chef dishes up superb, robust meals, along with special treats such as pavlova and scones for morning and afternoon tea.
Horn Island is our first port of call, and while the crew is busy unloading the TI Commodores amongst other cargo, passengers take the opportunity to explore the small island of around 350 residents. Back onboard a few hours later, with cargo operations completed before lunch, our next stop is TI, just a short hop across the passage.
Arriving on a Sunday, Australia’s most northern pub, the Torres Hotel, is one of the few businesses open. Next door at the Quetta Church, our Anglican guide Thomas explains that most islanders celebrate the ‘Coming of the Light’ on 1 July each year, in recognition of the impact Missionaries had on island life.
Our last port of call is the mainland town of Seisia. Kids fishing from the jetty wind up their hand lines as we dock, ignoring the large saltwater crocodile cruising the shallows. Crocs are just another fact of life in the Straits, where isolated communities deal with whatever nature throws their way. The weekly visit from Trinity Bay makes life just that little bit easier. Including rounding Australia’s most northern Cape.
Verdict: Highly recommended