Montebello Islands

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Cruising the Montebello Islands

Last June (2008) I drove to Karratha to get a broken tooth fixed and was told I would need to return in a couple of weeks for some follow up work. Another 2 days driving and a night in a Karratha caravan park seemed a bit excessive for a 10 min session in the dentist’s chair so driving home to Exmouth I started to hatch a plan. Why not turn an inconvenience into a holiday and sail back?

A fortnight later I departed Exmouth with a moderate SE’ly wind and 3 weeks to kill – what joy!. The next 6 days, however, only mustered 5kt NE’ly breezes which made for slow progress but still an enjoyable time island hopping to Cape Preston. Closehauled in light breezes on a flat sea it was easy to get my small Wharram catamaran to self-steer by simply lashing the tiller. This freed me up to do other important things like daydream, brew up coffee, prepare and eat lunch read a book and then daydream a bit more. One morning I woke to thick fog and still conditions so finally got to see how far my 3.5hp outboard would take me on the 10L of fuel I carry. Probably only 40nm so I indulged this activity sparingly. Once past Cape Preston the freshening breeze moved back around to the SE enabling a quicker sail into Dampier.

The next day was spent in Dr Chewie’s dental surgery, getting lost in Karratha’s large shopping mall and resupplying the boat. The Montebellos lie north of Barrow Island some 65nm east of Dampier. I decided to spend a few days checking out the western islands of the Dampier Archipelago whilst waiting for some strong E’ly winds that would hopefully allow me to make the Montes in one big day. Three days later the strong winds arrived just as forecast (thanks BOM) so after a big breakfast of porridge and scaling tea I literally threw caution to the wind and headed out into the big blue yonder. I spent a thrilling day surfing down the front of 2-3m waves whilst keeping a watchful eye out for migrating humpback whales. Some 6 hrs later a number of oil platforms appeared on the horizon which meant only one thing to me- I was getting close. At 3pm I sailed through the lumpy Northern Passage into the sheltered waters on the leeward side of Trimouille Island.

The Montebello Islands are most notoriously known as the site of 3 British nuclear tests conducted in the 1950’s. Today you wouldn’t know that looking at all the beautiful scenery; that is, until you read one of the many signs advising visitors not to stay ashore for longer than one hour per day due to the risk of elevated radiation levels. Makes you think twice about eating the fish! Now a Marine Park the islands are numerous in number but only 2 are substantial in size. Trimouille and Hermite may be similar in landmass but completely different in shape. Trimouille is oblong shaped like many islands. Conversely, Hermite is a convoluted series of peninsulas, channels and lagoons – perfect cruising ground for a shallow drafted multihull. Most of the lagoons all but dry out on a low spring tide and many sand bars can surprise the unwary skipper.

Strong easterlies persisted for the next 5 days, which was fine by me as I had plenty of sheltered waters to explore by boat as well as islands by foot (away from ground zero that is). The main hazards are pearl farms, sand bars and strong currents. There are extensive coral reefs but the shallower waters in and around Hermit Island are mostly sand or mud bottomed. After a very pleasant 6 days I went looking for a current forecast and found one aboard ‘Peeble Mouse’, a large motor cruiser with all the hi-tech comms money can buy. These good folk even allowed me to use their sat phone, supplied ice for my esky and included cobia and wahoo fillets for dinner.

The next day I sailed to Claret Cove at the southern end of Hermit, a good spot to start my journey south the next morning. Above this sheltered cove lies a rusting derelict building that I had seen from afar many times in the previous week – apparently, the remains of an observation post during the H tests. Departing the Montes the next day I sailed down the west coast of Barrow Island and anchored in the lee of a couple of small islands on it’s southern coast. Again I wanted a full day to sail the 50+nm to Serrurier (Long) Island and strong easterlies the following day saw me making good time until passing to the west of Thevenard Island. Here the wind gradually dropped off until I was bearly ghosting along into a rapidly approaching sunset. With my destination in sight Tommy Tomatsu came to the rescue. Soon I was sitting at anchor, cold beer in hand, admiring another grand sunset.

Serrurier Island is shaped a bit like a NNW’ly facing fish and offers excellent protection from most winds in either one of the bays of the ‘fishes tail’. Beautiful sandy beaches, wonderful coral gardens, great fishing and just 30nm from Exmouth make this one of my favourite long w/e destinations. I did my usual beachcombing walk around the island spotting lots of turtles, a tern rookery and even a pair of ospreys chicks in their beach nest at the high water mark!

One more days sail had Alaya back on her Bundegi mooring and me with many wonderful memories and a golden capped tooth to boot.

Rob van Leeuwen


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