During our Louisiades cruise we encountered a vast assortment of vessels which had made the passage from Australia. The smallest boats were a Compass 28 and a similar length plywood tri-maran. Our 35' Jarkan also came in at the smaller end of the scale, with most of the remaining boats around the 40'-45' (many of them catamarans) and a couple longer than 50'.
Despite the disparity in waterline lengths and hull counts, the fleet which sailed from Cairns all arrived roughly within a 24 hour period. In other words, if you can average 4-5 knots under sail, you'll get there in about 4 days from Cairns.
The Coral Sea
Whether your boat can withstand the various moods of the Coral Sea is a more difficult question. We experienced 20-25 knot winds with medium to rough seas most ofthe way there and back. On the return passage, we suffered a knockdown caused by a 5-6m "rogue" wave that caught us broadside as we surfed down a smaller wave. Another yacht which left a couple of days after us encountered rough seas driven by wind up to 50 knots. Nevetheless, all the boats made it there and back without incident thanks to good preparation and good seamanship.
Before contemplating the 500 mile passage to a destination where boat repair facities are limited to timber canoes, it is prudent to undertake a continuous shakedown cruise to windward for a couple of days in open water. This should turn up most of the leaks in the cabin, the locker doors that fly open at inppportune moments, and other simple annoyances and inconveniences which may be impossible to fix at sea.
I consider the following items essential for a safe, comfortable offshore cruise.
- fresh water - potable water is in short supply in the islands. Catching rainwater is an option, however rainfall is not guaranteed. Allow at least 5L per person per day. A watermaker is a good idea.
- liferaft or escape boat - in the unlikely event of being forced to abandon ship, you will probably be outside the range of rescue helicopters. You need a well-equipped raft to keep you afloat long enough for a merchant ship to be re-routed to rescue you.
- medical kit - medical aid for serious illness or injury is unavailable in the islands. Alotau is the nearest hospital with a doctor on staff. You must therefore carry a well-stocked med kit complete with plenty of antibiotics.
- antibiotic ointment - coral cuts and insect bites become infected rapidly in the islands. A good antibiotic cream such as Bactroban is essential, as well as plenty of dressings to keep the wound clean and dry.
- either a satellite phone or HF radio is essential, particularly in the event you require medical advice. Note that Radio Medical is only available if you have Selcall on your HF, otherwise you need to get someone else to advise RCC to listen for your call (I.e. RCC does not maintain a listening watch on voice frequencies).
- charts for islands, also China Strait for contingency
- Backup GPS with plenty of batteries
- steering compass
- handbearing compass or rangefinder binoculars
- accurate depth sounder
- tide tables (Australian National TT covers Louisiades)
- RADAR - for collision avoidance and accurate position fixing in poor visibility
- Chart plotter with GRIB overlay feature for navigation and weather forecasts
- AIS receiver - identifies ships that pose a possible collision risk, and provides the ship's name so you can call them on VHF to alert them to your presence