National Geographic : 1991 Jan
HARM'S WAY lay every which way when Willie was sent spinning about in a churningpassage leading to Secure Bay on the coast of the Kimberley region. Perched in the rigging, authorRodney Fox looks out for whirlpools born of 35-foot tides rushing through the narrow entrance, safely negotiated after several heart-stoppingturns. Down the coast, the corrugated terrainof the Kimberley extends into the sea as fingers of landflanked by drowned riverbeds. The Sea Beyond the Outback One of their few surviving elders, 68-year-old David Wiggins, told us something of the past after we had anchored Willie in their harbor. "We used to use rafts made of mangroves pinned together," he explained, "and float from island to island on fishing expeditions, using ingoing and outgoing tides. But when the white man introduced us to dinghies and outboard motors 40 years ago, we never looked back. It made our travel and fishing much easier." The water off the Kimberley was a milky blue-green, a color that I'd never seen anywhere, and it lapped a coastline made of red rock, green gray gum trees, and coastal barriers of mangroves. It was neither jungle, nor rain forest, nor desert. It was a place that looked like no other on earth. The outrageous height ofthe tides- as much as 35 feet between high and low-had been unimportant while we were under way. But now at night we had to anchor in at least 40 feet of water, or we might wake up stuck in the mud. "In a place called Secure Bay," said Tony, "there's a narrow outlet where the outflow of tidal water is so intense that some developers were looking at it for hydroelectricity." We motored inland among the mud flats, as sage green water drained from mangrove swamps in discolored swirls, and into the entrance of Secure Bay through an opening called "the funnel." We came out into a magnificent natural harbor, nearly a mile wide. "But this is not a harbor," insisted Emily. "There are no houses. We haven't seen any houses for days." She was right: no signs of human habitation, not even wheel tracks. We were totally alone. We slipped through one more bottleneck entrance and anchored. It was a calm, warm evening, and we enjoyed a thick barbecued steak and a flavorsome Australian cabernet sauvignon followed by crepes, fried bananas, and maple syrup. Lounging on deck that night, Eve noticed something odd. "I've been looking at the Southern Cross," she said, "and it keeps changing position on me." Willie was turning at anchor. P REDAWN, we were awakened by the crunching sound of our dragging anchor echoing through the chain lead. Tony leaped to start the engine, shouting, "Pull 'er up! Pull 'er up!" The anchor was hog-tied by twisted knots in its own chain. The tidal movement through the night had created a continuous circu lar eddy where we had moored. A floating, full-size mangrove tree, nearly 15 feet long, sped by and was sucked out of the entrance to the bay with the falling tide. With nerves jangling but anchor aboard, we edged Willie into the current and were swept into the center of the funnel-shaped outlet, tearing through the water faster than I had ever traveled in a sailboat. High red cliffs raced past. We neared a rocky outcrop that choked the flow, and I could see white, swirling water. Whirlpools began to form around us like mini-cyclones. Willie lurched into the turbulence, shuddered, and took a large wave of white foaming water to the starboard bow. One massive whirlpool snagged us, forcing us straight at the cliff. Suddenly we were going sideways down the stream. Tony fought with the wheel, grinning broadly as if this was great fun. "Don't worry," he exhorted his schooner, "don't worry. Watch 'er come around now! Hang in there! Hang in there!"