Ourtime in the Kimberley

Jill Woolnough | VOLUME 26, ISSUE 1
Moonrise over the Drysdale River.
Adventure beckons for one couple who headed to the spectacular far north aboard their Clipper Heritage 40.

Virtually everyone who buys a boat has a dream to go with it. When my husband Brian and I bought our first boat more than 20 years ago, our dream was to have a new way to relax and explore the waterways near our home, south of Newcastle on the New South Wales coast.

But we always had the dream that one day we would be able to afford something larger and take off to explore further afield. We had a vision to voyage north to the tropics and the Whitsunday Islands, in particular.

But then a chance encounter on our boat, a 40ft Clipper we called Ourtime, took that modest dream and expanded it – and expanded it again.

That encounter would take us halfway around Australia to some of the most rugged and remote waterways in the world, and to discover a lifestyle to which we are both now committed.

But let me start at the beginning.

Brian and I met in South Africa. He was there to further his career as a mining engineer; I was an English nurse looking for adventure. We travelled around southern Africa together, returned to Brian’s home in Australia and settled into raising a family and building Brian’s mining contracting business.

Eventually, retirement brought the opportunity to relax and we decided to buy a new boat that would reflect our more leisurely lifestyle. We bought a new trawler-style Clipper Heritage 40 three years ago and named it Ourtime because, as Brian says, this is now “our time”.


We set sail north with no schedule to meet, cruising at a gentle pace and enjoying a new life, just the two of us together in the space of our 40ft boat.

At Urangan at the southern end of Hervey Bay in Queensland, we met Vic and Ellen Hellmuth on their power catamaran Sea Change. They were on their way to the Kimberley in Western Australia. They felt we were kindred spirits, so they asked us if we would care to join them. Would we ever!

“Yes,” we said. “Just give us a couple of weeks to get home and sort ourselves out.”

We had seen the Kimberley region a year earlier by 4WD, and had always thought about a trip there on a boat; maybe one of the cruise ships you see in the big rivers. But we had never considered taking Ourtime to such a faraway place.

Vic is an incredible source of information, having been to the Kimberley three times on his boat, and we felt, with him and Ellen along, this was our chance.

Two weeks after the offer, Brian and I returned to Ourtime, ready to go.

I have to admit to having greater trepidation than Brian. But the bug really bit me at Cape Flattery, just 300nm from the northern tip of Cape York. And it was in absurd circumstances …

The wind came up as we crossed from Hope Island and we tucked into the bay at Cape Flattery. My log book notes reflect my feelings at the time.

“Not going anywhere in this wind. Even the birds can’t fly forwards. There’s white water on top of white water.”

Two days later, I wrote: “Very windy and rollie. Don’t think I want to do this anymore. Starting to feel seasick even at anchor!”

The next day, after Brian undertook a depth survey in the dinghy, we moved the boat to a more sheltered area of the bay.

Another diary entry: “We’re so close to getting there that it would be a pity to stop now. Add to that we suddenly got communication via mobile phone! What a relief! Think I’ll stay now!”


Being fairly much alone together for months on end reminded us of why we fell in love and why we married. Brian and I very much own and drive the boat together. Some of the tough jobs in the engine room Brian has to do, but I am right there with him, finding and handing him the tools. We work well as a team, which is so necessary when cruising in isolated areas.

The more we went through, the more we trusted the boat and our combined skills.

Our Clipper proved she is a strong sea boat, and she is also very comfortable. She has two cabins and one bathroom, a great galley and a comfortable saloon. Plenty of room for the two of us and, in fact, much of our time in the Kimberley we shared with other couples and friends. With such a well laid out boat, at no time did Brian or I feel our space was invaded.

My diaries reflect the life of the long-distance cruiser; the highs and lows of the adventure as the weather and the mechanical state of the boat affect the mood of the crew.

One day I wrote of a fishing expedition in the dinghy: “Spent a lot of the time caught up in roots and branches of trees and hissy spitting at each other. RSI setting in in the wrists after a very short time trying to get the lure in the right place. Of course, didn’t catch a fish!”

But the entry for that day concludes: “Very surprised at the lack of mozzies and sandflies. Another great day.”

The next day: “Squirt (our nickname for the boat’s watermaker) refused to play so the water situation isn’t all that brilliant. A half-minute shower and dishes washed in sea-water. Pioneer spirit diminishing as fast as the red wine!”

But there were sights to lift the heart, as well. One day I saw a seagull hitching a ride on a turtle’s back in the middle of the Arafura Sea!

The voyage from Hervey Bay to Darwin took us four months and 350 hours of engine time. We left the boat in Darwin through the cyclone season, returning regularly for cleaning and maintenance duties. In Cairns, we had installed the watermaker and a screen door (to combat the incessant insects). In Darwin, I bought a bread-maker and a little portable washing machine – all important additions for a long voyage.

When we returned to continue the voyage, I was so excited. It was a great day to start out to sea again.

After a voyage down the massive King River to Wyndham to pick up supplies and friends Neville and Pat, we began the leg of the voyage we had come all this way to experience.


The first taste of the spectacle of the Kimberley region came early in Casuarina Creek and the Berkeley River, where, after finally meeting up with Vic and Ellen, we were treated to towering cliff faces, waterfalls – and crocodiles.

My diary described our first full day there: “Wonderful wake-up call with the birds. Fishing in a creek today. Dinghied up to an area with waterfalls and fresh pools – Pat, Neville and I had a sit in the ‘spas’. Served a gourmet meal by Pat and Neville of macadamia crusted barramundi and an exotic fruit dessert. Luxury. Another lovely day done.”

Then it was on to the almost legendary King George River and its falls.

In the Drysdale River we met Don, the “caretaker” of the area. He’s a hermit-type man who lives alone in a camp near the river. He calls it Alligator Camp. While he boils his billy for tea on a rough wood fire and lives in a shack surrounded by hundreds of square kilometres of sparsely inhabited bush, the shack is solar-powered and he has permanent internet access through a satellite dish. Don took us on a long walk through the bush to see ancient aboriginal rock paintings.

Like the aboriginal people, Don has learned to walk the rough ground in bare feet. He told us the skill is to tread softly and develop the technique of rolling the foot as it detects something sharp.

The only negative aspect of the entire voyage – at least that I still remember – was the lurking presence of crocodiles. You don’t swim in those giant rivers; you don’t even dangle your feet in the water. In fact, in the Mitchell River I remember one big fella who clearly disapproved of our presence. He approached the boat often, and swum around us. One day Brian and I were out in the dinghy and he made a bee line for us. We high-tailed it out of there!

Aside from more than enough fish to feed us and our friends for the duration, we were never short of fresh vegetables and fruits, nor even good wine. The ships and barges that supply the fishing and pearling fleets in the region are also happy to supply cruisers. And that applies virtually all the way from Cairns, around Cape Yorke and right through the Kimberley.

It was simply a matter of phoning ‘Woolies’ and putting in an order. Well, maybe a bit more than that. It demanded a bit of scheduling.

The ships also sold us fuel and, on rare occasions, provided water. If we were really lucky, they would even take our garbage. And they even delivered people. Our close friends, Jan and Herb Moloney, travelled on a mother ship from Cairns and joined us at Margaret Bay on Cape York.

Other friends came and went from outposts and even from a rock in the middle of the Mitchell River – flown in by helicopter!

After two months exploring the rivers, creeks and islands of the Kimberley, away from any townships, we returned to Wyndham. For most people, two months away from civilisation would seem arduous and uncomfortable. Yet a little thoughtful planning made the voyage exciting, comfortable and relaxing.


First and foremost, you’ll need a strong sense of adventure tempered by a good dose of common sense, plus …

• A good first-aid box

• A watermaker – and plenty of spare filters

• Satellite phone

• Basic mechanical capabilities, including changing filters and impellers as well as basic repairs

• Spares – bilge pumps, impellers, filters, hoses and hose clamps

• A comprehensive tool kit

• A bread maker

• A small washing machine

• A cryovac machine for sealing food


After their Kimberley adventure, Brian and Jill were hooked on the boating lifestyle.

“We are both totally committed to our adventures,” says Jill. “And we decided we needed a bigger boat if the adventure was going to continue.”

In November last year, they took delivery of Ourtime II, a Clipper Cordova 48.

“It has the extra space that gives us luxuries like a built-in washing machine,” says Jill.“There’s a bigger galley, with more storage space and an en-suite bathroom. It’s such a luxury not having to share the bathroom when we have friends on board!”

The Cordova 48 is a twin-engine, semi-planing hull design that is equally happy cruising at eight knots or at 18 knots (33.3 km/h), if the Woolnoughs need to get somewhere quickly – or out of trouble.

In fact, Ourtime II included upgraded engines to twin Cummins 440hp turbo diesels.

As well as additional power, Brian and Jill have specified a range of options that reflect the knowledge they gained on the Kimberley voyage and that will make life aboard Ourtime II even more comfortable.

These include a full awning over the aft section of the flybridge as well as clears to enclose the flybridge hardtop.

“It makes this space really comfortable in the tropics and keeps out the insects and the sun,” says Brian.

Another innovation is stainless steel railings around the swim platform, with slots to take acrylic inserts that will enclose the space – “so we can use the platform and not have to worry about crocs looking for an easy meal,” says Brian.

They have upgraded the anchor to an 80lb stainless steel model and the 100m of chain to a larger 13mm diameter.

“You can’t have enough chain,” says Brian. The tender is a 4m aluminium dinghy, with fixed gunwale foam buffers.

“Aluminium so the crocs can’t bite into it,” explained Brian. “The buffers around the gunwale are for times we are out of croc country and swimming off the tender. It’s a lot easier to climb back aboard. And the foam protects the boat from the inevitable knocks on docks and marina pontoons as well as protecting both boat and tender when we are launching or retrieving it.”

There’s a watermaker of course, and luxuries including foredeck sun-cushions. The flybridge seating converts to berths and Brian has designed an innovative chart locker and workstation that straddles the companionway stairs.

Their next adventure is to Tasmania.

“I’ve heard so much about the wild west coast and we are eager to explore it. Then New Zealand; the Bay of Islands. We’ll ship the boat over there, of course. The Tasman Sea is a bit large for us yet.

“After that, who knows?”