Chapter 29: April 9th to May 19th -- Cruising Up the “Sunshine Coast” to the Great Barrier Reef in the Whitsunday Islands
Fishing Boat Taking Off at Sunset
April 9th, 2005: First “Cruising Day” of this Season
When I last wrote we were getting ourselves and Mi Gitana ready to leave Scarboro Marina (in Brisbane area) to begin our cruising season. We mostly finished up our “had to do” chores and even got a new roller furling system installed on our staysail (This is our second forward-of-the-mast sail which, in the past, to raise and lower, required Joe to go up on deck — not a good idea in rough seas or at night time–to do it by hand. With our new system it “rolls” and unrolls itself with us controlling the lines in the safety of the cockpit.)
Our planned departure was around 2-3 days ago… however, as usual, we are at the mercy of the weather. Since our return from our “vacation” about 10 days ago we have had pretty stormy weather here with some sort of rain and high winds every day. There is a super high front over southern Australia (and out over the Tasman sea) that is just sitting there — not moving which is great for our friends in Melbourne and all of Southern Australia… however not great for those of us up here! So we delayed our departure leaving on one of the better of the recent not-so-good days. We still have more boat “chores” to do, but our plan is to get to the next port up, Mooloolaba, a day’s sail away, where they have beautiful beaches and wonderful cafes and restaurants, just a walk away from the marina (versus where we are now, which is quite isolated from these things — and no beaches). Our thoughts are we can whittle away on the “chore” list in the mornings and hit the beaches in the afternoons… for about a week’s time before we make serious progress on our northerly track up the Australian Coast.
So, we departed under gray skies at around 6 AM this morning with our friends aboard Wind Spirit (Barry and Sue) and Kim Thu (Hal and Kim) releasing our lines from Mi Gitana’s home for the last 6 months and us saying our farewells. Wind Spirit is for sale now with Barry and Sue “giving up” life on the sea, to take up road traveling -- and Kim Thu’s upcoming sailing season not determined as of yet… so we will not see these people for a long time, if ever — more sad farewells.
The gray skies quickly turned to a drenching squall — shortly after our departure. Since I steer the boat while the rest aboard sit under cover, I finally donned my rain gear. After the first squall passed we noted we were surrounded by other “threatening” dark clouds with the telltale gray rain “streaks” under them, I decided just to keep dressed up in my yellow slicker–one by one, all these black rain filled stormy clouds “just missed” us — so I decided that is the trick, i.e. to keep my hot and uncomfortable rain gear on for the day made us NOT get wet again! A small sacrifice to pay for staying dry!
However, we did have a very “boisterous” (nice way of saying roller coaster, uncomfortable, rough weather) day with winds between 20-25 knots and seas on the beam (most uncomfortable place for them) of over 6-8 feet. This was a good test of how our new crew person, Anne, REALLY would do. She had claimed on our email interviews with her in the months before we accepted her as our crew for the season, not to be prone to seasickness. Well she passed the test with flying colors as it was NOT a pleasant first day at sea, and there was no calm “get-adjusted-to-the-motion” time — just instant boom! This is it!–as soon as we left the marina breakwater.
Of course this first day of cruising season was NOT without it’s problems. Almost as soon as we left, the fan belt started squeaking, requiring a quick change of fan belts, which of course happened during the first squall. Anne got her first indoctrination in being Joe’s helper in the engine room!
Since the winds and seas (“boisterous” as they were) were in our favor, we actually arrived at Mooloolaba a few hours ahead of schedule. (That’s a shock!) Unfortunately, though, that meant we needed to do circles out of the port entrance for over an hour awaiting the tide to rise a few feet. We have never in our sailing history had to worry about tides (except when we were entering atolls in the Tuamotos), but here in Australia, it looks like we will have new challenges to learn about. Anyway the channel into Mooloolaba (where we were heading) is too shallow for our draft (depth of our keel) during low tide, and we did not relish sitting in the bottom on the mud. So when we thought we’d have about a foot to spare under our keel, we finally entered the narrow and shallow entrance channel to the marina, and thank goodness — we didn’t even take a bounce off the bottom. However we DID give the people at the yacht club (attached to the marina we were entering) quite a show at our attempted landing in our assigned slip–it was AWFUL! Somehow with the wind whipping up we ended up sideways to two pylons, i.e. perpendicular to how we wanted to be! And of course Joe’s yelling at me, and decided to take over and it became worse! I grabbed the wheel back and with lots of words exchanged, we finally backed totally out of the area we were in and made a new approach making a much more graceful entrance! So Anne got to also witness our first loud “discussion” of the season — but Joe and I quickly get over our squabbles — and we were happy to have arrived safe (no scratches, remarkably to our boat–only a few dents in our egos!) at our new “home for the next week. One thing that helped us a little bit, was a boat our size came in a few minutes after our arrival and did about the same thing, only perhaps a little worse — as they were out there scrubbing off black scuff marks on their hull after tying up!
April 13th: Mooloolaba… Heart of the “Sunshine Coast”
Best-laid plans did not happen. Our plans of working half days and spending the afternoons at the beach have been impossible due to the weather. The same bad weather we have had for the last couple of weeks prior to our departure has followed us. The same “high front” is still sitting still in southern Australia, leaving us with very strong trade winds and lots of rain and squalls. The day after we arrived (Sunday) we took as a day off from boat chores and it was actually sunny, so we walked around town, and enjoyed a lunch at one of the many outside cafes. We didn’t go to the beach (other than to look at how beautiful it was) thinking every other day would be the same. Unfortunately… that was the ONLY good day we have had so far, so we regret that we didn’t don our “togs” or “cossies” (see last chapter’s language lesson = bathing suits) to enjoy the beach when we had a chance.
Mooloolaba’s a lot like many California resort beach towns with lots of high- rise vacation type condominiums, some motels, wall-to-wall beachfront restaurants and bars, etc. Despite the weather, we at least did get out to eat a couple of nights while we were there. But most of the boat projects were relegated to inside ones. We did have one break in the weather long enough for Joe to go up the mast to try and fix (unsuccessfully) a light at the top. But otherwise, so far our time in Mooloolaba has been pretty ho-hum.
April 16th: Mooloolaba to Double Island Anchorage
Due to the weather, once again we left Mooloolaba this morning at sunrise -- 2 days later than we had planned waiting for weather “window.” Actually the weather never improved very much, but we left, as above described in the better of still not-so-good weather. Again we had high seas and winds, but not too bad, in general, of a trip with the wind at our stern. Unfortunately, the only anchorage available to us in this direction is one described in our cruising guide as: “one of the most uncomfortable on the coast.” Great place for our first anchorage of the season. When we arrived at just before sunset, we were surrounded by a fishing boat fleet, so we figured they must feel it is a good (as well as safe anchorage). However, within 15 minutes of us dropping anchor, (just at sunset), every one of them took off to go fishing for the night — then when we awoke the next morning, they had again returned and dropped anchor around us. And what a night it was… the anchorage offered very little protection from the wind (we were still having gusts at anchor of over 25 knots) and we had huge swells hitting us on the side causing us to do large side to side rolls all night. I had to use my beanbag “chair” in bed to keep me from rolling out of bed! Plus with the tidal changes, the anchor alarm (a safety alarm we turn on at night hooked up to the GPS that shows if we are moving in a direction we shouldn’t — and supposedly indicates if your anchor is dragging) went off 4-5 times, each time meaning we have to get up and check our position. Thank goodness we were NOT dragging and just moving in unusual directions due to the strong tides but anyway, it was NOT a good night!
April 18th: Arrival at Frasier Island
The main reason anyone would stay in the above terrible anchorage is to await a rising tide in order to cross over a huge sand bar (called Wide Bar Bay) enroute to our next destination, Frasier Island. It is frequently not advised to even attempt to cross this “bar” during high south east wind weather (which is what we had been having for weeks) as with the high winds comes high swells/waves, which break over the sand bar. So yesterday, talking to the Coast Guard at the area, they said, though not the best of conditions, several boats had “made” it across in previous days, so we decided to accept the “challenge” and go. The alternative was a huge distance detour AROUND this island, and missing one of the planned tourist stops (a 4-wheel tour of the island) we were looking forward to. We made it across the bar (with both Joe and Anne constantly using 2 pairs of binoculars watching beacons and lead lights [“lead lights” are lights on the shore that you line up on shore if you are exactly in the right position] to guide us) safely-- but it was quite a humbling sight watching these huge breakers all around us. Once inside, we went to a nice anchorage (nice in that it was FLAT calm!) for the evening at Figtree Creek on Frasier Island.
Ashore from our where we were anchored, we observed a wild lone dingo, scouting the coastline. The dingoes on this island, since for thousands of years they have been isolated from breeds on “the mainland” that have intermingled with dogs, are considered genetically “pure.” In recent years there have been numerous attacks by dingoes on humans (including in 2001 a 12 year old boy was attacked, mauled and killed by a dingo only a few feet from where his family was camping) -- but most of the blame falls on tourists and campers for feeding them and trying to get close to them for photo “opportunities”. So the dingoes, which by nature are shy creatures, have on the island become more “bold” and seek easy food opportunities from the food the campers bring with them.
Then this morning we left the anchorage timing our departure for an arrival time across the shallowest spot in our passage to our next destination (Kingfisher resort area) at high tide. This passage between Frasier Island and the “mainland” is a series of canals through sand in and around small islands… i.e. riddled with shallow spots that change with the tides. We bought the latest charts plus another cruising guide to “guide” us through this 40-mile part of our trip. They also DO have beacons (red and green markers) but unlike we would see in passages in the US (and most other waters we have traveled) they are really far apart, and most of the time just either a red marker OR a green marker and not both. So despite the markers, charts and guides, there is still some guess work involved in the route. We soon found this out the hard way. On this 15-mile trip (from Figtree Creek to Kingfisher resort), we went aground 3 times. Joe says 2 of the times “don’t count” as one of them we just bounced off the bottom (a hard shocking bounce though) and the second we must have been in really deep silt as we plowed our way through it like going through super thick molasses! However on the 3rd time, we got ourselves stuck really well. [Note this was NOT at the charted “shallowest” spot that we had so worried ourselves about crossing, an area that we got through with no problem!] The grounding actually happened when we were close to one of the markers telling us to keep to the right, which we were. After going aground, we ended up sideways to the current and channel and tried all types of maneuvers (including raising a sail to try to tilt us to raise our keel up), but nothing worked. We finally swallowed our pride and called the Coast Guard to let them know our predicament. Their response was “you must have gotten too close to the red marker!” We had gotten no more than 20 feet close to it, so even looking back on it, we’re not sure how we could have known bad water was too our right when the chart didn’t indicate it and there was no warning marker/buoy on the shallow side. So not sure what the lesson learned was on that one. Anyway we just waited a bit for the tide to rise (thank goodness it was coming up and not down or we would have been sitting there until after dark!), and we eventually floated up off the shallows and continued our passage. To add to the challenges of our passage we also had an overcast, squally day (another one!) so it seemed like just when we were at a critical area where we really needed to closely watch and follow markers/beacons, we would be hit by a downpour. So a bit white knuckled, we were very relieved to safely arrive and to be anchored this evening just before sunset again in a calm spot just next to Kingfisher resort on Frasier Island.
Tuesday — Wednesday April 19th —20th: Frasier Island Touring
The weather has finally changed — the sun is OUT! Our first major job was to our first-of-the-season-dinghy-assembly-and -launching, which for a -change, went smoothly. We were then able to motor ashore and walk around the resort. It was interesting in that the resort is very well “hidden” in the environment of the island with one large complex and many “mini” cabins throughout the hills overlooking the bay and beaches. We could hardly see any of the buildings from the bay and our boat. One thing we did note is all around the resort was a dingo protection fence, with signs requesting the tourists to keep the gates closed, to keep the dingoes out of the resort area, and to keep a close watch on their children. Anyway we had a little bit of pool time in the afternoon, and spent our evening meal at the resorts “fine” restaurant celebrating our 7th wedding anniversary.
Then our 2nd day (can’t believe it — our 2nd sunny day in a row!) we booked and took an all day “eco” 4 wheel-drive tour of the island, with one of the Island’s forest rangers as our guide. Frasier Island is “renowned” as the world’s largest sand island. I expected it to look like a huge 75-mile long sand dune, but not even close. Although it IS made up entirely of sand, it had an incredible variety of landscapes, from vast rolling sand dunes (that they call here “sandblows”) to dense tropical rainforests and over 200 deep freshwater lakes. In it’s past it was extensively logged (with huge tracks of the rainforest mowed down), including stripping of huge 20 ft. wide trees prized in ship building and also used to build the Suez canal (due to their high content of turpentine like sap making them dense, strong and “rot-resisting” in water), but since 1993 the island has become a National Park. (To us it was hard to believe that these huge trees plus all the other flora on the island could grow in sand!) The island is now the haven for recreational camping, fishing, off-roading, and hiking. Huge ferries come over from the mainland all through the day offloading 4-wheel drive (almost no paved roads on the island except just from the ferry landing to the resort) vehicles loaded up with people and camping equipment.
Our vehicle for the tour was a huge 40-passenger 4-wheel drive bus, which was about half full, mostly with the Kingfisher resort tourists. It was amazing that the bus could make it up and down these dirt trails, some quite steep. It seemed like for an hour we were just driving through thick vegetation, when all of a sudden the bus emerged onto a beautiful wide beach on the east coast of the island, called the “75-mile beach.” And for as far as we could see in either direction was just beautiful sand, lined with the crashing Pacific surf. We drove down the beach for at least 30 minutes going 40-50 miles an hour — it was like a sand freeway with us passing by at least a hundred other 4-wheel drive passenger vehicles! There were even tour passenger planes that landed and took off on the beach. I can imagine the pilot’s challenge to land with all the cars driving in the same pathway he/she was. Our tour guide told us that despite the beauty of the beach, there were severe “lethal” rip tides (undertows) as well as many man-eating sharks…hence we saw no one getting in the ocean. Along the ocean we saw beautiful colored sandstone cliffs and freshwater streams so clear that the water was almost invisible. We also stopped at an old shipwreck that used to be a luxury liner. Most of its hull was under the sand at the water’s edge, with the remaining of its topsides still mostly a rusted eyesore visible.
Along our days journey, we stopped at several lookouts over sandblows (dunes), and took a hike down in the rainforest looking at some ferns believed to date back to the dinosaur days intermingled with huge smooth skinned white eucalyptus trees . Our last stop of the day was at a large freshwater lake surrounded by some of the whitest, powder fine sand I have ever seen. Although it was tempting to go in for a swim, I settled for wading in (brrr!) and just enjoying the views from the shore of those braver than me.
Surprisingly enough we did not see any animal life during our trip — although perhaps that was good as the island’s inhabitants include more lethal reptiles and venomous spiders than we really wanted to know about! Our Ranger guide did keep us entertained for the day, besides our many stops telling us Aboriginal legends and pointing out vegetation and historical aspects of the island.
All in all, although quite expensive ($150 Australian / $120 US each), we were glad we took the tour of the island and would recommend it to anyone else traveling this way.
We made it back to the boat just before sunset, hoisted the dinghy motor to its place on the back end of Mi Gitana, brought the dinghy up and secured her on deck, and readied the boat for our passage tomorrow for the marina at port Bundaberg.
Thursday April 21st: Kingfisher Resort, Frasier Island to Bundaberg
With no more shallow water to worry about as long as we followed the “Highway” of buoys to keep in “deep” water, we left our anchorage at Kingfisher resort heading north still along Frasier Island, and then across Hervey Bay. The area is also known for it’s migrating gray whales that annually travel 3,000 miles up from Antarctica to Hervey Bay (just north of Frasier Island) to give birth to their young, however this was not the season.
Being behind Frasier Island protected us from the biggest of the waves for first half of trip, but after we got out of the lee of the island the wind was back up to 25-30 knots and with the weather reporting “2 meter (6ft.) waves on top of 2.2 meter (7 ft) swells”— And for a change, the weather report was right --that’s 13 ft. seas! However, the good news was it was all behind us on our stern, making it NOT too uncomfortable. What a sail we had with only the jib out and double reefed (coiled up to make a smaller sail) and we still were going (flying actually with a lot of surfing DOWN the big swells) 6.5-7 knots --REALLY fast for Mi Gitana who usually averages around 4.5 knots! We made it to Bundaberg about 2 hours earlier than we anticipated — also a first for us. We had another not so great landing, trying to get into a very narrow slip (shared with a large very wide Coast Guard boat) in the continued very high winds with us being blown down on the other boat… but this time, at our request the Marina sent several people down to assist us in grabbing hoisted lines to them, helping to pull us upwind to our side of the dock. Again no damage done and we were grateful to be tied in safely.
Saturday April 23rd: Bundaberg
Although the marina here is really nice (fairly new, modern, with great “yachties” facilities), it is really isolated from the town of Bundaberg. Between the town and us is about 20 minutes of sugar cane fields. After a day of sailing yesterday after our arrival here, my plan was to have pizza delivered for dinner — but we were too far away, even for the pizza delivery guys to get here!
Yesterday, we worked for the morning, then took a break for a “free” mid-day Barbecue put on by the marina every Friday for the cruisers (very nice of them!) then back to work. Then this morning, we decided to “explore” Bundaberg. The marina (since it is so isolated) offers a free shuttle into town once a day, so we took it in this morning.
Among Australians, the town is best known as the home of the very popular Bundaberg Rum (also we believe the ONLY rum made in the country!) Since there’s not much else to do in Bundaberg, we participated in one of its only and biggest tourist attraction, a tour of the rum distillery for the morning. (Rum is Joe’s and my favorite “liquor” and a mainstay of our once a night — not every night–happy hour libation, so we thought it would be interesting to go on a tour to see how it is made). From the moment we got near the distillery, we could smell the Molasses permeating the air we were breathing, even on the windy day it was. Rum is made from the molasses, which is a by- product from making granulated sugar. (So with the sugar cane, they get two sellable products.) The distillery here was started in 1898, and other than being burned down twice in its history has been making rum since then. The rum was also used historically in WWI and WWII as “rations” for the sailors aboard Australian ships. On one part of the tour, when we went into the fermenting and distilling section, the smell changed from molasses to similar to what you would smell in a winery, yeast and almost fruity. Then into the storage section where they had American Oak Vats 3 stories tall and I have no idea how wide — supposedly some of the biggest vats in the world, where the rum “matures” and ages to it’s golden color for a minimum of 2 years. Of course the BEST part of the tour was the end where the tasting room was. Unlike at a winery where you get a thimble full of wine to taste, here we were rewarded with full pint-sized glasses of our choice of their products… rum and coke ON DRAFT (supposedly the only “spirit” on draft in the world), a rum and ginger beer pre-canned drink (sounds strange, but was great), several “aged” premium sipping rums, and a wonderful desert liqueur with rum, chocolate, coffee, and caramel, which they served over rocks with a dollop of fresh thick whipping cream over the top. Needless to say, we tried all they would let us try and didn’t even attempt walking back to town to meet our returning shuttle to the marina — we called a taxi.
Our morning tour of the distillery, took longer than we anticipated and we had to catch the shuttle from Bundaberg town center to back to the marina, meaning we only had another 15-20 minutes to kill, which we quickly made a supermarket run. However Anne, who did not join us on the Rum tour and opted for “exploring” Bundaberg, said we did not miss much. As far as towns go, it was “ordinary.”
Sunday April 24th: Bundaberg Marina to Pancake Creek Anchorage
We left with another sunrise, 6 AM departure, with light winds so it was a lot easier to get out of our marina slip than it was on our arrival, which was a good thing as there are not many dock-line helpers at that time of the morning. Today we are making our way up to Gladstone Marina via one stop enroute to Pancake Creek anchorage. We left with a beautiful sky at sunrise with red wispy clouds… but not too red for our feared “red sky at morn.” We DID have one of our first beautiful on the water days since we started this season— the sun is out with no hint of rain (Also while were in Bundaberg, we bought all new rain gear — as our others was literally rotten with the seams busting out with the rotten stitches–so perhaps now that we have spent the money for new stuff, we won’t need to use it — which is fine by me, since I’m the one who is always destined to steer the boat in the rain while everyone else stays under the “canopy” dodger!) Our weather report changed this AM from high (20-25 knots of wind) to 18-23… much better, but in reality all we saw were about 12-15, meaning it should have still been plenty enough to sail (but not to “fly” like we did on our day TO Bundaberg!)
However, things don’t always go as planned. Unfortunately our roller furling (the gizmo that rolls up and unrolls the sail) on our Jib (our forward large sail that we need for downwind sailing) malfunctioned and we cannot use our Jib. Joe has tried for about 3 hours while we were underway to repair it but he can’t see anything wrong with it. He was up on the bow of the boat with our 8-9 ft seas rolling around (tethered on, of course to his safety harness) and Anne went up to help hold onto tools — but no luck. So our plans of getting in to our anchorage way before sunset did not happen.
Even with our slow passage with only our small sail, with a little luck though (the almost LAST of our days luck as you will soon see), we arrived at our anchorage site just before sunset. Our cruising book describes this anchorage with “a deep wide entrance… and popular.” We beg to differ! We passed the channel marker (note again they only had ONE marker on some rocks on the shore and NO marker to the right marking the other side of the channel) and saw what looked to be (and as indicated on our charts) as a sand bank way ahead of us. Well almost immediately right at the “deep wide entrance” we hit sand and were hard aground. We tried again for over 30 minutes with the engine and raising our one working headsail to get out of our stuck-ness… to no avail — we were literally “Up a creek (Pancake Creek, that is) without a paddle.” Unlike our previous time(s) when we were aground a few days ago, this time, there were huge swells that would pick us up and then crash us back down into this packed sand/mud bottom so hard that the whole rigging and boat would shudder. But with what little “luck” we had remaining on the day’s rations of luck, the tide again was rising and so eventually (of course AFTER, we had embarrassingly reported our predicament again to the coast guard), we floated free and went out to sea again — this time lining our course more closely hugging the rocky shoreline to the left (also a white knuckled experience getting that close to the rocks) in order to avoid the unmarked sandbar on our right! It was now way after sunset, as we inched our way in and very close to the anchorage’s entrance (rather than chance it by going in the creek’s “deep water” any further), we dropped our anchor and stayed put! Again it was a rocking, windy anchorage with huge tidal currants — so not much sleep was gained that night!
Monday, April 25th: Pancake Creek to Gladstone Marina
We only had supposedly a 5 hour trip to make today, but we left early with HIGH tide and closely followed the tracks (charted on our computer tracking program of the vessel’s “path”) that we had come in on our 2nd attempt to get OUT of Pancake creek. We had an okay day motor sailing (still couldn’t go very fast downwind with only our small staysail out front and our larger jib sail “jammed” and unusable) to the entrance to the Gladstone harbor where we had to go up-river to reach the marina. Then we got an introduction to really strong tidal currants. Even though we had 20-23 knots of wind AND large waves pushing us into the river in the direction we wanted to go, PLUS our one small sail, PLUS our engine going at full RPM’s, the tide was coming out, so we barely progressed for several hours going only 2-3 knots towards our destination. It was amazing watching the wind waves and breaking swells pushing against the current, so it looked like beer foam all around us. It seemed to take forever for us to reach the marina — with only the smokestacks of the industrial town of Gladstone to look at scenery wise. Our 5-hour planned trip, ended up taking us 8 hours, but we arrived with daylight to spare into the fairly nice Gladstone marina. We only plan to stay here as long as it takes for us to get our roller furling operational again–which hopefully will be an easy fix.
I should note that our crew lady, Anne, is doing really great and continues to stay calm throughout all of our mis-adventures so far. She is still a bit “green” in her sailing skills, but is absorbing and learning quickly all we have to teach her (obviously learning some also from our many MISTAKES!) She is also studying several of our Seamanship books on board, writing notes and learning terminology, practicing tying knots, etc. Before long she may know more than us. Anyway we are really pleased with her calm demeanor and her humor at times when we need it!
Wednesday, April 27th: Gladstone to Cape Capricorn
With only a few hours of fiddling with the jammed roller furling system, Joe and Anne were able to diagnose and resolve the problem — a chore a lot easier to accomplish tied up steadily to a marina, instead of at sea! We had a nice dinner at the nearby Gladstone Yacht club, with a friend we ran into on another yacht (Phillip on Abracadabra) and were off again today — not too early. Mostly we timed our departure with the tides in our favor NOT wanting a repeat of our entry into here. We had a great day of sailing with the wind mostly abeam and the seas, although more from the sides than we like, still not too big, so the “ride” was relatively (to our past sails) quite comfortable… Plus we can now go faster again with our repaired Jib sail system working properly.
However the reward of the fine sailing day was paid for dearly by the absolute WORSE anchorage we have experienced in our 4 years of sailing. We were complaining above with our season’s first anchorage (at Double Island) as being bad… but this was even worse. Our cruising guidebook says that this anchorage is “remarkably free from swell, even in the most boisterous south easterly winds. Holding is good in sand.” After our night there, (and his previous erroneous description of the entrance to Pancake Creek), we were about to throw his guidebook into the drink! We arrived here at Cape Capricorn (so named because it lies almost exactly on the earth’s geographic latitude at 23 degrees 30 minutes south, called the Tropic of Capricorn), before sunset, but the wind was blowing like snot from one direction, the tidal current was pushing the boat another direction, and huge swells and breaking wind waves were hitting us mid-ship rolling us violently from side to side. It quickly became a peanut butter sandwich dinner night (I can’t cook as we have to hold on with 2 hands below in order to not fall over!) and we all plan to go to “bed” at around 7PM, as it was too dangerous to even walk around on the boat.
Another thing our book lied to us about is SUPPOSEDLY once we get this far north, the barrier reef is supposed to block the swell and it is supposed to be calm, calm, calm! We are making our way out towards the Great Barrier reef with about a month ahead of us of “planned” anchorages before we head back to the mainland and to another marina (Townsville). So we hope quickly, that the anchorages improve greatly!
Thursday, April 28th: Cape Capricorn to Great Kepple Island
Last night, there was no way I could sleep in our bed, so I braced mid-ship on a horizontal to the swell on a settee (“couch” in the “living room”) using my bean bag chair as sort of a sandbag to keep me from rolling. And by lying parallel to the swell, I only rocked up and down instead of side to side. But sleep came only in spurts for all of us… as the anchor alarm kept going off. Eventually after a couple of times, Joe decided that for a change, the alarms were not “false,” and that we were now dragging (in contrast to the cruise guides author saying the “holding is good”). We later surmised that we probably dragged due to the huge tidal range in which, as the night progressed, the boat kept rising, leaving less and less anchor chain in the water — probably causing us to drag. So another lesson learned in our new experiences in dealing with large tides! So anyway, we all got out there in the middle of the night, started the engine and reset the anchor with more “scope” (chain length). Still the anchor alarm went off a few more times (false this time), plus there was a rain storm, requiring another time of getting up to close portholes, etc… so by sunrise, we all got up exhausted from lack of sleep and sore cramped up muscles from unusual sleeping positions and the stress of trying NOT to be rolled out of bed. We looked outside and instead of the waves and swells dying, we now had 6 ft. breaking waves/swells crashing on the side of the boat at rapid frequency and black skies and rain squalls were all around us. What a miserable day and place!
We called the coast guard for a weather report praying for it to show some improvement so we could get out of this anchorage, and it was encouraging, indicating a decreased swell (supposedly 4-6 ft) and winds (less than 20 knots). So we with glee, pulled the anchor thinking the last of the squalls had gone over but got drenched in a rain storm we didn’t see coming… and left the anchorage! The weather was a bit worse than the coast Guard predicted, but anything was better than staying put in the Cape Capricorn anchorage. Eventually, the sun replaced the dark skies so we had a nice sail to Great Kepple Island. For about 30 minutes we had a pod of dolphins riding in our bow, which gave us quite a thrill.
There is a popular resort (with an airport landing strip) on the other side of this island, however where the anchorage is, is quite desolate with dry looking rolly hills and low scrub-brush, reminding us a bit of San Clemente or other Southern California off-shore islands. There is what appears to be a nice secluded beach, and also quite a few sailboats anchored here. It is still a bit rolly and very windy, so I doubt we’ll bother to launch the dinghy and go ashore, but it is for sure a great improvement over last night. I’m sure we’ll all sleep for 12 hours tonight!
April 29th-May3rd: Island Hopping Continues:
I realized from all my above ramblings of our travels day-by-day, that perhaps I was writing too much “detail” — especially since most of these stops along our way are really not too interesting… and sailing wise, well it seems like there is either too much or too little wind. So in summary (mostly because this is MY diary also of our travels), here were our stops on the following days up until today:
April 29th: “Lay day” at Kepple Island anchorage. Joe was just too tired to move again (too much anchoring, too much early-before-dawn risings), so we just spent the day on the boat at anchor, relaxing, reading, and catching up on sleep. Unfortunately it was too windy (too many waves) to go to shore, and as above, there didn’t appear to be much to see/explore, anyway.
April 30th: The wind has died completely now, as well as most of the swell so we motored to Pearl Bay… which was a beautiful stop, but unfortunately, we only had a bit of pre-sunset (after arrival/anchoring) views. We had a great nights sleep since we barely wobbled in the calm waters.
Sunrise Departure from Pearl Bay
May 1st: We went to Hexam Island, and had the anchorage all to ourselves. Again it was a no-wind-motor-all-the-way day, but that assured us also of another non-rolly anchorage and another good night’s sleep–2 in a row! This was the first day we put out a fishing line while traveling, and within 5 minutes, we hooked (and then landed) a nice tuna. Anne cleaned it off the back of the boat while we were underway, and since it was such a wonderfully calm anchorage, we were able to barbecue the fillets on the grill (as well as had some “raw” ceviche style in a salad)!
May 2nd: Hexam to Digby Island…
It was wonderful to have the last 2 nights of non-rolly sleep… But the price we pay for no swell also is no wind so today was day 3 of motoring with our sails. However, just as we pulled into the anchorage at Digby Island, the winds began to build, so within an hour of arrival we had gone to balmy light (5-7 knots) of wind to 20-25 knots, and of course with the winds, came the waves and big swells, so by night, we were almost as uncomfortable as described above in Cape Capricorn. It was another night for me of sleeping in the “living room” on my beanbag chair in an upright position due to 20-30-degree rolls inside the boat! On top of that, we were anchored in a very tiny anchorage where we just fit between reefs and shallows, so Joe was up and down all night checking our position and worrying that we would slide onto the reef… so another terrible night sleep. We are on day 7 of anchoring, sailing 40-50 miles in 9-11 hours, then anchoring, then sailing... with no getting off the boat. We set the alarm to rise at 5:30 AM, leave by around 6AM (and you KNOW we hate early rising!!!) and arrive at our anchorage usually just before sunset.
May 3rd: Digby Island to Mackay Marina. Previously we HAD been planning on going up to another 2 islands enroute to the Whitsunday group (where we are TRYING to get to for some R & R --Rest and Relaxation-- and diving and exploring) on the Great Barrier Reef. However we had by now about had it with rolly anchorages and decided to go back to the mainland (and to a MARINA where we can tie up, not worry about dragging anchor onto a reef or sleepless nights) for a few days of much needed rejuvenation, and from there we will have a straight shot 1 day trip to the Whitsunday’s. We also are running out of fresh veggies and fruit and “snacks”… so going ashore again will give us a chance to re-supply.
We arrived at the Marina late this afternoon with the winds still howling at over 25 knots and are glad to be tied up to land again. The Marina here at Mackay is almost brand new and is beautiful, built as part of a “complex” with hotels, condos, lots of restaurants, mini-market, yacht club, etc. We will for sure take advantage of the restaurants — as we’ve been out to sea now (not touching ground once) for 8 days now — so I’m looking forward to a break from cooking!
One thing unusual here is that they have 24 foot high tides… that is huge, when we are used to at the most a 3-5 foot difference between high and low tide. The really weird looking thing at the marina is since they have floating docks the pylons that are attached to the docks go up 30 feet in the air — higher than many boat’s masts! Think about how it is to walk up the ramp from the dock slips/berths up to land during low tide -- you really give your legs a workout, climbing up a 45 degree incline! And you can imagine what types of currents result from that much water rushing in and out with the tides.
Friday, May 6th: At Mackay and Still Holding
Although we had hoped our diversion to Mackay would be only for a couple of nights, (with our planned departure yesterday) — we are still here. And not only are we not leaving today, but probably will hole up here for several more days. IN the "protected" marina we are at, we are having steady 25 knots of wind with gusts over 30-35 and the seas (outside our “protected” breakwater), according to the weather reports (which usually UNDER-estimate conditions) are over 12 feet... so we will wait it out here until things die down a bit. It will cut down on our planned and really looked-forward-to FUN time at these famous cruising and resort islands (the Whitsunday’s) only 40 miles from here. We had originally allowed 3-4 weeks there, then it was down to 12 days, and now we will be lucky to have 4-5 days there. BUT if we were there now, we would probably be stuck on our boat anyway with these winds and waves and would be having miserable night's sleep... SOoooooooooo we can just hope that the winds will die down as fast as they came up. Unfortunately we cannot extend the time there for the days we are missing, as we are just on too tight of a schedule this year. It IS frustrating that our cruising life revolves, unfortunately, around the weather, but that is the life of a sailor. AND, as usual, this weather is "not typical" we are told, but it is very typical of our weather luck.
But we have had 2 nice nights to eat out here at the resort restaurants at the Mackay marina-- great breaks from cooking for me. And we explored the local “mall” in town yesterday to get off the boat and re-provision the boat. But otherwise, there is not much to see and do in the town of Mackay!
Wednesday, May 11th: Finally in the Whitsunday Islands
On Sunday, a few days ago, the winds at Mackay finally decreased, but then the rain came… and it came… and it came. With the boat (as well as ourselves) all ready to go again, we got up at the crack of dawn Sunday to leave for the barrier reef islands of the Whitsunday’s, but had “Wizard of Oz” skies (after all night of squalls) and Joe put us on hold again for our departure. Then on Monday, again, we got up early and more rain and black skies–so again, Joe stopped our planned departure. If Joe had his way, we would have stayed even longer, but Anne and I were about to mutiny on Joe... so he finally (after a week — 5 days longer than planned-- in Mackay) decided we could go as long as I was willing to stand the helm in the rain! So yesterday, Tuesday (the 10th), we finally left Mackay, and although we had gray skies all day, not one drop of rain caught up with us.
Although our original plans for cruising in the Whitsunday’s had gone to crap (an original planned 1 month stay there, whittled down to 2 weeks, and now down to 5-6 days) we still hoped to have a few enjoyable days at anchor in some of the hoped for beautiful bays. However due to the weather (with more stormy weather predicted and Northerly winds — not usual for here), we pulled into another marina at the biggest resort here-- Hamilton Island. Although not the idyllic anchorage we had hoped for, we were glad we did, as it has poured buckets of rain all day today.
From our first impressions of Hamilton (of walking around drenched in the rain), it is very much like Catalina Island off the coast of Los Angeles, with cute high-end touristy shops, 30 or so accommodation and resort facilities, (hotel/ apartments) restaurants on the waterfront, water-based tours, and golf carts all over the place as transportation. We will stay here again tomorrow (3 nights -- very expensive at $80/night!!!) to stay out of the squirrelly winds and weather. We listened today to the channel on VHF radio that monitors all the Sunsail, Moorings, and other Charter company boats -- and all the boats were in a panic. They had been told to pull into anchorages that would protect them from the North winds (there aren’t many of them, as the prevailing winds are from the South East) and then mid-afternoon we had a hell-of-a doozie of a Squall (30 knots of wind and blinding rain) that came from the SOUTH... So anyway none of the boats knew what to do as the North protected anchorages are really dangerous in the typical southeast winds... and vice versa. Most of the companies advised that the charter boats pull into Hamilton Island Marina (our location) -- so although expensive and not where we planned to be, we felt we were in the best place!
Hopefully though by Friday we will be able to get out and about to at least one or two of our original planned destinations here.
Thursday, May 12th: Hamilton Island
Today it is absolutely gorgeous but since we paid (very dearly!) in advance for 3 nights here, we will stay until tomorrow morning. We did take advantage of the weather though. For breakfast, we walked to one of the harbor-side outdoor cafes for a “long black” (double espresso in a mug), and a croissant and watched the beautiful wild cockatoos (and small colorful like parrots) beg for our crumbs tableside.
Then we toured around the island in a van-type taxi for photo taking absorbing the top-of-the-mountain views and walked a bit of the island over to one of the resorts, where we lounged at their beachfront pool and read a book for a few hours. We then concluded our vacation-like day, with cocktails in the Yacht Club overlooking a gorgeous sunset, and ate out for some Thai food at one of the restaurants along the waterfront. Tomorrow, hopefully the weather will hold and we’ll depart to one of the anchorages on another island 10-12 miles from here for some snorkeling and perhaps some diving.
The Whitsunday Islands consist of about 80-100 (books differ) islands covering about 100 miles north to south. They are not very far off the Mainland (20-30 miles) and about another 25 miles from what is called the “outer reef” of the Great Barrier Reef. The closest mainland town is Airlie Beach and is the home to hundreds of bareboat charters (the largest charter fleet in the South Pacific), as well as resort hotels.
The Great Barrier Reef is said to be the largest structure on earth ever created by living creatures. In spite of its name, the Great Barrier Reef is not a single reef (but over 3,000 individual coral reefs), nor is it even a barrier” reef (which is usually described more like an atoll), but that has been so-named since Australia’s early days. It was finally made into a marine park in 1975. The Whitsunday Islands (which are part of the parkland) are referred to as continental islands (because they are geologically similar to the continental mainland) but they have coral formed beaches and infringing reefs similar to true coral islands. Most of the islands are not developed (i.e. no resorts, restaurants, roads) and are kept pristine. However the ones that ARE developed (such as above mentioned Hamilton island), have jet airports–with direct flights from most major Australian cities-, major ferry landings bringing tourists back and forth from mainland and inter-island transfers, and 5 star accommodations.
Saturday, May 14th: Butterfly Bay on Hook Island
Shock, the sun is still out — 3 days in a row now, a record, I believe in our last 6 weeks of mostly bad weather! We arrived at Butterfly Bay yesterday afternoon after motoring up from Hamilton Island… (now there is NO wind, so our sails are of no use!) and are anchored in a beautiful tranquil bay with not a hint of waves, swell or uncomfortable movements. To preserve the reefs around us, the Parklands have installed mooring buoys so we don’t anchor (and destroy the reefs) which makes arrivals and departures a breeze. We finally also did our first snorkel of the season and it was beautiful. The air is still a little chilly, as is the water, but a day like today reminds us why we are cruising.
This anchorage is known for it’s “bullets” — a new weather term for us: gusty winds that increase in velocity as they whistle over the peaks of the high hills that surround the anchorage and funnel down into the anchorage, producing “bullets” of wind — twice the strength of the ambient wind. But for now it is tranquil (since the ambient wind is about nil!) and we are enjoying just listening at sunset the fish jumping all around us.
Sunday, May 15th: Luncheon Bay, Manta Ray Bay and back to Butterfly
This morning we left Butterfly bay to travel all of 2 miles to another anchorage on Hook Island, Luncheon Bay, where there was supposed to be some great diving and snorkeling. And there was. We first took the dinghy to another bay next door, Manta Ray Bay and found one other dinghy (no sailboats) there with 2 snorkelers. It was fantastic with more different types of coral formations than I had ever seen in one place. Fiji was supposed to be the “soft coral capitol of the world,” but we saw more different kinds of coral and soft coral in ONE 40 minute snorkel than we have seen in the last few years on our dives. Really spectacular colors, shapes, sizes, and types. One coral that I found was chartreuse green and spanned at least 20-25 feet across looking like a huge open head of cabbage. (Later I looked it up and sure enough, it is called “cabbage coral.”) We also saw about every beautiful tropical fish in my fish book plus a huge potato cod about the size of me! No sharks though, which was fine with me. It was also obvious that the fish in this bay are used to lots of people being around as they would come right up to us — many even nibbling on our hands thinking perhaps we had hand-outs for them.
By the time we had finished our first snorkel though the bay was crowded with charter boats who had released 30-40 snorkelers in the small bay we were in… so the kicking and splashing became unbearable and we decided to return to Luncheon Bay and snorkel there. By the time we returned there (to where we had left Mi Gitana), it also had (since our departure by dinghy to the bay next “door”) filled with charter boats, snorkelers, and even several dive classes were being conducted — so we did a quick snorkel (again with fantastic results) with plans to hopefully return another day when hopefully the weekend crowd returns back to work. I’d love to dive some of the walls I saw there, but it was amazing just snorkeling because so much of the coral and fish life was just below the surface that snorkeling gave me just as much visibility and pleasure (without the hassle and awkwardness of tanks and regulators).
After our 2nd quick snorkel, we then returned back in Mi Gitana to Butterfly Bay, as even though the weather continues to be wonderful with very little wind, no swell, (and thank god, no “bullets” yet), we know how fast the weather can change and this bay is not only convenient to the good snorkeling/diving spots, it is one of the most well protected on 3 sides.
We have been barbequing at sunset each night and listening to the huge white wild cockatoos as they squawk and the kookaburras with their hideous laugh at dusk up in the hills above us and then watch them swoop down and around. Shortly after sunset, all is quiet again, except for the noises of the fish jumping. The stars have been bright with the ever-prominent Southern Cross and the nights very clear. What more could we ask for?
Tomorrow we may move on to another anchorage, or just enjoy some of the beaches and reefs right off the boat. No matter where we are, this is the paradise we have been trying to get to for over 6 weeks! So even though our time is short here, it has been worth the effort to get here.
Tuesday, May 17th: Our Last 2 Days in the Whitsunday Islands
Yesterday, we decided not to move, and to just enjoy the coral, beaches, and scenery in Butterfly Bay. Anne jumped off the boat for an early morning swim / snorkel to the beach and later Joe and I joined her in the dinghy. Joe decided on a read-on-the-beach day, so Anne and I took off in the dinghy to find a new patch of the reef to explore. Again we had a great snorkel, and then joined Joe for the rest of the afternoon on the beach and a picnic lunch.
Last night we had our first squall in 5 days, and this morning we awoke to mostly black clouds, but the blue skies were in-between trying to peek out. We had made plans to move to another anchorage not far (an hour motor) away off of Langford Island. In front of the anchorage there is a sand island that mostly disappears in high tide. Since the sun was now out again, and it was low tide (so the sand island was exposed), we loaded up the dinghy with our snorkeling gear and headed for shore. I went looking for shells along the beach where the outgoing tide had just been and Anne took off in the water. However within about 10 minutes I felt a sudden burst of wind that about blew me over and looked up and saw huge black squally clouds quickly approaching. I made bee-line back to the dinghy and Joe and I were about to rapidly leave the beach and pick up Anne on the way — as this storm was a serious one–but we saw Anne madly swimming back to shore. She realized there was trouble when the previously glassy water she was snorkeling in all of a sudden had whitecaps. We made it back to Mi Gitana before the downpour — but the storm winds had accelerated to 25 knots with gusts over 30. The storm continued for over 2 hours (so not the typical 20 minute squall), but by sunset, all was calm, clear, and the seas were glassy again. We didn’t get to shore again though as we had a lot of pre-sunset work to do to get the dinghy aboard, secured, and Mi Gitana ready for her long trip tomorrow — our first overnight passage of the cruising season to Townsville, back on the mainland.
Thursday, May 19th: Magnetic Island
Yesterday at sunrise, we left the Whitsunday Island Group — sad that our stay was so short, but grateful that we even got there at all! It was another mostly windless need-to-motor-all-the-way day. We tried again our luck at fishing -- but nothing. The highlight of the trip was about 30 minutes when we had a pod of 5 dolphins riding alongside of our bow, tossing and turning, weaving back and forth, even swimming upside down to our delight!
By nightfall, we had no wind at all and almost perfectly glassy seas and with a half moon out, it was a beautiful night — EXCEPT we spent the whole night playing dodge ball with tanker ships and a whole fleet of fishing boat. I saw about 13 boats on my watch, and then Joe and Anne (her first night’s training on doing a night watch) came on and said they had so many they lost count. And with trawling fishing boats, they don’t pay attention to any boats around them, nor do any maneuvers to try and avoid other boats — especially a sailboat. They also zig-zag back and forth with their lines so it is hard to predict what they will do and what direction you need to go to avoid them. Anyway, no one of us at least got sleepy trying to stay awake for our watches!
We were due to arrive at Breakwater Marina in Townsville this AM, but when I emailed the marina to confirm our arrival for today, they emailed back that they did not have a space for us until tomorrow, so we dropped anchor at a vacation-type resort island just 5 miles off the entrance to Townsville. We will spend the day catching up on sleep, and leave at daybreak tomorrow morning to go in with the high tide.
So this is as good of a place as any to end this section of our coastal cruising journey. We have in about 6 weeks (April 9th to May 19th) traveled only 730 miles, have probably had less than 10 days of sunshine (along the “Sunshine Coast”), have caught only one fish, and have sailed with sails only (i.e. without the motor going) only about 10 hours. But we’ve also had our share of great sunsets (although way too many sunrises, as we PREFER to be sleeping through the sunrises!), with some wonderful moments of cruising life erasing many of the memories of the bad moments -- AND are STILL having more fun than not! Our next chapter of our journey will take us from Townsville island hopping to Cairns and Port Douglas, then back out to some more of the Barrier Reef Islands and finally over the top to Gove and Darwin in the Northern Territories.