It took a while to figure out that, in Australia, most internet places don’t let you use USB devices. Since I type the blog and edit the pictures on our laptop (a very tiny Sony Picturebook) then save it to my jumpdrive to bring to the internet place, this was a serious hindrance. This is the primary reason that I haven’t updated in a little while. But, more significantly, I haven’t written because we have been out-straight.
In Townsville, we met up with the first part of the crew of the Stargazer; Jessy and Kevin. We decided to split the cost of a car rental to drive to Airlie Beach. We made a stop over for the night in the town of Bowen, where we soon discovered that the town was deserted. Even the backpacker’s was closed for the season. It was in Bowen where we first heard about the Cyclone headed for northern Queensland. It made landfall much farther north than we were planning on sailing but was forecast to affect the weather patterns in the entire Queensland area. Now we know what the “South Pacific Special” we got on our charter is all about.
For the time being, the weather stayed nice. When we arrived on the Whitsunday Coast, we drove straight to the ferry terminal in Shute Harbor to catch the ferry to Hamilton Island where the rest of the crew (Ash and Ann) were awaiting aboard our sailing vessel; Stargazer. The Stargazer is a Beneteau 363: a 36 foot shore cruiser with a furling headsail and a double reefing mainsail. In the hold, the boat has a small kitchen, a navigation station and room to sleep six in relative comfort. I still managed to hit my head on everything. We chartered it from The Moorings who have boats all over the world. We arranged to spend our first night onboard to avoid having to get rooms at the resort on the island. We were allowed to use all the resort’s facilities so we spent the next morning in the pool and, later, we did our first provisioning at the small store.
Before going any furthur I should introduce the Crew. The Skipper of the boat was Ash Hoffman. Ash is a Shuttle driver at McMurdo who got his start on the ice in the Galley like Luci and I. We started throwing around the idea of charting a boat together at the end of last season. Last spring Ash solo sailed a 28ft boat from NJ to MDI, Maine, which I tried to be a part of but, our schedules did not coincide. At the beginning of this season Luci and I presented the idea to him again. At the time, Luci and I didn’t have much sailing experience, so we left the requisitioning of the boat up to him. Since we wanted to keep the price down and be in good company, we knew we were going to need some more crew. Ash found someone with a little sailing experience who really wanted to do some sailing in either NZ or Aus. Ann works in Cargo, loading and unloading planes and is from northern MN. One day at lunch, Luci and I got to talking with our friend Jessy who works outfitting scientist with their field equipment. As it turned out, she and her boyfriend Kevin, a McMurdo fireman and a USCG captain’s license holder, had plans to take a dive-course in the same area we were planning on sailing. We told them we still had two slots on our boat. They were in.
By afternoon, we were underway with fair winds and calm seas. We made our first anchorage at Hook Island in Nara Inlet and made grilled chicken burritos for dinner. In the morning, we went ashore on Hook Island and went for a short hike to a cave that aborigines inhabited before the arrival of Europeans. In the process of landing, I cut a gash in my shin on a oyster shell imbedded in a rock. It looked really nasty but has healed pretty quickly. That afternoon we sailed to the north end of the island to Butterfly Bay and made chicken curry for dinner. We got our first taste of the swells being generated by Cyclone Ingrid that afternoon and into the evening.
The forecast for the next couple of days was not sounding great so we decided to leave the islands behind and head for the mainland. We cut across the inside passage with the wind and waves to stern and were in a berth at the Abel Point Marina by afternoon. We went our own ways for dinner. The idea was to re-supply in the morning and get underway by afternoon. Luci, Ann and I got a taxi to the grocery store and shopped for the last 4 days of our trip. The weather was being really indecisive but we decided to stick to the program and got underway before they had to kick us out of the Marina.
As soon as we got out of the harbor the weather broke. We were pelted by an rainstorm that varied in intensity throughout the day. The winds were manageable while we were in the bay, but when we went raise the mainsail, we discovered that it had a ½ meter rip in the leech. It would be the next afternoon at the earliest that we would be able to make it to Hamilton Marina for repairs so, in the meantime, we had only our headsail (it was all we wanted to use in the increasing winds anyway). To make steps in the direction of our home port, we decided that anchoring the night in Nara inlet again would be the best choice. When we got out in the channel we were facing swells and 20-25 knot winds punctuated by showers. The Ladies found that sitting on the gunwales was the most comfortable place to be on the boat in these conditions. Ash and I switched between the helm and manning the sails. Kevin fished until we did a 360deg tack that caught the line in the prop and rudder. With a mask and a knife I was able to dive under the boat and recover the lure and untangle the line from the prop but I think after two days of catching nothing, he had had enough. The strong winds blew us of course and we had to tack and motor to get to the inlet. We arrived after dark to find the lights of about 40 other boats seeking refuge. Some of them were the big cruising ships that took tourists on 3-5 day trips around the islands. That night we ate grilled sausages.
It was a bit stressful anchoring in pitch dark and light fog using only a flashlight and the depth meter. In the morning we found ourselves about 10 meters from shore. We were in deep water but we decided to get underway just the same. We weren’t sure what we would find once we got out of the inlet. As it turns out the seas were much calmer than the evening before and it was sunny. We decided to sail between Whitsunday Island and some minor islands for protection from the wind and to take full advantage of the tide. The morning went by quickly but the afternoon dragged on. Once in the small channel that approaches the Hamilton Marina we found ourselves pointed directly into the wind making the sail useless. We had to go under motor at an agonizing 3 knots. We arrived by mid afternoon and the guys at the marina quickly went to work taking down the mainsail. We all fanned out around the resort doing various things to amuse ourselves.
The guys had the sail repaired and replaced by 9am but it was about 11 before we finally got all the crew rounded up and got underway. We were planning on going to Whitehaven Beach on the east side of Whitsunday Island; one of the jewels in the Whitsunday crown. To do so would take us “outside” into the biggest seas and wind we had yet faced. We had 2-3m swells and 25-30kn winds. With a reefed mainsail and a half-furled headsail we made it to the safety of Whitehaven bay in record time. I was at the helm when we set our fastest speed of 9.5 knots. We anchored for lunch and a swim at this sugar white beach that stretched for miles. Ash had the idea to tie one of the fender balloons to the back of our 4hp skiff and tow us 1 by1 around the shallows. It was fun. In the afternoon we cruised up the beach and anchored in Tongue Bay for the night where we saw sea turtles. We found out later that there is a salt water crocodile (“saltie” in Aussie-speak) that is often seen cruising the waters of the bay.
The next morning was sunny and nice so we piled into our little skiff like so many clowns and went ashore to a viewing platform where we got an amazing view of the entire Whitehaven Beach. We had lunch and half of the crew stayed on the beach while Ash, Luci and I went for a short sail in the improving weather. We still got hit by a rain squall but that is what the “South Pacific Special” is all about. We needed to have the boat back at Hamilton by noon the next day so, in the afternoon, we sailed back down near the beach where we had lunch the day before, and anchored for the night.
To get back to Hamilton we were going to have to go back out into the open waters south of Whitsunday Island. We left early with favorable 10-15 knot winds and were happy to find that the swells had died down. We sailed south of Hamilton island and sailed wing in wing down the channel to the marina. We arrived on time and the boat checked out perfectly. Despite the bad weather that we had in the middle of our trip I really had a great time. It was so nice to have the freedom to sail when and where we wanted to. I know some of the crew don’t feel the same but I was actually happy to have some adverse weather just for the experience.
We ate our last lunch together, split the remaining provisions and parted ways. Jessy and Kevin had a night bus to Brisbane from Airlie Beach and Ash and Ann were taking a flight directly to Sydney from Hamilton Island where Ann was to connect to her flight back to the states and Ash was meeting friends in the City. Luci and I caught the ferry to Airlie Beach for the night where we were faced with the same question of renting a car or taking the bus to Mackay where our long flight back to the states was to begin.
That night, while we were making dinner, we were surprised to see Ash and Ann walk in to the kitchen at our hostel. They had missed their flight and had booked alternate flights from Mackay. Ann was taking a bus that night to catch the plane the next morning and make her connection. Ash was flying the next afternoon so the three of us split the cost of a rental car to get to Mackay. Before we left Airlie beach we went to check out this didgeridoo store that Ash had told me about. They had free shipping which piqued my interest. I ended up spending way too much on a very nice didge that I had shipped to Italy so I can play this summer at the hut.