August 17, 2009

Careful what you wish for

There was still no wind, so we idled away the early morning on little chores, grumbling in a mild sort of way about a whole week of still days and dull motoring.

By ten o'clock the promised trade winds arrived as a gentle breeze. We cleared up below and prepared for sea. While hoisting the anchor, we noticed a very large fish taking an inordinate amount of interest in our hull, over a metre long and very powerfully built. Even when we started to motor out of the bay, it kept station with us, and we noticed a big propeller slice just behind the dorsal fin. Perhaps it was used to being fed by tourists.

And tourists there certainly were, in plentiful supply. As we left, they began to arrive in droves on large commercial sail boats of all descriptions, including an enormous cat ketch and a pseudo-oriental junk. All these people were decanted either onto the beach by the lighthouse, or into one of the many fishing punts and jet skis that littered the shore.

Already far from the madding crowd, gentle winds pushed us northward. To our left, the Great Dividing Range marched impressively along the shore line, cloud-shrouded thousand-metre peaks rejoicing in such names as Mount Sorrow, Mount Surprise, and Mount Unbelievable. Captain Cook had a bad time along here, hence also Cape Tribulation, Struck Island, Weary Bay, plus of course Endeavour Reef where he grounded and only got off with quite serious damage which had to be repaired ashore in what later became Cooktown.


For all that we've been sailing inside the Great Barrier Reef for several weeks, it has always thus far been far out to sea and hasn't had any direct impact on us apart from its pleasant calming effect on the swell. From here on in, it comes close inshore and is a navigational force to be reckoned with, comprising hundreds of scattered reefs lurking invisibly just below the waves. There is a marked shipping channel which is presumably well charted, but on the other hand this is full of large ships moving ore up and down the coast.


A humpback whale treated us to an aerial display in our wake. Dusk fell, the wind picked up to the low twenties, and our speed increased to 6-7 knots under full sail. Harriet was doing a fine job of sailing, so while Bronwyn went below to rest, I was free to sit in comfort and idly formulate an elaborate metaphor for the process of sailing through the reef at night time.

Imagine getting in your car to drive to the next town. First, however, you spray-paint the windows black so that you can't see out. Then you tape your mobile phone to the dashboard and log on to Google Maps. You start the engine and put it into gear, and from now on you are completely at the mercy of the accuracy of the map and where your phone says that you are. You can be reasonably certain that all the streets and intersections are marked, as well as perhaps the more obvious light poles and roadside furniture, but you just have to deal with curbs, speed humps, trash bins, dogs and cats as you feel your wheels bump over them.
Thankfully there is little other traffic, but you know that if you leave the twisting side-roads and venture onto the highway, you will be sharing the road with fully laden trucks. You also know that they can't see you either, and that in any case all their brake lines have been disconnected.

As I lay in the cockpit spinning this tale and watching meteorites blaze across the milky brilliance of the starry sky, yacht ploughing blindly into pitch darkness at close to hull speed, I thought happily that I wouldn't trade places with anybody.

The hours passed, and the wind crept up to the mid twenties. Pindimara was now quite overpowered, but there were few gusts and the swells were predictable, so I left full sails up. In any case, Harriet the Hydrovane was coping superbly. In fact she was tracking better than ever before, and I realised what Hydrovane meant when they coined the slogan 'survive your dream'.

In the early hours of the morning, the wind crept up into the high twenties and our speed to over seven knots. Enough was enough, so I called all hands on deck to reduce sail. To say that the crew tumbled eagerly out of their bunks would be an overstatement, and when Bronwyn did clamber painfully out, she commented that her 'rest period' in the bucking bunk seemed to have consisted mainly of two hours of strenuous Pilates exercise.

We were at this point in the shipping lane with bulk carriers and trawlers passing on either side, so we quickly reduced sail and got back onto course. As is our usual practice on night passages, we'd gone straight to the third reef, but Harriet soon picked up the pace to a respectable 4-5 knots. I was pretty tired by now so I gratefully put my head down while Bronwyn took a watch.

At a little after 4am I took over again, and immediately got my feet wet as a wave curled over the stern. The swell was now well over 2 metres, and the wind was touching 30 knots. It had also swung around onto the beam, and even with the third reef in, we were overpowered for a reach. The wind was howling in the rigging, and the hull was thrumming and making odd little banging sounds under my feet. I seriously considered replacing the main with our storm trysail for the final four hours to safe haven on Lizard Island, but instead chose to put our tail between our legs and run for nearby Cape Flattery, which at 260 metres high looked to be big enough to hide behind.

The wind was easier to manage with it behind us, but continued to increase and of course now we were surfing down 3 metre swells in the darkness. As the Cape loomed out of the gathering dawn light, I once again roused Bronwyn who navigated us in to shelter between the Cape itself and a sunken wreck.

Anchoring for once in the light, we immediately fell into bed and slept until lunch time. Although we were snug in our bay, the 30-knot wind continues to howl over our heads. Be careful what you wish for.

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