CHAPTER 5 August 1 – October 2
After a short stint off board, visiting family in Queenstown in NZ, we were back on board to welcome our guests, Allan and Ida aboard. Two days were spent provisioning and preparing the boat (while the winds abated a little), and we finally managed to fill all the hidey holes with goodies. We set sail for the Low Isles off Port Douglas to allow people to regain their sea legs and spent a comfortable night on a mooring in the lagoon.
The next leg was the fun leg! En route we encountered a whale quite near the boat, as well as dolphins – very lucky. For most of our trip north, we have been sailing downwind, gulling the sails to get the most advantage from the wind behind us. The problem with this is that it is difficult to maintain the balance of the sails, and the threat of gybing is everpresent. Not too easy on the boat and the gear!
We had been discussing with manufacturers and users the option of using a parachute ( we had read an article on its use a year or so ago), and had commissioned one to be made while we were in NZ. It went up like a dream, and the sail to Cooktown was really comfortable, as the parachute self-centres with wind. We made really good time to the entrance of the Endeavour River, which was where the fun began! The instructions on operation of the chute were quite limited, and really didn’t take account of the fact that the tack lines of the chute were at the end of the prodder at the bow, which meant that you couldn’t just grab the tack lines to the chute to collapse it and pull it in. We ended up with chute and lines going everywhere, with Allan sitting on the sail on the trampoline until we had anchored, because if he moved, the sail took off again!! Needless to say there have been phone calls to the manufacturer (where we found out that they had no experience using a prodder attachment) and much discussion about alternative means of retrieval!! Even as I am writing, Allan and John have the chute in the cockpit, attaching more lines to hopefully aid in collapsing the chute from the halyard. Time will tell!
We had a terrific sail from Cooktown to Lizard Island, and within an hour of anchoring were visited by a dinghy to advise us of the sundowners on the beach routine (which of course we have followed every day!) There are about eighteen yachts at anchor in Mrs Watsons Bay, with a flotilla of another dozen expected within the week. The usual strong SE winds prevail at the anchorage, but Allikat sits calm in the lee, anchored close to the beach.
We were lucky enough to have blue skies for the first week, so enjoyed a great snorkel around the giant clams at Mermaid Beach, as well as swims ashore and walks along the beach. Lizard Island Resort has new owners, and they open the Marlin Bar for yachties from Wednesday to Sunday, with a menu for evening pub meals on those nights. Friday night the dinghy parade made its way round the point to the bar, and we were treated to a musical evening. Two of the yachts traveling north together have some Danish crew who are retracing Captain Cook’s footsteps, sending accounts of their journey back to Danish media. Two were talented musicians and brought their instruments ashore with them, where they were joined by another guitarist for a jam session. When they couldn’t remember the English words, they lapsed back into Danish, which made Waltzing Matilda sound quite peculiar!
There is a different mix of boats from our previous visits. Most crews are older than in the past and there are no children this time. There is a breadth of sailing experience, though, and stories and lessons are swapped. One of the cats, called Truest Passion, has spent four years sailing in Asia and had great tales of their experiences of voyages and ports.
On the weekend we set off early to climb up to Cook’s Look at the top of the hill on the island (1200 ft). This took us about 4 hours round trip (we had quite a few “breathers” on the way), as some stretches are quite steep and scrambly over the rocks and crumbing granite. The view from the top is spectacular and we were fortunate to have a very clear day, so could see the outer reef in sharp detail and all the way south to Cape Flattery. Ida and I found the journey back harder on the legs, especially with the steeper bits!
Monday saw an excursion round to the Research Station for the tour of the facilities. We set off in the dinghy in quite strong winds, but really felt the impact once we rounded the resort point. Even with spray jackets, we were drenched by the time we arrived – but soon dried off in the breeze. Few researchers were there, but the video had been redone and is much more informative. Maryanne, one of the directors, told of some interesting research assignments, particularly to do with increasing ocean acidity and the effects on the reef and fish. It was too overcast and blowy to go snorkeling in the lagoon, so we had another salt water bath as we headed back to the boat for lunch. The afternoon was spent socializing (visiting another cat) before a game of cards after the evening meal. With spitting rain we decided against evening sundowners on the beach – those who were there scurried back to their boats once the scuds increased.
The strong SW winds continued to blow for the next six days, although only one day threatened rain (or rather intermittent showers), not enough to really wash the decks clean. Nevertheless, we made the most of our time, with walks across to the Blue Lagoon and around to Coconut Beach. Because this beach faces east and is quite exposed, much flotsam is deposited along the shore, including ropes, nets, rubber thongs and debris from passing vessels.
We also fitted in several snorkel trips along the wall of the island, which was more protected than the Clam Gardens. Both locations contain large numbers of giant clams, some lying alone amid the coral debris, others clumped together near outcrops of coral. The colour of the mantles is quite varied, some iridescent, and it is hard to believe that the colour is only refracted light. Along the wall the coral is quite dull, with many silty patches, but the fish life is spectacular. They vary from tiny electric blue tang to the colourful triggerfish in many varieties. Along the dropoff swim the larger fish and we saw many coral trout (pity it is a national park!) At dusk a black tip reef shark circles the boats and bommies looking for the evening meal, and the everpresent batfish are at the stern seeking scraps – it is usually a race between them and the seagulls!
Five o’clock is time for sundowners on the beach and like clockwork the dinghies head ashore to watch the sunset over the water. Because of the number of boats anchored, the participants and conversations vary each time, and the social life continues throughout the day with morning tea visits between the boats. There is even another ALY-KAT here, also named after offspring!
All too soon it was time to take Allan and Ida in to the “airport” for their journey south. It was wonderful having them aboard, and we already miss their company. It seems as if their departure was a signal to others, as the next day ten boats headed south. The flotilla looks very depleted, despite three more arrivals. We plan to stay about another week and will head south on the next favourable weather change.
After two days of relatively benign winds (ie less than 20 knots!), the south easterlies returned with a vengeance. The wind seems to increase at night and with each buffet you can feel the anchor line strain. Fortunately, the anchor is completely buried in the sand, with not even the shank visible, so we have a good hold on solid ground. Crews heading for Darwin set off north; these winds surely will give them quick passage. There has been much discussion ashore about the next lull and, if favourable, it will see four or five of us heading out to the Ribbon Reefs for the journey back to Cairns.
Friday nights see the dinghy procession round the point to the beach at the Marlin Bar. Lizard Island Resort opens this for staff and yachties Wednesday to Sunday evenings for cold drinks and bistro-type meals (there is a slightly different menu each night). This is an open-walled building, with amenities, a bar, pool table and a couple of large TV screens. For some of the yacht crews, who are running low on liquid refreshments, this provides a welcome topup, and the venue also lets them have their football finals fix! Finding your way back in the dark can be interesting as you negotiate the reefs and anchored boats (especially if you forget to take a torch and there is no moon!)
The difference between the monohulls and catamarans is interesting at anchor. Most of the single hulls dance around the anchor lines in the wind, whereas the cats do a more restrained arc. Of course, the monos are in deeper anchorages and therefore get more of the wind gusts, and the cats are much closer to the beach and more protected. Most of the monos leave their dinghies on a painter line, especially those that normally carry their dinghies on the foredeck when sailing, but the majority of the cats lift their dinghies each night. We are one of those – we have heard too many calls on the radio from people cruising whose dinghies go off on their own voyages never to be seen again (usually because a painter has come undone or the line has broken). Even during the day we tie the line to two separate cleats for insurance!
It is interesting to watch the fish life round the boats, especially the cats. Hundreds of fingerling fish take refuge around the hulls and rudders, and periodically the haven is raided by larger fish, usually school mackerel. This results in a huge commotion as the larger fish crash into the hulls as they chase their prey and sometimes the slapping and splashing can go on for hours. When it is on the outside of the hulls, the commotion attracts the smaller terns that dive for the fish driven to the surface. Sometimes close to the hulls this can be quite unnerving. We have a school of batfish that visit every morning and fight with the mackerel for breadcrumbs (their favourite food). Ida managed to feed one with her fingers – they are very greedy! Because this area is national park and green zone (no fishing), the fish have not been driven away, so the number of species is quite varied and each time you venture into the water you see something different.
After three weeks at Lizard Island, our favourable weather window arrived (East/North Easterly winds) and the flotilla set south. We traveled down the Ribbon Reefs in company, spending our first anchorage close to Ribbon Reef No. 5. T
he outer reefs heading south from Lizard Island are numbered, with the most northerly being Ribbon 10. The water was amazingly clear and we could see the anchor chain eleven metres below on the bottom. Snorkeling in the morning showed us myriads of fish – I saw a clown fish variety that was quite different, with one side stripe and another thin line running right along its back. Of course, the bigger fish were in abundance and we acquired a coral trout given to us by an ex-abalone diver from, of all places, Ulladulla!
After a lazy coupe of nights on mirror water, we sailed further south to St Crispins Reef (parallel with Port Douglas) where we inched our way into 5 metres of water to anchor avoiding all the bommies en route. I think all three boats tried every sail combination to make the best of the flukey breezes, with each boat taking pictures of the others under sail (it is usually quite difficult to obtain pictures of your own boat sailing).
Our weather luck abandoned us on Sunday, so we dropped our idea of heading to Michaelmas Reef and Vlasoff Cay and sailed in strong winds with reefs in the mainsail and genoa across to Yorkeys Knob, our home base for the next fortnight.