A snorkelling and pole dancing paradise

We had high expectations of the outer Barrier Reef, having heard much about crystal-clear waters, huge fish etc. And having witnessed the hordes of high-paying tourists that flock to Queensland onto boats taking them out there, we figured they can’t all be wrong. So we left Port Douglas on a beautiful sunny day with light winds forecast for the next 48 hours and headed out to Oyster Reef.

The first reef we made for promised much with turquoise blue waters and a tiny sand cay islet, but in fact the visibility was poor and a one metre side-swell made the anchorage untenable as an overnighter. So we didn’t stay more than a few hours, but during this time Rebecca went to explore the tiny cay with Luca and Jakey whilst Gabriel and myself tried spearfishing, and she was immediately approached by a group of Aboriginal men who were most concerned that their activities over the brow of the islet weren’t seen by the boys. It wasn’t at all clear what these activities were, but a helicopter flew overhead and circled several times showing a keen interest in the proceedings. Rebecca asked one Aborigine whether this was an official helicopter, the guy dismissed it as a tourist flight, but still there was some nervousness on their part and she had to fight back an overwhelming urge not to enquire further. By the time Gabriel and I returned the Aboriginal group had taken off in their tinnie, and we speculated long and hard on the mystery, eventually settling for the likely killing of a turtle which indigenous tribes are allowed to do for spiritual ceremonies only. We could understand them wanting this hidden from the kids.

We continued on to spend the night sheltered behind Michaelmas Cay, a well-known bird sanctuary islet where thousands of terns breed on a tiny few hundred metres of sand dune in the middle of the sea. It has reef fringed on either side so provides good anchorage protection, and we lay in our beds that night listening to the shrieking of the birds, the distinct whiff of bird-poo filtering through our deck hatches. I found the combination quite restful, made more so by the novel experience of having what amounted to an auditory anchor watch: as long as I could hear the birds, we must be holding.

The following morning we set off for a different reef with the alluring title of “pretty patches” and finally found what we’d expected. This wasn’t so much one solid reef, more a collection of large bommies and rock outcrops with wonderful visibility and colourful coral. We spent a very happy day snorkelling and spearfishing here, Gabriel shooting two good sized parrotfish and myself a queenfish, both great eating. The coral was lovely, and the snorkelling was enriched by giant clams, a turtle, many reef fish, and the occasional black-tipped shark. This day made us realise how very spoilt we’ve been with the snorkelling we’ve enjoyed earlier on our trip. The diving was great, similar to much we’d seen in Indonesia, PNG and Vanuatu, but the water significantly colder and we’re now pulling our full wetsuits out of mothballs to lengthen water time. Six months ago as we lay sweltering near the equator, it had seemed ludicrous to be lugging this wetsuit gear around, but now we couldn’t be more thankful. We returned to Michaelmas Cay in time for an evening stroll around the birds sanctuary, marvelling at the density of birdlife here. We’d quietly hoped for a repeat of our bat cave encounter where Gabriel got poo-ed on by a furious bat, and for a brief moment there were at least two terns that looked like they might just do it. But sadly not, and we returned to supper on the yacht with Gabriel’s head untarnished.

The weekend approached with forecasts of gale warnings, and we awoke on Saturday morning to a freshening wind, showers and dark threatening cloud cover. So we slipped our mooring and set off for Cairns, a short 35 miles to the South. As it turned out, our timing was impeccable with the wind determinedly increasing as we went, giving us a boisterous 25+ knot beat into mounting seas. We were still hammering into headwinds, but now it felt different. We had the confidence of a new genoa and didn’t need to nurse our old one along, constantly fretting over each gust. We could crank this one in on a tight jib sheet without expecting to hear that dreadful tearing noise at any moment, and each time we tacked we knew the sail would survive the usual violent flogging as it whipped from one side of the boat to the other. As well, our freshly-painted hull gave us at least a knot of extra speed, and the combination boosted our spirits no end. For the first time in a month or so, we could turn off the engine and move with sail alone and a smile on our faces. Lovely.

A few hours later we hooned down the long Cairns channel, dropped anchor off the main marina and took the dinghy into town to explore. This was Saturday afternoon, and clearly many others had decided to do the same as we wandered happily through markets and into a large park where a band cranked out classic 80’s rock songs to an large audience of scantily-clan sun worshippers. While we sat there enjoying the free concert, a group of fit-looking girls turned up and erected a large pole in front of the stage and proceeded to give us a pole-dancing demonstration. Gabriel was keen to move on, but I was having none of it. Despite Rebecca’s scepticism, I insisted this was the first pole dance I’d ever seen, and like each of the many other men in the audience my interest was purely athletic. And let me tell you, these girls were flexible! Now, this was one experience we wouldn’t have got back in Vanuatu! The band played on, but at one point the lead singer was so distracted that he clean forgot his lyrics. It seems the girls were promoting their business “Pure Pole” – the latest fitness fad for women. And men, so we’re told. Hard to imagine many self-respecting men flinging themselves around a pole in tight hotpants, but the whole proposition struck me as an easy sell. The women think it’s a hoot, and their partners…well, few of them are going to discourage it, right? Actually, it looked quick tricky and bloody hard work, and I suspect the innate eroticism is quickly demolished by sprained wrists, cramped muscles and tendonitis!

So all we need now is a repaired or replaced mainsail and the new prop, both of which we’ll sort out, one way or the other, whilst we’re here.

Clean bottom and shiny top

After three days on the hard we slipped back into the water with a certain sense of accomplishment.  We’d achieved everything we set out to do: we had a beautifully clean and anti-fouled bottom, fully repaired keels, cut ‘n polished topsides, prop shaft measured, new propeller under work and related locknuts and other bits being machined.  We’d figured out the cause of our lost prop (poorly designed locknut) and came up with a small modification that should, touch wood (brass, in this case), prevent recurrence.  Tonga Moon looked pretty buff, as well she might with the sweat we’d put in, and she sat proudly back in the estuary feeling like a lady should (after a full spa session with manicure, massage and make-over).

Tonga Moon shortly before returning to the water

Living amidst the grime and toxic residue of boatyard debris wasn’t entirely easy.  But we allayed fears about the kids falling overboard (with a 4 metre drop onto concrete) by reinforcing the lifelines; and treading carefully through the scattered machinery and offcuts we’d enjoyed hot showers every evening – what joy!  The kids had roamed widely, unearthing all sorts of discarded treasures which demanded passage onto the boat, although few were admitted.  Jakey found a square of reinforced glass which has now become his drawing tablet (with built in wipe-away surface), Gabriel a discarded fishing rod that we commissioned with our own spare reel, and Luca his usual number of intriguing but ultimately useless bits of .. stuff.     The sandflies were a shocker, however, so we were pleased to get back into the water and away from the mangroves that was their home.   The boatyard manager invited us to a BBQ on our last evening, a very nice gesture and opportunity to meet other locals.     One couple there had won a draw for a lifetime free berthing at any Meridian marina (of which there are several along the coast), and so had sold up their home and were now living freely on their 40ft yacht, moving from marina to marina as they chose.  Pretty jammy, eh?

The forecast looks mild, so tomorrow morning we weigh anchor and leave Port Douglas for a slow trip to Cairns where we’ll pick up our new prop, a repaired or new mainsail, and our great friend Sheila (not necessarily in that order).  But on the way there, we’re going to experiment with our first reef anchorage.  The outer reefs of the Great Barrier Reef are where all the action happens, at least in terms of fishing, spearfishing and spectacular snorkeling: the water is clearer, the fish are bigger and the crocs don’t get out that far.  So we’ll head out tomorrow to sail the 35 miles out to Oyster Reef and see if the conditions allow for comfortable anchoring.  There’s no land out there of course, but we understand you can tuck inside one of the thousands of reefs and find good shelter at least from the waves.  Most of these reefs dry out (or come close to it) at low tide, so you’re guaranteed a quiet anchorage for those few hours.  The challenge comes at high tide when the reef is submerged, and it’s then that you need a settled ocean.  We know others do this, but we’re not sure how settled the ocean needs to be to avoid a sleepless night of pitching and slamming.  If it works, this could become a regular exercise for us.

On the Hard

A last minute change in plan led us to haul Tonga Moon out of the water here in Port Douglas. This was the result of an impromptu chat with a neighbouring yacht, who questioned why we’d do this in Cairns when it was cheaper here (a view directly opposite to those we’d previously gathered), and a quick visit to the boatyard confirmed it. So we drifted over our cradle on the boatyard slipway at 6pm on Friday night, and the boys experienced the novel feeling of being pulled out of the water whilst still on the boat.

“Before” shot, barnacles out of control

This is always a tense time, given the potential for damaging the boat if not careful. Halfway through our haul-out we heard the unmistakable noise of cracking timber from below the hull and rushed to investigate, only to be reassured by the boatyard manager that this was his timber blocks splitting, not us. Nothing to worry about. But even without these palpitations, a cradle haulout (where they drop a huge metal frame into the water down a rail track, we slowly motor the boat over it, tie up to it and both are hauled up the slope by a winched cable), well, it’s never entirely free of anxiety. You can feel it, the moment the weight of the boat leaves the water and bears down on the frame, and as you grind up the slope the boat leans precariously backwards. You pretty much have to put your faith in the boatyard guys for this, and as boatyard guys are around the world they’re none of them the best communicators, so I’ve learnt to keep my mouth shut and fingers crossed. No problems though, and we’re now perched up in the middle of the boatyard, with a birds’ eye view of the harbour and all it’s coming and goings.

“After” shot, lovely clean bottom and polished topsides

Not that there’s a lot of free time for absorbing the comings and goings, mind you. The daily hardstand rate isn’t pretty and we’re determined to squeeze every last moment out of our three days on land. Yesterday we removed several months’ worth of weed and barely-contained barnacle growth from the hull, and started repairing some keel damage delivered courtesy of a reef encounter in Indonesia. We’ll measure up for the new propeller, get the mainsail assessed, polish up the topsides and finish a few other pressing repairs. Tonga Moon is getting a serious make-over, and we have high expectations of re-entering the water next week with go-faster stripes firmly in place. It’s an important time for us and the trip, I think both Rebecca and I feel, as our sailing since Easter has been fraught with gear failure and our confidence in bluewater passaging has undoubtedly been dented as a result. But by the time we’re finished here and in Cairns, our next stop, we should have a boat with a clean hull, new sails, two efficient propellers, and finally a working electrical charging system. So we’ll have no excuse not to venture back out there (although the final decision on where is still pending).

The boys are enjoying the novelty of being on land – albeit still on the boat, which apparently still counts as being on land for them – and home schooling continues with a fresh set of Australian-based projects to occupy them. Boats being what they are, most of the repair work involves nasty chemicals and highspeed machines; so the boys are spared the dust inhalation and skin rashes by Rebecca taking them on day outings. Still, it’s hard to escape the yard environment. However romantic and misty-eyed we all get over the beauty and elegance of yachts (yes, even some multihulls Michael!), there’s no denying that building and repairing the things is a nasty business, involving almost every toxic and health-threatening chemical so far invented. And you take basic precautions, of course, wearing masks during spraying, gloves whilst handling epoxy etc, but somehow at the end of the day you’re still faced with trying to remove two millimetres of blue anti-foul from your eyelids. The boatyard manager swears by the cleaning product “Bam” for removing unwanted chemicals from body parts, a recommendation that isn’t entirely endorsed by our family doctor needless to say, but his logic is that however nasty “Bam” is, it’s gotta be better than walking around with a full coat of epoxy on both arms! Mind you, the guy has raging psoriasis, so I guess the proof is in the pud.

Gabriel helps de-rust our remaining prop

 

Gabriel has decided he wants to be a yacht designer, and has spent long hours working up designs for the fastest, slickest and generally most aggressive-looking cats and monos he can imagine, some of them very impressive. Our good friend Jason (a naval architect) has been feeding him lots of encouraging advice, and now Gabriel’s running around the boatyard inspecting all the other projects underway here. One of which involves a massive 20 metre aluminium platform, previously used as a floating dive pontoon on the outer Barrier reef complete with underwater viewing windows, being converted into someone’s private houseboat. House mansion, more like. Gabriel has insisted that when we get back to NZ we’ll buy a small beaten-up old sailing catamaran, do it up and go dinghy sailing. Should be fun.

From Frontier town to Playground

We slipped quietly from our Hope Island anchorage at 1am on a clear and starry morning, anticipating a 16 hour passage and wanting to arrive before sunset. But the weather gods were with us again, and although still heading into the wind we had a favourable Southerly angle that allowed us to make excellent progress and fewer tacks, arriving at the entrance to Port Douglas early afternoon. We’d passed close by Low Islands, a couple of small sandy beached cays that sit only a few miles from the port and provide a popular spot for Port Douglas tourist boats to bring their customers for a day’s snorkelling. Very grand-looking 60 foot yachts and launches sat at their moorings, discharging dozens of tourists onto the beaches.

This was to be our first encounter with Queensland tourism, something that Cooktown clearly hasn’t managed to develop. But Port Douglas has, big time. And its posh. “Playground for the rich and famous” is a pretty good description. It may not quite be Monaco, but a short bus ride through town revealed an astonishing number of up-market resorts, each one vying more vigorously to justify high prices with their grand marble-floored entrances, crystal clear swimming pools, groomed golf courses and bow-tied concierges rushing to satisfy every whim. Sadly not ours though (whims, that is), these resorts being well beyond our current budget means, but we found ourselves an anchorage off the waterfront and felt pretty lucky to enjoy river and sea views that few of these resorts could offer.

Actually, our first night here was spent further up the winding mangrove-fringed river where the guide had instructed us to anchor. Sandflies chased us out the following day, but not before we managed to see our first crocodile. Yes, finally, after all the talk and anxious 360 degree head-swivelling whilst snorkelling, there it was. A relatively short (2 metre) creature, it was lying minding it’s own business on the bank opposite our anchorage, a mere 20 metres from us. Well-disguised and blending in with the muddy bank, we took the dinghy a little closer to get a better look, Rebecca standing up at the back with the camera and me on the outboard approaching as slowly and quietly as our noisy old 10hp outboard would allow. The croc sat motionless, looking reassuringly like a plastic statue, when suddenly it reared up, whipped around and ran down the bank into the water towards us. Yikes! Rebecca took a panicy and utterly blurred photo of the bank, and I whacked open the throttle to get us away as fast as possible, convinced the beast was going to leap out of the water and grab one of us. “Which one?” I seemed to have time to wonder as we rushed off back to the yacht, each of us giving out our own distinct yelps of fear and terror. Of course, it didn’t reappear and was probably more scared of us than we of it. Still, once safely back on the yacht we could congratulate ourselves on our first encounter with a wild (nay, furious) crocodile! How brave were we?!

On a firm recommendation from Grandpa (thanks Daddy), we treated ourselves to a day out at the Port Douglas wildlife centre, where they keep an impressive range of birds, reptiles and jumpy furry rodents. I do of course mean kangaroos, that up until now the boys had only experienced by eating “roo burgers” and “kanga bangers”, sold in the Cooktown supermarket as a lowfat, high iron and competitively priced substitute to mince. The centre offers a breakfast with the birds, where you eat buffet-style surrounded by parakeets, budgies, owls, waterfowl and other ornithological treats.

This proved to be a huge success all round, the first and perhaps predictably the most memorable feature being the all-you-can-eat buffet. Our boys, the poor deprived creatures, are so used to being told off for scraping more than 1oz of peanut butter onto their quota of two slices of bread, that the prospect of “all you can eat” was barely conceivable. Much talk about starving ourselves the day before (ha! fat chance of that happening!) led to wide-eyed children walking trance-lie around the display of cereals, fruits, bread and pastries, eggs and bacon. As anticipated, Gabriel won the stiffly contested title for top family gut-bucket, consuming no less than 10 sausages, leaving the rest of us idly wondering whether you could damage yourself that way. The good Doctor wouldn’t comment. Actually, he got to 9 and needed little persuasion to make it a nice round number. Exotic birds pecked around us, barely getting a look-in from the crazed munching of three starving children.

But when the dust finally settled on an embarrassingly messy table strewn with the detritus of utter over-indulgence, we turned our attention to the wildlife and we weren’t disappointed.  Wonderful birdlife, all flapping happily around high netting-enclosed wet-lands giving a nice feeling of creatures in captivity but happily so. An enormous koala bear (did you know that they sleep up to 20 hours each day, making them officially the most boring animal in the world), and snakes and lizards presented by a young reptile-keeper who seemed completely unaware of the weirdness of his profession (“some people think us snake-fancies are a bit peculiar” he said with a look of utter mystery, “but I can’t imagine why. These creatures are soooo beautiful”) as a python he was holding merrily stuck his head inside his shirt for a ferret round. Ugh!

Kangaroos, wallabies and other hopping things bounced happily around the dry-lands enclosure, leading to the crocodile pen. In here were two of the most fearsome beasts I’ve laid eyes on, making our riverbank specimen look quite feeble in comparison.

The larger one was 4 metres long, which we understand is still not large compared to many in the wild. But you can see how these things survived from dinosaur times. They are survival machines. Trying to imagine meeting one of these things in the wild doesn’t bear thinking about. At this time of the year they only need to eat once every few weeks, so slow is their metabolism, so they don’t exactly thrill you with any sort of high-paced song and dance routine. But any slight movement is enough to send gasps through terrified onlookers, all sheepishly observing how low the safety fence appears to be between them and us. Every so often, one would open it’s eyes and stare unblinking at us, clearly contemplating which one should be supper. This was the moment to bring the children forward, I felt, to make sure the croc had full appraisal of what was on offer before settling on any final menu. Maybe I imagined it, but did I detect a slight quickening of its pulse when it set it’s eyes on the sausage-engorged state of our middle one? 

First blood on Hope Island

What a beautiful escape we made from Cooktown, slipping away at 6:00am on a rare still Sunday morning and an outgoing tide, weaving our way through the other anchored yachts and out down the estuary channel as the sun rose cr imson over the Eastern hills. Sure, we had southerly winds again, but at least for the first three hours we had sou’westers, which meant we could sail our rumbline and make wonderful progress. You see, ever since our ill-fated Arafura Sea passage where we tortured ourselves daily by tacking across our route line to destination and calculating the dreadfully slow progress we were making, we’ve decided to change our approach. All passages since then have been planned based on worst-case headwind scenario, so that anything better than that feels like a bonus. And this morning we’d won lotto! The sea was flat, the wind a lovely 15 knot SW, and we were merrily chugging away eating up miles that on our previous (and aborted) attempt south had cost us dearly. Our new genoa was taut and crisp, giving us much better speed and pointing ability, and I’d spent some time taking lovingly framed and utterly unnecessary photos of it, none of which no doubt will of interest to anyone else save perhaps our sailmaker.

We’d decided on a day passage to Hope Island, but what we’d planned (worst case) for 12 hours took half that time and we pulled into this little golden beach-fringed island for a leisurely late lunch. I don’t think we realised how much we’d felt cooped up in Cooktown, as we proceeded to pack the next day and a half with fishing, swimming, larking around on the beach and spearfishing. No school, it being a weekend, so all was well in the zoo. Inevitably there was a croc warning sign on the beach, but local knowledge from a nearby launch suggested that the neighbouring island had crocs, but not this one; besides which, a dive operator came out here every few days for paying scuba customers, so we figured it was safe enough.

Gabriel was beside himself with anticipation at using his new speargun for the first time. Visibility was poor, but we managed to find a large bommie with several decent-sized reef fish, and Gabriel leapt into the water like a drought-struck frog. It was a turkey-shoot. Even though Hope Island is a popular stop-off point for yachts travelling North, it clearly isn’t fished hard and the fish here were friendly and unwary. Poor things… little did they know Gabriel “the butcher” Nolan was in town. Within minutes, and with his first ever shot with a proper gun, Gabriel had landed his first fish: a stripey sea perch. He was cock-a-hoot, and retold the story of the hunt, chase and shot with increasingly fine detail on the boat when we returned. Astonishingly he didn’t exaggerate one bit of it, leaving me quietly wondering whether I sired him after all.  We’ll have to work on that.  This experience promises much for our further travels. As we move further south the winds should ease, making passages easier and the water visibility better. Australia has a number of fish we haven’t encountered before, so there’s some learning to be done to avoid falling foul of our firm ‘eat what you shoot’ policy.

Sadly we couldn’t linger too long, as we’re now on a timetable to get to Cairns by 18th June to meet our haul-out dates, for which we’re furiously lining up prop guys (to measure our remaining prop before ordering the new), a sailmaker (to assess our mainsail and, fingers crossed, declare it repairable), painters (to help me repair reef damage to the stbd keel and spray two coats of anti-foul) and the boatyard itself.  Cairns is going to be our big Fix It stop-over, and we’ve got a reasonable list to work through. It’s certainly going to be interesting with all of us living onboard while the boat sits on the ground in a boatyard.  

Tonight we set off at around midnight for our final stop before then, to spend a couple of days exploring Port Douglas, allegedly the home of croc-spotting and the playground of the rich and famous. Wonder how we’ll fit in?

Newsflash: Family escapes from Cooktown yacht penitentiary

I stood still on Cooktown’s high street, pondering how far we’d traveled to get here, for this…. eight jaded Morris dancers hopping from one bell-encircled foot to another, prancing in ridiculous caricature of themselves to the droning, mysteriously unmusical sound of an accordion and drum. A scattering of visitors watch on with increasing bewilderment at how fully grown men and women would willingly make such complete prats of themselves. This was on the back of my previous stop down the high street, where a large crowd had gathered to witness the annual pasta-eating competition, generously hosted and catered for by Cooktown’s own Italian restaurant (which incidentally, is run by genuine Italians who are referred to, and refer to themselves, as The Wogs). Cooktown clearly doing it’s thing for race relations. We’ve come a long way, I thought, to get to this.

This was the big weekend celebrating Cooktown’s creation. It had a lot to live up to, following so closely on the heels of the Queen’s 60th anniversary celebrations, but it seemed that Cooktown was game for it. All snarkiness aside, I must say that Cooktown is a sweet little outpost, and this discovery weekend was a great do. Bands played in most of the pubs, market stalls attempted to sell off anything found lying around in the garage, and events such as those described above led one to another up to the grand finale fireworks on Sunday night.

Several fishing boats operate from Cooktown, returning every few days with hauls of fresh crabs, prawns and fish which they sell direct from the boat for great prices. So we’ve been enjoying the fruits of the sea, albeit not our own. This is the same pier where we buy diesel, so we’ve spent some time there. Hanging out on the pier with these fishermen is an education in itself. I discover that Aussies really do call each other cobber whilst growling obscene, derogatory, but affable witticisms at each other as they go. Rebecca accused me of trying to act all manly by lowering my voice into an Aussie growl when I speak to them; a harsh accusation I feel, but no doubt accurate. I figure they’d never spot my well-groomed pommie public school accent by the time I’d perfected the Cooktown growl.
Gabriel discovered a number of hoary old fellas fishing from the pier and set his mind on catching the next big one, so we’ve been dutifully accompanying him there for the last few afternoons. Up until now we’ve avoided live baiting – where you catch small fish, hook them onto a larger hook whilst alive and drop them in as live lures for bigger fish. For some large fish species this is probably the surest way to catch them, but until now Rebecca and I haven’t been able to get past the inherent cruelty in this. It seemed this was the norm here, and it only took one look at the fish they were catching to convince us. Rebecca and he spent much of yesterday out on the pier, sadly with no luck. But she returned hugely excited by a small Aboriginal boy, barefooted and threadbare, who turned up with just a beaten up old rod, line and hook. He chucked the hook into the water, and after only three attempts succeeded in foul-hooking a small baitfish. Without even stopping to look at how he’d hooked it, he chucked it straight back into the sea and within 4 minutes had landed a huge spanish mackerel. Here were Rebecca, Gabriel and several other keen anglers, all geared up with bait boxes, flasher rigs, expensive catch nets etc, and this little joker out-fished them all. So minimal was his gear, in fact, that he had to borrow Gabriel’s knife to kill the fish. Of course, when Rebecca congratulated him on a superb bit of fishing, he simply shrugged like it was no big deal. Now, there’s putting us in our place!

Meanwhile, amidst much excitement we took delivery of our new genoa, and hoisted it this morning before the wind picked up to check it’s fit. All looks good, and we’re confident that this will take the hammering it needs to without tearing on us. If only we could say the same about our mainsail, which Rebecca spent more time on today sewing up another patch. But the arrival of our new genoa is a big moment for us, as it heralds the break in our final tie here and our ability to continue on. The forecast looks manageable: we still face headwinds, but now a mere 15-20 knots. What joy! So we’ll finally escape Cooktown at 5am tomorrow morning. Ahh, I can already taste the freedom!

Cooktown Entertainment No. 2

We’re in our third week in Cooktown, including the week spent here before our aborted trip South, and I think it’d be fair to say we’re ready to move on. Sadly this isn’t possible, as the new jib will be at least another week or more, despite our sailmaker pulling out all stops to finish it quickly for us. Yesterday the wind eased to a meagre 20 knots and promised to drop further for the next 3 days, offering a tempting weather wind that many of our neighbouring refugee yachts are grabbing. The first boat left yesterday, along with the four fishing boats that had been hunkering down here out of the weather, and we expect an exodus over the next two days.

We’d befriended a small catamaran with a family of 3 on board that included a 13 yr old boy Jack who’s been hanging out with ours quite a bit. They’re also heading South, although in their case they travel on a smaller, lighter catamaran and so are even more dependant on light wind and waves. This morning we awoke to the unfamiliar scene of sunlight streaming in our portholes (along with daily high winds we’ve also had constant cloud cover) and a light wind brushing our cheeks. We could open our deck hatch without it being blown off its hinges, and we realised that the weather window had finally arrived. Bliss (except for the fact we can’t use it). Our friends took one quick look outside and legged it out of the harbour like scalded cats no pun intended along with several others.

We’ve asked several locals about the weather, sadly they’ve all confirmed that it blows hard all the time here. Even James Cook in his memoirs complained about it. One local suggested to us that short weather windows follow the spring tides, an idea that we immediately dismissed as plain nautical superstition, but as it happens this one has done just that. We’re anchored amidst sand banks in very shallow water, and the tides have got larger and larger, exposing more and more sand around us. A couple of yachts blew off their moorings over the last week, one has lain stricken on its starboard side for several days, but these spring tides have been perfectly timed to allow it to get pulled off. It’s common for yachts to run aground here, as the sand banks change their location regularly with changing winds.  

 

This afternoon we had the vicarious pleasure of watching a new stranding.  A very smart 50 foot yacht came hooning into the estuary with all the confidence of someone who we figured had been here before (but perhaps not at spring tide). They may well have been trying to creep in gingerly but the strong incoming tide wasn’t about to allow for any creeping, and we were just admiring their speed and self-assurance when right in front of us they went smack into a submerged sandbank, came to a grinding halt having performed an astounding 180 degree pirouette, coming to rest facing the other way sitting at a 40 degree angle. Spectacular viewing, made all the more pleasurable knowing that it was happening to someone else. The three guys visible in the cockpit seemed to move simultaneously from shock, through to horror, anger (presumably at the helmsman) and then acute embarrassment, knowing that they had a rapt audience. We did our best to refrain from suggesting that this seemed like a good spot for them to drop their anchor. Several other locals gathered around to watch, and thus we discovered Cooktown entertainment no 2: watching yachts getting stuck (no 1, you may remember, is watching visitors having to dive to make hull repairs in croc-infested waters). It’s a cruel place to live.

In the meantime, our daily home schooling regime continues, and the afternoons are filled with the kids sand-boarding on the nearby dunes, visiting the school pool or library, and general ongoing yacht maintenance.  This coming weekend is Cooktown’s big celebration “Discovery weekend”, when they commemorate the arrival of James Cook. This occurred when Cook ran aground on the outer barrier reef, managed to free himself and needed somewhere to beach HMS Endeavour and make repairs. He landed in the estuary and spent three months fixing up his ship, thereby establishing the township. Perhaps you can see a theme starting to emerge here?!  Anyway, the celebrations involve a re-enactment of Cook’s arrival on the waterfront, followed by a number of local events and competitions that include an attempt on the world speed banana-eating record, and a wet-T shirt competition. Presumeably to avoid any accusations of bias, they also have a wet jocks comp following shortly afterwards. You can imagine this could be quite a crowd-puller, so we await the weekend with eager anticipation.

(Sarcasm, as Luca reminds me, has been banned from the boat so I guess we’ll just call this irony).

But despite the constraints on watersports, the bird life is wonderful. There is a resident pelican – we didn’t know that Australia has it’s own indigenous pelican – that sits in the water near us, looking magnificent and mysteriously out of place. Sea eagles soar commandingly overhead, and long-legged white storks paddle through the shallows picking up baitfish. Today we had two swifts land on the railing, and every trip ashore reveals more strange and exotic ornithological treats. Sadly we haven’t got ourselves an Australian bird book yet so we can only look on in dumb wonderment, but the extraordinarily diverse birdlife is a nice counter-point to the extraordinarily venomous or otherwise threatening reptiles, fish and invertebrates that Australia hosts. We could become twitchers yet.