Tonga Moon explores Middle Earth

I know our blogging frequency has dropped lately. We’d like to claim this was the result of tough passage-making, high dramas and unique cultural experiences. Obviously any kiwi travelling through Australia would be enjoying an element of unique cultural experience…well, unique experience at least, even if it is limited to watching the All Blacks wallop the Wallabies over a few pints of triple X. OK, perhaps not so unique. But to be honest our last few weeks have been pretty cushy and hardly worthy of blog entry.

We’d traveled down the inshore coast of Fraser Island for a reprovisionig stop at the strangely named harbour of Urangan, and decided to spend a night there. Rebecca and Luca had asked a local how they pronounced the name of their port, and received a garbled reply that sounded much like someone clearing their throat. This coincided with our introduction of “Lord of the Rings” films to the older boys, a move Rebecca and I figured was guaranteed to spawn an obsession anything like as rampant as Harry Potter, and of course it has. The boys decided that Urangan was simply a neighbouring town of Rohan in the realm of Middle Earth, but they certainly hadn’t expected to find the local boat club populated by orks.

As fate would have it, the marina manager who’d allowed us to moor alongside the boat club turned out to be a dwarf, a fact that I later regretted imparting to the boys. “Ooh, does he have a beard?” they asked. “Yes, actually he does”. “Was he wearing his helmet?” “Nooo, I think he takes it off when he’s looking after the marina, maybe keeps it out the back in case of pending battles”. Now they were truly hooked. “Can we go and see him Daddy?” And so dwarf viewing plans were laid amid much speculation as to his axe-wielding expertise.

We eased ourselves alongside a seagull poo-covered jetty, with the Hervey Bay Boat Club building looming over us. But it seemed that any boating element associated with the Boat Club had been shouldered out by the much more profitable business of wining and dining the old folk. In place of a battered wooden bar lined by salty wind-blown seadogs exchanging tall tales of roaring seas, was a huge emporium filled with blue-rinse wrinklies intent on winning lotto. We found ourselves in the surreal situation of being moored alongside a bar/restaurant/bingo hall/gaming lounge affair where a sleazy two-piece band sung “The girl from Ipanema” on their hammond organ and bossanova drum machine whilst a handful of game old birds shuffled their zimmerframes around the dancefloor, and a disembodied voice quietly announced “legs eleven, 27” over the loudspeakers. The staff seemed utterly unused to yachties frequenting their premises, but given that our only access from the jetty was straight through the clubhouse they were forced to endure us, doing so with unwaveringly frosty looks and snarky “are you from that boat there?” enquiries. So this is where Saruman bred his dark army.

From here we entered into the Great Sandy Straits – the shallow passage that runs some 50 miles between the mainland and Fraser Island – and dropped anchor at Kingfisher Bay. This seemed like a good stopping point for the boys, sporting as it did a yacht-friendly island resort that offered free access to a swimming pool and pool-side bar.

By now we were confirmed members of the “grotty yachties” brigade, even more so in our case as we’re approaching the end of an 18 month no-income sabbatical and so need to watch our pennies even more fiercely than before, and have found we’ve become shameless freeloaders and happily enjoyed these poolside pleasures for the last few days. Mind you, of course with Rebecca and I having been “brought up right”, we could only postpone the inevitable feeling of freeloading guilt for so long. Eventually we both knew we’d have to pay, and so decided to bite the bullet on an evening meal out. A pizza evening was decided upon, and we sat in mute wonder as our poolside table was laden with pizza and chips. A rare break from Daddy’s habitual stirfry, the boys eyes were glazed with the sheer wonder of bought food, and we staggered out that night with full stomachs and still a doggybag to go.

We have just two weeks left before a theoretical departure date from Brisbane across the Tasman (weather permitting), so we’ve starting to watch the weather forecasts for discernible patterns, fingers firmly crossed for a favourable forecast that will carry us a good way along the 1350 mile route back to Auckland. In the meantime, this feels like a pretty cruisy place to unwind in preparation. 

The marlin that got away

It seemed that the turtles were late nesting this year and very few had been spotted on Lady Musgrave Island coming ashore to lay their eggs, so we didn’t venture ashore on our intended nocturnal expedition. But the turtles must have been aware that they’d let us down in this respect. They seemed to be overcompensating by appearing for us in the water at every opportunity. They followed Gabriel and I spearfishing off the outer reef, they popped their heads up obligingly as Rebecca tried to photograph them snorkelling, and this morning the boys yelled at me “watch out, you’re about to run two over” as we exited the lagoon channel. This cry came when we were struggling to exit a tight rocky channel in a strong contrary current, both engines going full pelt to maintain steerage, and much though I love turtles I’m afraid I love our yacht more, so deviation from course wasn’t an option. These turtles weren’t dumb though, and however sluggish and chilled they may look in the water, when threatened they can produce a fair burst of speed and they took off like a shot. They are amazing creatures, well deserving of Rebecca’s adoration.

The lagoon was full of other creatures though, and the spearfishing had been excellent in providing the family with coral trout, sweetlips and cod for supper each night. But the sharks were also numerous, and seemed to have an uncanny sense for when there’s free fish on offer. So our spearfishing was conducted as drift dives alongside the inflatable dinghy, and Gabriel and I had several occasions to exercise the now well-established “Nolan rapid water exit” procedure in all it’s undignified glory. Most were black-tipped reef sharks, only really interested in the fish, but we’d seen a couple of larger marked sharks that we didn’t recognise and decided they weren’t to be messed with. The constant presence of these beasts certainly added a certain frisson to the dive and served to exercise the neck muscles nicely!

We’d hoped to spend several more days at Lady Musgrave, but on Sunday night after a long-term forecast that had lulled us into thinking we could stay for longer, we experienced an unexpected Southerly swing and a wee isolated front that built to over 30 knots, and we did a quick re-evaluation of the weather forecast to discover it had all changed, and our quiet Northerly window was closing out. So we departed the following morning, along with several other yachts that had clearly heard the same forecast, sad to be forced out of such a wonderful spot. The next leg was down to Fraser Island, and given the pending strong wind warning for Hervey Bay we needed to make it to shelter that day and so sailed into the evening, finally dropping anchor late that night just hours before the SE’erly gale came through.

Fraser Island is a world heritage site, claimed to be the world’s largest sand island stretching some 120 km along the southern Queensland coast. As a yachtsman it has the added attraction of offering an inland route South, taking some 100 miles out of the exposed coastal passage and providing flat waters and plenty of anchoring options along the way. And because it’s a sand island, the anchorages are beautifully protected on flat shelving sand, so excellent holding that equates to sound sleeps. This was definitely for us.

Funny though, how Australia manages to introduce new hazards just when you thought things were getting safe. We’d survived a couple of months in croc country, transited through the breeding grounds for lethal stingers (forget man-of-war jellyfish, these Irukandji are tiny, transparent and much more scary), snorkelled in shark infested waters, and had finally left Northern Queensland – which surely must be the epicentre for all things naturally nasty – and were luxuriating in the possibility of a hazard-free playground for the kids, when we’re introduced to dingoes. Now, what we know about dingoes is probably the same as all other non-Aussies… which is a) the old “dingo stole my baby” story, a still hotly debated case of alleged dingoes abducting an infant, and b) well, they’re dogs, so how scary can they really be?  Apparently, pretty scary. Scary enough for the  beaches all along the Fraser Island coast to carry warning signs for parents not to leave children or teenagers unattended, what to do if approached by a dingo pack etc. We met on yachtie who claimed to have been stalked by a dingo, and another that insisted dingo strikes were common. Yikes. So I guess each beach visit still carries that little element of danger, something to keep us on our toes.

Meanwhile, Gabriel is in heaven having in the course of one day found a rappela lure discarded on the beach to claim as his very own, and on that same day managed to hook a marlin on a home-made lure. We’d humoured his earlier insistent attempts to make his own rappela by helping to carve the body out of wood, fashion a plastic bib, drill holes for the hook attachments and after a couple of days’ endless discussion and work, only then come to the realisation that it was never going to be strong enough to survive a fishbite. But we persevered, and the following day had a passable imitation to troll through the water. But to no avail, Gabriel watched it spin in our wake for just a few minutes before announcing that it wasn’t spinning correctly and had to be abandoned. Phew. But when it comes to piscatorial pursuits, this boy is determined.  He now insisted on making another, and after much further debate (and, I should add, a certain element of heart-sink on my part at the thought of further likely wasted work), we settled on trying to make our own pusher.  So once again we carved the body, drilled and epoxied weights to counter it’s buoyancy, drilled holes for hooks and strung up a steel trace, and with a similarly low level of expectation of success as before, it was proudly launched into the water early one morning as we motored South along the Fraser Island coast.

Neither of us could quite believe that our utterly non-scientific design actually looked pretty good, but it seemed that this impression was shared by a hungry marlin who struck it just minutes after it’s first launch. OK, it wasn’t a huge fish, but unmistakably a marlin with it’s long bill and high dorsel fin, big enough to warrant some unspoken questions as to what on earth we’d do with it if we ever landed the thing. And after playing it hard and towing it along for some 15 minutes I think we were all somewhat relieved when it broached close to the boat three times and finally spat out the lure. Although perhaps not openly acknowledged at the time, this was the best of all outcomes. Gabriel could rightly claim to have created a marlin-catching lure, the rest of the family could reinforce the heroism of the moment with the tale endlessly recounted, and for my part I managed to avoid the indignity of trying to land and subdue a fish that was unquestionably my superior in strength, speed (and, Rebecca might argue, intelligence).  A win-win!

Don’t burn bras on coral atolls

Coordinates: 23deg54S, 152deg24E
We’d spent a happy few days at Keppel Island, sheltering from a SE gale that blew several other yachts in seeking the same refuge, but the sea was calm this side of the island and we all bobbed happily around while it blew itself out. The boys chased wind-blown tumbleweeds down the beach, we attempted a largely out of control kite-flying session, and all was well onboard.

We’d heard about the reefs and outer islands in the Capricornia waters, which pretty much represent the far Southern tip of the Great Barrier Reef, and feeling like we’d still not seen the full glory of Australia’s famous reef system we decided to head out to Lady Musgrave Island. Although a bit of a slog out to sea some 90 miles from Keppel, the island lagoon has an incredible reputation and this was to be our last outer reef visit before heading down to Brisbane, so we figured the trip worthwhile. Besides which, Gabriel and my spearguns had been stored away unused for several weeks now, and they were calling our names.

On the way out we dropped into Keppel Bay Marina for one night to reprovision. Man, it’s expensive parking a catamaran in a marina. This is only the 2nd night in 16 months that we’ve spent alongside, an achievement that we’re pretty proud of, and we had to make every penny count. So home schooling that day was postponed whilst we watered, refuelled, shopped, scrubbed, spruced and generally tore around getting jobs done. We’ve found that marinas are wonderful places for gathering advice, solicited or otherwise, and work is hampered by a constant stream of interested sailors passing by and wanting to chat. Marinas breed a social life all their own, particularly this one which seemed to be populated by many yachts travelling along the coast, live-aboards who’d retired onto their yachts or were taking sabbaticals like us. For those with more substantial budgets, I guess marinas posed less of a financial burden and the sailors sat on their decks watching our whirlwind of activity with some amusement, doing their best to interrupt when they could. But given the depth of our ignorance about Australia, many of the interruptions yielded helpful info about the passes, currents and anchorages we’ll be seeing down the coast, so much time was spent chatting. Not sure whether it’s us exuding an air of general uselessness or their irrepressible urge to provide advice, but we’ve often found ourselves the beneficiaries of overzealous advisors, this time in the form of our neighbour who insisted on photocopying local charts and providing us with paper guides…all most welcome.

So we took off and spotted the island after two uneventful days sailing. Lady Musgrave is a tiny island sitting inside a mile-wide lagoon about 40 miles offshore, accessed through a narrow channel that takes you into a wonderful coral lagoon. It’s beyond us why they’d name such an incredible place after the American wife of a notable Australian who, once widowed, took off to the UK to run the anti-suffrage movement. I couldn’t see the connection between anti-bra burning and coral atolls myself, but that’s just me. Regardless, it is the most beautiful place. Turquoise waters inside the lagoon surround a sand-fringed island that is a breeding ground for terns, boobies and other impressive seabirds, along with one of Australia’s largest turtle population. Rebecca was in heaven. The turtles were everywhere, popping their heads above water to check you out from the boat or beach, a constant companion for all visitors.

The lagoon is firmly on the map for Australian cruisers so there’s typically 5-10 boats anchored here, and the island even has a small campsite for the intrepid who get dropped off by a charter ferry and left for several days. Still, we were some distance offshore anchored with coral all around us, and our first night brought 20 knot winds that ensured regular anchor checks through the night. Fortunately, the island has a small lighthouse, and this shone nicely through the porthole in our cabin so we could wake up every hour to so and check the light from the comfort of our snug bunk to assure ourselves that we were staying put. This anchor anxiety (have we coined a new phrase here?) is standard practice for us, particularly when anchored in a place where dragging could mean catastrophe. We’d arrive at a new place, drop anchor, dig it in and dive on it to check it out, but regardless it would always take a night of strong winds to prove that we were solid. The second night we could relax.

Anyway, the fishing is excellent our first spearfishing trip giving us two large sweetlips and a coral trout – and it is said that the turtles can be seen laying their eggs on the beach at night. So we’re planning a night-time expedition ashore this is something we have to see.

Fingers plugging holes

Much of our time at present is spent discussing the weather, even more so than your typical one-track yachtie sorely short of more interesting conversational topics. And let’s face it, when you’ve been stuck on a boat for months on end, what else is there to talk about? More so though, because we need to get South down the Queensland coast to meet our Brisbane pre-Tasman crossing rendezvous in about a month, and the prevailing winds are still SE tradewinds and therefore agin us. But as November marches on towards Dec, the Queensland coast enjoys occasional spells of lighter-wind North-Easterlies, and all the yachts that have ventured up to tropical Queensland sit waiting for these light wind windows to leg it South before the next tradewind blows in.

We’ve been trying to identify the weather patterns in order to time our passages between island stops. As always, timing is everything. If you get it wrong, you could easily find yourselves stuck in a dodgy bay for several days, or caught mid-passage by strong headwinds. So far so good, since arriving from PNG we seem to have had a pattern of 4 days of tradewinds followed by 2-3 day light N-wind windows, and have been able to time our passages accordingly.

So it was that we sat on the glorious white sand beach of Whitehaven Bay, pouring over weather maps with our French friends from Here Nui, both deciding to grab the latest window to head South; and we travelled in convoy to the remote island of Scawfell for a short overnight stop before heading on. Nothing particularly remarkable about this island, except that in the 30 or so minutes it took to find an anchorage we must have spotted over 10 turtles swimming around, their heads bobbing up above the water like little old bald guys, the larger of them carrying impressive barnacles on their shells. This being her favourite creature of all, Rebecca was in heaven, last seen muttering something to the turtles along the lines of “whatever you do, don’t swim to PNG”.

Sadly we parted company with Here Nui in that bay, finding our travel agendas starting to diverge, although still hoping to reconnect further down the coast. We’d spent a very happy week cruising together, so both left feeling pretty good. We planned to cover the 160 miles down to Keppel Island in one go, keen to complete the day and a half passage before the weekend, which was forecasted at over 25-30 knots SE.

We’d had some problems with our new mainsail, mostly related to my attempts to reuse battens from our old one, and after several popped battens and a broken end unit I’d finally accepted defeat and traipsed around Airlie Beach seeking a sailmaker who could fit us out with the correct ones. It wasn’t easy persuading the bus driver to let me on carrying two 4 metre long fibreglass tubes, but my best English twit accent won the day and we’re now properly set up. All wrinkles eliminated, the sail rises majestically above the decks and pushes us along beautifully. This is something we should have invested in from the start, of course, but better late then never, I find myself gazing lovingly at it wanting to tweek it just that tiny bit more.

We suffered one more wee drama before leaving the Whitsundays – cruising life would be just too dull without regular dramas don’t you think? – this one involving unexpected water pouring into the port hull.  We’d had an intermittent problem with our port hull bilge pump sometimes pumping, sometimes not. For some reason that had managed to evade repeated diagnosis attempts, we’d had a slow and persistent leak in that hull for some time that seemed to increase in volume when on passage. Not a comforting discovery. And on the trip back from PNG the bilge pump proved unreliable which meant hand-pumping the bilge every few hours. Although still unable to identify the water ingress source, we’d decided to replace the pump and at least be confident in getting rid of the wretched stuff. In the process of unscrewing the base of the old pump, I’d removed four surprisingly large screws to find air hissing in through the holes, shortly followed by water. A lot of it. So I crouched there with my fingers stuck in the holes, shouting for tools while Rebecca and the boys ran around like mad things grabbing stuff. Our best guess is that we’d created an opening for water in the keel when we touched coral a few months ago, but the previous owners had screwed the bilge pump too deeply into the hull, creating holes into the keel. So the good news was that we seemed to have located the leak. The bad news was that water was pouring in and I’d removed the bilge pump – a classic and all-too-familiar case of trying to fix something and making it worse. This was Nolan DIY at it’s most sophisticated! Fortunately we’d kept a stock of fast-curing underwater epoxy putty (not the first time we’d had cause to use it, either), and before too long we had a more permanent, if not elegant, solution and I could recover my fingers from each hole. We’ve been checking the fix regularly since and so far it seems to be holding well. Here’s to many more months of dry bilges.            

Whitsunday wonderland

Maybe we’re letting the poetic run away with itself here, but we’re beginning to understand why the Whitsundays have become such a celebrated destination for cruisers and yacht charterers. Best described, in NZ terms at least, as a tropical Malborough Sounds, the beaches here are quite idyllic and the bays sufficiently numerous to make cruising a pretty risk-free pasttime.
If you’ve been following this blog and you’re not already utterly nauseated by endless tales of sandy beaches and warm watery frolics, then I fear this entry may knock the final proverbial nail in the coffin. Prepare the sickbags. We’ve tried hard to portray this trip as one of hard graft, great discomfort, personal deprivation and terrifying danger, but there’s really no disguising the holiday nature of this latest cruising spot. As if the rest somehow wasn’t, this part is sheer indulgence. Read on at your peril.
After a short stop at Airlie Beach where we reconnected with our French friends and reprovisioned, we followed their advice and set off in convoy to the celebrated Whitehaven Beach, claimed in effusive online websites as the most photographed beach in Australia. It is 5 kms of pure white silicon sand and turquoise waters. Actually, the onshore wind pointed us to the opposite bay, Chalkies Bay, which although smaller has all the same characteristics. Charter boats of all shapes and sizes speed out here for daytrips leaving only harder-core cruisers inhabiting the place at night, but the beach is long enough to avoid grockle congestion. We happened to time our visit over the Melbourne Cup weekend, when most Australians take off and get wildly drunk anywhere in earshot of a TV or radio. So we shouldn’t have been surprised to find ourselves surrounded by launches with revellers determined to party all night long. Of course it would have been downright churlish of us to try to quieten the revelling by protesting that we had kids on board – anyone with kids will know that they’ll sleep through the loudest party quite happily, and in fact it’s the parents who are left awake and wide-eyed, cursing the fact that they weren’t invited. Actually after so many months of Indonesian and PNG remoteness we quite enjoyed evesdropping on other boats’ parties. Tragically it now seems we are living our social lives vicariously through others’.

It’s common to hear offshore cruisers being snarky about charterers, and we’ve been determined to avoid joining their ranks; not least because we’re in an ex-charter yacht ourselves and so are commonly mistaken for the same. Charter yachts have just as much right as us to be here arguably more, because they’re paying so much. But having sat at anchor in this bay for a few days now, we’ve started to see a pattern of yachting ineptitude amongst some of the chartered boats that will keep us in stories for some time to come. Such as the 38 foot catamaran peopled by 10 young party animals intent on having a good time. They anchored next to us and after half an hour of rock music and serious drinking leapt into the water to go snorkelling, one of the crew dispatched to bring along more drinks balanced precariously on a surfboard. A couple of hours later they roared off to their next destination, to be spotted a short time later firmly stuck on a reef round the corner. Or the daily occurrence of yachts charging into the bay and dropping anchor right next to us, leaving no swing room and forcing the inevitable suggestion that they might like to consider buggering off somewhere else. Snarky? Not us.

We’ve enjoying spending time with our friends on the yacht Here Nui. It’s been a lovely change to cruise alongside another yacht, something we haven’t done at all before now. Jean-Michel and Marielle are from New Caledonia on board their 45ft yacht with 12 year old son. Originally from Paris, they display all the unconscious sophistication and glamour of their homeland, without thankfully the haughtiness. Determined this time not to be caught out as the country bumpkins that we really are, Rebecca and I have probably gone overboard with the kissing, determinedly reaching for both cheeks on arrival and departure, and so far we haven’t been rejected. As new friends we’re both cautious not to overdo each others’ company, but the occasional meal or drinks on each others’ boat, and the daily of exchange of children, has been great. Yesterday they took all three of ours over to theirs for pizza the boys were agog in anticipation and Rebecca and I enjoyed a rare few hours of childless bliss. So we sat there on our quiet and empty boat, discussing what on earth we’d now do with our time, and both came to the same conclusion: eat, drink, and do what our neighbourly party animals would no doubt be doing after eating and drinking. So we wolfed a packet of crisps, gulped down a Bloody Mary, and broke out the tiddleywinks set.

Heading South

Much anticipation and some nervousness at the arrival of our new mainsail. In fact, nerves increased as we discovered progressively on our arrival in Australia that the sail wasn’t being made in Aus, but in Thailand. OK, we were fine with that as long as all import complications were taken care of. It then transpired that the man who’d sold it to us doesn’t live in Australia, but San Francisco. This somewhat negated our reasons for choosing him in the first place, which was to avoid complications of an overseas sailmaker and to have someone local we could turn to if we weren’t happy. Still, we live in a modern world and maybe our parochial views needed updating.
So the sail arrived and after a day and a half of messing about with headboard adjustment, batten fittings and other stuff, we hoisted the thing in the still of the morning’s early sunlight and stood back to assess. Much to our huge relief it fitted, and with a few more adjustments and general tinkering, once again we had ourselves a working set of sails. Yeah.
This coincided nicely with a favourable weather window for travelling South, so after a hurried final supermarket shop and refuel, we packed up and headed out. This was to be the test for our mainsail, an overnight trip of 120 or so miles down to the Whitsunday Islands where we’d stop and smell the roses for awhile.
These things never go entirely smoothly, of course, and we were about to cross the main Townsville shipping lane when we noticed a couple of battens coming loose, and a quick scurry up the boom revealed some problems with the batten ends. From my precarious position straddling the end of the boom some 3 metres off the deck I asked Rebecca if she could find me something to help re-secure the batten velcro straps. She disappeared briefly below, then appeared brandishing the broken end of a plastic fly swat, announcing that this would be the perfect implement. And she was right. Finally her policy of “never EVER throw anything away, you never know when it might come in handy” had been vindicated and she sat there smugly for the remainder of the afternoon, knowing that this now gives her free licence for further hoarding.

Gabriel had worked hard on boat jobs to earn himself his own personal lure, and the inevitably expensive trip to a fishing shop was required before we left Townsville. A kid in a candy store doesn’t come close to describing Gabriel’s glee as he surveyed rows of gleaming new lures, each one designed to attract the fisherman probably even more than the fish. To be fair to our budding young fishing enthusiast, our lure stock had taken a bit of a hammering in PNG, several bitten off or lost to aggressive spanish mackerel or other toothy critters. We’d moved to using steel trace in a desperate attempt to minimise further lure losses and this seemed to help. Still, we were down to Gabriel’s home-made lures variously made from PNG plants, beers cans and seagull feathers, and things were looking a tad grim. But on our way out of the shop the only thing looking grim was the bank balance, weighed down as we were with a selection of hooks, lures, bait and assorted fishing gubbins. I justified it in my own mind by estimating the cost of fish we’d catch and eat, and so was thankful when we did in fact hook a couple of good-sized eaters and could dine out on them for several days.

The trip down the coast was largely uneventful, other than during my midnight watch when we converged with a couple of unidentified boats, the lead of which started acting nervous, flashing torches at us and shining lights onto their sails (classic behaviour signalling unease with another boat’s position). This all seemed a bit unnecessary to me, so I called them on the VHF and much to my surprise discovered them to be two yachts heading South from the PNG rally. It transpired that they’d had a nasty passage to Australia, an equally tough trip down from Cairns and were a tad sleep deprived and jumpy. We parted radio company on good terms, and in fact the three of us kept pace for the rest of the night. It’s a small sailing world, thought us, as evidenced further by finding that our French friends on board Here Nui were in Airlie Beach, and seemed keen to hook up. So after a day and half passage down the coast we stopped off at Airlie Beach for parts and provisions, and were delighted to find Here Nui, complete with highly excited friend of our boys’ Johan bouncing up and down at the prospect of some playmates. So we’ve hooked up with them, the boys especially pleased to be hanging out again, and have set off on a few days combined cruising as we explore the Whitsundays together.

Townsville turtles

Interesting how each town develops to cater for its people. Cairns and Port Douglas were all glam reef tourism, huge yachts making daily excursions out to the barrier reef, whilst back on land there sat the beautifully manicured waterfront designed to cater for the beautiful people travelling through, long stretches of grass for long-limbed sun-worshippers to top up their vitamin D, waterfront pools for bikini-clad models, playgrounds for model mothers designer kids, and thriving shops selling expensive sarongs, artwork and decaf cappuccinos. We were a little surprised that they even let us in. Here it feels like Townsville Council took a good look at their northern neighbours and decided they fancied the same, but ultimately their clientèle had different needs. Rather than tourism, here mining and heavy exports are the dominant industries, and so the first impressions as you walk in from the seafront are down-dirty pubs and girly bars. This may be an unfair impression, and it’s entirely understandable for some cities to have sensibly positioned their red light districts close to the port to reduce travelling time for their most loyal customers. But the beautiful people here are few and far between, and the town has a more functional feel, shopping mostly confined to out of town malls, heavy industry dominant across a sprawling sector, and the inner town a demoralised collection of closed shopfronts and pubs.

Anyway, for us the Townsville stop is primarily focused on fitting our new mainsail, and getting all the customs declarations sorted. Rebecca and I share some nervousness that the new sail will fit, given that we had to complete our own measurements and exchange emails to order it, so fingers crossed for its arrival in a couple of days. In the meantime the boys are back to home schooling, poor things, probably a bit of a shock to their systems after the relatively lax regime of PNG schooling, where they were surrounded by raucous friends and the teachers seemed happy to close classes early on the slightest whim. There is an inevitable list of ongoing boat repairs, and otherwise the afternoons are spent exploring Townsville or catching up with a couple of yacht friends whom we’d met up north.

Luca celebrated his birthday here, the day after we arrived. Energy levels were still a bit low between Rebecca and myself, the recovery time for our offshore passages sadly taking longer than it might have a few years ago, but we’d found a water park on the seafront that promised a good few hours of boys’ fun, and parked ourselves there with picnic and treats whilst Luca and brothers hooned around having a ball. Many thanks to everyone who sent birthday emails to Luca, each one poured over and hugely appreciated. The unprompted announcement that “this is been the best birthday ever!” accompanied birthday cake, and the boy went to bed a happy young man.

We’d made friends with a yachting family on the boat Savannah whilst in PNG who’d offered us help in Townsville, and have been very kind to us this week – thanks Murray. Yesterday we visited their home on the beach and experienced a classic Northern Queensland BBQ evening. The kids completed mock battles in the pool, and after wolfing down a couple of sausages took off into the night armed with hockey sticks for a session of cane toad whacking. These toads are a huge pest in the neighbourhood, breeding like the proverbial, and toad whacking is a regular past time for residents bent on their depopulation, with I imagine the side-benefit of improving their hand-eye coordination. Murray proudly showed us their pet python, a huge 3 metre beast actually less a pet and more a mobile possum trap, that they’ve had for several years for that very purpose. It seems they can tell when he’s caught a possum from the possum-shaped lump in his coils. “Feel free to stroke him” Murray announced. Aaah, thanks.

Earlier in the week I had to make a violent turn in the dinghy to avoid hitting a turtle on the way out of the Townsville marina. And today we got a better look at him, a crusty old barnacle-backed turtle that likes to hang out in the marina entrance, checking out boats coming in and out. They’re known to use the beaches here for breeding, although I still didn’t expect to run into one so close to land. A big one too. Nice to be back in a country where turtles are treated with such care and affection. They are widely eaten across the South Pacific of course, and it was only a few days ago when we went ashore at Rossel to find our good friends Vagi and Margaret had caught one and were preparing to cook it. The thing was laid on its back for a day on their porch, but at one stage managed to right itself and took off with surprising speed, pursued frantically by an even faster Margaret who wasn’t about to let such a prized catch get away. Much hilarity ashore from fellow villagers. Vagi later told me that he regretted showing it to Rebecca, who reacted with predictable horror and sadness at the turtle’s plight, but he still seemed to get some quiet satisfaction from telling her in great detail how they caught it, and how they’ll cook it. Poor little thing (the turtle, that is). I understand that many species of turtle are classified as endangered, but they appear to still be plentiful in these waters. The flesh is supposed to be delicious, and though offered to us I don’t think any of us could quite bring ourselves to try it..  

Lighter boat makes for happier passage

Coordinates: 19deg14S, 146deg49E anchored in the “duck pond” off Townsville Breakwater marina.

We arrived in Townsville on Friday late afternoon, having completed the 640 mile trip from Rossel in exactly 4 days and nights, averaging just under 7 knots. This may not sound impressive, but our first 24 hours were pretty awful, the sea state such that we had to slow the boat right down to reduce the pounding, so the average was brought up in subsequent days with speeds of 7-9 knots, a few bursts up to 12knots. Woohoo!  Actually, we cheated a bit for the last 24hrs after receiving an email from a friend in Townsville warning us that Australian Quarantine charge extortionate fees for w/e clearance.  We calculated that if we didn’t put the hammer down we’d arrive Friday night.  We had hardly used any diesel so far, so figured we’d motorsail and try to make it in before end of Fri business hours… and we squeaked in at 4pm, hugely relieved that we didn’t have to make the choice between a second mortgage or stuck on the boat anchored off for the w/e sitting under a Q flag.

Rebecca and I both felt a lot more relaxed on this trip. There are always the low level anxieties that go with offshore sailing with a family, but we’d managed to eliminate some of the underlying concerns before departing.  We were determined to offload anything we didn’t absolutely need, so Rebecca and I went systematically through each compartment fishing out our inevitable collection of collectomaniac gubbins – “stuff we might just need one day”. And on the basis that if we hadn’t used it by now, it wasn’t going to get used, we traded or gave it all away to our Louisiades’ friends or the United Church. Along with many boxes of aid, we dumped two old sails including our broken old mainsail (that took 75kg off the boat immediately), surplus diving gear, clothes and other stuff.  We’d depleted much of our food supplies, most of our LPG, and had sufficient diesel and petrol to get us to Aus but no more. So by the time we’d finished, Tonga Moon was sitting happily above her lines, proudly showing off more than an inch of previously concealed anti-foul.

Catamarans are known for being weight-sensitive, and whilst Tonga Moon has more weight-bearing capacity that many, she’s no exception. On the way up from Australia we were heavily over-loaded, carrying as we were over three months’ worth of supplies plus all the aid, and this was probably one factor contributing to our torn mainsail and excessive pounding on that trip. The difference has been noticeable; mainly through less pounding, which means less force on the structure and rigging and less stress for all of us. Rebecca’s hand-sewn repair to the mainsail held up magnificently to the 25 knot winds until the last night, when another tear appeared just in front of the old one.  Haha! This time we laughed in the face of a further torn sail, safe in the knowledge that we could limp in on this one whilst a new sail awaits us in Townsville.

So we spent our first night tied up alongside in a marina, first time in a marina for the whole trip so far, and were all soundly asleep by 8pm. The following morning saw a whirlwind of showers, laundry, boat clean and the usual post-passage clear-up, and we were off our expensive berth and back out onto our (wonderfully free) anchor, bobbing away happily in the tradewinds.  Luca’s birthday was rapidly approaching, and fast footwork was needed to conjure up a suitably impressive day for him. He’d really wanted to celebrate his 12th birthday with his mates in Rossel, but as we pointed out to him the islanders don’t celebrate birthdays and the whole event might have been quite peculiar. This non-birthday celebration thing probably explains why the islanders struggled so much telling us their age.  We’ve had some spectacularly silly responses to the dimple question “how old are you?” (“30 years old” from a pre-teen, for example), all delivered with an entirely straight face after what is clearly several failed attempts at mental arithmetic. Strange how something so fundamental to the way we see ourselves (our age) can be so completely undermined by a culture where they really don’t know, or seemingly care.

As you can tell, we haven’t quite let the Louisiades go yet. We’re still retelling stories amongst ourselves from PNG, which had proved such a great breeding grounds for some great little adventures. So here is one more…

A few days before we left Rossel, we received a visit from our friend George. He was the CRC church parson’s assistant, a former badboy who’d turned his life around and was now dedicated to the church. He was also a self-taught mechanic, having dropped out of school young and spent several years working the harsh life of a ship’s mate on one of the beche de mer fishing boats, and he & I had spent several days conjuring up a method for fixing worn bushes on our outboard engine. He’s a lovely guy. Anyway, he’d paddled out to the yacht and was sitting having a coffee with us when he slipped into the conversation, with so little preamble that I almost missed it, that he had a boil he was worried about. This boil was on his inner thigh, which was probably why he insisted on addressing all conversation to me rather than Rebecca, who was sitting opposite and was very clearly the only medical authority around the table. If he wanted medical treatment then sooner or later he’d have to deal with her, so I made myself scarce.

Rebecca took one look at the offending boil, and in her inimitable ‘let’s not mess about here” style suggested that it needed lancing and offered to do it right there and then. George showed some hesitation, but was clearly smart enough to recognise a fact that us menfolk in the Nolan family learnt a long time ago, which is: Don’t mess with the Doc. So he agreed, and his yelps of pain and cries of anguish echoed around the bay as Rebecca got stuck in. It took him some time to recover his composure, and he left the yacht somewhat diminished. Of course it did cure the problem, but he later confided in me that he’d come to the boat expecting some pills, and had only agreed to Rebecca’s suggestion because he thought it impolite not to. Had he been in his village there’s no way he’d have let her cut him. Anyway, his story soon did the rounds of the village and has since been retold many times, each time with increasing hilarity among his clan, the pastor and all others who think it is the funniest story they’ve heard for a long time. He still visited us after this incident, but it was certainly the last time he sought medical care, bless him.

400 miles out but still back there

Coordinates: 17deg37S, 148deg51E
Mid-Coral Sea, we’re now on our 3rd day of this 5 day passage from PNG to Townsville Australia. The Rev Isaac, our good friend the Minister of Rossel, had offered to guide us out through the tricky southern Rossel passage for our departure, and so we left with his longboat alongside us loaded up with the men from Damenu village – Isaac, Matthew, Sai, Robert, Vagi and William. We drifted into the passage entrance over the initially shallow section with the depth sounder dropping down to 0.0m beneath the keel, holding our breath and putting our faith entirely in our friends’ local knowledge. They didn’t let us down and we coasted over without touching, and then through the multiple-switchback passage. Big hugs and handshakes as we offloaded our guides back onto their longboat, and we took off through the reef gap into the open ocean.

From there, the first 24 hours can only be described as truly crappy. And that’s saying something since Easter we seem to have become the king and queen of crappy passages. We struggled through a prolonged series of rain-drenched squalls with the wind bouncing between 25-35 knots, topping out at 40k for a time, and the seas throwing up an occasional 4 metre wave amidst the 3 metre swell that would dose the boat from bow to stern. Oh joy! Wet, miserable and seasick, these were probably the dues we had to pay for the wonderful few months we’d enjoyed in PNG. But thankfully the wind and seas started to abate on the 2nd day, and since then we’ve been bouncing along in 25knot SE’erlies making a fast, if not entirely comfortable, passage. So we have another day or two before reaching the glitzy shores of Australia and making the necessary re-adjustment to life back in a developed country, but our hearts remain back at Rossel. This passage gives us a stop-gap to understand the experience and indulge ourselves in what we remember. For the moment we seem to have all turned into sentimental old fools!

However sad we felt at our departure, I think we were quite astounded by the depth of feeling shown by some of our island friends. We knew Vagi would be sad. His wife had told us that after our previous departure he’d taken the day off and refused to work…. but he’s a musician, so we figured he’s probably a bit of a wallower! But there was Rhonda, who was so overcome with sadness that she simply sat by the wharf crying silently, and I had to grab her hand to get her to say goodbye to me. And Olive, who’d paddled all the way across the bay to bring us a pineapple, tears rolling down her cheeks as she shook our hands repeatedly. Marama Lisan, the Minister’s wife, whose strong bearing and imposing authority seemed to break down and she wept as our dinghy pulled away. And there were more.

It was all too much, and we’re still making sense of it. Sure, we’d brought aid to the island, and we’re hugely grateful to Mike and Marlene Derridge from the yacht Vision, who enabled us to make that contribution. But we weren’t the only ones doing that, so there had to be more to it. And vain as we are, we wouldn’t kid ourselves that the strength of our personalities alone was sufficient to warrant this response either, so what was it?

Mike and Marlene had visited Rossel several times before, and amongst the friends we made they were something of a household name, very much liked by everyone we met. I think their approach may have be similar to ours – they simply hung out with people. And strange as it may sound, this in itself meant a huge amount to them. By way of example, we heard from the islanders that Mike’s wife strongly disapproved of him smoking, and he’d make up bogus jobs for her to do on the boat so he could sneak away with his village mates for a puff, something the islanders thought was hysterical. It’s this sort of interaction that they so valued.

During the days before our departure, the church students had turned their attention to preparing their gardens for planting, and I’d asked if I could accompany them one morning. A good hour-long hillclimb took us to a steep half-acre section of cleared forest, where a party of 30 or so islanders had gathered for the working bee, the men digging the ground with digging sticks (metal pipe with a short blade on the end) and the women planting yam seedlings behind them. It was back-breaking work in the mounting heat, but the guys seemed to know how to pace themselves and several trips down to the neighbouring village to collect water enabled frequent breaks. Those who knew us cracked jokes and indulged in general banter, whilst it seems that those who hadn’t met us before looked on in great confusion, asking repeatedly what a dimdim was doing working in the garden. After a couple of hour’s hard labour I confess I was asking myself the same thing. But there was general astonishment and a great deal of pleasure at our presence, and for me this was part explanation for the depth of feeling at our departure.
The islanders have the phrase ahh, dimdims which they use to express either wonderment at how we live, or how astonishing or crazy our world is to them. A bit like Asterix’s these Romans are crazy sentiment perhaps. But it’s an endearing phrase, not derogatory. Whilst we worked the garden, several asked me whether dimdims have gardens like them? God no I replied, we go to the supermarket! and received the predictable ahh, dimdims response. I’d exaggerated for affect of course (not something I’d do in this blog, mind you), so went on to explain how some dimdims have small gardens by their house (hint…not five miles walk over the hill) and grow veggies and fruit. I also explained that I personally hate gardening, and after a hard week’s work could find any number of things I’d rather do than be grubbing around in the dirt. Great laughter at this.

Not only had Rebecca won much kudos for her medical rounds, but much to my (and her) amazement she found herself enjoying something of a reputation as a master chef, and spent hours teaching the village women how to bake banana bread, make mayonnaise and other goodies. Our meagre stock of cookbooks were poured over and recipes copied, amid much discussion about local ingredients. Now, here’s a thing: how do you bake with no oven, only an open fire? Here’s how they do it… they build their fire, balance a metal sheet over it on which is placed the cake, then suspend another sheet over this and build a fire on top of that. Simple! Even better, get their hands on a discarded 200 litre metal petrol container and build the bottom and top fires within it. Clever eh? Mind you, no-one was prepared to say how many baked items come out as blackened charcoal, but we thought the principle was pretty cool, especially given that our oven on Tonga Moon broke about two month’s into the trip, and Rebecca has now perfected the art of baking bread, cakes etc inside a pressure cooker.

Anyhow, all this is behind us now as we romp our way south through the Coral Sea. No doubt more stories from PNG will enter subsequent blogs, but for now the sea has settled and we’re enjoying average 8-9 knots and a likely arrival sometime tomorrow night, all of us looking forward to a good motionless sleep.

A final Farewell to Rossel

Rebecca and I’d had many discussions about the best time to leave. We’d been accused by a couple of yachts of growing a tap root at Rossel. We’d certainly loved the prolonged stay, and the thought of leaving wasn’t a pleasant one. But we needed to return to Australia mid-Oct to begin the slog down the coast to Brisbane, our jump-off spot for the Tasman crossing. Our supplies had held up amazingly well a huge credit to Rebecca’s provisioning skills. Never again shall I take the piss out of her tendencies to count out teabags based on assumed tea consumption rates prior to a trip. OK, she’d cry but it’s all about saving weight! No. In over three months without access to a single shop, we haven’t run out of muesli (my own greatest fear), early grey tea (her’s), or lollies (the boys’), although it must be said that there’d been some fairly brutal rationing on all but tea. Funny that.

We’d got lucky and managed to score a full LPG bottle off a neighbouring yacht, but one or two things were getting tight. We were down to our last gas bottle, we had just enough diesel to make it back to Aus if needed, and enough petrol for only one or two more outings in the dinghy. More importantly, Rebecca’s substantial medicine chest was being rapidly depleted as her Florence Nightingale fame spread wider across Rossel, and she was determined to keep her last course of antibiotics and other medicines for any family dramas on the way back, only too aware of the extent of hypochondria rampant in the Nolan family. So we had to go.

In our time at Rossel we’d all caught head lice, worms, headcolds and an endless array of minor foot and leg infected cuts, but thankfully nothing more serious. Tricky to avoid cuts getting infected in a place where it rains so much, and walking in mud is a daily necessity. Head lice, interestingly, are common amongst the islanders; and presumably because their hair is so thick and wiry the usual lice combs aren’t workable, so it’s an everyday sight to see kids and adults lovingly picking nits out of each others’ hair. Rebecca commented that introducing chemical headlice treatment could erode a vital form of community bonding, and you can see what she meant. We hadn’t quite got to that point ourselves, but the lice comb had become a regular evening entertainment, and Rebecca would quietly wince every time one of the boy’s village friends exchanged hats with them (woven hats and baskets being a common gift).

The previous week had seen a perfect weather pattern of light NE’erlies settle over the Coral Sea, and several other yachts had grabbed the moment and headed off. But we didn’t feel ready to go, and took the risk of staying knowing that we might get stuck with adverse weather for our trip south. As it turned out the forecasts weren’t great, but weren’t terrible either for the period when we’d planned to leave, so rather than wait further (or forever) for the perfect window to reoccur, we decided the time was right. This was against the advice of at least one of our friends back home who’d been pouring over internet-based weather forecasts on our behalf (sorry Dave), and who no doubt will point blank refuse to provide the same service in the future. But we’d been tempering the official forecasts with local knowledge from our PNG friends ashore, and they’d suggested that indeed we could be waiting until December for another period of light NE’erlies.

We knew the departure would be tough on all of us, attached as we’d become to many friends ashore. We’d elected to catch the afternoon high tide out over the reef, so there was plenty of time for painful drawn-out goodbyes. This time we insisted no formal kai-kai, speeches or the like we’d done that to death at our previous farewell but the rounds of goodbyes became increasingly emotional as the day went on. Several islanders paddled some distance across the bay to see us off, and the dinghy became increasingly loaded with farewell gifts of woven baskets and hats, passion fruit, coconuts and huge bunches of bananas to sustain us on our trip.

The boys had made wonderful friends with what we referred to as the four Js (Jeremiah, Jerome, Junior, & Jerry), who all lived in the hilltop village of Nalumbay and shared the same appetite for wagging school and encouraging their dimdim mates into high jinx. Jeremiah especially had spent a lot of time hanging out with us, regularly whipping us all at draughts. On the morning of our departure they paddled out at 6am to spend time with us, and got their first taste of sweet porridge as a reward. It transpired there was some question whether they’d been lent or borrowed the canoe (not the first time so accused), so they took it back and returned straddling two banana trees hacked down and joined together with sticks to make their own adhoc multihull canoe! These guys are beauts! But even their antics had the ring of last minute furious fun, and there came a break point for each of us. Rebecca managed to hold it together despite at least three of her female friends crying ashore, but one look at Jeremiah manfully trying to hide his tears set her off. Vagi had proved something of a role model for Gabriel and Luca, and they both found this parting tough. And much to my own surprise, I found myself getting choked up as my good friend George insisted on praying for me in a breaking voice as we stood on the hill overlooking the bay.

What’s happened to us? Whatever became of the hard-hearted westerners un-phased by separation? Even writing this makes me feel uncomfortable soppy, but it’s clear that something about these people had touched each of us in a very personal way, and our feelings at the end validated all the beautiful farewell comments made by our village friends. These shy, proud, strong, warm-hearted, fun-loving and gracious people. Seems we really had grown a taproot, and it was proving hard to sever.

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