Whitsundays: Tall ships, blue waters

October 31, 2009 0 Comments

The day dawned slightly cloudy with a hint of rain in the air. We rose early to get some breakfast and slather ourselves head to foot in high factor sun cream. We were taking no chances with Australia’s harsh sun and our very Irish skin. Still absorbing the film of cream, we piled into the morning courtesy bus and requested a drop off at the Marina. Unfortunately our surly driver didn’t really know where she was going. Stopping off to ask a bunch of men for Dominos, all she got was directions for picking up a pizza. About ten minutes late, we were finally deposited at the correct roundabout and left squinting in the sunlight to see if anyone looked like they might be waiting for us. Sure enough, a lean weather-beaten man approached having spotted the brochure I was gripping and informed us that he’d been waiting for us. He stalked off down the pier before I could even explain the delay, so I gave up and hurried after him while Brodie realised that he’d lost his sunglasses in the last few minutes and ran back to hastily perform a fruitless search.

Further down the rows of ships we found ourselves boarding the Domino  (a New Zealand built Lidgard 38). The other members of the party were just getting comfortable after depositing their shoes into storage. The German contingent consisted of Michael and Verena – a couple who emigrated to Sydney and are working as engineers for Quantas, and Stefan who has been jaunting around Australia in a camper van. Michael and Verena soon proved themselves to be the most sociable and humorous Germans we’d encountered on the trip so far. The last member of the group was an English guy who was fairly quiet. We would be spending the day under the supervision of our captain Reg Eggers, and his deckhand Greg. Reg is a 62 year old veteran of travelling and sailing the world that is currently living in Airlie. He has the typical lean frame of one accustomed to the sailing life and the tanned skin of those who’ve been weathered by sun and wind for a long time. Greg is a retired school teacher who recently decided to learn the sailing trade and was fortunate enough to be able to sign on as a deckhand to help Reg when he busted a shoulder.

In no time at all we had chugged out of the harbour, switched off the engine, unfurled the sails, and were sailing out across the wide open waters. For the morning sail myself and Brodie edged up along the top side of the deck (the vessel usually travels at an angle that makes one side of the deck particularly waterlogged). Shifting around on cushions we propped ourselves in between supports and sat back to enjoy the view up front. As the sun continued to break out between the clouds we enjoyed a stiff breeze and frequent sprays of water to ensure we didn’t get too hot. As the waves caused the boat to rise and dip it had the effect more often than not of throwing a bucket of salty water in our faces like an over-used special effect in a film. We were definitely getting up close and personal with the ocean. Once we got used to the sensation of the boat tipping over so far that it felt like it would fall flat on its side, we were able to relax and enjoy the sensation of a real sailing trip.

The gorgeous blue water was layered from light turquoises through to rich dark blues. Despite a bracing breeze that was helping us to fly through the water, the reflective surfaces all round kept us warm enough to be comfortable even with the showers of cold water. The Domino is the smallest vessel that does day tours to the Whitsundays so it’s the best in terms of a real sailing experience  People can take turns steering the ship at the helm. You’re close to nature, feeling the swell and dip of every wave and becoming accustomed to the rocking motions that can suddenly change rhythm at the whim of wind or wave. Out on the horizon a number of green islands and other ships passed. Once, a pod of dolphins broke the surface close by. It’s hard to describe how relaxing the feel of the open sea is on a bright breezy day. We sipped orange juice trying to avoid getting it spiked with salt water and wholly enjoyed the journey itself rather than focusing on a destination. This trip was all about being out on the open sea and experiencing a real sailing voyage.

Finally Hayman island began to loom in the distance (the ultra-expensive playground of the rich). We were drawing close to the reef and our destination of Bali Hai Beach. Much to Reg’s disgust, when he went to start the engine all he got was a click click click. While debating the finer points of engine trouble-shooting with Michael, he changed tactics and chose to manually do the trickier navigation. As he demonstrated more advanced sailing skills, we tacked from one side to another in order to manoeuvre the ship at the right angle for it to pass the reef safely. This involved much scrambling from one side to the other for everyone on board while ropes were hauled in to slowly swing the sails from one side to the other. The right side of deck would go from top to bottom, then back again before holding steady when Reg was satisfied everything was lined up correctly. We passed over the reef without incident and managed to catch a mooring rope by the island on the second attempt. We had arrived.

Bali Hai

Bali Hai is one of the smaller Whitsunday islands. It has a few small, sandy stretches of beach with a picnic table and basic toilet. On the rocky end of the island a couple of eagles construct a nest each year to raise their young. Reg has the only permit for day trips to the island, though charter vessels do stop by. This means that the island is generally deserted apart from his passengers. Pulling out a number of maps, Reg described the island area and the surrounding waters. Armed with detailed information about how he expected us to move around as we snorkelled in the sheltered water on the boat side of the island, we made our way over to the island in groups on the smaller jet boat.

Interested to see if the snorkelling would be any good, Brodie and I quickly prepared to enter the water. Reg came to sit on the rocks and impart some wisdom as we donned flippers and snorkels and waded into the water backwards. “Alright, that’s as deep as it gets… take a couple of minutes to fix your mask on and GO SWIM!”, Reg proclaimed before heading back to the picnic bench to see what state of disarray the rest of the passengers were in. After a few minutes of plunging my face in the shallow water I was satisfied that although my mask was comfortably loose, it was snug enough to keep water out. I had opted to take a ‘noodle’, a thin tube of blue that was a convenient flotation device. While the waters were easy to stay afloat in, resting on one of these meant that you could get more distracted with what was below the surface of the water.

We had no real sense of time in the water, going further than the rest of the group in our explorations. When we snorkelled previously we had found active marine life underwater that you’d never suspect when swimming. This experience far surpassed that though. There was no wetsuit serving as a barrier between the tepid water and our skin. The coral was dripping with plant and animal life that clung to the rocky shelves. There was such a variety of colours and shapes that it was often difficult to differentiate between flora and fish or figure out where to look first. Having been warned that the barrier reef was often a disappointment to people, I was astonished to be seeing so much at the island. The water was at a comfortable temperature and the sun bright enough to illuminate the water fully up until the shelves of coral ended and the sea dropped to murkier depths.

In the peaceful world under the surface of the water it was easy to drift along with nothing but the gurgle of water in your ears and sound of steady breathing through the snorkel tube. With such clarity in the water, the view was overwhelming and it was hard to take it all in. Time stood still. I soon settled into a pattern of slowly drifting along cracks and fissures where coral shelves overhung and a plethora of inhabitants lurked in the shadows. Moving slowly and quietly I would float over the top of a shelf and spot shy shoals of fish creeping out from shelter or swarming over a source of food. Multicoloured rainbow fish passed through shoals of small bright blue fish. Out of the depths of a large crack a huge mottled brown fish emerged and I tailed it on its journey until it eventually headed into deeper open waters where visibility decreased. Back towards a shore, pumpkin shaped plants were dotted along the ocean floor and I paused to look at multicoloured fronds rising from the rocks slowly waving in the currents, trying to determine which ones hid fish faking that they were part of the reef.

By the time we reached the end of the island, the water was getting choppier and the cry of the eagles could be heard overhead. Turning back the water was less clear with disturbed sand clouding parts of it. It was time to reluctantly return to the beach for a time check. We slowly made our way back through the coral, still spotting more new inhabitants. A long black shape suddenly floated up below me to draw alongside a smaller fish. In one quick movement the smaller fish was gone and I moved a little faster to gain some distance from the shape still lurking below. All too soon the beach was back in view and we emerged, dripping a trail of water, to remove our flippers and masks.

eagle nest

At this point Reg and Greg cracked open the picnic containers and dished out a platter of chicken, fruit and salad to everyone. With some fresh bread and orange juice, everyone was happily occupied for a while enjoying the food and sharing tales of what they’d seen in the waters. There was still time after lunch for a quick exploration of the island on foot. The rockier beach at the back looked out onto rich shades of blue sea. Up towards the end of the island, the eagle nest could clearly be seen on a rocky outcropping. The proud parents circled and swooped overhead, perching high on a branch clutching the fish they’d swooped down and plucked out of the water. Discussing with Reg all that I’d seen while snorkelling and how impressed I was, he expressed the opinion that the coral around the islands was far superior to what you’d find on the reef itself.

It was now time to load everyone back onto the boat. We benefitted from being the first back, feeding the surplus bread to a pair of bat fish that are accustomed to the ritual. The greedy fish batted ferociously at each other to reach the proffered bread.  With the clear blue waters it was easy to see them. When everyone else was aboard, we left the fish to return to their search for food on the coral. Reg had got the engine going and settled in to complain about the poor quality new parts he’d paid a fortune to install on the ship. The ship itself is quite old, but made of sturdy timber that outlasts and outperforms the expensive new ships that come off a manufacturing line. Its achilles heel is the newer components. Sitting at the rear of the ship for the return journey we listened to tales of Reg’s life while he continuously made suggestions for making ourselves more comfortable.

bat fish

Apparently a bit of a hermit, Reg has a house surrounded with 5 acres of land (or 5 football fields when we had to convert the unit of measurement to something everyone could easily visualise). He claims to have few friends apart from his wife and dog. Understandably, he prefers some solitude at the end of his days when he spends them navigating the waters with groups of people. It seems quite the life as he sits back in the stern regaling the group with tales of storms and capsized ships that almost, but not quite, persuade him to quit sailing and do something safer. If it’s not stormy weather, it’s dangerous wildlife. The snakes or dingos around his house recently necessitated him obtaining a replacement dog. On a day tour like this one he witnessed a woman’s body shutting down completely after receiving a small sting from a particularly lethal jellyfish that populates the warmer waters. Lucky to be airlifted for medical care in time to survive, she still suffers the effects from that encounter. This lead the group to consider how much more dangerous the Australian habitat is compared to living in Europe. Those who aren’t wary can pay a very high price.

As we sailed back towards the marina the sun was getting closer to setting. The group was seated here and there around the deck enjoying the view and some tea and biscuits. We learned bits and pieces about everyone onboard. The group was just the right size to build a sense of camaraderie on the short voyage. Reg, though obviously biased, described some of the other boat trips that can be done at Airlie Beach where the crew can be too lazy to switch from engine to sail even if they have sails. We were feeling confident that this was definitely the best choice we could have made. The day had turned into one of the highlights of the trip. We’re looking forward to doing some more snorkelling on our second daytrip and also seeing the infamous Whitehaven Beach. After this day though, we felt we’d truly been sailing around the Whitsundays.

Just to prove that it wasn’t all clear waters and plain sailing, the waves became rougher and we were building up a lot of speed. Reg took over the helm again. We only tipped disconcertingly a couple of times when he was distracted by the talking and missed one of those small changes that has a magnified effect on the boat. As we approached the harbour he managed to coax the engine back to life. Just in time, as another boat cut across our path leaving Reg to yell at them for their poor manners and stupidity. It was when he gave the order to bring our sails down and the sails wouldn’t budge that there was a hint of panic. He pushed the helm into Brodie’s hands telling him vaguely to keep going straight. As the minutes stretched and the sails stubbornly refused to move, we ended up turning and skirting back along the coast. Somewhere during this, my cap which had resisted every gust of wind so far got lifted off with a light touch of breeze and departed to float off in the water. One pair of sunglasses and a hat gone in a day. Just as well both were cheap and easily replaceable.

Reg rechecked the expensive rigging system and continued to curse all these modern manufacturers of poor equipment. Michael eventually prised the stuck ropes loose with a screwdriver and eased the loops of rope around. Finally the sails started to come down and could be tied up safely. Reg returned to the helm to take us in to dock, mentally calculating the cost of the broken equipment and trying to figure out if there was any hope of repairs to allow tomorrows voyage to go ahead. Helpfully I pointed out that at least we were very lucky he got the engine going just before the rigging system failed. This obviously hadn’t occurred to Reg yet. Speechless for a minute, he turned to clap me on the shoulder in acknowledgement before announcing how royally screwed we would have been had both methods of power and steering failed at the same time. The thought of what could so easily have been worse seemed to cheer him up.

sail boat

Safely docked, we left Reg to ring up someone and effect some repairs. The English guy disappeared rapidly. We accepted Michael and Verena’s invitation to join them for a drink while waiting for Stefan to shower. Living in a camper van, he couldn’t resist availing of the offer of a key to a real shower. The group made its way into Airlie Beach resort and we settled in a bar for a few beers and pizzas. Conversation drifted as we covered topics ranging from the experience of moving to Sydney from Germany to the state of the economy and housing markets everywhere. Tired but happy, the group split up after exchanging contact details and we caught a courtesy bus back to our hostel to scrub off the sand, salt and traces of sun cream that were still caked to us. We were surprised and delighted to see that we hadn’t turned lobster red. Another plus.