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Queensland and Back to New Zealand

Our trip to Mackay in Queensland was not quite the fast reaching, trade wind passage we had expected. It started that way, but a low and front to the south brought torrential rain for a few hours and then fresh winds well forward of the beam for the second half of the passage. We decided after much debate to go through the Great Barrier Reef at Hydrographer's Pass. We took a SWAG (scientific wild ass guess) at the state of tide and got it right, which was just as well given its strength. Fortunately, as it turned out, the right state of tide brought us through at night, which was initially daunting until it became clear how well lit the complexities of the Pass are. Inevitably, we met a huge bulk carrier at the narrowest point, where we appeared to be on a variety of collision courses because of the fierce tidal cross-set.

Intentionally slow progress brought us into Mackay the next morning, 2 August, where we avoided overtime charges and Vicky used her Aussie passport for the first time, but was still given her full money's worth (A$132) by the Quarantine Inspector, with about two hours of polite but exhaustive inspection. As usual after a passage we needed some time to recover and Mackay was a pleasant place to do it. The marina had good facilities - apart from haul out, which we had planned to do, prior to Hamilton Island Race Week. However, we managed to find a convenient storage unit and went through our usual pre-race routine, taking off about 3/4 of a ton of personal and cruising gear until we could actually see a wide stripe of 'Sunstone's' black antifouling. As usual after some time in remote parts, we found visits to the local mall something of a culture shock, while biking along the road into town with huge road trains going by at 60 mph was a challenge. A coat of hull varnish rounded off our preparations for the short passage north to the Whitsundays.

On our way to Airlie Beach we only stopped once, at Lindeman Island, but we had a good recce of the island group. Both of us had expected scenery much more tropical than what we found. The islands are mostly fairly high, wooded and rocky, with numerous bays and coves and a few white sand beaches. Though the anchorages were numerous, many were not particularly well-sheltered and the tides through the islands are very strong - by Aussie standards - with a considerable tidal range, up to 6 metres at Mackay and 4-5 in the Whitsundays. In theory, the trade winds blow steadily and quite strongly through the winter months, however, as we were to find to our dismay, the practice can be rather different.

A three day haul-out at Hawke's Boatyard at Airlie allowed us to improve the bottom finish a little and cover it with paint to hide what couldn't be improved. Hogsbreath Regatta was going on at the time, with 20-25 knots of wind every day. With a few efforts of our own, some by Michael Jackson and some sheer luck, we had managed to assemble what turned out to be an excellent crew for 'Hamo'. Michael himself flew in from Sydney. Charles Davis rediscovered just how huge his country is by driving all the way north from Sydney. Chris Thompson was already cruising in the Whitsundays with his brother. Kiwi, Wayne Oliver, was a fortunate find, delivery crewing on the American Maxi, 'Icon'. Bryony (Bee) Wolstenholme, an exported Brit, working on charter boats at Airlie, completed the complement and helped us take the boat across to Hamo - in the last bit of solid breeze we were to see for over a week.

A blow by blow of the regatta would be too painful - from a sailing point of view at least. The Regatta organiser, Warwick Hoban, assured us that the calms of the previous year couldn't possibly repeat themselves - but they did. Though there was occasionally some good breeze at the start of racing, it usually faded. Gradient and sea-breezes were in constant unpredictable battles and the tide always seemed to turn against the smaller boats, having let the larger through. Fortunately the crew were great, cheerful despite adversity and very good company ashore, where the partying went into the wee hours - while Tom and Vicky tried to sleep. With good trade winds the Regatta would be a wonderful event in a delightful setting. Ah well. . . Thankfully we did manage a third in the final race and the two other highlights of the week were very close encounters with some of the whales which wander through the islands at this time of year. It is interesting and not a little worrying dodging a mother and calf under spinnaker while racing. It would be churlish not to mention how hospitable the organisers were, particulalrly to foreign owners, for whom the Resort's CEO even threw a special party at his home.

By 28 August all the crew had departed and we set off on our brief cruise of the Whitsundays. By this time we had sailed past every island in the group, but had managed to stop at hardly any. We visited Tongue Bay where we hiked and Cateran Bay where we snorkeled, as well as Thomas Island, where we lazed and sighted turtles. It was just as well that we were headed back to Mackay as Vicky was experiencing a reaction to all the exertions of racing. We spent a weekend sinking the boat back down to its cruising marks and made ourselves unpopular at the local yacht club, by backing the All Blacks on TV in their 26-29 loss against the Wallabies.

Though we wanted to enjoy the rest of our cruise down the Queensland coast, we also realised that we had to press on if we wanted to be ready to head from Brisbane to NZ by the beginning of October. It is nearly 500 miles from Mackay to Brisbane. Fortunately the number of potential stops on the way for a boat of any draft is limited. Many of the potential mainland anchorages on the Queensland coast are barred creeks and rivers, which are not inviting if you draw much more than 4'. However, we still had time to visit some attractive island anchorages at Digby, Middle Percy, South Percy and Hexham Islands. At the former and the latter, we caught up with a fellow class winner in the Hobart, John Quinn in 'Polaris of Belmont'. We were pleased to agree with him that some racers can also cruise. Further stops at Island Head Creek and Pancake Creek saw us well on our way south and ready for another of Vicky's journies down memory lane, this time to Lady Musgrave Island, which she had visited as a 19 year-old in 1972. A slow night passage brought us to the pass into the lagoon just as the sun was showing the reefs clearly. The Island is one of the few in the southern part of the Great Barrier Reef with a lagoon in which one can anchor. As a result it is a day-trip destination for tourists. We walked and Vicky snorkeled, before heading out again with just enough light to see the bommies.

Sailing through the night, we arrived at the Burnett River and Port Bundaberg in the wee hours. Having negotiated the lower channel and dodged various dredgers, we felt our way to an anchoring spot where we could catch some sleep and wait for the next day's tide to carry us up the winding and occasionally shallow channel, past the famous 'Bundy Rum' distillery, to Bundaberg itself. With the establishment of the marina at the river mouth, the Mid-Town marina is not crowded. Though the pontoons were a bit ramshackle, the facilities were good and the staff were extremely friendly and helpful. The town itself, like Mackay, has something of an 'outback', provincial air - because that's what it is - but had everything we needed. It also gave us the opportunity to get onto our bikes and out into the countryside, which at first seemed to be nothing but cane fields. However, we soon found in the 55k we biked that there were also rolling wooded hills and valleys - inhabited in places by aggressive magpies and 7' long snakes, slithering gently along the road.

All our Aussie friends had urged us to go through Great Sandy Strait and visit Fraser Island, with the dubious distinction of being the largest sand island in the world. A long day sail got us to the anchorage off Kingfisher Bay Resort - and a bottle of bubbly to celebrate our four years of cruising away from England. The next day we hiked up to Lake MacKenzie, returning to carry the dink across about 200 yards of sand and mud at low water - shades of Walton Backwaters. For an Island entirely composed of sand, Fraser has remarkable woodlands and was for many years extensively logged. It is now a very attractive national park, along whose tracks you see virtually no walkers, but scores of 4-wheel-drive SUVs. Compared to the fit, hiking Kiwis, many Aussies seem pretty overweight and sedentary - yet they produce some of the best sporting men and women in the world - a puzzle. The next day we negotiated the shallowest and most winding part of the Strait to reach Garry's anchorage, probably the prettiest inshore anchorage we visited on the whole coast.

A night at Inskip Point at the southern end of the Strait gave us a clean get away on the tide to cross the Wide Bay Bar between Fraser Island and the mainland. Though the bar is not specially shallow, it is daunting because of the breakers which build up around it even in very moderate conditions. It is also necessary to head SE to cross the worst of the bar, which is straight into the prevailing wind. Only a boat with an exceptionally strong engine and a skipper with exceptionally strong nerves would choose to go out when wind and sea are up. Fortunately conditions were gentle for us and the wind only filled after we got offshore and set our course for Mooloolaba, which we reached by the evening of 20 September.

 

 

Mooloolaba is clear to the north of the shallows of Moreton Bay into which the Brisbane River empties. As a result it is a popular alternative both for local yachties and for visiting cruisers. The town is pleasant if touristy and the yacht club is palatial. Here we finally caught up with Norman and Jo Dahl - originally friends from West Mersea, who had come to Australia to stay some years ago. Having acted as our northern post drop in Aus, they also kindly proceded to show us the sights locally, including the Glass House Range and the Koala Reserve. At the latter Vicky finally managed to have her photo taken cuddling a koala - who seemed more interested in the gum tree leaves he was chewing. Quite apart from his skills as a postmaster, Norman is also a computer whiz, whose talents made our transition from old Toshiba to new one as smooth as these things can ever be.

As a result of a chance encounter with Michelle Powell in Tanna, we had been kindly offered a berth by Richard Anderson at the Wynnum Manly Yacht Club Marina in Manly, south of Brisbane. Though Brisbane is the clearance port, we had gathered that yachts could be cleared from Manly, so we hastened to accept the kind offer. With the attractive modern city only a short train ride away, Manly was a good spot to make our preparations for the passage back to NZ, quite apart from the fact that it allowed us to catch up with Don & Maggie Freebairn, the owners of the only other varnished racing boat in Australia, 'Koomooloo'. Having updated our computer, complete with DVD and CD burner and bought Vicky a new Nikon, we reclaimed the GST (VAT) from Customs and girded our loins for the passage. We had had a wonderful time in Australia, having seen the East Coast from Melbourne and Tassie right up to the Whitsundays - only excepting the short stretch from Coffs to Brisbane. However, we were keen to begin our trek back across the Pacific, even if the first leg was the shortest, a mere 1250 miles across the Tasman to Opua in NZ.

Yachts headed east from Brisbane generally have to buck head winds for some time. On 5 October, we were fortunate to head off when a low well to the south had brought the winds round to the same direction. We rode the shoulder of this low most of the way across the Tasman as it headed north and east. As a result we had fresh to strong winds most of the way, on the beam or just forward. It was such fast reaching that at one stage we were concerned that we might get ahead of the low and let ourselves in for some really strong easterlies. In the event the low was faster than we were and the wind petered out as we approached the Three Kings Islands to the northwest of Cape Reinga.

However, before that we had our close encounter with a roguette! On 11 October we were well beyond half-way and the wind was easing down from its strongest to about 25 knots. The seas were regular and moderate, perhaps about 4 metres. Just before 0800 Tom was on watch when a wave reared up over the starboard bow and broke over the boat. Despite holding on to the boom crutch support, Tom was flung against the steering pedestal and wheel. Once the water cleared and we established that neither of us was seriously hurt, we assessed the damage. Though still functioning, the steering wheel was somewhat buckled and the inch bronze pinion on which the wheel is mounted was bent. Before being torn from it, Tom had also bent the boom crutch support. Though the Acrylic had survived, the frame of the pram hood over the companion was also bent. As the boat had not heeled appreciably, Vicky down below suffered only some spilt tea. An hour or so later Vicky also noticed that the starboard after lower was slack. On inspection we found that the strip toggle at the bottom of the bottle screw had sheared. To be fair this had probably already been weakened when the same lower snapped on the Sydney-Hobart Race. Tom emerged from the foam wet, momentarily winded, with bruises to legs and ribs and a seriously enlarged respect for the power of breaking waves. The wave that did the damage was not really that big, probably no more than 6 metres or so, but it chose to break at just the wrong moment, when 'Sunstone' was immediately inside its crest. On consideration we were pleased that we had renewed the decks only a year previously.

As on our previous approach to New Zealand two years before, we ended up motoring for the last day or so as the wind faded to flat calm. But this time it was familiar territory as we coasted our way down to the welcoming arms of the Bay of Islands and Opua. With the formalities completed at the new marina, after eight days at sea, we settled down to 10 days of thoroughly social catching up with Kiwi and cruising friends. We found out that we would not be able to leave the boat hauled out ashore in Tauranga while we went to New York to visit Tom's family. So we decided that the best alternative was to leave it in Westhaven Marina in Auckland, where there is excellent security and protection from the weather - as well as a number of friends to keep an occasional eye on the height of 'Sunstone's' freeboard! Accordingly, overnight stops at Tutukaka and Kawau brought us back to Auckland. As we sailed past North Head two remarkable sights greeted us. The first was that of two Orcas idling their way out of the Harbour. The second was that of an Americas Cup yacht with GBR on its sail. It must have been one of the the team's first practices after arriving. We gave and got a couple of waves and wished them well.

Knowing well how Auckland-centric supplies of anything in New Zealand are, we set about getting as many things accomplished here as we could before we boarded our long flight to NYC on 13 November. Sails, dinghy and number of more minor items were serviced, the hull and coach roof varnished, new steering pedestal ordered, and so on and on. In the midst of all this we had Vicky's birthday dinner and managed to fit in a few races on Auckland Harbour - in other people's boats. Despite the pleasures of getting back on our bikes again, after a couple of weeks we were almost looking forward to being away from the boat - almost. It would be the longest time away from 'Sunstone' since we bought her in 1981.

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