Time is not on our side. This sailing journey chapter continues with the dangers and frustrations of outrunning a cyclone.
Again, apologies for the poor quality photos from 1997. The 35mm negatives lived on the boat in exceptionally humid conditions before moving to storage on land in the heat.
A little background
After a wonderful 4-month road trip in 1997 exploring Victoria and across to Mt. Gambier in South Australia, we return to Townsville. Posts to come on the fabulous road trip.
Wanting to leave Townsville for a change of scenery and sail to a less humid abode, the skipper secures a contract for work in Gladstone.
With northerly winds blowing and Naiad (home-built boat) heading south, this should be a great sail.
There’s just one catch, it’s still cyclone season and we don’t usually go for long sails. This time of year is too risky, as cyclones form at any given time along any part of this expansive coastline.
This is the first time sailing with a deadline constraint – another broken rule.
Bound for Gladstone
As there’s a contract to start in a week and new bosses to keep happy, we can’t be late. Setting aside one week for a comfortable sail to Gladstone and time to settle into this new city, we leave Townsville soon after provisioning and saying goodbye to friends.
Although yachties receive good weather warnings via the VHF radio, I still don’t want to be anywhere near a cyclone or its super-strong tailing destructive winds – whether in a small sailing boat or large ship.
Naiad ambles down the coast once more but this time slicing through the water faster and gliding much smoother than ever. Deciding to extend Naiad in Townsville from 28′ feet to 34′ feet is proving to be an excellent decision.
As this isn’t a cruising trip, stops are less frequent and there isn’t any time to linger along the coastline. With only a couple of overnight stops before reaching Whitsunday’s Airlie Beach, the inevitable happens.
Outrunning a cyclone
Tropical cyclone Justin starts to form quickly in far north Queensland’s Coral sea. Unstable weather, heavy sultry conditions, and very strong winds develop in the Whitsunday region.
Warnings to take cover in a cyclone hole are broadcasted. The problem is that there are only 3 spots in this area and hundreds of boats so it’s first-in-first-served.
Taking cover – Upper Gulnare Inlet
Justin is strengthening and is now a Cat 2 cyclone.
Finding a spot, drop all of Naiad’s chain digging the anchor deep in the soft mud, and throwing a second anchor down hoping that she holds.
Removing everything that can be torn from the deck and securing everything down tightly, sit around and wait with ears glued to the VHF.
The cyclone north is heading our way on a steady southerly path.
This part of the inlet offers 360-degree-protection as the surrounding very high lush hills form a deep narrow gully down to its base and pristine tropical waterhole – hoping that all will be over soon.
Justin teases with his very strong winds and even stronger gusts.
The VHF is alive with yachties trying to hold their boat’s ground. It’s bedlam and extremely crowded closer to the mouth of the inlet. Boats that arrived too late to anchor at the back of the inlet with the first boats are forced to anchor in the less-protected part of the inlet.
Around 40 boats are dragging anchor out there and the winds are already 55-plus Knots. Many charter boats are the culprits as is the overcrowding. Gulnare Inlet doesn’t offer the best protection in south-easterly winds, but Upper Gulnare is tranquil.
Barely a whisper of breeze bothers us at the back of this inlet but it’s hot and very humid. Naiad is shut up and battened down. Sealed from the elements and steaming – a sauna. Although, she isn’t dragging anchor at all as the deep mud is excellent holding and – a huge relief.
After a couple of days marooned in this sand fly-infested hole, the cyclone heads north towards New Guinea – it’s safe to continue. Head back to Airlie Beach for another shop but also to post our broken compass to Germany.
Only hours after hauling everything in and setting Naiad back up then sailing off, another warning hits us of cyclone Justin changing path again and now a Cat 3. Need to find another hole.
The pressure from the skipper’s bosses to be in Gladstone is mounting, although they’re also understanding of the situation.
This time we head for a swampy mangrove area.
After a painful 4 hours to cover only 12NMs, enduring 33-knot-gust winds on the nose and a 4-5-knot-tide against us, it’s slow to arrive.
Anchoring in Happy Bay, Long Island to wait for the right tide, later sneak up into the muddier and mangrove-infested Trammel Bay. A plethora of sand flies and nasty devouring insects await new flesh.
With the anchor dug in again, stringing ropes to trees and mangroves, removing everything from the deck once more, keel sinking deeply into the mud, we’re hoping like hell that it’s not a direct hit.
Out here, the worse that can happen is Naiad is blown over then need to wait for the next tide to re-float her – although the mangroves will make a tangling mess of the rigging and topsides will be scratched. Patiently, we wait again.
There isn’t any phone coverage, just 2JJJ on the radio, and no wind. Sneaking the toe out of the mosquito screen sees it devoured within seconds!
Good news over the VHF finally arrives. Pesky Justin changed his mind again and is now heading north, and later hear that he hit Cairns. An eerie calm and a lack of wind envelope us…
After 2 days waiting and now resembling 2 huge welt-beings from bites, decide to get out of this insect-infested cesspit and continue sailing south, trying to outrun Justin. Mad?
Deciding to go for a longer run this time without stopping, we set sail for Brampton Island then, Middle Percy Island, which is around 68NM (126 kilometres) south-east of Mackay.
What a shame to be leaving this idyllic part of the coast as it’s looking at its most picturesque and there aren’t many boats around to share anchoring spots. Bittersweet time to be sailing in this region.
Cyclone Justin hit north of Cairns, travelling inland to the Tablelands, then heading SSE. This last part worries me as he’s changed direction again…
Escaping to Middle Percy Island
Arriving at 21:30 hrs after a long day’s sail and anchor in Whites Bay.
The anchorage makes Naiad roll gunnel-to-gunnel, much worse than on the previous visit a few years’ ago. The moonlit night holds a massive halo around the moon, which typically indicates strong winds.
Need to wait for a full tide today to cross over some reef and into the 360-degree cyclone hole further into the island. So, take the dingy to shore for a spot of exploring.
A little Percy history
As with many of the islands along Australia’s extensive eastern coastline, over a couple of centuries, sailors left live goats on the islands to indulge in fresh meat on their return. Occasionally, you spot one or two remaining descendants.
Whilst leasing and living on the island in the early 1920s, the White family established the island for its wool export and also built the homestead and sheds, so fully self-sufficient. In 1964, an Englishman Andy Martin purchased the island’s leasehold. Little was known about Andy.
The open rustic timber ‘A’ Frame built by Andy in 1979/80 welcomes and offers refuge to tired sailors. There’s even a rough mattress for sailors that find it too much to stay onboard when their boat is rolling viciously below, in West Bay. This bay is notorious for uncomfortable and sometimes violent swells.
Andy wasn’t mechanically-minded so traded with passing yachties. And, sold his honey, bread, excellent jams, and homebrew mead. Depending on the season, also fresh vegetables. Together with offering meals at the homestead for a minimal cost Andy became legendary in the boating community. If you wanted a chicken to take back to your boat, he’d twist its neck in front of you, clean it up and sell it for $5.
The legend goes that in 2001 – not of sound mind during the time – Andy sold the island to Mick Cotter for $10 to retain it as is and turn the homestead into a museum. Andy’s cousin contested the sale – ‘where there’s a Will there’s a relative’. More controversy surrounds this eccentric mysterious character and his step-son wrote a scathing article in the Independent – who do you believe? During past visits, Andy was gracious, kind, a tad rough around the edges and his homestead in rapid decline.
When visiting onshore, it’s customary to leave something behind in the boat shed. So much stuff is left that Andy built a second shed – which is the memorabilia you see in this photo. Sailors even offloaded a few artificial limbs over time, which hang proudly in the shed.
Back to the cyclone.
With the tide up, gingerly making it through the entrance and into the cyclone hole, we ready Naiad as best we can for the third time. Not a great living position or conducive to sleeping but as long as we’re safe from Justin, it’s home.
After several days, Justin changes course again and heads far north.
Frustrated, we run the gauntlet once more and sail the last leg south to Gladstone. Anchoring a couple of times, sailing and running aground at the start of The Narrows, arrive one month later than originally planned. You can’t argue with a cyclone.
Check out my post next week on the 10-month working stint in Gladstone before sailing to Maryborough and the woes of slipping the boat there, then sailing back to Brisbane.