Sailing Journey: Outrunning a Cyclone

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.

Townsville to Gladstone, Queensland, Australia, OceaniaWanting 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.

cyclone, Queensland, Australia, Oceania

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.

Townsville, Queensland, Australia, Oceania

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.

Townsville, Queensland, Australia, Oceania

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

cyclone, Upper Gulnare Inlet, Queensland, Australia, OceaniaHeading for Whitsunday Island’s Gulnare Inlet, this cyclone hole is filling up too fast, so eventually, move to 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.

cyclone, Trammel Bay, Queensland, Australia, OceaniaRunning again – Trammel Bay

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.

cyclone, Trammel Bay, Queensland, Australia, Oceania

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?

cyclone, Trammel Bay, Queensland, Australia, Oceania

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.

cyclone, Middle Percy Island, Queensland, Australia, OceaniaAn idyllic Queensland island, complete with swaying coconut palms and crystal turquoise waters, Middle Percy is an island paradise – most of the time.

Not today.

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.

cyclone, Middle Percy Island, Queensland, Australia, OceaniaThe island’s intriguing history is worth mentioning.

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.

cyclone, Middle Percy Island, Queensland, Australia, Oceania
Photo credit: Colin Palmer

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.

cyclone, Middle Percy Island, Queensland, Australia, Oceania
Original shed built for sailors

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.

cyclone, Middle Percy Island, Queensland, Australia, Oceania
Photo credit: Colin Palmer

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.

cyclone, Middle Percy Island, Queensland, Australia, Oceania

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.

cyclone, sailing, Queensland, Australia, Oceania
Photo credit: Colin Palmer

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.

Visit Nilla’s Photography for more global images. More posts at Image Earth Travel.

31 responses to “Sailing Journey: Outrunning a Cyclone”

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Hi Aahana, sure no problem, thanks for stopping by.

  1. Lisa Dorenfest ~ One Ocean At A Time Avatar

    We always get ‘caught out’ when we rush for friends, family, or opportunities so I can appreciate your pain. Something similar happened to us when we knowingly departed the Gambier in bad weather (which turned out to be worse than predicted) to meet friends in the Marquesas. But we were offshore, which made it more manageable than fitting in a hurricane hole with lots of other boats, a possibility that we may face this season. Your experience in Upper Gulare is giving me pause as to where we should wander – either stay put in a known mooring field or head further north where the likelihood of hurricanes is less, but the propensity for dragging boats is more.

    And then I read on about the Justin changing direction and heading back your way, and you have me on the edge of my seat. That picture of Naiad in Trammel Bay is fantastic (although I wish you’d never needed to be in a position to take it). The flesh-eating bugs only make the situation worse.

    Thank goodness you weren’t in Cairns. I know all the places you mention, and I visited many of them during a gentler season. The thought of the rolling that you experienced at Middle Percy makes me nauseous. We had the flat calm conditions of which you were dreaming. Cate Radclyffe was managing the Percy Yacht Club and Homestead when we visited there, but she has moved on.

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Hey Lisa,
      It’s always hard to know where to hole up during a cyclone/hurricane – as you know, nothing is certain as nature is so unpredictable.
      Wonderful that your time in these anchorages were calmer than ours. I have experienced most of the anchorages in gorgeous weather, but Percy always seems to be gunnel-to-gunnel rolling. Think it’s just the way the swell comes around the island and into the anchorage – lovely spot though.
      Upper Gulnare was a Godsend during the cyclone and so happy we made that decision. If you can find a 360° anchorage with a few hills around you then think you’d be better off, but it isn’t always easy to find.
      Percy has had so many caretakers over the decades and not sure what will happen to the island in the future. I see that many Australian islands are being sold off, sadly, like huge chunks of Australia, especially farming land. I really don’t agree with this type of selling, but hey ho, it’s another subject entirely!

  2. gillmorris Avatar

    Bet that was a bit scary! I would be sick on a boat that was rolling that much. I’ve never heard of Middle Percy Island, sounds beautiful and a shame about Andy

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      It was scary but also annoying as Justin procrastinated too much!
      A lot of people haven’t unless you’re a cruising boat in Australia and yes, very sad about Andy as we found him to be a really nice person albeit a tad eccentric, but who cares?

      1. gillmorris Avatar

        Yes! who cares. We are all different and that’s what makes it interesting. Have a lovely weekend x

      2. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Exactly! Hope you have a wonderful weekend. 🙂 xx

      3. gillmorris Avatar

        Thank you, I hope you had a great weekend x

      4. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Yes thanks, a little rest before starting the kitchen refurbishment on Monday. Huge job but cheaper than ripping out and replacing! x

      5. gillmorris Avatar

        Good luck with the refurb! xx

      6. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Thanks Gill, almost finished now with only the clear coat on kitchen bench tops but need to walk almost 3kms to hardware to buy the gloss. Wasn’t going to use this last finish as using gloss over gloss, but of course, Dulux recommends this step.
        Should have done this Sunday as we need to wait 7 days before using the bench tops with this ‘special’ (read expensive) paint! x

      7. gillmorris Avatar

        Ah well, at least you get some exercise in 😉 I am sure it will be worth the wait! x

      8. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        True and need it right now! x 😉

  3. equinoxio21 Avatar

    Wow… ✌️

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Ha, ha, looking back at it now, it was wow! 😉

      1. equinoxio21 Avatar


  4. the eternal traveller Avatar

    Typical cyclone behaviour. Glad you were pretty much able to avoid Justin’s wrath, even if it meant being eaten alive by sandflies.

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Ha, ha, too true and you know what cyclones are like…always unpredictable!

  5. JaniceO Avatar

    Absolutely awesome story. Love following your travels. 😀

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Thanks Janice for your kind comment! Hope you’re keeping well? 🙂

  6. Abirbhav Avatar

    Amazing adventures Nilla..!! What a way to adventure in the high seas.. Must be feeling like “Popeye The Sailor”, right? 😉
    Loved this article of yours. But please be safe, don’t try to pick up fights with cyclones or other vagaries of nature..

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Ha, ha, thanks for the advice and yes, sometimes it was like Popeye the Sailor!
      I’m no longer on a boat and firmly planted on land these days… 😉

      1. Abirbhav Avatar

        Haha.. Yes, Popeye the Sailor forced to stay on the land courtesy the lockdown.. Don’t worry, we will get out soon and sail / fly more.. 😊

      2. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        I don’t live on a boat any longer and don’t own one but hope to fly again someday in the future… 😉

      3. Abirbhav Avatar

        Amen..!! We both will fly soon for sure.. 😊

      4. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Hope so – fingers crossed! 🙂

  7. Mohamad Toutounji Avatar

    This was impressive Nilla
    I really enjoyed it

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Thanks for reading and your feedback Mohamad!
      Oh and I have the food award nomination scheduled for the 3rd May. 🙂

      1. Mohamad Toutounji Avatar

        You are most welcome
        Oh that’s great
        Can’t wait to see your answers

      2. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Hope it’s an interesting post. 😉

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