Once more upon the waters, yet once more.
And the waves bound beneath me
Like a steed that knows its rider…
– Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage
Around midnight the anchor dragged, setting us adrift in the Macona Inlet. Hunkered below, in the humid space of the sloop Spike’s galley, skipper Adrian “Yonkie” Pelt and I were unaware that we were drifting. The remains of our steak dinner lay cluttered on the galley bench; a bottle of rum stood open on the table between us as we plotted our course on a chart of the Whitsundays, an archipelago of 74 islands off Australia’s Queensland coast, where we were sailing.
The weather was atrocious. A screeching northerly buffeted the boat and the tar-black night spat torrents of rain. Donning raincoats we clambered on deck into the pool of radiance spread by the mast lights. The water lay milky green beneath the onslaught of the storm.
“We’ll have to raise the anchor and motor back up the inlet,” Yonkie shouted over the din of the rain which hit the deck with a noise like falling ball bearings.
A strapping forty-something South African, Yonkie has spent his life sailing. With his wife Suzette he sailed around the world, ran a yacht charter business in the Caribbean, sailed around the world again and finally settled in Airlie Beach where their company, Queensland Yacht Charters, is based.
As I manoeuvred with the engine, Yonkie deployed a second anchor at forty-five degrees to the main anchor, creating a double hold in the sludge on the bottom. We took turns at the watch until 3am, then I retired, exhausted, to the forward cabin were I was lulled to sleep by the rhythmic slap of the waves against the hull and the splattering of the rain on the hatch above my head.
We had put to sea on the noon tide from Airlie Beach. Walking around town that Saturday morning it seemed unlikely that we would be going to sailing at all. The air lay humid and motionless on the landscape and rain fell in torrents from a leaden sky. Amorphous clumps of froth left over from the previous night’s foam party at Magnum’s Bar quivered in the gutter. Bedraggled backpackers in see-through plastic parkas trudged desultorily up and down Shute Harbour Road, the town’s main street. Offshore, the masts of moored yachts rocked gently on the glassy ocean.
I sat at café drinking coffee and watching the rain tumble down. Tiny waves plopped listlessly on the beach beyond a fringe of palm trees growing along the foreshore. Magpie larks gurgled in the sodden foliage. Mid-morning, Yonkie phoned me with some good news.
“We’re going out,” he said. “The forecast has a bit of wind in it so we’ll set sail and see what happens.” An hour later, in a downpour which pock-marked the opaque water of the marina and ran in deluges from the scuppers, I cast off the bow line and pushed off from the jetty. As Yonkie guided Spike out of the marina I coiled our mooring lines and stowed the bumper pads in the forward hold.
Out on Pioneer Bay the boat nosed through the rain on the gentlest of swells. The sheer, forested spurs of the mainland fell away astern; low islands crouched on the horizon. Leaving me at the helm Yonkie went below to square away our gear. I set a course north-north-east toward the indistinct shape of Hook Island and pushed the throttle wide open. The anemometer showed zero wind and on the radio, amid the squawk and chatter of CB transmissions, I could hear the Travis song Why Does it Always Rain on Me?
Midway across the Whitsunday Passage the wind sprang up. One minute we were puttering across flat calm water; the next we were bounding on a six foot swell with the sails run up and a 21 knot wind pushing us along.
Sailing is a tactile skill and it takes time to understand the forces of lift and drag, pitch and roll which control a yacht’s movement, especially in rough seas.
“You have to feel for the groove,” Yonkie told me as I wrestled with the wheel. “Don’t fight the boat, let it find the easiest way through.” Gradually, my senses tuned in to the nuances of the yacht’s motion: the kick of the wheel, the thrum of the hull as it cleaved the waves, the motion of the deck beneath my bare feet. Though the anemometer gauge told me the wind’s direction and speed I found it easier to judge our course from the feel of the wind coming over my left shoulder.
In the lee of Hook Island the wind died and the sea calmed. With the sails furled we motored up Nara Inlet to look at a set of waterfalls cascading through the saturated bush at the head of the inlet. The rain had cleared momentarily so I rowed ashore, over water stained a deep oaken brown by tannins leached from the bush, to a tiny cove. A track led up the steep rocky hillside to a dank overhang where Aboriginal people once sheltered, drawing on the rock walls in ochre and charcoal. By the time I go back to the yacht it was raining again so we had motored around to our anchorage in Macona Inlet.
Sometime in the dark hours before dawn the tide turned and the storm eased. I came on deck at six to a world of opaque whiteness. Mist curled across the water and wreathed the forest above the indistinct edges of the inlet. Runoff gushed from every gully and fissure. The gleaming creeks, the mist-shrouded forest and rocky shoreline gave the inlet a brooding, elemental feel, quite different from the shimmering blue water and cobalt skies of the glossy Whitsunday tourist brochures.
We weighed the anchors and motored out into Hook Passage. The tide was running fast through the narrows between Hook Island and Whitsunday Island, rumpling the water with pressure waves and whirlpools. On the seaward side of Hook Island we set the sails and I took the wheel, steering a course parallel with Hook Island’s rugged coast while Yonkie cooked breakfast in the galley.
Something about sailing stirs some powerful racial memory inside us. “There is such a magnificent vagueness in the expectations that had driven us to sea,” wrote Joseph Conrad in Lord Jim, ”Such a beautiful greed of adventures that are their own and only reward.” Although several generations separate our modern world of jet aircraft and GPS navigation from the days when the seas were the world’s main highways, we still thrill to the sight of a spinnaker unfurled and the songs of the wind in the rigging.
Sailing along that Sunday morning, with the sea sliding up against the rocky shore off to starboard, the louring sky, cormorants roosting on a reef marker, a steaming cup of coffee in my hand, the smell of bacon and eggs cooking, fifteen fathoms beneath the keel and a freshening wind filling the sail, I felt a strong affinity with my sea-faring ancestors.
At 10am we put in to Tongue Bay and went ashore in the dingy. A muddy track led up through the bush to a wooden platform overlooking Hill Inlet which stretched deep into Whitsunday Island, its edges fringed with thick mangrove forest. A bar of pure white silica sand fingered the inlet’s entrance.
“Sometimes we come out here at low tide and set up a picnic on that sandbar,” Yonkie said. “Then we sit in deck chairs drinking beers while the tide comes in. When it’s up to our knees we just pack up and sail way.”
The track continued down to Lookout Beach where groups of backpackers dressed from head to toe in neoprene “stinger suits” were frolicking in the water. Marine stingers – jellyfish and the deadly sea wasp – mean that swimming in the sea along the Queensland coast during the cyclone season (January to April) can be risky. The stinger suits, although hot and somewhat unflattering, afford good protection from these unpleasant critters.
The beach was crowded but I only had to walk for a few minutes along the crunchy sand before I was alone on a rocky promontory with nothing but seagulls and the slopping waves for company. A tall ship made its way languidly across the horizon; sulphur-crested cockatoos screeched in the casuarina trees. But my eyes were drawn to a malevolent cliff of grey cloud moving in from the south-east, heralding the imminent arrival of a south-easterly storm.
Back aboard Spike we ran ahead of the storm, through the rocky narrows of Solway Passage, across the chop of the tide racing between Frith Rock and Moon Island, then north along the dark, forbidding east coast of Whitsunday Island.
With Yonkie at the helm I stood on the prow watching green sea turtles breaching as the grey veil of rain overtook us. Throughout our voyage, the weather had shown us an unfamiliar side of the Whitsundays. But the storms had not diminished the islands’ beauty; the gloomy weather had intensified their attractiveness, in the same way a backdrop of dark velvet heightens the lustre of jewels.
Far off to the north-west a lone triangle of sail blossomed against a grey-black prow of rock jutting from the mainland. Apart from that we were alone with the sea and the sky. The rain came again in a solid sheet. The rising wind keened in the shrouds as the boat slid easily along its groove, through the bounding swells of a wet Sunday in the Whitsundays.