September 08, 2009
Leaving Keppel Bay Marina
The military exclusion zone that was in place until the 26 July was causing considerable angst amongst sailors gathered at Keppel Bay Marina particularly as there was an ideal window of weather but an additional section had been added further east of the general zone due to joint exercises between the Australian and the US Navies. We decided that we would make for the Percy Islands in one hop, a distance of some 158nm which would require not only an early start but also a good average in order to get to our destination before nightfall the following day. We would have to motor-sail to keep our average up.
We motored cautiously out of the marina at 0010 into a calm sea, set our sails for a course which would take us 4nm east of the exclusion zone’s SE corner, and had us sailing almost NE to do so. The Shoalwater Bay area at Cape Townshend, protrudes out significantly from the coast, necessitating a NE course in contrast to the NW course we had been on since Byron Bay. We set our course to its north eastern corner to stay inside High Peak Island, but this would still take us well outside a normal layline up this section of coast. The marina had many resentful yachties who were either unable or unwilling to make the necessary passage to avoid the military area. Those who were traveling solo, of which there are many, could not make the voyage easily.
At 0315 a large vessel appeared on the 12nm perimeter of our radar screen. This long grey line was not only on a direct reciprocal course to ours, but was also traveling very quickly. At 8nm it was still coming, so a call on the VHF on Channel 16 was made. No reply. Over the next two hours until daylight we were shadowed by what turned out to be a US aircraft carrier, outside the military exclusion zone. When we altered course to port, so did the vessel on the radar. A dramatic course change to starboard was followed by an equally dramatic change by this strange vessel, whose only identification was superstructure lights and a tiny port navigation light. After many unanswered calls on the radio and with the vessel now within a dangerous distance from us, we heard from a vessel “Dolphin” who was 11nm behind us call us to notify us of its intention to return to Rosslyn Bay and not attempt to enter this area. Throughout the ordeal we could hear the military vessels calling one another on VHF Channel 16 and 12 using their military code, but they would not respond to us as civilians. We could not even be sure that the vessel in our path was a military vessel. Upon notifying “Dolphin” that we too would likely have to return to Rosslyn Bay, the strange vessel raised a triple light display – red, white, red. We assumed that the lights may have meant that it was towing something, as its signal meant that it had “limited maneuverability”. We started to imagine we could see the shadow of a barge, or the like, behind its own lights, in the pitch darkness. We decided to proceed well to seaward and quickly . Once past the vessel, looking back, we could hear, above the noise of our own racing engine, the flack flack of helicopters, and see their strobe lights lifting above the vessel’s superstructure lights. Upon daylight at 0600 we could see behind us on the horizon the unmistakable profile of an aircraft carrier and 5 navy destroyers. We had been part of their “war games” in the night!
Later in the day, as we approached High Peak Island, well off to the west we could see the white sails of a yacht many miles inside the exclusion zone and making for Island Head Creek. It was now our turn to laugh. ‘US Warship 89’ called incessantly on channel 16, 80 & 81 to make contact with the vessel that sailing in THEIRWATER. The tone of the operator was becoming more and more exasperated. The gunships were performing timed gunning exercises firing live bombs across Townshend Island to the mainland and the presence of this yacht was causing a great deal of consternation on Channel 12 between the naval vessels. They called the vessel over and over again throughout the next two hours, giving its registration, latitude and longitude, speed, course, colour, name and length. No reply!! I felt like calling back on the radio and saying “Haha!!” A navy helicopter buzzed over us several times and “Dolphin” as well because she responded asking if the radio calls were referring to them. They were reassured by US Warship 89 that they were aware of “Dolphin”, their position and their course. So we called.
“US Warship 89….this is yacht Tibia we are also in the vicinity, are you aware of our position?” They responded immediately that they knew where we were and who we were and we were not the vessel that was causing them all this grief. They were getting quite annoyed because they may have to cease their “bombing games” because of a civilian vessel. Again I was sorely tempted to respond on the radio with a statement not altogether complementary! I restrained myself. The massive explosions on the shoreline, which were sending up huge plumes of smoke and were audible 15 miles seaward, were sufficient to deter any cheek from “Tibia”!
From channel 12 we heard that the navy deployed a small boat to go and intercept the miscreant vessel and they then responded on channel 16. In a broad American accent the skipper of the vessel called… “This is sailing vessel Anaconda, I understand someone is trying to contact me”. US Warship 89, upon hearing a fellow American, dropped his previously agitated tone a great number of millibars and put in place a courteous plan to get “Anaconda” and their fellow American crew out of the firing area as expeditiously as possible. “Anaconda” even thanked the US navy for “The Show”. He probably thought all the fanfare was because he was there, and that all American visitors received this reception!! I am certain that if we Kiwis had have been in the exclusion zone, and on the other end of the radio, we would have received a very different response! I wished I could have played “Advance Australia Fair” over the airwaves for everyone to enjoy!!
On to Percy
This interchange kept us entertained all morning until we got to Cheviot Island and altered course NW, outside the exclusion zone, for the Percy Islands. We were only just going to reach the Percy’s before nightfall so I called on the radio for any vessels who were currently anchored at the Percy Group, to get a recommended anchorage, as I was uncertain about the condition of any of the anchorages. A charter vessel out of Gladstone responded and suggested West Bay on Middle Percy. This was the most popular of all the bays and has the A-Frame shelter on the beach that boaties use to record their visit. The wind was blowing NW and the bay sounded very exposed, but the local assured me, when I queried his recommendation, that the bay was sheltered by The Pines, a small island group to the NW, and would be fine. We turned into the bay and dropped anchor just as the sun was setting. There was one other boat in the bay, two more were coming from the north and their was a large twin masted yacht the Tidal Boat Harbour that can only be got in and out of, on high tide. The anchorage was rolly but acceptable after a long days sail. The beach looked inviting but we chose to turn in after tea to have an early night.
We both woke at midnight to the boat rolling incredibly, to the point that we were having difficulty staying in our bed. We both got up and made up the sea-berths and went back to bed, thinking that we might doze and then get going. We woke at 0400 stunned that we had slept through the incredible rolling motion of the boat. Waves were crashing on the beach behind us and we were lying side-on to the swell. It was time to get going!
On to Scawfell Island
We raised anchor, put the kettle on the stove for an early morning cuppa and headed out into the inky blackness. The moon had set an hour ago and we were to follow the course we had plotted the night before on the GPS, through the numerous hazards, until daylight in two hour’s time. Our destination was Scawfell Island, officially regarded as the beginning of the Whitsunday group although still a long way south of the main islands. To get to Scawfell Island was one of those milestones that let you say “We have arrived!” But in the meantime we had a solid day sail of 64 nm to get there before nightfall. The weather forecast predicted S/SW winds at 15-20 knots and seas to 1.6 meters. It sounded like a good day. We set our course for 321 degrees, set the autohelm and off we trundled at a comfortable 6 knots leaving a white snaking trail behind us that meandered back and forth with the hunting and correcting of the autohelm in a following sea. We felt the end of our adventure, thus far, was in sight. Soon we would be relaxing in warm waters in quiet bays taking our time and moving only if we felt like it.
Refuge Bay on Scawfell
We arrived in the northern bay at Scawfell Island at 1530 having made an excellent time sailing all day at an average of 5 knots for the passage. This was our first reef island and as we pulled into Refuge Bay we felt a degree of satisfaction that we “had arrived” and that the Pitchers were just a little north of us, almost within radio range in the Whitsunday Group.
As we pulled into the double bay, each with its sandy beach and fringing reef, we chose the right hand smaller bay to drop our anchor. There were fewer boats and there seemed plenty of room for us. In fact Pauline commented that “Everyone else had left the best place for us” – I just thought it was because others had probably left this spot vacant, when they left earlier in the day. We dropped the anchor and put on the kettle. While we were waiting I dropped the line over the side and within 20 seconds had a sizable bream in the bucket! Two more drops yielded two more bream and no need to even replace the bait! This place was great! I called out to the boat anchored alongside
“Boy, the fishing’s great here!!”
“No wonder,” came the reply, “you’re anchored on the reef mate!!”
Apparently another boat, now anchored further out, had anchored in the same spot yesterday and had dragged during the night and ended up on the reef and needed to be rescued. The chap on the boat next door said he was going to let us stay there a while and then let us know. I guess he knew we had probably just done a long passage, and thought he would give us a break before telling us the news! The saying “You learn something new every day” is certainly true when you are sailing!
Refuge Bay is a wonderful place to enjoy calm seas and clear blue water. The SW winds flicked up over the high peaks above us and left the anchorage like a tranquil lake. We watched a huge orange sun set over the ocean, squeezing itself elongated as it first hits the horizon. One never gets tired of sunsets, and it costs nothing! We are reminded of the words of that well known hymn…
“The sun that bids us rest is waking
Our brethren neath the western sky,
And hour by hour fresh lips are making
Thy wondrous doings heard on high”
The next day we went ashore and enjoyed our first tropical beach. A large cleft in the bush clad hillside channeled the water, in the wet season, into a stream that would break its way through the sand embankment to the sea. Now all that remained was a damp hollow. We counted 11 varieties of butterflies flitting on the breeze back and forth across this lush area looking for the last vestiges of dampness in the sand and moss left by the stream. They were a beautiful sight.
That evening, our second on Scawfell, as the sun set, we watched from our cockpit across the bow of a large replica gaff-rigged schooner anchored further out, as a mother whale held her calf at the surface with her pectoral fin. She stayed in the same position, lolling quietly on the surface, for a couple of hours and many of the boats in the anchorage went out in their duckies for a closer look but stayed far enough away so as not to frighten her. We felt we had probably just witnessed the birth of a whale calf, right in front of our boat.
We spoke to the “Pitchin’ Inn’s” today on channel 81 and they are planning to meet us in Burning Point at the south end of Shaw Island tomorrow. The forecast is good, with a 15 knot SW breeze, we should get there within 10 hours. It will be lovely to see them and hear of their adventures of the past three weeks.