One of the things I’m enjoying about cruising down the Queensland coast, is the early dawn. After nine hours of night, which are very pleasant when all is calm and moonlit, but not so pleasant when it’s black, windy and turbulent, the discerning of a faint glow in the east is cause for celebration. 4am on a cloudless morning sees the eastern sky starting to pale, and by 5am you’re wondering where you left your sunglasses, because you’ll need them in another half hour.
We usually up anchor and leave by 5, and get a few good miles under the belt before breakfast. On a good day we can cover over 100 nautical miles, even sailing to windward as we have been so far. The conditions have been varied on the voyage – a lot of strong winds around 35kn and some heavy seas, but the boat handles it well (a lot better than me!) I’m not a fan of speed and strong winds, but I’m improving. I think.
The next anchorages after Middle Percy were in total contrast. Great Keppell Island and Pancake Creek were rough and uncomfortable but the best available in a strong south-easterly. When the wind’s coming at you from the south-east, you look for a snug little nook on the opposite side of an island. But sometimes they just don’t exist!
With Pancake Creek left behind, we decided not to attempt the Great Sandy Straits and headed out to sea to avoid the huge shoals that stretch 30 or 40 miles into the ocean northeast of Sandy Cape on the tip of Fraser Island. Just as we passed the shoal’s extremity and were correcting our course southwards, we managed to get a weather update on the radio. The news wasn’t encouraging, with some big seas and stronger winds – 35 to 40 knots and possibly more for the night. So we altered course, took a sharp right hand turn and ran down into the bottom of Hervey Bay.
Moon Point was another dodgy anchorage arrived at in the wee dark hours, but was good holding till morning. Now we were here, we were committed to passing through the Great Sandy Straits, between Fraser Island and the mainland. The charts showed enough water in the channels, so we waited for the tide to lift and headed up into Hervey Bay again, being forced to skirt wide around a messy shallow region for a couple of hours.
The straits were wonderful! Full of bird life and small yachts flying across the shallows, and white sand beaches. And it’s a maze of sand and mudbanks, intersected by deeper channels. We motored the whole way, not having enough room to manoeuvre under sail in the narrow channels. It was one eye on the chart plotter and the other on the depth sounder a lot of the way. Tramontana has a 2.3m draft, which means we needed water to be at least 3 metres deep for comfort.
On the home stretch that afternoon, heading up to our final anchorage before we’d tackle the notorious Wide Bay Bar the following morning, we were idling along in the wider channel, relaxed and chatting about the day, while I had a look on the plotter for a suitable anchorage in nearby Pelican Bay, so the chart plotter was otherwise engaged, as was our attention….when we stopped. Very suddenly. We’d wandered out of the centre of the channel and run into a mud bank on its edge. Tramontana wobbled a little, but she was stuck, and the tide had just passed the top and was on its way out. Lex and I stared at each other in horror. I don’t think the girls realised how serious things were. We waved madly at a passing fishing boat but he didn’t see us, so we radioed the local volunteer marine rescue at Tin Can Bay. They began organising a rescue boat immediately but said they couldn’t reach us for a couple of hours. This meant we’d be slowly laying down as the tide went out – or falling over when the mud gave way to the weight of the boat. Either way it was a disaster. Then we heard an engine, and a voice calling out – ‘You need a hand?’ The fishing boat that passed us minutes earlier had heard my radio call and turned around. Lex fixed a bridle to the bow of our boat and passed a rope to the fisherman. It looked impossible. Tramontana is 54ft long and weighs about 16 tonnes, and his boat was a 17ft runabout with a 70hp outboard motor. But, after a couple of tries, he managed to swing the bow around and drag us out into deep water, just as we were settling deeper into the mud.
I don’t think two people have ever been more relieved – or embarrassed! I think we were so focused on the bar crossing the next day, and relieved at getting through 40 miles of shallow channels all day without mishap, and probably a bit tired, that we just took our eyes off the ball and relaxed our guard too soon.
We thanked Paul – that’s all we know about him – effusively, but he wouldn’t take anything and just said, ‘No worries, that’s what you do on the water.’ And he’s right. Aside from the fact that there is an actual (and ancient) law requiring a boat to render assistance if required, there is a very strong ethic at sea about helping others. So often you’ll be repairing something, and a yachtie will wander past, have a chat, and come back with just the thing to solve your problem.
We’re so grateful that Paul wandered past when he did! There are no photos of this event – it was too traumatic to think about cameras!
As scary as the Bar crossing was meant to be, when the time came to go, we had a rising tide, flat calm conditions and no wind. There was one shallow spot that had us holding our breath (the sands move and the waypoints aren’t all that reliable, we discovered) but a few moments later we shot out into deep water, and just kept going till the sounder said 30 metres underneath us. Blue water is where this boat belongs!
Our last night on board was at Mooloolaba, where Tramontana was built and launched in 2000, and the following day we motored across the shallows of Deception Bay in very light winds to Scarborough. We’re here now for a week or two while prospective buyers look her over, and we’re enjoying spending some time with family – Ian and Ellen Silvester. Our German backpackers spent a last night on board, and left the next day after Ian helped them buy a decent car to continue their journey.