Welcome to the Whitsundays

Our push northward along the coast of Queensland has yielded our first significant destination thus far; the magnificent chain of the Whitsunday Islands. Leaving Greater Keppel Island, which was beautiful but quiet and uneventful, we decided to make a change to our overall plans and push a bit harder for northern waters where we could slow down and enjoy ourselves in the world famous Whitsundays. Thus we began the first of what will eventually be many overnight legs of the journey towards Thailand, making a continuous sail of roughly 24 hours to cover the ~100 miles to Middle Percy Island.

Sunset from the beach at Middle Percy

   Night sailing is a very interesting beast and one that I don’t think is easy to understand for many who have not done it themselves. Sailboats don’t have the capacity to anchor wherever they choose, and a lot of times it is a more efficient use of time to keep moving during the night instead of stopping every evening. To make sure that they can safely keep moving even in the dark, the vast majority of marine vessels have navigation lights installed for high visibility in low light.  These navigation lights make it easy for nearby boats to see you, as well as have an immediate idea of your orientation to them, and make sailing at night much more manageable and safe. 

A pair of Loggerhead turtles in Tongue Bay of Whitsunday Island. There are 7 species of sea turtle, 6 of which occur in Australia.

  Before dark, it is important to know your projected arrival time, the planned route, and the weather report for the night in order to make the best possible decision on where to go and how to go there. More complicated sail patterns (like ones involving the mainsail) are usually less preferred than simpler ones that can function in a wider variety of scenarios and with less manpower to manage them, as working up on deck in the dark is highly dangerous. After you have a good idea of all of these things, it’s as simple as setting a course. The crew then takes watch shifts throughout the night, the watchman making sure that the boat is sailing on its intended path, the sails are appropriate to the weather, and checking every fifteen minutes in a 360 degree radius to make sure that no boats are near. Most steering these days is done via autopilot, but barring the availability of one it is also the watchman’s job to steer the vessel to the proper course. The watchman (unless it is the captain of the vessel on that particular shift) should never alter the boats course, sail pattern, or make any major decisions at night without first waking and consulting with the captain. 

  Even seeming like a lot, it really is a very straightforward process with the hardest part being simply staying awake through the dark hours of the night. My watch was helped by staying up with my father and stepmother for parts of their shifts just so that I could become familiar with the process, and coffee and easy hot ramen meals are a staple in the middle of the night. After our first true night sail, we were all awake to watch the sun come up and a short few hours later saw all of us napping contentedly at anchor in front of Middle Percy Island.

The “Percy Hilton”, as denoted by one of its many signs.

Our contribution to Percy Island

     Middle Percy Island is, in a word, quaint. The anchorage sits on the western side of the island, and a white sand beach bordered by a tidal inlet provides a homey, welcoming sight. Overlooking the beach and anchorage is a ramshackle A-frame hut that looks as though it was there long before anyone and will continue to be long after we have all gone. It is covered every square inch in mementos and trinkets left by the many travelers the island has seen over the years. Beneath its curio covered rafters lies a fire pit where the island’s workers and visitors gather during the evenings to share food and stories by firelight as large bats wing overhead. It has the feeling of a crossroads tavern where everyone feels at home and it’s hard not to smile at all the varied souls that find their way to this remote, tiny little island off the coast of Australia. 

The sky on fire at one of our Anchorages.

   After a few days at Middle Percy spent paddle boarding through the tidal inlet, only accessible during high tide due to the nearly 20 foot tidal difference, and admiring the many White Bellied Sea Eagles that soar over the island tops, it was time to continue north. A couple small jumps to uninhabited and picturesque islands over the next few days saw us dropping anchor at Thomas Island in the southern Whitsundays. The vista north of our anchorage the next morning revealed pristine blue water reflecting great towers of volcanic stone rising out of the ocean blanketed by tropical foliage and pine trees. The Whitsundays are home to some of the best snorkeling and diving in the world, and its popularity is bespoken by the dozens of charter and tour boats we suddenly found sharing the water with us. Helicopters and sea planes buzz and whir through the skies, dropping visitors on remote beaches and bays to enjoy some of Australia’s most beautiful national parks.

The Whitsundays

  Roughly a month or two before our arrival here though, these islands took the brunt of Cyclone Debbie, and the destruction is evident particularly on the seaward side of the islands. While the majority of the foliage remains intact, the beaches are bordered by trees snapped and broken like kindling, with true greenery only appearing a few hundred yards back into the woods. Hiking in the area was a surreal experience, as even in the middle of the forests the trees are scarred and many have had their leaves stripped and some were outright broken by the cyclone winds and rain. Yet even amidst all the evident damage and destruction there is life. New green plants grow and worm their way towards the light over the broken sticks of their predecessors. Beautiful varicolor birds flit from tree to tree, and goanas (large lizards) slink slowly through the mulch and underbrush. The juxtaposition of destruction and rebirth was amazing to see even if the islands were not at their most textbook beauty, and I’m grateful, to have seen it when I did. However, our time was shortened there by a weather system bearing heavy winds and higher seas than are comfortable, so we have retreated to Airlie Beach on the mainland nearby to wait out the weather, recoup, restock, and enjoy some modern amenities for a few days. 

Overlooking White Haven Beach on Whitsunday Island.

Sunset at Scawfell Island

A juvenile Goana.

Our hiking trail.

     We will continue northward next week, as our lovely time here is a prelude to a bit more of a focused punch up towards Cairnes, where we will do the majority of our preparation for our jump to Indonesia next month. Cheers everyone!

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