When Eric and I sailed from England to California on Duprass in 1977-78, we met an outgoing English couple whose sailing motto was “So Far, So Good.” They employed this phrase, they explained, so as not to become overconfident and assume that just because any particular leg of a voyage was going smoothly that it would continue to do so until the end. Anything can go wrong at any time, they advised, so don’t count your ports until you’re safely at anchor with a gin-and-tonic in your hand.
Though Eric and I omit the G&Ts while anchored out, we’ve made SFSG our strategy as well. I’m therefore pleased to report that since leaving Townsville on 16 May and not having sailed in over 10 months, we have so-far-so-gooded 192 miles to Bluewater Marina just north of Cairns. On the way, we made stops at Magnetic, Orpheus and Dunk Islands, and Mourilyan Harbour on the mainland. We had a few flubs, fortunately minor, though I always hold my breath when I hear Eric utter, “Oh, shit” in the midst of raising the main. Likewise, he jumps when I’m at the helm and shriek, “Eric! Come quick!”
The wind and weather was overall good, and on some days, great. This is the season of the SE trades, ideal for sailboats heading north, and most days we sprinted along at 6-7 knots under nothing but a reefed main. When they hit 25-30 knots, it’s time to exercise caution, and our weather apps (WeatherTrack and Windy.com) and BOM (Bureau of Meteorology) reports enabled us to seek sheltered anchorages in plenty of time. This included two days of heavy rain, during which we got a lot of reading done.
What did we see en route? To port, the Queensland coast is green and rugged, headlands appearing one after another, the water white-capped and varying from turquoise to dusky blue as it rushed beneath our hull. To starboard, the islands of the Great Barrier Reef are mostly small and uninhabited—rocky, forested mounds, sometimes with a scrap of sandy beach but no tenable anchorage. Larger ones, like Orpheus and Dunk, are national parks that have protected bays, curving beaches, hiking trails, picnic tables and a few free public moorings, always much appreciated. No park office or stores, however, and you must carry out all your garbage. A good policy that seems to work; nowhere did we see any litter.
Most of the boats that crossed our path were fishing vessels, along with a handful of sailboats and motor cruisers. A lone dolphin popped up and quickly disappeared. One morning a foot-long silver fish burst out of the water beside us and slapped onto the deck—this was me shrieking, “Eric! Come quick!” He did, and tossed the thrashing creature back into the drink. Lucky for the fish we’re vegetarians. Though birds weren’t numerous at sea, while anchored at Dunk a tern swooped up behind the stern, hovered a few seconds before my startled eyes, then flew forward and alighted on deck. It allowed us to take several close-ups and didn’t budge as we lowered the dinghy to go ashore. Eric warned the bird would poop if we let it stay, and of course, it did, leaving souvenirs for me to scrub off on our return. But when Nature sends you a gift, you should accept it, and I got my reward. The bird turned out to be a juvenile crested tern, a lifer.
Some of the islands have peculiar stories. On Fantome Island, south of Orpheus, a lock hospital for patients with venereal diseases existed from 1928-1945, overlapping with a leprosarium from 1939-1973. Dunk Island had a beautiful resort and an artists’ colony until severely damaged by Cyclone Yasi in 2011. The resort remains abandoned and in sad shape. Orpheus boasts an exclusive private resort, yachties warned to stay away. We glimpsed it hidden in the trees as we sailed past to our anchorage in the next bay. Mourilyan Harbour, with a narrow entrance hidden between the hills, was discovered by accident in 1872 when a rescue vessel looking for survivors of a shipwreck came upon the opening. In the 1950s it became a sugar-loading terminal. We saw only two moored tugboats and no activity at the facility, but it was a wonderfully snug refuge on a particularly windy, rainy day.
Twice we were forced to switch our routes from Plan A to Plan B and once to Plan C. From Orpheus we had intended to enter the 26-mile Hinchinbrook Channel, according to the cruising guide “the most scenic, calm waterway on the east coast of Australia.” The southern entrance, however, has tricky shallow patches, and after two approaches in which we tried in vain to spot the lighted range markers and the depth below the hull dropped to a precarious four feet in choppy seas, we bolted and headed outside Hinchinbrook Island to Dunk, our second choice. It turned out for the best, as we avoided the mozzies and sandflies that plague the channel and also the crocodiles that make it hazardous to go ashore. Habituated to humans by people feeding them, the aggressive crocs ram and tip dinghies and drag the occupants under. In February, an Australian cruiser in his dinghy was attacked in this manner, and his remains were found in the stomach of a four-meter crocodile. NEVER FEED WILD ANIMALS, YOU IDIOTS!
Our Plan C event occurred en route from Mourilyan Harbour to Fitzroy Island not far from Cairns. We had read that the Fitzroy anchorage, though convenient, was swell-prone, but when we arrived at 1230 it was downright boisterous. No worries. Only eight miles further on was Plan B, Mission Bay, described as “secure and comfortable” with “very good holding mud.” Ha! Eric could hear the anchor and chain scraping over rocks as it failed to dig in, and on the second attempt it brought up seagrass. This is why we always set out at first light—to have time to react if things go wrong. Bluewater Marina, where we already had a reservation, was now only 11 miles further on, and in the brisk wind we reached the channel that led through the mangroves to the marina. Eric did an expert job of navigating us into a tight berth, I did an excellent job of setting up the mooring lines and fenders and jumping—vaulting!—from the boat to the dock to tie us up.
Not bad for a couple of old people, and now for a few days of hot showers, laundry, and, since we’re safely tied up, possibly even a G&T. But let’s not get cocky. As our English friends would say, So Far, So Good.