Stranded at Lizard Island

Anything can go wrong at any time, I wrote in my last blog post. On 1 June at Lizard Island, things went horribly wrong for us and Corroboree.

The short story is that we bumped the reef coming into Lizard Island and broke our rudder. The longer version begins the previous night when we anchored at Cape Bedford in a strong wind and swell. We got little sleep, and Corroboree was jerked so hard on her anchor chain that the motion cracked the wood anchor platform and bent its metal frame. Glad to be away the next morning, we sailed 40 miles to Lizard, a jewel of an island in the Great Barrier Reef, uninhabited save for a marine research station and a private resort. Unsure whether we could trust the compromised anchor platform, we attempted to pick up the lone Park Service mooring buoy in the beautiful bay. Though close to the reef, it would be easier to glue and epoxy the platform while tied to a mooring than swinging on the chain.

But as we approached, a gust of wind drove us sideways, and our hearts lurched as the rudder struck the reef. We bounced off immediately and managed to deploy our secondary anchor clear of the coral, but the damage was done. One look underwater showed the fiberglass on the rudder skeg had split open and the bottom of the skeg was crushed. We would need to get Corroboree to a haul-out facility to effect a repair. The nearest mainland port, Cooktown, was 50 miles distant, and though we could still turn the rudder—carefully—we didn’t dare risk further damage by beating into the stiff southeast wind in our vulnerable condition. Unless we could arrange a tow, we were stranded and disabled at Lizard Island.

The anchorage at Lizard Island. Corroboree is the second boat from the left.

In shock, Eric and I sat and faced each other across the saloon table. How could we have been so stupid, so inept, so focused on a course of action that we failed to recognize the all-too-obvious danger? We should never even have approached that mooring ball! We should have tried the backup anchor first to see if it would hold! If only we could rewind those few minutes of time! This was our fault entirely, no excuses, no rationalizations, and though it was some consolation that Corroboree was still afloat and intact, that only underscored our mishandling of the situation. Had the rudder sheared off completely, water would have flooded the hull and our boat would have sunk beneath our feet.

More bad news when we tried to contact the Cooktown VMR (Volunteer Marine Rescue) on our VHF radio, and the island research station answered instead. They informed us Cooktown was out of VHF range and that the Internet on Lizard Island had been down for over a week; they were waiting day by day for its return. With our DeLorme phone limited to 160-character texts, we were effectively without communication. The future of the voyage itself felt in doubt. Even if we succeeded in getting Corroboree to port, what if the repair proved so complicated and delayed us so long we couldn’t cross the Indian Ocean this season? When would we get to see our kids and our 10-month-old grandson? After 4-1/2 years of cruising, did we still have the physical and mental stamina to overcome this and future disasters? In the grief of the moment, our spirits, like our rudder, having hit rock bottom, we contemplated quitting. Then, after a wretched night with little sleep, we got out of bed and got to work.

One of the lizards for which Capt. Cook named the island.

Over the next two mornings, we epoxyed and sanded the cracked anchor platform, working from both the bow and bobbing in the dinghy while a pair of 4-5’ sharks circled curiously around and beneath us. Gingerly, we bent the metal frame back into place. Meanwhile, a large catamaran having anchored in the bay, Eric hailed them on VHF to ask if they had a satellite phone and could we use it? Sure, come on over, replied David, the genial owner. The name of the boat? Remain Calm.

As our first resource, we called Dan McCarthy, the Cairns charter boat captain who, along with the Cairns VMR, brilliantly organized the entry of Eric’s client, Jacob Hendrickson, to Australia after he rowed across the Pacific in 2019. Unbelievably, Dan was in the Cairns airport waiting to board a flight to Lizard Island! His boat was moored at the resort, and he was setting up fishing charters. At sunset, Dan appeared beside Corroboree in his dinghy to say he’d make some calls for us in the morning. Who gets a second chance like this? Our spirits soared!

The next afternoon, Dan delivered contact numbers for Russell, head of the Cooktown VMR, and Allen, a local fisherman, either of whom should be able to give us a tow. However, the VMR also advised Dan that 1) their boat was in Cairns undergoing a refit and would not be back in Cooktown until it passed sea trials on 11 June; 2) the slipway would be closed between 11-20 June during the annual Cooktown Festival; and 3) even if Allen could tow us sooner, arranging a haul-out before 11 June was unlikely with everyone in town prepping for the festivities. Bad timing on our part to hit a reef when the biggest party of the year was underway! Nevertheless, in a subsequent call with Russell on Remain Calm’s satellite phone, he assured us that as a disabled boat were under the Cooktown VMR’s jurisdiction. In fact, they were looking forward to trying out their refitted boat on us. Just knowing we were on their official radar was heartening.

Remain Calm left the following day, and without her satellite phone we threw ourselves on the mercy of the Lizard Island Resort. Though the resort prefers yachties stay outside their boundary, two of the staff at their beach office, Brutus and Liam, graciously arranged for us to use the phone. The next day, Internet service returned, provided we climbed a third of the way up the mountain to obtain a 3G signal; we came to call this hot spot the “Internet Café.” After more phone calls with Russell and Allen, we opted to wait for the VMR boat. The cost, fuel only, would be significantly less than Allen’s rate for a commercial tow, and with the winds still strong, we had to await a weather window anyway. Most important, however, was that although the VMR highly recommended Allen, should anything go wrong during the tow, we would be better protected insurance-wise with the VMR than with a private vessel.

Trying to pick up a signal at the Internet Cafe.

Now all we had to do was be patient until the 11th. To keep busy, we got weather reports, email and contacted our family. Our friend Rick Horst, who relays our position via Facebook, posted a message to alert friends to our situation. Outside the resort, Lizard Island has no stores or amenities save for a few picnic tables, camp toilets, and an old-fashioned hand pump. Though we’d have to make our fresh food stretch longer than expected, we had plenty of drinking water, canned food and other staples on board, and the hand pump enabled us to do laundry. We read, played card games, did puzzles, watched videos. Eric researched supplies in Cooktown. I wrote poetry.

I felt like a pioneer woman using this pump.

We met a few other cruisers who came and went in the bay and especially appreciated the company of George and Elizabeth on Dancer with whom we had several get-togethers, including a hike to the island’s stunning Blue Lagoon. Another day, on the public beach, we chatted with a couple from the resort, Max and Veronique. A few hours later they surprised us by arriving at Corroboree in one of the resort’s runabouts, driven by Liam, and bearing a gift of beer, wine, cocktail nuts, Toblerone bars and a bottle of champagne. In another burst of good news, Eric received an email from Barry, an Aussie who is building a catamaran in Cooktown. Barry had written to Eric a year earlier to ask his advice on some structural issues. Eric responded with drawings and calculations, no charge. Having heard of our plight—Cooktown is a small place—Barry offered the use of his tools to repair Corroboree. How could we even have thought of abandoning the voyage when people are so generous, so kind?

The Blue Lagoon on the other side of the island.

Our spirits drooped a bit on the 8th  when the bright sunshine gave way to days of overcast and rain, limiting our visits ashore. One afternoon, hoping it might clear, we trekked the steep path to Cook’s Lookout, at 1,300 feet the highest point on the island. It was from this 360-degree vantage point, one of the most spectacular views in the Great Barrier Reef, that Capt. James Cook scouted for a safe passage to exit the reef in August 1770. In the dense mist swathing the peak, we saw nothing but grayness. Chin up, the 11th was approaching.

Capt. Cook was here–on a sunny day.

Eric, who has professional experience of sea trials, had cautioned they rarely go smoothly, and in the case of the refitted VMR boat, they did not. First, a problem with the navigation instruments delayed its return to Cooktown until 12 June. En route home, a new problem arose, sludge in one of the fuel tanks. Though our stomachs knotted at this news, we remained hopeful. A weather window of light winds from 14-17 June lay ahead, giving the VMR time to get the fuel issue sorted. On 13 June Russell reported they were aiming to come get us on the 16th or 17th. But when we called on 15 June to confirm, Russell regretfully informed us the tow was off for the time being. Not just sludge but aluminum filings had been discovered in the fuel tank, and conversations were underway to determine responsibility and liability. The VMR boat was in a mess of its own.

Crushed, frustrated, and with only 48 hours before the weather window closed, we took the only other chance open to us and called Allen, the fisherman. Was there any possibility he could come tomorrow or the next day and tow us to Cooktown? There was a moment’s pause at the other end. “Can you be ready tomorrow morning at 8 a.m.?” asked Allen. You bet we can!

At 0730 a small blue fishing boat hoved-to in the anchorage. At 0845, after some minor drama securing Corroboree to Allen’s boat Jebrondy with a bridle arrangement, we were underway. The weather cooperated nicely, the wind at 10-15 knots, the waves rarely greater than a half-meter. Oh, I thought, if only none of this had happened! If only, on this perfect day, we were out free, sailing! Then back to reality. Things could still go wrong—the towline could break, the rudder fall off—and Eric and I took turns at the helm to ensure Corroboree didn’t sway off-course. At a steady 7 knots, we covered the 50 miles to Cooktown by 1600. On reaching the entrance channel, we dropped the tow with Allen and slowly motored in. Russell and another VMR volunteer met us in a dinghy and helped us tie up to a mooring provided by Nick, the VMR’s second-in-command.

Moored at Cooktown

Safe! We were safe! To cap it off, George & Elizabeth on Dancer were here, having left Lizard Island a few days earlier. At 1700 they came aboard, bringing wine, cheese, an icy-cold bottle of soda water and fresh limes. We produced the ritzy wine given to us by Max and Veronique, and the four of us had a last party before Dancer departed in the morning. That night Eric and I fell asleep to music emanating from the festival on the waterfront, untroubled for the first time in two weeks by bad dreams. On 24 June, the festival over, we hauled out Corroboree on the slipway. Let the repairs begin!

In writing this blog, I strive to be upbeat no matter the circumstances. We don’t want our family and friends to worry, and I’m sorry that this time we’ve given you cause for alarm. When dealing with an experience like this, people say, “You’ll laugh about it in days to come.” No, I won’t. It was a terribly close call that shook us to the core, and I won’t laugh about it, ever. But we have a track record of overcoming obstacles and learning from our mistakes, and we’ll do that again now—with immense gratitude for the friendship, goodwill and skills of all those who have helped us along the way.

True to their name, these lovely Welcome Swallows alighted on our lifeline to greet us.