A Whale of a time

by | Feb 29, 2016 | Articles, Destinations

By Al “Skipper” Lacoste – October 2005

One Sunday evening in mid April, my wife, Joan and I received a call from our eldest son Peter, who was living in Hong Kong with his job. Peter asked us would we like to sail the Whitsundays, well who would not? That evening Joan and I discussed the opportunity and began to look for the little hooks, like most cagey fishermen.

Joan has been out many times on Moreton Bay on our CruiseCraft 580 Outsider and our Ross 780 but does not always enjoy good sea legs, despite this experience the opportunity to spend time with the son and grandchildren was overwhelming.

The following Saturday we loaded up the Landcruiser and our youngest son, Matthew’s Hilux with non perishable provisions and equipment prior to setting out bound for Shute Harbour. The party now consists of Joan, Peter, Matthew, Josh (14), Hugh (11) and Adele (9), the grandchildren hereafter will be referred to as “the crew, or the motley crew” depending upon my mood at that particular moment in time, and of course yours truly. By the time we had driven to Rocky, where we stayed overnight in a motel, I was beginning to see the hooks. Are we there yet? Was asked on numerous occasions! Dinner provided the first hiccup with all parties requiring a different meal, Italian, French, McDonalds, take away, and salad were all floated for board approval. Having worked in Rockhampton for 4 years I knew we faced an impossible decision, so the group split up and went in two separate directions with all appetites eventually being satisfied with minimal compromise. The next morning after breakfast together we drove to Airlie Beach where we stayed in a resort motel with dinner, swims and TV meeting the needs of our vocal minority. Next morning we drove into town and purchased all the perishables and replenished the crew’s supply of sweets, drinks etc.

We drove on to Shute Harbour where we left the vehicles with Whitsunday rent a yacht and boarded our home for the next week, a 36 foot Voyager Catamaran with eight berths and all the usual comforts of home, she was named the good ship – “Conquest”.

Now whilst the Whitsunday’s are a great place to sail and holiday, the large tidal movement coupled with a little breeze can create a lumpy swell which may upset anyone with sensitive sea legs. Both my sons and I have had many sea hours and do not suffer the dreaded lurgy of sea sickness so was confident we would have plenty of muscle to change sails, drop anchor, haul the yardarm, etc as required. After a briefing on shore and a familiarizing with Conquest we were taken out into the harbour and given the vessel to demonstrate our “skill and ability”. After 10 minutes the Yacht Master stated he could not teach us anything further so he jumped into the second tender and went a shore.

We cruised out of Shute Harbour under motor and sail (Conquest had twin inboard engines) in a very light wind and a calm sea to our first nights anchorage, a beautiful sheltered spot called “Beach 25” on Whitsunday Island. We shared Beach 25 with only the one other yacht, the crew visited the beach and fished from our tender, whilst our first dinner was prepared coupled with a perfect tropical sunset. The end to a perfect day, well almost!!! After dinner and several bottles of a cheeky little red, slippery dew had begun to settle on the topsides and I decided it prudent to check our anchor whilst the motley crew were being settled into their berths. Whilst returning from the upper deck, I placed my foot on a seat cushion, which, unbeknown to me was not supported by the seat, result I fell heavily and broke at least four ribs, and “OOCH” is the polite version of what was reportedly uttered by my good self. I laid on the deck like a beached whale for five or six minutes before I was able to assess my condition and tenderly haul my carcass onto a seat in the dinette.

Having had the misfortune to have broken ribs on a previous occasion, also boat related, I self diagnosed my condition as cracked, or broken ribs. Pete told me I would not be able to move like I was if I had “broken” ribs, just the sort of expert advice you need at this sort of moment! However, Joan did want to take me to Hamilton Island to consult with a Doctor. I declined the offer and took a couple of Panadol and retired to Joan and my berth. I will not detail the pain experienced later that evening when Joan had to climb over me to reach her side of the bunk, the Panadol and more than several glasses of anaesthetic consumed earlier in the evening proved completely ineffective in this situation. All decorum was lost in a display of unbridled agony.

The next morning it was again discussed to visit the Doctor, but again I declined based upon previous experience. I knew it would be a case of “Take these and rest please Mr Lacoste” so instructed we instead we set out for Whitehaven Beach on the northern side of Whitsunday Island. The sail was in a nice 10 to 15 knot breeze on the stern, making for an easy fast passage. After the crew had been ashore, had a swim, and returned for lunch, we set sail for the eastern end of the island, went around Esk Island, and found our first whales. Observing all the rules of whale watching we sailed toward the whales, went head to wind, dropped the sails and drifted. Imagine our surprise when the whales turned and came towards us, all the way they surfaced, blew their vents, tail slapped, dived, rushed head first out of the water, rolled on their sides and waved their fins, the outcome, we were all utterly thrilled. When they arrived at Conquest they swam around us waved there flippers, dived backwards and forwards under the boat and looked us over with un shifting eyes. Checking the time and conditions we decided to sail back to Beach 25 for another beautiful sunset and comfortable night at anchor.

A whale of a time 2

Next morning we found we were short on water so we arranged to top our two tanks at the Hamilton Island marina. On arrival the crew left Conquest, and me, to go shopping and look around whilst we took on water. The return of the crew resulted in a nice café latte and fruit flan for the injured invalid, and nice new nautical top for Joan.

Exiting Hamilton Island marina into a 15 to 20 knot breeze, Peter decided he wanted to visit Lindeman Island. Accordingly we commenced our way via Dent Passage into steep pressure seas increased by wind against tide conditions. Within the hour all but my sons and I were suffering various stages of sea sickness varying from being green and quiet, to full blown displays of projectile production. Despite her own 50/50 condition, Joan valiantly tendered to the crew whilst we sailed on towards Pentecost Island with one in three waves breaking over the bow and bridge. She was a wet and uncomfortable leg of the trip up the Dent Passage. Near Pentecost Island we changed course, sighted another whale, sailed past Lindaman Island and up into the lee of Shaw Island, just north of Burning Point. This was a big day for our inexperienced crew who listened to our 5pm radio schedule to hear that we were the only charter boat to head into the seas east and south of Hamilton Island with the majority of yachts seeking sheltered water. We remained at anchor with around ten other privately owned yachts overnight.

All slept well after our rough passage with the swell gently rocking Conquest at anchor. Next morning we breakfasted early and set sail for Hamilton Island after advising Whitsunday rent a yacht that we were out of water again. We and they could not believe we had used 500 litres in 24 hours. Accordingly, Peter began a systematic inspection of the plumbing where he found a hose had parted from a fitting and dumped our water.

We went initially south before the breeze freshened to 20 knots then cranked her east to Hamilton Island Marina via the Dent Passage. Whilst the mechanic repaired the water system, the crew ventured ashore again, showered on shore (without the rock and roll) and returned with another café latté for the skipper. Repairs complete we set sail for Whitehaven Beach again, at the request of the crew, keeping clear of Fitzalan Island reef we joined a privately owned 60 foot yacht on this passage. The 60 foot mono hull was covered in wind and water whilst we on Conquest took shelter behind our bridge. When we neared Solway Passage the tide and wind were again at odds and large breaking waves caused a little concern on both yachts.

In David Colfelts “100 Magic Miles of the Great Barrier Reef, the Whitsunday Islands” he describes Solway Passage in the following manner. “Solway Passage can become spectacular with curling waves and whirlpools that spin a yacht around 90 degrees and overturns, Solway Passage should be avoided in strong wind against tide conditions”. To add interest in the middle of the passage is Frith Rock. Both Conquest and our friends on the 60 footer gained safe passage and anchored off Whitehaven Beach in calm conditions afforded by the lee of the Island and point stopping the wind. The crew again went ashore for a swim and to feel land and sand under the foot. After lunch, we sailed around Tongue Point into Tongue Bay for our fourth night at anchor. The children went off fishing in the tender only to return to take the balance of the crew to shore, where upon they climbed to the top of Tongue Point on Whitsunday Island overlooking Hill Inlet (this is where Qantas made there last advertisement using children in various places around the world) and all agreed it is one of the best sights. The inflatable and Conquest were circled and escorted by dolphins much to the delight of all.

Whilst we had trolled under sail most of the time without a result, fishing came under pressure after dinner with the children all catching their largest fish, Slate Bream!!! My eldest son, Peter decided to rig a live bait on my 20lb uglystick with a 100 lb trace on some 20 lb line. The line was in the water about 90 seconds before the reel exploded and nearly pulled Peter off his feet and got unequivocally smashed, Peter re-rigged and attempted to hook another monster, to no avail.

A whale of a time 3

After another sunset and sunrise we hoisted anchor, upped sails and sailed towards Dumbell Island where we were saw two more whales, one sun baking on the surface whilst the other stood on its nose and continually slapped its tail on the surface of the water. Again we went head to wind, removed the sails and drifted. On this occasion the whales did not appear to be interested in us, we watched for around a half hour when to our amazement the whale who had been tail slapping, surfaced and almost immediately was joined by a third whale about the size of a dolphin. We discussed this experience with the local yacht master who said he believed we may have witnessed the whales birth. He went on after hearing of our previous encounter to tell us about a similar experience the previous week which ended with the whale striking the mast stays with its tail and dismasting the yacht. Hoisting the sails again, we sailed down around the east side of Hook Island into Butterfly Bay where we tied up to a buoy provided. As usual the crew went ashore and snorkeled in what is arguably considered to be the best dive site in the Whitsundays.

On the return of the crew, we lunched and set sail for the protected channel between Hayman Island and Hook Island into the teeth of the usual 20 knot breeze along large waves and chop caused by the shallow water. We were late arriving at our overnight anchor site at Nara Inlet where the crew took again to the inflatable and visited the waterfall at the end of the inlet, there they visited an aboriginal cave and paintings, all very enjoyable.

A whale of a time 4

At the scheduled radio call at five pm this evening we listened to all the other yachts calling in with one lady responding with a classic example seamanship that she did not know where she was but she was near a “red” marker. Now I do not know how many Port markers there are in the Whitsunday, probably a few? so I am sure no one could have found her, incidentally if you miss a number of radio schedules a helicopter is dispatched at ‘your cost to locate you and ensure your safety. Well, we do not know how she fared but we did hear her again the next morning and all yachts continued to be alert and watch out for her.

After the rough passage we were pleased to enjoy a mirror flat sea under magnificent stars. This was our last night on Conquest and was like most nights with Joan and I sharing a wine and me taking a good hit of Panadol prior to climbing into bed.

The next morning we sailed out of the inlet into another 20 knots on the nose and commenced our sail back to Shute Harbour. On the way we saw our intrepid Border Patrol slamming through the sea with water going everywhere.

Whilst we had only one day of light breeze we had managed to see a lot of the Whitsundays, visited most Islands, and achieve over 20 knots boat speed down wind on Conquest.

After we returned to Harbour, we drove back to just south of Miriam Vale where we stayed in a motel over-night. Whilst I had experienced pain it was easier to stand on Conquest than to sit in the Landcruiser on the way home and I was now beginning to really feel the pain.

The trip was over and all agree it was a great adventure made so much more special by the dolphins and whales, and from my point of view, by the special nursing I received from Joan and the fact that Matthew and Peter attended to all the sailing and sail changes, etc, after my nasty fall.

An eventual trip to the good Doctor was met with the same comment as my Conquest crew, “you would not be able to walk and stand like you are if you had broken ribs Al.” Then to justify the cost of the consultation, or to be sure either way, depending on your point of view, an X-ray was ordered. The result was four dead set broken ribs and possibly more cracked.

Final comment from Peter was, “Lets do it again next year Dad”. Joan and I both hope that by then we have recovered sufficiently to enjoy another magnificent week in the Whitsundays.