The River Heads pier was awash with a flurry of red and white canvas. The sails were rustling in the land breeze, as it piped in the morning. Our small boats tugged eagerly at their mooring lines, like three enthusiastic Labradors, in anticipation of being released onto the Great Sandy Strait.
After several weeks of frustrating delays caused by unfavorable weather, we were at last setting sail for Fraser Island, a five nautical mile sail across the Great Sandy Strait from Hervey Bay. Our destination was the derelict Mackenzie jetty, a site with links to WWII z-special forces, Commando training camp and a logging enterprise dating back to the 1870’s.
Peter was first to depart in his 70’s Mirror dinghy “Black Pearl”, followed by Lief in his 1960’s boat in the same class. He has restored her to working order, but she still displays enough of the dings and dents that show her age. She leaks a bit, but not as much as our previous trip, which had required a very attentive skipper to hold one hand on the tiller, and the other on the bailing scoop for a good part of the journey.
I was sailing with my wife Denise in Moonlight, our twelve foot, Huon Pine, Gunter Rigged clinker dinghy.
As the land breeze from the West faded, motor sailing became the order of the day. We rapidly gained ground on our companions even at that speed.
The Great Sandy Strait transformed into a sheet of glass. Our crossing of five nautical miles would take about an hour. Maybe an hour and a half at most with motor assist. A perfect time to test out my new galley box while waiting for my companions to catch up. The galley box is a prototype where I can store everything required to prepare and consume meals. The lid folds out, offering an extended preparation area.
The Great Sandy Strait is a popular cruising ground for large cruisers and sailing vessels of all kinds. Some distance away, a large vessel had passed by unnoticed. His wake had now reached us, causing Moonlight to pitch and roll unexpectedly. The stove toppled, causing a burn to my right foot. I slung my leg over the starboard gunwale to cool it down and relieve the pain.
When we arrived back home, my doctor used Melolin non-stick pads, Flamazine and a crepe bandage to dress the injury. You also need some good quality paper tape. I won't go anywhere without them from now on. I'm also researching a better type of stove, more suitable for small boats.
One third of the way across the strait, an extensive coral shelf extends South from Great Woody Island. It creates a dogleg in the track from West to East. I was navigating by sight, and struggled for a while to locate the channel which is not well marked. Here and there peaks in the coral rose up towards us, threatening to tear our hull to shreds. We needed to keep a very sharp lookout.
A vehicular ferry carrying tourists to Kingfisher Bay Resort passed to the South of us, showing us the way through, so we were able to correct our course, backtracking to avoid the shallows.
Denise and I built Moonlight in Tasmania in 1980. She is a clinker construction, using Huon Pine, a precious and highly sought after boat building timber. Moonlight is a heavy boat for her size, and on this occasion she was heavily laden with camping gear. We used to travel with far less in our youth, but nowadays, the camp chairs, the table and the mattress are mandatory items. Especially the mattress.
Moonlight carries a gunter rig. The Gunter is somewhere between a Gaff and a Masthead. Unlike the gaffers, her sail has 3 sides. The top yard projects as a vertical extension of the mast.
Back on the Great Sandy Strait, the forecast wind began to blow gently from the South East, enabling me to cut the intrusive motor. With the assistance of a 2 knot current flowing North we continued sailing to Mackenzie jetty on the West Coast of Fraser Island, just South of Kingfisher Bay resort. With the wind swinging further around to the South, we were running downwind, before heading West again for the final reach to shore.
We arrived at the shores of K’gari, as it is known by the Butchulla people, near Mackenzie Jetty in the early afternoon, on the high tide.
Lowering the sails on Moonlight takes a little extra care over a modern masthead rig. The top yard is highly polished King Billy Pine. While King Billy Pine is strong, and relatively light, it can give you a serious clunk on the head if you are not careful which is probably why some sailors prefer bamboo. The two mirrors in our company were both built from ply in the 60’s and early 70’s, and they also have the gunter configuration, unlike their modern counterparts.
Just fifty yards North of our camp, the remains of Mackenzie jetty jut out of the water in stark contrast to the silica sands of Fraser Island.
The jetty itself was part of the infrastructure for the logging industry that began in the 1870’s, and ceased operations in 1991. The fact that so much of the structure remains today is testimony to the durability of the timber used. Satinay is highly resistance to marine borers. Much of the Suez Canal was lined with Fraser Island Satinay.
Coming ashore resembled the infamous landing of the Australian and New Zealand forces at Gallipoli on the Bosphorus beside Turkey during WWI. The tide was running out rapidly and we were prevented from scaling the dunes to camp, in part due to my injured foot. It took some time to get our camping equipment out of the boats and carry it across the mud flats to a narrow strip of beach above the high tide mark.
Coincidentally, our interest in Mackenzie Jetty had it roots in its military history. The area was used for jungle training by the Z-special forces, an Australian Commando unit during WWII. There are quite a few relics of this period that remain scattered throughout the high dunes. Peter Ball, one of our company, has a special interest in the area. Peter’s father entered military service at the tender age of 16. They did not think he would pass the grueling training, and when he did so, restrained him from active service until he had turned 17. He later served with distinction in covert operations against the Japanese in New Guinea.
I dressed my foot with some antiseptic cream and a triangular bandage intended as a sling. Peter loaned me his fluorescent yellow neoprene boots, which turned out to be the height of fashion. Despite being bodged together from the available resources, it proved to be quite comfortable setup.
We climbed up the ancient dunes to an elevation of one hundred feet or so, pausing on the way to take in the view South over Mackenzie Jetty. Much of the structure is still intact curving away to the South. Its heavy piles and cross beams resemble Stonehenge.
Wandering around the old Commando Training School, we found rusting relics hidden in the undergrowth, including a Willys Jeep, and a truck separated from its V8 engine, which in turn was broken down into three parts. The crank-case, the engine block and the head all nestled in the grass just a few yards apart suggesting a failed or interrupted repair job.
We marched back down the well engineered track to the beach. The three boats, now high and dry from the receding tide, now lay on their sides as the descending sun painted the bay in palette of amber and mauve. Once there, we investigate some more relics from the timber industry which only ceased operations in 1991. We discovered a large boiler on the beach that once powered the only sawmill on the island, and a Fordson tractor that would have been used to haul logs, two thirds buried in the sand.
Toward the end of the day, numerous tourists from the Kingfisher Bay Resort passed by on a loop track, in a nearly continuous procession of the latest sports fashion. Moonlight, with the backdrop of the derelict jetty proved a compelling photo opportunity for some of the onlookers. She often becomes a talking point, and she has been photographed by dozens of admirers over the years. Few of the past locations boasted such a dramatic backdrop.
We were well beyond the new moon, so the normally two to three yard rise and fall in the tide was minimal. High tide fell short of the base of the dunes, so we were able to pitch our tents and roll out our swags in a narrow band of soft white silica overshadowed by the near vertical cliff face.
Liz, Pete’s friend had never camped or sailed before. She had done a remarkable job of handling all the new experiences. She brought with her a spicy vegetarian lasagna, more than they could eat themselves, so it was generously shared around. This was appreciated, because in the excitement of burning my foot earlier in the day I had managed to heave parts of my Trangia stove overboard, so we had nothing to cook on. I prefer lasagna to baked beans anyway.
A lone Dingo passed by, silhouetted by the setting sun. He raised his head, sniffed the air, then turned sideways taking in the collection of boats on the beach before continuing on his way. He would not go far, resting on the beach just out of sight. Waiting for the camp to settle in for the night. He would return later that night to wander around our tents in stealth just in case any scraps had been left behind.
In days gone by, we would have built up a decent campfire, but Fraser is very fire sensitive, so we contented ourselves with a little mini brazier Pete had brought along. Despite the fact that it is only about 8 inches high, when fed with small wood chips, it puts our enough light to create a warm atmosphere as we settled in to few yarns and a glass or two of Shiraz. I had taken a couple of painkillers, so I was content with black currant juice.
Sunrise revealed several sets of footprints in the soft white sand above the high tide mark.
I sat in a chair and watched the others cart and carry our considerable collection of camping gear back across the flats. I’m not the kind of person to stand back and watch others working, so I was frustrated, but my foot was a bit tender, and I was looking forward to getting it attended to properly when I got back to the Sunshine Coast. No lasting damage fortunately, but a three week moratorium on boating, or so my wife says. I didn’t hear that for some reason.
We set sail in about ten knots, which built over the course of the morning to fifteen. Southerlies made for a perfect beam reach. No reefing was needed, as Moonlight carried us home at a brisk five knots most of the way.
At times, the mainsail spilled huge billows of unwanted air from the luff. The yoke of the top yard uttered satisfying creaks and groans as it flexed to leeward in the gusts, working away at the many layers of spar varnish. From time to time we would heel over, and Denise, who prefers the tamer side of sailing, would let out a little squeal.
The familiar bulge of the Turks Head knotted around the end of the tiller pressed firmly into the palm of my hand. I was comforted by that little bit of extra purchase.
Only when it came time to negotiate the River Heads channel, with its confusing tides, did I lower the sails and start the engine. As I moved forward to release the main halyard the Kingfisher ferry passed us to port, the tourists clambered to the starboard rail to take photos of Moonlight as they do. The extra load forward, combined with the weight of our camping gear, and a stronger than average gust made the leeward gunwale dip momentarily below the waterline.
Denise let out a louder than usual squeal letting me know in no uncertain terms she was not altogether comfortable at the helm. Moonlight is a very stable boat, and little boats like this one don’t normally capsize as such. They can take water over the gunwales, gulping it in aft of the shrouds. She did take on a couple of gulps, after which we regained our composure as the main came down, and the top yard nestled unceremoniously onto the starboard bench.
River Heads, with its stone wall separating the barge landing ramp from the public boat ramp is the entrance to the Mary River Estuary. The Mary drains 1,400 square miles of the Queensland hinterland. In times of heavy rain, the amount of water flowing out past River Heads would make the passage of a small boat like Moonlight virtually impossible. Even though we were on the tail end of a drought, the tidal currents swirled around in a maze like pattern, making it challenging to hold a steady course.
I do not have reverse or neutral, so you only get one chance at docking in a tidy fashion. The fishermen on the pier are always ready to have a chuckle when things don’t go quite to plan. Aussies love poking stick at others when they get a chance, and you learn to laugh at yourself over time as the best way of disarming the moment.
Fishermen, can make berthing awkward, as they often don’t give priority to boats as they ought. I picked a spot between two groups, each with their deckchairs, and multiple rods. It was going to be a tight park. I cut the motor just in time to allow me to step onto the pier in a satisfying, graceful maneuver. The painter was cleated off in one deft movement. Once around, cross over then flip it away from the incoming line. The line laid flat and firm. I was confident it would not come undone.
The current pulled us gently away from the pier, so no fenders were necessary as the stern swung out and Moonlight settled comfortably in the outgoing tide, allowing us to regroup and prepare to pull the boat out of the water.
I was weary from an uncomfortable nights sleep but at the same time invigorated by an exhilarating reach across the Strait. My foot was throbbing a little. In my mind plans were already crystallizing for my next Adventure in Moonlight exploring the Pumicestone Passage which leads down to Moreton Bay West of Bribie Island.