A simple stainless steel plaque was mounted on a rustic concrete block. Facing North, it looked out over a choppy gray Coral Sea.
“Russell John Palmer and Tony Edward Tyndall. Fishermen from Hervey Bay. Taken by Cyclone Hamish on Swain Reefs, July 9th 2009.”
Round Island is a tiny pile of sand and coral fragments that barely rises above sea level. It is the closest Island to Hervey Bay, one of several sand Islands encountered as you travel across the Bay on your way to Fraser Island.
I hoped to make landfall at Big Woody Island via Round Island, where I would camp overnight at the less often visited North West tip.
I was sailing with my wife Denise in Moonlight, my 12 ft clinker dinghy. Denise and I built her in Tasmania in 1980. She was built from Huon Pine, a precious and highly sought after boat building timber. Moonlight is a heavy boat for her size. She carries a gunter rig, and on this crossing, Moonlight was overpowered as Round Island came into focus.
Here and there, misty curtains of gray were hung from the clouds at oblique angles, suggesting there was more wind to come.
The Gunter rig 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. She is fully powered up.
The sail spilled unwanted air from the luff. The yoke of the top yard creaked and groaned as it flexed to leeward in the gusts.
I should have put a reef in before I launched, but it was too late to think about that. This passage had become something of a white knuckle ride. 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.
Moonlight was fully laden with 3 days camping gear. She was heavy in the bows. We used to travel with far less in our youth, but nowadays, the camp chairs, the table and the mattresses are mandatory items. Especially the mattress.
A thousand white horses riding on little saw-tooth waves slapped at the bow, tempting me to heave-to, and put that much needed reef in. An occasional bigger wave kicked a little harder at the strakes, sending a shower of warm salty spray into the boat. It dripped off the end of my nose and chin. The slops landed in my lap and trickled down into the bilge.
Moonlight slapped back, stamping her authority on the churlish seas. We were heeling pretty heavily at times. Little boats like this one don’t capsize as such. Instead, they take water over the gunwales, gulping it in aft of the shrouds as the sheer strake momentarily dips below the waterline.
Normally my faithful little bilge pump would cope well, even when we shipped quite a lot of water. Only once in 40 years had we swamped the boat, despite sailing in some quite extreme conditions. It happened on the St Helen's Bar in Tasmania when we were unexpectedly caught in a breaking sea on a falling tide. On that occasion we were motoring, and when the motor stalled we broached on a two meter face. Three children were pitched into the Tasman Sea, and soon washed up safely on the beach among the flotsam .
Round Island was in my sights, and soon Moonlight would be bobbing gently in the embrace of its sand spit jutting out to the North West.
I preferred to cop one or two of the steeper peaks on the bow, to easing up on main-sheet, trusting the ageing rig to hold up.
I had her cleated off hard, and that is how she stayed.
A shallow coral appeared beneath us as the sun broke through. I was on high alert as we ran into shore, watching for little peaks in the coral that could tear the bottom of Moonlight to shreds. The beach was a mix of coarse silica sand and coral fragments. It was kind enough on my feet as I stepped ashore. Under my arm I had my faithful little danforth anchor, shackled to a couple of yards of chain and sixty feet of hemp lookalike rode.
I planted the anchor in the sand and began the process of moving the lunch gear up the steep beach, where Denise prepared a salami sandwich and a well deserved coffee. Moonlight sat off the beach with her nose into the wind, protected from the aggressive little chop. We were overlooking the scene, out of the wind, perched in the coastal scrub. A drowsy sensation swept over me.
The sun was fully out now, and the temperature a very pleasant 26 degrees. I had not made anything like the distance I had planned. I was thinking of waiting until the wind eased a little as it often does towards the later part of the day, before setting out on the final stretch to Big Woody Island.
A barge like tourist boat dropped its drawbridge and disgorged 20 or 30 tourists. They were snorkeling around, giggling and over-buoyant, taking in the sadly depleted coral just off the shore.
A walk around the island took only a few minutes. At the center of the island there was a well worn depression under a spreading tree. A fire pit spoke of countless nights of alcohol fueled mate-ship. But these days you can’t camp here. I stumbled across the little stainless steel memorial plaque, barely discernible in the long grass.
Swains Reef has a reputation as a dangerous place in a storm. In 1836 the SV Stirling Castle struck the reef in a storm, on its way to Moreton, now known as the City of Brisbane. The crew abandoned ship and set out for K’gari, (Fraser Island) in two lifeboats. Only one of the lifeboats reached the Island.
Eliza, the Captain’s wife, was heavily pregnant. She gave birth while under way. Her newborn child did not survive the ordeal. The survivors were rounded up by the local Butchulla people and taken to their camp. Captain Fraser died of unknown causes. Most of the crew were later rescued, but Eliza remained in the captivity of the Butchulla tribe for some time before eventually being saved.
I stepped down off the small lip where the surf had bitten into the dunes in the last Northerly, and noticed Moonlight was nearly high and dry. My stride lengthened as I picked up the pace to get back to Moonlight before the rapidly receding tide would make it very difficult to relaunch the heavily loaded boat. I retrieved the anchor, and put my back into the bow so I could use my thighs and save my back. I was able to swing the bow back around to the North, gaining twelve feet in the process, before putting my back to the stern and re-floating her.
Everything was loaded back in and lashed down under a tarp. I took the extra time needed to put a reef in the main, because the wind had now increased a little. We were getting a bit more shelter off Woody Island, as the wind had swung around a little to the East. With the reef in, it was a passive sail, but pleasant nevertheless.
My Navionics showed the North Western section of Big Woody Island surrounded by “green” areas indicating the presence of an extensive coral shelf that dries out in low tides. A description found online by a kayaker indicated it could be crossed mid tide. I had noticed an attractive looking campsite just South of the tip of the island on Google Earth.
The sky had clouded over again, so it was not easy to see the bottom as it rose up to meet us. We were motor sailing by now, pointing high into the South Easterly. My Honda inboard was ticking along at low revs. A sickening grind followed by heavy vibration proved my judgement poor, as first wood, then bronze chewed into the coral.
I cut the motor, and looked behind noting a puff of maroon in our wake, the same color as the hull below the water-line. For several moments I stared into the bilge, watching the water level in case we had split one of the strakes. The water level remained stable.
I reversed our route, working my way down the West Coast of the island, standing off shore by a few hundred yards. I managed to find some deeper sections and tried a couple of times to creep into the beach, which had taken on an amber glow as the sun descended on a low horizon. It was clear that we were not going to make the shore, and with the tide now falling rapidly there was the increasing risk of spending the night camped on the reef.
A last minute run across the remaining section of the Great Sandy Strait to Fraser was briefly considered. As we poked our nose out from the shelter of Woody Island, the wind struck us with considerable force. It may have been possible to make the crossing, but it would have been a wet sail, and the idea of setting up camp in the dark didn’t appeal. I had no running lights on Moonlight, so we headed back to the boat ramp at Hervey Bay Marina, arriving just as the sun set.
I pulled the boat up on the trailer, dragged her out and bent down nervously to assess the damage.
I had scraped a few layers of paint off the deadwood. The hull itself was unmarked, protected by eight inches of keel and further shielded by two inches of deadwood made from dense Tasmanian Blue Gum. The prop itself now had a couple of shiny spots that had not been there before. Nothing a lick of paint and a couple of strokes with a file would not fix.
As night reclaimed the sky, the Hervey Bay Marina lit up like an amusement park.. The night passed fairly uneventfully, as we slept fitfully in the back of our Forester.
It continued to rain throughout the night.
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