September 17, 2014

Late, Later, Latest

The distance chart at the top of Captain Cook's lookout on Lizard Island told us we were 1620 km, as the crow flies from Brisbane (and well over 11,000 from San Francisco) which seemed like a respectable distance. But then it noted we're still 1610 km from Darwin. That took a bit of the sublime out of the amazing view of the endless string of barrier reef that Cook had climbed up to look at.

The balance with cruising is to see enough of an area/ region/country/hemisphere without bumping into the seasons that guide your movement from one place to the next. We already know that we're one of only a handful of boats still headed to Darwin. And we only know of two others on their way to Indonesia (this year…) So far no one can actually tell us what happens if we're late. But EVERY single person we mention our plans to comments on our lateness. So it seems we'll be finding out.

Feeling the need to keep moving means we're picking and choosing our stops and staying only briefly when we do stop. Cooktown wasn't really a must but it was on the way to Lizard and broke up the trip nicely. And who's going to turn down the chance to pose with a large assortment of Cook monuments, their numbers rivalling both the number of pubs in the town and potentially the number of residents as well.

Lizard turned out to be both a fantastic and haunting spot. On of the features of the island is the ruins (now more ruined-but I'll come to that) of Mary Watson's cabin. The young woman, her baby and a Chinese worker escaped their home in a tub after Aboriginal people returned the island and drove them off. They survived a voyage in an iron tub to a nearby island where they died of thirst. She became a bit of a folk-hero, a symbol of Australian strength in adversity.

The photos we saw of the ruins included a good portion of a wall. What we saw were a heap of stones. It's not surprising; the same category 5 cyclone that sat over the island for 11 hours in April-uprooting many of the trees, closing the famed resort and damaging the vital research station-did the damage.

The cyclone's surge also tore through the pristine coral-much of it containing vital research projects. House sized boulders were toppled and entire reef were wiped clean of all life.

But the research center is up and running. The resort is being rebuilt. And the park is taking the opportunity to encourage native plant growth on the island. Despite the coral loss the reef still sports heaps of life; big diverse fish, six varieties of giant clams, turtles, rays and sharks. And the research centre is waiting eagerly for this year's coral spawn.

Now we're tucked behind Cape Melville. Last night, as we rounded the piles of huge boulders that make this part of Australia look like an unfinished construction site, the winds hit 35 knots and we scurried for cover. Then we read that the winds howl like that frequently and boats get trapped here for days on end. So this morning's calm has an eerie feel to it.

Technically we should be heading off and making more miles. But 15 miles from here, on a remote island there's Aboriginal rock art of some importance. Personally, I can't resist visiting it. So we'll arrive in Darwin one (more) day later than planned.

This is coming via SSB--so I'll add in photos when we see the next bit of internet.

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September 12, 2014

The Reef at Last

Anchored on the Great Barrier Reef

We’ve been sailing north inside the Great Barrier Reef for about six weeks, but yesterday was the first time we actually saw it, dove on it and anchored beside it. Further south the reef is a bit thin and it’s well off shore. (Running a length equivalent to the US west coast, the GBR isn’t a continuous reef, but hundreds of small reefs linked together like a pearl necklace, with gaps.) Once you hit Cairns though, the reef starts to close with land, the water warms up to a more pleasant 24C and it becomes easier to visit. Easier, but not easy.

hanging out with a turtle
The Barrier Reef is what divides the north coast of Australia from the Coral Sea—and having sailed on the Coral Sea, I can tell you it’s a moody piece of water that alternates between calm beauty and frothing nastiness. This means when you visit the reef you need at least a few days of sustained calm to make it work. Otherwise you’ll find yourself anchored in heaving seas with invisible (but deadly) reef all around you. For context—the one place Captain Cook went aground and tore apart the Endeavour was on Endeavour Reef, two reefs over from where we woke up this morning.

Lots of sailors who pass through this area are content with anchoring behind islands and exploring the inner reefs. But I really wanted the experience of dropping our hook in what looked like the middle of the ocean, miles from land. The tour boats do it all the time, but they have speed in their favour: they head out early in the morning and return to a safe harbour by dusk. But because we’re on the move north, we didn’t want to go in and out of the same place.

So in Cairns I nervously watched as a high built in the Tasman Sea, the sign of the end to a sustained period of calm. As soon as we finished all our chores: we had our luff tape on our genoa replaced, our scuba gear serviced and new seals put in the outboard… We set off for Low Island and then Turtle Bay on Tongue Reef.

The reward was anchoring in an endless expanse of sea and then taking Maia for her first extended dives in three years. Her confidence and joy underwater were gratifying to see. The reef itself was lovely—lots of corals, though not as much colour as we saw further south. The fish life too was smaller and sparser than we hoped. Strangely, much of the reef is only a Habitat Protection Zone—which means you can fish as much as you like (no trawling) and even collect aquarium stock!
Despite the lack of abundance, our dives were beautiful. The night sky held a bright moon and the seas stayed calm. This morning the wind started to rise after dawn and we turned north. It’s clear the wind patterns are beginning to change and the season for travel up here is coming to an end—the time’s come to hurry ourselves on to Darwin.

Sunrise on the reef--no land in sight

September 10, 2014

How to be a traveler, not a tourist, in five easy steps

a hike in the woods brought us to an abandoned homestead

They caught me off guard. We were standing at a lookout, tracing the path of a waterfall down a cliff face when we were asked to move out of the way so a young woman could take a photo in the exact location we were standing in. So we shuffled over a meter to an almost identical spot and watched as a queue formed behind her. And then one-by-one each person held their phone out (many phones even had a telescoping handle to get the best angle) and they snapped a selfie or two.

most waterfalls are better in person than on the screen...
It was Maia who noticed that most people never even looked out at scene they were documenting. They had their back to the falls except for when they were queuing for their photo.

being tourists for Maia's 13th birthday--we went on the skyrail to Karunda then took a historic train home
As odd as it sounds, we really don’t spend much time being tourists. All those fantastic attractions and restaurants that you visit on your holiday? We pretty much bypass them. When we hit a tourist hot spot like Cairns, our time is spent locating where to take our garbage and recycling, doing laundry and finding the best grocery story within walking distance of the dinghy dock. If we still have time after getting the outboard serviced, the sail repaired and the SCUBA stuff checked out we might splurge on a museum or head to a national park for a hike.

the trip was beautiful and we met some wonderful people
Part of the reason for skipping most of the must-dos, is tourist activities are really expensive. When travel is your everyday life, and not a vacation, those expenses can add up fast. Another reason is that all too often those tourism activities feel manufactured and predictable: as though you could sleepwalk through the experience and just show up for the selfies.

most of our adventures are the free variety--and usually we learn about them from a local--the Mossman Gorge
The chance to encounter something new is why most of us travel.  But it seems as though our relationship with travel is changing. We’ve exchanged exploring and serendipity, for top tens and bucket lists. Instead of immersing in a place, all too often we seek out the highlights then find ourselves in a line six-people deep waiting for a photo-op.

Don’t get me wrong—sometimes the highlights are really awesome. The waterfall we were looking at was Barron Falls, one of the stops along the Skyrail Journey—a fantastic 7km Gondola ride through the rainforest. And I realize that not everyone has the opportunity to travel for months and years on end.

Another free spectacle--the burning of cane fields
But we all can travel like travelers and not tourists. We can skip a few of the highlights and let ordinary serendipity take hold. And we can pay attention to the places we are: really pay attention.

Maia was the first to grab hold of this lesson. She had been instagramming her day (it was her birthday) with her friends so they could see her selfies; on the gondola and in front of the waterfall. But as she watched her fellow tourists focus on themselves, rather than the place they were, she tucked away her phone and became a traveler.

Here or our top five tips for being travelers and not tourists:

1)      Do what the locals do. Ask the people you meet what they do for fun, not where they send the tourists, but where they spend their days off.
2)      Don’t over plan. Even if you are heading off on a tourist excursions leave plenty of room in your day for travel to happen.
3)      Leave your camera, cellphone etc behind. Experience travel with all your senses, not through a filter.
4)      Talk to people. And not just other tourists. Talk to the shop clerks, your waitress and people in the parks and gardens. Ask questions—lots of questions.
5)      Head out with no destination in mind. We find all sorts off cool things by heading out on walks and reading signs and chatting with people as we go.

August 29, 2014

Go Cruising - Lose Weight!

It's been a very steady pattern with me. Each time I've left a desk job to go cruising I've lost weight.

Happened in 1995 on our first boat, 2009 when we left Vancouver on the current boat, and again this past few months when we left Brisbane in early July. Now I had been diligently riding my bike, and really watching what I ate in Brisbane, and the kilos were being shed. 

What happens when I don't really watch what I eat, but re-start an active lifestyle? Pulling on halyards, grinding in sheets, lifting the dinghy in the davits almost every day. Walking everywhere, swimming, doing boat chores. It all adds up. Yay me.

 So if you want to lose weight, consider a sailing lifestyle.*

- Evan

* this may not apply to female sailors for some reason (seriously).  Many of them report weight gain when they go cruising.

August 25, 2014

Anchor down

This morning our anchor came up with the sun and we pointed the boat north and flew. The winds are perfect right now—it’s like being on a fast-moving conveyer belt carrying us to our next destination, and the next after that. Today we sailed to Cape Upstart (I think!) 50 fast miles. Yesterday it was Glouster Passage. Before that, Airlie Beach.

underway on a light wind day
Traveling this quickly—a new anchorage each night or two, connecting with friends for a few hours, getting to know a place for a day—has its own appeal. It’s like a kaleidoscope of impressions: here we ate fresh oysters off the rocks; here a homesteader gave me more oranges and passion fruit than I could carry and I made marmalade; here we barbequed on the beach with new friends; here I was shown a rock orchid and malecula forest…

not sure if marking a hiking trail with plastic beach debris is clever, or depressing
gorgeous rock orchids
The richness of each day is astounding. Even the simple things like finding a grocery store and the laundry is an adventure. Colours seem brighter and moments seem sharper. Travel does that—it pulls you out of your comfort zone and gives you endless amounts of newness. It makes you pay attention.

following a boat through Glouster Passage
Some of the best moments for me though are the quiet ones that come after the anchor goes down. It’s like shavasana in yoga; it’s a time to breathe deeply and let all those impressions, and the whirlwind of constant noise and movement (we’re on a boat at sea, remember) slow to a stop. It seems like if we didn’t anchor ourselves, all of it; the whales, turtles, blue water and kind friends would slip by without being savoured and tucked safely away in my memories.

We've not lacked for gorgeous sunsets
So our anchor is down. The boat is calm. And rugged hills rise up ahead of us. In many ways this is the start of our day. When we sail, not much except sailing gets done. If it’s calm enough Maia works through school projects, I write a bit and Evan does a few chores. Mostly though we read, eat when we’re hungry and look at the view.

beaching the boat to repair a thru hull
Being anchored lets us catch up on all the things that need doing, head to shore and explore or simply look at the view just a little bit more.

August 19, 2014

Gambling With the Suck to Fun Factor

Maia's dream beach

Ever have one of those days that starts out warm and sunny, moves into a perfect sail, and then brings you humpback whales? Not spouts in the distance. But a mama resting on the surface a few hundred meters away and a curious baby who decides to come and visit?

Baby heads over to see us with mama close behind
But then the day turns—your main motor doesn’t start, so you use your outboard. And when you sort out the main motor’s problem the outboard hops off the back of the boat and falls into the ocean (thank-goodness for that safety line). And then you tip the mocha flan that you made, to soothe your sad soul, into a dirty sink and the pickle jar explodes over the floor, where you notice a trickle of saltwater from a seeping thru hull (and you just hauled out…). And none of the good—not the sail, not the whale, can make up for the fact that some days just suck.

I think cruisers must be bad gamblers at heart.

abandoned rail track
Roo prints on the beach
Those perfect days, where you wake with the plan of sailing on but a quick morning hike shows you’ve stumbled upon an abandoned resort with a perfect beach and clear warm water, are the ones that keep you sailing from country to country, endlessly searching for the combination of magical elements that feel like a row of cherries in the slot machine.

our morning turtle
But mostly we plug coins into the slots, taking the little payoffs; the turtles, the sunsets, the clear water and empty beaches. They’re our reward for the endless repairs.
Endless repairs.

abandoned train
The good days though? They are so good. Yesterday we planned to travel. But I wanted to see shore before leaving Brampton Island. Evan needed to finish flushing the outboard so after communing with a huge, wise-looking turtle Maia and I headed to shore on our own. We set off down an overgrown rail track the lead us past shy kangaroos and outgoing butterflies and into an empty resort.

There was a Christmas tree in a window, a pool table with cues and balls, an ancient banyan tree and sailboats for guests. There were linens on the beds and furniture in the dining room. And it was empty except for two other cruisers. We learned the resort was abandoned after a 2010 cyclone. Eerie and perfect we thought Evan should see it.

So we spent the day on abandoned lawn chairs, drinking from coconuts, cooling in the blue water and exploring the resort. In the evening we joined newly arrived sailors on the broken jetty to watch the sun drop into the sea.

the only guest
what the resort lacked in bar service it made up for in ambiance.
 And today we’re sailing on, gambling that someday soon we’ll have another day as good as yesterday.

August 6, 2014

It Blows

Last night the boat shuddered and shook in the gusts and leapt in the swell. Instead of the blow blowing through, the wind has stayed strong each day. In the bay, the water is no longer calm-the swell bounds and rebounds off the cliffs and we bounce.

On Monday we got confirmation that we could haul the boat out in Mackay and that the wind that day would be the lightest for the week at 20-25 knots. By the time we set out it was past noon-but with only 25 miles we thought it would be fine. Four days of strong wind and current has led to big boisterous seas and the sail to Mackay turned out to be more upwind than the weather report promised. Ten minutes in, we realized we wouldn't make it by dark.

We headed back to our anchorage and requested another weather report. More wind for more days. So now we're pondering options for plan 'B'. This morning we watched another boat leave for Mackay. For the first hour we watched him make no progress against the wind and current-slipping further and further downwind and closer to the shallow banks before disappearing in the swell. So that's out for now.

Heading downwind would be uncomfortable and quick-but we still need to haul out the boat to replace our cutless bearing, paint the bottom and get our insurance survey and after checking the alternatives Mackay is the best option (other than the bit about not being able to get there easily...).

Waiting does make the best sense. We're well provisioned. Our anchorage is beautiful and as protected and we're guessing everywhere in this region would be just as bouncy, breezy and uncomfortable. And while moving might get us internet we'd lose the turtles that visit us each day and would get further from Mackay--which is where we need to go if the wind ever drops…
At 30/07/2014 11:49 PM (utc) our position was 21°39.21'S 150°14.61'E

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August 2, 2014

Waiting with Wind and Whales but not Wifi

According to our most recent schedule we should be pulling into Airlie Beach about now. This would be revised schedule #3. Sort of impressive for a boat that's only been out of Brisbane for a few weeks... As I worried over not meeting yet another self-imposed sailing deadline, I thought back to all the other times I stressed over not meeting a sailing deadline and realized that not one of them mattered. Not one. Somehow whether were were in a specific place for two weeks longer than we intended, or two weeks less, it all just folded together into our journey.

Instead of being in Airlie, where they have wifi and I could be underway on my next project and catching up with friends, we're hunkered down in Scawfell Island waiting for a 30 knot blow to blow by.

As far as places to be hunkered down--this is a good one. The bay is wide and deep and held in by steep green hills. Despite a frothing ocean in the distance, in here the bright blue water is calm. This morning, before the wind rose, the bay was still enough that I could hear whales breathing off the point. I watched them spy hopping and diving for a while on my own. A turtle swam around the boat and butterflies migrated past. Then a cloud boiled up on the top of the island and spilled over in gusts. The butterflies blew away, the whales swam on and Evan and Maia woke up.
We got a weather report that concurred with the gusts that are shaking our boat, so we've settled in for at least two days.

We've learned that if you stress over travel deadlines and treat enforced stops as waiting, rather than as part of the journey, you miss out. Some of our unintended delays have include our best cruising moments. If you let them, they feel a bit like a lazy Sunday afternoon--an unexpected moment between chores and obligations. We've used the days to catch up on chores, or cook with friends, to explore a bit more of a town, or a hiking trail... But some of our best found moments are spent in quiet creativity. Maia is busy working on her second animated short; with her camera on a tripod she's making a claymation version of Dr Who. I'm simmering marmalade from my Percy Island oranges (a story in itself). Charlie is napping, Evan is working on little chores. None of us is thinking too hard about where else we might have been.

The wind is blowing and blowing.
At 30/07/2014 11:49 PM (utc) our position was 21°39.21'S 150°14.61'E

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July 28, 2014

A better anchor snubber

If your anchor rode is all chain, or a lot of chain, you should (must?) use an anchor snubber. For sailors that anchor mostly with rope, an anchor snubber is a short length of rope which you attach to your chain. It is used to take the direct anchor load off the windlass and to add a bit of elasticity to your rode and reduce shock loads.

It's the "attach to your chain" part of things that gets tricky. We've always used a simple galvanized metal chain hook. It has a few drawbacks - after a while it gets to look like the picture. Because we have a catamaran, our snubber is a bridle arrangement that goes to both bows and meets in the middle at the chain.  The legs of each bridle section are about 25' long.  I'd dutifully hook my chain hook to the chain, let out more chain until the bridle snubber took the load and call it good. If  we were anchored in less than 25' of water, and the weather was calm, the hook would end up on the bottom, and more often than not, it would detach from the chain. This was a headache to put it mildly.

So I've started using a Better soft shackle made from 1/4" spectra rope (fits inside 5/16" chain). It's easy to open and close, and never lets go of the chain. You can do it up on deck and the snubber won't pop off the chain as it goes over the bow roller. People test these shackles at well over the breaking strength of 1/4" spectra - about 7500 lbs. So it will be strong enough for a snubber. And it's cheap, never rusts, and is easy to replace if I drop the shackle in the water!

Two closing thoughts - I'm using dynamic climbing rope for the snubber. Fantastic stuff and you can easily watch it stretch 20% of more in a blow. Much stretchier than 3 strand nylon.  It really absorbs the force of a wind gust at anchor and reduces that dynamic loading on the anchor rode. This type of rope can't be easily spliced so the eye in the middle is just a seizing.

2nd thought - If you're a monohull, without a bridle, you can ignore this part. Our anchor rode is a mixture of about 160' of chain and about 160' of rope spliced to it. We don't really need a snubber when we get to the rope portion but we do use one; the bridle keeps our boat pointing straight into a strong wind when the monohulls nearby are shearing back and forth. To attach a snubber to the anchor rope, I use a 3/8" prussik loop and then attach the snubber soft shackle to the prussik. The prussik doesn't slide up the anchor rode when tightened a bit.

- Evan

July 27, 2014

Cattle Crossing to Starboard

Charlie checks out the view

As we wove past freighters and work boats, and inhaled the dust of heavy industry on our way into Gladstone Harbour I was reminded of a town review I’d once read. It was in Lonely Planet, Mexico and the sole entry for the place was, “X has a bus station and a train station. Use them to get out.”

Gladstone: not even a little bit scenic
Happily a cheap mooring buoy, even cheaper laundry and the chance to see my first wild red-tailed black cockatoo soon redeemed Gladstone. But in all honesty we didn’t really hit the area’s highlight until we had motored out past the coal heaps, refineries and LNG plants and on into Curtis Narrows.

We could have left Gladstone the way we came in and carried on up the coast in the deep water. But who turns down a chance to meander through a mangrove wetland. The chance of bugs and salt water crocs aside—it was cool to make our way through narrows that can only be traversed at high tide.

winding through the narrows

We hit the shallowest patch at the highest tide. Normally dry at low tide we wound our way past markers and squeezed past the few boats that came from the opposite direction. At one point we passed a fence—when we called Maia to see it she was surprised to realise we were sailing over a cattle crossing.

Monte Christo Cattle Station, was established on Curtis Island in the 1860s (once upon a time they even bred horses there for the British India Army). But time, and a huge amount of development on Curtis Island, means the station may have seen its last round up two years ago.

By mid-morning we back out at sea—Great Keppel Island chosen as our next stop.