“The seas do laugh, snow white,
When rocks are near.”
-John Webster (1580-1625)
Some sixty miles from the Queensland coast stands a great finger of land called Cape Sandy. Behind this lies Hervey Bay, our immediate destination. but like a long fingernail, a submerged coral reef extends miles north of the tip of this cape. We intended rounding this reef to its north.
Traveling over the Breakwater Reef
Zoom out to see where we are.
Much later that evening, when we had approached the Queensland coast to within perhaps seventy miles, my dead reckoning indicated that we should be sighting the Cape Sandy lighthouse, far away to the south-west. And indeed, the light appeared after nightfall as predicted, initially as a nebulous, pulsating loom, then as it gradually climbed over the horizon, as a sharp beacon flashing resolutely. At this point we had only to continue ahead until the Breakwater Spit buoy hove into sight. When it did, I would determine our whereabouts using crossed compass bearings from the two lights.
Somehow, though, we sailed long past when we should have sighted the flashing buoy. Visibility was excellent in the night, thanks to the brilliant moon. So thinking that perhaps the current had been retarding our progress, we proceeded ahead. I tried summoning a local skipper on VHF 16, in order to glean any local knowledge, but my outgoing radio calls were met with only the white noise of silence. Perplexed, I wielded the sextant, bringing the bright star Sirius down to a horizon illuminated by moonlight. Then belowdecks I calculated a hasty astro-fix with the star's line-of-position crossed with the bearing of the Cape Sandy light. Knowing that the riotous waves had likely hampered the accuracy of my celestial shot, I did not trust the results, which placed us atop the Breakwater Spit - the fingernail of that underwater reef extending miles northward from the lighthouse. Surely, I reasoned, this fix could not possibly be correct. Yet something felt oddly wrong. The flashing buoy we sought did not seem to exist, and the burning question was: in which direction, and how strongly, had the current been sweeping Suka the past several hours? Then a startling thought occurred to me. Could we, in fact, be traveling over the Breakwater Spit?
I leapt outside, and hand over sprinting hand clawed down the sails. Then I threw overboard the lead line. Even though we were far beyond sight of any land, to my consternation the lead clanked on the reef a paltry 25 feet below.
We dared not drop anchor and await daylight, because the seas were so rough that an ebbing tide might have placed us in dire straits. So I started the engine, swung the helm hard over, and proceeded on a reciprocal heading. My theory was: as we had not grounded on the way in, then probably we would not do so on the way out. As we later discovered, we had traversed nearly the full width of the coral reef, miles wide. Now, we were heading back across it, for under the circumstances to continue eastward would have been lunacy. But to our misfortune, not only was the tide ebbing, but apparently a strong current was sweeping Suka ever southward and into even shallower water.
“Plying malevolently shallow and wave-tossed seas, Suka was in grave peril.”
Suddenly from out of the obscurity, heavy breaking and seething seas flashed ominously in the moonlight. Shaken, I steered hard to starboard and somehow averted a grounding. Then as we continued ahead, Jenny stood at the bow shrieking warnings for me to turn this way or that, as if I did not see all too clearly the catastrophes now lurking at every hand. Plying malevolently shallow and wave-tossed seas, Suka was in grave peril. Perkins strained mightily; Jenny swung the lead line and hollered her ever discouraging news of shoal waters; and somehow I circumvented the seething, breaking maelstroms. Unequivocally, the fearful hour we spent probing our way back across those shoals was one I would not care to repeat.
From this incident we learned the shortcomings of relying on navigational lights and shipborne electronics. These are susceptible to failure, and like crutches with possible dry rot, they are not to be leaned on too heavily. The annals of short-handed cruising are well sated with stories of successful passages followed by catastrophic landfalls. We were learning that regardless how indomitably a crew maintains vigilance, a trying, sleep-depriving passage can effect a person's mental capacities. And as our brush with disaster had underscored, the hammering seas, the long nights standing watch, and the interrupted cat naps all deprive the short-handed sailor of judgment.
Safety Reaching Deep Water
Eventually we found deep water, and now well aware of our position, with immense relief we steamed northward. I was hoping to find the obviously lightless Breakwater light buoy, which would indicate the more seamanlike entrance to Hervey Bay. After plugging hard to an increasing head wind for many hours, now in daylight I peered through binoculars and finally sighted the Breakwater Buoy, minus its light - in for repairs we later learned. The day had well worn by the time we reached the buoy; clearly, we had not anticipated such a strong, southerly sweeping current.
The wind fell light, and as Suka drew near the floating buoy a portion of its awful plague of flies ambushed us. These arthropods obviously thrived on the offal of seabirds that lived on the buoy. Insects crawled on the ketch and her crew by the droves, sending us scurrying about, battening down hatches and ports as though snugging down for a gale. Standing at the helm once again, I retaliated with a fly swatter, with a splat, splat, and a...splat, as we motored toward Australia.
Twenty-four hours after having turned back across the spit, we were now close to our turning point, having circumnavigated the menacing coral reef. But now we stood in a known position, and safely within the capacious and reasonably calm bay. And having bested the last of the flies, we sailed throughout the night, beating into an ever-freshening south-westerly.
First Glimpse of the Australian Continent
Daylight, October 21, revealed the illustrious sight of land - the Australian continent peeking above the horizon. Our task was now to find the Burnett River, a thin and shallow navigable watercourse leading inland some twelve miles to the town of Bundaberg. While crossing the vast Pacific we had succeeded at locating the appropriate islands and continents en route, but this coastal navigation now seemed more complex. So it was with relief that we eventually raised the Burnett River lighthouse.
While advancing toward the coast and maneuvering appropriately, we closed the light tower with another structure standing behind it. The two columns were obviously meant as a lead, perhaps indicating a dredged channel. (Several days later, though, while touring the area by auto, we were surprised to discover that the second tower was a water storage tank and had no function as a navigational marker. And when later we studied a proper chart we saw that by pursuing this erroneous lead toward shore a vessel would encounter shoals.) Unawares, we motored toward the lead. But now we were taking nothing for granted. While the skipper stood at the helm, the mate sounded continuously with her lead line. When the sandy bottom shoaled, I veered away. And after we had rounded a promontory to the south, only then did the channel markers presented themselves, indicating the navigable mouth of the river.
Entering the Burnett River
Zoom out to see where we are.
Entering the silt-laden river, we soon passed by a large ship-loading terminal. Then pressing a short distance farther we closed the edge of the turning basin, and lowered the anchor into ten feet of placid river water.
Suka had crossed Oceania.
Suka had crossed Oceania.