Chapter 10: Great Barrier Reef
“Does the road wind uphill all the way?
Yes, to the very end.
Will the day's journey take the whole long day?
From morn to night, my friend.”
-Christina Georgina Rosetti
Sailing at its adventurous best
Two months, 28 days of sailing, 1,250 nautical miles:
Suka aground at Round Hill Creek.
April 22, 1984: Gliding downriver, and now furnished with a list of channel range-directions, we swung ship: aligning Suka fore and aft, and reciprocally, aft and fore, to each pair of channel markers en route. Tabulating a compass deviation table was then a matter of applying the local variation to Suka's pedestal compass bearings, and comparing these to the actual range directions. In light of our near demise on the Breakwater Spit six months previously, we were not surprised to find that the pedestal compass was in error by as much as 10 degrees, depending on the heading. Sailing 100 miles, for example, on a compass this much in error would wrench the boat some 17 miles off course. The ship's magnetic field at the pedestal compass position was undoubtedly the culprit, and for some reason this had changed considerably since we had swung ship in San Diego.
Throughout the night Suka lay placidly to her bower in the swing basin near the river's mouth. Then when the alarm rang at 3 a.m. we turned out with laggard spirits, and an hour later were motoring Suka slowly past the blinking fairway markers. Ahead lay a foreboding, lightless sea.
When the ocean swell began heaving and pitching the ketch disconcertingly, the endeavor began to seem wholly irrational. Why, I now questioned myself, would we leave the quietude of river life, only to put to sea in the cold, pre-dawn darkness? Clearly, the Bundaberg sojourn had reduced these ocean-crossing jack tars into land lubbers. Hides softened by the months of indulging in comparative creature comforts, we were now blatantly out of our element. The going, in short, proved miserable.
But the rising sun began enlivening our awful plight, and as a further solace Suka's new auto pilot was proving itself a resounding success. Every day it works, the journal quotes with a tone of mistrust, we shall count it among our most treasured possessions.
Mid day I threw out a trolling line, and soon hauled aboard a school mackerel large enough to feed us for several days. The toil of bringing provender to the galley thus accomplished, there was nothing for it but to settle into the lee bunk with half-a-cup of tea and a book, leaving the mate to apprise our seagoing plight from her vantage in the cockpit.
Round Hill Creek
The cracking south-westerlies drove Suka at an animated clip, and delivered her to the entrance to Round Hill Creek with an hour of daylight to spare. We handed the sails and entered the shallow estuary, and after cautiously negotiating the shoal waters we reached the shallow anchorage and paid out the CQR into a mere 10 feet of water.
Suka in the shallow anchorage at Round Hill Creek.
Round Hill Creek
Any notions of enjoying peace and solitude, though, were shattered with the passing of the first powerboat, which rocketed past while towing its heroic water skier. In Australia, Easter weekend is a national holiday, and the merrymakers were here by the droves. Boats wheeled past, leaving Suka bobbing irksomely in their wakes. Children swimming not far away screamed excitedly. Then with the eventide, all fell silent.
“The next day proved itself one of the more momentous in the annals of our global circumnavigation.”
The next day proved itself one of the more momentous in the annals of our global circumnavigation. Rising early to greet a day of seafaring, we weighed and motored slowly out the creek. The tide was two hours past high water, such that a strong current was drawing the ketch seaward. Unknown to Alan Lucas when he wrote the otherwise excellent guidebook Cruising the Coral Coast, an extensive and submerged sand bar obstructs the middle of this channel. Purely by chance we had avoided it while entering. Now, though, Suka's depth sounders (she now had two) began indicating ultra-shoal water. Because the stream was murky I could only guess which way to spin the wheel in search of deeper water. A scant few seconds later, Suka's keel bounced hard against the sand bottom; she lifted imperceptibly and shuddered to a halt. Apparently my turning to starboard had not been the correct choice.
Aground, Ray struggles to kedge-off by winching a line attached to an auxiliary anchor.
Suka Runs Aground
Because the tide was receding, speed was of the essence if the ketch was to regain her freedom. Frantically, we retrieved the dinghy from beneath the salon table, and inflated it using the foot pump. After lowering the tender over the lifelines, we fitted the outboard motor. Using the lead line, I then sounded the surrounds, and found the deeper channel lying to port. Back aboard Suka, after turning the wheel hard over, away from the slant in order to protect her rudder, I then flaked the kedge rode from its forepeak naval pipe. After motoring a Danforth laterally toward the channel, I returned aboard and with every ounce of strength we could muster we winched Suka across the sandy shoal, toward deeper water. Racing the ebbing tide, we struggled until lungs ached and muscles stung. How far the ketch was actually moving in a favorable direction, and how far the anchor was simply dragging toward her, was uncertain, but in an hour's work we had winched aboard about 300 feet of rode, in three stages of advancing the kedge farther out. Then lady luck stubbed her toe and fell flat on her face; Suka encountered a slight rise in the seabed abreast the deeper channel, and despite our utmost efforts she refused to continue. So as the tide kept ebbing, the brig began listing, ever slowly but inexorably.
“Setting a second kedge, I nearly lost my dinghy, outboard, oars, and even my mate.”
With nothing better to do, we decided to set a second kedge, and in doing so I nearly lost my dinghy, outboard, oars, and even my mate. Jenny volunteered to climb down into the dinghy, and to deliver the anchor laterally away from the ship. A strong current flowed seaward, and while the intrepid Miss motored away laterally, I paid out rode. The ebbing current was sweeping the anchor line seaward in a mighty arc, as it had done the four times previously while I had motored the primary kedge, and this required a certain haste on our parts. Wishing Jenny to set the anchor as far from the ship as possible, I motioned her to continue. Then when I could pay no more slack I waved for her to heave the kedge overboard. She hesitated, though, suddenly fearful that in shifting aft, she might upset the boat. And as the dinghy motored ahead with its kicker's throttle wide open, strain came on the line; strain I could not relieve by casting off because the rode's bitter end was made fast belowdecks, and because I had no knife at hand with which to slash the line. The outboard motor, now struggling against the line's drag, pulled the anchor's 15 feet of hefty linked chain over the dinghy's transom. Jenny reacted by grabbing for the chain, but as she shifted her weight aft, indeed, this unbalanced the tender dramatically. With her weight, the anchor and chain's weight, and that of the engine all brought to bear at the dinghy's stern, the boat nearly capsized, aft end first. Had it done so, the oars, lying loose, would probably have been lost, and the overturned dink would have likely been swept out to sea.
At least, we later reasoned, the tender was of the inflatable type. At any rate, a distressed woman's scream can be a device of utility, and as the shoreside onlookers were now alerted, who knows, a rescue may have ensued, had one proved necessary. Strengthened by fear, though, Jenny wrestled the 35 pound plow, now a great deal heavier due to the rope drag and the weight of suspended chain, and here her weight-lifting workouts paid a dividend. Struggling, she managed to lift the plow free, and to release it overboard with a splash. To my immense relief this righted the dinghy.
Suka's propeller soon exposed itself to view, as though requesting a thorough scrubbing. That job finished, the decidedly lacking comfort factor aboard the severely listing domain suggested that rather than remain aboard, awaiting the flood tide, we might as well venture ashore. Without the slightest doubt, the careened brig was not going anywhere for awhile. So, rowing ashore we ambled to the monument commemorating the so-called birthplace of Queensland. Here, Captain Cook reputedly landed in Australia for his first time. To commemorate the historic date the township's forefathers had named their nearby town 1770.
Suka aground near the shallow entrance to Round Hill Creek. No damage done.
Suddenly the thoughts occurred to me that Suka's port deck now lay underwater, and that Suka's decks leak! Hurrying back to the beach we paddled to her, and boarded. Climbing down into our aslant home and opening the larboard lockers, indeed, we found the turn of the bilge somewhat flooded. The severe listing had rendered Suka's main bilge pump useless, so the pressing task at hand was to remove the locker's sodden contents and to begin hand-pumping the brine, using a portable unit.
Following slack water, the current reversed its flow. An hour later the rising tide began buoying the hull, and eventually this lifted the leaking deck above the water's surface, and freed me from the pump. A quick check showed that the engine had held its oil, the diesel and fresh water tanks their contents, and that the ponderous motorcycle had not rolled off the afterdeck. And with that, the crew's spirits ever rose with the incoming tide.
Clambering about our listing home was arduous. To venture belowdecks, one stepped into the hatchway and onto the salon wall. After climbing down onto the chart table, the most expedient means of moving forward was to tread along the settee's edge while holding onto the opposite fingerboard. Nevertheless, as the afternoon wore on, Suka continued righting. But the deepening water rose asymptotically: more slowly as it approached its maximum. For half an hour the ketch remained nearly vertical, yet her keel held fast. When we had nearly abandoned hope, and had resolved ourselves to enduring another tide cycle, she started bouncing. I had winched both kedge rodes taut as steel bars, and I now gunned the engine. Perkins wailed; still, Suka bounced in situ. After an anguishing 20 minutes, when our hopes were again wearing thin, the bow suddenly slewed to port, and the keel skidded toward the anchors. Our sailboat had been released from the surly bonds of earth.
“The bow suddenly slewed to port, and the keel skidded toward the anchors. Our sailboat had been released from the surly bonds of earth.”
Swinging gleefully into the channel, which was obscured in murky water, we re-anchored by the bow, and began reorganizing the chaos belowdecks. The day was far spent, so after rendering the Lord due gratitude for Suka's well being and for the renewed hope of her crew, we weighed and returned the short distance to the anchorage, and began airing the sodden contents of the port lockers.
This was a training voyage, and we were learning bountiful lessons. Today's secondary lessons were: stow the dinghy inflated, lashed topsides, and at the ready, and make fast its oars; and, do not secure the kedge's bitter end belowdecks. The primary lesson was: do not navigate shallows during a strongly ebbing tide.