The following morning, the mood inside the cabin was entirely bereft of the pressing urge to sally forth in haste. Suka would await near-low water, such that should she run aground again, the rising tide would soon float her free. Anyway, the previous day's exertions had flagged our get-up-and-go, leaving us even more determined to improve our cardiopulmonary capacities. Accordingly, we pulled ashore and went jogging.
At ten o'clock, two hours before slack water low, we pulled anchor and began motoring slowly out the channel, the brig's trepidatious crew bearing first-hand knowledge of the seabed's layout. Twice the 6-1/2 foot drafted keel nearly met with shoals; but luckily in neither instance did it scrape bottom. So at last, gainfully removed from the clutches of the river, like an eagle taking to flight the little brig spread her wings and sailed away to embrace the offing.
Beneath sunny skies and on moderate seas Suka rollicked before a 15 knot breeze, flying her new genoa proudly, wing-and-wing. Then after covering the 38 mile distance to Pancake Creek, she made for the entrance as her crew handed sails. While the skipper conned her in from the crosstrees aloft, the mate steered accordingly; and in this way Suka made way safely over the shallow sand bar and into the extensive bay. Lowering her bower into 3 fathoms of relatively limpid water, we were home for the day.
Pancake Creek late evening, we rowed ashore and went exploring.
The bay was immense: nearly a mile across, so it was far too large to provide much shelter in the event of a blow. The skies were a propitious blue, however, and the raucous holiday crowd was entirely absent, so the area was pristine, secluded, and tranquil. That evening we ventured ashore by dinghy, and explored some of the territory. And as the captain's journal later quipped, we fed the voracious sand flies.
In the anchorage at Pancake Creek.
Three other yachts lay anchored nearby; one, a dismasted Hans Christian, wrecked onto a reef, we soon learned when talking with its delivery crew. It seems that the owner had abandoned ship in favor of a more suitable lifestyle elsewhere, and had hired these hands to relocate the stricken vessel to Brisbane for repairs.
Early in the morning came the rattling of anchor chain, indicating that crew's imminent departure. Jenny and I jumped to, groggily weighed, and set out astern of the dismasted vessel. Our theory was that, as both yachts were similarly drafted, if the first one crossed the bar without grounding, and if Suka was following it close behind, then without misfortune she should gain the offing in safety. The scant early morning light was not yet sufficient to reveal the nature and extent of shoals, so, teeth clenched, I could only watch the ever discouraging news indicated on the depth sounder. The overall scheme proved a success, though, if only just.
Upon the open seas the wind blew fresh and favorable, providing lively sailing. With seeming alacrity Suka made good the 30 miles to the South Channel, which separates the mainland and Facing Island, and which leads to the city of Gladstone.
The seas fronting the Queensland coast rarely exceed 60 feet in depth, and at one point Suka's depth sounder alarm suddenly bleated its awful warning. Because I had mounted the device belowdecks, well out of the companionway hatch's splash zone, Jenny scurried belowdecks to determine the sounder's reading. "Five feet!" she screeched. Considering that the sounder's transducer was positioned some three feet below the surface, a reading of five feet meant thus: 5' indicated, plus 3' submerged depth, minus 6-1/2' keel-draft, equals a mere 1-1/2' of water beneath the keel. Intent on reaching port before dusk, we were sailing full tilt, wing-and-wing, with the running strut well secured fore and aft, and supporting the big genoa far out to port, and with the main boom preventer retaining the vanged, full mainsail hard to starboard. Thus canvassed, Suka was plowing the waves while clenching a bone in her teeth, reeling along nearly at hull speed - this with an unspeakably paltry 1-1/2' of water beneath her keel. This was bad news.
“Sailing full tilt, Suka's depth sounder alarm suddenly bleated its awful warning.”
I veered away toward where might lay deeper water, and then ran forward to hand the mainsail and to apprise the situation. Reasoning for a moment, I considered that at the moment we were in a commercial shipping fairway, which was well marked with buoys, and which lead to a major industrial port. So how could shoals exist in such a place? Then the thought occurred: perhaps the depth sounder's indicator had gone full circle around the dial. This new instrument had not yet demonstrated some of its more intriguing idiosyncrasies. And indeed, when Jenny double checked the flasher, she found that the water's depth was five feet plus the full-scale's sixty feet. So the emergency ended then and there, with no harm done beyond the addition of a few more gray hairs to my growing collection.
Even so, it seems that fate was not through with us yet, for as I stood on the foredeck resetting the genoa, the foreguy snapped in front of my face, caught my clip-on dark glasses, and hurled them into the sea. And as if this was the day for unlikely events, Jenny was working on the starboard deck when the boom preventer snapped sharply, caught her wristwatch, and ripped it free of her arm. Into Davey Jones' locker went the recent birthday gift from my parents. This misfortune came as a terrible blow to the mate, and as expected, my condolences that at least the watch was waterproof did little to allay her sobbing.
Entering Auckland Creek, we moored to one of the pile berths fronting Gladstone. This arrangement, however, proved unsuitable with the port authorities, one of whom soon happened by and banished Suka to what the locals referred to as "the duck pond." This was a spacious harbor dredged from an expanse of smelter tailings. A more barren and gloomy wasteland would be hard to imagine, but at least it afforded the desired shelter.
Gladstone (zoom out to see South Channel)
The Gladstone environs soon proved themselves somewhat analogous to a trap-door spider's pit: easy to slide into, but difficult in the extreme to climb back out of. Our former intentions were to transit the adjacent and much touted Narrows, a channel passing between the mainland and Facing Island. But we now learned from the locals that the channel was so shallow that yachts in transit must await a spring high tide, and even then, a vessel of Suka's draft would find it a touch-and-go proposition; or perhaps worse, a touch-and-skid-to-a-halt one. Sailing downwind through the Narrows would have been a simple matter, were all to go well, but the Round Hill Creek episode had left us in no moods to risk grounding on a spring high, only to lie beneaped for two weeks. Two alternatives presented themselves, although neither held much attraction. One was to backtrack out the South Channel, forging into the remarkably unrelenting head winds and vicious chop. The second, and even less engaging option was to attempt to negotiate the shallow North Entrance.
“For a week the south-westerlies sent their knuckle sandwiches down the South Channel.”
For a week the south-westerlies sent their knuckle sandwiches down the South Channel. Temporarily waylaid, each day Jenny and I motored the dinghy on a 20 minute ride into town, and ambled the streets. We paid homage at the chandleries like dutiful yachtees, and we visited the library. And ill-disposed to rowing back to the duck pond, we exercised instead at a local gym, shedding the ennui before motoring home.
One morning the roguish weather seemed on the mend; so, eager to go we departed early. Backtracking out the South Channel, we motored Suka directly into the frothy combers. The oncoming chop pitched the ketch viciously, and each walloping crest slammed her bowsprit and catwalk down hard, and hurled a burst of spray in all directions. The conditions were wildly unpleasant, yet while Perkins strained mightily, the knot meter indicated a paltry speed of 1-1/2. However, the ketch was riding a favorable current, which increased her speed-made-good a few knots. The wind against tide helped account for the savage chop, but when the tide would soon change, then Suka would lose all of her favorable current, but little of the adverse seas. After pile driving slowly ahead for four hours, the bludgeoning grew so severe that the ship's structural integrity seemed in peril. Far short of the channel entrance, I could only concede a stalemate. Suka had fought a good fight, but King Neptune had bested her this time. Hope forfeited to the insuperables, we turned tail.
Now garbed in hard-drawing sails, the little brig fairly flew back to port. Even so, she reached the protected Duck Pond not until well after dark, and there her crestfallen crew collected the pendants of her former mooring, and bitted them home once again. One of the toughest days in Suka's chronicles had netted her no gain.
“One of the toughest days in Suka's chronicles had netted her no gain.”
The following day the weather worsened considerably, lessening the disagreeableness of our presence here in the protected anchorage.
A few days later the tempest abated, so, equipped with the appropriate charts and with a great deal of information gleaned from the locals, we departed with the intention of navigating the shallow North Entrance. Before long the first shallows presented themselves obdurately. The ship's sounder indicated a scant 12 inches of murky brine beneath her dancing keel, and with that, the challenge of undertaking a ten mile stretch of such shoal infested waters suddenly lost the whole of its intrigue. We turned back.
Not wishing to apply for permanent residence in Gladstone, we decided to attempt the South Channel once again. This time, the oncoming wind and chop proved not nearly as strong, and Suka eventually won back her previous turning point. A ways farther, we elected to leave the shipping channel, and to skirt the southern terminus of Facing Island by slipping through the expansive shoals well off-shore. This route would save us a great deal of bashing to weather. All went well until we encountered shallows, and soon found ourselves barricaded. Searching for the way through the coral reefs, we meandered hither and yon, until finally I managed to climb the wildly flailing mast, from where the way to deeper water lay revealed.
Reaching the offing
To her crew's inexpressible relief, Suka reached the offing. At last she had escaped the surreptitious maws of the duck pond. Waves were marching past rather large, and as the journal excerpts: Not having yet found our sea legs, we're both undergoing a touch of sailing wither. Nevertheless, the act of sailing at a fast rate, and in a favorable direction rejuvenated us, for despite the queasiness, it felt wonderful to be under way again.