The ketch fairly flew past Cape Bedford, Low Wooded Isle, and Cape Flattery - each offering a possible respite. And after covering 54 miles she reached Lizard Island, at 1:30 pm. Rounding into its lee and now sailing close hauled, she bore in with the land and held it as close abeam as safety permitted. Then once down-wind of the anchorage she clawed her way sail-less toward shore, while bucking an impossibly fierce head wind that funneled over the island. Eventually she gained the anchorage: a bight well protected from the waves that characteristically wrap around any small island. And with so little fetch, the water here was flat, despite the remarkably heavy off-shore blow.
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Because Lizard Island stands 17 miles from the mainland, its waters are far less turbid. The underwater clarity was not comparable to the pristine, sparkling waters of Tonga, Ndravuni, and other isolated Pacific islands we had visited, but here it was far preferable to the roily murk of the Queensland coast.
After pulling ashore and ambling about the beach front, we visited the nearby resort in hopes of buying a couple of cold drinks. The near total dearth of hotel guests, though, hampered our blending-in; the management immediately singled us out as boat riffraff. "This is private property and we cater only to our guests," the fellow stated curtly. And I had to admit that we represented no appreciable income.
Lizard hoping for a handout.
On the hotel grounds we met a lizard, some 3-1/2 feet in length, sunning itself on the lawn. Rather than scurry away at our intrusion, it cautiously held its ground, as though hoping for a hand-out.
A wind sculpted tree near Cook's Look.
The day following we ventured ashore again, and found a trail that penetrated the thickets and led up the steep mountainside. A sign read "Track to Cook's Look. Hikers are advised to carry water." As the track led ever upward, the anchorage fell away, and the views expanded dramatically. A long, heavily wooded ridge led to the windy summit, slightly more than a thousand feet above sea level. In 1770 the indomitable Captain Cook had climbed this peak, and from its vantage had "perceived the passage" through the outer reefs, through which he would sail his ship Endeavor. Indeed, Cook's passage was clearly visible as a gap between two expansive, submerged coral reefs lying far off-shore.
Virtually everywhere along the east coast of Australia where Captain Cook had landed now stood a placard commemorating the historic event. But here there was only a summit register. The last entry read: "We endeavored and now we're cooked," referring, of course, to the taxing ascent.
Trackless descent from Cook's Look, we have a good view of the anchorage.
The descent of the mountain's opposite side was trackless. A short distance from the top lay a large circle of rocks reputed as a ceremonial ground of early aborigines. Down we went, stumbling through knee-high, dense grass obscuring loose rocks, until at last we reached the seashore. This remote sector of the island appeared to be seldom frequented, and we collected a few attractive sea shells and a large glass-ball float.
The pellucid waters of Lizard Island.
Howick Island (Mislabeled).
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Departing the next morning, Suka lashed along with a 20-knot quartering wind, and arrived at Howick Island in the early afternoon. This was a jumping off point for the long stretch to the next anchorage, so the brig would tarry the night here. The holding was uncertain, and the island uninviting - being beachless and thickly covered in mangroves to water's edge. So for once we remained aboard.
The radio was disseminating gale warnings for the area, and the wind already had grown ferocious. The night was long and rough; Suka bounced and gyrated so wildly in the confused seas that sleeping was out of the question; nevertheless, we were most thankful for what protection the island afforded. By 3 a.m. the conditions began slackening, allowing us 2-1/2 hours of sleep.
At dawn the brig made good her departure, her crew anticipating a wild day at sea but anticipating prospects of better shelter at Flinders Island, 52 miles farther on. Sailing coastwise from Borrow Point to Cape Melville proved an exacting navigational exercise. A horizon-blanketing haze obscured the distant channel markers. So we spent most of the day insuring that Suka held to the restricted inner shipping channel - this by plotting cross bearings of land forms identifiable on the chart.
Here, the hand-held compass proved its worth. As an aside, many brands of hand-held compasses have an unacceptable swing-error aboard a pitching, rolling, and heaving ship; and incidentally, I had found it impossible to simulate this motion in the store, while comparing the various models. But having owned a few of the less expensive types, I knew that their cards, which were steady enough in calm conditions, became disconcertingly animated when the seas roughened.
We were now plying the shipping lane. The steamers were few, but each one gave us a generous dose of adrenaline. Because barely submerged coral reefs threatened on both sides, we dared not stray too far from the fairway in yielding to the big ships. Invariably, though, the captains of these mammoth vessels proved alert, and afforded us plenty of berth.
“The sail refused to douse, so the pole attached to it commenced acting like a battering ram gone berserk.”
Boisterous conditions are to be anticipated when nearing any great cape during burly conditions. Accordingly, as she rounded Cape Melville, Suka encountered ever increasing wind and seas. But as we were dowsing the headsail, the flogging canvas hour-glassed around the headstay. I had not yet learned to reeve the jib sheet through the eye in the whisker pole's end-fitting. Instead, I had simply attached the fitting to the jib's clew. And now because the sail refused to douse, the pole attached to it commenced acting like a battering ram gone berserk. Its forward end was out of my reach, and its after end was attempting to bash the smithereens out of anything in its way. Eventually I managed to wrestle the spar into submission, and remove it from the sail, but not before it had kicked a few dents in a fiberglass dorade vent. Then what little sail I managed to subdue, I lashed to the catwalk.
(From that day on, we attached a topping lift, a foreguy, and an afterguy to the pole. And we reeved the jib sheet slidably through the pole's end-fitting. In this way, the headsail was more or less a separate entity from the pole, and in a heavy blow, the task of dousing each, in turn, was far easier.)
Rounding the headland into its lee, we found not calmer conditions as expected, but fierce winds and incredibly steep, confused seas. This environment was unquestionably hostile. With her deep reefed mainsail paid well out, and with her jib wrapped inoperatively about the headstay, Suka's weather helm was nearly unmanageable, yet in the fury of the moment we were unable to hoist a balancing staysail. Despite my wrestling mightily with the wheel, a few times the ketch broached hard, swerving calamitously out of control. Each time she plummeted down the face of a breaking wave and rolled ponderously onto her beam end, slashing the main boom into the water and bulldozing green water with her lee deck. Concealed reefs lay downwind, preventing our sailing off the wind, so our only option was to persevere.
Once in more open water, my brave companion crawled forward to clear the jib. She worked on the thrashing, wave-swept bowsprit for 15 minutes, while I wrestled the helm like Attila the Hun. Then after the mate had cleared and re-hoisted the jib, I winched home its sheet, and at last Suka found her equilibrium. With control of the ship regained, I was free to shoot a few compass bearings and to plot our approximate position. Meanwhile, Suka flung herself through the reef infested seas, the occasional rogue wave engulfing her, beam on. Twice the hull was sucked down into a smother of foam, both decks submerging together! The sensation was literally a sinking one, but each time, the seething maelstrom lost its grip and Suka struggled free.
Then while approaching Flinders Island the incredible happened. The wind hushed to a whisper, the seas flattened, and the brig coasted nearly to a standstill. Incredulous, we sat aboard the ketch as it bobbed gently on the now placid water, her storm sails deeply reefed. Distrustfully, we waited, expecting the gale to suddenly knock the sailboat hard over once again. But it did not.
There was nothing for it but to shake out the mainsail and rouse the engine, and thus Suka motor-sailed through the Owen Channel between Flinders and Stanley Islands - both, incidentally, named for early explorers of the area. And as if the ordeal had been but a figment of the imagination, the hook slipped into perfectly calm water on its way to the bottom; the roadstead was striking in its utter serenity.
Flinders Island Fuel barge
Two beam trawlers swayed lazily to their anchors in the distance, while close at hand floated a red barge, unattended and moored to the sea bed. That night we would dub this barge "The Midnight Surprise."
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In the middle of that coal-black night a hoard of beam trawlers converged upon the barge, congregating to unload their prawns and to resupply their crews with fresh stores. Tonight happened to be party night for the fishermen, most of whom were having a jag on. We should have moved, but I was in no mood to be roused by these scalawags, so stood fast and defended our position doggedly. Clearly though, Suka was at the disadvantage, for each of the dozens of trawlers outweighed her perhaps 20 to one. One behemoth reversed nearly into her bowsprit, and when only a few yards away its prodigious engines erupted, its stern hunkered low, and its prop blast sent the brig reeling. The trawler lumbered slowly away leaving me wondering if the act had been an inebriated close call, or an aggressive prank. A few hours later, though, they had all gone away.
The Midnight Surprise Anchorage was probably to remain altogether quiescent for another week, but we weren't taking any chances. So at the crack of dawn the brig's crew relocated her from the grisly barge, sailing around Stanley Island, only to come upon some 20 trawlers peppering Stokes Bay. In quest of solitude, we shifted half-a-mile north to an empty cove, and after securing the ketch, we pulled ashore and explored afoot what small portion of the hinterland proved penetrable.