From the Gold Coast to Lady Elliot

Tony Little combines work and pleasure when he cruises his Seawind 1000 from the Gold Coast to Lady Elliot Island to teach a first-aid course.

In addition to teaching Coxswains courses for the Gold Coast TAFE and invigilating radio courses for the Australian Maritime College I also teach first-aid courses. When Peter from Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort asked if I could put his staff through a course I decided the easiest way to get all the equipment up there was by boat — of course! — and combine teaching the course with a cruise up and back from the Gold Coast.

Three hundred nautical miles
From the Gold Coast to Lady Elliot Island in Hervey Bay is roughly 300nm. My wife Vicki and I had only 13 days to fit the return trip in. We knew we could do the trip in that time, but would there be enough time left for chillin’ and rum? There was only one way to find out.

We were determined to leave on the Monday after work even though the winds were still northerly so motored up to Blakesleys Anchorage at the bottom of Moreton Bay. Our Seawind 1000, Sunbird, gets along at six knots on its twin Yamaha 9.9hps, and we arrived at Blakesley by 10pm, anchored in the northerly, and drifted off to sleep.

Tuesday dawned with the northerlies still in, so we raised sail and tacked all the way to Tangalooma, arriving about 4pm — a very slow day. A southerly change was due that evening, so we went to bed early and were up early the next morning after the change came through to take advantage of it, heading out at 4.30am.

The SE wind coming over Moreton Island was giving us about eight knots speed over ground up the eastern channel with one reef tied down in preparation for the expected higher winds. By the time we were past the last red beacon we had both reefs in. By midday, and well past Mooloolaba, we had dropped the main altogether.

The autopilot doesn’t like 30 knots of wind from astern in four-metre seas. Hand-steering and surfing down the swells at up to 15 knots water speed was tiring, and although the dolphins looked really cool enjoying the pressure wave and jumping out of the water over the bows, we had to watch the swells and the wind — not the dolphins! We arrived at Double Island Point by 3.30pm. Seventy-eight miles in 11 hours — not a bad average!

Double Island Point
After the first anchorage just inside the point proved too swelly, we moved right over to where the 4×4 track from the ocean beach joins the Rainbow Bay area. Anchored in 1.4m of water at low tide, about 40m from the beach, it was protected here, right under the big sand dune, and we stayed for two nights, walked the beach, watched the turtles and dolphins and the antics of the four-wheel drivers vying for beach space each day as the high tide came in.

I have been up here a lot of times over the past 11 years, camping with the kids, and the large sand area had certainly shrunk since my last trip.

Going outside
Friday morning was overcast at the 3am anchor check, but the big southerly had nearly blown over, so we left early again. As we approached the Wide Bay bar the southerly swell was still a tad large, so we opted to go outside. Lunchtime saw us passing Indian Head, and as the sun set we were onto the Breaksea Spit. The true wind was down to 20 knots from the south, and the swells only two metres and not breaking anymore, but the current coming out of Hervey Bay is huge. The log showed up to eight knots water speed, but only five knots SOG. Relative wind was 5-15kt, and the combination of southerly wind, current out of the north-west, and water depths going from 200m-9m in a short distance, makes for a unique water surface. I can understand now why it is called “the washing machine”. This continued into the night until finally, by midnight, we turned westward — still into the current. There was no moon, but the starlight and phosphorescence were ample to move about deck.

Vicki and I did one hour on and one hour off and never tired of the view. The autopilot was working hard but holding course, but the battery drain was showing. I fetched our little 2KW gennie from the front locker, sat it on the tramp and fired it up, and let it run and charge batteries for a couple of hours. During this time we kept ever westward, the stars shining down, the water glowing, and Sunbird kept moving.

We arrived in the vicinity of Lady Elliot about 3am, but not wanting to anchor in the dark, selected an area about two nautical miles away, backed the jib, and hove to for a couple of hours’ quiet sleep. Three hours later, and we had drifted eight nautical miles. We motored back to Lady Elliot, dropped anchor in 15m of water on the western side near the dive boats, and had a quiet breakfast.

I was to put about a dozen of the resort staff through their advanced resuscitation courses over the next two days, so the RIB was pretty full on the way across to the resort. To the credit of SeaAir and Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort, they put any of their staff through the course who wanted to do it.

Diving and snorkelling
The diving is fantastic. Sleeping turtles drifting alongside the boat, and the water so still that the turtles’ backs had dried off during their slumbers. Huge fish everywhere, excellent coral, a little current flow mid-tide, and — as we were only in 15m of water — I could look down and check our anchor location and chain lay. With 55m of chain and 10m of rope out to allow for swing, it is nice to check you haven’t tangled a bommie — it is even easier when you can see the bommie without having to resort to mask and snorkel.

The snorkelling is also brilliant, and all off the beach. The resort is serviced and run by SeaAir out of Coolangatta, and has two flights a day from Hervey Bay and Coolangatta. It caters for about 120 people maximum, and has about 30 staff at any one time. There is a little souvenir shop, which has smallgoods, but as I was baking our own bread in the barbecue, we just bought some T-shirts. Other attractions include an excellent bistro, good bar, bird-watching, reef walking, snorkelling, diving, chillin’ — and rum! Accommodation is either tent-style or beach-hut style. There is a good machinery shed, well stacked diveshop, professional photographer on hand (g’day Adam) for your underwater shots, and did I mention the bar?

The history of the place makes good reading. It has been a guano mine, a bech-de-mere fishery, a lighthouse, and a national park. There are a number of small wrecks about the place too. Because Lady Elliot is in a marine exclusion zone all fishing gear must be kept inboard. Rods downstairs please! So the fish life is excellent and the fish are tame. The tourists here are mainly divers, about half of them from overseas. If you anchor too close to their reef, the divers will photograph your boat, call the EPA and GBRMPA, throw rocks at you and finally burn you to the waterline! Well, not that bad, but it is nice to know that people actually care — as the owners of another multihull found out who tried to park on the edge of the coral.

Heading south

So the weekend passed, the courses finished, and the high-pressure system moved across. Monday dawned with NW winds, so rather than beat to Lady Musgrave, we left the lee shore at daybreak, and under a full main and screecher, headed south to Urangan. The autopilot did all the work, except when I had to manually helm to dodge whales.

We arrived at Urangan just as the afternoon nor’easter was setting in, so we called Great Sandy Straits Marina on channel 28, and took a berth. An old diving buddy of mine lives here, so I rang him and organised a wee session of sundowners.

Next morning Vicki and I set off for a walk. Thinking that Urangan must be a smallish kind of place, we pushed on to the supermarket and back. What an effort. Urangan extends into the surrounding area of Hervey Bay, which has a TAFE, hospital, schools, shopping centres, two marinas, with a third one planned, and a large fleet of whale boats. Land prices are half the Gold Coast equivalent, and we bought a bunch of real estate info back with us. After years of battling Blackwatches on the broadwater, the boating up Hervey Bay way is rather more sedate. At least it is not a full-contact sport on the weekends, and most of the people seem to actually know what the red and green beacons are for.

The marina cost us just over $40 for the evening, which included water, power and garbage disposal. We bought two loaves of bread for the boat, and two cups of coffee and juice at the café, but the full “latte with ocean view” thing is happening here.

Tacking down the straits
Next morning with a SE breeze starting up, we left and tacked our way down the Great Sandy Straits. The tidal flow is considerable, given the 2.5m tides, and you can expect to be pushing into two knots of current if you don’t plan well. We anchored past the Ceratodus wreck. The area to the south of the anchorage is large and shallow, surrounded on three sides by sandbars and so out of the current and very quiet. We shared the anchorage with maybe six other vessels (well spaced out) and spent the last hour of the evening sitting in the sailbag, looking at the stars and listening to Bond. What a night.

I sometimes liken sailing to diving. Out of every 10 dives, one is great, one is awful and eight are average. Out of every 100 dives, one is absolutely fantastic, one will nearly kill you, and the rest are in the middle. So it is with sailing. The thing is — if you don’t do the 100, you will never experience the best, nor will you become more experienced at handling the worst.

Snout Point
The next morning we slept in, and only covered about 15nm. Garrys Anchorage was chocka, so we anchored early afternoon just offshore at Snout Point. Inside of the sandbar is inside the current line and has good mud holding and an excellent little sand beach at high tide. This is a good spot in all but a westerly, when you will be on a lee shore. Another evening watching the sun set behind the boat. It is a hard life, but someone has to do it.

The water in the southern end of the Great Sandy Straits is always a little muddy, with the current flowing out of Hervey Bay, the tides, and gravity trying to squeeze it all out over the Wide Bay Bar, which we crossed on the rising tide the next morning.

The Wide Bay Bar

I have crossed the Tweed Bar and the Southport Seaway many times. Short, sharp and to the point. Wide Bay Bar is a little longer. From the moment when we donned our obligatory lifejackets as we neared the car barges heading over to Fraser, it was an hour until we got them off again. The leads out are easy to follow, and although it is a little washing-machine-ish, it was easier than the Breaksea Spit at night. The bottomography tells the story — the southerly swells coming in from deep water suddenly meet the approach sandbars at four metres of depth, and big ones can stand up out of nowhere, so you need to keep your wits about you and both hands on the wheel. It is not a place for autopilots.

We crossed the Wide Bay Bar at 10.30am with four yachts in front of us. With one reef in and the little jib up, we headed south and had passed one and caught another before we reached Double Island Point. Before Mooloolaba we had passed the other two. Not that it was a race, but hey! The light northerly was about 15 knots true, so with the reacher pulled across to the other bow, and the main goose-winged, we were doing 6-8 speed over ground on autopilot. We had to turn the motors on for a few hours after lunch until the afternoon breeze picked up, but otherwise all was good. We kept on and arrived back at Tangalooma Roads by midnight, anchoring before 1am — 110nm in 15 hours.

The next two days we spent diving the wrecks of Tangalooma and meeting up with Ross and family on another Seawind on their first overnighter. Saturday we set off home in a stronger northerly. It took us four hours to make Peel, Canaipa, and we arrived home at Paradise Point the next afternoon.

So we had safely completed our first night passage in big seas, and the Seawind handled it beautifully. Just like the diving — if you don’t do the 100, you will never experience the good ones, so get out there.

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