Sailing with the Smallwoods: Hitting the cruising highway

by Sharon Smallwood

Leaving Bundaberg at the end of July, I had assumed we'd be a little late in the season to find many other boats, especially this far south. Surely those with any sense would have already escaped the winter chills, or better still left long before they came to bite.

Our progress north was initially slow. Two days out of Bundy and there were northerly winds. “Someone tell me this is really Queensland in July,” I moaned to Julian. “It's utterly freezing, there's not a single humpback whale and now we've got four days of nor'easters.”

We resolved to hole up in Pancake Creek to wait out the weather. Here to my surprise was a flotilla of cruising boats; 14 on the first night, nine on the second, back into double figures on the third, and many of them heading north.

Making a break for it on day five, I donned my ski-jacket for the crossing of Cape Capricorn, casting envious glances at my two cats with their warm fur coats.

Three boats (Brilliant II included) spent a blustery night rolling miserably at Cape Capricorn, necessitating an early morning evacuation. Our destination for the day was Great Keppel. As we rounded the island's northwest tip I was amazed at the sight before me. Here was a small armada.

We had just set the anchor when a dinghy approached. “Hello Brilliant II. There's a barbecue on the beach at 3 o'clock. A few of us thought this was a good opportunity to get together, especially now there's so many boats.”

“What a great idea,” I thought out loud. Too often these days we see our fellow cruisers as “invading our space”. Yes there are many more boats on the water than ever before (particularly since the advent of GPS) and yes, cruising is not as solitary a pastime as perhaps it used to be, but sociability is part of the package too and what better way to break the ice than with something like this.

At 3pm we dinghied ashore, catching up with old friends and making new ones. Our little bottleneck had been caused by the closure in Shoalwater Bay to the north. Whenever the Australian Army conducts live firing exercises the popular cruising destinations of Port Clinton and Pearl Bay become off-limits to recreational boats. As soon as the Shoalwater Bay area re-opened our merry group disbanded, but continuing north we would now recognise other boats and their crews.

Our last destination off the Curtis Coast was Middle Percy Island. Here we spent an uncommonly comfortable night in West Bay, usually renowned for its interminable roll. Julian rigged a bridle to our anchor chain, through which he was able to winch us bow-on to the gentle swells.

Ashore we revisited the legendary A-frame shack where our own contribution to the cruising hall of fame (a driftwood carving) was left on New Year's Day in 2007. Thanks to the new leaseholders and a team of volunteers, the Percy Hilton has been significantly cleaned up since our last visit and is also now sporting a new roof.

Brilliant II had only a couple of racing yachts for company as she departed Middle Percy. Most of our cruising counterparts were staying on to explore the Percy Islands, Dukes, Curlew and Mackay.

Next on the agenda for the Smallwoods are the islands of the Whitsundays. Here we will converge with a different kind of fleet as the contenders for Hamilton Island Race Week begin to arrive. It might even warm up enough to begin shedding some of those winter woollies. Who knows…

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