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Whitsundays, part 2

January 30, 2013

When I was a kid, I sometimes skied The Magic Mile, a mile-long run down the face of Mount Hood. To me it was magical because you felt like you were skiing from the mountaintop to its bottom–and because I was only allowed on it when the sky was the shade of bluebirds and the snow was light and loose. To older skiers it must have been magical because in under an hour, that light, loose snow could turn to Cascade concrete and those bluebird skies could turn to crow black.

I’m reminded of this because we’re now sailing in the Whitsundays, just inside the Great Barrier Reef, and the area bible bears the title 100 Magic Miles. As we’ve discovered over the course of a 8-day sail, it is magical not just for its pure turquoise waters, lushly green and empty islands, and cartoon-bright coral and fish (see part 1). It’s also magical for the speed at which a sunny, rail-riding sail can turn into a drenching slog into a safe harbor to wait out predicted downpours and 40-knot gusts.

This, we have learned, is what happens when you sail off the eastern coast of Australia in January. Cyclone season.

We knew there was the possibility that the trip north to meet an unknown boat and her captain may never get out of the marina. But after doing just such a thing in the middle of the South Pacific a couple of months ago, we figured it was worth a try. Sure, it’s cyclone season, but we’re only cruising the coast. And the area hasn’t been hit in ages. And we would be joining a private boat that would give us the freedom to skirt any weather, rather than joining a charter that crammed dozens of backpackers aboard, rain or shine. And who knew when we would have another chance to see The Reef.

This last bit was the most important–and the only point we made with my father, who probably blanched when he saw on Fox News that ex-Cyclone Oswald was in our area. Sorry, Dad.


On our end, the first hint of the gale came on our fifth evening, when we watched rain drench Whitsunday Island in the distance as we sat under a glorious sunset in the wide bay of Shaw Island. By the next day, the weather service was predicting high winds and rain from the edge of the waning tropical storm. So we pulled anchor to sail for a sheltered inlet where our good Captain Steve and his copy of 100 Magic Miles knew we could, as they say, weather the storm.

And we did. By the time wind and rain roared through, we were tucked in a narrow, protective channel on a secure hook, watching the storm from behind the large (for a yacht) windows encircling the O’Carol’s “deck salon.” We read. We fixed snacks and meals. We played Scrabble and cards. We ventured on deck between squalls and tracked the storm on radar. Without the waves we would have encountered in a more open bay, the boat barely rocked under 30-knot winds, just enough on the upswing to glimpse hills densely packed with misty conifers. It felt like sitting out some rain in a camper in the Pacific Northwest. Only warmer.

In the end, it wasn’t big, bad, and scary. Perhaps because all our technology and devices told us we wouldn’t get hit hard. Perhaps because the boat we were on was as sound and well cared for as she was well appointed. For me, perhaps the lack of fear came more from ignorance than courage. And maybe the sound of rain on the roof as I looked across gray-green water to deep green trees just felt like home.



As we learned when the storm appeared to have passed, it also wasn’t scary because our sheltered bay was even more protective than we realized. We pulled up our anchor in water so calm it could have been a lake and motored to the head of the inlet hoping for a breath of wind to cool us. We got that and more when we met the main channel–25-knot winds carried us back to the marina at Arlie Beach, where the shoreline of Pioneer Bay was littered with the wreckage of 30 boats that had broken their moorings and run aground. A couple on sandy beaches looked recoverable, but many had hit the rocky jetties in the bay. Our captain looked at his former neighbors and decided to leave his boat tied securely in the marina rather than to its mooring ball until his next adventure–and that our timing had been perfect after all.


4 Comments leave one →
  1. Bob Jellison permalink
    January 31, 2013 8:43 am

    Even though we live with our instant inter connected world daily, watching live reports from the opposite side of the world. Its always somewhat of a mind bender for me to sit home on a standard issue gray Montana winter morning after reading my morning paper and then enjoying your stories as presented by electrical currents on my screen. Last night I was reading in a book, yes a real live hold in your hands pass it around paper one, called Freakanomics about hurrricanes and cyclones which showed visually the historic paths of both. Thought briefly of you guys but being disconnected by distance, if not communication, forgot you were on the coast and never considered that you had sat through one a couple days back. It is a classic tale from Travel’s with George as far as I’m concerned. The personal connection makes it real and it takes very little imagination for me to sit on the rail under twenty-five knot winds returning to harbor with you, until I walk out the door to the shop and begin dealing with polyurathane that isn’t behaving because of the cold. With very little effort we could touch base with Pettingal in Antartica which would immediately place my head at Sperry Chalet and start my feet skinning up the nearest peak. Enough time travel for this morning, reality and the mortgage are waiting at the door. Thanks again.


  1. You say tornado, I say cyclone | The JulieBook
  2. Whitsundays | Ditch the Dog
  3. Whitsundays, part 1 « Ditch the Dog

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