Gale force winds, 10-foot swells challenge four from L.A. during Great Barrier Reef ‘cruise’
August, 2000: Hayman Island, and others
MY FAVORITE POSITION: At the helm, during stormy weather, I wear a bulky oilskin for protection from the elements.
AS WE cleared the channel between Hook and Hayman islands in the Whitsundays Group off the northeast Australia coast, the weather deteriorated rapidly. The sky darkened with heavy clouds portending rain. Visibility dropped as the light dimmed. The wind picked up to about 25 knots (almost 30 mph) from the southeast.
Jim Pekkala, 42, of Van Nuys was asleep on the foredeck of Scallywag, the 41-foot Sunsail Oceanis I was skippering. Hollywood residents John Lammi, 50, and Rob Howard-Flanders, 43, were both below in the saloon. I was the only one on watch, a major mistake.
WARNING: This post is about 4,500 words. Pull up an easy chair, relax, and enjoy the adventure.
I was searching the shoreline for the moorings indicated on the chart. Previously, I had always had other stationary vessels to guide me towards the moorings. There was only one in sight dead ahead, so I set a course for it meanwhile scanning the shore for any sign of an anchorage.
A few hundred feet from my target, I saw it was anchored, not moored.
I suddenly realized we had gone too far and swung the wheel hard to port, almost reversing direction but heading towards the shore.
A few moments later, there was a loud thud and a sickening, grinding sound.
The keel dragged on the coral and Scallywag came to a dead stop as we hit the reef.
It was like hitting a wall.
My instinctive reaction was to give her full throttle and try to sail off the reef, but we only got more firmly stuck.
The crew bounded into the cockpit, yelling at me and each other.
I gunned the motor but to no avail.
I was at a loss, so panicked that my mind stopped functioning.
This definitely was my darkest moment as skipper.
After perhaps a couple of minutes floundering around with Scallywag sitting atop the reef, Rob stepped into the breach.
CLEANING UP: Among the skipper’s many responsibilities are making sure the stern is ship-shape. Warren cleans Scallywag’s rear end, fouled up by all the coming and going in the dinghy.
His vastly greater experience afloat was just what I needed.
He grabbed the jib sheet and began to unfurl the sail.
As the wind filled the jib, it lifted the keel just enough, perhaps only half an inch. I saw what Rob was doing and gunned the engine again, swinging the wheel with all my might hard out to sea. We sailed off the reef.
The relief was palpable.
I hung my head in shame as the unspoken insults were silently hurled in my direction. I deserved all of them, I guess.
Mentally, I blamed my failure to have anyone else on watch, but that was a feeble excuse. I had gotten lost, disoriented and screwed up. It doesn’t get any worse than this.
Fortunately, on what had already become the adventure of a lifetime, it didn’t.
AFTER a grueling 36-hour trip from our homes in Southern California, we had arrived two days earlier on Hamilton Island, the largest resort in the Whitsundays and base for Sunsail Australia, from whom I had chartered Scallywag. Normally, this is one of the most idyllic bareboat yacht chartering destinations in the world
Scallywag is a terrific cruising yacht, a superb example of the fine craftsmanship and state-of-the-art technology for which Beneteau is internationally famous. With three double cabins, she draws almost 6 feet and is rigged with a 150% roller-furling Genoa, a headsail 1½ times as large as the main sail.
We left Hamilton harbor around 9:30 a.m. on our first day float, setting a northwesterly course for South Molle Island on the Queensland side of the Whitsunday Passage.
The weather was tougher than anything we’d encountered off the Southern California coast, with winds of 15-20 knots and swells 4-5 feet. Consquently, what I thought would be a nine-mile trip turned out to be almost 18 miles, taking almost 3 hours at about 7 knots.
After we dropped anchor in Bauer Bay, I sat on the swimstep my toes gingerly testing the water, but it was much too cold for me.
A magnificent 36-foot racing yacht glided into the anchorage passing so close we could clearly see the faces of all the crewmen aboard KA-1, also known as Australia One, which I had last seen on television during the trials for this year’s America’s Cup.
It was a lovely sight to behold, and made me feel like we had finally arrived in the mental space of adventure yachting that I had eagerly anticipated for the last eight months.
After lunch, Jim, John and I took the dinghy ashore where we were to have our first close encounter with the coral reef. During the hour we were there, the tide dropped dramatically.
I hadn’t realized that we’d sailed directly over a reef to reach the spot on the beach where we landed, but fortunately while I was waiting for the others I had seen a large ferry arrive and pull up next to the jetty so I knew there was a deep channel next to it.
As we set out back to Scallywag, the rubber and plastic dinghy literally bounced off the reef, freaking us all out. Instinctively I headed directly for the jetty and its channel, but we continued to bounce off the reef for about 200 feet before we finally reached deeper water.
WE made upwards of 7 knots north-northwest to Refuge Bay inside Nara Inlet where we spent an uneventful evening at anchor.
The weather forecast for our second day afloat was for southeast winds 15-20 knots, with a 6-foot swell. We headed for Butterfly Bay on the north side of Hook Island.
As soon as we cleared Nara Inlet, the weather was as forecast – wind about 20 knots, the swell 4-6 feet. The tide was pulling south, and we were heading north.
The opposing tide and wind forces exaggerated the swell, dragging us hither and yon as we struggled to maintain a course around the western side of Hook Island.
At the helm, I was more than a little alarmed by the 35-40 degree heel of Scallywag. She kept heading up into the wind and there was no response from the wheel.
Because of the heel, the rudder was mostly sticking out into the air. Even with the wheel all the way over, she’d not respond until the wind pressure on the sail dropped sufficiently (as we headed up) to lower the hull back into the water.
We were flying along at almost 8 knots, but unable to sail on course. Rob furled the jib about half way.
This helped noticeably, and started me on a new line of thinking: I began to realize we might be overpowered for the strength of the winds and swell/tide combination. This was a new situation for me; I’d never before been forced by heavy weather to reduce sail, so I had to chew on it for awhile.
In the meantime, we had truly a wild ride as I virtually lost control of Scallywag. She was heeling with the gunwales in the water. Swells cascaded over the bow, into the sails and along the decks, soaking us all.
She’d head up into the wind, heeling wildly.
Suddenly the pressure on the sail would drop and she’d head back on course and a level aspect. The next minute another gust would heel her over and again she’d head up into the wind, the rudder rendered useless.
ROB and I traded helm duty; it was hard labor, physically demanding.
We both struggled frantically to figure it out. Finally we agreed that we had too much sail on for the strength of the wind.
So we reefed the main to its second setting (leaving less than two-thirds of the total sail area in use) and completely furled in the jib.
Only then did we manage to maintain a course due west, heading towards Double Cone Island. Despite such a small amount of sail up, we were still racing along at 7 knots.
Our northeasterly passage past Stonehaven Bay and through the two channels between Hook and Hayman Islands was smooth.
We moored in Butterfly Bay where Jim and I took our first dive. It was awesome. We hugged the shoreline near the rocks.
The ocean floor was covered with coral, some of it a vivid cobalt blue but much of it bleached by pollutants. There were fish in every direction, massive quantities of them. I identified Regal Angel Fish, Blue Pullers and Harlequin Tusk Fish – for me, the most beautiful with their vertical rainbow stripes.
There were probably dozens of other varieties, but these are the ones that etched themselves into my memory so I could match their pictures and names later.
After lunch, we motored back towards the anchorage in Stonehaven Bay, our destination for the evening that we’d passed that morning. So we got into position for our second and most dramatic encounter with the reef — for Scallywag’s skipper, indubitably the lowest point on this seven-day voyage of self-discovery.
MOMENTS after sailing off the coral, we picked up a mooring and settled in for the evening as the storm intensified around us.
I was depressed about hitting the reef, mentally saying sayonara to the $1,500 bond I had posted for Scallywag.
I prayed that I had not done any structural damage to the hull, and constantly checked the bilge but it remained dry as a bone.
At least we were not sinking.
It was raining with 25-knot winds when we finally gave up trying to get some rest as the dawn broke on our third day afloat.
The skies were gray and overcast. Our 8:45 a.m. radio check with Sunsail was inaudible because the foul weather and an obstructed line-of-sight broke up the VHF signal. We didn’t catch the weather forecast; perhaps if we had, this would have changed our plans.
After breakfast, we headed south for Hook Island Passage and after it the open sea between Whitsunday Island and our lunch destination, Cateran Bay on Border Island. In the passage, the weather became deceptively calm.
There was virtually no wind and no swell. Ahead, we could see some white caps, but our inexperience led us to believe they were mild.
As we rounded the northernmost point of Whitsunday Island, the weather worsened.
We were less than a mile offshore when the most intense storm of the entire trip hit us. The southeast wind increased to 30 knots with gusts well over gale force. John had the helm.
Clearly he was having fun, working the wheel back and forth to ride the increasingly large waves coming mostly from the south.
I told John to keep the bow pointed directly into the swell, but later realized this may not have been the best instruction.
I am still a bit unsure of how to handle such big seas.
With the bow aimed directly at the swell, we’d soar into the air and crash down with a thud on the other side, spray soaking every one and every thing on deck. If we rode them at about a 45-degree angle, the ride was a lot smoother but the enormity of the waves threatened to lift the side of Scallywag and capsize us.
WITH the onset of the storm, all of us above deck donned our yellow oilskins for the first time.
These are knee-length, hooded waterproof suits treated with an oily substance, much like most sea birds’ feathers excrete to afford protection from water. They really do keep one dry.
Aware of the dangerous conditions, for the first and only time I put on a Personal Flotation Device, also known as a life jacket. It’s a cumbersome, orange buoyancy vest equipped with a whistle and a canister of orange dye, the latter for attracting attention and marking your location if you inadvertently become a “man overboard.” I grabbed two extras, one each for Jim and John.
I set the only course that seemed possible: directly into the swell and wind, heading for the lee of Dumbell Island, slightly more than half way between Whitsunday and Border islands.
The swell was really tossing us around, white water waves crashing over the bow drenching everything.
We were tightly battened down, of course, and Scallywag handled it beautifully, riding the waves with measured steadiness.
We could not have asked for a finer vessel. She performed with grace, instilling confidence in all of us.
It did not rise to my consciousness until much later, but at this time I overcame what is perhaps the biggest demon to be conquered by all who would sail on the oceans.
Without even knowing it, I had dispensed with whatever fear I may have had about the sea, focusing with all my energy on riding it out and marshaling the crew to do the same. It just never occurred to me to be frightened.
THIS self-realization was my most significant accomplishment of the trip. I continue to have a healthy respect for the elements and the forces nature can unleash. On several occasions during the voyage I certainly had good reason to be afraid, and have paused since to reflect on how remarkable it was that at no time did I consciously experience fear.
The sea and the storm hurled one challenge after another at all of us, but we rose to the occasion focusing intently on the tasks at hand, not even allowing thoughts of failure to enter our minds.
John, still at the helm, was smiling.
He was having more fun than ever, working the wheel from left to right and back again.
Jim, next to him, too was enjoying the ride, beaming.
The water poured from our oilskins, the wind chill and driving rain burned our faces but we were calm and serene as could be while the storm raged about us.
It’s the only way to travel. We had arrived in, and survived, the altered state of consciousness only these conditions could engender.
We were fighting wind, waves and tide toward Dumbell Island, inching – it seemed – slowly forward. Of course our sense of time was totally out of whack, but eventually my strategy paid off.
As we approached the island, the calm within the lee settled upon us. There was probably an audible sigh of relief all around, but no sounds could be heard above the roar of the wind and waves.
The storm was abating, its intensity dropping fast when we moored in Cateran Bay. John, Jim and I wasted no time heading ashore for a snorkeling excursion.
Still in my wetsuit, I dove to inspect Scallywag’s underside. The paint on the protruding bulb at the bottom to the leaden, sail-shaped keel was seriously scraped.
Luckily, this appeared to be the only damage. The rest of the keel was intact, and there was no visible damage to the hull or the rudder.
ON the open sea after lunch, heading back through Hook Island Passage to the shelter of Cid Harbor, we unfurled half the jib. The storm had decreased considerably, with the wind down to a still-strong 25 knots and the swell about 6 feet.
We were heading with the wind in the same direction as the swell so we could virtually surf the waves with the push from the wind astern.
Even with just such a small amount of sail, we were still flying along at more than 8 knots, a truly memorable sensation none of us had ever before experienced.
In less than half an hour we rounded the north end of Whitsunday Island, dropped the sail and motored westward through the passage.
After a hair-raising encounter with a “flukey wind,” we reached Cid Harbor where we spent a calm and peaceful third night afloat.
TROPICAL COCKTAILS: Jim and Warren toast one another in a recliner on the beach.
OUR fourth day aboard Scallywag, the forecast was for what in the U.S. would be a Small Craft Advisory: southeast winds 20-25 knots in the morning, increasing to 25-30 knots in the afternoon with 10-foot swells on the open sea.
Jim, at the helm on the way to our lunch stop at Hamilton Island harbor, pointed out to me what looked like a ridge in the ocean far to the south.
Triangulating, I guessed it was in an east-west line between the southern tip of Dent Island and the mainland. It could only be one thing: the open sea, with its predicted 10-foot swells.
As we exited the harbor after a flawless slip departure, I headed northeast towards Palm Bay Hideaway Resort on Long Island, our overnight destination.
We unfurled half the jib, leaving the mainsail down.
On a west-northwest heading, winds at 25 knots and the swell about 6 feet, we flew along at more than 7 knots.
John was at the helm as the weather deteriorated. Rain clouds were closing in from the southeast, visibility dropping as the light dimmed.
It became almost impossible to distinguish among the different land masses ahead of us because of the limited light. It all seemed like one landmass, the mainland, though we knew there was at least one island between us and Queensland.
I decided to stick to a west-northwest compass heading until we were close enough to the land to visually find the northern passage around Long Island.
I regretted not plotting a fix for Palm Bay on the GPS; this would have eliminated any doubt about our course, but it was virtually impossible while Scallywag was heeling at almost 30 degrees and being tossed about on the swell.
ABOUT two-thirds of the way across the Whitsunday Passage, I went below to get lunch.
As I did, Rob – who had been in the saloon reading – went up the companionway. From the galley I heard him shout, “You’re heading to the wrong island! I can’t leave you alone for a minute …”
The last remark was meant in jest, and I realized this. But I wasn’t ready for what happened next.
Rob commandeered the helm and ordered a tack. Scallywag heeled wildly as she came about, and the food I’d taken from the refrigerator was tossed all over the saloon. I barely saved myself from the same fate.
At this point, I was not at all sure if Rob was right. I had not been heading to any specific island, just holding a compass course until we could get a visual fix on the land.
What Rob had seen as he came atop was a channel clearly demarcating an island almost due south of us.
Jumping to the conclusion that this was Long Island and we were sailing past it to the mainland, he ordered the change in course.
Having lost my appetite, I returned to the cockpit still unsure about where we were and where we were heading, so I gave Rob the benefit of the doubt and we sailed south toward the island for about 45 minutes.
As we entered the channel, I scanned the shoreline looking for markers but there were one.
John and Jim pored over the “100 Magic Miles” chart of Long Island, still convinced this was what was now directly off the port beam.
A few minutes away, I could see a headland and assumed the first of the three anchorages would come into view as we cleared it.
I noted with some concern a distinct increase in the swell and definite freshening of the wind.
We rounded the headland and saw – the open sea.
This was the end of the island. We were all stunned.
I quickly put Jim on the helm and dashed below to consult the Sunsail chart.
Like a bolt of lightning it hit me: We had just sailed past Pine Island and were heading out to the open sea where the swells were running at 10 feet and the wind was reaching gale force.
I must have almost grabbed the wheel from Jim and swung hard to starboard as I explained the situation.
I wanted a due west course so we could round the southern tip of Long Island as tightly as possible in the shortest amount of time.
It was at least three miles till we cleared the island and could head into the calmer waters of Long Island Sound. (No, I was not so lost that I thought we were near Manhattan!)
Huge swells were now breaking over the stern on the port side, drenching us all every minute or two.
Thankfully, we were all in oilskins.
The best I could do was get a south-southwest heading, riding the swells at about 20 degrees, but that was all I dared because they were so big they threatened to capsize us if I allowed them to strike amidships.
So we slowly motored across the tide and swells, still heading away from our destination.
It took a tense half hour on this roller coaster to clear the southern end of Long Island. Then we headed into the calmer waters of the sound.
DINNER IN THE SALOON: We got to dine al fresco only one evening because of the lousy weather. Jim, left, cooks while John assists and Rob sits with his feet up. Typical!
OUR fifth day afloat was just what the doctor ordered for a bone-weary group of former couch potatoes now toughened by Mother Nature into a sleek, athletic crew strutting the decks with newfound confidence.
In the morning, we enjoyed a leisurely sail to Airlie Beach on the Queensland mainland. On the way, the first of many rain squalls hit us. Jim and John did most of the sailing after lunch on the trip to our overnight destination at Cid Harbor.
About two-thirds of the way across, the wind died to a virtual calm. This was the first but not last time it would do so. What a contrast to the previous days. We motored the rest of the way to our anchorage.
John creatively fixed a chicken dinner. The sky cleared revealing all the southern stars. I set the table on deck, the first time it had been calm enough for us to dine al fresco. It was a magnificent evening. Not even the rowdy Australians partying just a few hundred feet away could spoil it.
WE spent our sixth and last full morning motoring in intermittent rainstorms through the tiny, treacherous Fitzlan Passage to Whitehaven Beach for lunch. We then headed south to Lindeman Island and its Club Med for the traditional last-night-of-cruise special dinner.
The trip to Lindeman was about six miles over the most exposed ocean we encountered on the entire trip.
As we began the crossing, the wind was about 4 knots from the southeast, almost dead ahead.
There just was not enough wind to make it worthwhile to hoist the sail. Rain clouds were everywhere, squalls on the horizon.
About half way across the six miles of open sea, the wind began to freshen, reaching as much as 12 knots.
The weather continued to worsen as I made the first pass at a mooring about half a mile offshore from Club Med. I missed, swung around in a circle and, with John reaching out as far as he could over the side, we were lucky to get it on the second pass.
We bounced around in the dinghy getting thoroughly sprayed as we headed around the reef for perhaps 15 minutes till we reached the clearly marked channel leading to the Club Med jetty.
Then, with the 5-foot swell and 20-knot wind astern, we raced toward the jetty.
I was so tense I didn’t see the Club Med staffer until we sailed right past her on the first landing.
I was heading to the second landing, hoping it might be more sheltered.
It wasn’t. Jim and John struggled to pass the dinghy rope to our Club Med greeter, but we were bobbing around so wildly it took an agonizing 2 to 3 minutes for us to get secured.
We all got wet climbing onto the landing.
AROUND 6 p.m, John and Jim wanted to go back to Scallywag before dark. The weather was so bad I said, “It would be totally irresponsible of me to put out to sea in these conditions, or allow anyone else to do so.”
I had exercised my skipper’s prerogative for the first and only time on this voyage, and overridden their two-to-one vote on a foolhardy course of action.
“Dinner it is,” John said.
The weather had not changed when we finished our delicious meal, so we checked in to a room for the night.
As the sky lightened in the dawn, I awoke and sighed with relief at the clear, calm view of Scallywag bobbing gently offshore. The storm was over, and so was our voyage.
As soon as Scallywag was secured back at Hamilton Island harbor, I filled out a Marine Incident Report and now the record of my far-too-close encounter with the Great Barrier Reef was complete.
Jules McDonald, Sunsail’s operations manager, inspected the inside of the hull and reported he could see no structural damage. I was immensely relieved.
A short while later, Greg Boller, director of Sunsail Australia, a franchise of Sunsail International of Britain, told me that with the start of the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney just a few weeks away, and high season in the Whitsundays (mid-August to mid-January) just beginning, he was not overly optimistic about netting a bonanza from the games.
“September is not doing what we thought it would do,” he said, explaining his view of industry-wide advance reservations.
“Those who supply us with product are the ones who really know how things are looking. It’s not great.”
However, 90 percent of the tourism business in the Whitsundays originates domestically, says Boller. “Only 8 percent of our business is international,” he said.
Confirming other accounts I had heard at many stops on the voyage, Boller said that six months of unseasonably bad weather also was having a negative impact, in a more long-term way.
“Normally our customers will go home and tell 10 friends about their fabulous trip,” he explained. “Then, a few of the 10 would make a reservation. Now they are going home and either saying nothing or telling (horrific) stories. It takes about three months to show up, but we are beginning to feel it now.”
NEAR the end of our conversation I said as nonchalantly as possible. “Of course, my story would not be complete without an account of how we hit the reef …”
Not surprisingly, Boller already knew about the incident. “Don’t worry, mate,” he reassured me.
“It’s all part of operating here. If we whined every time someone hit the reef, we would not be in business here for long.”
After the exchange of a few more pleasantries I departed for a seat on the terrace at the Manta Ray Café, across on the other side of the harbor. I relaxed for more than an hour with a cafe latte.
Suddenly, I howled aloud with unrestrained laughter. Everyone else on the terrace turned to follow my gaze across the water to the village, and also began laughing. Coming down the street was a 20-foot tall palm tree!
No, I wasn’t hallucinating. They all saw it, too. As it cleared the little park obscuring its base, the forklift carrying the potted plant came into view.
The laughter grew louder for a moment as everyone grabbed cameras to capture the hilarious sight of a palm tree traveling down main street.
What perfect punctuation. An exclamation point for this story!