The Stewart family buy a boat, jack it all in and go sailing!

Mackay to Gladstone: fair weather and new friends

I was nervous about leaving Mackay. We’d had our asses so comprehensively whupped coming into Mackay and the bad weather had persisted for nearly 10 days. We hunkered down in Mackay Marina and waited for it to blow through.

The weather was looking good for the coming weekend, so we did our final provisioning, took on water and mentally girded our loins for about a week away from civilisation. It’s about 230nm from Mackay to Gladstone, we were only planning on day hops down the coast, and we were working on an average of 5 knts. This is not very fast; about 11 km per hour (to put it in perspective: I jog/run at 10km per hour!). We were hoping it would take a little under a week.

Saturday morning dawned grey and blustery. Matt suggested we nip out between the squalls, so we cast off and motored out into rain and overcast skies. Mackay is surrounded by shallow water for miles, and the seas bounce up over these shoals making it really lumpy. So we had some more horrible banging into rough seas for the morning as we threaded past all the massive coal ships at anchor. It took us hours to clear them all, and I felt far too miserable to take pictures, but they were huge and impressive. The weather improved as the day progressed and we left Mackay behind, but I did spend quite a few hours – while Matt stoically helmed – wondering what on earth we were thinking. Tilly and Sasha were feeling equally rubbish.  Happily, as the clouds cleared and the wind dropped we all felt miles better.

That afternoon we anchored alone at Curlew Island, which is a big pretty rock in the middle of nowhere. We were excited to see our friends on Ulysses Blue come in to anchor at tea time, and they circled us as the kids all danced around excitedly yelling to each other. We invited them over to share our zucchini slice (which was smelling fabulous in our little oven) but they were too weary and we agreed to meet the next day at Percy Island.

The sailing the next day was much better, still overcast but less wind and seas. We weighed anchor at dawn and got to Middle Percy just before lunch. We anchored off the big beach by the A-frame and old telephone hut.

Middle Percy has a colourful history: the lease was owned from the Sixties to the early Noughties by an eccentric Eton-educated Englishman, who was inveigled in his later years to sign over the lease to some dark characters.  The lease has now thankfully been returned to the original family and visitors are once again welcome.  You can read the story here in this Sydney Morning Herald article.

Since the 60s, sailors have been stopping on this remote island to bring items to the handful of residents and buy their honey and try the goat stew.  We had an Australian Post parcel on board that we’d picked up from Mackay Marina for them.

The massive A-Frame on the beach – no idea how it’s withstood the cyclones – is adorned with memorabilia from all the boats that have passed through. Flags, carved nameboards, tshirts, even bras, pirate hats, a toilet seat and two prosthetic legs!

We added ours; an old white life-ring and which we’d replaced with a smart new safety-orange one in Mackay. We’d written on our crew names and the date, and found a good place to hang it. You could spend hours just looking at all the items in the A-frame and stories they tell.

We were excited to meet up with Ulysses Blue and their young crew again, and happily we also met friends of friends who live in the same road as us back in Airlie Beach! The Footprint crew set off a few months before us in their beautiful catamaran, and we’d hoped our paths would cross. They’d been up north and were now heading south, the same as us, to get away from the cyclone belt for the summer. It was great to meet up and chat and they also have a young crew. To add to the “kidboat” vibe, there was another boat in the anchorage called Pandion, with a family aboard. Their blog (which is wonderful reading, click here) has the catchy tagline: “Five Afloat in a Smallish Boat”. Love it!

We all met for sundowners in the A-frame late afternoon. The A-frame has, amazingly, been fitted out with running water and solar panels which provide light as the sun goes down. Most kids – noticeably ours – were extremely excited to have lucked upon a gathering of four kidboats. A couple of parents, helped by a gaggle of kids, gathered firewood and got both the fire-barbie and the firepit going. Some dads found green coconuts and an old cane knife and – much to the excitement of the pack of kids – split the coconuts open for juice and meat. Drinks were poured, sausages and steaks were cooked and the sun set over a happy, sandy, beach scene.

Matt got talking to Don, who lived part time on the island on his trimaran tucked into the mangroves in the lagoon. Tall, rangy and weathered, with long greyish-blonde hair and a polished oyster shell on a leather thing round his neck and drinking out of a coconut husk, he had some yarns to tell.

We wanted to stay for hours but the weather was looking good for our next hop down the coast so we had an early start. Plus the kids (mainly ours) had started ill-advised “coconut wars” with a small army on the second story of the A-frame defending it against the militia below on the beach, and the playing had deteriorated into real bumps and cuts and angry tears. Also large spots of rain were falling, and we had hatches open and, worse, a mattress out on deck, supposedly drying. So we gathered up our crew, bid our hasty farewells and tendered back to Iron Will in the warm dark night, leaving the glow of the fire and hubbub of voices behind.

We were up again in the pre-dawn light the next morning. This “making the most of the weather window” thing makes for much more pleasant passages, but is distinctly lacking on the lie-ins. Another grey dawn with drizzle threatening, but little wind. We pulled up our anchor – nervously, as someone had re-anchored after we’d arrived, and as we pulled up our chain we were being led by the nose closer and closer to the sleeping boat. Their boat had swung round in the night to sit over our anchor on the seabed. There’s definitely something to be said for attaching a marker buoy to float above your anchor when you set it.

The kids, unbelievably, slept through the anchor chain rattling into the locker right at the their feet and the throb of the engine, and only awoke after a hazy sun had risen in the sky. The wind and seas were kind, and we made good way to our next stop, Island Head Creek, about 50 miles and 8 or 9 hours distant. I looked back at the purple sky and rain clouds sitting over Middle Percy and was glad we’d left when we did, but we agreed we’d certainly make time to spend a lot longer there on our way north.

Matt and I took it in turns to helm and stand watch, and shortly after lunch we approached Island Head Creek. Matt warned me that it was a narrow, “exciting” entrance to get in here and my apprehension grew as he checked and rechecked his tides, checked his course and then took the helm with his legs braced, gripping the wheel tightly.

I could see why! The track in looked quite wide but had rock shelves under the water. The water was short and choppy, with white-capped waves on each side and a washing machine in the middle. Iron Will lurched and surfed her way safely through whilst I chewed my nails. Matt of course, stayed cool as a cucumber – he’s not bad, our skipper!

Once we were through the creek opened up into a big inlet, all sky and sand, with long, deserted beaches as far as the eye could see. We dropped anchor and went ashore to explore and see if we could find phone signal, which had been MIA for several days.

The girls loved the huge sloping beach with hard sand, and made “maze tracks” with their toes; long lengths of connected roads with complicated junctions and dead ends. Then we all ran around the mazes, shrieking and trying to catch each other. It was good to get off the boat! We also found “fish hollows” which are dents in the sand where the fish have been feeding or buried themselves.

That night the wind picked up a little and we sat snug at anchor, watching some brave soul come in through the narrow passage in the dark, their mast light swinging wildly above them and someone on deck shining the lights on the rocks on each side.

The next morning we found out who it was when they came over to say hello, it was the kidboat Pandion who we’d met in Middle Percy with their delightful crew! We all went ashore and spent a lovely morning chatting and the Pandion kids – amazing wild foragers – showed our kids how to collect “pig faces”, part of a beach flower, which you can squeeze out and eat. It looked and tasted a bit like a small kiwi fruit. Sasha and Sylvie collected loads and arranged them on driftwood platters, which they offered around. I think they’d go down a storm as canapés at a Sydney gallery opening!

We decided to move down the coast a couple of hours to a little inlet called Port Clinton, and happily Pandion decided to come too.

We squeaked back out of the narrows, following our reciprocal track on the plotter and had a lovely motor sail in the sunshine to Port Clinton. The beach there was even more vast, amazing and deserted.

We met for dinner ashore and the kids built a fire right in the middle of the beach. The Pandion crew showed our crew how to collect spinifex to drop onto the flames, where it pops and crackles like firecrackers.

The Pandion guys also, impressively, brought a frying pan and some sausages ashore and cooked them up on the open fire, whilst we ate bowls of chicken and rice from our fabulous thermal cooker. It was a wonderful evening chatting and playing.

We loved getting to know the Pandion bunch, who are into all things wild, survivalist and nature-y. Miles, the dad, showed Matt how to start fires with sticks – it’s quite an art.   We’d love to go and visit them in their home port of Iluka where they run bush schools.

The next morning we were off again, this time to the Keppel Group of islands, near Rockhampton. Another dawn start and another great run down the coast, and 8 hours later we anchored on the south side of Great Keppel. We were averaging 6 knots as we made our way down the coast, which we were very pleased with.

We were happy to see Ulysses Blue anchored there, and Sasha was uncharacteristically keen to help Matt launch the tender, then she jumped in and did her best to pull start it! It was great to catch up with the Ulysses Blue crew again, and later that day Footprint sailed in too, with our new friends and Airlie Beach almost-neighbours.

We all went ashore for sundowners and it was great watching all six kids, of various ages, playing on Footprint’s paddleboard. We decided to have a lay-day at Great Keppel, as the weather was looking for good for a couple of days, and go into Gladstone on Friday.

We loved Great Keppel, the water is magically clear and beautiful. We took our massive pool bean bag to the beach and the kids spent hours playing Sea Dragons with it. The day passed too quickly and once again we all gathered for sundowners on the beach. It was a wonderful sunset and the kids made amazing, complicated castles and cities in the hard sand.

We were sad to say goodbye, but Friday morning saw all three kidboats weighing anchor in the pre-dawn light and heading south once again. We were proud of Iron Will, keeping up for hours with the bigger, faster boats, but once we rounded Cape Capricorn and said goodbye to the Tropics, we all headed in different directions.

The pic below is looking back at Cape Capricorn and leaving the official cyclone belt until April next year.

We were looking forward to Gladstone and seeing our friends from Airlie Beach. They moved there a year ago, to Tannum Sands, and we couldn’t wait to catch up.  Although the scenery was a little different to what we’d been sailing through so far!

Both our friends work near the marina and came down to take our lines.  We were so excited to see Ian and Emma, but well aware that we’d been at sea for a week and needed to scrub up a bit now we were back in civilisation!  We made arrangements to meet the next day so the kids could catch up.  That night we continued our first-night-ashore tradition of heading off to find fish and chips.

When we leave Gladstone we’ll be on our final leg – it’s about 3 days’ sailing to Hervey Bay. We’ll be there for Christmas and probably the cyclone season too.