Christmas in Cairns

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Index of slides from this report.

Cairns was everything we needed and quite a bit that we didn't. While similar in layout to Townsville, it is much more tourist oriented: lots of glitzy high-rise hotels. It comes off as the bigger city even though Townsville is actually larger. The Marlin Marina is very close to everything, most importantly the waterfront swimming lagoon.

It was while floatng on my back in the lagoon that I first noticed the flying foxes, silhouetted against the full moon. Every evening thousands of the giant bats would rise from their roosting trees in the downtown parks and fly over the marina towards the mango plantations further south. I tried to photograph them dozens of time but rapidly moving dark things against a light background in low light conditions are pretty hopeless with the Coolpix.

Matinees being an excellent way of avoiding the noonday heat, we saw Master and Commander as well as The Return of the King and Love Always, the latest ditzy Hugh Grant vehicle.

Waiting for Duck Soup

Brian Hull (he of previous PNG reportage) had sworn high and low that he was going to leave for Cairns on 13 December so from the 14th on the kids were eagerly scanning the anchorage for Duck Soup. However, it was not until the 20th that Duck Soup appeared at the customs warf. Brian must have blown all of his weather karma on us, because they'd had a difficult trip. Being a motor sailer they'd come down inside the reef and run into short steep seas which made the boat motion absolutely vile and that with six aboard. They'd anchored behind a reef for four days waiting for the sou-easter to blow itself out and were nearly out of food. Fortunately, they'd had the good luck to catch a huge tuna and they still had enough left in the freezer to give us a few steaks.

With Duck Soup moored just down the pontoon from us, Tristan and Nicoline renewed their friendship with John-John, Brian's grandson. The three of them, sometimes reinforced by other warf rats, swarmed all over the dock and over any boat foolish enough to allow them aboard.

Christmas dinner was a communal barbecue next to the lagoon with the Duck Soups and berth next door neighbors Peter and Margo (we never got their boat name).

Popovers

  • 4 eggs
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 cup white flour
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 4 tbsp. butter
Preheat your oven and the muffin tin to 190° (That's 375°F for you Celcius-impaired).

Mix eggs and milk with a whisk. Add flour and salt and continue to whisk until reasonably smooth. Do not obsess.

Melt the butter.

And now the exciting part. The idea is to remove the hot muffin tin from the oven, butter each muffin socket, then fill them approximately two thirds full of batter and return the tin to the oven as rapidly as possible. Ideally, the batter should sizzle as it is being poured. Heavy duty muffin tins help but aren't really necessary.

Reduce the oven temperature to 175° (350°F) and bake for at least 25 minutes. The popovers should brown and expand mightily, actually popping over (ahem, key phrase) the muffin tin.

While not cochineal, they are most definitely evanescent. When removed from the oven they shrink rapidly and end their lives as soggy brown flaps of dough. To forstall this fate, they must be consumed immediately. Ideally the entire family should be at the table, slavering like Pavlov's dogs just before the popovers come out of the oven.

Serve with haste and blackberry jam.

The Boulders, Josephine Falls

The only natural feature that makes summer in Cairns bearable are the surrounding freshwater creeks. They're actually cold, and thus indescribably pleasant on a 36° day. We rented a car for a week and explored a bit around Cairns, visiting several swimming holes first among them "The Boulders" near Babinda.

"The Boulders" are exactly that, giant granite boulders choking a granite gorge in the middle of the rainforest. Upstream of the gorge proper is a beautiful park which borders a swimming hole. There are signs forbidding people to jump from the bridge but, this being Australia, everyone does anyway.

Leaving Babinda after our trip to the Boulders I was gunned down in a most unsporting fashion - 502 metres, I can't even see that far - by the local constable and fined for speeding. I'd accelerated from 80 to 100 where I (and the guys ahead, whinge, whinge) had though the end of town was only to discover, oh 500 metres later, that it wasn't. So, $250 to support the great state of Queensland that has given us such pleasure.

At dinner the kids were already planning return trips to to The Boulders. "Impossible!" I barked at them. "Too expensive."

Instead we went to Josephine falls, which was, if possible even better. Ostensibly, the idea was to climb Mt. Bartle Frer, at 1600 metres Queensland's highest point and then to cool off at the falls. However, we drastically underestimated the physical toll exacted by 35° heat and 95% humidity. Also, we passed lots of what I took to be cassowary sign: large areas of disturbed ground which looked as though a rather inept 300-pound chicken had been scratching vigorously. Cassowaries are notoriously irritable and we weren't too excited about the possibility of meeting one.

Lunchtime found us only halfway up and about as limp as yesterday's lettuce. A quick dip in an ice-cold creek perked everyone up and, after picking off the leeches, we decided to turn around and spend the rest of the afternoon swimming at Josephine Falls.

So after hiking for hours in pristine rainforest and seeing not a single thing (aside from the cassowary scratch and the leeches) we see a 3 metre python just off the well trodden path to the swimming holes.

Springmount Station

Having no space to store more stuff, we gave ourselves a farm stay at the Springmont Station for Christmas. Americans would know this sort of establishment as a dude ranch.

As most of the clientele were Japanese, Springmont Station employed a number of Japanese guides who tried earnestly to instruct their charges in the rudiments of horse riding.

The most hazardous part of the stay came during the evening boomerang throwing. Instructions were carefully translated by the Japanese guides and then universally ignored. Boomerangs flew everywhere, some even returning to wreak havoc amongst the throwers.

The other hazardous part was when an 8-inch centipede crawled across Karin's hand while we were watching TV before dinner.

On the second day, we were joined by two guests from Hong Kong who provided the entertainment for the rest of the day. After carefully setting up is camera on the ultra high-tech folding tripod which he extracted from a purpose built pouch on his camelback, posing his girlfriend attractively against an authentic looking piece of farm equipment, he set the self timer and raced to join her. His apparently elaborate calculations failed to include the tounge of a nearby trailer upon which he barked his shin. He fell to the ground with a yelp before realizing that, while gravely wounded, he could still make the picture. Summoning heroic reserves of fortitude, he staggered to his feet and lunged toward his, still attractively posed girlfriend just as the shutter clicked. I guess she was used to this sort of thing.

Like anyone who would bring sailing gloves to a dude ranch, they both rode terribly, absolutely rigid in the saddle. This rigidity amplified the natural rythym of a trot in such a way that the various cameras, binoculars, compasses, two way radios, and cell phones that they had slung about their persons orbited wildly about their owners. At every rest stop they arrived looking like victims of some sort of high-tech bolo attack.

Chaotic Harmony

One morning when we were sitting around the boat drinking coffee and deciding what to do with the day, I struck up a conversation with a guy on the dock who was clearly interested in our boat. Turns out this guy, Brian, is a big multihull fan and he knows some people who would really like to see our boat. "Sure, send them by." we say. Since Endless Summer is still the only F41 in the water down here, we're used to drawing a bit of attention. Next morning as we're having breakfast in Brian's cafe, he introduces us to Catherine who turned out to be Catherine of Gavin and Catherine LeSueur. In case you're under the mistaken impression that what we do is "extreme" listen to this story:

Gavin and his racing catamaran D Flawless were entered in a race from Australia to New Zealand. Catherine responded to an advertisement for crew. They complete the race which involved sailing through a cyclone, and on the trip back they strike a whale at high speed and D Flawless breaks up leaving them to be rescued from their life raft. The NZ race was just a warm up for a race around Australia, which of course can no longer happen because they don't have a boat. But, just a few weeks after their rescue one of the other teams in the race goes through some turmoil and they need crew. Would Gavin and Catherine like the job? After a ridiculously small amount of soul searching, they sign up and race the catamaran John West all the way around Australia. At the finish Gavin proposes and they go on to live happily ever after. John West, by the way, is the fish processor famous for the commercial in which a fisherman fights a bear for a salmon. In light of Gavin and Catherine's accomplishments, I was proud to discover that we had John West anchovies aboard Endless Summer. Gotta be worth a couple of knots at least.

The long version of this tale may be found in Gavin's book, The Line. I'm told that it is actually true.

Anyway, one thing led to another, and we were suddenly included in much of the LeSueur holiday schedule. Among other things, we spent a very pleasant evening on The Strand eating, drinking and waiting for the New Year's firework display. After so many years of adventure, their enthusiasm is still infectious and we gradually started to get excited about the trip south.

The LeSueurs had just purchased a Catana, rechristened Chaotic Harmony, and they invited us along for a couple of days exploring the nearby reefs. Since their trip coincided with some nice weather for heading south, we decided to start our trop down to Townsville out on the reef, in the slipstream of the LeSueur's local knowlege.

The LeSueurs are just as extreme cruising as they are racing. Chaotic Harmony was loaded down with 6 adults, a larger though imprecise number of children and one dog. We met them at Upolu Cay, and then sailed five miles or so to Michaelmas Cay for the night. Michaelmas Cay provides better shelter than Upolu but it comes at the cost of being downwind from a very large colony of nesting terns. From the smell alone one would tend to suspect a tern-composting pile rather than any sort of reproductive activity.

Chaotic Harmony had picked up the only available mooring. There were numerous private moorings about, none of which I cared to trust. Anchoring was tricky with bommies tightly constraining the swinging room so I put a kellet (weight) on the rode to keep the scope small enough to keep us clear of the surrounding coral bommies. Fortunately, the night was calm enough that a pile of chain probably would have sufficed. After a quick visit to the birds, we had sundowners and dinner aboard Chaotic Harmony.

Gavin is also the author of Multihull Seamanship, which is chock-a-block with useful wisdom about sailing multihulls. Check out multihullbooks.com

South

The next morning we followed CH through the reefs to Vlasoff Cay and landed en mass much to the dismay of the resident helicopter which promptly gathered up its brood of tourists and clattered skyward, no doubt searching for a more secluded nesting site.

In contrast to Michaelmas, anchorage was easy and we wound up with a spectacular coral bommie just off our transoms. Having inspected the resident giant clams, Estelle, the LeSueur's eldest daughter was moved to whine: "Daddy, why don't we have a bommie behind our boat?"

Out of victuals, Chaotic Harmony left for port that afternoon leaving us a bit more inspired and enthusiastic about sailing than when we met. So to see they had a nice easy spinnaker run home. Fair winds.

We did some more snorkling, cleaned the waterline and settled down for the night. With the glassy calm and moonlight the water became almost invisible. Endless Summer appeared to be floating 4 metres above a sandy beach.

In the morning, we picked our way between Arlington Reef and Upolu Cay and then motored south, past Green Island to Fitzroy Island where we picked up a mooring for the night. We dingied ashore and explored the island a bit. From the top one can look down on the lighthouse on the east end of the island which marks the end of the Grafton Passage through the Great Barrier Reef. We bought cold drinks at the local resort and enjoyed their pool and showers before heading back to the boat for dinner.

The next morning we dropped the mooring and motored down to tiny Russel Island where we picked up a mooring for lunch before going ashore for a walk. The sea breeze filled in so we set sail for Mourilyan Harbour.

Mourilyan Harbour is probably the best natural harbour in north Queensland. The entrance is so narrow that it wasn't discovered until late in the 19th century while searching for survivors of a shipwreck. By then Cairns and Townsville, both with relatively poor rivermouth harbours, were already firmly established and Mourilyan received only a bulk sugar loading facility. The nearest town is kilometres away. There are pile berths but the anchorage is so secure that I didn't see much point in bothering with a pile. We had the entire place to ourselves.

In Mourilyan Harbour, we realized that we'd forgotten to listen to the Vienna New Year's Concert on New Years day, so we popped it in to the CD player and cranked it up as we motored out.

We motored south as far as Dunk island where we decided not to stop as it was too close to the mainland for a swim (jellyfish). Instead we pulled out the spinnaker and made excellent time across Rockingham Bay to the northern end of the Hinchinbrook channel and Port Hinchinbrook, the new marina just south of Cardwell.

Port Hinchinbrook had a swimming pool and a nice restaurant so we stayed an extra night so as to fully experience the place.

From Port Hinchinbrook we motored down the Hinchinbrook channel to Gayundah Creek, one of several mangrove creeks draining the spectacular peaks of Hinchinbrook Island. This is prime crock territory and we scanned every sandbar for the 5 metre giants featured so prominently in dockside legend. Nothing. Karin even tried a midnight "crock watch" without catching so much as a glimpse of beady red eyes.

We somewhat mollified by the sight a good sized box jellyfish under the tramps the next morning.

We motored down the remainder of the Hinchinbrook Channel and back out to sea along bulk sugar loading jetty at Lucinda. The wind didn't fill in until we were nearly at Orpheus Island but as we had snagged a primo mooring right next to the reef in Little Pioneer Bay we decided to spend the night and try for a sail the next day. Orpheus Island was the site of Australia's giant clam breeding program and the zillions of clams which dot the surrounding reef are a testament to the program's success.

The next morning we motored until the sea breeze filled in, then sailed the final 15 miles or so in to Townsville. Unlike previous days the sea breeze came from the south-east so we couldn't fly the spinnaker. The weather turned bad the next day, but we had had an absolutely ideal passage down the coast: smooth water with a spinnaker run every afternoon. Winds never more than about 12 knots.

Here's a 6.5 megabyte example of the difficult sailing conditions we encountered

Townsville Redux

We arrived in Townsville on Saturday afternoon and wriggled our way into a not-quite-impossibly-tight-but-very-cheap berth next to the slipway. By reputation, Townsville was supposed to be drier than Cairns, so the two days of torrential we experienced must have been the exception.

In addition seeing "old friends," Linda from Therapy and Torsten & Silke from Kavenga, we met Jeremy and Christy who had just purchased Bianca and were busy fitting it out to start their own cruising adventure. As we'd just come through the starting out stage, we had lots to talk about. Also they had two children, a swimming pool, and an air-conditioned appartment in which the kids enjoyed a sleep-over.

Jeremy, a marine biologist, told us that the idea that jellyfish spawn (or whatever it is that jellyfish do) in freshwater creeks is actually just a hypothesis based on very slim evidence. Box jellies and others have been found well offshore. Indeed some suspect that previously unexplained diving deaths may have been the work of the irukanji whose sting doesn't leave much of a mark. Anyway he noted that there had been recent stings at Orpheus Island so we may have dodged a bullet.

Unlike our previous stay in Townsville, we actually managed to have fun this time. We even went daysailing twice, once with the Biancas and once with the Kavengas. We also went swimming at the Tobruk Baths, climbed Castle Hill, and walked aimlessly along The Strand.

Next Up

We've provisioned for a couple of weeks and will be heading south as rapidly as northerly winds will allow probably sailing overnight if conditions are mild enough. The real bother with the north in summer is that jellyfish prevent most access to the water.

Yachtie Details

Anchoring

After some reflection we've decided to go with a larger anchor, a 25kg Simpson-Lawrence plough instead of the 20kg one that we started with. While our dragging incident in Port Moresby was probably caused by insufficient scope, I don't feel that a 20kg anchor would hold in winds above 35 knots. Recall that the force exerted by the wind increases as the square of the velocity: a 40-knot wind generate 4 times the force that a a 20-knot wind will.

We went with the larger anchor instead of more chain (or all chain) because it seemed to be the most efficient use of weight. Lifting chain near the anchor requires a force many times the weight of the chain. The same chain hanging off the bow roller provides little resistance until the catenary curve between boat and anchor approaches a straight line, at which point the question of holding is going to be answered by the anchor and the scope entirely. Better to put the extra weight into the anchor. As I found out when we beached ES, while I can drag 10 meters of chain through the sand, I can't even budge a properly set 10 kg plough anchor.

We are going to be more careful about using sufficient scope; most plough anchors require more like 7 or 8 to 1 for optimal holding. In cases where scope may be constrained by swinging room we'll be quicker to make use of a kellet, a weight part way along the anchor rode.

We'll stick with the mixed chain/rope rode. As opposed to all chain, this arrangement makes it dangerous for us to use deep coral strewn anchorages but then I've always wondered at the wisdom of applying the term "anchorage" to such a body of water. Hopefully our ability to use shoal draft to anchor shallow will make up for being unable to use certain deep "anchorages".

Cyclone Season

Ah, yes we're frolicking about in North Queensland in the Cyclone season. Well, first of all, the South Pacific cyclone season is vastly less dangerous than the Caribbean hurricane season. The former seems to produce just a few depressions a year, while the latter usually produces a dozen or so named storms and depressions galore. Also, unlike the Caribbean which consists mostly of islands with few good cyclone holes, the north coast of Queensland is littered with mangrove creeks which make excellent cyclone anchorages. We keep an eye on the weather, know the closest couple of cyclone holes, and hope for the best.