It’s the curse of the modern bluewater cruiser that all our landlubber friends think we are on holiday the whole time. Sailing buddies of mine regularly carp on about how the ‘folks back home’ (who mostly still have to schlepp to work and sit at a desk all day, working for some inconsiderate and unappreciative boss and/or with some downright difficult colleagues, then struggle home through the traffic and pollution to see the kids for five minutes before bedtime, then flump in front of the idiot lantern (the TV) with a beer and one arm around the wife to try to distract themselves from how crap their day/week/month/life has been) simply don’t understand how tough life is out here on the high seas, battered by the elements but masters of our own destiny (until we ring home or have to deal with customs and immigration, that is…). Cruising sailors are often perplexed by why it might be that their friends and family are just a smidge jealous as they post on Facebook about sundowner cocktails – at 4pm – every day, or are somewhat unsympathetic about how difficult it is to get Fevertree Tonic Water in remote Pacific idylls, or why occasionally pictures of their toes in crystal clear waters over pure white sand might elicit ‘Likes’ but also the odd snarky comment. “But no,” they say, “non-sailors don’t understand how hard it was to get here. The waves were enormous! It was so difficult to cook! Oh my god, the wind! My hair! You have no idea how difficult the captain can be sometimes 😉 (and how much any reasonable person might want to murder their crewmates occasionally.) The generator/engine/watermaker/wind generator/bilge pumps are a nightmare! Oh, and let’s not forget how annoying it is to have to sit in a marina in the sunshine to wait for technicians…”
Actually, waiting for technicians is really annoying. It’s on a par with being stuck on the ‘phone in one of those terrible call centre loops, listening to an instrumental version of a song that you hated when it had words, waiting to be put through to someone in Mumbai who – if they understand you and you them – almost certainly won’t be able to help you anyway. Marine technicians are never, ever on time. Ever. In any country. (Dietmar says they are on time in Germany. That figures. They’re probably on time in Switzerland too. Ok, but in my experience they were never on time in England or France or Portugal or Spain or St Lucia or Martinique or Colombia or Panama or Fiji. Mind you, in those places at least they turned up eventually, which is more than they did in Tahiti. ZEELAND and AIN’T FANCY will tell you that they are also late in Australia.) It’s the same pretty much the world over. The trouble is, when you have a limited amount of time in a country and there are things you want to see, it really, really sucks to have to sit around waiting in the sodding marina for something to get fixed. As a rule of thumb, the technicians seem to leave the work on your boat until the absolute last minute so you barely have time to do your food shopping before you have to race on to the next place. Of course, sod’s law also dictates that as soon as you are about 10 miles offshore, the thing that was supposedly fixed breaks again or develops another fault, and you have to go through the whole torture again in the next port. Still no sympathy? I thought not…
Anyway, I didn’t start writing this blog post to whinge about marine technicians, I wanted to tell you about our holiday! At this current time, CESARINA does not require any urgent works (touch wood, cross my fingers (or press my thumbs, like the Germans say) etc etc; I may be jinxing this in the very writing of this sentence – sailors’ superstitions…) apart from a bit of varnishing in a couple of places (to her toerails (this is an ongoing need in the tropics as the UV is so very strong)). We are in pretty good shape at the moment. We also have 4 weeks of time in which we need to cover the 1,500 or so miles from Mackay to Darwin. Four whole weeks! For us this is a huge luxury! So, we have started our relatively leisurely cruise with a visit to the Whitsunday Islands…
The Whitstundays are a submerged mountain range that only 10,000 years ago were still part of mainland Australia. Now 74 islands jutting out of the Coral Sea, protected by the Great Barrier Reef to the east but still within easy reach of the mainland to the west, we had heard that the sailing between these islands was wonderful and that the islands themselves were often fascinating.
Our first night was in Connie Bay (not, presumably, named after my exceedingly glamorous, bright and thoroughly difficult grandmother) on Keswick Island. We had intended to visit St Bees (which by the way is for sale at about two million Aussie dollars, a snip for a load of sheep grazing land and whole community of koalas) but of our two anchorage options, one featured some alarmingly shallow spots and the other experiences 4kts of current in both directions on a spring tide (we were two days away from a full moon). We were unconvinced about either option so we ended up nestling in to a tiny little bay on the northern shore of Keswick, the adjacent island. 15 miles from the bright lights of Mackay, the peace disturbed only occasionally by helicopters overhead, (perhaps delivering pilots to large ships waiting to come through the Hydrographers’ Passage) but otherwise all alone with just the seabirds, turtles and distant whales for company, It was really, truly wonderful.
Talking about whales, there are a LOT of whales in the Whitsundays right now! Mostly they seem to be humpbacks but it’s difficult to tell from a fluke and blowhole, which is normally the only clue we get that these magnificent monsters are there. Sometimes, thought, we are treated to a breach and that is simply breathtaking. The sight of a humpback whale breaching is something I only ever expected to see in documentaries on the television. In real life it is, and I use the word deliberately, awesome. Tons and tons of whale, huge, propelling out of the depths of the ocean, crashing back down with a gargantuan, explosive splash into the water. Absolutely gobsmacking to see. Sights like this fill me with gratitude and a sense of how extremely lucky I am to be here, on such a stunning boat and with such an extraordinary human being.
We weighed anchor the next morning after a slightly rolly night under a blanket of stars and headed north. More fluffy white clouds and azure skies. The sea colour ranges from a milky jade nearer the shore to a proper royal blue in slightly deeper water. It’s so beautiful here. We originally wanted to go to Burning Point on Shaw Island but for a variety of reasons decided to head straight for Hamilton Island or ‘Hammo’ as the locals call it. Hamilton Island is host to the eponymous race week later this month when it will be invaded by hardcore racing yachties and their vessels from near and far in one of the last practice races before the Sydney-Hobart. I hear that COMANCHE will race at Hamilton Island this year – I would have liked to see that! We had to get some fuel anyway (there is no wind here at the moment, at least nowhere near enough for CESARINA to be able to sail) and so we decided to come into the marina for at least one night and see what there is to see.
Well, what can I say? Hamilton Island is an interesting place, and not because it is rich with cultural artefacts. If it ever had any, they have been bulldozed to make way for chic boutiques, upmarket cafés (where everything comes with a gluten-free option – hurrah for me!), huge hotels and apartment blocks. As far as I could work out, every business on the island appears to be owned by Hamilton Island Enterprises (it was, one way or another, on the top of every receipt) which means they must have a licence to print money. The place was awash with wealth.
On arrival, we were guided to our berth by the ‘Marina Concierge’ in a smart tender, a charming young man called Mark who appeared to be a triumph of good looks over common sense, but was jolly nice. We moored up without drama and eyed the charter catamaran behind us, wondering whether they would have any clue at all about how to get out of the space when their time came to leave. We would find out soon enough.
Evenings on Hamilton Island reminded me of Cannes but without the boardwalk promenade. I had been reassured that Hamilton Island was ‘super casual’ and full of sailors. This is true, if ‘super casual’ means Gucci loafers and Louis Vuitton bags and ‘sailors’ means people who take sunset catamaran cruises. Super casual. We wandered around to the exceptionally swanky yacht club on the first evening and felt out of place in our super casual sun-faded shorts. We were clearly the only actual sailors in there – we didn’t even see smart yachties in their customary uniform of blue blazer with shiny buttons and smartly pressed chinos. Instead it was mostly full of polished young women with retro-fitted accessories, artfully arranged on the designer furniture; honeymooning couples with a slight sunburn; and slick-looking older men in sunglasses wearing expensive shirts with tropical motifs. The view across the bay however was beautiful and the champagne was cold and served in a fine glass. Ahhh…
We got the hang of it on the second day though – look nonchalant as you fork out 10 dollars for a smoothie and you fit right in. We hired a golf cart (everyone goes everywhere in golf carts here) and went for a little tour of the tiny island. Much to our absolute delight, near the airport we found a go-kart track with some serious go-karts. Bring it onnnnn! There has been much banter between my captain and me, pretty much since we have known each other, about whether he or I would be faster around a racetrack. Obviously, I am sticking my chin out a bit as Dietmar has done a LOT of car racing and I, broadly speaking, have not. That didn’t stop me from talking a big game or Dietmar repeatedly telling me he would win. Yeah, yeah…
As it turned out, Dietmar did cream me (I got a bit enthusiastic and span on a bend, which didn’t help!) but he was only just under a second faster than me on our fastest laps. He was also just under a second slower than Usain Bolt around the very same track, and 3 seconds or so slower than the lap record. Not too shabby. Turns out that my weight advantage was more than countered by his arm strength (and probably superior skills, but don’t tell him that I conceded that point). He hasn’t stopped grinning about his triumph and my neck and arms are still aching three days later!
On our golf buggy travels we also found One Tree Hill. It’s a hill (obviously) with one bar but many trees. One Bar Hill would be a better name, perhaps. Cocktails (we are on holiday after all!), a platter of antipasto and many, many photos from this spectacular viewpoint later, we watched the sun go down. Oooweeeee.
That evening, I shook out a slinky dress and a pair of heels which had lain dormant in deep storage for months. Dietmar changed into a clean t-shirt. We went to a swanky restaurant for supper – anyone following this blog will know that we haven’t done that at all in the last five months. It kind of reminded us why not. After a sharp inhalation at the prices, we gave our order to the charming Quebecois Frederick who was thrilled (it seemed) to have someone to speak French with. (Most of the visitors to this island appear to be Asian (mainly Chinese, at a guess) or Australian. Apart from a handful of Brits, we didn’t hear any other accents.) I chose half a dozen oysters with a lime, lychee and chilli dressing (the chef’s creation and very good indeed), followed by Moreton Bay bugs (like fat little langoustines) with other fruits de mer in a saffron and tomato jus (why is it that expensive restaurants always have the word ‘jus’ on the menu somewhere?) and Dietmar chose scallops with yummy things like a beetroot puree, followed by Spanish mackerel with a selection of delicious accompaniments. The starters were seriously delicious – well conceived and beautifully delivered. A real treat.
Dietmar’s main course was also a grand success. Mine was also good – the bugs and the large prawns were luscious, the sauce was divine – but I was surprised to find mussels with broken shells on my plate. In a French bistro in a large pot, it’s easy to forgive and it doesn’t matter if you don’t eat them. Regardless of the price, when there are only three mussels artfully arranged on your plate and two of them have broken shells… I wasn’t impressed. (By the way, it wasn’t because it didn’t look pretty; it was because I didn’t know when the shells had been broken. If they had been broken for a while before cooking, they could have made me really, really ill. I didn’t fancy that much.) So – I left the mussels, and I mentioned it to the charming waiter. He scuttled off to the kitchen and scuttled back to tell me that the kitchen were preparing ‘un petit quelquechose’ if I could wait ‘deux minutes.’ No problem. In the meantime, one of his colleagues cleared our plates away. And two minutes later, three mussels arrived on a small black plate. Just three mussels. Freshly cooked in plain water, sitting there in their shells, like some kind of modern art installation. No sauce, no nothing. I laughed. What was I meant to do with these?! I ate one and it was plump and perfectly cooked but comparatively tasteless. The whole thing was so ridiculous but I couldn’t help but chuckle. We declined dessert and asked for the bill.
The next morning I ran the golf buggy back and Dietmar picked up some fresh fruit and veg in the utterly wonderful IGA supermarket – such a glorious selection of absolutely everything! Cheeses and fruit we haven’t seen for months, plums and fresh raspberries, and a deli selection to make your mouth water. From buffala mozzarella to bratwurst – such luxury! We fuelled up – with diesel too – and headed out. Ciao ciao, swanky Hammo. Next stop, the seclusion and stillness of Nara Inlet, Hook Island.
PS: By the way – as feared, the charter catamaran boys didn’t have the first idea how to get out of the space ahead of us. 48’ long, they were in a corner with CESARINA behind and another catamaran at a 90° angle ahead. Alarmed at the captain’s suggestions that his plan was to cast off completely and ‘just use both engines to get us out of here’, coupled with his confession that he’d never done anything like this before and only has a 5 metre monohull at home, left me thinking that I might need to throw myself in the path of an oncoming, out of control white plastic monster to protect CESARINA’s tender little rump. I offered a little advice which, somewhat unexpectedly, he took. In the end, with also a little assistance from me, they used a spring line and fender on the bow to angle their stern out before straightening up to reverse out of the space. It was textbook. I applauded. I was heartily thanked in exchange. No problem, anytime. Just – whatever you do – please don’t hit CESARINA…