Illywhacker - Barrier Reef Cruise 2005


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Author Peter Aston
Date 29 Oct 2005
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Illywhacker and crew have an easy 2 - month cruise north from Townsville stopping at anchorages on Australia's Great Barrier Reef as well as at various islands and small coastal towns.

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We have been living aboard in Townsville for nearly 2 years now. It has been a pleasant lifestyle, a mix of boat repairs and occasional short cruises to nearby islands and as is always the case when yachties are around, a time liberally spiced with an active social life. Our long-term intention was to focus on improving Lyndall's health - a task which has been only moderately successful. She has a blood disorder that leaves her starved of oxygen and therefore of energy. At this stage she has a blood transfusion every 3 weeks which means week 1 is one of adjustment, week 2 is great and we're off to conquer the world and week 3 is a tapering off period as she gets slower each day. We feel we are coping with the situation quite well and this led us to decide to sail north, planning each leg of the cruise to fit in with the medical visits.

North of Townsville is a great part of the world. The Great Barrier Reef closes the coast so daily anchorages can be coastal harbours, islands or coral reef cays, depending on the weather. The area we cruised is shown on the map.


Next door to Townsville, Magnetic Island has anchorages protected from the predominant SE Trade winds as well as for Summer Northerlies. The most popular, Horseshoe Bay on the north side is a pleasant 2 1/2 hour sail from illywhacker's berth at Breakwater marina. The marina channel is somewhat silted and with a draft of 2m, we find it necessary to wait for the right tide. On the day of our departure, high tide was around 1400 hrs so an afternoon departure was looking good. With time to spare we sat down to a light lunch of cheese and crackers - it was then that Lyndall broke a tooth. Telephone calls around the local dentists soon found us one with vacancy at 1400. He put in a temporary patch, warning that proper surgery was needed. Due to Lyndall's weakened immune system such an operation would have been an infection risk. We'd just had a few months in and out of hospital from a previous infection so we weren't going to rush into another one. Especially as we wanted to go cruising. The unscheduled delay of 2 hours still left us time to gingerly work our way through the channel after a 1600hrs departure.

Horseshoe Bay has a wonderful beach and moderately clear water. There are a few shops, restaurants and hotels at the southern end while to the north is an area of beautiful wetlands adjacent to the National Park. The whole of Magnetic Island is a haven for birds and native animals, including koala, all living in plenty of native bushland with very little threat from industry. 3000 people choose to live here for the tranquility of life on a tropical island. If the developers have their way though, it will be home to 30,000 living in huge hig-rise apartments and glamorous beachfront homes. Ironically the advertisements highlight the peaceful lifestyle where the lucky ones can fish from their docks in solitude. Sadly, even the wetlands are scheduled for a concrete makeover.

We spent 3 days enjoying Magnetic Island waiting out a strong wind warning. There can be a nasty swell in the bay following a lengthy blow sometimes and while we were there, one persisted for most of the time. Walking along the beach was therefore a pleasant pastime.

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Horseshoe bay wetlands Peter and Lewis from Mistral X walk Horseshoe Beach


The SE winds held for about 4 hours on the day of our departure only allowing us to sail for half the 33nm distance from Horseshoe Bay to Orpheus Island. The rest of the passage past the Palm Group was under motor and we anchored in Pioneer Bay around 1600hrs. High tide slack water at Lucinda entrance was at 0800 and this necessitated an 0630 start.
On the previous occasion, our entry into Hinchinbrook Passage was marred by a chance meeting with a mudbank due to careless navigation. This time there were no such incidents and we had anchored in Gayundah Creek by 1130.

Keen fishermen delight in driving around the creeks of Hinchinbrook all day hoping for a big barrumundi to strike or for incredible mudcrabs to fill their pots. We saw the fishermen but no strikes or writhing pots so decided our day would be spent in quieter pursuits. The yacht "Distant Drum" (which I think is a great name) was anchored further upstream and we had mail to deliver. After our lunchtime siesta we dinghied over for a chat and a cuppa. A few drinks later and it was evening - the day had passed very pleasantly!

Dawn next morning reminded us that this was one of the quietest anchorages ever.

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Early morning at Gayundah Creek, Hinchinbrook Island Mourilyan Harbour sugar loading wharf


The ebb tide swept us out of the Hinchinbrook Channel and stayed in our favour all morning. With a SE breeze we were making good time and had a perfect sail towards Dunk Island. Mid morning we sighted a Humpback whale and her calf slowly heading south. As usual the camera wasn't handy at the time. Dunk appeared off the beam at 1430 but the large number of tour boats and jet skis convinced us to press on. We finally anchored in Mourilyan harbour at 1730 after an easy day's run of 47 nm.

The country around Mourilyan and Innisfail 10km to the north is the heart of North Queensland's sugar cane country. Cane railway tracks run beside the roads and sugar mills every 100km belch steam from their stacks into the azure blue sky. It is very attractive country to drive and the coastline is only very lightly habitated. anchoring in Mourilyan requires one to stay clear of the ship swinging circle. The harbour entrance is a tight squeeze for larger cane ships and they must turn 180 deg to exit. As a protected place to stop it is bulletproof.

A 40nm run, again with a SE pushing illywhacker along, brought us to Fitzroy Island in just over 7 hours. Another resort island but more low-key than Dunk with a backpacker clientele and a National Park camping area, Fitzroy offers reasonable SE protection in clear water. There are several walks and the surrounding coral makes for interesting snorkelling. We like taking the dinghy along the foreshore seeking out deserted, usually tiny beaches from where we swimm and snorkel.

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A hideaway beach on Fitzroy Island Coral at the water's edge on Fitzroy


Cairns is just 15nm from Fitzroy Island but what a difference. Cairns Marlin marina where we tied up, is a hive of activity from very early morning until late at night. It is adjacent to the Esplanade, which together with several streets behind is also given over to frantic tourism. Sometimes, 30 flights a day arrive from Japan and rapid sightseeing is the order of the day. It's busy in town and the tour boats, aircraft and helicopters do a thriving business, fortunately taking tourists to well defined areas which can easily be avoided by recluse yachties.

The Great Barrier Reef is showing signs of degradation due to coral bleaching, crown-of-thorn-starfish infestations, overfishing, soil runoff from farms, new developments and tourism. The managing authority have introduced zoning plans to restrict activities and allow some areas as fish nurseries to facilitate recovery but the outlook is grim. Global warming will undoubtedly have a major impact. It all means we have been very lucky to have seen this part of the world early in our lives but we are fearful for the future.

We spent several days at Vlassof Cay, a small sand island on the outer reef some 20nm from Cairns. Entrance is by winding a path around the coral bommies to find a clear patch for the anchor in about 5m depth. I was able to use our hookah dive compressor to explore the adjacent coral and to meet the friendly local fish population. One morning we dinghied across to walk the 100m around the tiny sand island when a small seaplane landed and taxied right to the beach. The pilot assisted a young Japanese couple ashore complete with a champagne breakfast. We tried to be invisible as the occasion was obviously designed to be very special. It was a beautiful morning and was no doubt, an experience for the newlyweds that will provide memories of paradise on a remote tropic island for years to come.

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Entering the reef surrounding Vlassof Cay Coral beach at tiny Kent Island


October is the month cruising yachts look forward to a change in the weather. In late September there appeared to be no let up in the strong southerlies often with rain squalls. We took a drive up into the Tablelands and enjoyed the cool mountain climate. On our return, the prevailing SE winds slowly gave way to NE sea breezes and calm nights.

Our passage south started on 6 October and true to form the winds were variable with light northerlies during the afternoon. These winds allowed us to stop at the fabled Zoe Bay on the eastern side of Hinchinbrook. Wide open to the SE it is a fabulous stopover in winds NW - ENE.

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Atherton Tableland views Entering the Northern end of Zoe Bay, Hinchinbrook Island
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Zoe Bay - entrance to a small lagoon which is behind camera Freshwater pool 1km inland at the southern end of Zoe bay


Illywhacker is now tied up at Breakwater marina in Townsville. Although Lyndall found this cruise tiring she loved every minute of it. She appears to be unable to deal with the heat as she used to so we have taken a reluctant, albeit we hope temporary step and rented an apartment. We are on the 6th floor above the marina and can see north towards Hinchinbrook and south to Cape Bowling Green as well as keep a close eye on illywhacker from above.

We hope this will give Lyndall time to recuperate and although it is expensive, she can do it in style - as she so richly deserves.

View from our northern balcony

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