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Our guests John and Melissa arrived by train from Brisbane on October 5 after a smooth trip over from Virginia. John and Melissa are newlyweds, married just a year ago. Bradley and I had donated a week aboard Shear Madness to a charity auction and John and Melissa had been the winning bidders. We really did not know each other having only met once and doing most of our communication through email. But we knew they were adventurous souls and set out to show them a good time.
Our plan was to head off to Lady Elliot Island, about 40 miles away. The conditions looked favorable so after a round of our special Shear Madness drinks, a nice dinner and a good night's sleep we headed off. We had a very nice sail, with some dolphins playing on our bow and a good whale sighting. We made good time and arrived at Lady Elliot in time to enjoy some snorkeling. This was John and Melissa's first visit to Australia and the Great Barrier Reef so they were in for a treat! Lady Elliot is a small island surrounded by a beautiful coral reef and represents the southernmost tip of the Great Barrier Reef. In order to experience Lady Elliot by sailboat, conditions have to be nearly ideal, as the anchorage is mostly unprotected - in essence we were anchored right smack in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. In any wind above a few knots or in rough seas it would be a very uncomfortable spot. But so far the weather gods were with us.
The first snorkeling expedition was delightful. Lady Elliot has a huge variety of beautiful hard corals and an incredible amount of fish. It also enjoys protection as a marine park, meaning the fish cannot be caught and consequently they grow very large and are not afraid of people. So there are plenty of very large fish to watch very close up. We also enjoyed an abundance of turtles. Our first time in the water we saw several and were able to get quite close to them. After a nice warm shower, a round of Shear Madnesses as we enjoyed a perfect sunset, and a nice dinner, we settled down for the night. The boat rolled about a bit, but everyone seemed to get a good night's sleep.
One of the recommended snorkeling sites is named the Shark Pools. At low tide various kinds of reef sharks gather and wait for the tide to turn. As it rises, they swim across the reef to catch fish that were trapped in tidal pools at low tide. Melissa was a little concerned about swimming with the sharks but proved her adventurous spirit when she agreed to do it if we thought it was safe. So at low tide we set off to look for sharks. The site was just spectacular. Coral gardens with deep gulleys running through them provided excellent viewing of coral and fish. We saw several sharks, so getting quite close. And there were yet more turtles! It seems at this time of year they are everywhere. We stayed in the water for an hour and a half and agreed it was among the best snorkeling sites any of us had ever seen.
After lunch and a rest, John, Melissa, and I decided to snorkel one more time so Bradley and Gareth dropped us off with plans to meet ashore when we were done. We enjoyed more fabulous snorkeling and then swam ashore where there is a small "resort" which consists of some small cabins, and a pool and bar. Nice, but not exactly the Ritz! Lady Elliot is also populated with thousands and thousands of birds. We walked around the entire island (which took all of 30 minutes) and saw dozens of species of raucous avian creatures. As we headed to the bar to see if outside guests could enjoy a beer, the distinct smell of guana (bird droppings) was very prevalent. We enjoyed a cold drink - still clad in our wetsuits - and then headed back to the boat. The weather forecast brought some bad news. The next day was due to bring strong winds in the afternoon, making it impossible to stay at Lady Elliot and probably not a good idea to head to our next planned stop - Lady Musgrave. It looked like we would have to head back into Bundaberg and see what the weather would bring.
The winds increased steadily throughout the night and it was not a comfortable night, though we all slept reasonably well. The wind was already up to 15 knots by early morning and continued to build as we headed back. Soon we were sailing along quite comfortable in 20 knots and as we approached Bundaberg, the wind continued to build to 25 knots. John and Melissa were getting a great sailing experience too! We had left not a moment too soon, as the winds were up to 30 knots by the time we reached the marina. It was quite an adventure trying to dock the boat in 30 knots of wind. Fortunately, we had a couple guys on the dock to help catch and secure our docking lines, but it was a little more exciting than we like it to be!
As the winds were still forecast to be too strong to allow us to get back to the reef, we undertook some land based activities for the next couple days. The Port Bundaberg marina lies about 10 miles south of the city of Bundaberg on the Burnett River. There is bus service into town but since the next day was Saturday bus service was limited. The river was fairly calm so we decided to go upriver by dinghy, visit town, and then tour the famous Bundaberg Rum Factory. Sugar cane is the main crop in Queensland and molasses is a byproduct of sugar production and molasses is the main ingredient in rum. At the rum factory we learned how rum is made and got to sample the various products made at the factory. It was good we were not driving a car home! Our dinghy cruise on the river was a lot of fun and the water remained fairly calm, allowing us to stay dry and enjoy the scenery.
On Sunday the winds remained strong, so we rented a car and drove to the Mon Repos turtle sanctuary. This is a large beach where turtles come ashore in November to lay their eggs. It was too early to see turtles, but it was a nice beach with some great trails where we enjoyed a beautiful walk and some great scenery. John recorded everything with his new digital video camera! Next we stopped in at the Brischutta winery where we enjoyed a wine tasting. The wine was surprisingly good and we ended up buying a few bottles. Next door was a strawberry farm where we stopped for a very nice lunch and bought some strawberries. Then we took the scenic drive through Bagara Beach and went in search of the mysterious "hummock" which was shown on the map. We had no idea what a hummock was but decided we just had to see it. We came to an intersection with a sign pointing left that said "hummock lookout", even though the map said the hummock was to the right. We turned left to see what would happen and soon were driving through VERY desolate countryside. Soon the road was unpaved and kept getting narrower. We passed sugar cane fields, cane trains, and plenty of cattle, but not a hummock in sight! Finally the road ended so we turned around and retraced our path. This time we trusted the map instead of the sign and soon we arrived at THE HUMMOCK, which turned out to be a fairly small hill that had a scenic overlook of the surrounding countryside. You could literally see for miles, but it was not the most spectacular view we'd ever seen. However, the hummock is the highest point in Woongarashire and not too many people can say they've been there!
The forecast for Monday looked favorable so we hoped to sail to Hervey Bay, known as the whale watching capital of the world. As we left the marina, the winds were a little iffy, as we were heading directly into the breeze. But within an hour we had settled into a very nice sail and we made very good time. We didn't get to see any more whales, but we had a very pleasant day of sailing and arrived in Hervey Bay by late afternoon. It was John and Melissa's first anniversary, so we had a little celebration of that event. It's hard to believe the time had come to say goodbye to our new friends, but they are off on the next leg of their Australian adventure - to rent a car and drive to Brisbane, stopping at the famous Steve Irwin Zoo, then flying north to Cairns where they will have more fun on their own. It is always nice to make new friends and we truly enjoyed the chance to get to know John and Melissa. They are truly adventurous people and we hope they will make plans to visit Shear Madness again!
Our next challenge was to navigate the Great Sandy Strait, an inland waterway with barely enough depth for us to get through. After saying goodbye to John and Melissa, we set off on our first leg, motoring about 20 miles to a nice anchorage. After an incredibly calm and peaceful night, we set off the next day to complete our passage through the Strait, arriving at Tin Can Bay, home of our friends Michael and Cari, fellow cruisers who we met last year in Vanuatu (which many more people now have heard about since the latest Survivor is set there!). They invited us to dinner along with some other friends who had also been in Vanuatu, Janice and Colin and their sons Scott and Nick. I headed off to play golf with Michael while Bradley challenged Colin to some tennis. This was followed by a wonderful dinner and a chance to catch up with what's been happening with everyone.
The only thing left for us to do was to complete the last 60 mile leg back to our Australian home base at Mooloolaba. The forecast looked good for a Thursday departure, with winds predicted to be 15-20 knots from the northeast - great since we were heading south! We started off in light winds of less than 10 knots and soon had our spinnaker flying. Soon the wind was a comfortable 12-15 knots and we were flying - averaging more than 9 knots boat speed. The winds continued to build, creeping up to 20 knots - which is the limit of what our spinnaker can take. As the wind built to a steady 22 knots, we began to talk about getting the spinnaker down. As we discussed it, the wind continued to creep up, gusting to 25 knots. Yes, it was time to get that sail down. But we waited just a minute too long. A 25 knot gust caught the spinnaker at the wrong angle and there was a sickening sound of that beautiful sail ripping. Fortunately, we were able to get it down without further incident - believe me, getting down a large spinnaker (which is like a parachute) in 25 knots of wind in building seas is not an easy proposition! But other than the torn sail there was no other damage and we finished the trip sailing more than 8 knots with just our mainsail up. As we reached Mooloolaba, the winds whipped up to over 30 knots, with some gusts as much as 35. We had arrived not a moment too soon! Fortunately, we again had some extra hands on the dock to help get the boat secure and soon we were again safe and sound.
Well, another season has come to an end. It's time to head back home to catch up with friends, family, and our dogs! Our adventures aboard Shear Madness will continue in December, so stay tuned!