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Eye of the Wind: square rigger sailing trip

20-27 October 1990

By the end of the first hour I was 100 foot aloft, clinging desperately to ropes, wooden spars and canvass sails on the Eye of the Wind. Someone was yelling out to unfurl the sail, but all I could do was gaze blankly over the islands and down to the deck below. The stiff afternoon breeze had the topsails, and my stomach, pitching 50 degrees from side to side. It was an exhilarating, testicle-retracting ride.

After a three hour drive from Townsville to Airlie Beach the night before, we set off on a sailing trip of a lifetime. I'd always dreamt of doing this - sailing through the Whitsunday Islands in the Great Barrier Reef on a large, luxurious square rigger ship. The Eye of the Wind is superb and meticulously maintained. All the wood is preserved and varnished. All the brass fittings polished. She can carry 28 guests and 10 crew. Rob Gommersall, a marine biologist who conducts special interest tours to the Great Barrier Reef, had invited me to join the trip after I'd promoted his eco-tourism company at a National Marine Educators Association conference in Hawaii. I joined a small group of Australian and overseas guests - a local couple and their family, a travel agent, an American couple and a retired British Army officer (who began Outward Bound in Australia).

Day 1. We left Airlie Beach and sailed through the Whitsunday Channel, past Hamilton Island resort, to a beautiful area called 'Chance Bay'. By mid-afternoon we were aloft again, adrenalin pumping through my veins, balancing on small ropes against the yard arms to take in the sails. We moored for the night in the south-eastern bay of Whitsunday Island, the largest of 74 islands in the group. A few of us took the zodiac ashore to explore the beach. Thousands of soldier crabs marched across the sand flat while pied oyster catchers fed in the shallow waters. The weather is perfect: 30 degrees Celsius and a light 10 knot breeze.

Day 2. We awoke at 7.00 am to a still morning with mist shrouding the glassy sea. It was a leisurely morning while we waited for a breeze before getting underway. We went ashore again and collected some coconuts to eat back on the ship. Went for a snorkel and tried out a small wooden canoe built in the Solomon Islands. I paddled about 1 km back from the rocky coastline. We then sailed south to Thomas Island and Dead Dog Island, mooring in a protected inlet on the western side. After climbing the rigging to set and take in the sails, I'm starting to feel more confident aloft.
The ship's skipper and part owner is called 'Tiger'. He's a classic old salt, living on ships all his life, and has skippered the Eye since re-furbishing it in Faversham, England, in 1973. He knows just about everything there is to know about the sea and the Pacific. Gary is first mate and at 26, has built up a formidable knowledge of square riggers, including time on the'Bounty'. Conversations are inevitably about ships, the sea, previous holidays and expeditions to far away places. The guys crewing the ship are tough. Dan, a German and Neil, a New Zealander, are both about 6' 2" and weigh in at 220 lbs. They look more like rugby forwards. Their feet and hands are calloused by continual hauling of lines and sail. You wouldn't pick a bar fight with either if you wanted to live.

Day 3. We motored the Eye to Lindeman Island as there is no wind, arriving by mid-morning for several passengers to leave by aircraft back to the mainland. Poor souls. They were obviously leaving to go back to an office job somewhere. A group of us went ashore and walked through the resort to Boat Port, the site of the original settlement. The views of the bays, inlets and other islands are superb, so there is plenty of camera clicking. We then sailed north to Pentecost Island, a high jutting continental island named by James Cook as he sailed past in June 1770, to Hazelwood Island, mooring at Windy Bay, where we went ashore for some reef walking (Marine Park B zone).

Day 4. We cruised by night under motor from Hazelwood Island east to Black Reef, mid-way along the Great Barrier Reef's two thousand coral reefs. By dawn, the wind had picked up considerably, and by 7.00 am it was gusting to over 30 knots. Anxiously, I helped take in the upper top foresails. It's been a long time since I felt anything so challenging - physically and emotionally. The adrenal gland was working overtime and, after only 20 minutes, I felt like I'd done a days work. The masts were swinging and the sails flapping in the wind. One wrong move, or an overbalance, meant a long fall down to the deck, or if lucky, into the sea. I hauled in the sail one-handed, while the other gripped white knuckled to the jack rail, my body curled around the yard and by toes gripping in the foot line.
After anchoring, we then prepared for our first dive. It was a simple 15 metre drift along the reef crest wall for 40 minutes. We then have a break for lunch and some lectures about the sail systems and rigging of this brigantine to better understand how to work the deck and sails. Later in the afternoon, we did another drift dive at 25 metres with about 30 metre visibility. It was OK but somehow all I want to do is lie down sleep. Early mornings, climbing in the rigging and diving takes it out of you. I feel for the crew. They work while we play. And each takes 2 hour watches during the night. So when they can, they try to catch up on sleep with cat naps during the day.

Day 5. Six am start. The SCUBA divers ready for an early morning dive on the seaward side of Black Reef. It is an excellent dive of 35 minutes at 25 metres. We see reef sharks and green turtles, and the coral cover is more diverse and colourful then the previous day's location. We collect some hard and soft coral samples, and a yellow nudibranch, to observe back on deck using microscopes. Rob Gommersall and I then climb aloft to search for a sand cay reported, but none is to be found.
By mid afternoon we're in the water again, seeing a giant a manta ray leap out of the water just in front of our zodiac. While the weather is perfect 30 degrees, you still need a wet suit if you want to get wet for any length of time.

Day 6. Another early morning dive with Neil. At 28 metres, it is a top location for large, pelagic fish. We see many black tip reef sharks, schools of barracouta and tuna, big coral trout and sweetlip. It's eerie swimming so close to them. At first, the current carries us 3 knots along the bottom, and then we fin over to a ledge overlooking plenty of marine action. So many large fish that we can't even recognise. We stay for about 15 minutes just mesmerised by them all, especially the barracouta that circle so close you can reach out and touch them.
As we head back west to the Whitsunday islands, I start to feel more comfortable climbing in the shrouds and shimmying out along the yards. There's still the butterflies, particularly leaning out on the overhangs, or climbing to the end of the yard arms, but the initial gut knotting fear is gone.
We arrive at Catamaran Bay on Bourder Island at 7.00 pm to a perfect tropical sunset. The ship is graced by a pod of dolphins that dance on our bows for half an hour and keep us entertained by their frolicking games. It's time to relax and dream of sailing like this forever. Quite the job, sell the house and take a sea change. I'm getting to enjoy the gentle movements of the ship. The creaking sounds of the wooden floors and timber hull. It has a personality of its own.
A passage from Geoffrey Blunden's novel 'Charco Harbour' reads "A ship is an envelope of sound: her life is the buffeting of her bows and the swart hissing seas which spill over her, the ceaseless creaking of her timbers and the gurgle of her gorged bilges, the yerking spars, the thrum of standing and running gear, the thunder of her sails. Becalmed, the ship hulls down and would die a hulk, but for another harmony which encloses and quickens her: the subtly orchestrated sound of her human freight."

Day 7. We take the zodiac to Bourder Island and climb the saddle to take in the views over Whitsunday Island and other smaller islands. It is truly a magnificent area and deserving of its World Heritage status. We return and spend time watching ospreys, brahminey kites and two sea eagles swoop and dive for fish scraps as we watch in awe. They are magnificent birds.
By midday, we set the fore and main topsails to cruise through the narrows, past Hook Island resort, to anchor in Nara Inlet. This protected deep water harbour is a popular anchorage and often protects many small vessels from wild and stormy seas. We walk ashore to the national park to see the aboriginal rock art paintings in a small cave at the head of the inlet. Then it's off to Cid Harbour were we ferry ashore again at Sawmill Beach to walk a short track and spot more seabirds. This is one of the best areas of the Whitsunday's.

Day 8. Last day is a leisurely cruise from Cid Harbour south to Hamilton Island to drop off some passengers. It is the last time up in the rigging to set the topsails. We stop at a private freehold house at Dent Island to visit Bill Wallace, an American who has lived there for 31 years (his wife is 87). His art shop consists of tacky corals and shell jewellery. Then it's back to Shute Harbour to say our goodbyes and return home. What a week it's been!

Don Alcock

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