Sunday, December 31, 2006

Sandy Straits, Moreton Bay, & Southport

12/02/06 - 12/11/06;  Sandy Straits

Finally, after four weeks docked in Bundaberg we were once again off sailing and looking for remote anchorages (something not easily found in the middle of an Australian summer).  We started off by working our way south through the Sandy Straits.  There isn't much to this area, it's rather flat, nothing really ashore, and no stores or homes, but it is peaceful and we were able to finally 'dry out' after the weeks of socializing in Bundaberg!  The Sandy Straits was our introduction to huge tides, strong currents, and shallow waters.

In addition to the normal wind watching, we had to attempt to plan our sails based on current (hopefully going with us) and tides (preferably rising or high).  Usually it was impossible to have all the elements ideal, so we'd find ourselves barely skating through shallow areas (seeing 7.5 feet quite often), pushing against current (usually a good 2 knots), and/or motoring against the winds.  In the protected waters of the Sandy Straits it was often interesting but never too rough.  Once anchored we'd experience loop-d-loops as Billabong would swing 'round and 'round, sometimes riding to the current and sometimes to the wind.

By Tuesday (5th) we'd made it to "Gary's Anchorage", a very nice (even if shallow and tight) spot, where we were finally able to get off the boat and do a bit of walking.  Of course we were quite paranoid walking in the wilderness ... after all Australia is home to some of the top poisonous snakes and spiders.  Within 30 seconds of coming ashore Chris spotted a Funnel Spider, an extremely deadly little guy.  And, as if that isn't enough, no-see-ums and mosquitoes instantly surrounded us!  Not all of the wildlife is deadly or annoying; we also spotted a number of sea hawks, a couple large turtles, and a shark fin (off in the distance).

The 7th through the 9th were quite mellow as we waited out a [weather] system passing through; including brilliant lightning storms and a constant drizzle of rain.  Finally on the 11th the weather looked good, so we pulled anchor and continued our trek south.  In order to exit (or enter coming the other way) the Sandy Straits one must cross over one of the more notorious bar crossings in the area.  Up until now we had heard a number of horror stories about bar crossings, including boats being rolled and pitched poled, so needless to say we weren't really looking forward to it.  We were patient, waited for good weather, and a day that a number of other boats crossed over as well.  In  addition, Australia has set up a terrific volunteer marine service, which reports bar conditions (among other things).  Everything looked good, but as we approached our nerves were rattling ... especially Chris'.  He was beyond antsy and anxious -- even suggesting we anchor a bit just to think it over.  We'd been thinking about nothing else for the last week, so I voted we just go for it ... get it over and done with and perhaps gain a bit of confidence with these damn things.  The Sandy Strait bar is about three miles.  The first mile is also known as "the mad mile".  Nice name eh?  It definitely held up to its reputation; it was like a washing machine with waves every which way.  We had to exit with the current going against us, otherwise the current and wind would be against each other creating even larger, usually impassable, waves.  Chris couldn't sit/stand still so he took over steering, reporting our speeds against the waves/current (one time we actually went backwards for a few moments).  Once through the mad mile the conditions improved, but now we had to watch the depths.  Here we could also see where boats could easily be rolled in worse conditions; we had some large rolling waves, but none were breaking and they were spaced decently apart, I could only imagine what hell it would be in just 10 more knots of wind.  Two miles later we were through and both breathed easily again.  Now we could settle down for the over-nighter to Moreton Bay.  We motored sailed along the coast, still amazed at how flat and small Australia looks from the coast.  Just after lunch we snagged a fish, thrilled since a number of other friends of ours who had sailed down weeks early hadn't gotten even a bite!

12/11/06 - 12/17/06;  Moreton Bay / Brisbane Area

We almost never enter any bay or anchorage at night, no matter how well lit, marked, or open ... it's just not our thing -- we don't like the added stress.  So Moreton Bay was one of our first nighttime channel entrances, and while it is well marked, we both needed to be up to navigate through it.  Entering right around midnight meant that neither of us really got any sleep during the prior night's sail, adding to the navigational challenge.  We opted to go just past Brisbane, anchoring near Karragarra Island.  We were quite excited when later in the afternoon Island Sonata, who we hadn't seen since New Cal, arrived.  We had a terrific reunion before crashing, both of us exhausted after the anticipation of the bar followed by a nearly sleepless night.

We stayed anchored off of Karragarra Island for three nights, enjoying brief walks on Lamb and Russell Islands.  We were surprised to find that Russell Island was actually quite large, with a decent grocery store and internet access.  Both islands also have inexpensive ferry access to Brisbane, but we decided to forgo Brisbane, catching it on our way back north in the upcoming months.

On Friday (15th) we continued south, following Island Sonata (Chris called them our remote depth sounder) through the shallow channels towards the Tiger Mullet Channel and South Stradbroke Island.  Once, we hit ground, having to throw Billabong into high gear and plow through (a completely counter-intuitive act).  Just prior to our chosen anchorage Island Sonata reported 5 feet ... well, that just wasn't going to work - no plowing through that, so we anchored and waited for the tide to rise.  Chris took the dinghy and hand-held depth sounder to find the best route while I made lunch.  A few hours after lunch we figured the tide was about as good as it was going to get and went for it.  There were some interesting spots, where we are sure our keel left a few good plow marks through the mud, but we got through and were soon resting in a nice protected little spot.

The next morning we took the dinghy over to Stradbroke Island.  The island is quite bare; vast sand dunes stretching far.  It's a narrow island, so we were able to walk across and check out the ocean ... why we ALWAYS do this is beyond me ... why would people who live on a sailboat, who have traveled over 17,000 miles on the ocean feel the need to go look at it?  Whatever, we do, so we did.

The cool thing about this little stretch of land is that tons of wallaby's (small to medium-sized kangaroo) live on it.  It only took us a few steps inland to see a bunch of them hopping away.  Of course we instantly became stalkers, trying to get closer and closer, but never really succeeding.  These guys were good at hiding ... usually we didn't even see them until we'd stumble too close to a shrub they were hiding behind and BAM ... they'd come hopping out, fleeing away.

We had been admiring the large power boat we'd anchored by, so imagine our surprise when the owner dinghied by one day and invited us for margueritas ... for no other reason then he saw that we were from California, which is where he had bought his boat!  He was just on his way to pick up his son and son's girlfriend who were coming in from Southport by helicopter (nice eh?),  This is a beautiful boat, with restored wood, and tons of space ... I was in awe!  We ended up staying until nearly midnight (extremely late for cruisers used to going to bed with the sunset), and drank entirely too many marguerites ... obviously we had a fantastic time!

The next day was quite mellow (due to hangovers).  We were surprised when Island Sonata called us on the VHF saying "Stop that ice cream boat".  Ice cream boat?  Yep, we couldn't believe it either ... just like an ice cream truck, but floating!  Now how fun is that?  And here we thought we were in a secluded spot!!!

12/18/06 - 12/31/06:  Southport

On Monday (18th) we moved a few miles through the channel to Southport (officially we anchored in "Bum's Bay" just off of Seaworld).  We couldn't believe our eyes as the scenery slowly changed before us .... first a few nice homes, then islands of fancy Florida Keys style houses with docks out front, and finally high rise buildings jetting out from the sea like huge sea aliens.  Boat traffic increased and helicopters flew over head ... island life was officially over!  We were a bit hesitant about the 'big city', but it didn't take long to adjust ... obvious just by the fact that we've now been here over four weeks!

Island Sonata was trying to get to Sydney for the holidays, so they departed the following morning, while we moved to a more secure and protected spot within the anchorage (turns out that was one of our better moves).  Southport and the surrounding area is quite different than anywhere we've been in the last three years .. perhaps that is part of its lure.  We are anchored in a small, protected bay, with walking access to one of the best tourist beaches we've seen.  Within dinghy or bus ride distance are a number of different cities, offering everything from Queensland's largest mall, to high rise apartment buildings, to grassy parks.  It is unique to be anchored somewhere so calm and serene, yet within sight of high rise buildings and flowing traffic. (You can also read our BLOG description of the area by clicking here).

We've spent the last two weeks of December alternating between lazy days on the boat, to walking the various cities until our feet ached.  It's seems that every mall we visited was impossibly bigger then the last!  As Christmas approached we watched in fascination as boat after boat piled into Bum's Bay ... and even when we thought it impossible for another boat to fit, still more came.  Apparently beaching and boating during the holidays is huge here.  As we dingy around the bay we are also quite surprised to find that we appear to be the only foreign flagged vessel in the anchorage!  We found it quite amusing to hear the conversations of people passing Billabong ... it usually goes something like this;  "Hey, there's a Billabong", "Is that an American Flag", "California? ... but their name is Billabong" and so on.  I can honestly say that I have heard such conversations at least 15 times over the last two weeks!  (In case you don't know, Billabong is an Australian word).

As for the holidays, we joined some locals a few days before Christmas for a little dock party.  Again they were surprised to hear we'd sailed "all the way" from California.  On Christmas Eve the locals on a boat that was anchored behind us invited us over for drinks ... which ended up going until around midnight.  The one thing we've learned about Ozzie's is that boy can they drink!!!   Christmas was just the two of us and quite mellow.  We relaxed in the cockpit and enjoyed watching some of the boating action around us.  On the 26th, aka Boxing Day, we went ashore for family phone calls and to check out the Boxing Day sales.  We actually had our Christmas dinner that night, and enjoyed way too many hours watching the TV series 24 (our gift to ourselves for Christmas).  For New Year's eve it was once again just the two of us (along with the other 150 boats anchored here of course).  Originally we were going to try and get to Sydney via train, but were shocked to find out how expensive land travel around here is.  So it was a mellow New Year's, but fun with some game playing and at least three different fire work shows within easy view.

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