Tag Archives: Percy Islands

Our first fish

We were anchored in Whites Bay, Middle Island of the Percy Isles, hiding from a surprisingly strong nor’wester. The forecast was for another change, this time from the south, blowing a healthy 15 knots directly into Whites Bay some time between 22:00 and 04:00. The dual attraction of a decent sailing wind and getting out of the bay before the swell started, saw us going to bed early with the intention of leaving as soon as the southerly change came through.

The change woke me at 03:30, and seemed to contain rather more wind than forecast, up to 20 knots inside the protection of the bay. Still, the developing swell was rapidly making it too choppy to sleep so we decided to stick to the plan. After a quick breakfast on deck to acclimatise our eyes to the darkness, we motored out of the pack of sleeping yachts and into the Percy Islands tidal race which was, for once, running with us rather than against us.

The southerly wind was working against the incoming tide to build some pretty big waves, and we had a bouncy time getting out of the group. Once out into the open sea, the wind ramped up to over 30 knots, officially gale force. With triple-reefed main and our cruising jib, we soon found ourselves creaming along at over 9 knots. The log records a maximum speed of 9.54, the fastest that we have ever gone.

VIDEO: GALE FORCE (4.2 Mb)

Since we were moving in a straight line, we thought that we may as well throw the trolling line over the stern. This line has a long history. Several months ago, Bronwyn decided that she wanted to learn how to catch fish, and we made a deal that if she can get one on board, then I’ll kill, clean and fillet it. Since then she has been chatting up fishermen and pestering tackle shop owners in an effort to find out the easiest way of catching our supper. It was surprisingly difficult to get a straight answer. Most of them said “Ah, you just throw a line over the back and you’ll catch something. No worries”, but when you actually tried to pin them down for some specific advice, such as “What line? Which lure? How deep?” they would often as not change the subject or offer wildly divergent advice.

My theory is that since it is regarded as quintessentially Australian to be born with a fishing rod in one hand and a barbecue spatula in the other, it is not manly to admit that you’ve never done either one or the other. Certainly when I announce that I have never fished in my life, I attract pitying stares and an embarrassed shuffling of feet. Much better for a woman to do the asking.

Bronwyn did eventually manage to find a couple of guys who seemed to know what they were talking about, and by May had put together a dream kit of all the tools necessary to catch, land, and process a small tuna. Since then we’ve tossed the gear over the back whenever we thought about it, but never got a sniff of interest.

Back to the story. There we were, screaming along in excess of seven knots in gale force winds, alternately burying first the gunwales and then the bow into mountainous swell. Naturally this was the moment that I glanced back into our foaming wake and saw a large fish tail-walking at the end of our line.

We had repeatedly memorised all the necessary steps for landing our first fish. After making sure that the hook is firmly set, we were supposed to stop the boat. Yeah, right. The obvious solution was to heave-to, but in these conditions this simply meant that we were making six knots backwards instead of nine knots forwards. Still, the important thing was that while hove-to we could forget about steering for a while and concentrate on the fish.

With four pairs of hands we managed to land a rather spectacular Spanish Mackerel, some two thirds of a metre long and weighing about seven kilos. We were quite impressed!


BRONWYN’S FIRST FISH

Now we had to quickly regain control of the boat before we ended up back in the Percy Isles; in the excitement we had gone backwards for over four miles. Back on our beam reach, we shared our bucking and heavily slanted cockpit with a washing-up bowl full of salt water and a very large and slippery dead mackerel. By the time we reached the Guardfish Cluster, our feet were soaking wet with a lingering fishy smell, but our mackerel was intact and, thanks to a swaddling tea-towel, relatively cool.

As we approached the first turn inside the Cluster proper, I again glanced out of the stern and spotted a young humpback whale practising a series of launches out of our wake. Beautiful.

Once we were safely anchored between the drying shoal and the rocky reef, I hauled out our shiny new filleting knife and reduced the mackerel to four enormous fillets.


SPANISH MACKEREL FILLET

Three went in the fridge, and the fourth we had for lunch, gently heated in a little olive oil. It was sweet, succulent, and absolutely delicious.

BRONNIE THE FISHIE BRONNIE THE CARNIVORE

Middle Percy Island

We had intended to move on from South Percy Island the next day, but the forecast was for a light nor’wester and our route was to the north west. Tacking for hours into a light wind held no attraction, and we didn’t really have enough fuel to spare to motor it, so we decided to stay another night at South Percy. With only light winds for the previous few days, I had become a bit complacent about the weather. Although I knew that the nor’wester would blow right into our little bay, I just assumed that it would maintain the same negligible wind speed that we had become used to, and in this assumption I was supported by the GRIB file that I had downloaded (via satphone: no internet out here) that showed a predicted wind strength of a barely perceptible 3 knots.

As the evening wore on, the nor’wester began to blow a good 10-15 knots and brought with it an uncomfortable swell. By the middle of the night we were being thrashed around as Pindimara bucked like a bronco, being held side-on by the tide to an ever-fiercer north westerly swell.

We decided to wait til dawn and then run for cover in Whites Bay, a SE-facing shelter under nearby Middle Percy Island. In fact I was up well before dawn, washing up and generally tidying away, so that by the time it was light enough to see, we were ready to go. The sideways swell was getting really rough, and it wasn’t possible to stand upright without hanging on.

Whites Bay was only a few miles to the north, and we could see that there was a single yacht already at anchor there. When we were about half way across, a whole stream of yachts appeared around the south western corner of the island, all heading in our direction. We guessed that they had been caught out by the wind change while anchored on the western side of the island, which is the usual tourist destination because of the world famous “A-Frame” cruisers’ meeting place on the shore. This was later confirmed by Jace on Eveready who said that there had been a bit of a sundowner at the A-Frame the previous night, and by the time they’d all got back to their boats, the wind had already changed and nobody felt up to moving on.


VIEW TOWARD SOUTH PERCY FROM MIDDLE ISLAND

Once we had all anchored, Bronwyn and I went over to the shore for a walk. There was a dune which I inevitably climbed, and which proved to have an interesting crust a few metres from the top where the steep surface had been hardened to the consistency of concrete before being lightly sprinkled with fresh sand. Very slippery.


IT’S A LONG WAY DOWN

We didn’t explore very far into the island, though, because we intended to go to bed early and leave in the middle of the night.

An island of our own

There were two other yachts close in to North West Bay on South Percy Island, but we anchored farther out in our usual 10 metres, which put us a good half a kilometre off but still out of the tidal race that runs between South Percy and nearby Middle Island to the north. After a meal and a rest, we chucked the tender over the side to go take a look at the beach. We considered rowing, but were aware of the three knot tidal rip and invisible reefs, so we clamped on the outboard instead.

We spent a pleasant afternoon pottering about on the beach, after which Bronwyn sat down and sunned herself while I clambered about on the rocks and erosion gullies behind the tide line.

BEACH BABE ROCK DUDE


BEACH DUDE


“INTERESTING” EROSION GULLY

Over breakfast next morning, we noticed the other two boats sailing out of the bay. It was only when Bronwyn said “Great! Now we have an island of our own!” that I realised that this was what I had been waiting for. Great Keppel had been nice, and I had been expecting to make use of the extensive hiking trails around it, but when it came down to it I’d been happy that we had gone snorkelling instead. Now we had the whole of South Percy Island to ourselves, and I had seen on my brief expedition the day before that there were no trails or paths at all. Perfect for exploring!

We packed some vittals and took the tender over to the headland. We landed on a different beach which showed a few footprints and signs of human passage. Behind it was a pebbled gully full of flotsam, mainly timber and empty coconuts that must have floated in from Polynesian or Indonesian vessels, although there was an interesting pile of pumice on the high tide line.

Above the gully, though, the green hills beckoned. I started the long climb to the top, and found it hard going. The tufty grass was ankle deep and crunchy, hiding rocky voids and small clumps of prickly pear cactus. This was excellent news, as it seemed to me pretty unlikely that most people would persevere, and I could continue my daydream of exploring a deserted tropical island.


PRICKLES


OUR ISLAND

As is the way with these things, the top revealed another higher peak beyond, and then a third one. From there, though, I had a great view of the surrounding ocean and islands, and of the bay far below where Pindimara sat patiently at anchor.


OUR HOME

There were no trails or any other signs of human activity. I jumped up and down and waved to the little dot of Bronwyn far below, who years ago decided that I am a loony and best left alone in the presence of climbable peaks.

Later that day we decided to explore North West Beach, which looks like a great anchorage on the chart but which is described as having a difficult-to-see reef line. We went at low tide, in the tender. The tides here are four metres, and so at that time of day we could clearly see parts of the reef that you would normally only see when snorkelling or scuba diving. It was a curious feeling to be first motoring, then rowing, and finally walking along towing the dinghy through gardens of soft coral scattered with small fish and giant clams. I had to be very careful not to put my foot on anything that might get damaged, but it was an amazing experience.


YOUR CARRIAGE, MA’AM?


O SOLE MIO

As the tide comes in over a reef, fish that have been hiding in rock pools or beneath the sand emerge and head out into deep water. We saw a few schools of fish milling around in the shallows waiting for their opportunity, and then suddenly realised that we were wading through the school of sharks that were waiting for them. We’re still not sure what species they were, but they were a metre long, brown with orange black-tipped dorsal fins, and very wide. They obviously detected that we were much bigger than them because they stayed at least five metres away, but it was still a weird experience to be paddling through a school of big and clearly very hungry sharks.


VERY BAD PIC OF SHARK

Keppel Islands to Percy Islands

Before we left Great Keppel, Sue and Steve showed up on Tenacious D. Sue and Steve were not only our neighbours when we were preparing for our voyage back at Gibson Marina, but they were also the only long term cruisers that we really knew, and as well as being lots of fun they did a grand job of putting up with all our stupid questions during our final months of preparation. It was great to catch up. We had a bit of a yarn over a pancake breakfast and then they had a lunch date on another boat, so we hoiked up the anchor and set off to the north.

We had a long way to go, and there was very little wind forecast, but we managed to bravely leave under sail. It may have been slow, but it was peaceful. We noticed that the water was sparkling, and dipped a bucket in to see the diatoms and flagellates swimming about. We followed a lunch of chilli tuna salad on freshly baked bread with a small bottle of champagne and some lime jelly.


LIFE’S PRETTY GOOD

As the sun set prettily over the Queensland hills, we heard the dull thump of army munitions. This whole coastline is sometimes taken over for army training, and we’d heard on the grapevine that they were using it today. This meant that our intended half-way anchorage at Port Clinton was out of the question, so we were intending to travel all night to the Percy Islands.

The military zone extends quite far out to sea, so we had to arrange our course to avoid it. Pretty soon the wind died completely, and we spent the rest of the night chugging up the military boundary line under motor. Given the forecast, we felt pretty lucky to have had the sails up for as long as we did.

Bronwyn went below and I stood the first watch. Since there was very little swell, steering was pretty easy even though we were motoring, and I found that with the aid of a head torch I could steer and read a novel at the same time. The watch passed pleasantly swiftly, punctuated by the occasional yellow star shell drifting over from the military manoeuvres on shore.

Bronwyn took over from the small wee ones until pre-dawn. A sea fog threatened to roll in from the east, but it was low on the water and left the sparkling stars bright and clear above. Thankfully the fog never developed.

I was back at the helm just before dawn, which revealed another clear blue sky but still no wind. South Percy Island was in sight all morning. Most cruisers visit Middle Island rather than South, but after staring at it for so many hours we thought we decided that rather than simply steering around it, we would stop for the night.

There was quite a lot of debris in the sea, tree trunks and large branches, as well as a substantial quantity of what seemed to be an orange algal bloom. Half way up the eastern coast, and over a mile from shore, we encountered a large yellow snake swimming by. It was a metre long and looked a lot like a python rather than a sea snake, and had tied the end of its tail up in a knot, presumably for buoyancy or for balance. It stopped and regarded us with interest when we slowed and did a circuit around it, and then began once more swimming strongly out to sea. We wondered how it could see where it was going, with its head that close to the water.


JUST PASSING BY

At half past two in the afternoon, we dropped anchor in a delightful sandy bay in the north eastern corner of South Percy Island.