Mad Mile at Wide Bay Bar

Once clear of the Mooloolaba bar there was only a metre or two of swell, which was far less than we’d expected after a week of storms. Even more conveniently, the swell was coming from the same direction as the wind, so although the breeze was light we still managed to get up to a reasonable cruising speed.

I’d re-plumbed the water maker in Mooloolaba, so as soon as we got into open water I popped down below to play with it. It was much improved, but still didn’t seem to be building up enough of a hydrostatic head to get a good flow. I messed about with it for a while, but then the combination of close work and a quartering swell got me feeling somewhat green, and I went back up on deck for a lie down.

By the time I’d recovered, Bronwyn was also feeling the effects of the swell – obviously our sea legs had regressed during our long stay – so she went below to rest and I took the helm.

Very soon I was very hungry. Having eaten all the snack food in the cockpit, I went hunting below. I had to rush up and down in fits and bursts, as I was hand-steering because the wind was too variable to trust that Harriet would steer a close compass course, but eventually I found a large helping of ravioli that Bronwyn had prepared before we left, bless her, although she was herself still ill and dead to the world.

It was a moonless and cloudy night, very dark indeed, and “keeping a lookout” really meant glancing around in the pitch black every now and again to see if there were any lights out there. The rest of the time was spent either staring at the compass and trying to hold a reasonable course, or marvelling at the bright luminosity of our phosphorescent bow wave.

At one point I became rather confused by a fast-moving fishing boat that was displaying no navigation lights at all. I had to get close enough to see its deck lights reflecting in its wake before I could figure out which way it was heading, and take evasive action. I’m not sure that he ever saw me.

On a separate occasion, I noticed what I took to be the masthead lights of a stationary trawler, so I gently eased over to one side to give him a wide berth. I was quite shocked when the apparently distant vessel suddenly turned into a man in oilskins standing on a metal raft only a few boat-lengths away, holding a lantern and peering into the water. It’s funny what you see, out there on the ocean.

Eventually the wind died and I started the motor. This meant that steering became much more of a chore, because I couldn’t just balance the sails and let her run, I had to fight her every moment because the prop really wanted to turn to put the quartering swell behind us. At around midnight I realised that I was very, very tired, and although I felt guilty about it I dragged Bronwyn up for a stint while I napped on the floor of the saloon.

A couple of hours later, I was back in the saddle. Bronwyn wasn’t looking good at all, a combination of sea-sickness and the tail end of a nasty cold, and she was very glad to crawl back into bed. Luckily I was feeling quite chipper after my break, and especially so when the stars came out and the wind returned, and I found myself gliding silently beneath the Milky Way. A few hours later, Venus rose brighter than I have ever seen. It actually cast shadows on the boat and laid a Venus-beam across the water. Gorgeous.

As dawn broke we were coming abeam of Double Island Point, a common roadstead anchorage. We’d had half an idea to rest there for a few hours before risking the nearby Wide Bay Bar which was bound to be hairy after all the recent weather, but I spoke to the Tin Can Bay Coastguard on the radio and he said that it was “a bit rolly, but not too bad” before giving me the latest waypoints around the shifting shoals. Bronwyn appeared on deck feeling much improved, and was able to spell me for an hour or so across Wide Bay while I took a nap, so we decided that since we were on a perfect rising tide we might as well go for it.

Wide Bay is (don’t you love Australian cartographers?) about ten miles across, and much of the north western corner is continually breaking shoals. There are leading lights on the shore, but the bay is so big that you can’t really see them until it’s too late, so the coastguard maintains a set of coordinates that you can follow to keep you out of trouble. We dropped the sails and got to the first waypoint easily enough, but just had to trust the course to the next one, because it looked from our vantage point as if we were motoring into a wall of breaking waves. I think that the cat behind us didn’t have the coordinates, because it chickened out of the leading line three times before committing to following our trail. I don’t really blame them as it did look very intimidating ahead.

Just before the second waypoint, a gap magically appeared in the wall of white water and we chugged through. It reminded me of the time I paddled out of a lagoon break in Samoa, with huge walls of water towering on either side and my kayak slipping unharmed in between.

Bronwyn called up the course to the third waypoint from her position below at the chart table. I turned to the west and we entered the zone known locally as “The Mad Mile”.

It was completely crazy. I could just make out some leading lights in the distance, but without the waypoint course I wouldn’t have believed it possible. Enormous rolling surf surged across our path, breaking into curving rollers to the left and to the right. Huge mountains of water lifted up and dropped away, sending thundering walls of water across our route. Despite my best efforts, Pindimara began to roll violently. The gunwhales were almost in the water, and we shipped some green ones across the deck. Down through the hatchway, I could see Bronwyn’s knuckles tightening on the companionway banister as she tried to keep herself in her seat. The computer is held down by a velcro strap, but the GPS and cabling is not, and I could hear vague crashings and tinklings from below over the roar of the waves. Bronwyn says that she saw all of our coffee mugs leap off the shelf and then magically set back down into their positions. On deck, the binoculars leapt from their usually safe shelf under the dodger, spiralled through the air and landed unharmed on the other side.

I spied another yacht coming towards us, obviously using the same waypoints to get out to sea. He was about our size, and on several occasions I saw clear air under at least half of his hull; presumably we looked exactly the same to him. I would have loved to fire up the video camera, but I was fully occupied with staying at the helm and keeping the bow out of the water. It was all I could do to give him a cheerfully nonchalant wave as he flashed past in a welter of foam.

And then… the sun shone on the placid waters of Wide Bay Harbour, and the quiet sandy shores of Fraser Island stretched out to the north. A low-sided landing craft chugged across in front of us, laden with tourists. I looked over my shoulder. Behind us, the seas still raged, but it all looked out of focus and unreal. We had arrived.

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