Team Aretha in Australia – Half Way round the World

It still feels surreal.

When we first cooked up the idea of sailing round the world some 6 years ago, it always seemed a long way off and I suspect to many people half baked given that we didn’t even have a yacht up to 3 months before our departure date.

Surreal as I say. Here we are anchored off Whitehaven Beach in the Whitsunday Islands inside the Australian Great Barrier Reef. I sit on deck in the perfectly still night air and watch the stars with the occasional shooting star. The air has a slight chill to it. In 10 days time it will be the one year anniversary of us leaving the UK on our “mad cap” adventure and we’re here over half way round and now starting the journey back towards the UK.

The year has been everything I expected and more – a truly magical set of experiences – of magnificent highs and challenging lows – we are certainly emerging stronger and wiser from just half of our adventure and we are all relishing the second half.

Since arriving in Australia some 3 weeks or so ago, its been a continuation of rich experiences. I’ll share some highlights and reflections.

When I last wrote we were fast sailing towards the Great Barrier Reef and Hydrographers Pass. We closed on the pass in the middle of the night and spent some anxious hours working out tides, wind and routing – not easy when you’ve been essentially single handing for a week and 1100 miles, and to add to that our VHF and AIS (the digital system that lets other vessels know you are around) was faulty with a very poor range of c1mile. Not much when some cargo ships are trucking along at 20 knots and they can’t see you.

We turned left into the pass and started working our way around the reefs using the electronic charts and tacked over the line under sail. Immediately on crossing the line we dropped sails and started motoring. From the finish line by the pass, its then another 100 miles or so to reach Mackay. We were head to wind for the next 6 hours and after 3 hours had foul tide meaning we could only make around 3 knots. That’s dead slow.

Nichola was still feeling the effects of the heavy seas so I motored through the night navigating Aretha through the reefs and eventually into the clearer and flatter water inside the reef. Ahead of us we could see the lights of Makena and Brizo, and behind us the lights of A Plus 2. By morning we were still plugging away and the flatter seas brightened Nichola up enough for me to get my head down for a couple of hours (or at least until the rod was buzzing as we hooked at 5 kilo king mackerel.

It took all day to motor the final 100 miles and we arrived just after 5 pm. We were put on a quarantine dock with the other boats arriving that evening – A Plus, Firefly and later on Garlix and Hugur. We had time for customs but the BioSecurity guys clocked off and we had to stay in quarantine overnight until they returned in the morning. We had strict instructions from Rally Control that until we had cleared in we weren’t allowed to talk to other boats, to leave the boat and had to sit tight. After 7 days and 1200 miles including the last 100, I think we were all in the mood for a drink. It started with wine on Firefly, then Garlix mixed up some Grog (Stroh Rum anyone) and the informal dock side party had started. Fortunately we didn’t get in trouble and with tired heads it didn’t go on for long. Time also to use up all the popcorn supplies and make the last of our popcorn for the kids before the corn is taken by Biosecurity.

The morning saw us visited by Biosecurity and Immigration – sniffer dog with white socks seeking out Cocaine, and checking out all our supplies. They did find bugs in our Mixed Herbs but that was it and by mid morning we were cleared and able to head off to our pontoon and catch up with all the other crews.

The next few days disappeared in a blur of sorting out contractors to start work on Aretha, catching up with friends and the inevitable beers. One night ended up playing poker on Juno with Rum until the early hours.

Exploring the local town of Mackay I was immediately struck by a very strong feeling. We’d been in the Pacific for the past 6 months and now we were suddenly back in the first world. Super efficient service, supermarkets, bars and restaurants selling food and brands you know. It all felt like being back at home and despite the welcomeness of all the modern conveniences (especially fast internet), it felt bland and sterile. The Pacific islands are so rich in their diversity, their culture, their vibrancy I was left feeling desperately sad and missing Island Life. I guess in many ways this is a dry run of what it will be like when we return again to the Western world in a years time after our second year or so at sea.

As with all things, the feeling passed and the lure and simplicity of first world life sucks you in and you appreciate how much easier it makes living.

We toured the local area visiting the Eungella National Park to see Platypyus and turtles in the wild, and to Cape Hillsborough for sunrise to see the Kangaroos and Wallabies on the beach. It’s true to say that Australia truly has some of the most stunning scenery in the world. The kids played with their friends – the children from Hugur, Kai from Makena and loved pushing each other up and down the wide pontoons in the boat trollies, as well as finding the best hot chocolates in town at Casu Jacks.

Mackay itself is an interesting town – built on coal mining and sugar cane, its a working town but with every Western trapping and huge supermarkets – perfect for fresh food provisioning and making life so much easier after the Pacific. I found chandleries and stocked up on spares and steadily worked through the list of getting the boat repaired – engine and generator service, rig checks, getting our Watt and Sea hydro generator fitted and plenty more to boot.

Some 5 days after arriving we had the prize giving. I’m delighted to say that we were announced as winners of this Leg from Vanuatu. Our first podium place and by a decent margin as well. After allowances for boat handicaps (some boats are quicker than others by virtue of their size/ design) and for engine hours (we barely used the engine on this leg, we won by a margin of some 8 hours. It’s a great feeling and we were all delighted.

Two days later and we were on a plane to Sydney to meet Nichola’s parents and spend a week with them exploring Sydney. As we locked up the boat and left it in the capable hands of Andy and Emma who were doing lots of maintenance work for us on Aretha, and Pete who was staying on Aretha, we left our boating life behind for a week. Have to say, it felt like a holiday and we had that excitement of going somewhere on a plane.

It was super to spend time with Sheila and Laurie and we managed to pack a huge amount into a week – going to the Aquarium, the Zoo, Manley and Shelly Beach, visiting the North Heads, the Opal Museum, running with Nichola in the mornings around the Botanical Gardens and the Opera House. The last time I was here was in 2000-01 on the BT Global Challenge. This was the first time I crossed paths with my previous circumnavigation and it was lovely to relive old memories – happy times spent with my Dad at Sydney Fish Market, with Ian, Dan and the guys at the bars at Pyrmont Bridge Hotel and around Darling Harbour. Mindy and Victor from Wayward Wind were in town as well and Mindy and her friend Heather very kindly took Bluebell to see Les Miserables – Blue was totally made up and got a new dress for the occasion. Fun times indeed.

It was a great opportunity for us to refresh ourselves too – haircuts, some new clothes (and foul weather gear from the Boat Show) and start to feel a bit smarter again and less like scruffy yachties. The World Cruising Club were running a talk for some 70-80 people on the World ARC and asked a few of our fleet to attend and to share their experiences. I was delighted to attend and it was great to be able to share our experiences with other young families and hopefully encourage some of them on their journey. It was warming to see the World ARC presentation and to realise how far we have come on our own journey – both in terms of what we have learnt and what we have seen.

On the final day we went to the Maritime Museum where the children were fascinated by walking round the replica of Endeavour (Captain Cooks ship) and to learn more about him and how we have essentially been following much of his route, and to take in the Shackleton Exhibition. All great learning for the kids and plenty of material for school projects. In the evening we went Ten Pin Bowling (which Willow aided by a shute to roll the ball down) gave us all a good lesson by beating us all by a massive margin. She was delighted (naturally).

Less exciting was the doctors visit for the last of our Hep B injections!

After a fabulous week, we waved goodbye to Sheila and Laurie and headed back to our home, Aretha and to start prepping for the second half of the rally.

Australia is a half way stopping point for the World ARC and many people choose to stay here for a year or have retuned home. One of the best things about our lifestyle is the deep friendships you make over shared experiences in such a short space of time. One of the hardest things is to then say farewell and move on. In Sydney we spent half a day with John and Jilly, a charming couple from Sydney who have been brilliant with the kids. Columbus in particular has spent hours with John learning about wildlife and Australia. Over the next week, we found ourselves saying goodbye also to Andy and Emma from Pentagram who we have sailed with since Portugal. Similarly with Paul and Caroline on Juno – they have been stalwarts of the fleet – always there with advice and help whenever its needed. We will miss all of them greatly and the children in particular who have become close to all of them. Other boats stopping have included Barry and Carol on Karma Wins, John and Stella on Exocet Strike and John and Catherine on Afar VI. We’ve all shared a mountain of experiences and we’ll miss everyone.

Back in Mackay, we find some new boat problems to fix – the VHF aerial and entire cabling needs replacing and the sheaves at the top of the mast (the rolly bits that hold the ropes (halyards) that pull the sails are worn and need replacing. Ah and we need new batteries too. It’s a continual cycle and I joke that we will have replaced all of Aretha by the time we get home. We’re only delayed by one extra day (we decide to fix the rig and batteries in Cairns or Darwin as we work our way up the coast).

That gives us time to play with the kids (we hold the Great Mackay Olympics in the Park – a series of mad hat races for the kids) and to watch the spectacle of one of Mackay’s biggest events of the year. Horse racing on the beach. Some 4,000 people show for it all dressed to the nines – well actually some of the ladies leave little to the imagination. It all turns drunken and raucous so we head for a favourite restaurant and swap boat stories with our friends.

So we head North – we are band of tightly knit sailors and head off with 9 of the boats who started the World ARC – Wayward Wind, Makena, Allegro, Exody, Garlix, Hugur, Ayama, Luna Quest and A Plus 2. This is a tough gig – its a fast pace and it puts a lot of demands on all who take part. We’re in good company and as we head North we maintain our SSB radio call every day at 9am and 6pm.

As we left Mackay, Paul from Juno slipped our lines and we headed out. Our first day was warm very light wind sailing (read motoring) and we were treated to an incredible live display by Humpback whales some 10 miles from Mackay. The 2 or 3 whales for half an hour continually breached (throwing themselves out of the water) and we are pretty sure one was calving (the tail stays in the air). Truly amazing. Something none of us will forget.

So, we sailed all day and by nightfall we made the anchorage off Whitehaven Beach which is where we are now. Its reputation as one of the Worlds Top 10 beaches is well deserved – its truly stunning.

Tomorrow we rendezvous with Makena for some snorkelling at Bait Reef and then head North to Cairns the day after.

Its’s good to be back at sea – we’re recharged, Aretha is in good shape and we are raring to go. We have plenty more adventures ahead of us.

Team Aretha in Australia. Out.

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  1. Hi Everyone. Can’t believe it’s nearly a year since you set off. Must feel like a lifetime ago. Glad you are having such a good time. Good luck for the second half of your adventure. X

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