By KATHIE WEBB
In August 2011 I was one of a group of ten kayakers who paddled from Mackay to the Whitsundays. It was a fantastic experience and we were lucky to have mostly warm, sunny weather allowing us to swim while it was still winter at home. The scenery was amazing. Frequently we saw whales breaching, loggerhead turtles swimming by and almost every day finished with a magnificent sunset. We also encountered strong wind and big seas.
Our group consisted of John Slattery (trip leader), his brother David, plus Alan, Terry, and Bruce (from Wollongong), Rob (from Ulladulla), Dennis (Byron Bay), Ted and Anna (from Christchurch NZ) and myself. Five of us had paddled in the Whitsundays in July 2006 and due to the strong southerly winds said that next time we’d be heading north most of the time. This trip started from Bucasia Beach, Mackay, each of us with food for eleven days and 20 litres of water, aiming to paddle via Brampton and Lindeman Islands north to the Whitsundays and finishing at Shute Harbour. We took eight plastic boats with sails – two 7.5m Komodos (doubles) five 5.1m Salamanders and my 4.3m Gecko – all made by John and David at Australis.
Day 1: We thought our first day would be the biggest challenge of the trip as Brampton Island is 27km offshore. However, with an incoming morning tide and the assistance of SE wind the trip across was easier than expected. Seeing flying fish and whales on the way made for an exciting start. We landed on Brampton after four and a half hours on the water but after a short break moved on hoping to find a more protected campsite. It wasn’t the smartest decision as our energy levels had dropped. After another 6km mostly against the tide, and a total of 6 hours of paddling, we landed on Carlisle Island (just behind Brampton). We were pleased to be there but we’d had too much time in the boats. Neils Beach made up for our efforts with a weather shed, toilet and water tank. We set up tents and relaxed looking out over the water to a fabulous afternoon sun.
Day 4: We headed off from Goldsmith Island for Thomas Island. It was only 18.7km to our next campsite but it was a challenging paddle. We hit a maximum speed of 14.2km/hr in big seas, with sails up the whole time. The heavily-loaded boats saved us being tossed wildly by the seas, but several of us had a few scares swerving side-on to waves. As we approached Silversmith Island, John and Dennis in one of the doubles dropped further and further behind. Their spraydecks without shoulder straps (John had cut them off for comfort) let in water when waves broke over their shoulders and they had to take shelter behind a rocky outcrop to pump out. They’d been sitting waist deep in water in their cockpits.
Day 6: We headed off from Thomas with early morning wind around 10-15 knots and sloppy seas. It was only 17km from Thomas to Shaw and we did it in 3 hours. We’d decided to stay only one night on Shaw but by the afternoon 25-30 SW winds had come up and we had to sit it out for a second day. We weren’t able to contact anyone on our marine radio so Dave checked the weather online and the BOM forecast indicated the wind to drop to 15 knots within the next two days.
Day 8: We headed off intending to reach Boat Port on Lindeman. The wind had been strong all night and we weren’t confident that we’d be able to leave Shaw. With daylight we checked the conditions and even though there were strong SW winds blowing, we were heading NE with the wind and a run-out tide. We had no trouble getting to Lindeman and when we reached the NE tip we rafted-up for a meeting. The wind was getting much stronger and we could see whitecaps everywhere with dark clouds looming. We’d only done 7.5km and it was only just after 9.00am, hard to stop this early, but we did.
Day 9: We headed off from Little Lindeman on a 9.4km open water crossing to Hamilton Island. The conditions didn’t look great, but nothing worse than what we’d been paddling in. Within about 3km of leaving Little Lindeman the wind increased considerably and the seas with it. We all had sails up and were moving at a fast pace. There wasn’t much paddling, mostly bracing as strong SW winds drove us forward. We were trying to head NW and in between the sets we had to scoot across to the west in the valleys to compensate for the wind that was driving us NE. Later, we learned that the wind in that area was blowing 25-36 knots and gusting to even more. My GPS said my maximum speed coming across was 16.9km/hour. It was a time to be humble and grateful that no one had tipped over.
The conditions that day were awful and pushed the skills and awareness of each member of the group to new levels. We had to keep going when the wind got stronger as we couldn’t turn around. The realisation that rescues were near impossible heightened the sense of self-preservation. However, all of the boats performed beautifully and revealed their reliability in these seriously challenging conditions. The Komodo, Salamander and Gecko are all designed with multi-chined hulls giving them excellent primary and secondary stability. In strong wind, you can lay your boat over on its edge and know you are not going to tip. The raked nose is designed to cut through waves. I’d taken my Gecko in preference to my Nelo mainly because I did not want to have to worry about trying to protect the epoxy hull. As it turns out, I made the best choice for seaworthiness. I was much safer in the Gecko as I could handle it more easily in strong wind combined with big seas.
After rounding Hamilton Island we found strong current, rain and wind in the passage between Henning and Whitsunday Island. It was great fun chasing runners after the challenge of the open water crossing. We were all enjoying ourselves when conditions changed again. We got more wind and more white water as wind and tide collided when we tried to round the headland on the westerly tip of Whitsunday Island. We were heading for Joe’s Beach, a campsite in a channel opposite Cid Island. We’d camped there on the previous trip and were expecting the channel to be protected. But the more we tried to round the headland, the more dangerous the water became. The wind was howling and the waves running around the headland were steep, and fast. It was extremely difficult to head to the right as the wind kept driving us to the left and the waves were like tunnels. In the end we gave up.
We landed on the western end of Cid Island. The tide was half out and the beach was a mess of rocks and oysters, not good even for plastic boats. Within fifteen minutes the wind dropped just enough for us to go back out and paddle to the protection of Joe’s Beach. It had been an exhausting morning and, though we’d only covered 25.5km, each of us felt totally worn out. The conditions worsened over the rest of the day and when we phoned for a weather report we found that the forecast for the following day was 25-30 knot SW winds. To head toward South Molle or Shute Harbour the following morning would mean paddling into the wind and against the tide and three of our boats had damaged sails. We decided to end the trip and called for the barge to pick us up the next day.
Many people think of the Whitsundays as an idyllic place to kayak with sundrenched, white, sandy beaches and beautiful, flat, blue water. And yes, there are days like that, but the Whitsundays can also have days that are quite treacherous for paddlers. We had a satellite phone for emergencies but we did not need to use it. Four of our group wore bright orange paddling hats. There were times when the orange hat was all that could be seen.
Reflecting on this trip, it was a brilliant adventure and I feel very lucky to have been part of it. The average age in our group was 61 so it is no surprise that each of us felt a huge sense of achievement. We had a great group of people who supported each other well. I loved the isolation and freedom of the southern islands. It is a fabulous feeling to set up your tent on the edge of a beautiful beach on an uninhabited island with the knowledge that you had paddled yourself and your gear there.