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Friday, May 26 – Mackay – Airlee Beach – boat
I got up and got ready to leave McKay. It was a lovely rest stop and I left feeling that I could have used at least one more day to really relax. I guess I still have that lesson to learn.
I took a cab to the bus station and had time to go find a cup of tea and a cookie for the ride. Greyhound bus, I haven’t been on one of these for years. During the ride, the bus driver put in the movie “How to loose a guy in 10 days”. I didn’t plan to watch it, but I was so close it was hard to miss. Any time the bus went over a large bump in the road, the VHS stopped and the girl sitting under the player had to restart the machine. She had to get up a lot.
Two hours of a ride and I arrived in Airlee Beach right on the water. The bus terminus was in a parking lot and when I asked directions of a backpacker van, they indicated a convoluted route with me going up and over a hill and then around. I knew they were pulling my leg, and it turned out to be a mere 200 meters down the sidewalk. I left my big piece of luggage in storage and went to check in for my 3pm departure to the boat. Upon registration of the office, it was obvious that I had way too much luggage in the wrong type of bag. They gave me a little synthetic bag for some of my stuff and I went back to the hostel to repack, drop off my computer and pick up my towel. I also stopped and picked up a beach towel, new sun hat and a beach wrap. Caught a quick lunch and then went to the bus stop. There was a collection of people already waiting. By the time the bus arrived, most of the group was assembled. Early research showed guests from Canada, US, the UK, and Australia. We were to be a total of 20 guests on a boat that can hold 24.
We were delivered to the wharf and were told that no alcohol would be supplied and if we wanted any, we could buy it at the marina but it must be in plastic or boxes, no glass. I bought a few more bottles of water and a little chocolate. It was low tide, so the vessel was moored out in the harbor. Before we got on the boat, we rented our stinger suits, basically medium thick wet suite for two reasons – it is the end of stinger (jellyfish season) and the water is a bit cold. We were “tendered” out to the ship 6 at a time and most of us had soggy bums by the time we arrived at the boat. Up the ladder and surrender your shoes into a large sack. YAH no shoes!
The ship/boat/vessel was called the Spank Me. It has the unique honor of being the only sailing vessel from Australia that has won the America’s Cup for Australia. (This fact needs to be validated) Originally built by Alan Bond from Aust in 1989, it is a 25M craft and is now owned by an American Company. At the back (stern) of the ship on the top deck were the air cylinders for diving. Immediately in front of that were two wheels so that the skipper can stand and sail on either side depending on how the boat is leaning. Next to the wheels were two metal triangular steps. They are in place so that when the boat is leaning all the way over, the skipper has a stable platform to balance on. In front of both wheels are dual controls and gauges along with the deck that runs from the back to the middle of the ship and the steps that go down into the hold. On this part of the deck, we spent most of our time talking and watching things go by. In the aisle way between the benches, were 5 different cranks that the guests and the crew used to raise different sails. It took 8 of us to raise the mail sail with 4 grinders in use and a pair of people facing each other. One person would be grinding overhand or forward and the facing person would be grinding underhand or backwards. ¾ of the way to the top, the crewmember would say, stop and reverse and then the team would reverse their hand movements. With the reverse, the gears were changed and it became an easier task. After the main sail was up, 4 people would help to raise the fore sail. Same technique and frankly a harder task. Just in front of the steps into the hold was the main mast. In front of the mast heading to the bow of the boat, the deck came to a point. On the way to the point, there were two panels that could slide back and let air into the forward cabin where 8 people were sleeping.
The crew was Dave as skipper (who I called Mr. Skipper Sir, until I could remember his name. He said he preferred Dave!), Murray as deck hand and tender driver, Brice our dive master who also helped with the sailing, and Adam, our chef and host. Adam was low man on the totem pole and had all the menial tasks. He would like one day to be skipper, if for no other reason that he would not have to handle the toilets when they clog up. During our trip, none of the crew drank any alcohol, as they could be fired if reported. Nice men, all of them.
We were told that were not enough single berths for all of us, so they asked couples and people traveling together to come forward. That left about 5 of us. I located a lower single bunk across from the galley and Carl (37 yr old Brit) took the double above me. Kate from Perth/Sydney on the other side of the galley and Lucy and Marie in the very narrow doubles directly behind the galley. The crew had the stern of the boat for quarters and writing area. The other couple that shared our hallway was a pair of African-American sisters, Tavia and Leah from Iowa. They were a stitch and when one was out of eyesight of the other and she wanted her attention, you would hear “SISTER” at the top of her lungs. They were darling!
On the side of the galley just at the bottom of the stair, was the engine and the cover that was used to serve us our meals. There was a semi circular bench and the two heads (bathrooms) that also doubled as our showers. We had detailed directions on how to use the head. 1. Do what you do and only three things go down the very narrow pipe – 2 from us and paper. 2. All other things go into the rubbish bin. 3. When done, turn on the salt-water tap. 4. Turn on the 15-second masticator that sucks down the stuff and grinds it up. 5. When the timer is done, turn off the salt-water tap. ALWAYS REMEMBER TO TURN OFF THE TAP OR YOU WILL FLOOD THE BOAT. When you want a shower, there was a faucet on the sink (only 1 temperature) and fresh water came out of the hose. There were 4 cabinets in the closet sized room where you could hide your dry clothes in hopes they would stay dry during your shower. If we clogged the toilets where they could not be used, we would have to return to shore. If we used up all the fresh/drinkable water, we would have to return to shore. Therefore, with everyone listening and taking care with only 1 short daily shower, we should be okay. In front of that area, at the bow of the ship, was a compartment that had 4 double bunks for 8 with the two panels above the closest bunks for air circulation and stargazing.
Back up upstairs we heard about our itinerary and then raised the sails. I was on one crew and I think it would be much easier with a guy as your partner. I will try and arrange that for the next time I help. Then all there was to do was lie on the deck, take pictures and get hungry for dinner, which was very good spaghetti.
I had not brought any wine and Carl had not brought any chocolate, so we agreed to trade. For most of the time on the boat, there was someone’s ipod connected to the speakers and we had the most eclectic selection of music. I had left my Ipod on land so the group missed the show tunes, ragtime piano, Secret Garden and classical selections. Maybe next time. I will also know in future to bring a lot more quick drying sailing shorts and tops.
It had been a short night the night before and with the cafuffling with the luggage and getting to the boat I was pooped. It was also a cold wind and I already had all my clothes on. I went down to rest for a bit and try and get warm. It was only 8pm and I expected to go back up. I ended up waking up at 2am and found that the radio was still playing softy and there was loud snoring going on around me. I managed to get back to sleep.
Saturday, May 27 – Over the Fringe Reef – Partially cloudy
After breakfast at 7:30, we were tendered to the island to walk around the beach and over the knoll to the backside with the picture postcard waves in the sand. There were two Australian girls who were with the group, Kate and Leanne from Sydney who were very nice and friendly. We had been given our shoes as we entered the tender and upon arrival to the island, Leanne found she had two left-foot brown thongs. She asked Murray to bring the other shoes when he returned with the last group. Over cast and threatening rain, we went and stood at the look out point for a marvelous 360 of the island and then down the backside of the island to the famous beach. At the lookout point, two people from our group finally managed to have one complete set of brown thongs each, 1R and 1L. The sand was the whitest I have ever seen and so powdery, you would swear it was talcum powder. I have a picture to show that my legs are not the whitest things on the planet, the sand on Whitsunday Island is!
The water had receded in places and you could walk quite a ways out on the sand bars. There were also some rocks that Gil (pronounced Z – heel, aged 30 from France) and Carl posed on. Then as we were gathering to go back, we found William (Britain) who was working with a set of poi. Poi are two weighted objects on the end of a chain with finger holes which he was twirling them at his side, eventually in front of him, and then alternating in front of him in a figure 8 pattern. It reminded me of the NZ Maori movements that the women do with the white-feathered balls. I got to try it and had finally managed to use only by wrists to make the motions. It was quite fun.
As we motored and eventually sailed away from Whitsunday Island to the outer reef, we had a lovely day of lying on the deck and hoping that the sun would peak through.
We finally dropped anchor in a bay at Hook Island and had lunch before the first dives. Carl, Katie and I were the only certified divers. Brice checked our cards and took it at face value that we knew what we were doing. Katie opted to go with the beginning group to refresh her skills. (She had certified 2 years ago). Carl had just finished his advanced certificate in Cairns. I had certified over 15 years ago and hadn’t dove in 10+ years. I decided to go with Carl for two reasons – I felt pretty confident from my snorkeling on Cook Islands and if I did not go, Carl would have had to tag with the intro divers too. (NOTE TO SELF – Not good enough reasons for me to not have gone with the intro divers.)
We were put into the tender with our equipment – stinger suits on and mask and fins with us. We were driven out to the reef area and Murray helped us get into our gear. Then we did a back roll entry into the water with me doing a complete summersault from the weight of my tank. We were told we could go along the reef for 20 minutes in one direction and then return. I had the dive watch for time. From the first entry, I could tell that this was not going to be the same experience I had in Mexico or Florida. First, the visibility was only about 25 feet and in overcast skies, not much light from the top. Two, we were in a bay close to an island and there was a lot of silt coming off the mountain into the water. Third, the coral heads were very close together and when we began to descend, the coral was directly beneath us. Still, coral is coral and fish and fish and I could see there were some interesting things to see. Carl quickly went to the bottom and began poking into tiny crevices and looking under ledges. I hovered close to the top and attempted to get my breathing regular and smooth. As I dove, I remembered that this was my preferred position, somewhat closer to the top as you have the best available light as most of the cool stuff that I want to see is found around coral heads. Carl likes to wander and cover as much territory as possible. Looking back as I see it, we might not have been the best buddy pair simply due to a difference of agendas. There was one fish that kept giving me a start, a large batfish. Think of a large square fish of white and black, like an angelfish but no wings. He was very interested in Carl and kept circling him from distance and angling so that one eye was on Carl. He would appear unexpectedly in my field of vision and take my breath away for a moment. I realized I am not as agile as I was 15 years ago and due to that and my nerves, I tend to hold my head in one position and not look around too much. Therefore, if I happened to be swimming close to a wall or coral head, when I shifted my gaze, I am surprised at how close I was. It is considered very un-cool and environmentally unsound to touch the coral even inadvertently so I try as hard as I can to give myself plenty of distance. I did see many old favorites like the colorful parrotfish and the triggerfish. Also the minute-ly aggressive Sergeant Majors and the plentiful yellow fish that I can never remember their names. There was one type of coral that I could not identify but looked like brown fingers with blue fingertips. Close to the end of the dive, Carl disappeared into the depths and that scared me. What I realize now was that I was ascending faster than I had expected and he had remained at the same level. Sigh! He was very generous as I apologized. Carl dove to 10 meters (30 feet). It is safe to say that I probably only got to 15 feet.
As we gathered together, the intro divers were very happy and loved what they had seen. Many people took every opportunity to jump back in and snorkel for a bit.
One of the things that had been discussed with us as we arrived on the boat was that there was to be no plastic on board that might blow over. Cigarette butts were to be properly placed into the trashcans. Any infraction would be met with a Vegemite fine. Tonight, two fines were leveled (the Italian pizza chef, Daniel and one of the young American boys) which meant that the offender was given a tablespoon full of vegemite to eat. Vegemite is an Australian staple and an acquired taste. The best description would be a spoonful of vegetable bullion on a spoon – VERY SALTY!
This night, the music of choice was 50’s music and almost everyone was in a great mood due to the successful day of diving and snorkeling. I shared my chocolate and received a glass of wine and even danced a little on board. The burritos were great. I decided to not chance fate with the possibly phantom snorer again, so with a sleeping pill, I went off to sleep.
Sunday, May 28 – Over the Outer reef – Cloudy and rain
This morning we were going to sail to the outer reef. This meant that we had to be underway around 5:30 in order to get to the reef and then back into the island bay that night.
I joined in at the 5:30 sail hoisting. Luckily, my partner was Podrick (Irish and married to Caroline). It is much easier with a guy as your partner, but it still takes it toll. We stumbled back to bed and rose around 7:00 for breakfast.
This day it pretty much sprinkled or rained all day. Under the main sail were two tent awnings that we opened and tied into position. It did not entirely protect us from the rain if the angle of the boat or the wind shifted, but it was better than all of us stuffed in downstairs.
Today would be the longest dive for the certified and Brice would accompany us. Before I suited up, I managed to clog one of the heads. Adam had to come to my rescue. Not the first time today that one of the crew would help me. With that slight embarrassment to my credit, I went to suit up for our dive.
We were at Bait reef for a 40-minute dive. This time, we tendered out to the site and put our tanks on in the water. I told Brice I was nervous and he said it would be better under the water.
We began the dive and it soon became apparent that we would be doing a wall dive – a dive where the reef is on one side and due to the depth to the bottom, the other side is limitless blue below and to the side. (Not one of my favorite type of dives). We were down about 10 meters and I was feeling pretty good, but again, the group was going much farther and faster than I was comfortable. The visibility was at least twice what we had the previous day. Finally we were going through rather narrow canyons of coral. At this point, I realized that I was hyperventilating. I was still tailing the group so I caught up. Brice was doing a head stand in the water facing me when I gave him the something is the matter signal. He was right side up and over at my like a shot. I signaled I wanted to go up. I couldn’t tell him that I just wanted to rise a little bit. He kept checking in with me and his instruments as we rose a few meters in the water and when I felt okay and he saw that, he tucked my hand under his and we continued. At this point, it became a much better dive for me because we were going slower and I could even see things on the coral heads as we passed. I finally found the coral I had a question about and pointed it out to him. When we finally rose to the surface, we had done a 35-minute dive to about 16 meters (48 feet). Katie said my eyes had been the size of saucers just before Brice came to my assistance. Brice told me that I was looking at Staghorn Coral. This was a good lesson for me to remember my preferences for diving. I had forgotten how I like to dive and therefore, it did not even dawn on me to discuss my preferences before we got into the water. I know now that before I dive again, I will take a refresher course.
The afternoon was mellow with lunch and a rest and there were lots of people who wanted to snorkel over the reef again. I was going back and forth about going snorkeling, and when I checked with vibes, they said go. I had joked with Dave the skipper about the money back guarantee if we did not see a manta ray. A group of us went out off the boat and swam off into a new direction and again, although my breathing was elevated, it was because I was working to get to the reef. We had a lovely 20 minutes over the coral and saw many fish. There was something large and fish shaped to my left, but I could not get a good look at it. Dave was in the tender picking people up and he had previously snorkeled close to where we were. As we approached him he said he had spotted some manta rays so 5 of us piled into the boat. There was still one in the area when we got to the spot, but I couldn’t really see it on the surface. In we went, Carl, Melissa and I and as soon as it was spotted, I grabbed Carl’s hand and Melissa with the other for two reasons; I needed a little reassurance and I didn’t want any of us to scare him away. THE MANTA RAY WAS ABSOLUTELY MAGNIFICENT! He started very far from us, but as our unit stayed still, it circled closer and closer. He would bank to get a good look at us and then as it passed, would turn up and show us it’s belly with the 7 little gleaner fish swimming in perfect precision. Finally it was coming so close that as it would finish the bank and face us, it appeared that it’s horns would be coming right at us. It swam within 5 feet of me, but I did not feel it was my place to reach out and touch it. Finally, it went a little bit away and we headed back to the boat. At this point Lisa and Katie were in the water and wanted to see it. I had Katie on my left when it returned and she squealed with delight. I was the last one in the boat and it did one final pass and very close to me so that I could say goodbye and thank you for sharing it’s magnificence with me. THANK YOU VIBES! I found out later that Katie’s reluctance to enter the water was that she thought that Manta’s had stingers like stingrays and Lisa was not a strong swimmer which is why she held back. I was so jazzed when I got back on the boat, it more than compensated for any bad feelings I had about myself from the morning.
Dave relocated to a new island for night dive and berth for the evening. Carl was keen to have a night dive and I already knew before this dive that I would not be going. Luckily Katie wanted to go, but I am sure that Brice would have gone if needed.
Adam made lovely Indian food for dinner and skipper Dave even fried papadoms for us. I had had a sip of my milk coffee drink I had brought with me that I had not refrigerated. It had the consistency of yoghurt, so after a little sip, I pitched it. My stomach was a little iffy at dinner so no papadoms for me.
At 7:30 the night dive was supposed to commence. Just prior to the divers loading into the boat, Murray had put raw chicken into the water next to the boat and it drew a few small sharks. The talk surrounding it was not doing much to calm the two divers, but they loaded into the tender and went over the island. I promised them chocolate when they returned. Gil was surprised that I did not go with them, as I was a certified diver. I told him that I had done them before and that they were okay, but not that interesting to me. You get to see things that you don’t see during the day like crabs, lobsters, octopus and the coral is a lot more active at night. With my anxiety today, I did not feel it was the best use of my diving and my money to do that dive. Brice had said that on our final dive the next day, he would be doing some fish feeding and we would get to meet a huge friendly fish named Elvis. That sounded like more fun to me, especially as it might be in better light and therefore, better visibility and colors under the water.
The night dive was only about 25 minutes because the tanks were pretty low at the start. Katie enjoyed her first night dive and admitted that she held on to Brice the entire time. It really is the way to go as you can focus on what is around you and not your buoyancy and equipment.
With another sleeping pill, off to morpheous' arms I went.
Monday, May 29 – Back to Airlee
I was up early to get on deck to see the sun rise. It looked like another cloudy, overcast day, but there was some hope of clearing. This was our last chance to dive and we were berthed at Blue Pearl Bay. The dive was scheduled for 7:30 and it was a very reduced number of divers, some for monetary reasons and some preferred to snorkel. Brice had 7 of us, 3 certified and 4 intro divers. We tendered to the beach and put on our equipment in waist high water. The rocks and coral were hard on the feet and we were glad to be in our fins. (NOTE TO SELF – if there is any chance I will dive on a trip again, in addition to the dive skin, I will always bring my dive log and booties) As we descended, it was obvious again that we were very close to the coral and there were lots of fish. Not enough sun to really pop the colors, but still better than either of the other days. Almost immediately, a large dark fish appeared and he was Elvis, a bump headed wrasse close to 100 kilo’s or 220 pounds. The intro divers were very excited and had a hard time keeping neutrally buoyant and kept rising and dropping and swimming under me. They all had underwater cameras and wanted a picture of Elvis being fed. Added to this we had Gil who was snorkeling above us and he kept diving down to get a closer look. I kept trying to get far enough a way to watch and yet see what was going on. Way too many people at one time to be diving in such a small area, but I know that we were on a time limitation. Still enjoyable and Elvis passed me several times and let me touch him. He had a bit of a scar on his left side and he was a little slimy. I told him that he was handsome and thanked him for flirting with me. So, now you know, Elvis is alive and well and living off the Whitsunday Islands in Australia. Visibility 15 meters.
We returned to pack our bags and then sail into the marina. We were in medium seas with wind of about 25 knots. The boat was leaning considerably and yet, most of us were on deck sitting and getting soaked by the splash and spray. We had several seasick passengers and it was very hard to stay upright. You tended to go from handhold to handhold and even with this, I scrapped myself going down stairs.
We finally got into the marina and everyone was very pleased that we would berth and not have to be tendered in with our baggage. My sandals were soaked. All of the crew expect Brice had to turn the boat around and go back out that day with the next trip. Brice invited all that wanted to meet him at a bar that evening for drinks.
We all vanned into town (only a ten minute walk from the marina) and I checked into the backpackers. Oh, the joy of a warm shower that you stand upright for and use the toilet without hassle. I took a walk in hopes of buying a t-shirt from the boat, but they were all out except for very small children sizes. I also did laundry, as everything that I had on the boat was soaked and beginning to smell.
As I left the hostel for the bar, I came across Carl and Katie and joined them for a drink. We went to the bar and the entire group was there with the exception of a couple from Germany. At this point, I had one wine in me and the first thing I did was loose a bar game where I inadvertently submerged the glass in the pitcher of beer, which meant I had to drink the glass. Well, I did it, yuck! I don’t like beer. I ordered two appetizers, as I knew that I needed some food in me. The group pooled our money and Brice facilitated reduced cost drinks. There were pitchers of something called snake bite (lager, cider and something else red) and I had a glass of that. After that I ate my appetizers and drank lots of water. I watched some of the group play drinking games and watched the others in this large bar. I ended up leaving at 10, as I knew that I was done and had said goodbye to everyone. They were surprised I left so early, but I told them I had already stayed up two hours later than I had on the boat.
Ah bed without sleeping pills.
Around 2:30 I heard noises in the hall and some one cursing and asking to be let in, and then apologizing for scaring the occupant and finally leaving. Hmmmm?[