The coastal mountain ranges of Queensland, Australia are in sight. They're enticingly close, and quite a sight they are. It took 331 days for them to come into view, but they're not quite in focus yet. I'll have to finish the short remaining distance of my journey to enjoy them with full clarity. I'm 99.5% complete, 30 miles from Cairns, and miraculously, securely attached to Flynn Reef. I never imagined such a scenario would define my first encounter with the Great Barrier Reef, but I'm here nonetheless, anchored in the waters of Australia. And yes, the Australian Border Force is aware of my presence. I've already been threatened with $5,000 fines if I don't communicate my intentions more clearly!
I anticipated the possibility of encountering winds from the south or southeast as I approached the shores of Australia. I added about 50 miles of travel to ensure I approached from the south. Everything was working as planned, I just needed the actual weather to match the historical weather expected for this time of year, and I'd be home free. This did not happen. A large high pressure system moving slowly east over the Great Australian Bight created a firm ridge of high pressure over Queensland waters. This resulted in forecasted strong wind warnings of 20 to 25 knots from the south to southeast, sometimes reaching 30 knots. This forecast was fulfilled, and then some.
I might've managed those winds fine if I didn't have the Great Barrier Reef to contend with. I tried to find the best SE to NW approach through the reefs, but the options are limited. The best I could plot in order to minimize time within the reef and optimize angles, still required a turn directly west. I've never encountered these reefs before, never navigated through them, so I didn't know exactly what to expect. I was overly cautious, especially considering the difficulties of 30 knots on a rowboat. 10 miles from my planned reef entrance, Flora Pass, the winds died down to 15-20 knots. This was perfect. It gave me a chance for a quick nap before going all-out through the reefs, and gave me hope that I could still make that cut west, even with winds from the south. Unfortunately, when I woke, the winds were back in full force.
I arrived at the entrance to Flora Pass around 2:00 AM. The temperatures were in the low 70's, the winds were back up to a steady 25, easily holding 30 at times, gusting even higher. The absent moon made for black overcast skies, rain showers were everywhere, and the visibility was close to zero. Waves easily boarded the vessel and saltwater spray was nearly constant. It was time to get after it. I went full waterproofs, even complete with waterproof socks (that weren't so waterproof), and my waterproof gloves (totally not waterproof at all). The wet wind still gave me chills through the layers as I was getting pelted in the face with spray and rain. All my previous tests at holding a westbound course approaching this point were a complete success. Now the winds are a little too strong and a little too close to south. Using both oars, I'm not making the angles I need. I drop the port and try both hands pulling hard on starboard with a full deflected rudder; I gain a few more degrees. Still not enough.
I maintained a decent path to clear the first two reefs, but a little closer than planned. I'm reaching the point of the westbound turn and it's decision time. Unless the winds suddenly drop or shift in my favor, the turn isn't going to happen. I obviously can't bank on it, so I call the local Australian Volunteer Coast Guard for advice on potentially anchoring on a reef. It's either anchor or drift back out into the open ocean without a sea anchor (it blew out trying to hold in 30 knot winds two weeks prior). The problem is I've never anchored on a reef, the charts are very ambiguous regarding water depths surrounding the reefs, and I have no idea what they look like approaching from a 4 foot eye level. I have to try. The sun is now up and for the first time, the sea is an amazing turquoise after months of deep blue.
I stop my one sided rowing and let the seas take me north to the first potential stop, Milln Reef. I need to anchor on the downwind side, yet the strong southerly winds will not allow a turn directly east or west, so this presents a problem. I pass well clear on the western side of the reef, then turn east as aggressively as I possibly can, striving for the shallow waters on the north side. I can't make the cut; I miss it entirely. The shallowest water I saw was 80 feet, way too deep for me to anchor. But now I know what a reef looks like and I know the limitations of my charts. I also know what the breaking waves look like near the shallows. I'll try again on the next reef north with a tighter margin.
I see breaking waves outlining the shallow waters of Flynn Reef to my north. I aim as close to the western most breakers as my nerves will allow. I don't want to miss this one. Without rowing, I'm still hitting 2 knots, with no chance of stopping via oars. My goal is to skim the western edge and immediately cut inside to the northern shallows. I then see a mooring buoy on the south side; it distracts me towards the east at the last minute. I'm now quickly drifting close to 100 meters inside my aim point; this is bad. Suddenly I'm surrounded by breaking waves and a depth meter rapidly decreasing from 45 feet, 20 feet, 9 feet, 4 feet, then -- feet. Uh oh. I brace and wait... ccreeeak. Yep, I just hit the reef - though it was brief, less than a second of contact. Let's say the keel gently kissed the reef. Thankfully, the depth is right back, but rising way too fast. I see 20 feet, drop the anchor and hope for the best. 200 feet of line comes to an end and the boat slowly coasts to a stop. In 80 foot waters. Right next to a mooring buoy.
That obviously did not happen as planned. Luckily, there was no critical damage; that easily could've been catastrophic. But I honestly don't know if I would've caught the shallow waters without that ordeal. I'm now tied to that fateful buoy and can sleep soundly while I wait for these winds to turn in my favor. Not drifting or moving after 331 days is quite strange, but very pleasant, especially with those Queensland mountains in sight.
Keep After It