Renowned reef thrills after weather clears
For a few weeks here on Australia's Coral Coast, I sailed from marina to marina in windy drizzle, doing boat repairs while waiting for the weather to clear up. The sky and water were one gray, hazy expanse. Thirty-knot winds are chilly in any climate, but then the area had a cold snap, setting records for low temperatures. Sprinkles turned into rain.
As I piled on the fleece and foul-weather gear, I dreamed of the Great Barrier Reef of TV and movies. There the water is clear and calm, marine life is fearless and abundant, and people wear swimming suits. On which planet, I wondered, did those filmmakers shoot those scenes?
My two friends and I waited in a Cairns marina for a few days and then, tired, damp and claustrophobic in the closed-up boat, we decided to set sail. Our destination was Fitzroy Island, a national park.
Upwind sailing wasn't much fun in that weather, but we made it. And there, braving the elements, we went snorkeling. I could see the potential, but it was just too cold, murky and lumpy to enjoy the reef.
That night, the wind waves wrapped around the little island and rolled us miserably in our bunks. It was a long night, and the next morning, back we went to yet another marina. There our beds were still, but the rain continued and the temperatures dipped to the mid-50s.
Finally, my disappointed Hawaii friends gave up on sailing and, with my blessing, flew to Sydney to enjoy some city life. I stayed alone on the boat, writing and reading while bundled up in sweats.
After a week of this, I woke to a clear sky, decreasing winds and a rising barometer. I untied my mooring lines, and off I sailed to Green Island.
I enjoyed that tiny isle, but it offered little protection from the persistent swells. Nearby Michaelmas Cay was bigger, but of this seabird sanctuary my cruising guide said,"Michaelmas Cay ... has latterly been swamped with tourism. It is the destination of an endless stream of runabouts, cruising yachts and charter boats, with 100 boats visiting the cay during any one day."
I sighed, imagining pandemonium. But with few choices, I decided to brave the crowds and go anyway.
I was the only one there.
After I dropped anchor, the wind stopped completely and the temperature rose. Chattering seabirds surrounded the boat. The flat water was so clear I didn't even have to get in the water to see the friendly, colorful fish. I did jump in, of course, wearing my swimming suit.
This was the Great Barrier Reef of my dreams (and of films), and it was heaven itself.
I inflated my dinghy and motored around the little island, visiting thousands of terns and their fluffy chicks. While snorkeling, I saw the biggest giant clams I've ever seen. Corals and fish shimmered in that clear water like underwater rainbows. Back at the boat, four squid and several big batfish hovered around my boarding ladder.
Later in the day, the tourist boats arrived. Two. I enjoyed the company, and after a couple of hours, they left. For days I had my own private paradise.
It's been four years since I set sail from Hawaii, and the experiences I've had during that time have rarely been what I expected. That's the reason I do it.