Saturday, January 29, 2011

Have You Ever Been To Sea, Davie?

“Have you done much sailing?” asked the agent, “because she’ll be a wee windy out there.”  I was in the process of booking a day long sailing trip from Airlie Beach to an uninhabited little island about 45 km offshore.  “The sailboat’s a bit small, but the skipper’s really good.”

Now, the extent of my sailing experience has been on small vessels in and around Vancouver, usually on days when there wasn’t enough wind to fly a kite, let alone sail a boat.  It was merely an excuse to knock back a few cold ones and putter about.  But sailing is what you do in Airlie Beach.  It’s the gateway to one of the most famous sailing destinations in the world, the Whitsundays.  I booked the trip.

The following morning I met our skipper and his boat.  Both had been around for a while.  Reg (the skipper) was 65, originally from Holland, and apparently got his initial sailing cred with the Ancient Mariners.  His pride and joy is the S. V. Domino, a 36 ft cruiser that he had purchased in Auckland many years prior.  Reg had sailed her across the notoriously dangerous Tasman Sea from NZ to Sydney harbour, so he assured us we would easily make the sail out to ominously named Black Island, even in rough seas.  Besides, he reminded us more than once, his excursions were now rated number two on Trip Advisor.  He wasn’t about to risk that.

The BOM (Australian Bureau of Meteorology) website had forecast windy conditions in the morning, calming off in the afternoon.  I’ve been using BOM since I arrived in Australia.  So far, the closest it had been to being correct was a day at the Australian Open when they predicted sunny and 30.  It turned out to be 19 and rained all day.  I was optimistically hopeful that BOM had it right this time, but wasn’t prepared bet on it.

Despite the assurances of both Reg and BOM, I couldn’t help humming the Gilligan’s Island theme to myself, over and over.

After a quick safety discussion, which basically amounted to instructions on how to not fall out of the boat, we were off.  Windy it was.  No sooner had we departed the protection of the harbour than the winds picked up to 20 knots, regularly gusting to over 30 (that’s ~55 km/hr to us landlubbers).  Despite being partially protected from open seas by the Whitsunday Islands, the water was very rough.  The wind was blowing against an unseasonably high tide, creating frighteningly large and uneven swells.  The two other passengers and I looked back and forth at each other trying to appear calm, which is difficult to do when you’re white knuckling the railings.

Regardless, Reg proved to be a very confident captain.  He skipped about the boat trimming sails and performing lots of other sailing-type tasks as if we were on land, all the while regaling us with stories from his life at sea.  We were pushing the Domino hard, he informed us, and he wouldn’t have taken us out if the winds were any stronger, but as long as we kept heading forward to the island we’d be fine.  That explains why when my brand new, ridiculously expensive, Australian Open hat blew off my head and into the water, it became a sacrifice to the sea gods.  There was no turning back.

The same could not be said for when the rope pulling the dinghy snapped.  A sailboat without a dinghy is like an airplane without landing gear, and our landing gear was disappearing out of sight behind us.  Reg swore and leaped into action.  We had to go back for it.  We “came about” (essentially meaning we turned around – I’m a sailing jargon expert after my one day at sea) in a less than elegant manner that threatened to toss at least one passenger overboard, and made off in the direction of the dinghy.  Reg chose to ignore my request to fetch my hat while we were at it, even after I threatened to leave nasty comments on Trip Advisor.

It was a remarkable display of skill, with Reg managing to steer, grab the raft, tie it up and turn us back around completely on his own.  In fact he had ordered us to “sit still and not touch anything”, which was probably to the benefit of everyone involved.

We eventually reached Black Island (the tourist books have started calling it Bali Hai Reef in an attempt to stop frightening travellers) in one piece.  We decided Black Island was quite appropriate, all things considered. 

Despite the BOM forecast, the wind continued to howl.  We had a short go at snorkeling, but couldn’t see much through the choppy murky water.  We had our “relaxing picnic lunch on the beach” huddled together in an attempt to block the wind, and still ate as much sand as anything else.  We abandoned our “leisurely 2 ½ hours to relax and explore” early and got back on the boat.

The sail back to Airlie Beach was more of the same, but with an exclamation point!  Storms had blown into the area, and our route was dotted with dark clouds and rain squalls.  When one particularly bad one hit, I thought we were done for.  Reg went silent and thrust his jaw into the wind and rain.  The others appeared to be praying.  I kept repeating “a three hour tour, a three hour tour…”

Shakily sipping beers with the other two passengers at the Marina Pub back in Airlie Beach later that afternoon, we were surprisingly non-challant. 
“Great day for sailing, wasn’t it?”
“Awesome time, eh?  Would do it again in a second!” 
And so on.  Still, I can guarantee you that not one of us was having those thoughts when the winds reached 40 knots in the driving rain during our return sail (thanks for the warning, BOM).  If not for the efforts of the fearless Reg, the Domino would surely have been lost. 

Thanks to Reg for an exciting day at sea.  The experience was certainly exhilarating but perhaps not quite as bad as I described, as you will undoubtedly see in the following video clip taken on Black Island.


Sarolta said...

That is too funny Dave! I love that you tell it as it really happened! Come to think of it I did the same sailing trip only on a nice big boat, but it was raining and the boat was sideways... I didn't puke though!

Judy R. said...


I just wanted to say that.

Reg Eggers said...

Yes, that is really funny Dave, the way you described the day-trip.
If you put your story on tripadvisor, I sure be No.1!
Glad you enjoyed it.

incoming said...

I've flown with Reg (when he still held a Private Pilot's licence) and I have sailed from Brisbane to Airlie Beach on 'Domino' with him. Both night & day sailing. Also several day trips to Bali Hai out of Airlie.
He knows his stuff and I've never had anything but the utmost respect and confidence in his sailing & seaborne skills.

Dave said...

I couldn't agree with "incoming" more. Reg is an extremely knowledgeable and skilled captain. I regret if my attempts to inject humour into the story suggested otherwise. That certainly wasn't my intent. I would highly recommend the trip to Bali Hai to anyone who is considering it.