Sunday, December 22, 2013

Wild Times: Sea Kayaking From Bramston Beach to Cairns via High and Fitzroy Islands

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness. Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities. 
Friday morning, and our group of seven people in five kayaks is assembled on the north facing beach of High Island preparing to depart for Fitzroy Island. We have had a solid southeasterly flow for nearly a week now, steady winds never dipping much below 15 knots and gusting up to 35 knots at times. The sea state is lumpy and confused, with cresting waves around two metres high that have not yet organised into a cohesive swell. 

The day before, after a tricky launch in a dumping surf off Bramston Beach, Doug, Dee and I had kayak sailed the 23 km to High Island arriving around 1.30 pm, where we met our four other friends in two double kayaks who had kayak sailed over the previous day. Although the winds were blowing steady from the southeast, High Island is small enough for the waves to wrap around the island and I had spent an hour or two in the afternoon surfing my kayak on small regular waves off the northeastern point of the island. 

 Fitzroy Island from Oombunghi Beach

Our four other friends were in two double kayaks, capacious and stable. Dee was paddling a Storm, another large stable single kayak, while Doug and I were in our rather tippy Prijon Marlins. One by one, we launched off the beach waiting for a break in the bigger sets, and soon, five boats were afloat. About 50 metres off-shore, the rudder on one of the double kayaks fell off (the rudder had fallen off the previous day as well). An on the water repair was instituted, which lasted about another 50 metres. 

The wind was now blowing a steady 17 knots and gusting to about 23 knots. Our plan was to paddle due north 26 km to Fitzroy Island. This long crossing would save us about 9 km of paddling but would keep us an average of 10 km off-shore. When the rudder on the double kayak broke for the second time I wondered if this direct crossing was really wise. Doug and I had done this trip before and we had crossed from High Island back to the mainland, paddled north to Oombunghi Beach and then crossed to Fitzroy Island, a crossing of only about 7 km. But, when you are in a group, particularly a group that is already spread out and bouncing about on a disorganised sea in moderate to strong winds, there is often no option to change the previously agreed upon plan. 

Moonrise, Oombunghi Beach

So northward we went. The two couples in the doubles, launched sails and rafted up, and we three in singles, did the same, however we only deployed two sails, one on the either side of our “raft.” For the first couple of hours, we whipped along quite smartly. Individually, I don't think any of us would have been sailing as the risk of capsize would have been too high. We were travelling largely broadside to the swell and with the building gusty winds, it was a wet and wild ride.

Rather quickly, we pulled ahead of the two doubles. We pulled one sail down for a while and allowed the double kayaks to catch up a bit before we redeployed our second sail. With two sails up, we quickly pulled ahead again, but for the first three hours of our journey, I could still see the sails on the two doubles in the distance behind me. During the fourth hour, I lost sight of them. Rafted up, we were all quite safe from capsize, although the experience was more or less gruelling depending on your position in the raft. I had the preferred middle position and was relatively comfortable. Doug had the upwind side and quickly developed cramps in his shoulder and arm from hanging on and always felt in danger of capsizing as his boat heeled far over in the wind. Dee on the downwind side, had to lean far across my boat to stabilise her kayak and was similarly uncomfortable. 

High Island, far away from Fitzroy Island

During the third hour, to entertain Dee, I told her stories of our Canadian adventures including the classic food-drop lost in a high mountain tarn during a two week ski traverse that necessitated a four day ski out to civilisation with nothing to eat during a Pineapple Express weather system, and the unfortunate incident of the stuck knee on Bugaboo Spire (published in the Canadian Alpine Journal). 

As we neared Fitzroy Island, a few things happened. We lost sight of our companions in the double kayaks, Dee's rudder broke, our progress northward slowed, we began to get pushed further and further east, and we noticed that the bow of Dee's boat was submerged. When pumping out her cockpit (not an easy manoeuvre in 20 knot winds) did nothing to ameliorate the issue, we began to think that her boat was seriously leaking. I argued for putting up a third sail to get us to the island before Dee's boat became a submarine, but the other two were not comfortable with this option. Doug and I also wanted to pull the sails in, and paddle the final few kilometres to the island but Dee, with a half submerged boat, no rudder and 20 knot cross winds to contend with was understandably not keen.

Freshwater swimming, Turtle Bay

Eventually, we had drifted so far west, that dumping the sails and paddling was the only option. It actually wasn't hard to paddle in to Fitzroy Island, at least for Doug and I in fully functional boats, Dee however struggled to bring her boat in, laden as it was with sea water. Eventually, however, we pulled around the west side of the island and slowly paddled in to shore. We attempted to tow Dee in but our tow rope – tested only on an inland lake – turned out to be too long for the job and we were unable to even give Dee an effective assist. 

Four hours after leaving High Island, we pulled up to the beach at Fitzroy Island, relieved to see our four friends already on-shore having arrived about 15 minutes before. They too had been pushed far to the west on approach to the island. Dee's front hatch was full of sea water and all her gear and food were soaked. On inspection, we noted that the neoprene skirt had numerous large holes. The 26 km crossing had taken us about four hours. 

Approaching Turtle Bay

The next day, various injuries and ailments were cracking the veneer of our group. Doug had wrenched his neck and was stiff from the waist up, Tim had succumbed to MF's cold and was feeling “a bit ordinary” as he said, while Dee had no wish to paddle a leaking kayak 33 km into Cairns. The winds, however were falling, and, although the sea was still confused, conditions were easier to manage. The two double kayaks set off for Cairns around 10.00 am with the option of pulling out near Lyon Point, a distance of about 23 km. I paddled a few kilometres along the northern side of Fitzroy Island to Little Fitzroy Island, but, given the rough sea condition deemed it unwise to continue and circumnavigate the island by myself so I came back and went snorkeling over the reef. Dee organised to catch the ferry back to Cairns with the Storm. 

Around 2.00 pm, Doug and I packed our kayaks and paddled out from Fitzroy Island heading for Turtle Bay, a pretty little rainforest fringed sandy bay on the northern end of the Yarrabah Peninsula. We sailed most of the way except around the first headland north of Little Turtle Bay where haystacks and standing waves caused us to reef in our sails and paddle out wide of the headland. With sails down, the seas were easy to manage. After the busyness of Fitzroy Island, the deserted Turtle Bay was an oasis. We landed in a small shore dump, pulled the boats up on the beach and had a freshwater swim in one of the two creeks that drain down to the beach from the hills behind. We camped at Turtle Bay the last time we paddled this stretch of coastline and it was easy to settle back into our old campsite, a grassy little nook tucked under Casuarina trees by a big granite boulder. 

 Early morning, Turtle Bay

I woke up early the next morning with the traveling head-cold that was making the rounds of our group, and Doug still had a wretchedly stiff neck. The winds were relatively light, only blowing about 10 knots, but the sea was still roiling off-shore. We had coffee, skipped breakfast and were on the water by 7 am. The headland from Turtle Bay to Cape Grafton runs southeast to northwest and we sailed most of the way, although the gusty winds and confused seas made this challenging at times. Near Cape Grafton, I got weary of the bow of my boat being tossed from one side to the other in the lumpy seas – an easy enough phenomena to manage when the sail is furled up, but challenging when every slight twist is amplified by a big top heavy sail on the bow – and I pulled the sail in until I had rounded Cape Grafton. 

We crossed 7 km long Mission Bay mostly under sail although I found it difficult not to get blown too far to the north as the wind was now coming across our sterns. We ended up about a kilometre north of False Cape – the western end of Mission Bay – a combination of having to head north to avoid the endless line of tourist boats streaming out to the east and the building southeasterly winds. When we were north of False Cape, we reeled the sails in and paddled into Sunny Bay for breakfast. We had traveled about 14 km and had gone no quicker than the last time we had paddled that section without sails. 

Russel Island sunset

Our initial plan had been to continue northwest for another 12 km crossing Cairns Harbour and landing at Holloways Beach, but, Doug's stiff necks, my head cold, the gusty winds, and, most importantly the incessant stream of tourist boats exiting Cairns Harbour all induced us to change our plans. Tim was driving our car back up to Cairns from Bramston Beach and would be passing by the turn off to the Yarrabah Peninsula so we decided to see if he could drop our car at the boat ramp near Lyons Point instead. We managed to catch him on the telephone as he was leaving Cairns for Bramston Beach and we organised a new pick up location. 

We cooked up some breakfast at Sunny Bay and then paddled the three kilometres around to the boat ramp where we unloaded the kayaks for the last time. Tim arrived within about 10 minutes and we were soon heading back to Cairns, another interesting trip concluded.

The photos in this post are from our last trip up this section of the coast. Among the many things that broke either before or during this trip was our waterproof camera.

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