Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Unsafe Passage: Around Hook Island By Sea Kayak

Shute Harbour to Dugong Beach:

In order to catch slack tide at the south end of South Molle Island, we had planned to start paddling from Shute Harbour at 9 am. Not only would we round Roma Point at slack tide, but we would cross Whitsunday Passage when the wind and tide were congruent. But, when you wake at 5 am and are anxious to start your trip, there seems little point wasting time so, on the first morning of our seven day trip around Hook Island, we were on the water before 8 am and paddling east out of the narrow channel between the mainland and the cluster of three islands (Repair, Tancred and Shute) in Shute Harbour. Dark rain clouds were massing over Whitsunday Island, rain squalls moved up from the south and a gusty south wind was blowing. 

We had recently heard from a friend that the passage between Mid and North Molle Islands marked "unsafe passage" on the nautical chart is, in fact, the main thoroughfare through the Molle Islands and the route of choice for kayakers heading east. This passage was our fall-back position should the waters off South Molle Island, marked by whirlpools and standing waves on our chart, prove too rough. I hoped to paddle the south route as we would be returning via the north route and Doug hoped to paddle the south route as he thought it was shorter than going to Dugong Bay via the north route. We decided to paddle out and have a look. Should conditions prove too difficult or dangerous, we would paddle north up South Molle Island and use "unsafe passage." 

 Doug in unsafe passage

Visibility from a kayak is never great. As the kayak sinks into a wave trough, the view ahead all but disappears, and, even on a wave crest, you can only see a short distance from where you sit at absolute sea level. We could see white-caps and standing waves as we approached Roma Point, but they didn't look too bad and we thought we would simply give the point a wide berth. However, as we approached the point a large squall with heavier rain and obscured visibility moved over us. I suggested to Doug that we paddle into the beach (Sandy Bay) at the south end of South Molle Island and let the squall pass over as I did not want to be out in the middle of Whitsunday Passage during a period of poor visibility. Not only would we lose our landmarks, but we would be almost invisible to passing boat traffic. 

This is when the trouble began as we soon discovered we were stuck in a tidal rip that runs at 3 to 4 knots. With our full metre square sails up, a south wind, and paddling as hard as we could, we simply could not escape the tidal rip that was pulling us inexorably towards the haystacks and standing waves off Roma Point. We could only communicate by shouting at each other, nuanced decision making was impossible, and, at some point, we decided to ferry glide west towards Beak Point. After 1.5 hours of tough paddling, we finally pulled into the calm waters between Coral Point and The Beak to regroup. 

While we had the cold breakfast I had packed we discussed our options. Clearly, paddling south of South Molle was out of the question and, we weren't even sure we would get across Molle Channel anywhere, but, I managed to convince Doug that we were now near slack tide, and could hug the coast line heading north where the current would be reduced by friction with the land, and ferry glide or even catch the current south to Daydream Island and then onto Mid Molle Island. Paddling around The Beak, Daydream Island looked so close and the paddling was so easy that we decided to head straight over to the south end of Daydream Island. We crossed easily, some minor standing waves, riffles really, at the south end of Daydream were all we encountered. There was some minor current riffles between Daydream and South Molle, but we crossed easily to the east, passed over The Causeway between Mid and South Molle Islands (easily passable in a kayak with a 3.00 metre tide) and pulled into Paddle Beach on the north end of South Molle Island for Doug to adjust his sail. 

Doug crossing Molle Channel

Although we had started an hour ahead of schedule, we were now an hour behind, and were mildly concerned that we would arrive at Dugong Beach on the west side of Whitsunday Island at low tide and thus be unable to access the camp-site. But, we were anxious to continue, the wind was gradually easing and the squalls clearing so we began the nine kilometre paddle over to Cid Island at around 11 am. The first two kilometres past Deedes Point took a long time as the kayaks see-sawed up and down in the metre swell, but, gradually, we caught some wind in our sails and we began to pull further and further from South Molle Island. A couple of kilometres out from Cid Island, the waves eased, but the tide and wind were both carrying us north so it was still hard work to pull into the lee of Cid Island where we regrouped. Dugong Beach was off to our northeast, Whitsunday Peak making a good marker for where the camp was located, as we tiredly paddled the last few kilometres to camp. 

Dugong Beach has two covered picnic tables as well as several other open tables, seven separate camping sites and a track that leads over the headland to the south to Sawmill Bay and the start of the track to Whitsunday Peak. We had a late lunch and mug of coffee and then, as the day was rapidly waning, sprinted along the track to Sawmill Bay and up to Whitsunday Peak to catch the view of the islands before dusk. On the way back, we swam in a pool in the freshwater creek and arrived back at camp near sundown. 

 Dugong Beach sunset

Dugong Beach to Crayfish Beach:

Next morning, we could feel the previous days exertions, but, the forecast was for light winds and favourable conditions for paddling the exposed east side of Hook Island. We left camp sometime after 8 am and, in dead calm conditions paddled 12 km north along the west side of Whitsunday Island to Cairn Beach at the northern tip. The boats, loaded with seven days food and water, were heavy and sluggish to paddle and it was hot work under the clear sky. At Cairn Beach we were tempted to hike up the track to Whitsunday Cairn, but we still had ten kilometres to go to camp and the calm winds tempted us to paddle north while conditions were so benign. 

Sailing up the east side of Hook Island

We caught the current out through the narrow channel between Hook and Whitsunday Islands and paddled steadily north. There were standing waves off the point south of Mackerel Bay and large sandstone cliffs eroded into deep caves as you paddle west towards Crayfish Beach. Crayfish Beach is a beautiful spot tucked into a sheltered bay at the south end of the larger Mackerel Bay. The shallow sheltered waters of the bay are full of coral, and the tiny beach with a few grassy campsites is one of the most beautiful on Hook Island. After another late lunch, we launched the boats again and paddled over to the west side of the bay where we tucked the kayaks into a rocky cove and snorkelled until the tide threatened to strand the boats over coral gardens, among coral caves and grottos, where tropical fish flickered in the light, reef sharks prowled the short coral walls and turtles were startled from reverie into deeper waters. 

Crayfish Beach to Steens Beach:

On our third day, we were up again before dawn, and, in the last moments of night, launched the kayaks and glided silently north towards Pinnacle Point and the north end of Hook Island. On shore, the rocks and hoop pines were painted red and gold by the rising sun. At Pinnacle Point, we wove in between the mainland and the rocky islets that give the point its name, and gradually turned west towards Hayman Island. The tide was flooding south and the entire north side of Hook Island was mildly bouncy as the incoming tide ran against the north side of Hook Island. 

There were lots of day tour boats in Butterfly Bay, all ignoring the passage of two mangy looking kayakers. We arrived at Steens Beach, a narrow stretch of sand backed by rock boulders and rainforest at 9.15 am and happily pulled ashore for breakfast. All along the northern coast of Hook Island the shallow clear waters support beautiful coral reefs and as we paddled west we would catch glimpses of tropical fish flashing in the sunlight. After a couple of long days in the boat, I spent a happy few hours wandering south along rock shelves and pebbly beaches before returning to camp to snorkel over the reef off Stanley Point. All too soon the sun was dropping over the western islands and another day was over. 

 Sunset at Steens Beach

Hayman Island:

We had a "lay day" at Steens Beach, which doesn't mean laying about, but does mean a break from the daily packing and unpacking ritual and a chance to explore the surrounding area. Leaving camp at a leisurely 9 am, Doug hugged the shore heading south, while I paddled over the edge of the reef south of Stanley Point. At Cockatoo Point we crossed over to Black Island, a tiny sandy island amid an expansive reef and snorkelled along the reef edge among turtles, fish, sharks and rays. A number of tour boats had pulled up to allow the guests to snorkel on the western shore. 

To the west of Black Island, three other small sandy islets are connected by coral reef, and we paddled past Bird, One Foot and Langford Islands and then north across Hayman Channel to pass over the reef between Arkhurst Island and Hayman Island. 

On the west side of Hayman Island, we paddled into Blue Pearl Bay and found an old picnic bench under a spreading fig tree for lunch. A bit of searching along the shore-line revealed the track that leads up to Whitsunday Lookout on Hayman Island. We had a fantastic view down the length of the Whitsunday Group to the Cumberland Islands, the blue waters shimmering in the sun. At the north end of Blue Pearl Bay large coral bomboras rise out of the deep water. Tour operators come here and feed the fish so hundreds of tame reef fish drift around you in multi-coloured waves as you swim over the reef. 

 Dolphin Point, Hayman Island

Continuing north around Hayman Island, we paddled over coral gardens, past large sandstone cliffs and turrets, past Dolphin, Tower and Rescue Points and eventually down the east side of the island. The coral reef extends right around the island and every so often we could catch the bright flash of a multi-hued wrasse. We crossed the narrow channel back to Steens Beach as the last of the tour boats steamed east towards Airlie Beach. 

Steens Beach to Curlew Beach:

Paddling north in the Whitsunday Islands you know that eventually, unless you keep going, you must at some point paddle back into the wind. Our fifth day started with 20 knot southerly winds but the forecast indicated they would decrease during the day. We took our time packing up, and, while Doug read his book under the shade of the casuarina trees I went snorkelling one last time along the shallow reef off Steens Beach. I knew this would be my last snorkel of the trip, and possibly my last for a long while, and I especially enjoyed drifting aimlessly along admiring the beauty of the reef. 

We had a 19 km paddle south and east to Curlew Beach at the opening of Macona Inlet on the south end of Hook Island and calculated we needed to leave no later than around noon to arrive before dark. At 11.00 am, the wind seemed to be dropping, so we loaded the boats and began paddling a half hour later. There used to be an old National Park camping area at Bloodhorn Beach between Baird Point and Ian Point and we pulled in to see if any sign of it remained. There is a flat area under the trees where camping is possible, but the beach is quite rocky. 

 Hoop Pines, aquamarine water, sandstone bluffs

It felt slow paddling to the south end of Hook Island, we were now paddling against wind and tide, but, the coral reef and rocky shore-line provided interest. At the south end of Hook, we tucked into a tiny bay within a bay formed by a large rocky promontory and had a short rest. There were large standing waves off the point west of Nara Inlet which provided a minute or two of exciting paddling. Finally, we rounded the last point before Curlew Beach where big hoop pines stand out on the craggy point and pulled into the sandy beach and camping area sheltered under fig trees. 

Curlew Beach to Paddle Bay:

On our penultimate day, we had 15 knot southeast to southwest winds and left Curlew Beach before 9 am. The day's paddle was relatively short at 15 km, but we had a 13 km crossing of Whitsunday Passage. This was an unusual crossing. Initially, the sails seemed to be lifting the boat and speeding us up, other times, my boat felt heavy and sluggish, and seemed to crawl forward. An hour into the trip, I reefed my sail in as I was having trouble managing the full metre square in the burly cross-wind. We had the ebbing tide in our favour, but the northerly push we had from the wind was probably counterbalancing any southerly assistance. The final few kilometres into the small beach on Mid Molle Island seemed to take an inordinately long time, especially as my bladder had long since reached capacity. I had a comfort stop on the beach, but Doug stayed in his boat, and we paddled the last 1.5 km into the wind to the open campsite at Paddle Bay on South Molle Island. 

Kayaks in Blue Pearl Bay

There is a now defunct resort in Bauer Bay on the north side of the island and an intersecting series of trails. After lunch, we hiked up Lamont Hill - the view is largely concealed by the surrounding forest, and then south to Mount Jeffreys, a windswept grassy summit with wonderful views of the island chain. Finally, we walked on an open grassy trail with expansive scenery to another lookout near The Horn on the northeastern end of the island. We walked back to our camp through the resort and along the rocky shoreline. That night the sunset blazed in a glory of colours for an hour before finally dimming into night.

Paddle Bay to Shute Harbour:

The last day was very short, around two hours to paddle the seven kilometres west to the south end of Daydream Island and then south past The Beak and into Shute Harbour. The wind was blowing at 15 knots, but these waters are mostly protected so waves were small. I felt sad our trip was over, privileged to have travelled in such favourable conditions, and once again, stunned by the amazing sea kayaking available in northern Queensland.

The last sunset

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