I could hear something grabbing a gasp of breath before a gentle splash then silence; looking out into the dark I could see nothing. Switching on the ship’s lights, it was just the inky black waters….then two flashes of silver as a mother and baby dolphin surfaced for air. Darting back down just under the surface we could see them speedily streaking left and right hunting small fish and squid. As the light attracted more prey they stayed for 20 minutes, swooping this way and that like underwater fireworks, just below the surface. As they filled their stomachs, we all watched mesmerised with exclamations of delight whenever they grabbed another breath from the surface.
We were on a three night sailing trip around the Whitsunday Islands on a tall ship that we had caught from the sailing town of Airlie Beach. The Islands are a few kilometres offshore of the coast and are surrounded by the Great Barrier Reef.
Airlie Beach was a short drive from Mackay where we had met up with the lovely Australian family we met just over a year ago on another sailing trip, to Antarctica. Brianna, William and the girls had got on famously on the Russian Scientific Vessel we had travelled down to the ice on. Now in tropical Queensland they picked up their friendship where they had left off, with lots of swimming, playing and some very muddy fishing. Steve and I really enjoyed catching up with their parents Kim and Andrew. Although they had lots of exciting possibilities for the weekend, we were all up for good company and relaxation with lots of chatting, eating, hanging out and on Sunday morning they took us to watch the great Aussie tradition of “Lifesavers”. Both of their kids are in the junior version: “Nippers”. We watched Brianna swim out into the deep water, race using her paddle board out and train how to save lives. Lucy joined in the running races with Brianna’s group. While Alisha helped out on the Sausage Sizzle – they’ll be applying for their Aussie passports next! We all had a wonderful weekend, it was lovely to see them again and see a slice of their Australian life.
A couple of days later, as we walked down to the marina in Airlie Beach, we were very excited to see our home for the next 3 nights: the tall ship “Solway Lass”. A real 116 year old beauty with a colourful history. Having started life in Europe as a sailing cargo boat, she had taken part in both World Wars, sunk twice, worked in the South Pacific and was now working as a cruising ship around the Whitsundays. She had space for 30 passengers and 6 crew in relative comfort.
We boarded the ship just after dark and motored across to near Whitsunday Island. In the morning we watched the 7 kilometre white sandy Whitehaven Beach pass as we ate breakfast. We all got knitted out in the not-so-sexy but life-saving stinger suits to protect us from the killer irukandji and box jelly fish, for our time on the perfect beach.
After lunch we hiked up a hill further round on the island to view the perfect sand swirls and azure waters at Tongue Bay. The water was so clear we could see rays hanging out in the shallows far below us.
It was wonderful to be on such a historical boat, especially when the crew got out 8 of her 10 sails to sail that afternoon between the islands. With her sails bellowing and the deckhands scampering up the rigging, it felt that we had all gone back in time. It was really impressive when the sails were up, especially after watching the crew unfurling the sails way up high on the mast. There must have been over a 100 different ropes attached to different parts of the sails and tied to the posts around the deck. It was really amazing teamwork by Chris the Skipper and Bee and Steve the Deckhands to hoist all the sails; position them correctly; and after we arrived at our mooring to tie all the sails away and tidy up the ropes in the dark.
All the crew and passengers were fabulous with the girls, the only children onboard, chatting and playing with them. The girls even got to help out and raise the main stay sail, when we were out sailing. They even had pirate costumes on board, so Lucy truly got into the spirit of things – whipping the crew with her cat-o-nine tails.
That night as we were waiting for another delicious meal we watched as a group of Giant Travally made short work of the squid attracted to the ship’s light. The waters just off the side of the boat were churning with large silver shapes and black ink with the efficient hunters working quickly. Steve was just itching to get a fishing rod out.
The following day was set aside for snorkeling on the reef, the amount of fish below the surface was astounding. Although it was cloudy, the visibility underwater was perfect. There were huge schools of fish; jewel coloured corals; turquoise clams; brightly coloured parrot fish munching on the coral; and a huge, mid-sex change, Hump-headed Maori Wrasse nicknamed Pricilla. Once the girls got cold they jumped in the support dinghies with the wonderful crew, so we could continue. The swimming wasn’t difficult, especially as they provided a pool noodle to use, so you could just float gently facedown. It was very peaceful watching the soft coral wafting in the sea currents with fish darting between the tentacles. That afternoon back at the boat after another amazing snorkel, I jumped back in the water to swim with 5 car-tyre sized bat fish. While Steve tried out the Tarzan swing off the front of the ship, dropping into the deep water. The girls directed proceedings from the main deck.
Yes…we found Nemo!
Snorkling on our third and last day was off Langford sand spit, where the coral was just a few metres off the beach. When we first arrived at high tide, the spit was just sliver of sand surrounded by water with a few seagulls resting on it. As the tide dropped the spit joined up to Langford Island. It was easy to swim on and off the beach. A sea turtle passed by Steve so closely that he could have stuck out his hand and touched it. Alisha and I jumped back into the water to see a green turtle tucked under a bit of the coral.
We had a wonderful few days on the Solway Lass, it seemed to be special feature upon special feature: the Great Barrier Reef; a tall ship sailing experience; the beautiful craggy Whitsundays Islands; and even better than all that it was beautifully calm so no one was seasick!