We dashed out of Nouméa Harbor, New Caledonia, broad reaching in a 20-knot southeast trade wind under headsail alone, surfing the five-foot waves at seven knots. Not bad for Saltaire, our 1966 Cal 30 sloop, a fine example of “classic plastic.” Energized and reassured by a favorable weather forecast, we were soon gliding through Passe Dumbea and into the Coral Sea after the nine-day stopover, which had included two nights anchored among the red cliffs and colonial pines of Port Boisé.
Saltaire aimed her bow toward the Queensland coast this Thursday morning in late November for the final chapter of a Pacific crossing that had started 20 months before at the Flamenco Island anchorage in Panama City. We had weathered two fierce gales — one near Bora Bora and another between Tonga and Fiji — but generally enjoyed fun, spirited sailing for most of the 9,000-plus miles. The last thing we expected for the closing chapter of our South Pacific adventure was a forced, last-minute change of destination complicated by a medical emergency.
We covered 145 miles the first 24 hours out, a healthy start for our 800-mile journey west to Bundaberg, where we anticipated clearing in before heading south to Mooloolaba or Brisbane for the cyclone season. At this speed, we could expect to arrive in Bundaberg within six days of our departure. Somewhat dampening our hopes, the wind died after our second day, yielding only 60 miles. We figured there was little reason to worry, since the weather maps had shown fairly consistent high-pressure systems and fresh to strong winds coming off eastern Australia with calms lasting no more than three days during the previous month.
Where did the wind go?
The 65-day averages had begun to wear on us by Monday, however. Where had the wind gone? Though we had no weather fax on board, we received encouraging daily SSB weather broadcasts on Tony’s Net (14.315 Mhz) and the Comedy Net (7.087 Mhz), Aussie-Kiwi HAM radio nets for South Pacific sailors. At least there were no major depressions brewing, which had been our one major concern because we were now in cyclone season.
Our speed eventually dwindled to one knot. This gave us the opportunity to douse the sails, put out the swim ladder, and dive into Neptune’s great swimming pool. After the refreshing swim, Marilu whipped up a batch of tortillas, to which we added a can each of refried beans and hot salsa for burritos. We washed down the heavenly repast with a couple glasses of chateau carton (cruiser term for box wine).
That morning Marilu had started complaining of pain and itchiness in her right eye. I did notice a little redness, but it didn’t look serious. She had been sneezing and sniffling since Noumea, perhaps from a slight flu or allergy spell, mere nuisances that passed within two or three days.
The wind freshened to 10 knots after a few hours, and we were slowly ghosting ahead. Visiting Australia had been a childhood fantasy for many Americans of my generation. At this speed and with 500 miles ahead of us, the fulfilment of that dream would have to wait just a little longer.
A female booby — not the Galapagos blue-footed kind — alighted on our bow pulpit late that afternoon to take a rest from the wind and sea. Our friend hung around until the wee hours of the morning, patiently reeling her head back whenever the genoa flapped in her face, not caring the least about the two odd-looking bipeds studying her and making strange, non-avian sounds at the rear of the bouncing platform. She left before sunrise, back to boobyland after having escorted us through 12 hours of brine and boredom.
By 0730 Tuesday, the anticipated northerlies had arrived, putting us on a beam reach at 4.5 knots and still dead on target. We assumed by this point we would arrive sometime on the weekend, which would mean paying overtime charges to the Aussie officials when clearing into the country. We could not speed it up for a Friday landfall, and we were not going to wait until Monday while lying ahull offshore in a southerly current. My favorite response to this kind of situation: “Oh well, it’s just money.”
I commented to Marilu how our Pacific crossing seemed to be ending much as it began: calm, easy sailing with sunny days and cloudless, starry nights. If the wind clocked around to northwest at 15 knots as promised over the radio, we would add that final touch of symmetry with some light windward sailing, the kind we had experienced off the coast of Colombia on the trip to Isla San Cristobal, Galapagos.
As predicted, by 1630 the slight breeze had shifted to north-northwest, which Saltaire turned into forward movement at three to four knots. The wind steadily became more westerly throughout the night, putting us on a close reach 270° toward Bundaberg. We had maintained a course 30 miles north of Sandy Cape as a hedge against northerlies and a south-setting coastal current. A weak westerly was something we had not expected.
Marilu’s eye condition by now had deteriorated to an obvious infection. I had asked for medical advice on the Comedy Net, and someone recommended a hot saltwater compress — not ocean water, we were warned. The treatment helped at first, but after a few hours, the infection grew worse. I had heard my share of horror stories regarding infections of the eye and nose area. The worst case was a co-worker who died of a nasal infection that had quickly spread to her brain.
By Friday morning the wind had picked up, and weather conditions were so rough we didn’t bother contacting the HF nets. Australian coastal weather broadcasts, announced throughout the day on SSB, were a far more efficient means of getting the information we needed.
An Aussie gale?
The latest broadcast reported an extreme low coming off the southeast coast, delivering a 60-knot gale to the Tasman Sea and less severe weather farther north. The announcer emphasized, “No gale warning for Queensland coastal waters.” Saltaire, double reefed and close-hauled in a 30-knot westerly, crashed through steep seas that exploded over the foredeck in clouds of foam and spindrift. “I wonder what the Aussies consider a gale?” I mumbled to myself.
A foot-long tear had opened up on the leach of our two-year-old mainsail, stopping at a batten pocket. “First thing we’re going to do in port,” I told Marilu, “is get a trysail made. With our luck, we’ll end up using it more than the main.”
Only 75 miles east of our waypoint between Lady Elliott Island and Sandy Cape, the confused seas and surface current were rapidly throwing us south of our rhumb line. It was clear by this time we were not going to fetch Bundaberg. Marilu’s eye was now swollen shut, and she was in a lot of pain. She needed to get medical attention as quickly as possible, even if it meant putting out a “pan-pan” on the radio to have her flown to a hospital.
Marilu assured me she would be all right and declined the offer to bail out. This left us with one alternative. We reluctantly turned south, blasting down the coast on a beam reach as if we had been shot out of a cannon. It was exhilarating and far more comfortable than crashing head-long into eight-foot seas. But where were we going?
Saturday night or early Sunday morning would come by the time we arrived in Scarborough, and then we would have to tackle shoals and reefs without a chart. Our attempts to locate charts for Moreton Island and Brisbane during our stays in Fiji and New Caledonia had been fruitless. However, we had good charts covering the coast from Fraser Island to Point Cartwright, including a detailed inset of Mooloolaba Harbour, which we knew fully well was not a port of entry.
The low passes
Late that night the barometer fell to a disturbing 998 millibars as the wind relaxed and the eye of the low passed over us. The pressure had dropped 12 millibars in less than 24 hours, something we hadn’t experienced in the entire voyage from Los Angeles. The wind lost its strength, and then by morning was picking up speed out of the southeast with pressure now back to 1004 millibars. I stared into space with glazed eyes, “What kind of place is this where barometer needles flip back and forth like windshield wipers?”
Marilu lay in agony on the settee in the main salon. She was running a low-grade fever, indicating a worsening in her condition. Feelings of guilt overwhelmed me, as I knew there was nothing I could do to help her, aside from giving her water, hot meals, and eye compresses, and I still hadn’t settled on a plan to get us out of this mess.
Making matters worse, we had started taking on water after changing over to a close reach on the port tack. No matter where I looked, I couldn’t figure out where the water was coming in. An inspection of the shaft gland, hull-to-deck joint, stanchion bolts, and everything else that came to mind failed to reveal the water’s source. I bailed water periodically with a plastic bucket and let the engine run so that we could flip on the switch to the 2,200-gallon-per-hour bilge pump whenever the water level got close to the engine oil pan. This strategy worked well, keeping us out of imminent danger as long as the flow did not increase.
Quite curiously, whenever the wind dipped below 18 knots and allowed the boat to decrease her heel, the water intrusion stopped. Could the water be coming through the hawsehole and into the chain locker? The path of the water didn’t match that conclusion. I finally deduced that the water had to be siphoning into the starboard topside through-hull fitting that I had added for a manual bilge pump before leaving California. Why it had not leaked before was a mystery.
Plugging a through hull
I donned my harness, leaned over the toerail and pounded a wooden plug into the through hull to see if it would make a difference. The water continued streaming in. It would not be until a month later that a thorough investigation would divulge the culprit: a loose hose from a deck drain was allowing accumulated deck wash to pour directly into the bilge near the stern. Ideally, decks above the cockpit sole should drain over the side at the gunwale. Even the best-built boats do have their occasional design flaws.
At 0930 Saturday when we got within VHF range of Point Cartwright, I hailed the Mooloolaba Coast Guard Station on Channel 16, declared a medical emergency, and requested permission to clear in at Mooloolaba. We knew that a handful of guys relaxing in their backyards with their families, barbies and bitters were going to expect a damn good reason for having to drive more than an hour from their homes in Brisbane just to attend to an American vessel whose skipper was not following the rules.
The official-sounding voice on the radio eventually granted us permission to make the unconventional entry. He expedited the process by taking our names, nationality, and boat documentation data, and assured us that we would receive full clearing-in services in Mooloolaba plus emergency medical transportation. The gentlemen also arranged for the 13-meter Volunteer Coast Guard launch Noosa Sheraton to escort us from the harbor entrance to the public dock. He said the Coasties were using the occasion as a “training exercise.”
The volunteers, led by Deputy Commander Tony Taylor, were silent and serious-looking in their khaki uniforms and shiny gold pins when Noosa Sheraton approached and a crewmember signaled us to follow. “Damn,” I thought, “we must really be in trouble.” Smiles soon appeared on the faces of these seasoned sailors, and we realized it was time to relax and place our trust in the officials. As we motored behind the launch, Marilu and I gave each other a cheerful hug. “We’ve crossed the Pacific,” I whispered to her.
“Can you believe it?” squeaked Marilu, still in pain but with her temperature back to normal. “We actually made it.”
Waiting for us at the public dock were two paramedics, an ambulance, three Customs officials, and Allan Whitby, the Australian Quarantine Inspection Service (AQIS) officer who would become our guide and mentor through our first day in this new country. The paramedics determined that Marilu was not in any immediate danger, so we opted to arrange our own transportation to the public hospital in Nambour, a half-hour drive away. The ambulance ride would have cost us $750 AUS., or about $440 U.S.!
Allan finished his quarantine inspection in less than an hour and billed us $244 AUS. ($145 U.S.) for the service, including overtime charges, sparing us the fee covering his travel from Brisbane. Fortunately, we had planned ahead by consuming all the canned meats, fresh vegetables and eggs before arriving, making his job a lot easier.
Customs took considerably longer. Two of the three Customs agents, wearing latex surgical gloves, scoured the full length of the boat, looking in nooks and crannies where we had forgotten we had nooks and crannies. The third agent studied our charts of the trip all the way from American Samoa, copying waypoints onto his own charts. Then he spent nearly half an hour grilling me on the specifics of the trip, taping the interview on a small cassette recorder: Why did you change course? Who have you contacted by radio since leaving port? Have you, at any time, carried firearms on this vessel since you’ve owned it? What kind, where and why? List all the countries you have visited since leaving the U.S. And so on.
For three hours, they used small cotton pads to take surface samples from dozens of objects, including books, clothes, bulkheads, and upholstery, for subsequent laboratory analysis. The senior officer explained to us that since the Bali terrorist bombing, which they see as their version of 9/11, explosives and firearms have priority over drugs and bugs.
Our non-conventional entry warranted an extra-detailed search, the officer told us. We didn’t begrudge their thoroughness; on the contrary, we sympathized with the Aussies’ heightened vigilance. As the search drew to a close, the conversation turned to Australia’s great passions, among them rugby, meat pies and beer. The most pleasant thing we heard was that the Customs inspection was free.
“Kees,” a Coast Guard volunteer, drove us to the hospital while Allan followed us in his AQIS vehicle. The attending physician shared Allan’s concern that Marilu could have contracted a screw worm larva, which would have been capable of drilling itself into her eye. Since our last stop had been New Caledonia, where the tiny pest is known to exist, Marilu could not be cleared by AQIS until the screw worm possibility was ruled out. The physician ordered Marilu to a follow-up exam the following week as a condition to final discharge from quarantine.
To our surprise, the doctor waived the fees for consultation and antibiotics though we had offered to pay. I explained to the doctor that in the U.S. every medical procedure commences with a “wallet biopsy.” He then arranged a taxi voucher, to be paid by AQIS, for our return to Mooloolaba. One of the nurses brought us each a sandwich and a bottle of chilled fruit juice while we waited for the voucher in the emergency lobby. We had experienced nearly the same level of attentiveness in French Polynesian health clinics. Yet as someone who was born and raised in the U.S., I still can’t get used to the idea of a medical system that puts patients first!
A great option
Marilu recovered within a few days and finally received AQIS clearance. The crisis now behind us, we spent the next few days shopping, calling home, sampling local wine, and getting adjusted to Australia. Mooloolaba Yacht Club served well for the first week as a place to cool our heels and settle in. A 15-minute jaunt up the harbor then landed us at Lawrie’s Marina in nearby Kawana Waters. The lower monthly liveaboard fee, about $50 U.S. less than the yacht club, along with greater access to chandleries and boat services, makes Lawrie’s the obvious choice. The harbor and nearby beaches look like Newport Beach and Fort Lauderdale rolled together though with a smaller population than either city. High-rise condominiums, huge shopping centers, nightclubs, bistros, and posh waterfront homes with private docks make the Caloundra-to-Noosa Heads corridor, including Mooloolaba, the site of one of the world’s hottest real estate bonanzas.
In short, this is not the idyllic tropical haven most cruisers seek. However, if you are looking for the comfort and convenience of an urban marina in a safe, subtropical environment at an affordable price, Mooloolaba Harbour is a great option, especially if you have just spent the last two or three years cruising the South Pacific, where there is limited access to consumer goods.
Cyclones occasionally do slam into the Queensland coast, but they generally stay north of Bundaberg. Mooloolaba Yacht Club was almost totally destroyed by hurricane-strength winds and flooding in the Mooloolah River on “Wet Wednesday,” June 22, 1983; nevertheless, as a practical matter, Mooloolaba Harbour is considered a safe haven from cyclones.
Mooloolaba is also the perfect springboard for a sail up the Great Barrier Reef to Cape York and the Arafura Sea from May through November. Marilu and I both agree: it was the easiest, most beautiful sail of our lives, and we would jump at the chance to return to Mooloolaba and sail up the Barrier Reef again.
Circumnavigator Bill Morris and his wife, Marilu, sailed across the Pacific and up the Australian Great Barrier Reef aboard their vintage Cal 30 Saltaire. Weeks after Bill survived a boarding by Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden, and then a full knockdown in the Red Sea, Marilu gave birth to their third crewmember, Yasmin Moana. Bill is the author of The Windvane Self-Steering Handbook.