It’s the kind of weather you would expect forging a path bravely across the Atlantic Ocean: lashing rain, massive waves and high winds strong enough to whip waterspouts into the sky. The rain masses into torrents of water that cascade down the portholes and into the cabins through leaky vents. Our cabin, a four-person “inner” cabin with no outside windows, leaks the worst. In fact, the drip centres on my bunk, where my head is supposed to lie, so instead I flip around and curl up into a ball so I don’t end up with wet feet. Everytime I turn, I cringe as the plastic-covered mattress crinkles. This isn’t the Atlantic. It’s the Whitsundays, and our soft sailing sojourn has turned into a rock and roll (literally) adventure.
Night One, Day One
The Anaconda III sits in the harbour, a massive blue and white mega-yacht waiting to be boarded. She’s easily one of the bigger yachts there and holds 31 passengers, plus crew. After a short safety brief, everyone is handed their own bonafide stinger suit for all the nasties in the water. Then some bubbly is handed out to all, intros are made and we’re shown into our “cozy” (read: cramped) bunks. Water is on a strict ration: one one-minute shower per day.
Before we shuffle off to bed, Tim – our skipper – asks for the Canadians on board to identify themselves. Three hands go up; myself and a couple from Kamloops, B.C., Rob and Kara.
Tim shakes his head sadly. “It’s a scientifically proven fact that 80% of the time a Canadian is on board my ship, it is going to rain.”
The other passengers fix us with an evil stare and wouldn’t you know it, a drop of water lands on the top of my head. Kara, Rob and I scurry away before we can be lynched.
Whitehaven Beach is normally the picture-perfect oasis of everyone’s dreams. The crew drop us off, with two hours to kill. We swim (in the rain), play beach cricket (in the rain) and sunbathe (yes, there was a fleeting moment of sun!) It rains some more and we pray for the crew to return in their tender, but they seem determined to give us the full two-hour beach experience we paid for. Back on the boat (finally), we realize why we wear stinger suits: huge jellyfish float idly by, unaware of the dread they cause in many hearts.
My first dive is later on that afternoon at Luncheon Bay, off Hook Island. It is a fringing reef dive, which means the reef hugs the outline of the island; an easy site, difficult to get lost but with a huge range of corals and fish. The snorkelling is equally as good, with the water being so clear and the coral so close to the surface. Sarah and I muck around with an underwater camera; I can only imagine the beauty of the reef with the sun shining.
The food on board, cooked by Kelly, is nothing short of superb. There’s plenty of it, too, but the heat inside the galley is intense. Tim orders the awning up to shelter us from the rain, so we can sit outside. It isn’t long, though, until we hunker back down, exhausted from diving and snorkelling.
Night Two, Day Two
At five in the morning, Anaconda III sets sail again out toward the outer Great Barrier Reef. I wouldn’t have known it had it not been for the sudden but constant thunder of our bathroom door against the toilet. Bang against the door frame, the boat lurches, bang against the toilet. There is no way to secure it, although we are valiant in our efforts. As soon as Sarah gets up out of bed though, she is forced to run up on deck. She is not alone. Others join her in her queasinses, though fortunately I avoid it.
We anchor at Bait Reef, which looks as though it is in the middle of nowhere. Scuba diving here is scarier than anywhere else – at least at other dive sites, I could always see land. I brace myself for what is supposed to be one of the best dives in the Whitsundays. I’m not disappointed. We spy black-tipped reef sharks feeding on the bottom. We watch one for a good while before it up and swims away, tired of spectators. No sooner had we turned our heads than an Eagle ray swooped around the mountain of coral, its face unlike any I have ever seen before, on land or in sea.
It’s always the big fish that get a mention, but when I’m down there, it’s the small things that capture my imagination the most. There are the feather worms that look like the dust busters of the ocean. Or the scores of minnows that swarm around you as you swim, their silvery bodies catching the light like sparkling, falling confetti. This dive, my tenth, is the best so far, for this mix of big and small.
Leaving Bait Reef is when the massive storm hits. A few brave souls (Sarah, but not myself) face the storm on deck. Sarah rushes in to tell me she almost went overboard. This, combined with the fact that she was stung by a jellyfish, makes me reconsider her ‘cursed’ status. But her contagious smile has never left her face since boarding the boat, and it is fun. If this isn’t sailing, what is?
Night Three, Day Three
Tim fixes our bathroom door with some string and a nail. It does the trick and we sleep soundly. The morning breaks much clearer than the night before. We snorkel again and feed the fish with mouldy bread. The fish here are clueless of the imminent danger humans bring and swim right up to our masks. Who said they are more afraid of us than we are of them?
We spend the morning at Blue Pearl Bay but move on quickly to get back to Airlie Beach. In a final salute to us, it is raining again. But although the tan didn’t deepen, the beach wasn’t picturesque and the reef didn’t sparkle, the rain bound everyone together so that a whole ship of strangers sailed back into harbour as friends. And thus ends the saga of the Wetsundays.
(p.s. It has been raining so hard that we are now stranded in Airlie Beach due to flooding, all roads both north and south have been closed until at least Wednesday. )