09 November 2020 | Upstream in Island Head Creek, Shoalwater Bay Military Training Area, QLD, Australia
During Wednesday (4th November), several other sailboats had joined us in Homestead Bay. Presumably, like us, they were heading south. Unlike us, they all left early the following morning. We assumed that most of them were either going to stop for the night at the Percy Islands (about 60 nm south) or keep going overnight to Great Keppel Island or Keppel Bay Marina. Since our destination of Island Head Creek was only 110 nm away, there was no advantage for us to leave early because we would might then arrive before sunrise.
After raising the anchor at 7 am, instead of turning south, we turned north to go through the Egremont Passage between Keswick and St Bees Islands. From the moorings, we could see the south end of a private air-strip, in and out of which a helicopter seemed to fly most days, so I was curious to see the rest of it. Keswick Island is 78% National Park but there is also a development lease that permits construction of up to 1,000 "eco-conscious" dwellings (with their own water collection/storage and power generation). As of 2018, only 22 such houses had been built and there was no sign of the planned marina or permanent jetty. Currently, a floating dock can only be used at high tide. Going through the Passage, we could see a few houses which range from the size of a mobile home to a huge multilevel house on the southernmost hilltop. Apparently, camping, glamping, and a self-contained holiday house are available for visitors without boats, and there are some trails through the National Park.
Less predictably, Keswick Island has many hives of purebred Caucasian bees which are free of the diseases affecting hives on the mainland, and can thus be used as breeding stock for mainland colonies. A queen bee will mate in flight within an 8 km (5 mile) radius of her hive. Thus, Keswick Island is isolated enough to ensure that queens there will only mate with drones from hives on the island, keeping the genepool pure and the hives free of disease. One has to wonder why the hives were established on Keswick Island when it would seem more appropriate to be located on the neighboring St Bees Island.
Named not for the insects but for the coastal town in Cumberland (the former county in northwest England that is now Cumbria and these Australian islands are in the Cumberland Group), the whole of St Bees Island is National Park. It was first used for sheep grazing in 1907 and this persisted for long enough that the eastern side of the
Island is still largely devoid of trees. This may be why it looks to me so much like the heavily grazed parts of Cumbria and to Randall like the dry, treeless parts of central California. Since Lt. James Cook named these islands after the Duke of Cumberland, long before any sheep were introduced, perhaps the shape of the hills reminded him of the northwest of England, or it was just a coincidence that those places now look similar.
There were three houses at the head of Homestead Bay, where we had been moored, and, given the Bay's name, these presumably pre-dated the National Park. Inshore of these buildings, the western side of St Bees was forested. According to our cruising-guide, St Bees became of special interest to wildlife officers in 2011 "when it was realized that the island had the largest group of koalas in a habitat unaltered by human activity." This seems to ignore the influence on the island of the sheep-grazing, but we assume that the koalas stayed on the forested side and the sheep on the other side.
St Bees Island: top - forested west side seen from Homestead Bay; bottom - formerly grazed east side looking to Randall a bit like central California
The tide was against us initially, but once we motored through the Passage and came around the north end of St Bees Island, the wind and current were very much with us and we were soon sailing in very pleasant conditions. As we passed Mackay, which is about 20 nm southwest of Keswick and St Bees Islands, we noticed on the chart-plotter more than 30 AIS icons for commercial vessels in, or near, the ship anchorage. The economy of the town of Mackay is dominated by sugar and agriculture with a small sector based on tourism and access to the Whitsunday Islands. Not quite 10 nm south of Mackay, Hay Point has massive equipment for loading coal onto ore ships. Our cruising-guide warned us that dozens of such ships might be anchored in wait for their turn at the coal loaders. Other than on either side of the Panama Canal, I am not sure that we had ever seen so many ships anchored in such close quarters. We wondered if the current spat between Australia and China, which had stopped the northward shipment of coal, was responsible for so many idle ships.
Chart-plotter showing ship the anchorage off Hay Point: violet circles with a blue anchor denote a designated anchoring position for a ship; black triangles are AIS icons for ships - Tregoning is outside the top right corner of the picture and Mackay is at top left
As forecast, the northerly wind strengthened during the night. By this time we had furled the jib and were sailing downwind on just the mainsail at a perfect average of 5 knots which would bring us to Cape Townshend, just north of our destination, around dawn. Or that was the theory, but at 3 am the wind backed by 50 degrees and dropped from 18 to 10 knots. Of course, it was my watch and we were threading our way between some small islands, so when the mainsail suddenly started flapping, I was galvanized into action and had to gybe quickly to regain control. We crept through the remaining islands and by the time Randall appeared, it was obvious that we had slowed down so much that we needed to start the engine if we wanted to get to the anchorage before dark.
Island Head Creek is cut out of a peninsular of the mainland that is on the east side of Shoalwater Bay and Broad Sound. Although they appear to have good shelter from southeasterly winds, few areas in these large bays are recommended for cruising boats. These bays have the widest tidal range and fastest tidal currents on the east coast of Australia. With many islets in Shoalwater Bay and extensive sandbars and shallow sections, this can be a hazardous area in anything other than neap tides and calm conditions.
Most of the shoreline of Shoalwater Bay and all the coast to 30 nm south of Island Head Creek, are within the Shoalwater Bay Military Training Area. As the Vietnam War loomed, the Australian Army needed to expand its military training in an area with tropical conditions. Starting in 1961, the federal government took-over from Queensland Parks and private cattle stations, 2,700 square km (1,053 square miles) of land south and east of Shoalwater Bay. The army arrived in mid-1965 and immediately dug Vietcong-style tunnels somewhere within the mountainous landscape.
The Training Area is completely closed when large-scale exercises are underway but, judging by the date of the last such Notice to Mariners, it appears that this has not happened for a few years. The rest of the time, it is permissible to use anchorages in the Area but going ashore beyond the beach is not allowed. Since the stated reason for such prohibitions is due to the risk of unexploded ordinance, we were not sure that even a beach walk would be very relaxing and wondered about the certainty of not finding such ordinance with an anchor.
We entered Island Head Creek very slowly because the diagram in our cruising guide (2014 edition) showed two deep channels separated by a middle shoal, whereas our more up-to-date electronic charts showed a single, central, very narrow channel. It was high tide and although we never saw water shallower than 4 m (13 ft), it suggested that we will also have to time our departure for high tide. Once inside the creek, however, water depths increased again to as much as 21 m (70 feet). Although the creek was initially very wide, with drying sand flats not far away we had to keep an eye on the water depth to make sure that we did not stray into a steep-sided wall of the channel.
Our surroundings in Island Head Creek: top - looking northwest; bottom - looking south
We crept upstream to where the distance between the mangroves on either side of the creek was about 0.3 nm. We dropped the anchor in mid-channel and it was time for lunch. That night we were alone in the anchorage with no signs of human influence in the mangroves and hills around us. Once dark, there were no sign of any human lights, not even the glow of a town on the horizon. Needless to say, until the moon rose, the stars were spectacular.
During the night Randall had to shut a port-light because he could hear cicadas. I had noticed them in the mangroves when in the cockpit but this was much louder and the next morning I found two alive and one dead one on the aft deck. We wondered if they were attracted by the solar lights on the stern. We took the lights below the next evening.
The dead cicada we found on Tregoning's deck in the morning (about 3 cm or 1.2 inches long)
The next day, three other boats joined us, including one, MAD, that had arrived in Homestead Bay the day before we all left. This boat is from Newcastle, NSW, and we are pretty sure that we had seen it several times in Port Stephens or on the way north along the Queensland coast.
One consequence of being so isolated was that we could not get service on our cellphone...at least not without raising it up the mast. Even then, texts could go in and out but we could only sometimes get sufficient data coverage to connect to the internet. Talking on the phone was also ruled-out because even if we had wanted to climb the mast, it would have been too windy to hear anyone. Luckily, we could get weather and brief news headlines via the single side-band radio.
This isolation had seemed like a good idea when we were sulking about the possibility of Trump being reelected. However, as we caught-up with snippets of news headlines, this started to seem less and less likely until, finally, on Sunday evening (four days after the election) we got the news that we so desperately wanted to hear. Joe Biden had won the US Presidential election - Hurrah!!!!
I am a little sorry now that I dissuaded Randall from going up on deck and blasting off our fog-horn in celebration. I was afraid that our neighbors might think that we were in distress and were trying to signal them. I would have felt bad if they had launched their dinghy to check on us but, in retrospect, I think that they would have understood if they saw us dancing a jig on the deck. Still, we did eat the last of our chocolate and made ourselves cocktails to mark what, at least for us, was a very happy occasion.
We personally may feel a huge relief in this result, but this is not a time to gloat. We appreciate that the President-Elect faces daunting challenges in the midst of the pandemic, climate change, and with such a bitterly divided electorate. Solving such problems in the US and the world will not be quick or easy. We also understand that our Republican friends may be disappointed and frustrated that recent policies, that they endorsed, may be slowed or reversed. But our strongest sentiment by far, is the ending of an administration that has treated blatant lying, the generation and acceptance of fake news, the focus on self-serving policies, and the cold-hearted abandonment of leadership in the face of the pandemic, as acceptable behavior for the nation's leader.
While many voters clearly supported his in-your-face assertiveness, readiness to fire even loyal associates when things go wrong, ignoring and ridiculing dissenting experts and scientists, and his proud espousal of incivility, in our opinion, Donald Trump has been an appalling role-model for the nation's children and a laughing-stock of most international opinion. We are not blind to the fact that many ardent Trump supporters will feel bitter, betrayed, and disenfranchised. However, their so-called leader has callously managed to make much of America's middle-class and many minorities feel that way for the last four years. We hope that amongst Trump loyalists, reason and resignation rather than vitriolic or violent reaction will prevail.
In this election, the choice of one old white guy or another became inevitable. But we hope that, in the long-term, intelligent, energetic, and younger leaders will emerge on both sides of the political divide. We see the election of Kamala Harris, to the highest position ever held by a woman in the administration of the US, to be a hugely positive step. We trust that she will be given the opportunity to provide a visible and creditable role-model of a woman leader, resulting in the eventual acceptance of a female president.
Without Trump in the White House, the press and comedians will have to work a little harder to find stories that shock or entertain the public. But they should not relax from rational criticism and poking fun at the new administration. Our sincere wish would be that critical appraisals be based on fact and logical extrapolation, rather than the recent emphasis on fear-mongering, conspiracy theories, and the exaggeration and proliferation of unsubstantiated conjecture and misinformation. OK, that is a pretty optimistic wish but who are we if we are not wishful-thinking liberals?
So endeth this blog's political (and probably pompous) diatribe for today!