John Tylor recalls a treacherous crossing – sideways, and while asleep – on the tropical Queensland coast with his good friend Don…
Crossing dangerous coastal bars asleep and sideways is certainly not a habit of mine, but strange things can happen on the water, and like many incidents they often happen slowly and start long before the final event. So, here we go!
When I was retrenched from my job as a communications engineer, my friend Don Dunn, a retired bank manager and wartime intelligence operator spying on the Japanese invaders just to the north of Australia, decided the time was right for a cruise to see the old Commando Base on Fraser Island, north from our home in Sydney, Australia.
He was at an age when long trips were becoming more difficult so, with the blessing of our wives, off we went for the trip of our lives on his yacht, a locally-made Phantom 32. Don had been sailing the vast coast of Australia for more than 60 years and knew it well.
Although my knowledge was less comprehensive, I was given the job of navigating; Don thought I would benefit from the preparation. I studied the charts, guides, tide tables and the Australia Pilot and prepared a comprehensive passage plan.
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All went well until the navigator or lookout missed a crucial port-hand mark in the Gold Coast waterway, just south of the city of Brisbane. It was a long way off and directly in the setting sun; the glare completely obscured it.
We ran silently aground. The soft sand held us gently but firmly and all attempts to re-float failed until a catamaran appeared, blithely motoring over the sandbar, and offered to tow us off.
It quickly became obvious they had no experience extracting hapless sailors in a heavy displacement yacht from a grounding. It’s a long story in itself but resulted in us losing the main anchor and many metres of anchor rope and chain.
Not to worry… we had spares so we continued north towards the tropical coast. This little event would come back to haunt us many miles later.
We had a beautiful and uneventful trip visiting several spectacular places until we reached Fraser Island. At 122km long, and 1,840km2, it is the biggest of four of the largest sand islands in the world (all on the Queensland coast).
For many tens of thousands of years it had been occupied and cared for by the Butchulla Aboriginal people. They called it K’gari, ‘paradise’ in their native tongue, and today it is still a spectacular place with deep freshwater lakes and dense forest.
The island was saved from logging several years ago and has become a popular destination with local and international visitors alike. It has all the regular Australian native birds and animals and, due to its isolation, contains the purest population of dingos anywhere in the country.
The dingo is a breed of dog introduced by Asian traders several thousand years ago and is distantly related to the Asian wolf. The island holds a more recent and sinister history. Its isolation and tropical vegetation made it an ideal base for secret commando training during the war in the Pacific.
Hundreds of soldiers from many nations developed their skills in gathering intelligence and harassing Japanese forces in the occupied Asian and Pacific areas to the north of Australia.
Australian Z Special Unit, based on the British Special Operations Executive, trained here for an audacious raid on shipping in the Japanese-held port of Singapore; tragically, they were all lost during the operation. Their three-dimensional plan of the port and nearby islands, while weather-worn, is still visible.
The Great Sandy Straight, the waterway on the western side of the island, is sheltered and shallow with many sand bars becoming exposed at low tide.
Access on its southern side is via Wide Bay Bar, a long, curved and shallow channel some three miles long between the island and Inskip Point on the mainland. It has a deservedly fearsome reputation, especially with a westerly wind.
This place is dangerous; it has sand ridges that reduce its depth and a wild tide so it requires careful planning and more importantly accurate timing.
Most yachts are underpowered, slow and heavy so to attempt any bar a skipper must time the crossing to just before high tide, the waves need to be low and once committed do not stop or turn around.
We spent a few happy days just playing around in the spectacular sheltered waters and, when it was finally time, got ready for the trip.
Despite having crossed it a week earlier on our way in, we thoroughly checked the engine once again. We made sure we still had plenty of fuel and inspected the air and fuel filters as we could not afford an engine failure.
As high tide was early next morning we anchored inside the Bar near the entrance and turned in for the night. The spare anchor we were using had less chain than Don’s regular, but it seemed to have set well in the sandy bottom; the water runs strongly near the entrance.
This is when things really began to unravel. Sometime in the middle of the night Don woke for a bladder relief. As he looked out the hatch he didn’t recognise any of the lights on the shore to our south so called me for a second opinion. He said the GPS had us travelling east at 4.5 knots but the anchor was still down.
Now normally I need a little time to wake up but this got my attention instantly. I did not immediately recognise the lights either. They looked like the lights on the Inskip Point camping ground on the mainland but were in the wrong place.
Our adrenaline had now really kicked in. As my mind cleared, the waves were beginning to get up so I went forward and checked the anchor. It felt heavy but did not seem to be attached to the bottom, and what’s more, we appeared to be travelling sideways.
While Don was starting the engine and turning the boat into the wave, I pulled the anchor up – no time to use the manual windlass; the adrenaline had now peaked.
We were both wide awake and more than alarmed as the waves built even more; they were not only frighteningly high, they were very irregular; we were most likely on the shallow sandbar near the beach.
There is a sectored light near the most southerly point of the island that identifies the seaward entrance to the bar, and we now urgently needed to find it as it would mark the channel to safe water. We guessed we were in its dangerous sector but how to be sure?
There was a line of red and white lights all along the beach. There were always many fishermen with their four-wheel-drives out at night so this was quite normal but which one belonged to the sectored leading light?
By now, we were in the shallowest part of the bar; the waves were really sloppy, breaking in all directions and we were being washed towards the shore. A bright moon would have helped but the new moon had set, and heavy cloud cover meant there was no help there.
As we concentrated on the line of lights, one, a little distance from the others, suddenly turned white; we now knew where we were – in the middle of the shallowest part of the bar being rushed eastward. This was just where we did not want to be but we now knew the way to safe water.
We turned south, made the Volvo engine work its little pistons out and followed the track shown by the white light. As we cleared the danger zone into deep water, the white light turned green, but we were safely clear and the sea had calmed down. Now all we had to do was get our heart rates down to a safe level. A couple of Don’s ‘special’ coffees helped.
Next day in the marina at Mooloolaba we discussed what had gone wrong. The most obvious was the anchor. While our spare was just as heavy as the one we lost, it lacked the 30m of heavy chain.
Even though we’d anchored in shallow water, heavy rain from recent storms had changed the shape of the sandy bottom and increased the tidal flow.
I have crossed Wide Bay Bar many times since but the memory of that night makes me very cautious in the extreme. Don’s famous phrase ‘well, you learn better from every one you live through’ still haunts me every time I think about the event.
- When navigating around shallow water, identify every navigation mark and check them off on the chart; Missing a vital one hidden in sun glare caused us to ground on the sand bar.
- If you accept a tow from another yacht, do not assume they actually know what they are about to attempt. Rather than tow us off the grounding, the other vessel actually pulled our boat sideways, breaking the rope.
- If you lose anything critical – i.e. the main anchor and chain – replace it.
- While our spare anchor was up to the job, it lacked the 30m of heavy chain of its predecessor, which would have helped to counteract the soft sand and strong tidal flow of the anchorage.
- We had a chart, the Australia Pilot and several cruising guides but lacked critical detail of the anchorage.
- Take more soundings if anchoring in soft sand with a down slope, as this allowed the anchor to slide out.
- We should have donned personal floatation devices (PFDs) and harnesses as soon as we realised something was wrong. We were so focused on saving the boat we didn’t put one on; naturally we do not sleep in a PFD. Since that night, I leave a PFD and safety strop attached in the cockpit. Of course, we had not planned on a night crossing at peak run out tide.
Expert opinion: The value of anchor chain
Royal Yachting Association (RYA) cruising manager Stuart Carruthers responds: “It is worth emphasising John’s lesson about the critical part a good length of chain plays in providing a catenary action, which has the effect of reducing the angle between your boat and the anchor on the seabed.
“Very, very simply, most anchors work or set best by being pulled horizontally rather than vertically. An ample length of chain between the anchor and the anchor cable will help to ensure that the pull on the anchor is more horizontal on the sea bed and help to keep your anchor holding.”
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This feature appeared in the Summer 2023 edition of Practical Boat Owner. For more articles like this, including DIY, money-saving advice, great boat projects, expert tips and ways to improve your boat’s performance, take out a magazine subscription to Britain’s best-selling boating magazine.
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