I'll admit it: one of the reasons we came home from Australia in January was because we were ready for some winter. Winter, in California this year, we have a plenty. So we waxed our skis, invited ourselves over to Dominic's sister's gorgeous home in Shasta, and spent Monday at the ski park, surfing five inches of fresh spring pow-pow.Read More
I'm thrilled and honored that one of our little blog posts has blossomed into a magazine article!
The blog was (and is!) such a great way to remember and share our adventures. I've been even more grateful for it as we've been reconnecting with friends and family—no exhaustive slideshows, no rehashing our itinerary, people can get straight to the meaty questions. The most common: Favorite place? Scariest moments? Did you swim with sharks?
And the questions on everyone's mind: Didn't you at some point want to kill each other? How are you still married?
Fodder for posts to come. In the meantime, feel free to peruse the published article in its original form.
Last week, I cruised from snowy Weaverville to summery Ojai, California on a quest to show off my way-too-cute new nephew Enzo and visit the aunties and cousins I have missed over the last few years. (Not to mention how lovely it was to drive down the California coast and remember the last time I cruised through the Santa Barbara and Ventura area...)Read More
It's the same on land as it is at sea—time moves at a breathless pace. What madness it is, to be already March! A year ago we were heading north from the Milford Sound, poised for six weeks of boat work blitz followed by a ten day sail to Fiji.
And now...things are a little less exciting but lovely in their own way. We have spent the better part of the last month in Weaverville, oggling the clouds as they wander in and out of the valley, rainbows in their wake.
We have both been getting our oars in the water, work wise. I have a few writing gigs lined up, a few blog posts that might have a second round of publication in Cruising World, and have already spent a few days subbing at the school in town. Dominic is setting up meetings and interviews, and we have had a few fantastic evenings in San Fransisco at the ballet and eating fabulous meals with some of the people we have been missing over the last few years.
Are you a fan of Dave Sedaris? Always a favorite, his zany travel adventures and poignantly punchy family antics have kept me laughing out loud during many sleepless nights. I've been reminded of his story Laugh, Kookaburra a few times in the last few weeks, not only because it contains my favorite description of Australia ever—"Canada in a thong"—but also for its description of the kookaburra.
It isn't too hard to imagine one of these beauties in trainers, blowing a whistle with a stop watch. One of the reasons we visited the koala sanctuary in Brisbane was because we knew they had a few kookaburra in their care (including a very rare and very spectacular blue winged kookaburra), but we were delighted to find so many chattering and enjoying the Australian summer all around us.
After leaving the Glass House Mountains we headed north toward Noosa Heads. It was easily the kind of getaway beach town that could double for any in Southern California—trendy boutiques, fancy restaurants, and chic sun worshipers galore. But, we were in it for the hiking trails. There is a paved path that follows the shore through a grove of koala-filled eucalyptus before giving way to rugged terrain, windward cliffs, and views of diving osprey.
We were all smiles as we enjoyed the non-stop views!
We had our first glimpse of the Glass House Mountains sailing south from Mooloolaba to Scarborough. Ancient lava plugs that rise up to 556 meters above the surrounding landscape, the Glass House Mountains stand like sentries guarding dry land when seen from the water. Up close, the 11 peeks revealed their distinct shapes and landscapes, some home orchards or conifer farms, others wild with eucalyptus and spring flowers in bloom.
Check out those clouds! Summer was fast upon us while we picking the best day to go hiking. Avoiding the heat was our absolute top priority, followed closely by avoiding thunderstorms. We got lucky, finding day that with cloud coverage that was also rain free.
After five weeks of non-stop waxing and polishing, Dominic left Helios on the dock in Australia and flew home to California last week.
Dominic texted me this photo as he left for the airport on Thursday. Dominic seems all smiles in the photo, but it was the first time since coming home that I felt my eyes filling up with tears. Helios still felt like such a part of the family when we were at least talking about her over the phone on a daily basis.
Even though Dominic is here, she remains very much in our thoughts: we're still waiting on getting paper work through various Australian bureaucracies before we can officially put her on the market, so we're owners-in-absentia for the time being.
In the meantime, I've been raising my spirits by sorting through many photos and videos from our adventures—excited to share with this speedy US internet connection we've been enjoying!
Our other favorite part of Lone Pine Sanctuary was the raptor show. They brought out a beautiful, snowy white barn owl that flew silently over the crowd and a wedge tailed eagle that dwarfed his human handler (both below). We also saw a peregrine falcon (above) touring the grounds while he enjoyed his raw chicken lunch. All of the birds at Lone Pine had been rescued and rehabilitated but weren't fit to be released into the wild. The eagle had been hit by a car, and the falcon had injured his shoulder colliding with a phoneline mid-dive. A peregrine can reach speeds of up to 200 mph as it dives toward prey, earning it the title of fastest animal on Earth.
If you're in the mood for a snuggle, let me recommend Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary just outside of Brisbane. We spent a morning there on our first day in the area with a car and were blown away by the variety of animals being rehabilitated and the furry, grey, bowling ball sized main attraction. Founded in 1927, Lone Pine is the oldest and largest koala sanctuary in Australia and was founded after the species was nearly hunted to exinction. Now, their koalas are thriving.
The koalas have an enviable lifestyle, sleeping 20ish hours per day. It's commonly thought this is due to a narcotic effect caused by their eucalyptus-only diet; but in reality, it is because eucalyptus is so nutrient poor that they don't have the energy to sustain a more vigorous lifestyle.
Getting ready to go to the sanctuary, I had an overwhelming desire to cuddle with a koala (and then kidnap it to be mine forever), and I was jazzed that a major fundraiser at the sanctuary is the opportunity to briefly carry and take a photo with one. But in person, my attitude changed—not captured by the photos is their pungent, powerful urine-like aroma. Plus, they are constantly secreting oils they use to mark their territory and attract mates (that's what the brown coloring is on the males' chest) and are plagued by myriad contagious diseases.
So, ultimately, I decided these arboreal dwellers were better off in the arms of the trees than my own. Later though, while hiking in Noosa Heads north of Brisbane, I had the thrilling experience of spotting a koala in the wild. Not easy, but well worth 10 extra minutes with the binoculars. All our birding practice paid off!
On December 5—a month ago, if you can forgive me for how behind the blog has become—we sailed 33 nautical miles south from Mooloolaba to Scarborough. Making an early morning start as there were forecasts for 25 knots of wind offshore in the afternoon, we left Mooloolaba's narrow channel under partly cloudy skies with winds from the northeasterly quadrant. The passage was shallow and streaked with sandbars that had us keeping careful watch throughout the day.
As we sailed, coordinating tight gybes downwind like the seasoned cruising team of two years that we have become, the skies cleared, the Glasshouse Mountains spired inland of Queensland's sandy coast, and Helios was sailing as deep in the groove as she ever has been.
Sitting in the cockpit, feeling the boat glide forward and roll easily onto a starboard heel in her happy, steadfast way, I tried to make the most vivid mental movies I could. Dominic and I decided that we would put the boat on the market in Scarborough and these 33 miles underway would be the last we would count under Helios' keel.
Whoa! That's sad news!
We agree. Big time. But we had always planned for a two year trip, and nothing would make us more sad than to see Helios fall into disrepair in a marina while we took time to enjoy some of the comforts of home and refill the sailing kitty. Helios is primed for more adventures, and we won't stand in her way.
After much deliberation, we decided Scarborough was the best place for us to find Helios' new crew. We decided to sell in Australia instead of New Zealand because there are more people here and a larger market. Scarborough is just downriver from Brisbane, Australia's third largest city, and in a protected harbor. We also had friends that were having a positive experience selling their boat in Scarborough and had heard the brokers have a lot of experience selling international yachts.
We were very tempted to cruise all the way down to Sydney, but it would have meant making a lot more southerly mileage and facing higher marina fees.
With our plans heavily in mind, it was bittersweet to keep watch as Dominic maneuvered Helios through the channel into Scarborough's marina. But we were quickly distracted from any melancholy thoughts: there were throngs of blue jelly fish clogging the fairway, a lingerie photo shoot happening next to the boat-lift, winds that piped to 25 knots as we approached the side tie dock, and a friendly neighbor who offered to take us grocery shopping an hour after we arrived. Better busy than bummed!
In the last month, we did some exploring in the Brisbane area (more posts on that to come, get excited for koalas!) and have been getting Helios ready for sale, Dominic more so than me—I flew home in mid-December with two enormous checked bags and have been enjoying a quiet and lovely holiday season at home.
Dominic is going to fly home in mid-January. Beyond that, we'll be dividing our time between Weaverville and the Bay Area, exploring various professional avenues, and trying to maintain the easy pace of the cruising life as much as possible...
Photo caption: Saying good-bye to Helios with one last selfie in Scarborough!
Happy holidays, everyone! We got into the spirit of things early and took this photo at our last tropical island, Chesterfield Reef. Sending joy and wishes for a happy new year to all our loved ones on land and at sea!
Sailing south from Fraser Island was a smokey affair—a bolt from the previous night's lightning storm had struck ground setting the island on fire. We upped anchor with the sun at 0430 to cross over a sand bar stretching between the southern tip of Fraser Island and Australia's eastern coast before the winds picked up.
We were glad we made the effort to time the pass early as conditions got heavier over the course of the day; while we were enjoying 18 knot winds on our beam and cruising down the coast, the chirping on the radio reported standing waves in the area and that the sandbar had become largely impassible.
We were underway for the better part of the day, until about 1600. The water went from jade green to deep blue as we left the sandy straits for Australia's open coastline. We picked up an ocean breeze and a moderate swell as we went, enjoying views of the beachy coast, sandstone cliffs, and the Glasshouse Mountains.
Mooloolaba is a popular Australian resort town, so the exposed beach we sailed past was sprinkled with beachgoers and lined with hotels. We crossed through a small and treacherous opening into the duckpond-like conditions of Mooloolaba Harbor, a network of canals and extravagant modern homes ('McMansions' the guidebook calls them) situated at the mouth of the Mooloolah River.
We spent three nights and two days relaxing in town, eating at fish shacks, trying to avoid getting scorched by midday heat, and getting to know the local white ibis and osprey (reminded me of a few other osprey we were hanging out with in San Diego!).
The other friend we made on Fraser Island was the goanna, a lizard that can grow up to two meters in length. I spotted this guy as he crossed the dirt road in front of us as we hiked through Fraser Island. The climbed a nearby tree and posed for photos.
Aside from scoping out the wildlife, we spent most of our time on Fraser Island marveling at the wildness of Australian weather. Though we're south of the tropics, the evening storms rival anything we've seen thus far. Dark clouds funnel rain and fire lightning bolts by the hours. On our last night on the island, one of the bolts struck the island and started a fire. We also heard crazy statistics about the results of the first few weeks storms on mainland Australia this summer: a few thousand people needing to go to the hospital for asthma related symptoms, and over a million bolts of lightning striking the ground.
Our most exciting sighting was the sulphur crested cockatoo, who occasionally got into territorial scuffles with the resident osprey...
...who patrolled the sky above the beach stone curlew...
...who liked to pose for the camera...
...while hunting soldier crabs marching on shore.
On November 28, we left Bundaberg, stowed the dock lines, and started making way for Fraser Island. Lying just off the coast and over 120 kilometers north to south, Fraser Island is the largest sand island in the world and the only place where one can find rain forest growing on sand.
We cruised south in the sandy straits between Fraser Island and the mainland. Though the island blocks ocean swell, there is plenty of room for winds from the north or south to sweep through as well as a southerly current that can make for tricky navigation. But compared to ocean passage making, day sails through the sandy straits felt like we were on easy street the whole way.
We kept an easy rhythm—hopping south along the island’s anchorages in the morning, getting off the boat and exploring the island in the afternoon. The anchorages were sandy, making for excellent holding without any mud to clean off the anchor chain. The coastline was mostly flat and lined with mangroves, with a few areas of dramatic sand bluffs that made an excellent canvas for sunset watercolors. Our easy schedule gave us the chance to scope out some amazing birds, lizards, dingoes, and spiders in the process.
Our time in Bundaberg was largely functional. We were ten days in the marina, working through our list of end of season boat projects: repairing the brightwork and adding fresh coats of varnish, polishing the stainless, cleaning rust stains from the hull, oiling the teak down below.
Bundy is deep in Queensland’s sugar can country, and the marina was surrounded by a vast expanse of grassy flatlands, punctuated by the occasional marshy river basin or eucalyptus grove. We’re just south of the tropics, so the days were hot with the occasional afternoon squall. The marina was an isolated place. We could go for a 20 minute walk to the nearby village, which was a bend in the road along the shore with a few homes, a grocery store, a bakery, a porcelain doll gallery, and a drive through liquor store. We took the marina-sponsored shuttle into Bundaberg proper on Sunday morning, a 30 minute drive, and feasted our senses on fresh peaches, heirloom tomatoes, and lots of the little candy colored parakeets for sale.
Despite appearing monotonous, the grasslands surrounding the marina were an avian treasure trove. We saw rainbow lorikeets, pictured above, flocking in all the flowering trees. We spotted our first pelicans since leaving North America and large pink parrots foraging for seeds in the grass. We saw a pair of black headed ibis—a bird that has the legs of a stork, the body of large white egret, and the bald black head of a vulture with a slender beak that curved for nearly a foot in front of its face. Our favorite was the rainbow beecatcher, a small, cardinal shaped bird that darted around like an orange, green, and blue firecracker. And we saw kangaroos galore, hopping through the fields and relaxing in the shade.
We let Thanksgiving go by without much fanfare—no other Americans around, no way a turkey would fit in our oven, a little bummed to be so far away from home for yet another round of festivities. But, there is nothing quite so uplifting as practicing gratitude: I was so happy to celebrate from afar my family reuniting in California for Thanksgiving and my aunt’s birthday. On Saturday, our new nephew, Enzo, arrived with an uncomplicated delivery and grows more precious with every photo I see. I’m so grateful to my Mom, Dad, and Amit, the new father, for sending so many photos! Most of all I’m thankful for my partner in adventure, Dominic, and to have the privilege of exploring so much beauty on land and at sea.
Cruisers in the tropics of the South Pacific have to make a critical decision as cyclone season approaches in November: find an anchorage that qualifies as a hurricane hole for the season? Head south to New Zealand? Follow the sunset west to Australia?
Dominic and I had been in Vanuatu, swimming in waterfalls, swinging from banyan trees into freshwater springs, eating freshly caught lobster and mahimahi everyday, and wishing away the realities of the calendar, when we were forced to address this question as the days in October 2016 dwindled.
Having spent the previous summer in New Zealand and not in the mood to gamble with cyclones, we started planning a 1,000 nautical mile passage from Luganville, Vanuatu to Bundaberg, Australia.
We had been monitoring the weather for a month but didn't see any good windows that would allow us to comfortably sail the full distance in one hop. Friends that had made the passage a few weeks earlier told us about a little-known sliver of paradise called Chesterfield Reef that lies just beyond the half way point of our intended trajectory through the Coral Sea.
We started researching, finding that if Chesterfield is defined by anything, its isolation: 560 nautical miles southwest of Luganville, 440 nautical miles northeast from Bundaburg, the reef hovers 470 nautical miles northwest of Noumea, New Caledonia, from where it has been governed as a French territory since 1876.
Remote, yes, but a perfect stopover for us. And when we saw our friend's photos of turtles on the beach and seabirds flocking around their dinghy, we were really sold. So when November 1 rolled around, we started filling the larder, de-molding our lifejackets, and making ready for a passage to Chesterfield Reef.
Checking out of Vanuatu brought the usual throng of emotions: the sadness of saying goodbye, the thrill of new adventure, the fish-in-the-tummy anxiety of whatever unknowns the ocean held hidden in her waves.
On November 8, 2016, we raised the main, unfurled the jib, and enjoyed the first breeze we had felt in the cockpit for weeks as we set a westerly course from Luganville. Outside the lee of the island, a brisk 17 knot wind blew in behind us, and the seas swelled to 1.5 meters.
The sunset brought a star-studded night with winds that fluked and dipped to 10 knots, causing early morning sail furling and engine starting. But by morning they steadied, and we were sailing under a full mainsail and jib.
After 48 hours, we rounded New Caledonia's northern reefs; once in her lee, the seas were pancake flat. We had a magnificent day of sailing, the wind blowing for 12 hours longer than the forecasts called for, but we fired up the engine that night after the winds died and expected to motor the rest of the way.
We had an inkling a hundred miles out of Chesterfield Reef that we would be in for a lot of birds—three red footed boobies roosted overnight on our bow, one slept on our spreaders turning our dodger, deck, and mainsail into a modernist masterpiece of black and white smears.
One of the boobies we later spotted on shore:
As we approached the pass into Chesterfield, we started to see four-foot brown sea snakes float by our starboard side. We had a bite on our trolling line. Reeling in the catch, we noticed a gray reef shark trailing the boat. The shark made a lazy dive, disappearing into the sapphire, and our catch was gone.
After four and half days underway, we arrived at Chesterfield Reef. The reef is shaped like a bent fishhook, with a large opening facing the east, so navigating the entrance was straightforward. The lagoon is mostly free of coral heads and navigational hazards.
The reef, as seen on our charts and Google Earth:
There are 11 motus surrounding the lagoon that form a bight along the southern end creating an anchorage protected from southerly trades. We noticed that bommies became more frequent as we approached the reef's perimeter, so I went to the bow to keep a close lookout as Dominic navigated Helios into the anchorage. In reality, this is one of the easiest anchorages we've entered in our previous 13,000 nautical miles.
The view as we approached the anchorage:
By 1230 on a sunny Saturday, November 12, our anchor was dropped, the champagne popped, and we were moments away from swimming in the glassy turquoise water surrounding the boat. With us were three other cruising yachts, two catamarans out of Australia and Breeze, a 64 foot Moody, out of Sweden.
Scoping the neighborhood from the bow:
Helios and Breeze, as seen from shore:
We quickly realized those calm, clear waters were not as benign as they looked. Breeze reported seeing a three meter a tiger shark circling her stern after cleaning a fish and tossing the remnants overboard.
But still, I couldn't resist going for a swim after such a hot sail. So while I floated, bobbed, and somersaulted in the water, Dominic wore his snorkel and mask and kept a constant shark watch.
The tiger shark population in Chesterfield is unique and well documented. The reef system provides year-round shelter to an adult male tiger shark and at least three juveniles. A 2014 study recorded adult females passing through the area as part of a three-year migratory pattern around the Coral Sea via Australia and southern New Caledonia.
We tentatively, cautiously, on high shark alert at all times did some underwater exploring of the coral near the anchorage.
Our bravery was beyond rewarded. We spent an hour swimming around a large bommie 100 meters from the boat. The water was diamond clear, and the bommie was swollen with coral, humming with fish of all sizes. Crimson and evergreen sea fans waved in the current.
Dominic brought his spear gun with him, but it was only to play defense in the unlikely event that we came in contact with aggressive wildlife. Though we usually enjoy fishing, spearing can cause nearby sharks to become curious and assertive, a situation we were hoping to avoid. Plus, areas of Chesterfield are reported to be contaminated with ciguatera, a toxin that gets magnified in the reef food chain and causes nerve damage and muscle pain in humans.
Surrounding the anchorage, there were four continuously exposed motus that provided nesting sites for thousands of birds. Masked boobies sat on eggs and raised their young on the sand; red footed boobies built nests in the bush-like trees; black noddies roosted on low lying shrubs, raising their young in the shade below; two juvenile frigate birds haunted the skies, resting on whatever branches they could find.
A juvenile frigate bird circling the motu:
An adult human circling the motu:
The birds have been integral in forming what little exists of Chesterfield's landscape. The islets are built of coarse, coral sand, sand stone, and abundant layers of guano.
A booby tending her eggs:
A booby and her just-hatched babe:
A pair of masked boobies and their adolescent chick:
Similar to the sanctuary Chesterfield Reef provides for tiger sharks, the nesting sites on land provide one of the last pristine habitats for scientists to study seabird behavior. As of 2010, Chesterfield and her neighbor, Bellona, housed upwards of 300 mating pairs of masked boobies, 4,000 pairs of brown boobies, 7,000 pairs of red footed boobies, 1,800 pairs of frigate birds, and 30,000 pairs of black noddies.
A noddy and her chick:
On our third day at the reef, the winds backed to the northerly quarter, kicking up chop in the lagoon. We were in for a bumpy night no matter our location, so we moved to the western side of the reef to explore a second anchorage and be nearer to the southwesterly pass for our exit the following day.
We dove the reef system between Helios and shore, finding more thriving coral and schools of emperor fish. The excitement came when a four-foot turtle emerged out of the blue, swimming directly at us. He was inquisitive and friendly, coming within a few feet of us and circling back to check us out three times. It was spectacular to encounter wildlife so untouched by humans that their response to us was curiosity instead of fear.
Our favorite turtle photo:
But not all the creatures in the lagoon were so lucky—we spotted two illegal fishing boats while we were in Chesterfield, a large 'mother ship' that lingered outside the reef and a smaller satellite ship that worked inside the lagoon. We saw the the vessel inside the lagoon up close, and the crew appeared to be diving for sea cucumber and using nets to hoist their catch out of the water.
Chesterfield Reef and her surrounding waters are part of New Caledonia's Exclusive Economic Zone, meaning foreign vessels without permission are forbidden from fishing in the region. Similarly, New Caledonia has recently designated the waters within her EEZ as a natural park, limiting domestic fishing and hoping to eventually extend protection as far as Australia's aquatic preserve to the west.
Nevertheless, it isn't uncommon to find illegal fishing boats from the north working in the area. Within the Coral Sea in recent years, vessels from Vietnam, China, Taiwan, and Papua New Guinea have been caught harvesting large amounts of sea cucumbers, tuna, shark, and smaller quantities of turtle meat and reef fish.
The dwindling tuna and shark populations are well documented and of grave concern to governments and environmental groups working in the South Pacific.
Australia, New Zealand, New Caledonia, Fiji, and Tonga have joined forces to patrol waters between their EEZ's and enforce measures limiting net and long line trolling enacted by the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission.
Nevertheless, in the last five years the Secretariat of the Pacific Community has recorded as many as 320 illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing vessels within the greater South Pacific Ocean in a one-month period.
There are few things more tragic than watching a habitat as critical and unique as Chesterfield being destroyed, especially as the area has already suffered at the hands of human economics.
As we sat at anchor in Chesterfield, one of the more beautiful, remote places on earth, we were dismayed to see such destructive activity going on around us. We wanted to put an end to it as quickly as possible.
Breeze attempted radio contact, but didn't hear any response. We passed the satellite vessel as we crossed the lagoon, taking as many close-up photographs as we could to document what we were seeing. We emailed those photographs to the New Caledonian Navy.
The vessel of ill repute:
A naval officer responded quickly, sending follow up photos and asking detailed questions about the vessels identifying marks. The Navy discouraged any direct confrontation between cruisers and the vessel as the potential for violence could escalate.
It was frustrating to have to sit back and watch the fishing take place—imagine being at a playground and watching one child bully another and being able to do nothing—but the quick and serious response from the Navy was satisfying.
We left Chesterfield on the morning of Tuesday, November 15, with squally skies and light southwesterly wind forecasted to back to the southeast by sunset.
On our second day underway, the winds built to 20 knots with two meter seas. We found a northwesterly setting current that gave us an extra two to three knots over ground toward Bundaberg. To offset the angle the water was moving, we had to turn the boat upwind and crab sideways toward our destination.
Upon arrival, we reported the illegal fishing activity and shared photographs with the Australian customs officers. They were interested in documenting the situation, but didn't seem at all surprised to hear about it.
ps. In real time, we're in Australia enjoying a fantastic day sail from Bundaberg to Frasier Island. We were so inspired and intrigued by Chesterfied Reef we wanted to learn more about what we experienced and get a chance to share more photos.