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MONDAY 13 JUNE. One of the most challenging sections of the east coast to sail is the 110-odd mile section from Island Head Creek to Mackay. There are two reasons for this.


The first has to do with the tides. It is a curious fact that half way along this route, the tides actually reverse direction. They do so on either side of two side-by-side, enormous indentations in the coastline – Shoalwater Bay and Broad Sound. Below these places, the tide floods north up the coast and ebbs south. Above these places the tide is reversed, flooding south and ebbing north. While off their mouths, the tides turn through 90 degrees to flood in towards the coast and ebb away from the coast. The Bay and the Sound act like a giant twin-bowl kitchen sink.


Throw in a network of islands to divert and distort the flow, and spring tides more than 6 metres, the highest on Australia’s east coast. Then squeeze the tides between islands, creating overfalls and tidal races up to 5 knots, and you begin to get the picture. Now add wind against tide, which makes the water concertina up into ugly, steep-faced corrugations with potholes in between, and the picture is complete.


The second part of the challenge is which path to sail? Although the journey is dotted with interesting and attractive islands, which offer the possibility of a number of different routes, the anchorages along the way can be less than ideal. A suitable anchorage in one wind direction can become a miserable, rolly hell-hole in another wind direction. There are no anchorages sheltered from all directions, and once the wind reaches 20 knots even the most comfortable become marginal.


So you must second-guess the weather forecast and hope that you get it right – which always adds an element of tension to the trip.


Our philosophy this cruise is to follow new routes, where possible, and to try some of the less-visited places. Sometimes you turn up a gem. Sometimes you score a lemon.


With this in mind, we departed Island Head Creek for Cape Townshend on Townshend Island, the first leg of the journey. We were caught out straight away when, remarkably, the howling 20-30 knots of wind we had at Island Head Creek dropped to nothing overnight, meaning we had to motor all the way in the sloppy, swelly left-over seas following the blow. Yuck!


Cape Townshend is bypassed by most cruisers for islands further afield. So we were a little surprised at how commodious and attractive the anchorage was, although the huge red sign planted on the beach announcing “BOMBING RANGE – KEEP OUT” was a little off-putting.


We were in trepidation about the coming night because of the 6 metre spring tide. Fortunately, at least, there was no wind at all. We went to bed floating on a pitch black sea as smooth as polished ebony.


Part way through the night I woke with a start. Something was happening. There was a rushing and roaring sound of water all around, and lots of noise from waves slapping and flopping against Masala’s hull. I shot up on deck with my heart in my mouth, fearing we were caught in some kind of tidal waterfall.


The moon was up and visibility astounding in the cold, crystal air. No need for a head torch. The first thing I did was check the anchor chain. It was hanging straight down into the water. There was no current at all. How could that be? I stopped and listened. The roaring sound was there all right, but further out where the massive tides were creating overfalls around the fringing reef and small islets. But not where we were. So where were the waves coming from?


Now I looked all around. There were no waves. How could that be? Then from some distance away a patch of water began to move towards us, perhaps the size of half a house-block. It consisted of dozens and dozens of little wavelets only about 10cm high which, as they passed by, slapped and flopped against the hull.