CAPE YORK

I was 14 when my father came back to live in Melbourne to be a part of his boys lives as we grew up. Learning to sail was his idea, none of us had done it before. The three of us learnt coastal navigation, he bought a 14 foot Caper Catamaran and we did some practice runs out on Port Phillip Bay. Then we took off the last term of the school year, towing the boat to Cairns and setting off for the very tip of the Cape York Peninsula. When I think back to that adventure now, other than being pivotal for my future interests, I respect my father’s approach. He was sharing a dream of his with us in a way that become extremely impressionable on me. He was not the authority – we all learnt to sail together – and this gave me the impression that we really were all on the same journey, he was not doing it for us, we were achieving it by our own efforts combined, and this way of learning got me to really thinking about just how far a sail boat can take oneself. My father is a man of principals, often strictly living by them, but he has never been an authority to me. Of the short amount of time throughout my life that we have spent together, I have been massively steered by his spirit, his curiosity, his love of truth and humbleness. Sometimes people crave authority but I have learnt from him that if you give people freedom they can also go a long way.

Our planned route was to put the boat in the water nearby to my father’s property in Cow Bay (named after the local Dugong or Sea-Cow population) and sail North, weaving between the coral reefs and bombies, camping overnight on sand cays or occasionally on the mainland, but avoiding the major river mouths for the fear of large salt water crocs. Our lesson was learnt early on when departing the Endeavour River at Cooktown. Leaving early one morning we were sailing with a tail wind pushing us out the river when we were abruptly met by the predominant South East wind wrapping around the river-mouth headland. We crash jibed, putting one hull into the air and scaring the remaining sleep from the corners of our eyes. The rest of the day was mostly spent silently contemplating what could have happened should three of us been flapping around, trying to right a capsized catamaran in the mouth of the Endeavour River. Our route planning from that day on had a remarkable emphasis on avoiding the big rivers, preferencing the atolls and islands to rest our heads.

The Caper Catamaran is 14-foot long with a float at the top of the mast – incase of capsize the mast will not immediately invert upside-down, offering the sailors some time to right the boat. However my father chose the design for the main reason that each hull has a lid which can be unscrewed for storing equipment – relatively less wet than tying gear to the topsides trampoline. Inside the hulls were enough space for a tent, a cooking pot, rice, lentils, fresh water and some basic first aid and repair items. One of my strongest memories from that time is the smell of sunscreen. We had to lather it on! Being exposed for 6-8 hours a day, trying to find a shady part of the boat, or sometimes when it was cold and windy, trying to find a sunny spot. After noticing the hulls filling with water we discovered we had worn through the fibreglass from heaving the equipment-heavy catamaran up and down the sand each morning and night. A complete unpack was necessary near the Olive River for a fibreglass repair job. It reduced the volume of water getting into the hulls but our sleeping bags still always got wet, giving us reason to look forward to the next protected camp site where we could take a few days off, dry everything out and spend our days hunting for fish and dreaming of a Sunday roast at our grandparents place.

The freedom one feels when scanning the horizon and taking in the endless possibilities would slowly turn into a perpetual daydream of mine. It was not the places we visited nor the time of day, nor the amazing things we saw. It was the way that boredom could be disarmed by the prospect of all possibilities and how one could time travel in one’s own mind, one moment sailing along the Great Barrier Reef, then seconds later imagining an African coastline and what that would be like. This travelling-through-a-seascape that we were doing was pure excitement, and was in sharp contrast to the prospect of going back to school, the inevitable course for me once the journey was over. I wanted to go forward not back, and much of my focus was spent working out how exactly I could do that. It was the witnessing of larger yachts passing us by that grabbed my attention. A 30 foot yacht with plenty of fresh water storage and room for a guitar was the epitome of luxury in my eyes and became the envied target of my gaze.

Without GPS we relied on coastal navigation techniques using a compass, binoculars, ruler and laminated waterproof charts. I learnt to appreciate the sea when it was calm and to imagine better times when it was rough. We stood at the tip of Cape York peninsula and for the first time felt the clear headed normality of achievement, where briefly the horizon you’ve been chasing disappears and memories of the past feel like golden trophies. We had made it to the tip and then the slow appearance of a new horizon, namely how to get home against the predominant winds. The last day sailing to Thursday Island was our own little parade back to civilisation, the thrilling return to the comforts of familiarity. A bakery etc. Then we de-rigged the mast and lay it across the trampolines of our catamaran, then craned our boat onto the deck of a coastal trader heading South. Two days steaming on the ship retraced our entire two month, 600 mile journey through the Great Barrier Reef until the captain pulled up mid sea adjacent to Cow Bay, just North of the Daintree River. The ship’s crew launched our boat then continued on their way leaving us to complete the last few miles as we had begun our adventure – just the three or us, my brother Beau and father Kon. The journey was over but with hindsight it really was just the beginning.