Note: Names have been changed.
Now arrive in your magnet town Airlie Beach, banded with small islands that protect its narrow pockets of sand shore. It is enterprise for those islands that gives the town its draw. Storefronts for this enterprise are the core of downtown, a hard mole of open bars with neon drinks, real estate offices with exorbitant price listings taped to glass fronts, and tour agents that show posters touting sailing excursions.
All roads here lead to sea: they ask that you amble the declivity of town, ask that you look to blue whenever you might. This is the seaside town’s mark: a place that will never let you forget where it is you should be. So, one cannot help but pace straight to water, though here it may be lethal to do so since one of the world’s most deadly creatures floats there in invisible clouds: the box jellyfish, whose sting causes a neuralgic pain that shuts down your nervous system. No wonder it is boating and not surfing that is the town’s main recreation.
These boats, outfitted with either sail or motor, are moored in tight composure within many storm-walled marinas. That drive towards water, the natural impetus to dip into the world’s blue center, is frustrated here only.
So this is Airlie, overpriced down to the chip, where both pleasure and economics abide by trickle-down principles: the affluent coming in and funding the tropical, minimum wage fantasies of work-holiday visa workers, a polyglot bunch, who hoist the ropes of cruises, plate the food, clean the hotel rooms.
It’s an hour off the main highway and a dead end, not just a destination, but a launching point.
Lisa and I stuffed our bags into the car and started off. Quitting the cow city of Rockhampton, we duly arrived. It was on a Thursday in late fall, yet Queensland was hot. Breezes that were moments before off sight of land were suffused with wet. And we scarcely let the rumor of a storm pocket developing into something fierce over the Coral Sea occupy our thoughts, though when we pulled into Airlie the town had already received a week of rain.
From Airlie, we’d be going to sea. Our destination was Whitsunday, an island—or string of them—that bears its Pentecostal name out of error, as Captain Cook misdated the date of discovery as he had no conception of the International Date Line, so what he believed to be a Sunday was in truth a Monday. Yet how fortuitous the naming, as it is during the Whitsunday celebration that catechumens don those splendid and long white garments for baptism. And it is to those vestments that the Whitsunday Island sands bear their closest resemblance: cottony and billowy, downy sheets curling into blue, opalescent water.
It was Lisa’s decision to go, but I went along figuring that every once in a while it is necessary for a person accustomed to land to see how their legs might fare over water. The vessel used hardly matters, but the one of imagination is the sailboat since it more dutifully abdicates direction to fate.
Coming from an address fifteen minutes stroll from ocean, as I do, I would have hoped to possess an intuition when it comes to understanding seafaring skills. I do not. I’m better versed in lounge chair types than I am sails. The encyclopedic breadth of knots is cryptic to me. Yet I do have experience on boats. Sitting on them, at least. I associate sailing with America’s east coast and to my grandparents, especially my grandfather. The man is so habitual that Greenwich Mean Time is set to him, and so fastidiously observant of safety procedure that no act done in his vicinity doesn’t come with its own audio track of cautionary instructions. I associate the stern with stern warnings: the life vest is to be a straight jacket, no leaning too far over the hull, do not flush the pump toilet. And, since he navigated for leisure, sailing I equate with a sedate turtle crawl through molasses. We went too slow even for barnacles.
For a child, this was murder. I couldn’t understand the happy countenance of the delirious elders: moms and dads, uncles, aunts. While I did learn from their fun a lesson I’d employ later, it wasn’t at the time. When I felt rapture, I was near the bow, head over hull and watching where the boat splits the ocean into splinters, able to lean out farther and fix my vision to the ruffled, unbroken part of sea, ahead of the rhythmic hypnosis of hull and white water.
My cousin, a few years older, created an anthem so consummate in its childish lyricism and tune that it was thereafter banished fully, totally, and permanently from all excursions, land or sea based. The song, 16 stanzas the way my cousin sang it, multiplied a single line into quatrains and choruses. It was this: “Boring, boring. Boring, boring. Bo-bo-boring, boring, boring, boring.”
In those days, sailing was not so much recreation as the culmination of rigorous and considered planning. How my family—read: grandfather—handled a casual four-hour tack and jib made me view sailing as the most onerous of transportation means, the leisure equivalent of an Apollo moon landing mission. The wind’s force and direction, the temperature control of food, the functional state of safety equipment, the minute-to-minute movement of tide, the whereabouts of celestial bodies, both discovered and undiscovered, my grandfather considered. The night before a sail, he consulted tide charts and advised us of the necessary temporal windows for our departure and return. He had an old radio he left perched on the kitchen counter, and night before and morning of he’d switch it on and out would come an avuncular, even-toned male voice with a slight New World affectation, dictating barometric pressures, the exact second of the sun’s rise and fall, the dew point, every atmospheric statistic for nearly every eastern seaboard latitude and longitude.
Come morning, my grandfather would be up at sunrise, a fact he’d have tattooed onto our retinas if he could, and my grandmother would stand in the kitchen wrapping lobster rolls in cellophane, the crustacean filling carefully lumped onto butter lettuce leaves tucked into the slits of New England buns so as to prevent a single soggy bite. Sounds on these mornings had the urgency of last-minute legislation.
My mom, in entente with our grandparent’s schedules, would betray our holiday and wake us to obligations. The cruelest fact for the children is we never actually left early, just had to be wrangled from bed, breakfast stashed in us, showered, drag brushes lethargically over our teeth, then wait. Not once in my experience did we sit down for breakfast in front of an unplanned day and look at a windswept ocean top and clear sky and say, “Today might be a good day to sail.”
What these diurnal trips meant for me is that going for a sail was no carefree decision. Therefore I was uneasy in Airlie the night before our that we’d just “show up” at the docks and I’d see nothing of the planning.
We spent our one land-based night with a young woman who offered her spare bedroom and couch. She was as kind as she was dumb, her eyes floated during conversation to track the course of her thoughts. She was American, her Canadian friend was with her too. As pleasant as this fire-faced young man was, he talked extensively about overthrowing a capitalist system he’d done nothing to contribute to but was content to take from. He shared with me his idea that Alberta would be the best place to begin, as loggers might be convinced to form a union there. I asked what experience he had logging or unionizing, and he said none, he’d read the opinion in a newspaper.
Our morning alarm was our host, who sat on a yoga mat half naked while greeting the dawn with Buddhist incantations.
An ironed flat rain followed us to the marina. There, a crowd of two dozen huddled for cover as a New Zealand duo worked their way through, taking names on clipboards and pointing to signature space for us to waive indemnity. These men, with white and straight teeth and ebullient faces and tropical eyes, talked the way many Kiwis talk: with an exasperated diction like at the end of a long breath. When check-in concluded, they led us over the wood-planked dock, and, before boarding the ship, made us exchange our shoes for flip-flops. As I removed my boat shoes, I wondered why I bothered to have them at all.
The ship’s name was SV Whitehaven, and it must have been her design to include features pertaining to the wild business of partying that’d be her lot for the next decade. Her old and ample decks were beige with a slight stucco on them for traction, seating benches were screwed down throughout, the hull had high metal bars to protect even total inebriates with poor balance from flipping over, and placed in the stern were two massive cooler bins for our generous, BYO libations. In went the metallic bags of goon, bottles of wine, beer, five plus liters of alcohol per person for the two days on board. The center cockpit, covered, was designed like an amphitheater, and there was enough seating for everyone. We were grateful for the covered space, as the rain now came as hard as sleet.
As we tossed off the ropes of our mooring and reared back, exiting the calm confines of the marina, our captain introduced himself. He was a short built New Zealander, north of 30 with a tanned face and beard that made me wonder how close he came to the 40 line. Tattooed all the way up to his shoulders and wearing athletic sunglasses, he belonged behind the wheel of a Peterbilt rather than a sailboat. The man gave us a cursory safety briefing, which included such tidbits as, “If you need to abandon ship, jump over the side.” We divvied into small groups to visit the below-deck and take our bunks. The crew had made the unfortunate assumption that since Lisa and I had booked together, we’d be wanting to share a sleeping space. Our bed might have fit both of us had we laid on our sides and not moved. That night, I was one of a few who unrolled a hard foam mattress on the deck and had an uneasy sleep.
There’s sparse narrative from here forward, and that is the truth of most travel and what makes travelogue one of the duller forms of writing. In a singular excursion like this one, there are, at most, a few vignettes of comedy or interest. In fact, on this trip, it mostly rained. For short interludes, the clouds broke and we saw sun. But it rained so much that the Whitsunday waters that had in all pictures been near gemstone in colorful purity were a gunmetal slurry from land runoff. We drank hard at night, but it was vain to think we’d consume everything we brought on board. One American boy tried. The first day he listed his drinking exploits for everyone. When he tried to match reality to legend, the result was as expected: he fell flat on his face. The next day he gripped righteously to the hull’s rails and heaved madly, the public display of his limitations, thankfully, quieted him. The humbling act completed itself when a firm wind gust blew his treasured hat into the waves.
Our captain had to lift the sails for the last day. The night before and that morning he did as my grandfather did: hunker near a radio that reported on a cyclone moving towards the coast. What he heard was this: the system that had been forming over the Coral Sea was beyond gale force. The Australian Bureau of Meteorology had upgraded the original Category 2 cyclone classification to a Category 4, and had done so in just twelve hours. It tracked southwards, on direct a course towards Airlie. At midmorning, he raised his voice for our attention and announced we’d be going to shore earlier than planned. “My advice to all of you,” he said, “Is to get out of Airlie. Get out as fast as you can.”