Cairns - 16 55.217S 145 46.891E (It's that whale again!)

Mike and Liz Downing
Tue 23 Jul 2013 12:53
Arrived at Cairns this morning, having made the 83.9 mile passage overnight. After the passage to Dunk ended up as a motor boat ride as the forecast winds didn't turn up, we decided not to leave the next morning unless the winds were actually blowing. So set the alarm, woke up when it went off, checked the wind and went back of to sleep! Nothing again. The forecast for the day was southeast 15-20kts, occasionally 25kts in the afternoon. As still no wind by lunch time we decided an overnight passage would be the best option, especially as it's full moon time again - so much more pleasant and hopefully if whales were about there might be a chance of seeing and avoiding them. (A view that shows we are still novices when it comes to whales!) With that forecast there must be wind by the afternoon so planned to leave around 16.00. The anchor came up on time as the wind was up to about 12kts - not the forecast strength but on it's way up.  By the time we had cleared the influence of the island and had the sails set, it dropped down, but we were still able to make 4kts and that's all we needed to get in by midday the next day. With the flat see we ghosted along in the moonlight and it was an enchanting sail. At least it was for a few hours until the wind started to drop further. Normally on a coastal run where we can get fuel the other end we'll put the motor on if the speed drops below 3kts, but after the last 2 passages of motoring I was determined that the motor would not go on unless the speed dropped below 2kts. An hour later, at 1.9kts, very reluctantly the motor went on. The forecast was 15-20kts, occasionally 25, the reality was 3-4kts, occasionally 5! The forecasts are not normally that far out.
While motoring at 4kts (saw no reason to rush) in the moonlight (not quite so enchanting as sailing!), there was an almighty whoosh of air next to the boat. Turning round the body of a whale no more than 20ft from the cockpit was slowly slipping back under the water. Keeping my eyes on the spot, it or another came up along side about 40ft away and blew. It looked huge as it broke the surface, arched and slowly slid back under. It did it one more time and was gone. Unlike the frenetic breaching of the other day, this was all very leisurely, as if it had come to say hello and having done so it went on it's way. So both encounters we've had have been very surprise affairs - we didn't see them until right beside the boat, possibly as each time they've approached from the stern and we tend to always be looking forward. We were once told that if whales get too close, start the motor and the noise will keep them away. In this encounter the motor was already running and it didn't seem bothered. And, as it was already running there didn't seem to be anything else to do other than just marvel in the encounter and hope it didn't get any closer.   
In the early hours of the morning the forecast winds finally turned up (a day late) and sail was reduced to keep up about 5 knots, not wanting to arrive too early. All went smoothly until the rounding Fitzroy Island, just off the mainland before turning into Cairns. I had planned the route in the same way as I plan every route, taking a moderately conservative approach on how close to get to potential dangers along the coast, like islands, headland, reefs etc. Once underway, I couldn't believe that commercial shipping was following my exact route - not close to it, but exactly coming down my line. (Using AIS we could see ships up to 27 miles away last night.) Having exclaimed to Liz that they can't do that, that's my course, the reality of course is that at 800 or 900ft long they can do whatever they want! So I adjusted our course to keep much closer to headlands etc, except rounding Fitzroy, which I left as originally planned. With 10 miles or so to go to Fitzroy, no commercial shipping was on the screen. with 9 miles to go and zooming out, 2 ships were coming, one from the north and one from the south. And on checking routes and timings guess where would they meet - rounding Fitzroy, and at exactly the time we would be there, With 20-25kts of wind and the seas coming up, being squeezed by two big ships didn't seem such a good idea, especially as the course of the one from the south was going inside our course, so being squeezed between the two was looking quite likely! The decision was made to turn west and go inside Fitzroy. Not so easy when you have two poles up holding the headsails out and no main up, but after an agonizing period that seemed to go on for ever we cut across the course of the ship behind us and got clear in time and then had a another agonizing period getting passed the southern end of Fitzroy, which was now a lee shore. But we made that too and were able to turn north between Fitzroy and the mainland and rounded the headland towards Cairns as the sun came up. When planning the next course a 'commercial shipping' factor will be added to the calculations!       
Cairns is a major milestone along our route. It's one of those places where we've been saying, "something else to do, we'll do it when we get to Cairns", so the list has been growing and it's going to be a very busy week here if we're going to make a significant dent in that list. One of the reasons is that we decided quite a long time ago that we would stay in the marina here rather than anchor and that does make some things easier, e.g laundry and provisioning - the marina is only a few minutes walk from the centre of town. We left the last marina, at Gladstone, on 6th July and have been at anchor or on passage for the last 17 days and have covered another 641.8 miles and a total of 1384 miles since leaving Pittwater on 17th June.