A long coastal passage to the Abrolhos Islands provided challenges and adventure for the crew of motor yacht, Postmistress. Story by Greg Milner.
Two o’clock in the morning, with a 20-knot southerly belting us in the back of the head, but for one very good reason we were almost grateful.
The 18m motor yacht Postmistress was pitching and rolling at 12 knots in a two-metre sea piled on top of a three metre following swell. It was therefore fortunate that the lack of any moon prevented us from actually seeing the large mounds of black water piling up behind us.
Blissfully ignorant too were we of what was actually happening below decks. The automatic pilot was working harder than Kostya Tzu in a losing title fight, and in the dark bowels of the ship, nasty things were happening to our steering mechanism.
This was our third trip from Fremantle to the Abrolhos Islands. For grown men with the means, the time, camaraderie and a sense of ‘bugger it, let’s go’, the Abrolhos has become our must-do annual adventure.
There is also the lure of spending two weeks aboard a luxurious private motor yacht eating freshly caught seafood whilst pondering which smart drink to pour ourselves.
But there’s also something undeniably Jurassic about picking your way gingerly through the razor-sharp coral reefs that claimed more than one Dutch East India square-rigger fat with gold and silver. Or perhaps standing on the cool white sand of an outcrop the size of a football field, and imagining the terror of 125 men, women and children systematically put to death under a mutineer’s cutlass. Yes, these are the same islands, which saw the infamous Batavia wreck and mutiny of 1629.
Truth be told, there wasn’t a big fun factor when the Batavia and her 315 passengers and crew blundered into Morning Reef in the middle of that winter’s night. It’s hard to imagine 17th century Europeans finding a single redeeming feature about a sand-topped coral atoll in the middle of nowhere, devoid of fresh water, or shelter of any kind, more than 40 nautical miles from any mainland.
Thankfully, 400-odd years and a great deal of progress has turned these 122 islands off the WA coast into a commercial and recreational magnet, 200 nautical miles north of Fremantle, and west of the major port of Geraldton.
Like a vision from waterworld the clusters of crayfishing shacks here sit atop the coral outcrops less than two metres above water level. Tall TV and radio aerials bristle from every building while spindly timber jetties snake out across the in-shore shallows into water just deep enough for a crayboat to pull alongside.
The 122 outcrops – well, calling them islands is a bit of a stretch – are in three main clusters that stretch nor-nor-west to sou-southwest over 100 kilometres of ocean; the Wallabi Group to the north – where Batavia went down – the Easter Group in the middle, and the Pelsaert Group to the south.
From mid-March to the end of June each year, this is the windswept home to 300 families. Seven days a week, scores of diesel engines roar to life in the pre-dawn, and the boats head to the outer reefs for another day farming the rich grounds. More and more, it’s also a playground for charter boats, and owners of big pleasure boats like ours prepared to make the long journey up from Fremantle.
Our first two trips to the islands, in 2003 and 2004, were blessed with near-perfect weather. Cloudless skies, no wind, glassy seas. Typical late-autumn lull before the winter fronts began marching northeast from the Southern Ocean.
This year we’d chosen 9pm, Thursday, March 31 as our ETD. Five of us – me, jeweller Craig Peters, venture capitalist John Davidson, builder Grant Mason and my brother Peter would crew the 18-metre aft-cabin cruiser Postmistress to our first stop in Geraldton, 200 nautical miles north.
Meanwhile businessman John Jones, finance broker Bruce Williamson and Peter’s father-in-law Steve Davis would tow our two tenders – a 6.8 metre Mustang walkaround and a 6 metre Zodiac centre-console – by road and meet us there.
By early the next afternoon, we fair-weather sailors had had pretty much enough of being thrown around for 15 hours, including one near-broach that had us holding our collective breath. With the southerly still whipping up a slate-grey sea and rain hitting us horizontally through the back of the open flybridge, we drew level with Port Denison, 30 miles short of Geraldton, and turned to starboard.
Peter thought she wasn’t responding to the helm as sharply as she normally did, but it was hard to tell in such a sloppy following sea.
The next day, the short leg to Geraldton proved what was wrong; 30 minutes out of Port Denison, a cast tiller-arm, worn out by the rigours of the journey north, finally gave up and came apart.
We limped into Geraldton steering on the engines. It was Saturday afternoon, yet to our delight and undying gratitude, local marine engineer Peter and his mate gave up their day off to cast a new tiller arm. By 5pm we were enjoying a beer with our saviours, grateful for small mercies. It could have been worse.
By 10am Sunday, Postmistress was heading west into the Indian Ocean with the Zodiac in tow, while John Davidson, John Jones and
I steered the Mustang Walkaround towards a lump in the middle of the Zeewyk Channel that separates the islands from the mainland.
Five hours later, with John Jones’ first yellowfin tuna destined for sushi that night, we dropped anchor in a tiny deep-water lagoon at Long Island, Wallabi Group, as the sun dipped into a sea that had turned to glass.
I don’t know why this is my favourite part of the Abrolhos. Perhaps it’s because the water is so protected here by surrounding reefs, or because they’re teeming with spanish mackerel, mahi mahi, bluebone groper and tuna.
Maybe it’s because it was here on Long Island that Fancisco Pelsaert chopped off the hands of mutiny leader Jeronimus Corneliusz and hanged him with six of his cohorts. Long Island’s only a metre or two high, and beyond it, separated by Goss Passage, lies little Beacon Island, where the mutineers had spent three months killing their shipmates, while Pelsaert and 40 survivors headed 2,000 miles north to Batavia in the ship’s longboat to raise the alarm.
Fortunately, the modern day islanders are a lot more hospitable than Mr Corneliusz. However, they do prefer visitors to stop and have a chat rather than simply stepping ashore and wandering uninvited amongst their backyards.
For generations, the hardy fishing families have carved both a living and a lifestyle in a place most of us would shun were it not for cold beer, warm showers, big fish and no work to do. But things are tightening up. Among other things government has decreed the islanders can’t throw food scraps into the water. They are supposed to take it all back to the mainland. The result is they burn it.
Things are changing for visitors, too. In a year or two, privateers won’t be allowed to set their own craypots. And diving for lobster in any form has been banned for years. Not that this worries us because we long ago abandoned the chore of carting craypots all this way, when it was easier to buy them locally.
There are strict rules governing all things piscatorial at the Abrolhos Islands. If you buy crayfish from the local fishermen, you have to get a receipt and be able to show it when the Fisheries Department officers come aboard your boat. No receipt, and you’re in deep trouble. My head was spinning with all the rules on fishing, but that’s the way things are these days.
The weather was turning grey and cold, so we holed up on a courtesy mooring at White Bank, in the lee of Big Rat Island.
Fuel and water is always an issue out here. We’d solved the water issue when Peter installed a desalinator unit. At 15 grand, we were well aware we were enjoying the most expensive showers west of the Nullarbor!
It’s a bit harder making diesel and unleaded. But it’s amazing how lubricating a slab or two of beer can be. Supply boats run a slow shuttle from the mainland, bringing everything from bait, ice and fuel, to pushbikes for the kids. With a nod, a wink and the right brand of joy juice, we were able to get our jerry cans taken back to Geraldton, filled with unleaded and returned.
For the mother ship’s tanks, it’s a case of waiting for the crayboats to take their fill, and taking the leftovers. In three years, it’s never been a problem.
On Little Rat Island, their local community bar/hall/games room was packed to the rafters for the awards night of the local gamefishing competition. We’d left Postmistress on anchor in the lee of Morley Island, four nautical miles away on the southern fringe of the reef.
Here’s where it got tricky. To get back in our two smaller boats, in the pitch dark of a moonless night, we had to rely completely on that snaking in-bound track on the glowing screen of the GPS. It was like playing video games; only the consequences of not keeping to the squiggly black line were somewhat more serious.
It was lucky we returned ‘home’ when we did. The ‘sand’ at the anchorage at Morley Island is actually shale, and amid nightcaps on the deck, somebody raised the alarm that we’d dragged anchor in the dark, with a nasty bommie only metres away. Re-setting the anchor, in the rising wind, in the dark, is not fun.
By the time we reached the Pelsaert Group, another hour’s steaming to the south, it was blowing 20 knots from the south. By the following day, it was 25 knots gusting to 30.
Anchored on the inside of the lagoon in the lee of Wreck Point, at the southern end of long, skinny Pelsaert Island, there was little to do but eat quail roasted in the transom barbecue, with several competent cooks on board, food was never an issue. Meanwhile we pondered the fate of a charter boat skipper who, only a couple of months before, had snorkelled here and been killed by a white pointer in full view of his stunned guests.
Even after nearly two weeks on board, we were still more than a little sad it was over. But there’s only so much of a howling 30-knot southerly you can take before cabin fever gets to you.
Then one night the wind died to nothing. It was time to go and at dawn, Postmistress weighed anchor and headed southeast towards an overnight stop at Jurien Bay, seven hours away. Three of us took the two small boats and headed west to Geraldton to put them on the trailers and drive south to Perth and home.
But after days of blown-out conditions, I had to have one last crack at a decent fish. At a bank five miles east of Post Office Island, Grant Mason and I dropped lures in the water. Within 60 seconds we had a strike, and then another strike, then another. But Geraldton was three hours away, and we had to get going.
It was a bumpy, uncomfortable trip to Geraldton, but we took it all in good spirits knowing it would soon be over.
This effectively was the end of my trip as we pulled into the boat ramp, but as I reached into the cabin for the car keys, guess what? Yes, I’d indeed left the keys aboard the mothership now steaming south.It was a fitting end to my Abrolhos adventure.