(with acknowledgment to Margaret Mitchell)
I’m in a Dan Murphy’s bottle store near Harbour Town in Australia’s Gold Coast region, just south of Brisbane. It’s brightly lit and cavernous, with row after row of wine, beer, spirits and any booze you could want. Tomorrow, I will join legendary New Zealand powerboat racer Jim Harris on his 42-foot catamaran for a two-week trip sailing in Australian along the east coast.
How do you stock up on enough booze for two weeks on a boat? In my mind, I imagine there may be many long hours with little else to do but drink.
Australia has the answer: Goon.
For as little as 10 Aussie dollars (£7.50) you can get five liters of questionable quality wine, all nicely and securely backed into an aluminum sack safely guarded by a cardboard box. It may not be Châteauneuf de Pap, but at least you can use the bag as a flotation device when you’re drowning.
Make no mistake – this is no South African ‘papsak’, or American ‘box-wine’, no siree – this is GOON. It’s an Aussie past time, a part of their culture. It may as well be on the friggin’ flag.
I buy two, just to be sure.
With the goon and I ready to go, I pack my life into a backpack and prepare for the morning departure.
We depart around lunch time, pop open a few beers and sail up the waterways that surround Brisbane. On route, we stop at a services marina to get fuel and water. I learn my first bit of sailing skills – tying a knot off on a jetty pier – it’s a simple case of looping the rope under itself so it pulls itself tight.
That evening we anchor in a small protected bay, still within the Brisbane waterways, and have the first of many drunken dinners on the boat.
I awake early due to my bed being located directly over the generator, which needs to be on almost constantly due to a problem with the batteries. By the time I crawl out of my bed we’re already moving and we have breakfast on the go. Throughout the day we gradually make our way out of the Brisbane shipping channel as massive container ships pass us and eventually break into the open sea in the afternoon.
We need to sail throughout the night for the next few days due to there being nowhere to anchor until Lady Musgrave Island, a few hundred clicks north. This means the two skippers need to take turns sailing through the night and we need to take turns keeping them company.
I opt to do the morning shift, so after dinner and a few glasses of goon, I get an early nights sleep. I awake at 3 am feeling relatively good, considering, and join second-in-command Rodney at the helm. It’s utterly pitch black and we sail by radar only, hoping there is nothing large floating out here in the ocean. I stroll out on deck briefly but the wind is howling and I can’t see a thing – if I were to fall overboard nobody would hear me scream.
As 4 am rolls around the sky slowly begins to brighten and I can ever so slightly see shimmering reflections off the waves. The sky morphs from dull yellow into bright orange and red and for the first time, I can see the horizon all around us and no land in sight. We are alone in the ocean and at its mercy – a new experience for me.
Rodney heads to bed soon after daybreak and Captain Jim takes over. I make us coffee and begin to prepare breakfast as the rest of the crew stirs. The 4-berth boat has a tiny kitchen that is well equipped – with two gas cookers, a small oven, fridge, and a microwave. There is also a separate freezer to keep meat and other perishables. As we bob from side to side, I try to maintain my balance and successfully whip up some eggs and bacon for everyone.
We sail throughout the day, taking turns at the helm, and Jim teaches me a bit about fishing. He keeps two fishing rods permanently cast out the back of the boat and we need to listen for the sound of the reel in case of a catch. Presently, one of the rods start unraveling and Jim calls me to grab it and shows me how to reel it in. As I’m pulling in a small tuna, a shark leaps out the water directly over my line, trying to steal my catch! I manage to pull it in though and get a further lesson in skinning and gutting it.
By early afternoon we begin drinking, for lack of any other activity, and by early evening I’m ready for bed. After a quick dinner, I opt to wake at 3 am again and head off to sleep.
When I awake this time, Jim is behind the wheel. We have some coffee and he teaches me how to read the instruments and navigate the boat. As before, we sail on blindly into darkness putting our trust in the radar. Just before the sun begins to rise, Jim heads off for much-needed rest and leaves me to navigate alone. Fortunately, the boat has auto-pilot so navigating mostly just means keeping an eye on the controls and the horizon.
Soon after Jim leaves, I hear one of the fishing reels unraveling. The cartridge the line coils around makes a loud whirring noise as a fish yanks it out to sea. With no time to wake Jim, I grab the reel and start cranking the handle like mad, pulling in what feels like a whale. Eventually, I get the fish close enough for a good look – it’s a small tuna. I reel it in anyway and attempt to get the hook out its mouth but just as I do so it flops right out my hands and back into the ocean. The one that got away!
A short while later the crew awakens and I regale them with the story of how I lost our dinner, which is met with skepticism at best. We eat breakfast and continue to sail throughout the morning until we reach our first stop of the trip, Lady Musgrave Island.
Lady Musgrave Island is a tiny atoll off the coast of Bundaberg with a large, enclosed coral reef and a small circular island around 1000 metres in circumference. A narrow entrance has been cleared through the coral so that boats can enter and anchor within the reef. We carefully navigate in and find an available buoy to tie up to before lowering the small coastal access boat (called a tender). We all squeeze in and begin chugging off to explore the tiny island.
The island is host to a small diving campsite, a selection of birds and a bizarre amount of sea slugs crawling in and out of the coral. We cross from one end of the island to the campsite in a few minutes and then walk around the circumference back to the boat, exploring a curious lookout point along the way that reminded me of that old HBO show Lost, about the mysterious deserted island.
On returning to the yacht we decide we should set off again and sail through to the Percy Isles where we will anchor for the night. We set off in a northwesterly direction and with autopilot guiding us, settle into a lengthy, boozy lunch. Upon arrival, we dock in a calm, secluded bay just off the Percy Isles and have a relaxing night on the boat.
We head around to the main Percy Island in the early morning and dock offshore from the entrance to the lagoon. After breakfast on the boat, we jump in the tender and head to shore. The main island in the Percy Isles features an amazing, decades-old wooden A-frame structure built on the beach which is a popular stopping point for boaties sailing in Australia.
The entire structure is covered inside and out with the names of sailors, their boats and the dates they came to shore – inscribed on whatever bit of driftwood or material that was available at the time. Some of the oldest ones date back as much as 50 years! We explore the A-frame for a few minutes and then begin the two-hour walk inland to visit the 100-year old homestead built high up in the centre of the island by early settlers.
The walk takes us up a relatively steep incline through thick forest before breaking out into a stunning view across to South Percy island. We arrive at the homestead and are greeted by a collection of goats and peacocks. The current occupier welcomes us in and offers us some lemonade which we graciously accept and provide him with a gift in the form of a bottle of wine – something that is, no doubt, hard to come by out here.
After a brief chat about the history of the island, we say our thanks and begin the walk back down along a slightly different route. As we descend, I see a number of small snakes or similar creatures scurry off the path into the bushes. The end of the path takes us to a small inlet that hosts a boathouse and jetty but since its low tide, the entire thing is dry. A few sailboats sit propped-up on the seabed looking like bizarre shipwrecks that somehow didn’t fall over.
Once back I decide to get some exercise and swim back to the boat, which proves to be easier than I expected. I then get a beer and kayak back to the shore to enjoy it in the A-frame before boarding and preparing to head off through the night to our next destination.
We sail through the night again and I join Captain Jim in the early morning as the sun begins to rise. Suddenly the reel starts spinning on one of the fishing rods and I jump up to pull in whatever catch we have. Jim stops the motor so it’s easier to pull in the reel but as a result, the boat begins to turn slightly with the wind. This causes the fishing reel to drift sideways and get caught up in the propellers of the wind generator, which sits high up on a pole at the back of the boat. We watch helplessly as the line coils around the propeller and grinds the entire thing to a halt.
Seeing no other option, Jim climbs up and begins trying to unravel the tangled line while I hang on loosely to the remaining line, the fish having now escaped. While I’m busy pulling in the remaining line to retrieve the tackle, Jim manages to free the tangled line. However, this causes the propeller to spin up again and smash him in the head, inflicting a huge, bloody gash above his eye. He falls on to the deck grasping his head and stumbles off towards the kitchen swearing, but I’m unable to help as I have both hands gripping the remaining line. While frantically trying to get the line reeled in I shout after him to ask if he’s okay but he returns momentarily clutching a wad of tissue paper to his head and swearing like only a sea captain can.
Having sailed once more throughout the night and most of the day, we anchor at lunch time just offshore from another small, uninhabited island. The entire coastline around here is dotted with small islands with varying degrees of habitation, although many are in protected conservation areas and don’t allow any construction. We briefly explore the small beach and I attempt to discover the source of some rustling in the nearby bushes, but to no avail.
The cliffs overlooking the beach appear to be inhabited by some kind of small bird that makes a bizarre sound, almost like a laser gun from an old 90’s computer game. Although we can constantly hear them we never manage to actually see one. Eventually, we retire to the boat for a beer. Since we are anchoring here for the night we can all happily get drunk without anyone having to stay sober to drive.
We arrive at Mackay Harbour very early in the morning, before the marina is even open, and have breakfast on the boat while waiting to refuel and get a mooring. Once settled we head out to restock on basic supplies like food and goon. Once in town, I find a Red Rooster with Wi-Fi and get some much-needed work done while eating somewhat dry chicken and chips.
Then we hit the bottle store, stock up on beer, whiskey and wine and head back to the boat. We spend a pleasant night in the marina wining and dining in style on quality fresh goon and the spotted mackerel Jim caught the previous night while he entertains us with tall-tales of his years sailing in Australia.
As soon as the tide is right the next morning, we head out of the marina and set sail north for the Whitsunday islands. We set course for Whitehaven beach, a popular spot for tourists and locals alike. Upon arriving we tender to the shore and take a walk down the beach amongst the throngs of tourists. It feels odd to be around crowds of people again after a week of almost complete solitude on the open ocean.
We then continue on to a small inlet where we moor for the night. Apparently, there is a path over the island that takes us to a beautiful viewpoint of Whitehaven estuary but the tide is so low now that we are unable to get the tender to shore. We decide to try again in the morning and settle in for a night of goon, whiskey and loud power ballads, no doubt annoying the surrounding boaties.
After a rather hungover breakfast and copious amounts of coffee, we splutter to shore in the little boat and begin the hike over the island. It’s quite busy as a few day trippers have arrived in the morning and chosen to do the same. It’s a lovely walk though and the view is totally worth it, the ocean appearing a spectacular aqua colour from the increased vantage point. We take several photos from the various viewing platforms and then head back.
On the way to the boat, Jim spots a friend and they chat about where the best spots for snorkelling are and he tells us about some giant sea turtles he saw that morning in the nearby river that comes into the bay. We head off to explore and although we see the occasional head, the water is a bit too murky by now to get any good photographs underwater.
We reboard the yacht and head off to another small bay where we explore some old aboriginal caves and then watch dolphins swim around the boat after the sun sets.
Today we head off to Airlie to do some shopping and explore the town. We moor in a bay around the headland from Airlie and catch a bus into town while Jim stays aboard with Rodney to do some repairs on the engine. I need to get some work done, so after a rather lame McDonalds lunch, I chill at the famous Magnums pub while the others go shopping for more goon.
Back on the boat, we decide to head to Hamilton Island where Jim’s wife, Carlene (who came up with the fabulous name for this article), is flying in to meet us. We dock in the exceptionally posh harbour and I proceed to stink the place out because I need the toilet and don’t realise the valves underneath the boat are still open. Fortunately, we don’t get evicted, yet, but I feel sorry for any fish in that harbour. Goon does weird things to your digestive system.
That evening we hire golf carts (standard transport apparently) and head up to one of the highest points on Hamilton Island with spectacular 360 views around the entire collection of isles. There is a band playing old pop covers and a bar serving some kind of pink lemonade cocktail. It’s all very congenial in comparison to the time we have spent at sea drinking cheap bourbon and box wine. After a mind-blowing sunset, we head back down to have dinner on the boat and apologize to the goon for cheating on it.
After doing some much-needed washing and a spot of shopping, we explore the island a little further before returning the golf carts and preparing to head out again. This time we are on a mission to find some good snorkeling spots and head off to Haselwood Island, which Jim’s friend has recommended.
Unfortunately, the swell on the main reef is very choppy so we have to moor around the corner in a smaller bay and wait for the wind to die. Luckily we manage to find a fairly decent section of reef along the coastline of the bay and got some good snorkeling in there just before the sun begins to set.
The following day we attempt Haselwood bay again but are unable to anchor successfully, so head off to Butterfly bay, which is a popular snorkeling spot. Despite the popularity of it, I find it to be murkier and with less impressive reef than the previous bay. We do manage to spot a few giant sea turtles though before heading back to anchor in the calm waters of the small inlet where we explored the aboriginal caves.
I decide to kayak around another small inlet I had seen earlier to explore for more reefs and discover a beautiful, calm little bay protected from the wind. No reef though but some interesting birds flying about. We enjoy a final, boozy night on the boat, chilling with cockatoos, polishing off the remaining goon and reminiscing on the past two weeks.