Sailing Whitsundays || Film photos and words by Birralee Hassen

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After walking in through the front gates to Splendour In The Grass, sans wristbands, we felt invincible. So it was an epic reminder of our hung-over humanness when we awoke at four the next morning to leave for Brisbane airport. My sister Loarna had rolled in only two hours earlier, blurry eyed and gushing James Blake. She conveniently has never learnt to drive a manual, so by process of elimination I found myself behind the wheel, heading north with the sky still dark. My two-day hangover was soothed slightly by the spectacular light show happening to my right. It started slowly, subtle hints of colour leaking from the east into the dark dome above us. Soft pinks followed by fiery reds, until the sun burst through the clouds, their usual silver lining momentarily replaced with a brilliant orange. 

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We spent our first night anchored at the very end of Nara Inlet in a blissful basin of paradise, the water held either side by walls of green. It was nearing dusk and the skies were beginning to lighten to the delicious pastel that is one of my favourite characteristics of winter. The air was rich with the sound of birdsong, cockatoos, kookaburras and bowerbirds conversing loudly. “Time to think about dinner” Dad said, “let’s go check the pots I left the other day for mud crabs”. The mud crab pots didn’t provide, but the mangrove trees surely did, their finger like roots reaching for the soft earth beneath the water.   

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Approaching Kokomo on our return I waved at my sister, smiling at the sight of her casting a fishing rod into the water. “Well we’re fishing with bacon,” She laughed in response to hearing that we had been unsuccessful on the mud crab mission. “Plan B, catch us some fish”. It soon became apparent that the fish weren’t digging the bacon that night, and we went to plan C, Simone making mushroom pasta. Four people on a small boat can be tight, and we got in a good routine of working together, passing the wok down the production line from the cupboard, over the couch, past the table and to the stove. “Team work!” said my sister, to which Dad nailed the dad-joke comeback with “Team wok”.

My sister and I slept side by side in the front of the boat, heads positioned underneath the galley window. It felt like we were in a space ship, with the stars and moon and Milky Way passing by. “Maybe we are in a spaceship,” said Dad, “Just one that looks like a boat.”

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In the down time my sister coloured in, bringing a picture of fish and waterlily’s to life with her markers. She made her water many shades of blue, and gave one of her fish a yellow stripe around the belly. I lay on my front on the lounge, typing on my laptop and eating cashews off my keyboard, rocking in rhythm with the ocean beneath us. Dad read, Simone fished, more bacon flying through the air before plonking into the ocean on the end of the hook. I wonder if that pig ever realised his afterlife would take him on a vacay to the Whitsundays.

We swum ashore and had beaches to ourselves. I ducked into the greenery, and found myself in another world. Dappled grey boulders lined the crevice of the earth, making their way from high to low in what reminded me of a waterfall, but one made of stone and not water. I clambered up them, to a vantage point where I could see Kokomo floating below me through the growing limbs and vines.

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There were hundreds of butterflies flitting around me, their blue speckled wings effortlessly keeping their near weightless bodies airborne. I stood, and tilted my head back towards the sky. I breathed deeply, the skin across my chest stretching as the air made its way past my throat and down to the base of my lungs. Above me many different shapes and colours of leaves danced slowly, swaying lazily in rhythm with the wind. At one point on my ascent I stopped abruptly as I heard my sister yell from the beach below “Biz! I’m going back to the boat” “Ok”, I returned, “I’ll swim back in a little”. I turned to continue and realised that directly in front of me was a spider, positioned perfectly in the centre of its web. It was bigger than my outstretched hand, and each leg with two bright yellow spots separating joint from joint. I stood there half in awe, half in relief that had my sister not called out I would have walked straight into it. When I told her this later in the day she responded “Really? Cool. Even when I’m not with you I’ve got your back, and your front”. 

We sailed between islands, stopping to anchor and dive overboard with mask and fins to explore the world beneath the surface of the water. Parrotfish have to be my favourite type of fish, with all the colours of the rainbow moving through the water on a breathing body of scales. Dad and I found a little underwater tunnel to swim through, and we took it in turns filling our lungs and holding the air inside as we dove through the coral archway. There were colourful clams that closed themselves protectively as human sized shapes swum above them. I managed to glimpse at the inside of the clams before they squeezed shut, the little purple and blue dots set against the midnight black reminding me of galaxy, filled with tiny little colourful stars. The coral swayed with the water, the tides acting as an underwater wind that helped the limbs to wave at us as we passed above. 

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We sailed on further to an island we again had all to ourselves, and set up in the shade of a pandanus tree. The general sun soaked stoke called for another Dad joke, with “Not three bad” coming from his mouth as he stood, hands on hips, taking it all in. I climbed around the point in search of oysters, which never showed themselves. I did however find a wall of red rock, with cracks running through it like arteries, tree roots above reminding the earth to breathe. I stepped along a secluded beach, three lined trees forming a welcoming party on my left side. A perfect little cowrie shell brought an image to mind of a silver cowrie shell pendant I’ve carried on me for years, then a wave washed over it and just like that it was gone. 

Our second last day and the winds were blowing with a vengeance. This was of course the day that Dad decided to take Kokomo out to sea, and before we knew it we had the sail full of wind, the boat leaning precariously to one side, and my sister and Simone down below. An almighty crack resounded above the noise of the wind, and in an instant the mast snapped in half and fell to the left, attached only by cables and sail. “Fuck” Dad said, “take the helm”, and with that he clambered over the elevated side of the boat and started scooping the sail before it tangled and became waterlogged. We managed to gather the broken equipment and motor into the lee of the island, where we dropped the anchor and regrouped. We limped into an inlet where we spent the evening, our ruffled sailing souls soothed by the oysters we collected for dinner, and the pink lolly clouds that floated above us in the sky.

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The next morning we woke in the darkness, and made a dash for it back to the mainland before the wind picked up again. Four hours later and we let out a collective sigh of relief as the anchor dropped overboard into the sand that lies just off the Australian coastline. A week of sailing complete, a glimpse into what the future holds, this won’t be my last boat borne adventure. 

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Birralee Hassen