Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Forbes Islands

[Kyle]"Manhattan" came earlier than we thought. We left Portland Road at first light for what looks on a map like a short trip to Forbes Islands, only eighteen miles to the north. The problem with Forbes is that it lies behind Gallon Reef. This requires sailing six miles north of the island to clear the reef. Then you have to sail east a while before you can finally turn towards Forbes Island itself, directly into the winds. Forbes is surrounded by bommies, so it is not a place someone without local knowledge (and good charts and satellite imagery) would want to approach after mid-afternoon. Thus, we had to leave early as if we had been trying to get much farther.

Our guidebooks didn't say much to recommend Forbes other than to say it's off of the beaten path and that in the days before GPS, few vessels dared attempt the approach. We therefore expected Forbes to be another out-of-the-way, private spot for us.

Along the way to the far end of Gallon Reef from Portland Road, it was crazy busy, at least by our new standards. We had to give way to two container ships and a tanker. We also saw a sleek Australian Defense Force catamaran, which was sporting LOTS of antennae, and a Border Force boat that slowed way down as it overtook us a mile away, but did not alter course to intercept us, nor even attempt to call us on the VHF. I think the slowdown was to give them time to check our details and make sure we were basically where we said we were going to be. If we had last told them we were heading south from Cairns, I'm sure we would have got a more intimate meeting.

As we neared Forbes Island, we were surprised to see an AIS target anchored there. Once we got a little closer, its data tag populated the rest of the way and we discovered it was a commercial fishing boat. Forbes seems pretty protected, so we imagined they were anchoring for the day between nighttime outings like we have seen them do at other places. As the island fell astern four miles to our starboard, a look through the binoculars revealed two more fishing boats there. Remote Forbes Island was shaping up to be a choice spot.


Plenty of dolphins came to entertain us on passage - always a joy!

Once we rounded the northwest corner of Gallon Reef, we turned into the wind, which immediately changed the character of the sail. We were now going upwind into twenty-five knot winds. That wouldn't have been so bad, but the spray being thrown up by the bows was being blown over the cabin top right into my face. I was quickly drenched in salt water and the droplets covering my glasses made it better for me to just take them off.

Our next turn was directly upwind for the last six miles to Forbes. Tacking was out of the question because of the bommies and the chart.

The chart of the area depicts the entire area around Forbes as a minefield of bommies and shoals. According to it, it would be necessary to sail until we were about eight miles northeast (i.e., the other side) of the island before squeezing through a narrow gap and picking our way back through.

Satellite images don't seem to reflect this, so we decided to try taking a shortcut, sighting our way in like it was a Polynesian atoll. The chart turned out to have very little correlation with what we actually found. The biggest bommies were as charted, plus one non-existent one that looks like it was placed there when the cartographer mistook a cloud in a satellite photo as a shallow spot. The main shoal that we crossed on our route didn't exist and most of the other charted depths were half of the reading on our depth sounder.

That leg was a long six miles. Even with both engines going, we were only able to make just under three knots against the wind, current and chop. The security of the island was a long way away and it was going to take us a long time to get there.


Approaching Forbes, we soon realized there was a crowd

As we crept closer, we identified four big commercial fishing boats tucked in behind the island and saw several dories going back and forth between them or to shore. So much for Naked Sunday.

After we finally managed to make it to the smooth water off of the northwest beach, we set anchor next to two of the fishing boats. The other two were out of sight around a headland.

It wasn't long before a dory came around the corner and headed straight for us. Aboard were Tom and Matthew. They were crew on El Torito, the biggest of the two boats around the corner. We grabbed their painter and for the first time in twenty-nine days, we actually had a face-to-face conversation with other people.

El Torito was on the tail end of a two-week trip from Cairns to the north and back. It acted as a mother ship for eight dories, each of which had a skipper and a diver who uses surface-demand air from a system on the dory. Tom was the diver Matthew was the skipper. Both seemed to be in their late twenties.

Tom explained that they were diving for crayfish, which is what Australians call spiny lobsters. The fishery rules only allow for one dory at a time per reef, so the mother ship anchors in a central spot and sends the dories out for the day at their assigned reef. Both boats around the corner were with the same company. Most of their catch goes to the Hong Kong market. The fishing boats nearest us were more typical nighttime trawlers that were anchored there for the day. Since it was a Sunday, Tom explained, they were taking the night off to get together to have a few beers.

Maryanne asked if there was anything they needed. They said they were more than well-stocked since it was the end of their trip. It's always better for the main ship to set out with too much food than not enough. She still went below and emerged with a fancy chocolate bar for them, which they seemed very happy to take. In exchange, Tom crawled to the back of the dory and returned with two of what he called “Champagne Crayfish”. We tried to say no, because that's their living, but Tom insisted they were surplus. That seemed like a pretty good trade. Then they gave us the apples and oranges from each of their lunch bags. We protested, but they said they were going to eat the chocolate instead. Alright, fresh fruit. Our fresh produce was down to a few potatoes and onions, so we were happy with that. Maryanne had already prepared dinner for the night, so the lobsters would have to wait until tomorrow.

Night fell. Just when it got really dark, we were surprised to see El Torito heading out the way we had come in earlier. The mother ship was towing a quarter-mile long string of dories. I guess they know the area well. Next, the big fishing boat next to us left. So much for Sunday night off.

Watching them leave was like being in the path of a train. All we could see was this giant light coming at us. Commercial fishing boats all have banks of crazy bright stadium-type lights. They use them to attract fish and to illuminate the working areas on the deck. The thing is, every one of these boats that we have seen leaves all of their lights on twenty-four hours a day. My most charitable assumption is that they are trying to save wear and tear on what must be pretty expensive lights. Airplane landing lights are also super bright and tend to burn out not so much from extended use but from repeated heating/cooling cycles of the big elements. Turning them off and on wears them out faster. Since the fishing boats have to run an engine or generator all of the time to keep their live wells and the freezers going, the extra electricity for the lights is not an issue for them like it would be for us.

In truth, I think it's probably cultural. Bright lights are the commercial fishing fleet's equivalent of loud exhausts for boy racers. I imagine it's a way of bragging about how well they are doing to one another. I'm sure there is also a certain amount of obliviousness at play as well. If you've never been out on a boat at night without bright lights and generator noise, you don't realize how nice it can be without them.

Our remaining neighbor's generator was not too loud. It's noise was mostly carried away by the high winds. The lights were a different story. As soon as the slightly brighter sun went down, all we could see was those lights. It was a clear, moonless night and whatever stars there were up there were completely washed out by the lights.

The crew, being used to them, were unbothered. When they were done socializing for the night, they retired to their bunks below, which were behind two layers of steel. Our bunk is behind a semi-opaque layer of fiberglass which now appeared to be dimly glowing. The parallelogram of light being projected on our cream-colored wall through our acrylic hatch shone like a lamp throughout the rest of our berth. It was like being parked in Times Square for the night.

After being in bed for what seemed like a normal amount of time, I got up to see if I could have a look at the dawn. Those lights had thrown me again. That wasn't twilight I had seen. It was still night out. I did a quick walk around and then headed back to Maryanne and bed. Just before I got there, I heard a rumble and then a clunk and the lights changed orientation. They were leaving! A pre-dawn departure apparently counts as a half day if you fish commercially.

I returned to bed to revel under a calming blanket of quiet and darkness. It was then that I noticed that it was actually starting to get light out. The night really was over. Well, better get up then.

Now with the whole island to just us, we headed ashore and scrambled up the nearest prominence to the top. There were no trails, per se, as the interior probably didn't see enough traffic to keep them worn in. Instead, we just followed a trough of vaguely matted grass from the last people that also couldn't find a trail. At the top, we found a couple of cairns and some great views of the group. Forbes is actually three islands connected by shallow banks of white sand, which turns the water above into that lovely tropical blue we all love so much.



What a wonderfully beautiful place to explore

We pottered around for a bit at the top and then bashed our way down to the beach closest to the inter-island shallows. We disturbed some terns, but found no human (or croc) tracks. Since it was low tide, we were able to skirt around some mangroves at the far end by wading through the sand below them. There, we scurried over a few boulders and found another long, white beach behind. At the opposite end of that, we finally did run out of walking apace, leaving us no other options other than backtracking or going uphill to get over the ridge to the anchorage. Since the tide was going up now, we chose the climb.


It wasn't too bad. We went over one of the lower saddles through scrub and grassland. Walking through the grass was a little unnerving because it was thick and matted. That lifted the visible surface to knee level above the dirt. We had no idea what was underneath. Sometimes the ground was flat, sometimes there was a hole or a tippy rock. We hoped there was nothing else, but we made a lot of noise and banged the path ahead with our walking poles just in case. The valley was interspersed with meter-high termite mounds as a picturesque way of breaking up the grassland. Their entrances are underground and far away, so unlike anthills, you can stand right next to them without ever encountering even one of their occupants.

We were excited to get back to the beach by Begonia. There's coconut palms there, but unlike Fife Island, we could get to them. Before our hike, we had gathered a small pile of them for me to husk when we got back. I normally do this on the stern step of the boat and then rinse off with a swim, but in croc territory it was safer to do on the beach.

As we crested the rise, we saw a dory race into the harbor. That was weird. There was no sign of a mother ship anywhere. It must be just over the horizon. We watched the occupants anchor and wade onto the beach. In due time, we made it down to them.


Our generous benefactors - bring yet more surprises for us,
And wow - the sunset silhouetting the mountains on the mainland.

Well, wouldn't you know it, it was Tom and Matthew again! They were on the last day of their work cruise and decided to have lunch on the beach. We sat together and talked for quite a while. Neither of them seemed to be worrying too much about keeping to a rigid work schedule. At the end, they said they had some stuff in the dory for us. They brought us a big bag of fruit from the mother ship's larder. They also liberated a couple of surplus steaks for us {Maryanne: that 'bag of steaks' turned out to be 8 large rump steaks}. It seems they had chosen 'our' beach for lunch in the hopes of running into us. That was nice! Now we had a decision to make: Steak or lobster for dinner tonight, Honey? What a funny world it is.

After they left to finish their workday, I husked our little pile of coconuts and then we went home. When we got there, we discovered that our 'couple' of steaks were actually eight of them and big ones at that! It looks like our mostly vegetarian diet is going to have to go on a little break.

The commercial fishing fleet had moved on. Our subsequent nights at Forbes were peaceful and full of stars. We spent more than the usual amount of time looking over at each other and exclaiming, “I'm sooooo full!”

{Maryanne: the generous gifting of food was really unexpected, and fully appreciated. Even though Kyle and I have NEVER eaten steak together - we put the meat to good use, and with the lobster were well fed for 5 major meals and then leftovers... we are now in need of more exercise!}

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