A full sail in the Whitsunday Islands

38 foot Sloop ‘Ariel’ in full sail in the Whitsunday Islands, Queensland, Australia. Nikon D80 camera and Nikon 24-120mm f3.5 VR lens. Exposure Details: 1/400 second @ f10 ISO 200.

Quick Update & New Format

As mentioned in my last post I’ll be going back to some of my photography work from late last year and my 3 months in New Caledonia for the next few posts. I’m currently dealing with not so blog-worthy business stuff but have some new projects on the horizon that I should begin blogging in a month or so. I’m also going to try a new format here where I separate the story that the photo is a part of from the story of how I made the photo. My aim is to make the blog a bit easier to navigate so that people can just enjoy the photo and read the story behind it without having to wade through all the details of how I took the photo. As for my fellow photo-nerds now we have a dedicated section for that with its very own sub-heading! As always you can let me know what you think by posting a comment.

A Rare Awakening

After sailing all night by starlight and a 3 hour shift break in the mid morning, Julie and I are awoken by something out of the ordinary. Asides from the usual sounds of sailing -the rush of sea water against the hull, the occasional flap of the sail and the general creaking from everywhere in the wooden mass of the ship- something else is going on. Rubbing our eyes and sitting up in our cramped sleeping quarter we realise that we can’t just hear this sound, we can feel it. In fact the whole hull is vibrating to it. As slowly as we’d woken it dawned on us that what we were listening to was in fact whale songs. It also soon became clear that there were two distinct cries, one of a mature deep tone and the other of a beseeching higher pitched tone that ended with an upwards inflexion. We were sitting spellbound inside a vessel literally humming the duet of a mother whale and her calf. Clambering up on deck I ask Joe and Jeanette ‘you guys hear that?’ to which they replied with blank stares. ‘Have you seen any whales?’ I further ‘…because I’m pretty sure we can hear whale songs vibrating through the hull below deck’. Seconds later, a loud burst of air captures our attention and not more than 30 metres directly behind the yacht a large adult humpback whale surfaces for air. We are all frozen for a moment awestruck by the creature. It dwarfed our boat. Suddenly the salty tales we’d been hearing in run-down yacht clubs and remote anchorages all up the coast made sense. Close whale encounters are scary and the giants could no doubt send us to the bottom of the ocean with ease if they felt the slightest inclination. Luckily such is their benevolence that it rarely happens, although I’m told a fair amount of ships do come to grief by running into sleeping whales. Luckily it was only our fate to feel their songs through the hull and not an almighty whip of its tail with a one way ticket to deep end of the pool.

The experience of being awoken by whales was one of many highlights of a 5-week sailing voyage that myself and some friends (Joseph Shaw and Julie Rerolle) were lucky enough to participate in late last year. Like most of the best moments in life, it was an experience I have to keep my head, it couldn’t be photographed. I did get some fleeting photos of whales, but sadly they just don’t cut the mustard for a photography blog. Instead I’ve placed this photo of our ship in full sail in the Whitsunday Islands because it encapsulates our voyage. Other highlights from our trip included dolphin and dugong sightings, snorkelling tropical reef with turtles and giant fish, jumping from the ratlines, learning to sail, navigating by the stars, exploring remote islands and of course a few bouts of gut churning sea-sickness.  The captain of the ship was Jeanette Tansley. Each year Jeanette, a nomad of the sea, migrates up and down the Queensland coast between her home anchorages of Southport and Airlie Beach, which sits on the mainland opposite the famous Whitsunday Islands. Jeanette makes her journey onboard her floating home ‘Ariel’, a Down Easter 38 cutter rigged sloop, built in California in 1979. The 600-nautical mile (1100 km) journey passes through remote areas of coastline filled equally with unexpected dangers and stunning natural beauty. The often long stretches between safe anchorages require expert navigation for which Jeanette is ably equipped after 10 years of living at sea. We were lucky enough to be invited aboard to crew for the northern passage of Jeanette’s annual migration. To view more shots from our voyage check out the gallery on my website and you can browse our route in the map below.

Getting the Shot

Sadly despite several more whale sightings after the one related above, they were so fleeting and randomly timed that I was not able to snap any great shots. I did get some shots, but in my opinion they don’t quite cut the mustard to appear on a photo blog so I haven’t included any here. Instead I’ve placed this photo of our ship in full sail in the Whitsunday Islands because it encapsulates our voyage and because it was actually quite an adventure to get.

I took this photo on the second last day of our trip, while making a final cruise from Airlie beach to Hayman island. I was acutely aware that I had so far failed to actually get any shots of Ariel in full sail, from away from the boat. This was largely because to do so takes a lot of effort! The easiest way to do it would be to climb aboard another vessel and go for a cruise together, however, we almost never had such an opportunity. Instead we had to lower our small inflatable dinghy with its pitiful 4 horse-power outboard motor and attempt to direct the yacht to make a few passes. If  for any reason our friends had abandoned us we would have run out of fuel long before we got to the nearest island (Whitsunday island, pictured in the background) and due to a mishap earlier in the voyage we were down to only one and a half oars on the dinghy, meaning paddling would have been a difficult excercise. It was quite a tight operation because there was only one patch of blue sky so I needed a fairly precise angle. What’s more, controlling the distance between the yacht and us was for the most part impossible due to the vagaries of the wind, our pathetic horse-power and difficulty in communicating (radios would have been nice!). Also, much like the issues of horseback photography in my last post, you have to be aware when sailing that you are constantly on a moving vessel, meaning you need to prioritise your shutter speed more than usual. You also have to prioritise your gear from the devastating effects of sea-spray too, something my gear managed to survive ok, despite 5 weeks  at sea. Thankfully we pulled it off due to the combined effort of Julie and Jeanette who worked the sails while Joe worked like a champ with the outboard on our tiny speck of a dinghy in the vastness of the sea. Thanks guys! I think the result speaks for itself: a simple, elegant sailing shot.

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One thought on “A full sail in the Whitsunday Islands

  1. What a journey indeed! This experience of hearing whales through the body of the boat was for sure the highlight of this adventure. Your book “Northern Passage” is the best travel book ever! So thoughfully done and esthetically perfect!

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