Ian Williams

Three or four hours ago my mate and I got back from an overnight trip to the Great Barrier Reef aboard his boat: a 7+ metre aluminium hulled boat with a Suzuki 175 hp outboard. When we arrived back at his house we did all the necessaries to “put the boat to bed”, after which I returned to my own house and had a couple of hours sleep.   I was so tired showering was the last thing on my mind, and figured it could wait until I was rested.

We had left his house at about 7am yesterday (saturday), launched and got underway by eight.  The trip out to the reef was expected to take in the region of 2 ½ - 3 hours. Even though it’s “local” to us it’s still a fair stretch to get there. The GPS told us it was 135 km out, which is around 84 miles.  We were heading southeast, but the closest land would still be in the region of 120 Km away.

Whilst chatting  we joked about the possibility of something going wrong, and how there would be very little chance of swimming back to land what with the distance, the waves and of course the things below said waves.  You know the ones I mean. Sleek shiny ones, with beady eyes and pointy teeth.

On the way out the wind picked up a little and produced a short chop which was a bit uncomfortable.  The hull occasionally slammed down onto a wave producing a bone jarring smash. It’s a difficult sea to travel, and there’s not a better way to navigate: that is if you want to get there the same day.

We arrived at the reef after 3 hours or so, thankfully with the aforementioned bones still intact and functioning correctly.  I can’t be more accurate with regard to time, as I’d stopped checking my watch. I was on holiday, so time was a fluid concept and of no real import.

We drifted around, getting the odd bite from Spanish Mackerel, none of which we managed to introduce to the air.  We did, however, manage to acquire a few small sharks, a couple of which destined to grace my freezer. But it was time to get to the serious business of trying to bring aboard some reef fish, so we anchored and settled in for some enjoyable fishing.

I checked my overhead/multiplier reel and found that it wasn’t cooperating with my endeavours; there was no way to take it out of free spool.  I wasn’t able to use it, which was frustrating to say the least. So I set up with my big fixed spool reel, 100lb braided mainline, 60 lb hook length, 6oz lead and size 4/0 hook. With some  squid who had kindly donated themselves for the cause as bait, I was fishing!

They were down there! I knew it because the tip of my rod twitched tantalisingly over and over.  But each twitch was followed by my motionless rod. And every fisher knows what that means: time to reel in and replace the bait.

More squid drownings followed, with repeated returning of the tackle to the sea.  The twitches started again, followed by a tug on the rod tip. I struck, and found that whatever had taken the bait had managed to snag me on the reef. No amount of jerking the rod would free it, neither would a good hard tug, so I decided to pull for the break. It worked beautifully, but maybe too beautifully.  Because as I was pulling there was a bang, and lo and behold, there was my reel on the deck. What the? Amazingly the aluminium casting at the foot of the reel where it sits in the reel seat had broken. Just snapped. So there I was, 2 30lb test curve rods and no reels and to make matters worse, I hadn’t caught a single reef fish. Having lived abroad I said to my mate, “if this was a lake in the UK I could pop to a local tackle shop and buy another.” But 120Km from land, that wasn’t really much of an option. The fixed spool reel was dead, totally unusable; but maybe I could tinker with something on the other reel.

I’m sure we’ve all done it; taken something apart to fix it knowing full well in the back of the mind that if it wasn’t broken before we started, it certainly would be by the time we’re done. And of course this was no exception to the rule! The side-plate of the reel departed in spectacular fashion, resulting in a scary “ping” as a couple of springs flew off, never to be seen again.

Ever the optimist, I assessed my options.  All was not totally lost, as I did have a small rod and reel with me: a size 4 or 400 fixed spool that takes about 150 metres of 15lb line. So I stripped the line and spooled up with the 80lb braid from the dead multiplier. Job’s a good'un and  I was fishing again with the reel attached to the reef rod. Clearly an unusual coupling, but needs must!

After having tried a few spots along the reef we had found a very nice pinnacle coming up from the bottom at about 25 metres and reaching to about 12 metres below the surface.  We were sure we’d actually got the anchor hooked into the side of the pinnacle and it looked very fishy (in a good way!) on the sounder.

To be honest, I wasn’t fishing hard.  I’d had a bit of a hectic, stressed week and was really happy just to be away from it all, no phone, no web and this winding down had also made me quite drowsy. Added to the brilliant sunshine I was content to do not a lot.

A couple of small coral trout, fusiliers and cod came my way as well as more nuisance sharks.


My mate was putting in the effort and was rewarded with some bigger fish, although no reef monsters were keen to visit.

We were watching and photographing the waves breaking over the reef where it broke the surface.  It was quite an amazing thing, to see surf 80 miles out from shore. As the sun started to go down we were treated to a beautiful sunset and short period of dusk before one of the most amazing skies revealed itself. There were no clouds and obviously no ambient light, just the light of the stars brilliant, framing the Southern Cross in spectacular fashion.

After my busy stressful week and some early mornings I was only fit to drop, My mate was obviously tired too, so after a bit of a natter and 10 minutes jigging for squid it was time to turn in. This was approximately 8pm.

My mate set the alarm for 3 am, and he also set the anchor alarm on the GPS so  that if we were to drift or drag, the anchor alarm would start screaming at us.

With an air temperature at about thirty as well as the surrounding water at a similar temperature it’s easy to sleep on the deck on a mattress;  even with the deck tossing in the wind, which if anything had picked up a little more. I took a quick look sideways to reacquaint myself with the constellation of Orion.  I’d use it as my own personal position fix. If I was to wake in the night I’d know if we’d moved. With all precautions sorted, I laid down and was out like a light.

Have you ever been rudely woken up by having a bucket of water, albeit warm water thrown over you? Because that’s the best description of what befell us at around 9:30 that I can come up with. A big wave came over the stern of the boat. My first thought (albeit from a sleep-fuddled brain) was obviously unfit for publication.  As I jumped up and started heading forward, my second thought made its presence felt. “This is a dry boat. In which case, why am I wet?” And more fully awake now, the third thought “and that hit us over the stern!” This isn’t what you’d normally expect, and hugely dangerous.

Thought number three had barely been thunk, when the second wave hit us in the same manner. The boat was swamped with water and we were totally confused as it was absolutely pitch dark. The only thing that was obvious was that we had drifted somehow onto the reef and were in the middle of the surf we’d seen and photographed earlier.

My mate, the skipper, was by now at the driving position. Much credit to him, he started the motor and threw the boat in gear.  He knew instinctively that he needed to put the bow into the waves without delay. That’s when the third wave hit us abeam, sideways. The boat tilted at an absolutely impossible angle and everything in it that wasn’t bolted down made a break for the opposite, starboard side of the boat. How we didn’t capsize, only the sea and the boat will ever know.  And they weren’t telling.

That was pretty much the excitement over because by the time the fourth wave arrived we were pointed into it and heading for clear water.  Luckily the boat has a self draining deck, because we might not have made it otherwise. Thank goodness for modern four-stroke outboards that start at the touch of the key, unlike the old ones we’re all familiar with that needed pull after pull of the starting rope, followed by a ten minute wait to allow the flooded cylinders to recover before repeating the process.  And even again if we are particularly unlucky!

We had a big esky with us.  It was full of food, drink, fish and lots of ice, two gallon buckets of water to act as chill-bricks.  These buckets were frozen, as were bottles and other containers. This constituted a substantial weight, against the starboard side of the boat.  Earlier in the day it had taken two of us to shift it a little, this time I did it on my own. God bless adrenaline! My mate drove us away from the reef to a spot about 24 metres deep where he stopped and we just looked at each other dumbstruck.

We recovered the anchor rope and discovered that it had parted, probably rubbed away on the submerged pinnacle. So I tied on the spare anchor and threw it overboard.  Never have I been quite as concerned that one of my knots should hold!

With our wits slowly returning, we tidied the boat, talking as we worked.  We agreed that the anchor alarm obviously wasn’t loud enough, I’m half deaf these days, and we were both sleeping deeply. Looking at the GPS chart  we had been washed onto the green area, the area that dries at low water. How lucky were we to have had a high tide!

I’ve a suggestion for GPS manufacturers. They need to incorporate the facility to plug in a klaxon.  If the anchor alarm isn’t loud enough to wake the dead, then “dead” is what those relying on it could be.

We pointed out to each other that had we struck, we’d have had no time to radio a mayday: no time to grab a life jacket and no time to set off the distress beacon.  We also noted that in the surf we’d have been washed onto the rocks, and there’s where we would have stayed. Neither of us could have been able to swim against the surf.  We would have just disappeared and maybe in a few days the authorities would find a few bits of floating wreckage. Of course, even with a rescue effort, we’d be long gone by the time a helicopter arrived.  I thanked my pal: his quick thinking, gut reaction and sheer bloody luck saved us.

Even though we were sure the second anchor was holding, we thought it politic to keep a watch. We took turns until I woke at 6.30am, with my mate concerned that the motor oil warning light was on.

By now the sea was like a millpond, so we removed the engine cowling and checked the oil level on the dipstick.  There was clearly plenty, and we decided that in this instance infallible olde-world technology( I.e. a dipstick) was more reliable than modern electrical technology that had taken a bath in salt water. We also agreed that discretion being the better part of valour,  now that it was light we should make for home. The shore was 146 km away. That’s nearly one hundred miles. Running true to form, the anchor was stuck fast. We cut the rope and headed back to shore. Thankfully the 2.5 hour trip was completed uneventfully, getting us back around 9:15am.

I might be going out again next weekend, after I’ve bought some new reels of course!

They say the sea is mistress to many, but has no master.  Didn’t we prove that to be correct?