The yacht club was modest but welcoming. Just a block from the Marina shopping center, where my Internet hot spot was located, the club was a collection of picnic tables around a bar, an open area drinking and eating establishment. Yet the whiteboard posted at the entrance informed that Wednesday was Gentleman and Ladies Sail (GLS), with sign in a 4 PM.
The helpful tourist information agent (one of dozens of locations along the main street offering bookings on the many tours to the Reef or the rainforest) that free sailing excursions were available by showing up on Wednesday afternoon. It seemed unlikely, but just plausible enough to take the short walk along the historic narrow gage rail tracks to see if it were true.
Emily and I arrived shortly before the required time, to be told by the barmaid that the sign-up would be in a little while. No confirmation that anyone would actually take a family of four on their boat, that children were allowed, but we at least knew we were in the right place at the right time. A beer was ordered, but a decision between a â€śskin or a schoonâ€? was required. My American accent obviously wasnâ€™t enough to let her know that I wouldnâ€™t know what these were. I took the smaller of the two; the schooner is a mug with a handle. Emily asked for a lemonade, which is more like a Sprite.
Joyce and Rebecca arrived shortly and we waited a few minutes until told to sign up. By then, about 25 casually dressed singles, couples and small groups had arrived. Emily was the only child. We remained cautiously optimistic that GLS included children. I carefully wrote, â€śEd, Joyce, Rebecca and Emilyâ€?. Joyce went back and added â€ś9 yearsâ€? under Emilyâ€™s name, so as not to surprise our potential host.
Our names were called. After a brief discussion about whether we needed a childrenâ€™s life jacket we were off with Alex. He explained that the boat was his brotherâ€™s. I told him that it was very generous of his brother to let him take us sailing, but he quickly explained that his brother, Tim, was already on the boat awaiting us.
Alex and Tim had moved to Port Douglas about 5 years earlier to manage an 60-unit vacation apartment complex. Alex, who did all the talking, told of a plan they had to leave Sydney and start a business in Brisbane. When that fell through, they just drove north, to take this opportunity â€“ and never left. Tim had bought the 1970â€™s 30-footer, named Voo-Doo, about three earlier, and sailed most days. Alex appeared to be the loyal first mate.
Joyce was reassured by the size of the boat, having had visions of something more suitable for Lake Calhoun. No, she wouldnâ€™t need a bathing suit, as the keel would prevent capsizing in any wind seen inland of the Great Barrier Reef short of a Cyclone. Rebecca remained uncertain, of the two men we had just met, the safety of the boat, and, as she later explained, â€śWould she come back alive to attend Brandeis.â€?
Almost immediately after pulling away from the dock, Tim handed me the tiller. I assumed this was to allow he and Alex to prepare the sails. They directed me through the narrow channel the ÂĽ mile to the beginning of the Coral Sea, off the coast from Port Douglas north to Cape Tribulation. [Not far from here, the naval battle that was considered the turning point of the Pacific War in WWII took place.]
Thus began the most glorious two-hour sunset cruise. With winds of about 20 miles/hour, we maintained a pace of over 7 knots, not far below the theoretical maximum for this boat. I was allowed to maintain the helm the whole trip, as we stayed abeam of the wind for an hour and then came about for the second leg back. The 10-15 degree heel was just right, for the boat if not for my familiesâ€™ emotional comfort.
Alex kept on an eye on me and the sails, while Tim sat on deck with a beer. He seemed to be really enjoying someone else doing the work of keeping us on course, as the tendency of the boat to come up made it considerable work to stayed headed just north of Lower Isle, the closest of the barrier islands.
Arriving back in port just as the sun set, we thanked Tim and Alex profusely. Unlike us, they saw it as just another routine Wednesday afternoon.
This experience capped off a perfect warm, sunny day, which had started with watching Emily master her math homework followed by a long bike ride with Rebecca down the path under the palm trees and back along the beach.