I’d rather be blown. The Great Barrier Reef, far north Queensland, Australia

What I want to cover in this article is the dynamics of being on a charter yacht for two days in the tropics.

About a month ago my wife (Engogirl) and I went up to Surfers Paradise to attend a conference on large dams. Engogirl had never been up to far north Queensland, and she wanted to go scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef. I hadn’t been up to Cairns since I was about 14, so I was quite amenable to extending our trip by travelling up north by train.

A fact that many people aren’t aware of, is that the Reef is actually about 20 or 30 km offshore and if you want to visit it you will need some kind of boat. Because the Great Barrier Reef is such a well-known tourist destination, there are plenty of options to get out there for visitors wishing to go diving. There are huge catamarans that hold hundreds of people complete with a helicopter pads on top through to charter yachts catering to much smaller groups.

Due to the facts that my wife and I can’t stand large crowds of people and that it’s easier to go missing at sea on a large boat, we decided that a smaller boat would be more suitable.  We booked tickets on a boat called the “Vagabond“, which is crewed by three people (captain, diving instructor and cook) with nine other passengers.

Engogirl and fellow punters

We boarded at about eight o’clock in the morning and straight away it was obvious that the cook (who I suspect was the captain’s girlfriend) and diving instructor didn’t get along. The cook (an American woman from Virginia) made it obvious that the diving instructor got on her nerves by snapping at him a few times about nothing, in front of us. 

The diving instructor (Frank) was one of those happy go lucky guys that obviously has a great time, doing his work and chatting up any of the female punters who might mistake him for a legend. I’ve known plenty of guys like him. As matter of fact, a few of my friends have been trekking guides in Nepal and white water rafting guides, so I know what their headspace is like and I’ve heard all the stories about their gormless punter conquests.  Unfortunately for our diving instructor, Frank, he was a German, and although he wanted to have fun and joke around, there was a little bit of cultural dissonance happening, which cruelled most of his attempts at humour. Which was a pity because he was a nice guy.

Viri shoots the breeze with Frank

I’ve got real soft spot for Germans and there have been very few Germans that I’ve met, that I haven’t liked.  I think that many non-Germans think that Germans are rude, because they are so direct. I’ll admit that it can seem confronting at first, but once you get used to the way how Germans interact, it’s a real pleasure to be able to relax and be so straightforward. No fragile sensitivities or gameplaying, just direct communication, and I love it.

It was an absolutely beautiful clear day with a good offshore breeze that allowed us to make good time (12 kn) under sail.

There’s nothing like being on a large yacht that has all its sails and spinnaker up in a good stiff breeze.  To add to the general feeling that we were partaking in something special we were accompanied every now and again by pods of dolphins. It took us a couple of hours to get out to the reef, but by about lunchtime we were already in the water snorkelling.

About half the people on the boat where experienced scuba divers with their certificates. I on the other hand, learned how to scuba dive when I was 14 years old for $11 at a local YMCA with a high school friend of mine, Stephen. That was back in the bad old days, when they basically just said, “make sure that you exhale when you surface and don’t come up any faster than your bubbles”. Of course, things are very different nowadays and I couldn’t in all good faith tell the diving instructor that I was properly qualified to scuba dive. Never mind having to produce a certificate that would be recognised today.

Fortunately my shonky scuba certification and Engogirls girl’s complete lack of experience wasn’t an issue because the Vagabond offered an “introductory course”, which basically meant that the driving instructor went over the basics with every one and then escorted us on the dive, ensuring that we didn’t go any deeper than 10 meters (about 30 feet) and that we exhaled as we resurfaced slowly. I won’t talk any more about scuba diving and I will leave that for another post.

When a yacht is under full sail with a good wind, sailing can be sublime. Of course it’s not for everyone, because a good wind means that there is usually fairly choppy seas, and that means the boat leans over and goes up and down in a way, that people who aren’t used to it, may find alarming. I’ve been on various water craft on the ocean many times and I’ve never been sick, even in large storms.  Although I’ve never been seasick, I know that it can strike anyone and I was a bit worried that I might get nauseous, and I was doubly worried about Engogirl because I wanted to her to have a great time. Luckily both of us didn’t even come close to getting sick, but one unfortunate passenger did. According to common wisdom, one can avoid seasickness by staring at the land or the horizon if there is no land in sight. Another strange thing about seasickness is that the nausea completely stops when the sufferer enters the water.

Strangely enough, it’s very hot and humid in the tropics. Since you can’t or don’t want to scuba dive or snorkel all day, you end up sitting in the shade on deck, sweating your arse off drinking. Being on a boat means that you can’t get away from the heat and humidity and your only relief is to jump on the water every now and again to cool off, then drink some more.

Engogirl and a fellow punter from Germany

With such a small group, interpersonal dynamics are important. Most of the people on our trip were very nice (we met up with a couple from Mexico and Brazil who live in Sydney and we’ll be having them over for dinner this Friday), with the exception of an older surgeon (who’s wife was lovely) with an unfortunate god complex. He used to own a yacht charter business himself at Airlie Beach and he was the sort of guy that saw himself as the font of all knowledge. He constantly contradicted people. If somebody said black he’d say white. He was just ridiculous.  I guess he was used to pushing a bunch of terrified underlings around without any comeback, and his personality had suffered as a consequence. So our little tin god held court in the cockpit and bored the shit out of me. Unfortunately the captain, who was quite capable at his job, seemed to be in his thrall and basically encouraged him to pontificate.

Another interesting thing was that none of the passengers smoked cigarettes but all three of the crew did.  I asked the captain, ” what’s the matter, do you guys get too much fresh air?”

As the day passed, I found myself noticing how fatigued the crew looked. They go out as often as they can, day after day, without much time off.  They go out for two days to come back in the afternoon, and then they have to clean up the boat ready for the next day’s group first thing, the next morning. 

In such heat and humidity it was no wonder they looked so exhausted and jaded. The diving instructor was new to that particular boat, and he obviously hadn’t been ground down by the routine yet, but the captain and cook could barely disguise how, over, the situation they were.  Constantly being out in the heat and humidity whilst having to make small talk with people they know they’ll never see again, must be completely draining. They were too busy to go scuba diving and snorkelling themselves (the captain said he hadn’t been scuba diving for over a year) and were constantly at everybody’s beck and call. I can completely understand why the captain seemed so disinterested and fake in his conversations, but I do wish he had have been a bit more professional and not shown it so openly. Then again, us Australians are like that in general.

The food on board, whilst being quite plain due to the fact that they have to cater to so many different palettes, was perfect, as it was mostly light and fresh salads with cold meats. One of the guests asked why they weren’t serving fish on board, to which the captain replied, ” we bring people out here to see the fish, not to kill them”. Then the captain went on to explain to us how much damage fishing does to the reef. Not only do the fish stocks get depleted, but the coral also gets damaged by boats dropping anchor in areas they are not familiar with. He had a very low opinion of sports fishermen and boats that took such people out onto the reef to fish. After having spent a little time diving on the reef, I completely agreed with him on that matter.

It was so hot and sticky all day, that nobody really spent any time in their dark tiny little cabins. Our cabin was up at the front near the head (boating talk for “toilet”), which was a drag because our cabin had two doors; one to open into the passageway, and one into the toilet. The toilet was shared by other people who could enter through another door. 

During the night both of the head doors were to be left open because there was a hatch directly over the toilet that was left open to let fresh air in.

Much to our chagrin and disgust, we found out that our cabin was so hot at night, that we had to leave the toilet door open so we could get a small rank smelling breeze through to us. To make matters worse, when I asked the captain how to turn on the fans that were in our cabin (the switches didn’t seem to be working), he looked at me as though I had just asked him if I could have my way with his mother, and curtly replied to me, ” I’ll do it in a couple of minutes”. So went back to my cabin and lay in the sweltering heat, and waited for him for about nearly an hour. I figured he must have forgotten, and he looked so irritated when I asked him, I thought I’d probabley be better off asking the cook how to turn on the fans. She told me the captain hadn’t turned on the power to the fans that she would speak to him, and it should be sorted out pretty soon.  Another half an hour passed on the fans weren’t turned on, so I went out and asked the captain again, if he could turn the power to the fans on.

He said he’d get right onto it.

It never happened.

I laid there fuming for hours. I was so angry thoughts of violence crossed my mind.

Another dive boat anchored near us at night

I was still angry in the morning, but I thought, that there was no point in kicking up a big fuss as I would be off the boat later on in the day and I might as well enjoy the rest of the trip.

The second day was calm and the wind had gone away. My wife and I spent the day snorkelling together, and all my anger at the captain just drained away as I enjoyed being in one of the most amazing places in the world.

After lunch, we headed back into Cairns, but unfortunately there was no wind and we had crawled back at a snail’s pace under power. Sailing is great, but motoring along in a sail boat sucks!

The sun just beat down on us, and there was no breeze to give us any relief. I was starting to think that one of those catamarans with a helicopter pad seemed like a great idea.  I’m pretty sure that Engogirl and I would have been happy to spend a couple hundred dollars just to get off the boat. Again, I found myself thinking about the crew, and how they did this day after day. On the surface of things, it might seem to be a dream job, working on a charter yacht on the Great Barrier Reef, but I’m pretty sure that the nitty-gritty, salty, sweaty, stinky reality, would pall pretty quickly.

On the way back, I was chatting with the diving instructor (Frank), and he told me about some of the jobs that he had. He had worked in Mauritius and in Thailand at resorts before he’d come to Australia. Frank had said that there was a high burnout rate with diving instructors in Cairns working on the large boats. Apparently, the large boats work like assembly lines, with all of the different parts of the dives divided up amongst the various instructors. The multitude of divers on board are broken up into smaller groups, and there is one instructor checking their group’s gear on board, plus two more in the water, checking on the punters as they enter the water. Then there are two other drivers who act as guides for the groups.

It all sounded like an expensive nightmare to me.

By the time we got back into port, all of us couldn’t get off the boat fast enough. It was obvious that everybody had, had enough of the heat, and just wanted to go and have a shower and cool down.  As we left, we were asked to sign the guest book and make a comment, so I wrote, ” it was hot….. in so many ways”. Later on in the day I found out it was one of the hottest days recorded.

Both Engogirl and I are glad that we went and dived on the reef before climate change completely destroys it, but would we do it again?


Sure enough, having a sweltering night and having to deal with burnt out crew didn’t help, but the main issue for us is that we aren’t really suited to the tropics.  We are basically two pasty white people who have been genetically engineered to live at the foot of glaciers and hunt woolly mammoth

I spent about two years in South-east Asia travelling around in the tropics, I’ve been to Tahiti, Central America, Florida, Peurto Rico, The Virgin Islands and now that I’ve dived on the Great Barrier Reef, I can safely say that, “if I never visit the tropics again, it will be too soon”.  Both my wife and I know we don’t belong in the tropics and it’s gotten to such a point that when I see those sandy beaches fringed with palm trees and clear blue skies all I can think of, is physical discomfort.

It was so good to go to an air-conditioned hotel to have a shower, cool down and have a decent nights sleep.

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