Thursday, April 14, 2016

1/8: Revisiting the Waters that Last Saw my Uncle's Face



On Airlie Beach in northern Queensland, Australia, life is normally very calm. The weather is fantastic (save for monsoon season), and the beaches are beautiful. While most visitors use this area as a jump off point to visit the remarkable Whitsunday Islands, my visit packed a different purpose. In fact, though my Dad and I found ourselves enjoying all the area had to offer, the reason we decided to visit Airlie was seemingly different than our backpacking and vacationing counterparts. Our mission was to pay tribute to an uncle I never knew. Our purpose was to try and understand more what happened to him and his fellow, fallen classmates aboard their Whaler style sailboat on October 17th, 1963. 

To give a small explanation of our history, my Uncle was lost at sea during a non-conflict, sailing exercise for the Australian Navy in the 60’s. His ship, which consisted of himself, 3 naval academy graduates from his class, as well as an officer, lost course while navigating around Hook Island in northern Queensland. Two bodies (not my uncle) and the ship were found 4 days after the accident, but the remaining three were never found. 12 days after the incident, a life vest and non-floating naval torch were found 93 miles west of Hook Island on Cape Bowling Green. Beyond speculation, no clear-cut explanation was given to the families of the boys. To say that our desire to visit Airlie Beach was purely for fun would definitely be an understatement. 

In both an act of tribute, as well as to gain a better understanding of what Peter and his fellow midshipmen faced, Dam Dog and I sailed from Abell Marina through the Whitsunday Passage, and up through Hook Passage, along the same line that last saw Peter and the Whaler before they were lost at sea. Here is my journal entry after returning from our 12-hour excursion on the water...

4/14- Yesterday was a truly impactful day for Dam dog and I. We hopped on a sailboat from Abell Marina, which traveled through Whitsundays Passage, up through Hook Passage, all the way to Whitehaven Beach. While actual time spent sailing, as opposed to using the onboard motor, was minuscule, and we were on a tourist boat, yesterday was far from a walk in the park. The open water after Hook Passage was where the Whaler began to go off course. So, as history tells it, once the ship passed through the protected passage, meeting open water with Hook Island to its port, the Whaler was flying. The crew was trying to cut further away from shore to offset the counter tides running towards land. This decision, only to be exacerbated by overlooked weather reports and mast-high waves, was a fatal one. Once the passage was run, the open water became an unrelenting yolk which never released.  Navigating this area, though controlled to the fullest human extent, was uncanny for me. With inclimate weather greeting us, I was terrified. I became drenched in rain, sea water, and thoughts of what had elapsed to my family in these parts. I saw unfortunate poetic justice in my father flying halfway around the world to finally visit where his brother was lost, only to meet the same fate. Myself, artistic collateral damage as barring my uncle’s namesake (Christopher Peter). Of course, though, we made it. Our captain and his underpaid, overqualified whipping boy (a 36-year-old vagabond who sailed here growing up, only to find his hours were now considered redundant), made it possible. 

As we hit the open water, in contrast to the Whaler, we felt a calm come over us. As if God had written the screenplay, once we navigated through the passage, the winds died down, and the clouds opened ever so slightly, reuniting us with a glimmer of the sun’s warm embrace. Seeing this area of historical importance to our family; feeling, to a small extent, what Peter felt on board his ship that fell to the will of the erratic weather; seeing my dad try to process what happened here, pondering how this incredibly beautiful, lush, colorful part of the globe, in conjunction with executive negligence and naive over-zealousness, could absolutely change the course of our family’s history: the entire experience was stimulating and draining.



After the passage, the rest of the day teetered and tottered between fun and fear. We held on white-knuckle to the boat as the rains and winds met us quickly, only to dissipate slowly, smoothly. We used our time as we snorkeled and saw one of the most pristine beaches my eyes have ever rested upon, to digest what we had experienced.


The climax, of course, was navigating the final squall, only a few knots away from shore. The rains and winds were heaviest with this one. At first it felt angry. The work of a long, dormant spirit now disturbed from it’s perennial rest. The rain came fast and strong as the wind howled, bringing along with it clouds obscuring any view of the surrounding land. As night had already fallen, the lights from our not-to-distant fruition in Airlie’s welcoming shore disappeared. In this chaos, though, the storm transmuted from anger to what felt like tears falling from the heavens. The first drops were that of sadness, of reawaking to a fate one would hope was a bad dream. Then came those of acceptance. Joy followed. The final droplets where of release. No artistic license was needed to doctor the ending of this story, as the torrential weather elapsed when we made it to harbor. My father and I decide to walk back to our hotel, while the other guests on board, whom didn’t have the same ties we did to Hook Island, stormed off deck exhausted. Some were sore, some angry, some swore off sailing forever. Our itinerary boasted an easy 8 hours, backed with clear skys, sun, and beautiful beachers. After a tumultuous 12-hour affair, who could really blame them?
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