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The Official Magazine of the Bluewater Cruising Association

Crewing Brisbane to Cairns June-July 2022

Isabel Bliss

October 12th, 2022

In the “before times”, I sailed from Hawaii throughout the South Pacific out of Victoria BC, aboard Sonsie, a Southern Cross (SC) 39, hull #12. The pandemic put an end to all that, and Sonsie sat forlorn in Brisbane, stranded but safe.

As soon as borders opened, I flew down to see her, give her a hug, and grab all my belongings. She is to be imported into Australia now and listed for sale, due to changed circumstances. The Australian Border Force (ABF), as is its wont, has said, “time’s up” for all foreign-flagged vessels that have been in Australia since… what seems like forever.

While there, I talk to a Seattle sailor who needs crew across the Indian Ocean. A tempter, but not a runner for me at this juncture. He tells me he knows of another SC39. There were only 13 ever made, so that’s interesting.

There’s a phone message waiting for me from the other SC39 owner when I get home to BC. His SC39 is hull #3, Philiosophy. He sends me a photo from his anchorage in Rushcutters Bay, Sydney. I recognized it immediately from when I was there in 2015! He’s picking up two trial transducers from Raymarine, as his depth sounder has failed.

Having not met another SC39 owner, we fill our phone calls with talk of the amazing beauty and prowess of these craft, our parallel but differing rigs, mods, gear, preferred sail configs, past adventures and current plans. Turns out he’s a retired offshore tugboat captain from Portland, Oregon, and has been stranded in Hobart, Tasmania for the past 2+ years. Philiosophy is facing a more pressing ABF deadline than Sonsie, so he is solo sailing up Australia’s eastern shore to Thursday Island, at the northern tip, up to Indonesia.

We arrange to meet in Brisbane in a few week’s time. I have to return anyhow to follow what ABF dictates and arrange the haul out, survey, appraisal, importation, and listing of Sonsie. We are keen to admire each other’s SCs. I’m sure everyone is convinced that they have the best sort of yacht, but I’m sorry, we SC39 owners are the worst sort of snobs, considering them the crème de la crème, the peachiest of them all!

Our Boats


Hull #3’s skipper comes aboard and sits in awe. “This is the most beautiful boat in the world,” he says. She is. Her rod rigging runs down inboard of standard, sinking into the coach house, right behind the settees. Solid. A work of art. The snug shrouds permit the genoa to be sheeted in tightly, permitting her to point admirably into the wind. She won the 2010 Vic Maui in her Class, and came in an impressive 4th or 5th overall, skippered by Chris Hui. She’s an able performer, a trustworthy craft, and pretty to boot: turtles on her bow and the prettiest name ever – Sonsie is Gaelic for nice lines, pleasing to the eye, happy, lucky.


Hull #3 was built in 1980, so is five years older, with traditional shrouds stretching down to the outer hull. She’s sturdy and very practically set up, with the basics emphasized in almost tugboat fashion. She’s lovely, but all in all, a very bloke boat. Phili’s got the same dreamy SC canoe stern – such an attractive, sea-kindly bum!

I sign on as crew. What are the chances of being able to sail on two of these perfect creatures?

Passage to Cairns

June 28 we pull up Phili’s hook and set sail from Southport, Brisbane. The initial, ridiculously boisterous 48 hours’ sail northbound makes me wonder if I still have it in me! The motion!

The depth sounder ceases to work. The first trial transducer, strapped to the bottom of the jackstay, has vanished, knocked off in the waves. We pull into Gladstone Marina. Among the chores and errands, we find propylene glycol for the second transducer.

After two still nights at dock, we set out expecting the forecast 15-20 knots of wind. Instead we get sucked into a storm. Thanks, BOM (Bureau of Meteorology)! The weather is more Alaskan than Australian in both temperature and temperament – not what we expected of the Great Barrier Reef. In sustained winds of 35-45 knots and soaking rain, we take turns threading our way through reefs and ships at anchor in the dark, merciless night.

Threading our way through a ship anchor field

Most annoyingly, I cannot find my good waterproof pants that I brought onboard with me, so we have to share the skipper’s pair. Boats eat things! He sleeps while I helm into the thick, unpleasant night. I get soaked. Stay off the reefs. Avoid ships. His watch, and I go down to sleep in the quarter berth. Normally, I’m in the V-berth, but we’re hot bunking it for the duration of the storm so as to be at the ready if needed.

I’m thankful to be dry, I’m drifting off to sleep. A particularly vicious wave slaps Phili and I hear foul, angry words flung like foam, futile and impotent, out into the night, spat at the elements by someone who is used to talking to the sea as a living being. The Alaskan tug captain curses, a toothless fury, hurling epithets into the teeth of the storm whenever boxing waves punch, fists of wind slam, and knives of rain drench.

CMaps fails. No WiFi signals mean it won’t restart without being signed into again. Luckily the old Raymarine system is running dependably, and I have trusty Navionics installed on my Samsung phone as back up.

Rough sea, salty day

Daylight does nothing to diminish the weather, so we seek shelter in the aptly named Refuge Bay, Scawfell Island. “Head to Scawfell when the weather is awful.” We drop the hook and sleep for two days while it pours and wind gusts up to 50 knots. There’s ample time to install the second of the two temporary transducers – the in-hull one in a bag of propylene glycol.

Wednesday, July 6, brings brilliant, welcome, cheering sunshine! We dry everything, motor out, and haul up the main, only to see that one sail slide has popped out. The track is getting worn. Doesn’t every boat owner have job security?! It’s an hour long fiddle to convince the pin to go back in, but there’s plenty of room in the bay to spin about and do the job.

Time to go sit at the bow!

En route again and there’s finally enough of a signal to reboot CMaps. But it’s not long before it bellies up once more. An online techie advises, guess what: uninstall, reinstall, then re-download all two dozen sections of chart for offline use. Rubbish program as far as I’m concerned. Navionics is far more reliable and user-friendly!

A few windless days mean we need to use the “donk” (Australian for engine, aka donkey), stopping at night to anchor and sleep. Beautiful anchorages, but there’s no getting off with a deflated turtle of a dinghy on the foredeck and ABF’s command that Phili make her northing posthaste, with stops only allowed for fuel, rest, repairs, or re-provisioning.

Next we catch a steady SE trade wind. Phili is happy sailing along at 5-6 knots on a starboard broad reach. I’m on 12-6 watch when we sail through the night. There’s the occasional lull in the trades, and when that lull combines with a larger than average swell, all goes to hell for a bit as Phili flops and her sails flag. But soon enough, the wind steadies up, filling both main and genoa, and all is charming again. We’re off to the races.

The satisfaction of a perfect gybe in the moonlight

What do you love about sailing? One of the things I love most about it is feeling, not only part of the sea, but also part of the sky. The moon is high. A fin keel of a cloud sails by it. Off to the right, the east, Jupiter shines, beneficent. The small dot of Saturn is next, then bright Venus rises, followed by the sun. To be part of this grand tableau is worth all the sleep disruption and deprivation.

The Austral moon in particular is a funny thing to observe. At 16⁰S latitude, the quarter moon’s shadow line lies parallel to the surface of the Earth, so its bright face appears to be staring into the sea. From down here in the Great Barrier Reef, it looks like a bright pimple poking out of the dark firmament. A Lite-Brite, stuck in the heavens. A delight. She eventually sinks face down into the water.

“What is there in thee, Moon!
That thou should’st move
My heart so potently?”
– John Keats

Before pulling into Cairns for repairs, we drop the main in the beamy fetch of shallow Mission Bay. The skipper informs ABF that, over the next few weeks, Phili will be requiring professional installation of an in-hull transducer, a new mainsail slide track, a stronger goose neck, oil changes, etc.

As for me, time’s run out, and I fly back home to the Salish Sea.


  1. Rod+Morris says:

    What a great read….I loved the line “ Doesn’t every boat owner have job security?! So true.

  2. Ricky Picanço says:

    Thanks for sharing. The ABF sounds like a real PNA! Quite a character that Captain Alaska.

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