Laughter travels a long way over water. Especially when you’re anchored in a pristine, protected bay, surrounded by hills and not much else. At the time we were enjoying the closing of a day that had begun in Melbourne at far-too-early AM. We were now bobbing gently at anchor in Shoalhaven Bay, a couple of lazy hours north of Rockhampton by water. Surrounding us was a selection of Maritimo luxury cruisers of various persuasions, their crews – a mix of families, young children and couples – now happily engaged in merriment as barbies sizzled and corks popped. All was now clearly right with the world.
My home for the night – and the remaining three days – was a Maritimo M56 Motoryacht, a gleaming offshore flybridge cruiser designed to envelop its guests in a cocoon of luxury and indulgence.
Every time I’m lucky enough to find myself on or near the water north of the Queensland border, I can’t help wondering why anyone would want to holiday overseas. After all, if you like warm weather, enjoy the feel of pure white sand beneath your feet and don’t mind the idea of swaying in a hammock between palm trees on an idyllic tropical island, why would you go anywhere else? Which is precisely why I didn’t.
The phone call came in the middle of a particularly wet and bleak Melbourne winter and it instantly snagged my attention with the promise of warmth and watery-flavoured activities.
On the other end of the line was Maritimo’s PR maestro, Denby Browning, a man of considerable persuasiveness, but who hardly needed to use any of it on this particular occasion.
“We’re having a Muster and you will attend,” was my recollection of the conversation.
MAKING THE MOST
A Maritimo Muster is all about making the absolute most of what the Gold Coast-built luxury cruisers have to offer. Owners are encouraged to sign up for a week or two of ‘mustering’, which generally involves following a lead boat north up the east coast to some exotic destination, along the way experiencing the Australian coastline from the outside in. A Muster is also an opportunity for inexperienced skippers and their families to learn more about the capabilities of their boats and gain confidence as they hone the various skills needed to safely navigate large, powered craft offshore.
Months of planning go into the annual events, with the factory providing an experienced skipper and crew on a lead boat to shepherd the fleet along the way. In this case, we were lucky to have the very experienced Greg Alward (see Master of the Muster, p152) as admiral of the fleet, ably assisted by ‘social coordinator’, Lissa Morris and ‘assistant skipper’, Hans DeWaard.
The M56 proved to be an ideal craft for the mission. A spacious and elegantly appointed boat, it is a classic entertainer in the typical user-friendly Maritimo mould. It boasts plenty of living, dining and recreational room, with a large extended flybridge with enough space to accommodate a sizeable crew when underway. Access to the bridge is via a portside internal staircase.
The expansive saloon and galley are bathed in natural light, while the accommodation spaces are generous, consisting of a three-cabin, two bathroom layout, including a large owner’s stateroom with ensuite, forward V-berth and two-bunk cabin to starboard, the latter two serviced by a dual-access bathroom.
All-up, it would be hard to imagine a better equipped platform for our purposes, although virtually every model had its own devotees in the fleet when it came to cruising credentials.
STARTING IN SYDNEY
This year’s Muster originated in Sydney in mid-September, although Musterers had come from as far afield as Melbourne to join in the fun. The ultimate destination was Port Hinchinbrook, between Cairns and Townsville, with plenty of stop-offs along the way to pick up and drop off extra boats.
A total of 24 boats signed up, with around 100 people in total making the most of their time on the water in some of Australia’s most exotic and beautiful coastal locations.
Gerald and Amanda Cummings, and their three small children, bought their Maritimo M48, Man Cave only weeks before the start of the Muster. It was their first big boat and the Muster provided a steep learning curve for their new cruising career. And from what we saw, they definitely made the most of the opportunity.
Kim and Robynne Chounding, on the other hand, are veterans. In fact, Kim replaced his M52 with a brand new Aegean 60, Kokomo, after last year’s Muster.
“This is our third Muster and, once again, it has been great,” he said. “Greg Alward does a great job with tips about the areas we are travelling in.”
It was my mission to join the Muster at Rockhampton, being expelled three days later at Hamilton Island. Along the way, we would explore remote stretches of our northern coastline, as well as venturing offshore to visit various islands and anchorages.
Accompanied by the aforementioned Mr Browning, I had earlier flown into Rockhampton and grabbed a lift out to Keppel Bay Marina at Yeppoon, where we were met by Greg and crew on the M56. Two hours – and several humpback sightings – later, we motored into Shoalhaven Bay, a military exercise area that, fortunately, appeared to be mostly devoid of flying bullets and shrapnel during our stay.
The following morning Greg briefed the fleet via radio on the day’s activities bright and early and we were soon motoring out of the bay on a northerly course, our destination for the day being the Percy Islands, which are part of the Northumberland Group, south-east of Mackay. Our passage was occasionally interrupted by more humpback whales, which seemed to delight in putting on spectacularly athletic displays for their suitably impressed passing audience.
With a few hours of daylight to spare, the fleet eventually pulled into the anchorage in West Bay off Middle Percy Island, a welcoming oasis for visiting cruisers and yachties for many years. Once we’d dropped the pick, we ventured ashore to explore the famous ‘A-house’, which was constructed by local identity, the late Andy Martin, who bought a pastoral lease on the island in 1964 and stayed on for the next 33 years (see Visitors welcome … again p148).
Martin was a larger-than-life identity incruising yachting circles and warmly welcomed visitors to the island, providing them with island-grown fresh produce in exchange for provisions and a bit of company.
The A-frame has provided shelter and a social focus for visiting sailors and boaties for many years, with thousands of eclectic artifacts, memorabilia and knick-knacks finding their way onto the walls and ceilings of the two-storey structure. While we added a flag from this year’s Muster to the collection, skipper Greg was disappointed to see that flags left commemorating three previous Muster visits had been removed. ‘Industrial espionage’ is suspected …
Visitors welcome … again
Discovered by Captain Cook in 1770, Middle Percy Island was first settled by Europeans in the 1850s and became a provisioning stop-over for passing vessels. A homestead was built near the permanent water supply in the the 1870s by Colonel Armitage and rebuilt by the White family in 1921. It became known as a haven for visiting yachties when eccentric Englishman, Andy Martin took up the pastoral lease on the island in 1964. During his 33 years on Middle Percy, Martin built an A-frame (dubbed the ‘Percy Hilton’) and the ‘Tree House’ on the beach at West Bay to offer shelter to visitors and he was always ready and willing to give hospitality to passing sailors. He also offered a fresh food provisioning service, with such delicacies as goat and peacock meat, fresh eggs, fruit, vegetables, honey and bread available, while he could also conjure up a meal at short notice for hungry visitors.
Queensland couple, Liz and Jon Hickling became involved in the Middle Percy saga when they moved to the island in 1989 to help Martin maintain the historic island subsistence lifestyle of livestock and produce. They brought up their sons, Jacob and Justin during their 12 years on the island, and while Martin promised to pass the lease on to them, events eventually curtailed the transfer.
In his later years, Martin was forced back to his native England due to ill-health and his lease was taken under dubious circumstances by a former island visitor, Mick Cotter. The Hicklings decided to move on during Cotter’s ultimately successfully-contested occupation. During this time, food production on the island ceased and visitors weren’t encouraged to feel welcome.
Cotter’s hold on the lease was finally wrested back in the District Court in 2008 by Andy Martin’s cousin, Cate Radclyffe, who had first visited Andy in 1985. She returned to the UK to study environmental sciences, with hopes of settling on the island. Cate became an Australian citizen in 2000 and cared for Andy until he died in 2003, after entrusting her to preserve the ecology of the island.
These days, the island has been declared a national park, under the authority of the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service. Initial worries that the whole island would become off-limits to visiting yachties have been allayed, with some of the original area occupied and developed by the Armitages, Whites, Andy Martin and the Hicklings now set aside as a nature conservation park; meaning visitors still have free access.
Radclyffe, with a dedicated group of island enthusiasts, has reclaimed the historical infrastructure, including re-roofing the A-frame to protect the nautical memorabilia, as well as refurbishing the Tree House. Other projects include renovating the jetty and boatshed on the lagoon and re-roofing the homestead with the aim of preserving the traditional island lifestyle for future visiting yachties.
“The area finalised under our management includes the long and short paths to the Homestead from West Bay, thereby allowing for visiting dogs,” said Radclyffe. “The EPA has also reassured us the coconut trees will remain at West Bay. We enjoy people paying us a visit at the homestead after leaving their boat names for posterity at the famous A-frame.
“Information on the Island is readily available to read as well as purchase,” she added.
“People have always loved to have their pina coladas with freshly grated coconut and goat stew down on the beach and we will hopefully be able to continue to offer our famous five-star service.
“All that we ask is that they give us some notice that they’re coming and we are happy to welcome them for meals or refreshments in exchange for a donation or some help or resources so we can continue to maintain this wonderful community resource.”
Anyone wishing to visit can telephone (07) 4951 0993 or email email@example.com in advance, or call in on marine radio channel 10.
Behind the main beach is an enchanting little hidden, mangrove-fringed lagoon, which can provide all-weather shelter for visiting boaties. There is also a rustic tree-house on the hill behind the A-frame for visitors to overnight in if they wish.
We took the opportunity to make the 1.6km walk up to the homestead perched on top of a hill overlooking the island, and were greeted by Steve Johnston, who was in the middle of some maintenance work when we arrived. Johnston has a long connection with the island, his father having been the lighthouse keeper for many years, and he happily dropped what he was doing to fill us in on the island’s history and provide a refreshing cold drink.
That night was spent mostly boat-hopping, with Musterers taking the opportunity to compare notes and see how the other half lived.
The next port of call was Mackay, a trip that ended up taking a little longer than anticipated due to unseasonal sea mists, which cloaked the approach to the port city for the last 20km or so. Somewhere inside the thick fog were several coal ships that lay at anchor offshore waiting for their call to load up, so we had to make our approach carefully. Eventually, we all tied up at the large and modern marina facility and a nearby restaurant did a roaring trade that night as Musterers did their best to contribute to the coffers of the local community.
Master of the Muster
Greg Alward has skippered the last four Maritimo Musters.
Basically, all Maritimo Musters are the fault of one Greg Alward. A Maritimo support skipper, he could quite easily have been the stunt double for the skipper on Gilligan’s Island. His large frame and commanding voice tend to dominate all Muster proceedings and when he talks, most Musterers soon learn that it pays to listen. And that’s because he’s been doing what he’s been doing for a long time.
Alward spent his childhood on the waters of Victoria’s Port Phillip Bay, as well as the Gippsland Lakes, and eventually found his way to Hamilton Island, where he’s resided for the past 20 years. Since then he has, not surprisingly, logged up a bit of time around the Whitsundays and, in a long career, first with Riviera and more recently with Maritimo, has covered a lot of coastal miles as a delivery skipper. So he feels quite comfortable driving large boats up and down the coast.
He was, therefore, the obvious go-to guy when Maritimo ran its first Muster back in 2007. That first year saw Alward shepherd a mere five boats through the northern waters, but each year has seen the fleet increase, with the most boats under his command at any one time numbering 18. From humble beginnings, the Muster has grown in terms of the number of boats each year and the numbers of family and friends who attend.
As Greg explained, the planning for each Muster begins around March or April, prior to the Sanctuary Cove International Boat Show, where recruitment begins in earnest. Word is sent out to all registered Maritimo owners, while Greg sets about working on the details that need to be set in stone before the first boat leaves its berth.
This year’s Muster began in Sydney with a handful of boats following him out of The Heads before turning left to pick up the rest of the fleet as they cruised their way up the coast.
But while Alward has his hands more than full once the Muster is underway, it’s the work that he does prior to the event that makes all the difference and ensures that all Musterers can make the most of their adventure.
“I start organising all of the marinas in March,” he explained. “I give them the heads-up that the Muster is on and give them the dates that we’re going to be visiting and the number of berths we’ll need. I also speak to several of the Volunteer Marine Rescue people to let them know when we’ll be in their areas.
“Once we’ve got an idea of our numbers, I then make sure that there will be enough fuel at the different marinas and have to make sure enough time is allowed for everyone to refuel.
“By the time we’re two weeks away from leaving, I’m probably speaking to the marinas almost on a daily basis, and I have to say they all provide warm and friendly assistance along the way.
“Then, as far as the actual trip goes, we have to allow for things like tides at various points we pass through. For example, you don’t want to get caught out at low tide going through places like the Sandy Straits or leaving the Broadwater to Moreton Bay.
“Really, there are literally dozens of variables we have to allow for, and that includes the weather, which can make a big difference from day to day.
“The Muster itinerary has to be flexible and has to include various lay days at different ports of call so that, in the event we lose a day or two due to adverse weather along the way, we can make it up elsewhere.
“If the weather conditions aren’t favourable for anyone, then we don’t go. We have a policy of staying and waiting out bad weather. I wouldn’t expect a boat owner with a wife and kids or another couple on board, who aren’t familiar with ocean voyaging, to persevere with uncomfortable conditions, So you’ve got to allow for all that.”
Assessing individual skill levels for first-timers is critical to the smooth running of each Muster, he said.
“I make sure I’ve got time to speak to everyone on the Muster before we go. This includes a briefing at the ‘Welcome Aboard’ dinner. I ask the ones who haven’t done a Muster before what boating experience they’ve had, what boats they’ve owned before and if they’ve done much ocean cruising. There have been several participants who have stepped up from ‘tinnies’ to various Maritimos and have not ventured further than the Broadwater or their home waters.”
He said that, for inexperienced owners and skippers, Musters can provide an ideal opportunity to learn skills and gain experience and confidence under expert guidance.
“For the owner of one boat, leaving Pittwater for the start of the Muster was also their very first day on the water. We went from Pittwater to Port Stephens and I prearranged for the owner to very carefully and gingerly come into the end of the marina arm; there I jumped on his boat and parked it for him.
“The second time we came into Coffs Harbour and I met him at the end of the dock, but I got him to park it while I stood next to him at the controls and gave him a bit of ‘on the job’ training. We did it a couple of more times at different marinas and after a while I could see that he’d picked it up quite well and his confidence had obviously grown along the way.
“The last thing I want to see anyone do on a Muster is chip their fibreglass or ding, not only their boat, but someone else’s boat.”
Picking up seamanship skills is also another benefit for relative cruising novices, says Alward.
“Learning to handle a boat at sea is another area where we can see improvement as we go along.
“We had one owner who was obviously travelling slowly in a following sea and dropping way back behind the fleet. So I got on the radio and asked him where he was and what speed he was doing and when he told me I said, “Your boat must be wallowing all over the place,”
and he said “Yep”. I told him to increase his speed to around 23 knots and trim the bow accordingly.
“About 25 minutes later, he’s up alongside and overtaking, doing 26 knots and telling me how much better his boat felt and how well it was tracking.”
As skills and confidence grow, many skippers and families become more independent and, Alward said, many make the decision to stay on at their final destinations and explore the coast and islands in their own time. Most of those who finally made it all the way through to Port Hinchinbrook on this year’s Muster have left their boats at Hamilton Island and plan on returning to cruise the Whitsundays, minus their Muster Master, said Alward.
The social side of the Muster is equally important, he says, particularly the relationships that develop as the event unfolds.
“For me, one of the most satisfying aspects of what we do is seeing the fellowship at the marinas and the friendships that develop along the way, as well as watching and listening to everyone sharing their skills and knowledge, plus using their boats for what they were designed for. That’s really what it’s all about.”
Most days involve only about three to four hours cruising, with plenty of time left for exploring reefs, beaches or islands once the fleet is at anchor. If the day’s destination is a marina, Musterers can take the opportunity to top up on food and provisions.
Alward doesn’t suffer fools easily, particularly when safety is involved, but given his role as Master of the Muster, he has, on occasion, had to resist inflicting discipline on some of his more ‘troublesome’ charges.
“Occasionally I’ve had to get on the radio to stop someone running into a sand bar or T-boning an island, but in the four years that we’ve been doing this I’m proud to say we’ve never had to ask for outside assistance for any incidents.”
Alward was also quick to point out that every Muster is a team effort. Apart from his hard-working crew of on-site mechanics, Hans DeWaard and Lissa Morris, the support from the team at Maritimo’s head office in Hope Harbour on the Gold Coast is crucial to the success of each Muster.
“I really feel honoured to be assisting Maritimo with each Muster,” he said. “The management, staff and boat builders all play a part in the success of each Muster, and, of course, we couldn’t run them without the magnificent boats that come out of the factory.”
By this stage of the Muster, most crews had well and truly succumbed to the ‘live-aboard lifestyle’, the symptoms for which include a general muscular malaise and a peculiar dissolving of the tensions and stresses of everyday onshore life. Politics, religion and the price of bread had ceased to have any conversational relevance and the most pressing issues confronting most of us were whether to apply sunscreen before or after breakfast or whether to dine in the saloon or cockpit. Decisions, decisions …
Onward and upward, we continued our voyage the following morning, this time headed due north, our final destination – and my departure point – being Hamilton Island, capital of the Whitsundays.
This leg of the Muster saw us weaving our way through the Cumberland Islands, directly to the south of the Whitsundays.
I am not ashamed to confess that I abandoned Greg and crew at the start of the day to join fellow Melburnites, Stuart Boam and partner Margie on board their Maritimo 500 Offshore Suzie B. Margie’s reputation for salad wraps won me over, while Stuart’s broad Scottish accent and determination to never let a guest’s glass go empty tipped the balance. In the end, I felt vindicated on both counts and enjoyed immensely the last day of my Muster aboard Suzie B. It highlighted for me the whole social focus of the Muster – people meeting people from different backgrounds, bound together by their love of boating and the marine lifestyle.
“Every day has been different,” said Stuart when we reached Hamilton Island. “We were going to do this trip anyway, but when we heard about the Muster, we joined immediately. It’s much more fun doing the voyage in company.”
More than any other part of my time on the Muster, this last leg illustrated to me the value of being part of a group led by an accomplished and knowledgeable skipper, like Greg. At times, our group, which was now down to 13 boats, was forced to stretch line astern as we snaked our way through complex channels and waterways that wove their way through the islands. Without Greg’s detailed local knowledge, navigation in the area for newcomers might have been a chore, rather than an opportunity to soak up the area’s stunning natural beauty. He also provided fascinating tidbits of history on the radio as we cruised past each local landmark, enriching the experience for everyone on the Muster.
All too soon, it seemed we had Hamilton Island on our bow, the locals, pre-warned of our approach, lining Catseye Bay with cameras in hand to record the armada’s triumphant arrival. There was nothing left to do but tie up in the marina, secure the boat, savour the first tantalising taste of liquid refreshment, and admire the rich burnt colours of a tropical sunset. Somewhere nearby, the sound of laughter echoed across the water as fellow Musterers recounted the day’s adventures.
The Muster attracted a fleet of 24 boats in total, some of which completed the entire three-week voyage. For a few adventurers, the 2010 event was their third or fourth Muster and for a few, it was their first.
Meantime, I’m hoping the phone will ring again next year with another offer I can’t refuse …