Unnerved at Norman Reef

It all started as planned: a nice sail goose-winged from Michaelmas Cay, picked up a public mooring at the southwest end of Norman Reef, lunch while waiting for low tide. So far so good.

Colours of Norman Reef
The commercial reef platform

Then it is snorkel time: the mooring is really close to the extensive reef so all we have to do is jump in the water from the back of the boat. Our first impression is that Norman Reef is showing more cyclone damage than other reefs we had been to, with areas of rubble and grey colourless coral. This might be because we are at the southern, more exposed end of the reef. We thought we’d start here and explore the centre and northern end over the next few days.

We observe the usual assortment of fish and coral but this time there are a few bigger fish species as you can see from the slide show below.

Further away from the edge, in deep water you see pelagic species: the very odd looking Humptop Unicornfish, Bluefin Trevallies, Barracudas.

Humpnose Unicornfish

We are both very conscious Norman Reef is huge, and with clear water it is deceptively deep around the edges. But there is also a maze of gutters, some of which meander through very shallow areas where the coral heads stick out of the water, while others lead to dead ends. It is vast, a little more daunting than usual, especially in the chop and wind, and we continually surface to check our position in relation to Anui.

Coral heads at low tide
One of the many trenches
Coral Trout hiding

Back on board we tidy up after the dive, I develop our photos, then we relax and pretty soon the afternoon is gone. Onto dinner and watching TV.

Suddenly, we hear a weird noise, then the anchor alarm on our AIS screams at us… But we are on a mooring?? Well not anymore! Wade checks the bows, mooring rope attached to the boat at one end, but no longer to the buoy at the other end! Shit, we are drifting… fortunately away from the reef, at high tide, beam to the wind! By this stage of course it’s pitch dark, 8.45pm and you can’t see a thing! Why do these dramas always happen at night?

Moving around at the reef in total darkness is a recipe for disaster, so we have no intention of re-anchoring, we are out of here! Engines on, Nav gear on. With nothing but reefs on one side, the only safe spot to head for is southwest towards Cairns. Track plotted, auto pilot on, we are motoring straight into 16 knots of wind for the 40 miles trip back. It is 2 am when we reach Mission Bay – how apt is that name – just in the shelter of Cape Grafton, where we drop anchor at a spot we had stayed at and marked a week or so before. It is shorter and safer than attempting to anchor at the skating rink in front of Cairns proper.

Later that morning we reported the incident to the GBR Marine Parks, which was a drama in itself: so hard to find the right department and someone from Queensland Parks & Wildlife to pick up the mooring rope!

So the upshot of it all: the splice on the mooring rope was not constructed properly and came undone. The mooring was designed for up to 22m multihulls, we are 16m, and rated for a maximum wind speed of 34 knots. It was blowing at 15 -18.

A poorly spliced mooring rope gave way!
Marine Parks picked up the offending rope a few days later in Cairns!

What have we learnt? You use public moorings because they are practical to tie up to, normally stress free and help protect the reef from anchor chain damage. They are supposed to be well maintained. We always dive on the mooring to check the state of it, but neither of us ever check the splice!

Should we anchor? If you use your own ground tackle you know what you have got and the state it is in. But sometimes anchoring at the reef is difficult: deep water, bommies… We don’t know what the answer is! One thing is for sure, you might feel a bit stupid setting an anchor alarm on when you are attached to a mooring, but at least if the thing breaks, you are alerted!

All is well that ends well! We went back out to Michaelmas Cay for a few days and are now back in Cairns getting ready for a last dash northward probably to Low Isles. More on this in a later post!

14 thoughts on “Unnerved at Norman Reef

  1. Wow! I’m glad Anui didn’t run aground guys! What a disaster that would have been. Navigation at night is always scary, I tried that years ago living in Florida. Be safe guys. 😎

    • Hi John, yes it could have been much, much worse. Navigation at night is all fine with modern charting gear but anchoring around reefs is a bit scary, even in daylight! So there was no way we were going to try at night!

  2. Oh. Oh. Oh. Very glad to know you are okay! We hardly ever use mooring buoys – we generally trust our anchor more – except of course when it isn’t working. But I do note we are careful about where we put it. We are also a heavy boat and a lot of the buoys aren’t rated for us (I have to calculate the difference – e.g. a mooring rated at 40 knots for an 18 tonne boat (as in Mangles Bay, WA) should be for us….etc). Safe Sailing… the low Isles is lovely – the coral we saw (soft) very pretty (was three years ago) and very accessible.

    • Hi Trish, we always use public moorings at the reef if there is one. But at 9.5 tons we are a lot lighter than you! Looking forward to Low Isles.

    • Yes a bit of a shock, could have been nasty! But all ok and it did not stop us from picking up another mooring at Michaelmas Cay… although the anchor alarm was on! 😊

  3. Phew, I was there! Got caught up with the drama of your tale ….. well done for making some fast and wise decisions!

  4. What a challenge Norman Reef was. Very scary. In spite of that it looked beautiful shame about the damage. Stay safe

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