Solway Lass and the Great Barrier Reef

The Solway Lass is a historic tall ship cruising the Whitsunday Island.

Solway Lass

The “Stina’ as she was first called was built of German Blue Steel in 1902 in Holland for a German Shipping Company to be used as a coastal trader in the rough North Sea. Renamed “Adolf”, she was seized by the British at the start of WW1 and used as a Q ship. Q ships were innocent looking trading vessels the British used in order to lure German submarines to the surface so they could be destroyed. After the war the vessel was sold to a shipping company in the Solway Firth where she was renamed as “Solway Lass” and again used as a cargo ship. During WW2 she was taken back by the Germans who used her as a supply ship but were stupid enough to damage the ship when she was hit by a German mine while leaving harbour! Her hull was damaged but the crew managed to move her to shallow water and to repair her. A Danish company bought her after the war, renamed her “Sundeved” and used her in the South Pacific as a coastal trader until the 1980s. From there she was sold to an Australian business man who planned to invest over $1 million and use her as a restaurant ship in Sydney harbour. This venture failed as the restaurant guests were seated below deck, meaning there was no view to be enjoyed.

First sunset

In the late 1990s the ship was bought by Australian Tall Ship Cruises and has been used as a touring vessel in the spectacular Whitsundays since then. As ship lore has it, there are numerous stories about the Solway Lass, such as her running aground in 1937 whilst sailing to Dublin loaded with coal. Her cargo had to be unloaded in order to refloat her which allowed the locals to help themselves to coal to see them through winter. At one point her hull was reinforced and she was used as an ice-breaker! As any decent tall ship should be, Solway Lass is haunted. When she was fitted with an engine in the 1950s, Captain Andersson was overcome with fumes when he inspected the engines below deck. He fell and died. The story has it that the crew abandoned ship and the Solway Lass floated crewless for two years in the Irish Sean, eventually turning up on an Irish beach. The ghost of the captain haunts the ship to this day. Another story was that she was deliberately sunk and later refloated in Fiji by her first Australian owner in order to flush out all vermin so that she would comply with strict Australian quarantine laws. She was also apparently used as a floating brothel in Sydney. Roddy really liked this story. My house in Troon was built in 1900 and, studying the deeds I formed a picture of some of the inhabitants before me, but I think much more happens on board a ship than would ever happen in a wee Victorian Semi.

Going on board

The Whitsundays are a group of islands off the Queensland coast at the inner fringes of the Great Barrier Reef. At Airlie Beach we set up camp in gecko. The old woman at reception judged us as being old farts like her, so she told us that we should have booked our tour with her as the Solway Lass was known for being a party ship for youngsters “dooffdooffdooff” and that the food was horrible “no real meals, just snacks”. I thought that was really rude of her as we had booked the tour and, of course, her words cast doubt over our plans, spoiling them a bit.  So I told her that I would rather be on a ship with a range of ages than on a pensioner ship eating scones. She gave me a “surprised” look!

Our itinerary mapped out
Captain Glen

In the end the 27 passengers were mostly Germans, English and Scottish with ages ranging from 20-70. There was a Scottish- Canadian couple and a couple from Canberra who were both similar ages to us. Apart from that an Irish doctor, a Swiss couple, and three generations of a family of women originally from Paisley, three lawyers, a policewoman with a complicated love life who works in CID, an introvert French joiner who had just finished a stint in Antarctica, two English school leavers who fancied a busty, loud and lusty German lawyer, and a young woman who works in animal conservation near Liverpool. We fitted right in!

We made new friends!
Life on board the Solway Lass

The crew of 6 comprised of Captain Glen and Gunny the Bosun. On deck duty was the gorgeous Aneuran of English and Caribbean heritage, who was named after Aneuran Bevan, the Welsh Labour minister of health who instigated the NHS. Aneuran’s mum loved the NHS so much that she named him after its founder. There were the Belgian barman Bill, Harvey in the kitchen who looked like Alan Rickmann as the Sheriff of Nottingham, and his sidekick Nat, a lovely Spanish girl who was hoping to find a way to stay in Australia.

Aneuran readying himself to catch a rope

This tour was a major highlight for both of us. I mean, the Great Barrier Reef, right? We were on board for two nights and I now think I am made for living on a sailing ship. During the day we sailed round some of the islands, stopping at snorkelling spots to see coral and tropical fish. It was like being in an aquarium! I used the GoPro Paul bought me at some point but under water it was quite hard to see whether it was on or off. I do have footage but I think I got the on-off functions the wrong way round… so the best bits will have to stay in my memory and that’s ok with me.

Roddy and others on the way back to the big boat

Towards sunset the Captain dropped the anchor and we sat eating, drinking, chatting and watching the sunset while lying in the cargo nets at the bow of the ship, suspended above turquoise waters. One of the most romantic and relaxed things you could dream of doing. The sense of freedom was beautiful.

The cargo nets. Climbing over the bow took a bit of courage at first.

At the bow next to the cargo nets there was also a Tarzan rope swing from which you could swing into the water. So the idea was to hold on to the rope and to swing out in a graceful arch, perhaps do an athletic twist and a charming wave to those on deck, before gliding into the water. I made two attempts but, I am afraid, sack of potatoes describes my performances more accurately. Must work on my upper body strength. Jane saw the video. You won’t! She was howling!

This wasn’t me. I took the photo whilst sitting on the paddleboard.

As it was stinger season (stingers are venomous jelly fish) we wore the stinky wetsuits. They were stinky because they never get the chance to dry out, are stashed quite close to one another and, well what ya gonna do when you need to pee? Go back on board, peel yourself out of that second skin and stumble to the loo, then squeeze yourself back into the wet clingy plastic? No you wouldn’t. So there.

Another lovely sunset
The anchor didn’t want to drop until the Captain took a hammer to it.
On board. Those pool noodles are great for relaxed snorkelling. Just put them under your arms and they keep you in a very comfortable position.

Snorkelling amongst the fringing reef was amazing. The colours are not as astounding as on the outer Barrier Reef but nevertheless beautiful. We saw turtles, tropical fish like you see in an aquarium, huge coral of all shapes and sizes. Somehow I managed to supress my fear of sharks. At one point I thought about it whilst under water but I was actually so happy that I thought, so what? There was a paddleboard on board the ship so I tried that out for the second time. This one, though, was very light and not very wide so the balance wasn’t so good. You live and learn.

Whitehaven Beach is regularly voted into first or second place as the whitest and most beautiful beach in Australia and it’s a clear contest between it and lovely Lucky Bay down near Esperance in WA. A close call but I think they are quite distinct from each other. Lucky Bay is a beautiful crescent shape. It has a more remote feeling and wild kangaroos on the beach. Whitehaven is more famous and the swirling sands that form when the tide goes out are beautiful. Both have quartz silica sand which squeaks when you walk on it. Roddy and I noticed that Queensland especially is very good at marketing itself, much better than WA, so maybe that’s why Lucky Bay isn’t so well known. Lots of people have seen the photos but they don’t know where it is. Maybe that’s not a bad thing.

Whitehaven Beach
Swirling sands

Whilst stoating about in my stinky wetsuit I was amused at the many young women who, instead of enjoying the natural beauty of the place or splashing about in the water, spent their time getting their Instagram sorted, posing like models with pouting lips painted, bronzed boobs firmly out, body contorted into curves, waves lapping against opened thighs. As soon as the photo was taken, the smile came off and, with the scrutiny of an Anna Wintour, the photo was inspected for failings, to be retaken again and again until the result was plastic perfection. The stress! I’m so glad I’m from a different generation.

Solway Lass

We snorkelled off Hayman island, famous for hosting celebrities in its exclusive resort. Captain Glen told us that Madonna wanted the restaurant cleared, to have it all to herself, but she was refused. Another band was refused entry in their rough rockstar gear and told that they had to wear a tie. So they dutifully returned a little while later dressed in ties, but only their ties. The resort also sports the largest infinity pool in the world. We didn’t have an infinity pool. Instead we had the largest ocean, the Pacific Ocean to snorkel about in.

Some people actually live here!
Some sails at last!
Heading home

For most of our time on the Solway Lass we motored along as there was virtually no wind, but on the last day, as we headed back to Airlie Beach, the captain had some of the sails unfurled. I just loved sitting at the bow looking out and feeling the sun and wind. Don’t think I could go back to being a landlubber. The life on the high seas is for me!

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