Boat caught in eye of cyclone cruises home

Eviota had to anchor off Whitehaven Beach in the aftermath of Cyclone Debbie before it could return to Airlie Beach.
Eviota had to anchor off Whitehaven Beach in the aftermath of Cyclone Debbie before it could return to Airlie Beach. Contributed

GETTING caught in the eye of a cyclone would come close to every skipper's nightmare but for Derek Shields it was just about guiding his ship home.

Mr Shields and his team were conducting scientific marine life surveys for Reef Life Survey aboard a Leopard 40 catamaran on Lihou Reefs, 230 nautical miles ENE of Airlie when Cyclone Debbie formed.

"We were aware of it but the prudent thing to do is to see where it's going to go... so we stayed where we were," the Eviota skipper said.

"When it began forming above us we stayed put anchored in the NE corner of Lihou Reefs until she started to move."

The cyclone passed over the crew, which consisted of three divers and Mr Shields in their 40ft catamaran, on the night of March 24.

"During the time we were in the cyclone it was a category 1 then 2. The maximum wind speed we saw on our gauges was 62 knots during our first night but mostly it was too wet and bumpy to bother about checking wind speed that night," Mr Shields said.


A map of Eviota in the eye of Cyclone Debbie.
A map of Eviota in the eye of Cyclone Debbie. Google Earth

Mr Shields said they waited for the right moment before slipping through the reef. They then sailed SE at right angles to the cyclone's course until they were safely outside the damaging winds, before turning SW and following her to shore for the next four days.

"After that we kept outside the 40 knot winds, when the winds increased we sailed away, when they decreased we followed. The maximum wave height we saw was about 7m but the seas were very confused and the big waves were sharp peaks where two or three waves crossed each other. Most of the time the seas were 3 to 5m," Mr Shields said.

Mr Shields said they "mostly slept" as the cyclone passed over them.

"It was an uncomfortable few days but we were never in danger," he said.

The skipper said they had no idea of the destruction caused by Cyclone Debbie until they hit the shores of Airlie Beach on the Friday following following the cyclone when it was finally safe to return.

"When we got to shore and saw the devastation Debbie had caused we knew we had avoided the worst and were very sad for the people of the lovely town of Airlie Beach who had been hit so very badly," he said.

"We got off the boat and saw devastation and shocked faces. Some of the people at the marina were like walking zombies.

"The safest place to be during a cyclone is at sea or nowhere near it. We didn't go through anything like people on shore went through."

Eviota is now back in the hands of Whitsunday Escape, who Mr Shields said had been very supportive. Eviota was even back out on charter on Thursday.

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