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Vol. 18, No. 3: The Abrolhos Islands

As we approached Half Moon Reef, the empty horizon was interrupted with solid lines of swell marching in and wrapping around the northern end of the seemingly infinite submerged reef. Forty miles off of the Australian mainland, there was not a spec of land in sight; agitated by a gusty wind, the overcast skies were reflected in the tumultuous grey matte of endless water as rain squalls threatened to bear down on us.

The shallow patchwork of reefs that comprise the Houtman Abrolhos Islands has a history of sinking boats, and the only safe anchorage was far in the distance. Having kited a solid nautical mile to the lineup, I had lost sight of our vessel and without our lifeline in view, I was overcome with an eerie solitude and feeling of internal caution. Below my board, an abundance of sharks patrolled the interlocking reefs, and above the water, the biggest threat lay in the potential of equipment failure—in that event, the immense ocean would swallow me up in one single, yet inconsequential gulp. Using all my skills in mindfulness, I steered my thoughts away from the risk of becoming yet another victim of Half Moon Reef, a modern-day maritime disaster for the record books. There’s a fine line between overconfident frontier exploration and becoming an unwitting statistic, and during this session, I was performing a tightrope balancing act precisely along that line.

Off the coast of Geraldton in Western Australia, on the edge of the continental shelf, lie the Houtman Abrolhos Islands. The 122 islands are clustered into three main groups—Wallabi, Easter and Pelseart, collectively known as the ‘Graveyards of Ships.’ Spanning 60 miles from north to south, they’re the southernmost coral reef system in the Indian Ocean, and one of the highest latitude reefs in the world. Dutch seafarer Frederic de Houtman accidentally discovered the islands in 1619 en route to what is now Indonesia in pursuit of valuable spices. Along with naming the islands, de Houtman issued a dire warning to other seafarers of the interconnected shallow reefs, which would later claim more than 60 ships in the notoriously treacherous waters of the archipelago. With the closing of Australia’s borders to pandemic travel, my explorer soul was yearning for an adventure, but this time, it would have to be found close to home. Off the grid and unexplored by kite, I had always heard about the relentless weather systems that surround the Abrolhos, a setup that seemed promising for wind and waves. ‘The Islands’ have been on my adventurer radar for a long time, yet accessing the Abrolhos is quite tricky. All of the 122 islands are uninhabited except for a small transient group of licensed fishermen living with their families and deckhands. Curiously void of any tourism infrastructure and with a total ban on camping, the only way to see the Abrolhos is by multi-day boat voyage or day trips in light aircraft—we went for the boat option.

Our crew consisted of salty dog, Mick, the boat owner and skipper, myself and my husband/Aussie windsurfer, Corey Jones, along with Scotty Bauer, a legendary surf photographer and spearfishing hellman. We met Mick many years ago in the Western Australian Outback at a remote surf spot; his lifelong dedication to surfing and boat building made him the perfect captain for a journey into the outer waters. Since the islands are totally isolated, you have to be fully self-sufficient, which means loading up with enough food, fresh water and fuel to last the length of your intended mission. In preparation, we towed a trailer full of provisions and surf equipment from Margaret River, a tedious 8-hour drive north, to Geraldton in the middle of the west coast. After a brief pause, we picked a still morning to cross the Geelvink Channel, Mick gunning the vintage 1989 twinscrew 500HP motor as we exited the safety of the harbor.

LEFT: The history of the Abrolhos Islands is full of shipwrecks. In 1629 the Batavia wrecked and the survivors turned full savage in one of the bloodiest horror stories in maritime history. TOP RIGHT: Mick helps Gabi provision the 44 foot boat with the most important equipment. MIDDLE RIGHT: Gabi makes good use of the Abrolhos’ constant state of squall. LOWER RIGHT: Navigation is a very important skill in the shallow bommie-filled water two hours from the Australian mainland.

Steaming along at 17 knots fully laden, two hours later we spotted brief flashes of white between traveling swells, slowly emerging into sight as solid bands of low-lying bleached strips of land topped with brightly painted boxes. Approaching the Pelseart Group, locally known as the Southern Group, we could make out a mishmash of fibro shanties in a kaleidoscope of colors, some with their own jetties and rainwater tanks; their walls lapped by the sea due to the ever-encroaching waterline. Like the tides, the salty cray fishermen community comes and goes with the seasons. Inhabiting these isolated islands for decades, these hardened fishermen are a special breed and live according to their own unwritten laws—a code that values mateship, respect and hard work; they’re a protective culture not overly keen on visitors.

It didn’t take long for a 50-foot jet engine cray boat to roar out to us from one of the little islands. The skipper perched up on the flybridge was built like a gladiator, every inch of his body covered in tattoos, replete with a massive sea anchor forever inked on his back. “What are youse up to?” He shouted with a tangible hostile intention to tune us for our trespass. But once we explained our kitesurfing and recreational fishing intentions he suggested we be careful, and with a wink, he roared off with gigantic rooster tails erupting from his twin jet engines.

LEFT: With a commercial fishery of western rock lobster, the islands are home to seasonal fishermen living on a patchwork of islands rimmed with coral shingles. UPPER RIGHT: Gabi getting her fish on with a Pink Snapper on the left side and on the right, a Bigeye Tuna, aka the ‘sashimi provider.’ LOWER RIGHT: The brightly colored fibro shanties are often marked with coral cairns left over from the pre-satellite days of navigation.

The afternoon of our first day was wind-still, so Mick took us to the outer edge of the Pelseart Group to catch our dinner. Throwing the anchor into the crystal-clear water, a dark shadow slid beneath the boat. “That was a tiger,” Scotty, who’s an extremely experienced spearfisherman, commented apathetically. Within minutes he had donned his diving suit and jumped off the boat with a loaded gun. While he shot a tasty Baldchin Grouper, our rods went berserk—the fishing was on! Once we had several decent-sized fish on deck, I joined Scotty below the surface on the hunt for crayfish. I was happy to be back on board when Scotty called it quits after a hammerhead came a bit too close, even for his comfort. Anicely sized Bigeye Tuna marked the end of an epic fishing day and set the standard for what was still to come. Built upon a plateau of ancient coral reefs, today’s Abrolhos Islands continue to evolve with the ever-increasing change in sea levels. They cop the full brunt of the swell from the Indian Ocean lows, usually with strong winds averaging 25- 30 knots for most of the year. Yet on some rare occasions, as heat troughs form along the west coast and high-pressure cells ridge in, calm conditions descend upon the islands. Fittingly, the morning of our second day at sea, we were greeted with high pressure and one giant sheet of glass all around. Skipper Mick couldn’t believe his eyes—days like this per year out here could be counted on one hand. Without a breath of wind, the sky and the Indian Ocean around us were resplendent in a hundred shades of pink pastel and our hopes of kitesurfing were put on hold.

By mid-afternoon, we spotted a few whitecaps out towards the west. Determined to make it work, I grabbed my 12m Neo outfitted with 24-meter lines that had the bar already connected. Knowing we probably wouldn’t have any land access for most of the trip, I had prepared four kites back home (6m, 8m, 10m, 12m), each with a bar already attached, ready to be rolled out and launched from out at sea. Boat launches are nerve-racking, but once I got my lines sorted and the kite deployed, the spectacular tour through a field of small coral shingle islands made it all worthwhile. Gliding over spectacular bottom formations, the allure of exploration was stronger than my fear of knocking out a fin box on the super shallow reef below. In the distance and across a deeper channel I spotted more cray fisherman islands dotted with shanty dwellings. With the wind too light to kite upwind to them, I jumped back on the marlin board of our boat, and with my kite still up in the air, I asked Mick to give me a lift over.

TOP LEFT: Boat expeditions require impeccable preparation with pre-rigged kite bars for offshore launches and careful attention to details, like screwing in all your fins. BOTTOM LEFT: Gabi gets ready for a drift launch, being very careful not to tangle her lines. UPPER RIGHT: Gabi turned heads as one of the first kiteboarders to tour the interlocking channels of the Abrolhos’ fisherman community.

Upwind and back under the power of my kite, I weaved through the maze of islands, studying the shacks up close, each structure improvised in its own quirky style and bright colors ranging from pink and yellow to turquoise. The only native building material present was coral shingles that were violently detached from the underwater reefs during big storms. Generations past had piled the calcium fragments into coral cairns, sun-bleached with time and stacked to the size of humans. The cairns would have been essential to mark and locate islands in an age before satellite navigation. The longer I kited around, the more faces appeared—salty, hard cray fishermen, baffled by the visit. I’m pretty certain I was the first kitesurfer to cross their front yards. I smiled and waved; for some, it took a little while, but even the toughest looking cray’o eventually waved back. On our way back to our mooring spot, I discovered one of the most unique island settlements. With a throne made out of gigantic whalebones, a toy plane on a pole as a wind vane and a shallow, sandy natural swimming pool, this was the island I would choose if I could live out here. From clear, glorious light wind, the weather changed drastically overnight; the next morning, we awoke to overcast skies, dark, rough seas and sheets of rain. The last forecast we had downloaded before losing cell coverage indicated this was the day that the swell was supposed to kick in, so we headed out to Half Moon Reef, the most western point of the Southern Group. The southerly wind started cranking on our way to the 14-mile-long reef that forms the protective western arm of the Pelseart Group. The nearest landmass is Mauritius to the west, roughly some 3500 miles away. The swell conditions made it impossible to anchor our boat near the break and the next best option was to head east and thread our way through a narrow channel, avoiding all the submerged bommies, to find entrance into the lagoon. This option was too far away from the break to be considered ‘safe,’ but it seemed like the best of few alternatives. The danger of the situation was undeniable; too many ships have fallen victim to Half Moon Reef in maritime history. In fact, the boiler of the Windsor, an iron steamer wrecked in 1908, still sits on top of the southern end of Half Moon Reef, projecting a good 13 feet above water level. The remainder of the giant ship was carried some 100 feet over the shallow reef—a clear indication of the force of the seas in this area.

To some, kitesurfing out here could be regarded as suicidal. Tacking across to the reef and putting a nautical mile between us and our anchorage was sketchy to say the least, yet things felt a little safer having my husband with me on his windsurfer. Together we surfed one of the most unnerving sessions of our lives in the waves of Half Moon Reef. Over 13 species of sharks patrol the waters of the Abrolhos, with the great white and the tiger at top of the food chain. It gives me chills to think about what could have gone wrong during those hours we tempted fate. Our equipment was our life support, keeping us afloat on an inhospitable frontier. With the boat locked in a maze of coral, we were on our own, totally at the mercy of Mother Nature.

That night we celebrated with another kilo of fresh sashimi and regardless of the rough seas and howling wind outside, I slept the deepest I had in years amidst the sweet rocking embrace of the Indian Ocean. The next morning, the cloud cover had disappeared and the sun popped its little head out. We decided to set course for the Easter Group further north. A good 14 nautical miles into the journey, we spotted a clean left-hander peeling off the southwestern corner of a small, windswept island marked with one coral cairn. The swell from the day before had dropped considerably and so had the wind. I managed to get going on my biggest kite and lined up a few crystal-clear breakers that ran off the point. Milking what was on offer, I eventually gave in as the wind had dropped below 8 knots making it impossible to get back upwind to the break.

With crystal-clear water and an infinite arrangement of sandy atolls and protected bays, the islands offer kiteboarding perfection for those willing to venture two hours off of the Australian mainland.

For what was supposed to be our last night, we set the controls for Wooded Island. After yet another massive fish feed and a few rounds of beers, a big bronze whaler tagged along on the back of the boat, obviously hoping to score some of our dinner; thus, we shared it with him. The following morning, we moored along the southern end of the island with an unexpected mangrove forest in the distance and a sheer transparent lagoon with sapphire water in front of us. To the northeast, we noticed a right-hander starting to break with the rising tide and paddled out to surf the glassiest conditions you could possibly imagine. Western Australia is infamous for its constant wind, so we postponed our departure to surf another day. Getting two super glassy surf days at some of WA’s windiest places was unexpected yet appeasing and almost made up for what was to come.

LEFT: Racing down the line, Gabi scores one of the more playful sessions of the trip on their way to the Easter Group in the north. TOP RIGHT: The Abrolhos Islands are not known for perfect, glassy conditions, but Gabi and crew scored two superb surf days before getting walloped by a storm on their return. BOTTOM RIGHT: Forty miles off of the Australian coast, the commute is long and the breaks are empty.

It was about 3am and pitch dark when I awoke to Mick calling out for help. The weather had changed severely in a matter of hours. It was pissing down rain and the wind was battering the boat with 25 knots. Mick worked frantically in the dark as the anchor dragged and the boat drifted precariously towards dry reef. Literally, just moments before things went horribly wrong, we managed to secure the boat and avoid unspeakable tragedy. When light broke, we hastily pulled anchor and headed back toGeraldton; the collective assessment was that we had pushed our luck. With massive walls of water washing over the front deck and gushing into the cabin, to say the trip back was rough is an understatement.

The Abrolhos Islands are a wild man’s country—a place of beauty and harshness, of light and shadows, of wonder and adventure. Casting off the data connections from modern society, it’s like taking a step back in history to an era when you never quite knew what was around the corner. Nature becomes infinite and powerful, and in such isolated territory, it takes only one poorly timed error in judgment to turn an adventure into a full-blown nightmare. Wherever you look, you see reminders of the power of the sea, the relentless weathering process and the strikingly small buffer these islands enjoy from rising sea levels. Our trip to the Abrolhos frontier gave me a fresh appreciation for Western Australia’s underexplored secrets and reinforced kitesurfing’s potential to satisfy the soul’s deepest yearning for adventure.

This article was featured in our fall 2021 issue, Vol. 18, No. 3. To read more, click here.

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