Surviving the Great Barrier Reef Expedition
The dugout canoe on the Great Barrier Reef during the expedition.
Approximate Dugout Canoe Route
You’re shipwrecked on the Great Barrier Reef. Let’s be honest, it’d be kinda cool right!?
For my ‘Surviving the Great Barrier Reef Expedition’ I placed myself in the historic predicament of 1846 shipwreck survivor James Morrill. After an epic 42 day raft journey from his shipwreck outside the Great Barrier Reef, Morrill drifted ashore south of present day Townsville. Discovered and cared for by the Birri-gubba clan he fully assimilated into Aboriginal society. When the wave of white settlement passed through 17 years later he re-assimilated back into white society.
I wanted to see if I could escape Morrill’s predicament one year after he landed ashore. By this stage he’d recovered from the shipwreck and had learnt the basics of survival from his Aboriginal carers. As a full-time sailor he would have known about the emergency haven set up on Booby Island, Torres Strait by Governor Bligh more than 20 years earlier. Positioned at the northern tip of Australia, passing ships left mail for each other in the aptly named ‘Post Office Cave’. It contained a food chest which kept survivors alive until the next ship stopped by.
The first axe blow on the dugout canoe
Shaping the sides with an adze
Shaping the bow with an axe
So how could Morrill get to this emergency haven? It’s a 1500km journey requiring him to live off the land and sea along a windswept, crocodile infested coastline littered with treacherous reefs? The answer? Build a canoe…………. A bloody big one!!!!!!!!!!!! That’s what I did anyway!
Over 14 months I built a five metre dugout canoe from a four tonne Norfolk pine log in my backyard. I used the same types of tools Morrill brought ashore from his shipwreck. The resulting double outrigger sailing canoe blends traditional Aboriginal design with western boat building techniques.
Killing wood borers with fire
Scooping out the inside
I wore full 19th century sailors clothing and survived with other items Morrill mentioned as having. These included a small water barrel, fishing gear and a possum skin rug he acquired during his time with Aboriginal people.
Morrill’s survival relied on the generosity of Aboriginal people and their willingness to share hunting and bushtucker skills. I also benefited from this knowledge and visited Aboriginal communities along my route. It gave me a different perspective on how life and the environment has changed since Morrill become the first white resident of Far North Queensland 175 years ago.
I sailed along the reef where possible (less crocs there!), slept on islands or anchored behind reefs. I hugged the mainland at times too, especially when searching for water or when weather and sea conditions we bad. I had to wait weeks at a time for strong winds and large seas to blow over.
Fitting the rudder
First sail test
I filmed the expedition with the latest drones and camera technology and had no support from the outside world other than occasional bush tucker hunts with Aboriginal people. It was huge challenge keeping everything working and charged up on solar power. I’m now producing a book and feature film and Youtube series about the expedition and will conduct a national roadshow tour with the film and canoe. Here’s some sneak peak photos from the actual expedition.
Dragging the canoe up a creek on the lookout for crocodiles
I hunted food with a spear and woomera
Throwing a hand caught crayfish on deck
Dolphins off the bow!
Watch a short time-lapse of the dugout build to rock music!
or, watch the full (39 min) narrated video of the build.
An Interview with Outback Mike ABC North Queensland, Jun 2021
TV Interview: Outback Mike Setting Sail Today Show – (Channel 9), July 2021
‘Outback Mike’ sets sail from Townsville to the Torres Strait in a wooden canoe – ABC North Qld – July 2021
‘Adventure of A Lifetime’ Today Show – (Channel 9), August 2021
‘Australian adventurer survives 49 days at sea in a dugout canoe’ Sunrise (Channel 7) August 2021