With its quirky charm, its inspirational captain and its captivating story, the Falla shows the Great Barrier Reef as it deserves to be seen.
Travellers in Cairns are spoilt for choice for the obligatory outing to the Great Barrier Reef. Day trips, overnighters, yachts and party boats, the list goes on. Most of these tours do not do justice to such a momentous destination. They have a very mass produced feel, where patrons are herded like cattle through the natural attractions in numbers so vast, they are likely to miss out on what they are there for in the first place.
I'm here to tell you about something a bit different – the Falla. Built as a pearl lugger in Broome, Western Australia, in the 1950s, this vessel endured a most intriguing and turbulent life before finding its way into the hands of its current owner, enigmatic American Doug Meyer.
A man and his boat
After booking this snorkeling/diving experience in Cairns, we were quite unprepared for what we would find when we arrived at the harbour at 8am on the day of the outing. I believe my girlfriend's exact words were 'will it sink?'
It certainly does look a little unconventional next to the shiny white fibreglass of it's peers. You half expect a skull and crossbones to be hoisted and the captain to have an eye patch and greet you with a hearty 'arrrrr Jim lad!'
It was then that we met Doug.
If there is one man who carries the spirit of the 60s into the 21st century then it's him. Long greying hair, sun-weathered face, a flamboyantly cool persona and an undisguised love for the reef – only a man like this could own this boat.
Once all the patrons had arrived (all eight of us) we hit the sea with everything we had (that being a chugging diesel engine and a massive sail). We were treated to a show of expert seamanship as Doug and his crew sailed the boat old-school style.
Climbing the rigging and swinging the jib, skilfully tapping into the power of the wind and the ocean currents – it was marvellous to watch. Once under way we got a safety briefing with a difference, it went something like this:
'OK everyone this is your captain speaking. I'm going to give a quick safety announcement, please pay attention as this is a pretty old boat. I'll start by showing you how to put on a life jacket. This is the only one on board so we'll do some kinda auction for it should the worst happen. If we need to abandon ship I'll give the order by jumping over the side, if you see me jumping overboard then please follow me quickly. Exits are located all around the sides, just jump and aim for the wet stuff. If you hear a thud, it means you haven't jumped far enough, you need to keep going until you hear a splash. After that try to stay afloat and hopefully the helicopters will arrive before the sharks do. Of course if you have any questions please ask us, and if we don't know the answer then we'll just make somethin' up.'
The first stop was the surprisingly quiet Coral Gardens on the Outer Reef. We were given our flippers and snorkels and essentially told to jump overboard into the swirling briny. It was my first snorkeling experience, but it comes easily enough.
On the surface you are merely bobbing in the ocean, but duck your masked head under the water and it's like peering through a looking glass into another world. Vertigo grips you as you float above cavernous valleys of bright coral. Multi-coloured fish, floundering crustaceans and aloof sea turtles drift around you as if you weren't there. Swim a little and the valleys of coral rise up around you until you have to breathe in to avoid scraping your abdomen. It is quite unreal.
Reluctantly we climbed the ladder back on to the ship for a lunch of sandwiches and cold cuts as we set off to our next destination, the archetypal desert island of Upolu Cay with nothing but sea and sky in all directions.
'We call this bit the aquarium' joked Doug as he ferried us in on his inflatable dinghy.
On the long swim back to the ship, we soon discovered why. Tiny brightly coloured fish hover in shoals of thousands just inches from your face as you swim, changing direction in unison as if they were all controlled by one brain. Larger fish brush past you and playfully slap you with their tails as they scramble for the food being thrown from the ship by the crew.
Heading back to Cairns with beer in hand, we were regaled with the epic tale of the Falla. After her former life as a humble pearl lugger, she found her way to Queensland, initially in the hands of a tour company. Doug was taken on as an employee and, over time, developed a great love for this ship, sailing her daily and getting to know her every creaking timber.
One Saturday afternoon in 2002, whilst taking a well earned day off, Doug received the dreaded DCM (don't come Monday) call. In choppy conditions, the Falla had been run into rocks a few miles off the Queensland coast. Despite the uneventful rescue of her passengers, she sank to the bottom of the sea. It wasn't until the following year that the authorities sent out tugs to drag the remains back to shore.
Heartbroken at the site of his beloved ship in this sorry state, Doug purchased the wreckage and set about restoring it using the masterful ship-building skills he had acquired years ago when living among fishing communities in Jamaica. The work took him two years, through tropical storms and sweltering heat, but he can now claim to have single handedly resurrected this remarkable vessel from her watery grave.
So here's to the Falla, long may her sails heave and her bows crash. And here's to Doug, a sailor and a gentleman, whose engaging stories and cool personality make something as special as the Great Barrier Reef ever more enjoyable.
The Falla Moored at Marlin Marina, Cairns Tel +61 (0)7 4041 2001 ($79AUD per person)
Where to stay
The best hostel in town. From $17AUD per night for a mixed dorm plus a free evening meal at the Woolshed thrown in, it is jaw-droppingly good value. There's a great social atmosphere, showers, kitchen, laundry and pool tables. The matriarch (Gloria) is something of a legend. Chastising you for being noisy one minute, and telling you to loosen up the next. She can often be seen shuffling about the patio with a pool cue in one hand and a roll-up in the other - marvellous.