Surviving the Great Barrier Reef Expedition

First open ocean test sail
First Open Ocean Test Sail
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’m placing 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 want to see if I can 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 my plan anyway!

I’ve just spent an entire year building 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. It’s a double outrigger sailing canoe which blends traditional Aboriginal design with western boat building techniques.

Killing wood borers with fire
Scooping out the inside

I’ll be wearing full 19th century sailors clothing (standby for some funny looks at the boat ramp!) and surviving with other items Morrill mentioned as having. These include 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 too hope to benefit from this knowledge so I’ll be visiting Aboriginal communities along my route. I also want to hear from them how life and the environment has changed since Morrill become the first white resident of Far North Queensland 175 years ago.

I’m hoping to sail amongst the reefs where possible (less crocs there!), sleeping on islands or anchored behind reefs. I may hug the mainland at times too, especially when searching for water or when weather and sea conditions dictate. I may have to wait weeks at a time for strong winds and large seas to blow over.

Fitting the rudder
First sail test

I’ll be filming the expedition with the latest drones and camera technology. It could take up to 4 months and I’ll have no support from the outside world other than occasional bushtucker hunts with Aboriginal people. It’ll be a huge challenge keeping everything working and charged up on solar power. When I’m finished (hopefully successfully!) I’ll produce a feature film, Youtube series and conduct a national roadshow tour with the film and canoe.

If you’d like to be notified when I release the film about my ‘Surviving the Great Barrier Reef Expedition’ please join my mailing list. Please also consider following me on FacebookInstagramYoutube or Twitter as you’ll see snapshots of how it’s all progressing (except when I’m on the expedition. I’ll be in the middle of nowhere with no phone coverage or time to post because surviving is a full-time job!).

Watch a short time-lapse of the dugout build to rock music!

or, watch the full (39 min) narrated video of the build.

Media Coverage


Outback Mike’s Solo Sail in Homemade Dugout Canoe – Port Stephens Examiner, Newspaper Article, Feb 2021


Following the Trail of a Shipwreck Survivor The Project (Channel 10), TV interview, Jun 2021


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