Tag Archives: Port Stephens

Port Stephens to Camden Haven

The forecast called for southerlies from Friday to Sunday, although there were strong wind warnings for the beginning of the change on Friday morning, along with three metre swells, abating in the afternoon. After that, it looked like we were going to get a nice 15-20 knot SE or S wind which should neatly take us to Coffs Harbour, about 140 miles up the coast.

We accordingly had a leisurely breakfast and spent the morning preparing the boat for sea. This can take a little time but is always a nice way of tidying up. On deck, we dismount the wind generator, reconfigure it as a tow generator, and stow away the fan blades and tail. Then we tie the oars to the dinghy, hoist it on board using a halyard, and tie it down to the fore-deck. Fit the jack-stays, if they aren’t already in place, take down and stow the sun shades, ensure that all the safety lines are secure, and clear the cockpit of clutter. Down below, all the washing up needs to be finished so that we can put away the washing-up bowls, and all loose items stowed somewhere where they won’t move in transit (never wholly successful!). All the hatches and stopcocks must be closed, and the correct charts, wet weather gear, life vests and safety harnesses fetched out.

We set off a little after twelve. There was quite a bit of swell coming in through the heads and we didn’t really want to have the sails up going across the bar, so we gunned the motor and took her through. It was a bit bumpy and we left a trail of smoke, which was a bit worrying; it was the second time that I’d seen engine smoke this trip. Put that on the ‘to do’ list.

Once we were clear of the bar, I went out onto the deck to attach the halyard so that we could hoist the main. This is never a pleasant chore at sea, as you get thrown around a lot and everything gets twisted. A few years back we did try attaching the main halyard early so that we could simply haul up the main from the comfort of the cockpit, but it’s a long and feisty steel cable that swings with a lot of momentum, and it really enjoys wrapping itself around everything in sight. If you leave it alone for a moment, it has a particular affinity for the light cluster half way up the forward side of the mast.

Eventually with some co-ordination between deck and cockpit we disentangled it from the light cluster, put up the sails and headed out to the 50 metre line. The 3 metre swells were definitely very much still in evidence, and not very comfortable in the shallows close to shore, but they got less confused in deeper water and we set a course for the NE and gratefully turned control over to Harriet the Hydrovane.

The wind was actually an easterly, so we were close-hauled and getting a fair bit of water over the deck and some in the cockpit. One made it into the galley while I was getting a drink. We put in the second reef and then, when we hit 9 knots (a new Pindimara record!), the third one. The standard Bavaria 34 doesn’t come with a third reef, and we are always very glad that we thought of having one put in. Far from abating, wind speeds were 25-30 knots and showing no signs of changing.

Petrels skimmed the swells around us, and dolphins showed up to say hello and to play in the bow wave. One scene will always remain in my memory. The swells had opened up, as they sometimes do, into a huge bowl-shaped depression with steep-sided waves on all sides. As Pindimara slid down one of the sides into the bowl, we realised that all the other sides were packed with dolphins, dozens of them, all surfing down into the centre with us.

As afternoon turned to evening, the wind and waves remained constant. We were feeling woozy from eating sea-sickness tablets, and very grateful that Harriet could take care of the steering, which would otherwise have been very hard work. Skandia, the maxi racing yacht and oft-times winner of the Sydney to Hobart, passed us by on the port beam. The Cunard liner Queen Victoria passed on the starboard. Apart from that, it just seemed to be us and the dolphins.


SKANDIA PASSES BY

We shook out the third reef at dusk, because the wind had eased to 20 knots and had swung around to the SE. Maybe we were finally going to get our perfect southerly? I grabbed a couple of hours sleep, and was woken by Bronwyn shouting my name from the cockpit. Rushing out onto the deck, I found her looking at a huge bulk carrier of some kind with very odd navigation lights. We couldn’t figure out which way she was heading, but she certainly didn’t seem to be at anchor. I got out the million candlepower searchlight that we keep for these occasions, and shone it first up at our sail, and then at their bridge. After a while she turned away and we realised that she was showing all white lights at the bow and sides, with red and green navigation lights on the stern. Weird, and very disconcerting. It’s customary to have them the other way around.

We were still travelling very fast, a steady 7 knots, and had cleared Seal Rocks with its associated shoals and reefs. Lightning flickered in the sky ahead, and I checked the BOM (Bureau of Meteorology) website on my phone to see if there was anything up there that we should know about. The forecast was still the same; apparently we should be sitting in 15 knots with 1 metre swells, not 25 knots with 3 metre swells. Ah well, it’s not an exact science. We put the third reef back in.

I took a short video of what it’s like to be travelling in Pindimara at those speeds. Note that I had to take the video during a quiet period when I had a hand free to hold the camera.

VIDEO: RUNNING WITH THE WIND (1.2Mb)

Bronwyn was feeling somewhat the worse for wear and retired to the cabin, while I kept watch under the stars. Occasionally we hit 8 knots; not bad at all for a big fat tub, but our actual speed over ground was a knot or two less because by now we were in the East Australian Current which runs down the coast hereabouts. The usual advice is to stick close to shore to avoid it, but we had cut across a bit too far and the swells made it really uncomfortable to go back inland, so we just lived with it.

A large sailing boat came by in the dark. We did some mutual shining-the-spotlight-on-the-sails to make sure that we each understood what the other one was and where we were going. An hour or so later, another one showed up, this time on a collision course from behind. I had right of way, so I didn’t change course but lit up my sails and played my spotlight over their sails until I heard voices. They got closer and closer, and I realised that it was another maxi travelling very quickly indeed with three enormous sails up. I hovered over Harriet, ready to disengage and take evasive action and a little concerned that they hadn’t flashed me a signal back, but figured that they were professional racers and probably knew what they were doing. She passed about twenty metres off to starboard, enormous genoa eclipsing the stars above me, and as she came level and I called out some cheery greeting, I distinctly heard a voice from the cockpit say “What was that? F__k me, it’s a boat!”

The night passed, and the wind finally dropped as Bronwyn came up to take the dawn watch. It was now definitely a southerly and we furled the foresail and ran on reefed main alone. We needed to get closer to shore, but crossing the line of swell was really uncomfortable and neither of us was feeling too great. We agreed to keep on as northerly a heading as we could, because the shore curves around to the north east and we would intersect with it later.

The only entry in the ship’s log between 07:40 and 10:00 is “Sloppy as all hell. Going backwards?”.

By ten o’clock it was clear that at 25 miles offshore we were far too deep into the East Australian Current. We were travelling at 7 knots, but only making 3 over ground. The wind was a reasonable 15 knots and the swell a mere 1 metre of nothing, but the night had taken it’s toll and we plotted a course for Port Macquarie and an overnight anchorage. Under un-reefed main alone we put the now SE swell behind us, which was much more comfortable except for the odd roller that tried to climb up into the sugar scoop.


A FOLLOWING SEA

We didn’t much like the look of the description of the bar at Port Macquarie, and we’d be unlikely to be crossing it in daylight, so we looked for another option. We consulted Lucas, the definitive cruising guide for the NSW coast, and saw that he recommended an anchorage called Camden Haven, which was a bit closer and was described as having lead lights that were ‘obvious from deep water’. Lead lights are land-based markers that, when aligned, point to safe passage through a shoal or reef. As we emerged from the East Australian Current our speed over ground was picking up, and we could arrive well before sundown. We set course for Point Perpendicular beneath Brother Mountain, which was in fact already visible on the horizon, albeit twenty miles away.


A PASSING PETREL

We arrived at the bar with plenty of time to spare before dark, but unfortunately just before low tide, so we hove to and waited for the water to get a bit deeper. While we were waiting, we cruised up and down to see if we could get the lay of the land and locate the lead lights.

Obvious from deep water, my foot! We easily located the causeway on which the markers were built, but even through binoculars it was clear that the area was littered with structures of various shapes and sizes, and completely unclear which of these were the ones that we needed to line up to get our safe passage. We experimented with a few combinations, but they all seemed to either take us through the solid harbour wall or across the obvious breaking shoal. All the structures were the same colour as the background, and all were obscured by the haze of the setting sun. We went back out to sea and waited for sunset, when hopefully the “real” markers would light up blue and show us the way.


THERE’S A GAP HERE SOMEWHERE

Meanwhile we’d been watching the bar itself, which to our dismay was regularly obscured by huge green rollers with foaming caps. Obviously low tide was not a great time to pass.

Two hours past low tide, at half past six in the evening, the setting sun went behind a cloud and we could suddenly see the correct markers, which were in fact none of the ones that we had considered earlier. This was much better than waiting for them to light up and having to navigate the channel in the dark, so we started the engine (which didn’t smoke at all. Maybe it had just been clearing its throat after weeks of inactivity) and lined them up.

We’d noticed that the big rollers were coming in in twos, so we waited for two to explode over the bar and then powered ahead of the next pair. I surfed half the way on the first one, then picked up the second, dropping off the top just shy of the bar itself as the top started to curl. The wave hit the shoal just in front of us, and as it did, a whole pod of dolphins exploded out of it. They’d clearly joined us for the ride, and were going back to catch the next one. I couldn’t stop to play, though, and dropped through and into the channel, powering up to escape the next roller, and then throttling back to nothing as we came to the shallows. We were through.

An evening with Evie

The long-expected Southerly has apparently been delayed until Friday, so on Thursday we motored over to Nelson Bay to pick up a few supplies and to take our new friend Evie out for a sail. We managed to get the furler jammed when stopping for a salmon and wine lunch in Salamander Bay, and one thing led to another and (after suitable repairs) we ended up drinking the boat dry and then heading back into town for more supplies. We vaguely recollect trying to press-gang Evie into coming with us as crew. We vaguely recall that she almost agreed.


BRONWYN AND EVIE (EARLY IN THE EVENING)

Somehow we ended up anchored outside the marina at Nelson Bay, perfectly positioned for an early escape, if the wind comes.

Fame Cove

The guys at the Noakes shipyard were able to fit us in on Monday morning, and since we’re not expecting the southerly that is our ticket out of here until Thursday, it all fits in beautifully with our plans. The holding tank was a quick and simple job. Naturally, as soon as we had Pindimara out on the hoist, it was immediately apparent that a few more things needed doing. Despite the recent antifoul paint job, we had a good inch of coral which had grown while she was sitting still back at Gibson marina, and I suddenly noticed that when the Bayview marina guys had antifouled our hull, they had neglected to paint the saildrive, which was by now down to the bare metal. Not impressed! But needless to say, Noakes sorted it out.

While all this was going on, we had popped into a local bar for a drink. Our new budget certainly doesn’t run to foreign beers, but we allowed ourselves just one premium $10 German beer on the waterfront, and then we’d head to the RSL for a coldie and a schnitzel (non-Australian readers probably should just ignore that. You don’t want to know. Trust me).

But then it magically happened to be Happy Hour, and it would have been rude not to. And then we met Evie, who had a similar story to ours, to whit she had just left her high powered job to run away to sea, and the evening just seemed to get better.

By the time the Noakes boys had fitted the head tank and attended to all the other little tasks, it was time for them to go home and we were nicely sozzled, so we just stayed tied up inside the lifting cradle and spent the night there.


PINDIMARA ON THE LIFTING CRADLE

On the morrow, I was up bright and early and motored out of the marina to find us a new anchorage, while Bronwyn slept on. I tried a few places, but there was quite a bit of swell, and eventually I just dropped the pick in a channel while we had breakfast and decided what to do next. While we chatted, a northerly blew up and our anchor started dragging, so we hauled it up and used the wind to get to Fame Cove, deeper inside the Port Stephens area.

 
FAME COVE AT DAWN AND DUSK

It really is a lovely spot, and we spent a couple of great days working on our schoolwork. Yes, really! I’m sure that my previous university studies would have gone much more smoothly if I’d been able to do them moored in a private little bay in the sun. Be that as it may, I also took the opportunity between swims to refit a few instruments that I have been “repairing” for the last couple of years, one of which was at the top of the mast so I got to try my snazzy new tool belt, which Bronwyn bought me to stop me from dropping my tools over the side.

 
HAVE TOOLBELT, WILL TRAVEL

The only down side to Fame Cove is the incredible number of house-flies. Our boat is full of them! We can’t figure out what they’re after; they ignore any food that’s laying about, they don’t seem to be interested in water. The only common theme is that whenever Bronwyn opens her MacBook, they all swarm over and sit on the screen. Very strange.

I turned on my telephone, and everybody else seems to have remembered that it was my birthday. Which is great, because I had completely forgotten.

A Magical Interlude

I discovered early on in our live-aboard life that while I have the knack of sleeping through all manner of shipboard noises, if the boat once moves in an unusual fashion or there is any untoward sound, I am awake and on deck in a flash.

At three o’clock this morning I awoke standing in the cockpit in mirror-smooth conditions under a crescent moon. The Milky Way hung above in all its glory, the Greater Magellanic Cloud a splash of white high above. All seemed calm and silent and I couldn’t work out why I was there.

Then right at the edge of my hearing I detected faint music, as if somebody was playing a transistor radio muffled under a blanket. I looked around to see if there were any fishermen on the water or perhaps courting couples on the beach, but there was nothing to be seen. The few houses in the vicinity were dark and quiet.

The volume of the music swelled, and I was able to recognise a violin being played impossibly fast, like a fast Irish jig in double time. After another minute or two, although the music was still very faint, I was able to get a fix on the direction. The sound was coming from the uninhabited mangrove swamp bordering the marine sanctuary. I couldn’t make out any lights at all from the swamp, just this crazy fast dance music.

I began to suspect that I was suffering from tinnitus or the remnants of some dream, and then the music got still louder and a dog in one of the darkened houses barked uncertainly a couple of times. A roosting seabird squawked its disapproval.

I began to recall those old folk tales, where an unwary traveller stumbles upon a party of magical faerie folk, joins in and is welcomed and showered with gold, only to find that when he gets back home a hundred years has passed. I thought idly of getting in the tender and rowing over to the mangroves, which were only a couple of hundred metres away, to see if I could get a better look.

Then, from on high, a big fat white shooting star plummeted from the heavens, straight down into the mangroves and directly into the source of the music… which suddenly stopped.

After contemplating the silence for a few more minutes, I went quietly back to bed.

Shooting Star image borrowed from kstp.com

Salamander Bay: The morning fish fry


PINDIMARA AT DAWN,
WITH SUNSHADES AND WIND GENERATOR DEPLOYED

There’s no sign of another southerly until the middle of next week, and the guys at Noakes are not free to fit our holding tank until Monday, so we’ve settled down to relax for the remainder of the week.

This is no great hardship, because Salamander Bay is a superb and well-protected anchorage. The neighbouring marine sanctuary is packed with life, and every morning the seabirds put on a great display as the bait fish come to the surface.

I’m usually sitting in the cockpit each morning for an hour or so after dawn, catching up on email or reading a book or just sitting and thinking. Then I hear the first characteristic fizzing sound, and the surface starts to boil in a circle a few metres across as the fish begin to jump. I can only assume that they are trying to avoid some predator fish circling below.

The first gulls arrive; they seem to be able to detect the fizzing from far away. They land inside the circle and try to spear passing fish with their beaks.

Attracted by the commotion, the first terns arrive, wheeling fifteen to twenty metres above and then folding their wings to plummet into the water with a signature ‘splosh’, returning to the surface a moment later with fish grasped firmly in their bills.

 

If the fish stay active for more than a few minutes, then a stately pelican will drift over before landing in an unsightly flurry of wings and water, losing no time in cruising through the centre of the disturbance with enormous beak agape, scooping up fish by the litre.

Then as quickly as it began, the fish boil will stop, and all the birds relax and bob on the surface and wait for the next one.

Pittwater to Port Stephens

It was a working weekday morning. Usually when we’ve been out beyond the heads it’s been a weekend or a public holiday, and so it was a slightly eerie feeling to make it all the way through Pittwater and out to sea without seeing a single other boat.

On the other hand, we had plenty of animal company. We surprised a gannet asleep on the surface with its head under its wing, and sighted some others drifting in formation high above the mast. Petrels skimmed the surface all around, scooping fish from the water, and the occasional pelican soared regally past.

Down in the water, we spotted a good number of my favourite jellyfish. I haven’t been able to find out what they’re called – or even find any reference to them in the literature – but they’re common near Pittwater. They’re a good 20cm or more long, thick and chunky and yellow, and look like something out of Star Trek. Like many jellyfish, they’re also very curious, and will come and bump on the bottom of the boat to see what you are.

A few hours further on, we were joined by a couple of pods of dolphins, who put on a display for Bronwyn as she stood in the pulpit, jostling with each other to see who could dive closest to the bow, and rolling and surfing in the swell. The scars on their backs show that they must occasionally get too close to motor boats, but they obviously enjoy it too much to stop.

The day passed in pleasant conditions. The last time we’d been here, there were more than forty bulk carriers queued up to get into the coal port at Newcastle, but it looks like the backlog has cleared because there were only half a dozen or so waiting now. As the sun set rosily over the coast, the carriers all lit up like small towns, and Bronwyn went below to rest.

Night fell, and we put in a reef and began to take watches. We don’t really keep a rigid watch system on Pindimara. One of us is awake and the other is asleep, and we switch when we’re tired or when something interesting happens that means that we both have to be on deck. For the remainder of the night, we slept turn about for two or three hours at a time.

Usually on a passage we sleep in the sea berths, which are the benches in the main cabin, but we haven’t fitted any lee-cloths yet and so there is always the feeling that you’re going to roll off onto the floor. On one of my off-watches I chose to sleep in the cockpit with the milky way wheeling above. The night was crystal clear, and there were so many stars that the familiar constellations were all but drowned out in the pointillist background. On one off-watch I decided to try sleeping in the fore-peak, which is our usual master cabin when not at sea. We had recently replaced the original hard foam cushions with blocks of latex, beautifully covered by a local sail maker. With the boat corkscrewing from side to side, I found that the latex bounced pleasantly with each swell, and I quickly fell into an easy sleep.

We enjoyed excellent although rather light winds most of the way, never attaining more than three or four knots, along with a couple of hours of intermittent motoring when the wind died completely and we were getting slopped about in the swell. When morning came, we shook out the reef and sailed up to the Port Stephens lighthouse, avoiding the reefs and aiming for the large and easy entrance to Nelson Bay to our north west. It was at this moment that the forecast nor’wester came in, blowing straight out of the heads, and so we took down the sails and motored in. Behind us, the first of the fishing trawlers followed us in with their catch, surrounded by clouds of hungry seagulls.

It was eight in the morning, and we’d been at sea for twenty-four hours. Hardly a world-beating passage, but very enjoyable and a good shakedown.

We popped into the Noakes shipyard to discuss some work that we needed doing, and then went around the corner to Salamander Bay, where we dropped anchor in pleasant surroundings at the edge of a marine reserve.

Night Watch

We watched the weather carefully, and the very next northerly that came through saw us skipping work and taking the train up to Port Stephens. The conditions were predicted to hold from Friday evening until Saturday lunchtime, so we thought that this would be the perfect opportunity to make our first ever night-time passage. Our newly refurbished sails set us zipping along into the evening at almost seven knots. As we cleared the heads and got into the open sea, a humpback whale breached in front of us, which had to be a good omen.

Several tonnes of frisky whale

Several tonnes of frisky whale

Since there were only two of us aboard, we had to maintain a night watch, manning the helm in shifts. After some discussion, we had chosen an evening of two-hour shifts, followed by a night of three-hour shifts.

We had very different expectations of the night ahead. I was a night shift worker for many years, and was used to having a zonked body clock and coping with the circadian plunge at 3:00am. I had hiked, climbed, and camped extensively at night, and was familiar with the trick of seeing by starlight. Bronwyn, on the other hand, was a bit of a city kid and found the darkness unsettling.

We were both awake for the first couple of watches, during which we checked the boat over and made and ate dinner. As darkness fell, we realised that there was no light in the compass binnacle, but we had a torch to check it with and in any case we could read the heading off the GPS repeater.

At 22:00 I went to sleep in the forepeak while Bronwyn took the first three-hour watch. It was a fine, clear night and the wind was warm and steady and coming from behind us; perfect cruising conditions. Bronwyn started to relax, and when it came to 01:00 she decided to let me sleep for an extra hour. At about this point we were passing the queue of bulk carriers waiting to load coal at Newcastle. There were about forty of them strung out along the 50 metre line, all showing bright white lights.

More tired that she realised, Bronwyn started to get confused about which lights were houses on the shore, and which were large ships. I was woken by the sound of sails flapping, and came up on deck to see Bronwyn peering into the dark compass rose and muttering about the wind changing. In fact she had got disoriented by the ship lights and had got us turned around 180 degrees. There was no harm done, and I took the helm as she went gratefully to bed. It all showed just how easy it is to make mistakes when you are tired.

It was 02:00. We got past the big ships, and the sea became quiet and dark. I fitted a boom preventer and sat and waited for the evil 03:00, the time when the bodys circadian rhythm hits absolute bottom. It was at about this time that I realised that our new stainless frame was causing a problem. One of the supporting struts had been mounted aft and outboard of the stern light, and was casting a reflection of it back into the cockpit. The actual amount of light coming off the one-inch steel tube must have been tiny, but in the deep darkness of the night it was more than enough to completely ruin my night vision. I tried wrapping a rope around the tube, but even the light reflected from the dull matt fibres was too bright. In the end, I found that the only tenable position from which to steer was over to the starboard side with my back to the stern light, which wasn’t hugely comfortable. The stern light would have to be moved.

Distant lighthouses came and went on the shore as we ploughed our lonely furrow. The moon came up behind us in a beautiful red glow, and the first fingerings of dawn touched the eastern skies. I made an entry in the log, woke a restored and cheerful Bronwyn for her shift, and lay down on one of the sea berths. This was also a first, as until now I had only ever slept in the fore or aft cabins, but I found that from the berth I could see out to the helm, and Bronwyn could see in, which was comforting for both of us. I closed my eyes and in moments was fast asleep.

At 08:00 I got up to a day of glorious sunshine. Bronwyn had taken us almost to Broken Bay, and as we made the final course adjustment to take us through the heads and into Pittwater, a pod of dolphins played briefly in our bow wave. We grinned and waved at them. We were home.

Going Coastal

New Year: Pittwater to Swansea Bridge

Apart from the occasional fair-weather foray outside of the heads, we had still yet to sail upon the open sea. The main reason for this was that we had decided not to go until we had an absolute minimum of quite expensive cruising safety equipment. I had made up a couple of wall-posters with lists of equipment and prices, and, crayon in hand, juggled them almost daily, rethinking and prioritising them within our monthly budget.

Lists, lists, lists

Lists, lists, lists

Life ring and amazing floating torch

Life ring and amazing floating torch

EPIRB

Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB)

Our model is demonstrating the latest in self-inflating life jackets

Our model is demonstrating the latest in self-inflating life jackets

The last essential item on our list was a pair of jack stays. This became a real sticking-point. Jack stays are safety lines that run all the way along the deck from bow to stern. The idea is that whenever you leave the cockpit, you clip your safety harness to the stay and you then get freedom of movement while remaining attached to the boat. The jack stay obviously needs to be strong and well-made, since it is supposed to save your life if you get washed overboard. They’re not an off-the-shelf product, though; they need to be tailored to each individual boat.

Australia is, unfortunately and in line with many other western countries, becoming increasingly litigious, and we found it very hard to find any company that would make them up for us for fear of legal action if the stay should fail. The general consensus was a shaking of heads and tutting, and “we used to make them all the time, but….”

Eventually, however, we met up with a rigger who was prepared to take the risk. He made us a beautiful set which fitted perfectly, and we finally felt that we were ready to go cruising.

Personal harness (black) clipped onto a jackstay (blue). Note also how filthy the boat is!

Personal harness (black) clipped onto a jack stay (blue). Note also how filthy the boat is!

We had about a week encompassing Christmas and New Year. Theoretically, we could in this time sail all the way up the Australian coast from our home mooring in Pittwater, New South Wales, up to the next state, Queensland. However, we fully expected the weather to throw in a few spanners, and in any case we wanted to enjoy the scenery and see what there was to see, so we decided to head for the next available deep-water anchorage, Lake Macquarie, and take it from there.

One small step

One small step

The week started with rough weather, so we pottered around for a few days inside Pittwater, trying out some new anchorages and practicing single-handed sailing.

Route planning

Route planning

When the weather finally improved, and the forecast swells dropped below two metres, it caught us by surprise with only half a tank of fuel. We had intended to leave at dawn, but even though we anchored overnight outside the fuel station, we still had to wait for it to open in the morning, and so we didn’t actually clear the heads until ten. However, it was blowing around twenty knots and we figured that we should be able to make good speed. How refreshingly naiive we were! We had not factored in the fact that we were heading north-east into a nor’easterly wind, across a south-easterly swell.

A yacht cannot sail directly into wind; to travel upwind, it has to tack (zig-zag) from side to side. This substantially increases the distance that you need to travel in order to get from A to B. The swell was also a real pain. Usually swell follows the wind, so that you are travelling in more or less the same direction as the waves. On this particular day, the swell was crossing the path of the wind, making the waves steep and confused, so we spent a lot of our time climbing up waves and then falling off the top to crash into the trough, before the climb up out to the next one.

A cruising yacht accelerates only slowly; when your speed is continually being scrubbed off in every trough, its hard to build up any momentum, and as the boat wiggles over the waves it is hard to keep the sails at anything like the correct angle to the wind to provide motive power.

And finally, we were sailing close-hauled. A note here for the uninitiated about points of sail. If you are standing at the helm and the wind is coming from behind your shoulder (known as broad reach or running, depending on exactly where it is coming from), the hull sits flat on the water and the sails need little attention. It is possible to leave the wheel unattended for short periods and nothing bad will probably happen; more sensibly, you could turn on the autopilot and sit down and relax. Sailing with the wind coming from the front (close reach, close hauled) is more exciting; essentially you are flying a small aircraft sideways across the water, always threatening either to stall or to dive. The sails need constant trimming, the deck is heeled over at up to 30 degrees, and you are quite likely to get wet from spray and even broaching waves. In these conditions, the autopilot simply doesn’t respond fast enough and human control is essential.

All points of sail are equally valid and will get you to where you want to go. Some are just faster or more efficient than others. In a pottering-about or racing situation you just take whatever wind there is and deal with it. Cruising books, on the other hand, always talk about how important it is to make sure that the wind is behind you. Now we really understood why. When you’re just messing about in sheltered waters, you can always change direction and go somewhere else when it gets uncomfortable; in a racing situation, you only have to hold on until the next buoy. However, out to sea, you are travelling in the same direction for hours, days, weeks; the choice between fighting the wind and waves every minute of the time, and just relaxing and letting the autopilot sort it out, quickly becomes a no-brainer.

Nevertheless, we soldiered on. Our instruments were showing speed through the water of three knots. We were pretty sure that the instrument needed calibrating and was reading about a knot too low, but that still wasn’t fast enough to get to port before dark, so we turned on the engine for a little extra power. Purists will probably stare aghast, but it gave us an extra couple of knots and, in our book, safety is better than style.

Going out of our Heads

Going out of our Heads

We had logged on with the coastguard when we left, and they were passing our paperwork up the coast from station to station. Periodically we called each station on the radio, and reported our best guess of what time we would reach the next one. Our guesses, based still on our original estimates, were pretty much on the nose, so we felt that we were doing something right. Of course, one of the important things about checking in with the coastal patrol is that you actually know where you are when you speak to them, so I had to periodically go below and see how the coastline (now several miles away) matched up with the chart. In this we were considerably helped by a book of photographs and charts published by Alan Lucas, a local sailor who has extensively surveyed this part of the coast. This made the task much easier than doing it from the official chart alone, but I still had to hang on to my seat while the boat pitched and crashed, trying to concentrate on little symbols on a big piece of paper that kept threatening to roll up.

Inevitably, I got seasick, but the jack stay allowed me to hang over the side with impunity, and the breaking seas quickly washed the transom clean.

Time passed. The seas got bigger and more confused. We passed one landmark after another, until at last we came in sight of Moon Island, which guards the entrance to Lake Macquarie.

The entrance to the river crosses a shallow sandy bar. As Australian bars go, it isn’t too bad, but it was still going to be touch and go with our two-metre draught. For the time of the tide, though, the charts showed that the bar should be open to us. The key was to line up with a row of port marker buoys which pointed the way to the dredged channel. However, on rounding the island, we found that the seas were so crossed-up and confused that we couldn’t see any buoys at all, just violent whitecaps.

Eventually, however, after bringing the sails down and slopping back and forth under power, we found the first of them, which led to the second, and to a clear shot at the bar. Lucas suggested hugging the port markers as we came through the breakwater, so that’s what I did, watching in bemusement as the depth-sounder dropped to only a metre of clear water under the keel. I waited for a break in the surf, and then gunned it through; the depth-sounder read 0.8, 0.6, 0.4, 0.2… and we gently tapped the bottom, once, twice. The numbers started to climb again: 0.2, 0.4, 0.6 metres. Clearly our depth gauge needed recalibrating to account for a 20cm error.

As we crossed between the breakwaters, dusk fell, and some previously unnoticed, bright blue lead markers lit up in front of us. They were not on our Admiralty chart and off to one side of our position; presumably the channel had been moved since Lucas had done his survey. We made a note to keep an eye on them on the way out. Meanwhile, we were through and in the channel.

It was still shallow and narrow, and it was hard to see the coloured channel markers because of all the christmas decorations on the shore, but we got round safely and picked up a visitor’s mooring in a few metres of water. Swansea Bridge was closed for the night, and wouldn’t be opening until the morning.

Safe haven

Safe haven

In the morning, the bridge opened, and we motored through.

Swansea Bridge

Swansea Bridge

On the way through

On the way through

Looking back at Swansea Bridge

Looking back at Swansea Bridge

Lake Macquarie

We weren’t in the lake yet, by any means; there is a long and winding channel over shifting sandbars from Swansea Bridge into Lake Macquarie proper which, combined with a fast-running tide, made for an interesting trip. Once through the channel, we found a pleasant, large, and above all shallow lake, well populated with services.

Lake Macquarie

Lake Macquarie

Over the next few days we tried out a few anchorages, watched the New Year’s fireworks, visited a few marinas, and generally relaxed. Our favourite place turned out to be the Lake Macquarie Yacht Club at Belmont, where we secured a berth for a week so that we could take the train home and go back to work.

The Lake Macquarie Yacht Club, Belmont

The Lake Macquarie Yacht Club, Belmont

Running Home

The following week, with the forecast showing nor’easters and very little in the way of swell, we rejoined Pindimara for the trip home.

A gentle run before breakfast

A gentle run before breakfast

In a light pre-dawn mist, with the rising sun shining directly into my eyes, I failed to see one of the channel markers. Since the channel zig-zags about to follow the shifting sands, the result was an impromptu off-road shortcut which saw the bulb keel firmly embedded in the bottom. With a strong current running, it all got a little exciting until I managed to turn her around and power back the way we’d come. Bronwyn has been below when we’d hit, and had taken a bit of a tumble, so I was relegated to coffee duty while she took over the helm. While still wagging her finger at me, Bronwyn then ran aground herself; this time we were exactly between the channel markers in precisely the right place. The tide was high: it was just too darn shallow, whatever it said on the chart.

After an interesting time trying to refuel (most of the fuel docks in Lake Macquarie are too shallow for us, and the one that is deep enough, runs with a 6-knot current), we anchored up close to the channel entrance and waited for morning.

The bridge opened for us, we followed the leads out across the bar, and we were back in the open sea.

What a difference it made going in the other direction! The deck was flat and the sails well-behaved, and we easily got up to four or five knots.

Just cruisin'

Just cruisin’

After some hours of breezing along, Bronwyn went below to sleep, and I tied off the boom and switched over to George the autopilot, who could easily cope with these conditions.

This was clearly the way to do it. We made a note never to beat into wind again.

Through a dodger, murkily

Through a dodger, murkily