Escape from Camden Haven

At last, on Monday morning, the post that we had been waiting for arrived; a new bilge pump for the toilet and our set of digital charts from the Hydrographic Survey. We intended to leave Camden Haven on Tuesday’s dawn tide, but while checking the weather on Monday afternoon we found that Tuesday’s southerly change was going to be associated with gale-force winds. We decided to wait one more day and then follow the change up in the more well-mannered southerlies forecast for Wednesday. Since we’d already paid off and said our goodbyes at Dunbogan Marina, we went alongside the free jetty at the RSL instead.

I needed to pop into town to pick up some hose clamps for my ongoing toilet reinstallation, and Bronwyn wanted to pick up some food and medical supplies, so it was fairly inevitable that we ended up having a Guinness or two at the Laurieton Hotel. Two beers turned into eighteen (we know because the cash register was broken and the barmaid wrote them down on a post-it note) and very few of the urgent tasks were remembered that evening. We didn’t exactly make Wednesday’s dawn tide either, but we did end up being dragged down the channel in the overrun and spat out to sea before we were really ready.

In a previous blog, I commented on the tendency of our main halyard to wrap itself around everything when we try to hoist the mainsail in the slop at sea. David emailed us a suggestion, and we amended it to suit our boat and gave it a go; before leaving harbour, we attached the main halyard to the sail and then lay a length of it halfway back along the boom, tying it off there with a piece of rope (actually I achieved this balancing on the fore-deck while Bronwyn fought the tidal rip along the channel). When we got to sea, I just whipped away the rope along with the four normal sail ties. Bronwyn started the hoist from the helm, and by the time I’d nipped back to the cockpit I could take over and finish the job while Bronwyn concentrated on keeping us headed into wind. It worked a treat. Thanks, David.

I had previously decided that today was the day that I would wean myself off seasickness tablets. After all, we have to gain our sea-legs at some point. Maybe it was the Guinness, but the immediate result was that I spent most of the morning leaning over the rail and feeding the fishes. However, by ten o’clock I was feeling much more chipper, and launched the tow-generator. I reckoned that we would be needing the electricity, because we’d been stationary for a week and we now had to power one of the computers so that we could use our shiny new digital charts.

The tow line for the generator was a little kinked from our test run outside Sydney harbour, and we’d certainly never tried it at the speeds of which Pindimara was now capable, so we were a little surprised when the generator set up a noticeable but not objectionable hum. We were happy to note that at seven knots of boat speed we were getting seven amps of power, and were even more delighted when the dolphins seemed to find the spinning torpedo greatly fascinating, and spent almost half an hour playing with it.

By early afternoon, it was clear that our bold decision to head straight for the Clarence River some 160 miles away was being vetoed by the wretched East Australian Current, which was robbing us of a whole two knots however we tried to avoid it. As light fell, we were both feeling decidedly queasy and decided to call it a day at Hat Head, where we experienced our first ever ‘roadstead anchorage’, which is a grand name for hiding behind a big rock and dropping your anchor in the sea.

In retrospect, we could have dropped the pick a little farther from the beach. We arrived at high tide and the night started comfortably enough, but as the tide dropped the beach swells began to form to seaward of our position, which made the boat roll unpleasantly and had me up and down every couple of hours checking the anchor (and on one occasion resetting the snubber, which had come undone with a disconcertingly loud “bang”). Still, once the tide had come back in, we slept well enough.

The Mountain

PINDIMARA (second yacht from the right) AT THE
FOOT OF NORTH BROTHER (looks like rain…)

Laurieton, where we remain at anchor sheltering from the storms, is dominated by a 500-metre mountain called North Brother, but known locally as Brother or just The Mountain. The locals hold it in some affection. It breaks up the wind, they say, and is an effective weather vane; if the top is in cloud, then it is going to rain. This is perfectly reasonable because North Brother is the first high point encountered by any incoming moisture-laden sea wind, which will have to shed at least some of its load in order to rise over the top. The slopes are therefore covered with dense rain forest, and Laurieton has a healthy rainfall. One morning we pumped nearly half a tank of fresh sweet rainwater out of our dinghy and into our depleted tanks; we’d have easily filled the 150-litre tank if the bottom half of the boat hadn’t been a bit silty.

I have long held that humans are attracted to edges. If we see a lake, we go down to the edge and skip stones. If we see a beach, we go down to the sea and say that we are invigorated (and build retirement homes). If we see a cliff, we go to the edge (perhaps not too close… depending on the rubber band effect of your own personal manifestation of vertigo… but we still go) and look at the view.

This isn’t too surprising. Life is all about edges. Walk through a natural forest, and you’ll see that most of the action happens around the perimeter, where young trees can compete for resources and animals can see danger coming, and yet still hide from it. Deeper inside the forest, the number of species drops and the forest is relatively quiet (except where a glade opens up when a tree falls; but that’s another, newly created edge). At the microscopic level, almost all of our biochemistry is mediated at the surface of the catalyst molecules that we call enzymes. We evolved from the moon-ministered tidal zone at the edge of the sea. Go diving, and it is immediately obvious that most of the life is congregated either in that tidal zone, or in a reef band further out just before the bottom slopes away into the deeps. Most of the rest is underwater desert.

To a greater or lesser extent, then, we all seek edges. Our urban and social life has removed our access to the more natural ones, and so we make up our own. How far can I swim? How high can I climb? How fast can I drive my car without going out of control? How close can I get to earning my salary without working too hard? How far can I push him before he cracks?

Having sat in the same stretch of river for a week, and having fixed and maintained just about everything that could be fixed and maintained, I was becoming increasingly obsessed with the idea of climbing to the top of The Mountain. On one particular day, with yet another set of storm warnings, gale warnings, and general mayhem out to sea, I shouldered a backpack and set off.

On the way through Laurieton, I stopped to ask about a footpath. It seemed that there was one, but nobody knew quite where it was as they usually drove to the top, so I just headed uphill until I found a trail and a NSW Parks sign said that it was a hard four-hour return trip. I know from experience that NSW Parks always inflate their figures by at least 100%, although I have never been able to decide whether this is to discourage the uncertain or to challenge the determined. Be that as it may, I knew that I’d be up and back in a couple of hours, so I checked my watch. The temperature was in the high twenties, the humidity must have been in the eighties, and the sun was just reaching its zenith; perfect timing for an Englishman to go exploring. Humming Noel Coward, I set off up the hill.

The trail had been hacked directly toward the summit. It was bloody steep, and shored up here and there with tree-trunk steps. At first I leapt gazelle-like from bole to bole, thinking “Hah! Four hours my foot!”, but before very long I slowed to a more reasonable pace. Sweat began to pour down my back, so that I first rolled up my shirt and then took it off and put the soaking rag into my pack. Venerable gums towered above, with a dripping understory of ferns, cycads and ‘black boy’ grasses. Birds shrieked in sudden startlement as I passed by; from the reaction of the animals and from the deep fallen brush along the trail, I could see that not many people passed this way. The trees were mainly scribbly gums, their bark decorated by the intricate maps of burrowing beetles.


Every now and then, an igneous rock outcrop thrust through the soil and towered over my head, making the way slippery underfoot with loose eroded pebbles. I began to pant in the heat, and to wonder if I was going to make it, the legacy of too many months doing overtime in an office chair followed by days of sitting around doing schoolwork on the boat. I struggled on. I was glad to note that my heart wasn’t pounding and that my breathing was relatively normal, but I was sweating buckets and my legs had begun to go rubbery when I emerged blinking into a clearing that marked the top of the trail and the beginning of what was described as ‘the easy traverse’.

With sudden renewed energy I set off along the new path, which ran in a gladdeningly horizontal fashion before – horror of horrors – actually running downhill and robbing me of hard-gained altitude. Round the next corner came the punchline of the joke; the trail reverted back to the familiar vertical climb.

After an hour’s sweaty effort, I emerged suddenly onto a neatly grassed forty-five degree lawn which turned out to be a launch pad for hang gliders. Spinning around, I was presented with a view that made the whole thing worthwhile. Not just one edge, but three, if you included the distant beach and the even more distant horizon. Far below, I could just make out the shape of Pindimara bobbing on her mooring.

PINDIMARA (topmost rightmost yacht) AT THE

A half hour for lunch while I drank in the views. Edges are good for the soul.

Then back to the trail, initially running with sheer exuberance until my legs turned to jelly, and then a more cautious descent to sea level, which was in its own way just as much hard work as the journey up.

Back at the marina I took a shower and then stood on the dock looking at the yacht. Usually I would call Bronwyn on my mobile so that she could row over and get me, but today the Vodafone signal was unaccountably absent. As I waited to see if she would happen to appear on deck, I saw a small movement out of the corner of my eye, and crouched down to have a look. A small leech was inch-worming its way across the wooden planking, mouth parts eager and stretching at the top of each loop. I stepped back to let it go by, wondering what it was doing in such a bare and unfriendly environment. It came to the edge of a plank and then snuck down into a crack, whereupon I became aware of a lot of crimson splashing; there was fresh blood pouring down my lower leg. I couldn’t feel any pain, but when I wiped it away I could see a couple of fresh bite marks, so presumably I had been carrying more than just memories home from the rain forest.

Ah well. Salt water would fix it. I stashed my bags on the dock, and swam out to the boat.

Sojourn in Laurieton

Because of the inclement weather, we haven’t moved from Laurieton in Camden Haven. On the other hand, we would much rather be in here than out there. The news has been showing pictures of floods and mayhem; the locals are talking about boats dis-masted and abandoned, and the weather bureau reports wind speeds in excess of 60 knots and swells over 7 metres. All the while we have been bobbing more or less serenely at our mooring, although the wind did get a bit fresh now and again. One gust almost knocked us down in a flurry of flying crockery, and on another night although we couldn’t see our actual wind speed indicator (it’s on deck and we were warm and dry inside), our wind generator clocked 7 amps, which is a record and probably represents well over 40 knots.

The weather reports continued to broadcast doom and gloom, so we took a stroll down to the entrance bar to see what it looked like from the land. It was a pleasant walk past an enormous lagoon packed with oyster leases and along the causeway to the head, where we were greeted by shrieks and screams from the water. In fact it was only some kids boogie-boarding in the protection of the breakwater. They had some decent surf to play in, but the bar itself looked impassable, and the sea beyond was a maelstrom.

That night, I announced that rather than walk all the way around the bay, I would row us across the river to the pub, a distance of perhaps 300 metres. This would be the work of a moment on a flat lake or sheltered bay, but we had thus far avoided the attempt because of the fast-flowing tidal streams. It took me about an hour to row upstream to my rather well-deserved pint, and then, some hours later, about the same to row back in the dark against the now incoming tide. Not exactly a lesson learned, but certainly some calluses earned. Bronwyn will tell you with some glee that she even heard me muttering something about buying an outboard.

This is a pleasant spot to stop over. Flocks of pelicans follow the fishermen, and sea eagles float overhead. As well as the inevitable cleaning and maintenance tasks, we’ve been able to catch up and even get slightly ahead with our schoolwork, which has been particularly useful for Bronwyn because she suddenly found that in order to complete one particular assignment, she needs to learn how to use AutoCAD, which is not something you pick up in five minutes.

When the time came to go to the launderette (which is, again, across the river), we chose to take the whole yacht rather than just the dinghy, and to fill up with fuel, water and gas on the way. On that particular day, the marina was being manned by Graham, coxwain of the local Marine Rescue, and he was gracious enough to compliment us on our effortless docking in opposing wind and tide, commenting more than once that “not many yachties here could have pulled off a move like that”, which gave us a pleasant warm fuzzy feeling. Luckily we didn’t disgrace ourselves when docking at the Marine Rescue jetty opposite to offload the laundry, and we must have looked vaguely professional because Bob the radio operator invited us inside for coffee and a chat.

There was another cruising boat here, Liquid Motion, which we had seen in Port Stephens and which had arrived in Camden Haven shortly after us. We never did get to speak to the skipper, but we saw him attempt the bar shortly after we’d gone down to see it. He didn’t make it, and came back, but on the next tide he was gone, after what Bob called “a lumpy exit”. We wish him luck because he was heading straight into a nor’easter, but the word on the grapevine said that he was in a hurry to be gone.

We’re in no hurry; we’ll wait for nice friendly conditions before we leave. In fact, the weather is shaping us to give us a good start on the dawn tide on Tuesday, and we’re aiming to bypass all the urban centres such as Port Maquarrie and Coffs and go straight to Yamba, where we intend to spend a few days exploring the Clarence River.

Arrival at Camden Haven

As the hull speed dropped, we realised that there was quite a crowd of people watching us crossing the bar. They turned away looking a little disappointed, so I guess we must have made a clean entry. Now we just had to navigate the channel up to the anchorage, which we already knew was going to be very shallow. We did have a chart, but it bore the warning ‘Shifting sands change regularly. Ignore this chart and use the markers’. The channel was only a few boat lengths wide, and scattered with navigation buoys which led us a merry path back and forth with only a metre and sometimes less under the keel. One buoy took us very close to a fisherman on shore, who politely reeled in his line and then made humorous zig-zag motions with his hands.

I was simultaneously focussed on keeping the speed under 2 knots despite the following tide, and keeping an eagle eye on the depth sounder. That left Bronwyn to spot and call out the navigation buoys, a task made somewhat difficult by the fact that it was dusk and the automated switches that turned on their flashing lights were not particularly synchronised. Thus we would see two flashing port markers and a starboard, and then a minute later a previously unlit buoy which we had taken to be a sand bank marker would suddenly start flashing and change our route completely.

Eventually we fumbled our way to the end of the navigable channel in full darkness, dropped the anchor, and fell into a deep and undisturbed sleep.

The next morning I was awoken by the howl of full-bore outboards, and went on deck to see what seemed to be the whole local community going fishing, all racing their tinnies at full speed past the 4-knot speed limit signs. After the wakes had died away, I had a look around at our surroundings and found them to be very pleasant indeed. Oyster beds lined the shore, with drying sand banks here and there. To one side loomed Brother Mountain with an RSL (non Aussies – Retired Serviceman’s League, a kind of pub with cheap beer subsidised by gambling) and a fishing wharf, and to the other were a few houses and a small marina. All around were pelicans balanced comically on pilings, and a handful of other yachts, mainly apparently local and almost all much smaller than ours. No wonder we had stirred up so much interest when crossing the bar.


High tide came, and with it a wicked overrun which pulled us out into mid stream and started dragging our anchor. We couldn’t get it to re-set, so we hauled it up and dropped it on the inside of a curve next to a sand bank, with only a metre of spare depth and one boat length from drying sand, so we thought it prudent to test our GPS anchor alarm. After a little experimentation and some trigonometry, we found that it worked very well indeed.

We knew that this new spot would become untenable at low tide, so we looked around for another option. There was deep water over by the RSL, but the only other visiting cruiser was already at anchor there, and he was spinning violently in circles and from side to side, apparently under control of his wind-vane, and we thought it prudent to stay clear. We phoned Michael and Judy, the owners of Dunbogan Marina, and were assured that there was deep water under their swing moorings. The price was very cheap, and they had a hot shower, so we motored in and picked one up. After staring at the blinking depth sounder for a while – there would only be 50 cm beneath us at low tide – we switched it off and resolved not to look at it again.

After setting up the wind vane and unlimbering the tender, we rowed to shore and had a long and enjoyable shower before walking to the RSL for a welcome Sunday roast and a few glasses of porter.