Into the Gulf of Carpentaria

There are a number of channels out from the Horn Island anchorage, each leading in a different direction between different islands. There are two that are potentially useful for a south-westerly exit toward the Gulf of Carpentaria, and each has its own collection of interesting tides and currents. There was quite a bit of detailed discussion about them amongst the yachties anchored behind Horn, including a fair bit of third hand local knowledge.

To us it seemed fairly simple. Option One was to fight the notorious Boat Channel with its 6 knot currents and shoals, then to double back through Endeavour Strait with its rocks and shifting sandbanks. Option Two was to slip out of Normanby Passage on a rising tide and to cross into the Gulf using the shipping lane at Booby Island. It didn’t seem like much of a contest.

Low tide was at dawn, but by the time we’d had breakfast and cleared the boat for sea it was closer to eight o’clock and already approaching the top of the tide (the tides are pretty strange around Thursday Island). This suited our planned relaxed start and we accepted the 3.5 knot boost down Normanby and ran gently over to Booby Island, from whence it is a hundred mile straight run down the Gulf to the company mining town of Weipa.

For a while we marvelled at the feeling of travelling southward, a first for this trip. Then we sat back with Harriet at the helm and admired the pale blue skies and azure seas sparkling in the sunshine.

The marine weather forecast had been unusually precise, with 15-20 knots from the southeast and no change expected for the next three days. As we came abeam of the exit to the Endeavour Strait, I noticed a few wispy mare’s tails high in the sky. These are rarely a good sign and, thinking about the very shallow waters in the strait to the east of us, I commented that this would be pretty nasty place to get caught in a storm. Bronwyn replied with something like, “When was the last time that we saw any rain? I can’t remember.”

It was Bronwyn’s watch so I went below to get some rest. After a while I became aware that the bunk was shuddering as if we were travelling at high speed, so I looked out of the saloon window and noticed that we were heeled over so far that the deck rail was in the water.

Up on deck, I found Harriet steering perfectly and Bronwyn looking in some bemusement at the huge squall that was spewing out of the Endeavour Strait and rolling towards us. Hurriedly we shortened sail and Bronwyn got into her life vest and harness while I hid in the companionway under the shelter of the dodger.


It was quite the squall, with driving rain and 35 knot winds. Bronwyn grinned at me through the water pouring down her face as we hit 8 knots. “At last,” she said, “I’m finally washing off all that sea salt.”
Then a big wave reared up and landed on her head.


When we emerged from the other side of the squall, we found that while we we’d been in it, the outside world had gone grey and there were more squalls and storms on every quarter.

I quickly went below to check that everything was battened down and then lay down on the bunk. Bronwyn had waterproofs, safety gear and the helm and by far the safest place for me to be if the boat was going to get a thrashing, was in bed.

Night fell, and the worst of it was over. Bronwyn came below to scrape off the salt, and I went on deck for my watch. The storm had left a legacy of 25 knot winds and lumpy beam seas which made everything a bit uncomfortable. The rain had stopped, but I spent most of my watch under the dodger watching the helmsman’s position disappearing under spray as confused waves slammed into the boat. I was very glad that the wind vane was doing all the hard work.

The sun came up, and we were out of sight of land and becalmed under a motionless blue sky. Flying fish scattered across the surface like little jewelled helicopters, frightened by an enormous swordfish that swiped at them with its bill. A hammerhead shark cruised by, cocking its curious head sideways to see if we were worth eating. Up above, petrels and terns wheeled and dived, taking inordinate interest in the rigging.


It was all very beautiful, but it wasn’t getting us any closer to Weipa. We fired up the engine and motor-sailed.

Entering the Great Barrier Reef

For all that we’ve technically been sailing inside the Great Barrier Reef for several weeks, the reef itself has always been invisibly far out to sea. From here northward, though, the Barrier comes close inshore and is a navigational force to be reckoned with, comprising hundreds of scattered reefs lurking invisibly just below the waves. There is a well-charted and waymarked shipping channel to ease navigation, but it is full of large ships moving ore and containers up and down the coast.


After weeks of dead calm, we’d been wishing for a breeze. Dusk fell, a humpback whale treated us to an aerial display in our wake, and – wonder of wonders – the wind picked up to the low twenties. Our speed increased to 6-7 knots under full sail as we entered the channel. Harriet was doing a fine job of sailing, so while Bronwyn went below to rest, I was free to sit in comfort and idly formulate an elaborate metaphor for the process of sailing through the reef at night.

Imagine getting into your car to drive to the next town. First, however, you spray-paint the windows black so that you can’t see out. Then you tape your mobile phone to the dashboard and log on to Google Maps. You start the engine and put it into gear, and from now on you are completely at the mercy of the accuracy of the map and where your phone says that you are.
You can be reasonably certain that all the streets and intersections are marked, as well as the more obvious light poles and roadside furniture, but you just have to deal with curbs, speed humps, rubbish bins, dogs and cats as you feel your wheels bump over them.
Thankfully there is little other traffic, but you know that if you leave these twisting side-roads and venture onto the highway, you will be sharing the road with fully laden trucks. You also know that they can’t see you either, and that in any case all their brake lines have been disconnected.

As I lay in the cockpit spinning this tale and watching meteorites blaze across the milky brilliance of the starry sky, Pindimara ploughing blindly into pitch darkness at close to hull speed, I thought happily that I wouldn’t trade places with anybody.

The hours passed, and the wind crept up to the mid twenties. Pindimara was now quite overpowered, but there were few gusts and the swells were predictable, so I left the sails up. Harriet the Hydrovane was coping superbly, and tracking better than ever before; I was really coming to appreciate the Hydrovane slogan ‘survive your dream’.

In the early hours of the morning, deep inside the shipping lane with bulk carriers and trawlers passing on either side, the wind crept up into the high twenties and our speed to over seven knots. It was getting decidedly bouncy, so I reckoned that enough was enough and called all hands on deck to reduce sail. To say that the crew tumbled eagerly out of their bunks would be an overstatement, and when Bronwyn did clamber painfully out, she commented that her ‘rest period’ in the bucking bunk seemed to have consisted mainly of two hours of strenuous but inadvertent Pilates exercise.

We quickly reduced sail and got back onto course. As is our usual practice on night passages, we’d gone straight for the main’s third reef, but Harriet soon picked up the pace to a respectable 4-5 knots. I was pretty tired by now so I gratefully put my head down while Bronwyn took a watch.

At a little after 4am I took over again, and immediately got my feet wet as a wave curled over the stern. The swell was now well over 2 metres, and the wind was touching 30 knots. It had also swung around onto the beam, and even with the third reef in, we were overpowered for a reach. The wind was howling in the rigging, and the hull was thrumming and making odd little banging sounds under my feet. We were stll four hours from the safe harbour at Lizard Island, and I seriously considered replacing the main with our storm trysail for the final leg. Instead I chose discretion, and put our tail between our legs and ran for nearby Cape Flattery, which at 260 metres high looked to be big enough to hide behind.

The wind was easier to manage with it behind us, but the wind speed continued to increase and of course we were now surfing down 3 metre swells in the darkness. As the Cape loomed out of the gathering dawn light, I once again roused Bronwyn who navigated us in to shelter between the Cape itself and the chart position of a sunken wreck.

Anchoring for once in the light, we immediately fell into bed and slept until lunch time. Although we were snug in our bay, the 30-knot wind continues to howl over our heads.

Be careful what you wish for.

Cape Bowling Green

Cape Bowling Green is, presumably, so named because it is as flat as. It’s not really a cape at all, more of a long sand spit enclosing a shallow bay. We had no intention of stopping there, because it’s so flat that it is little use as protection, and because a number of people had warned us that it is a pretty uncomfortable anchorage.


Nevertheless, after a nice day’s sailing before 10-20 knot winds, we found ourselves coming abeam of the Cape with gusts in the mid-thirties and swell that was big enough that we were surfing down it. Clearly last night’s gale was coming back to blow again, and we decided that we really didn’t want to be out in it.

The wind itself wasn’t too much of a problem, as even in 30 knots we were comfortably cruising at 6-8 knots under full sail, but controlling gybes while surfing is tricky enough in daylight, and we didn’t fancy tiring ourselves out at night, especially if the developing swell was going to get any bigger.

We tucked around the end of the sand spit and anchored in 4 metres with plenty of rode and an anchor alarm (we’re learning…). There was nobody else in the enormous bay apart from a couple of humpback whales who were gently cruising around in the shallows. I guess they like to get out of the swell as much as the next mammal.

The wind went straight up over 30 knots and stayed there. Although we were sheltered from the big sea swells, we were still far enough downwind from the sand spit to experience some pretty big waves as they built up across the shallows, and Pindimara began to do a passable imitation of a nodding dog. Still, it was all on the bow and pitching is nowhere near as bad as rolling. We didn’t exactly sleep the sleep of the just, but by the morning the wind had died down enough to move on. The sailing conditions were just about perfect, and we had a wonderful cruise into Townsville.

Gales at Cape Upstart

With the dawn came the promised gale. We wrote off the morning and did some advance passage planning instead. At around lunch time, a few yachts crawled into the bay and dropped anchor, much closer to shore than us. They seemed to be much more scared of the wind than of the shallows. Presumably it was a bit rough out there.

The wind died to a more reasonable 20-25 knots over lunch, but leaving then wouldn’t have got us anywhere useful in daylight hours, and we were pretty convinced from our detailed poring over the GRIB files that the night was going to get gnarly. Still, we had bread to bake and schoolwork to do, and a new batch of novels that we’d picked up in Bowen, so Townsville could wait.

The afternoon died in a sky of lowering maroon clouds shot through with fiery red flashes. With sunset came the real winds. They came up over Cape Upstart and slammed down onto the boat at over 30 knots. Pindimara reeled with the punches. Like any keeler she is designed to point into wind, but the sheer force caught her on the bows and lifted her up and over, first to one side and then to the other, whipping her almost broadside on before the anchor chain hauled her back so that the wind could slam into the other side. This continued on relentlessly, time after time, two or three times a minute, for hours on end. The anchor chain stretched out, but looked as if it would hold.

The view from deck was somewhat alarming, but down below it was surprisingly calm, if you ignored the demon howl of the wind in the rigging and the frenzied hum of halyards vibrating like violin strings above.

We thought it prudent to consult the Bureau of Meteorology website, but (in common with many of our Queensland anchorages) the only internet connection that we could get involved standing on deck and balancing the laptop on either the dodger or the targa frame. With the boat thrashing from side to side and the laptop threatening to tear itself out of my hands and fly away, this was not the easiest task, especially when we started to get waves over the bow. I saw enough of the forecast to tell me that conditions would probably improve overnight, and went below.

With nearly 40 metres of chain out, we would usually expect Pindimara to swing through a wide arc, and could set our new anchor alarm accordingly. In this strong wind, however, she was dancing on the end of her stretched-out chain and not swinging at all, so we set the anchor alarm for a much smaller radius. After a couple of trips around the deck attempting to identify and tie down all the more obvious bangs and rattles, we went to bed. The gale continued to rage, but our bodies were quite tired from endlessly rebalancing our bodies and so we fell quickly asleep.

In the middle of the night, the anchor alarm went off. I was instantly awake and ran onto deck, but then started laughing; the wind had gone, and we were still firmly anchored but drifting aimlessly around the chain. We reset the alarm radius and went back to bed.

Our first fish

We were anchored in Whites Bay, Middle Island of the Percy Isles, hiding from a surprisingly strong nor’wester. The forecast was for another change, this time from the south, blowing a healthy 15 knots directly into Whites Bay some time between 22:00 and 04:00. The dual attraction of a decent sailing wind and getting out of the bay before the swell started, saw us going to bed early with the intention of leaving as soon as the southerly change came through.

The change woke me at 03:30, and seemed to contain rather more wind than forecast, up to 20 knots inside the protection of the bay. Still, the developing swell was rapidly making it too choppy to sleep so we decided to stick to the plan. After a quick breakfast on deck to acclimatise our eyes to the darkness, we motored out of the pack of sleeping yachts and into the Percy Islands tidal race which was, for once, running with us rather than against us.

The southerly wind was working against the incoming tide to build some pretty big waves, and we had a bouncy time getting out of the group. Once out into the open sea, the wind ramped up to over 30 knots, officially gale force. With triple-reefed main and our cruising jib, we soon found ourselves creaming along at over 9 knots. The log records a maximum speed of 9.54, the fastest that we have ever gone.


Since we were moving in a straight line, we thought that we may as well throw the trolling line over the stern. This line has a long history. Several months ago, Bronwyn decided that she wanted to learn how to catch fish, and we made a deal that if she can get one on board, then I’ll kill, clean and fillet it. Since then she has been chatting up fishermen and pestering tackle shop owners in an effort to find out the easiest way of catching our supper. It was surprisingly difficult to get a straight answer. Most of them said “Ah, you just throw a line over the back and you’ll catch something. No worries”, but when you actually tried to pin them down for some specific advice, such as “What line? Which lure? How deep?” they would often as not change the subject or offer wildly divergent advice.

My theory is that since it is regarded as quintessentially Australian to be born with a fishing rod in one hand and a barbecue spatula in the other, it is not manly to admit that you’ve never done either one or the other. Certainly when I announce that I have never fished in my life, I attract pitying stares and an embarrassed shuffling of feet. Much better for a woman to do the asking.

Bronwyn did eventually manage to find a couple of guys who seemed to know what they were talking about, and by May had put together a dream kit of all the tools necessary to catch, land, and process a small tuna. Since then we’ve tossed the gear over the back whenever we thought about it, but never got a sniff of interest.

Back to the story. There we were, screaming along in excess of seven knots in gale force winds, alternately burying first the gunwales and then the bow into mountainous swell. Naturally this was the moment that I glanced back into our foaming wake and saw a large fish tail-walking at the end of our line.

We had repeatedly memorised all the necessary steps for landing our first fish. After making sure that the hook is firmly set, we were supposed to stop the boat. Yeah, right. The obvious solution was to heave-to, but in these conditions this simply meant that we were making six knots backwards instead of nine knots forwards. Still, the important thing was that while hove-to we could forget about steering for a while and concentrate on the fish.

With four pairs of hands we managed to land a rather spectacular Spanish Mackerel, some two thirds of a metre long and weighing about seven kilos. We were quite impressed!


Now we had to quickly regain control of the boat before we ended up back in the Percy Isles; in the excitement we had gone backwards for over four miles. Back on our beam reach, we shared our bucking and heavily slanted cockpit with a washing-up bowl full of salt water and a very large and slippery dead mackerel. By the time we reached the Guardfish Cluster, our feet were soaking wet with a lingering fishy smell, but our mackerel was intact and, thanks to a swaddling tea-towel, relatively cool.

As we approached the first turn inside the Cluster proper, I again glanced out of the stern and spotted a young humpback whale practising a series of launches out of our wake. Beautiful.

Once we were safely anchored between the drying shoal and the rocky reef, I hauled out our shiny new filleting knife and reduced the mackerel to four enormous fillets.


Three went in the fridge, and the fourth we had for lunch, gently heated in a little olive oil. It was sweet, succulent, and absolutely delicious.


The Natives are Restless

We’ve been hiding from the storms that are currently destroying property all down the southern Queensland coast. Gale force winds, monstrous seas, and biblical rainfall have already claimed at least one life, and that was on land. Even if we were crazy enough to go out to sea, there’s nowhere to go because the bars up and down the coast are all effectively closed to traffic.

There are a several cruising yachts packed into this little basin. Every day or so, one crew or another climbs up to the Caloundra lighthouse to see what the conditions are like out to sea, and then return shaking their heads.


One evening we noticed a harbour fisheries vessel going from yacht to yacht. Each visit seemed to involve a lot of discussion, and we assumed that they wanted to discuss fishing quotas or check our documentation, so we were a bit surprised when they arrived at our stern and began threatening us with fines and legal action for outstaying our welcome in Mooloolaba. In actual fact we were still within the ten days which local rules allow when hiding from inclement weather, but this didn’t slow them down at all. With vague threats of heavy penalties, they advised us to abandon our yacht and move into a hotel.

They spent a particularly long time on one of the larger yachts which has apparently been here for quite a bit longer than us. There seemed to be lot of paperwork being passed back and forth, and next morning when I was just thinking about puttering over to ask the skipper what it had all been about, we noticed that he must have left on the dawn tide. We can’t imagine where he went, and hope that he found some safe harbour before the next 55-knot gale hit.

Days passed. Endless rain hammered on the deck. Wind howled in the rigging. Flood waters surged by, battering the hull from side to side. The mud-laden river was packed with wreckage from upstream, and sometimes one of the larger pieces of debris would bump up against our hull and scrape past on its way down to the sea.

On another evening we were down below, catching up on some paperwork, when we heard a soft thump from outside. We weren’t overly concerned, as it didn’t sound particularly alarming and was probably just something bouncing off the deck in the storm. A little later there was another one: thump.

The rain slackened off for a moment, and I got up to open the bathroom window because we had been getting the occasional whiff of an unpleasant smell and I thought perhaps that we should let some ventilation into the head. While I was up, I stuck my head out of the hatch to look at the weather and was greeted by a loud thump-thump on the deck and a strong smell of stale fish.

I turned on the torch and started laughing. There were two gannets roosting in the top set of mast spreaders. Every time they let fly with some droppings, the wind whipped them back at a sixty degree angle to impact just aft of the dodger. They can’t have been there for more than a few hours, but the sheer volume of guano was astounding. The floor of the cockpit, both lockers, and both solar panels were liberally coated in up to a centimetre of foul-smelling paste.


I waved my torch at the birds and they sulkily left to find another boat, but not before one of them scored a direct and very wet hit on the padlock for the locker containing the cleaning equipment.

We got the hint. It really was time to leave.

After the Deluge

All this week, south-eastern Queensland has been getting a pasting from the weather gods. We’re still anchored in Mooloolaba, waiting for the deluge to stop, for the wind to ease, and for the 5 metre swells to die down. The rain’s been astonishing. Sometimes I put my hand out of the companionway hatch and it feels like I’ve stuck it under a bath tap. We hear stories of power lines down and major roads out of commission, with 150 mm or more of rain falling in just 12 hours.

The winds have been exciting, too. They were forecasting 45 and 55 knots (+/- 40%) out to sea. I haven’t been monitoring our local wind speed (the indicator is on deck, in the rain) but during the nights the anchor chain has been groaning under the strain and at times Pindimara was bucking like a bronco. All around us, yachts have been dragging their anchors, which is not too great when you consider that we’re packed like sardines into a canal lined with millionaire mansions. One guy on a 42 metre yacht woke up to find himself 50 metres downstream and practically inside somebody’s lounge room. He wasn’t the only one, and we’ve seen a few people motoring nervously about trying to find some extra swinging room. Our anchor has set just fine, and it hasn’t moved at all… although with all the pressure on it I imagine it’s pretty well dug in by now, and I’m not looking forward to trying to hoist it when we leave.

The canal water is thick and brown and full of flotsam from upstream. In a brief moment of calm I climbed the mast to fit a new anchor light, and from my vantage point I could see that the whole surface of the canal is slick with oil washed down the storm drains from the roads. There’s a whole lot of water out there; the canal is running so fast that the tide didn’t get a chance to come in, and Pindimara remained pointed upstream all day.

One day we went ashore to do the laundry. When we returned to the dinghy it was full of rain water, and I actually wore out my bailer trying to get rid of it. At one point, with the bailer splintered down to half its original size and a new cloudburst sweeping in from the sea, I found that I couldn’t empty the boat faster than the rain was filling it. Thank goodness that all our nice clean laundry was sealed into dry-bags.

The yacht’s usually pretty waterproof, but on one occasion we must have left one of the three locks on the head window ever so slightly loose. Usually this might have resulted in a few dribbles on the floor of the shower, but a couple of hours of this current downpour filled the bathroom with several inches of water, and when we got back the water was lapping at the lip of the bulkhead into the lounge. That would have been messy.

One good thing is that when the dinghy fills up overnight, we can pump the nice fresh rain water straight into our tanks, although this morning I did wonder if it would sink before I could get started.


Apart from the gale warnings, the weather forecasts are quite vague, peppered with “depending on movement” and “maybe lower”. I downloaded some GRIB files and quite frankly I don’t blame the forecasters. It’s anybody’s guess what’ll happen next.

Just for fun, here’s a graphic representation of the wind strength data earlier today. Red arrows indicate Force 8 to 9. See that confused bit where all the different coloured arrows are stacked up on top of each other? That’s where we are.


Since we had so much fresh water, and since the canal is not really suitable for swimming, we decided to have a bath. We have a kid’s inflatable paddling pool that exactly fits inside the cockpit. Add a dinghy-full of rain water and a few pans hot from the stove, and Robert is your mother’s brother.


Still here!

We popped out to the heads yesterday to have a look at the bar. Even under what would normally be ideal conditions of tide, it was completely impassable. Enormous white-capped green rollers were breaking across the whole width of the channel. Great for a professional surf competition, perhaps, but not so good for our little boat. Even the fishing trawlers are staying in harbour. Looks like we’re not leaving the Clarence River any time soon.

Our Ampair wind generator started squeaking in the night. I took it down and disassembled it to reveal a worn bearing. I contacted the manufacturer in England, because it’s only nine months old and we’ve had some other problems with it before. They’re sending us a new unit, but we don’t want to have to wait for it in Iluka, so we’re getting it delivered to an address further up the coast in Brisbane (thanks, Kate) and in the meantime I’ve dropped our shaft into the local machine shop to see if they can source us a new bearing.

In other news… it’s wet, it’s windy, and it’s even a bit cold. We’re still here, but we’re getting a lot of schoolwork done. We’ve used up all our internet allowance for the month, so the last couple of blog updates have come to you via satellite. It’s nice to know that the technology is working, because we are likely to need it around the top end.

Gales, Water and Wine at Iluka

The next batch of weather has rolled in across the Tasman Sea, bringing heavy winds and rain. Although the ocean wind speeds are finally dropping to 30 knots, the gales have left a legacy of four-metre swells, so we’re staying put until either the wind or the swell dies down a bit. Since we’re now at the northern end of the Bureau of Meteorology’s New South Wales report, we have been peeking at the southern end of the Queensland report. We notice with some jealousy that the Queenslanders have perfect sailing weather; if only we could make it around that last corner!

After so long at anchor and unwilling to risk slamming up against hard 
fishing jetties in the high winds, we were running very low on water. 
We couldn’t use our water-maker because the bay is thick with eroded 
mud from upriver, so while Bronwyn explored the town, I spent an afternoon rowing back and forth in 25-
knot squalls to the nearest caravan park, repeatedly filling our 20
 litre jerry-can and emptying it into our echoing 150 litre forward 
tank. Pouring water from a jerry-can into a small hole in a pitching
 deck is exciting to say the least, especially when much of the working 
space is taken up by our emergency spare anchor (which is set up ready 
to be dropped in case the main one drags in the bad weather). Despite 
losing several litres here and there as the wind whipped the pouring
 stream over the side and into the anchor locker, I got the forward 
tank three quarters full before Bronwyn returned to shore with six 
bags of provisions and two sacks of clean washing.

Although the dinghy was quite heavily loaded, I reckoned that I’d be 
OK because I had the turning tide working for me, but half way back to 
the boat a headwind blew up and I found that I couldn’t make any
progress at all. The Walker Bay doesn’t row very well with weight in 
the stern, so Bronwyn suggested that we row side-by-side instead. We
 have often done this in the sheltered bays of Pittwater, and after
 some hilarious circular routes we have become quite proficient at it. 
Usually Bronwyn takes the starboard oar and rows with both hands,
 while I sit with one arm around her waist and one on the port oar, both
 stroking and steering. We hadn’t tried it in heavy weather before, but 
we quickly found that with all the weight in the centre and both of us
 pulling hard we skimmed across the wave-tops.

The reason that we so urgently needed water and supplies was that we 
were entertaining our Alaskan friends Alisa and Mike with their 
young son Elias from the neighbouring yacht Pelagic. We made it back
to Pindimara in the nick of time and were able to quickly clean up and
 start cooking before they arrived. After some initial excitement when 
Pelagic’s tender’s new outboard failed in the wind and rain just short 
of us, we had a great evening of laksa, wine, cake and conversation. 
One advantage of the continuous wind was that the wind generator kept 
on pumping out power and we managed to keep the cabin lights and hi-fi 
speakers working the whole time.

A night of rain brought the welcome sight of a dinghy full to the 
brim, so we nipped out in a gap between squalls and pumped all that 
precious sweet water into the aft tank.

Waiting at Iluka

The bay at Iluka is a pleasant enough anchorage, and it is but a short row to the local pub and shop. More northerly winds were forecast shortly after we arrived, and we had to catch up on some schoolwork, so we decided to stay a while.

The winds improved, but we had some more work to do both for university and on the boat, so we stayed a few days longer, and now we’re waiting out a 40-knot gale that is expected to last all weekend. Luckily the holding here is very good, because the boat is being thrown around like a child’s toy even inland behind two breakwaters.

It hasn’t been all work work work. Iluka has a very pleasant walk that leads you to the impressive sandstone bluffs via an unusual beach rain forest (“beware the shiny-leaved stinging tree”) and back via the very long beach itself. We’ve done the walk in both directions, and on one occasion came back through the rain forest at night. As our eyes became adjusted to the gloom, we realised that there were little scattered spots of fairy light both in the undergrowth and up in the trees. Thinking that they were glow-worms, we sneaked up on one with our trusty wind-up torch, and switched it on to reveal that we were actually looking at phosphorescent mushrooms. Very cool.

On the other side of the channel is the slightly bigger town of Yamba. As well as indulging in a bit of tourism, we needed to buy some items that weren’t available in Iluka, so we took the ferry over. It was possible to take the yacht, but we didn’t like the look of either the channel depths or of the anchoring options at the other end. This was the first time that I regretted not having an outboard motor for the tender. The tidal flow would have made for rather too exciting a row to Yamba and back, but we could have motored the dinghy over without any problem.

Still, the ferry was very pleasant, and we had breakfast in the excellent Pot Belly Pie Shop (the serving lass was wearing a tight little T-shirt reading “I got my pot belly in Yamba”). I also badly needed some shorts to wear, having torn all my existing ones to shreds, so we dropped into one of the many surf shops to buy some board shorts, thinking that they probably had the right durability in sea water. Once we’d made our purchases, I found that there was something hard in one of the pockets, which turned out to be a very unusual combination comb and beer bottle opener. Welcome to the surfer lifestyle!

We had a nice day clambering about on the rocks, watching the surf and the surfers, fossicking in chandleries, and yes, looking for second-hand 3 horse power outboard motors. We didn’t find a motor (apparently nobody hereabouts would be seen dead with anything less than 75 hp) but we did get enough other bits and pieces to finally allow me to add some finishing touches to the sewage tank in the head, and a replacement pump so that I can finally change the engine oil.

But not today. It’s just a little bumpy at the moment.

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.

First Maintenance

We sailed, and sailed. We sailed in heavy winds, and practiced reefing, both together and single-handed. We sailed in light winds, and tried our light genoa. We went out into swell, and practiced hoisting and lowering sails on a heaving deck. We stayed out overnight and practiced anchoring.

Off we go again!
Off we go again!

We booked marina berths, and practiced entering them both forwards and backwards, in wind and in current. We stayed overnight in berths, and practiced setting mooring lines and springers. We practiced picking up a mooring under sail, heaving to, and crash-stops. We practiced using the autopilot, and steering to the wind, and steering to a pre-set course. We even tried steering with the emergency tiller, which really wasn’t a lot of fun.

A Touch of Wind

One morning, after a pleasant night at anchor, a big storm started to brew. It took us a few hours to sail out of the secluded creek where wed been staying and into the main body of the river, by which time it was gusting an exciting thirty knots or so. We put in a couple of reefs and headed down the Hawkesbury river for home. The wind got steadily stronger, until we reached the point where we thought that it would be prudent to bring the sails down altogether, and motor. The main dropped down just fine, but the foresail roller furler jammed with about a metre of sail still sticking out. It didn’t look much, but boy! did it have an effect as the winds got up to 35 knots. We were heading into wind, and the steering was all over the place as intermittent gusts grabbed the sail one way or the other, but there was no way that I was going forward as it was flogging dangerously and we had no tethers. The fight was hard, and we soon got tired. We were still a couple of hours from home, so we nipped into aptly named Refuge Bay to pick up a mooring and see if we could sort it out.

The first mooring that we picked – which was, necessarily due to our lack of precision steering, in the open far from shore – was a disaster. We got attached alright, but that little square metre of sail just kept on powering us forward, dipping the bow under the water first to the left, and then to the right. I tied myself on to the thrashing deck, and by dint of some interesting ropework, gradually got the free end under control without being hit on the head very much at all, and built a sort of rope cage around it to stop it from thrashing so much. By this time, the waves around us had breaking white tops and we were being pelted with spray, so we decided to move to a more sheltered mooring before figuring out what was wrong with the furler.

Across the bay, close in to the shore, was a mooring that looked OK. Since we now had proper steering, we tucked in behind a sheltering rocky peninsula and celebrated with a bite of lunch while we watched the white-tops rage past. We now had time to peer up at the foresail and pull and poke at it, and we came to the conclusion that in the excitement of high-wind furling, the first few metres had probably folded over and furled backwards. This would mean that as the rest of the sail furled correctly over the top of it, the twisted portion would be pulled ever tighter until no amount of grinding on the winches would get the last part in.

The only way out was to deploy the headsail, and furl it back up again. The problem, of course, was that we had to do this downwind (you can”t realistically furl on a mooring, or upwind), and so in the interim we would be sailing shoreward with a fully powered headsail in 35 knots, with only one chance of getting it right, and banking on the hope that our analysis was correct and there wasnt something else fatally wrong with the furler…

We waited for a lull, then motored out into the breaking swell. I ran down to the bow, removed my jury-rigged fix, and ran back to the stern. The foresail deployed with an evil crack and then it was winch, winch, winch, all the while keeping an eagle-eye out for backwards folds, until the last blessed metre rolled safely around the stay. Superb. Better turn now, before we hit the rocks.

Out in the channel, the wind increased to 40 knots, and since we were approaching the headland leading to the open sea, the swell was increasing to suit. However, Pindimara felt safe and happy, and the motor had plenty of power in hand, so we ploughed on.

Bronwyn in 40 knots. Shortly after, it was 50 knots.
Bronwyn in 40 knots. Shortly after, it was 50 knots.

At the mouth of the Hawkesbury is an area of confused waters where the river meets not only the sea, but also the mouth of our home Pittwater arm, and the waters around Lion Island, which is a big slab of rock that reflects any swell back at a 45 degree angle. Its a bit of a maelstrom at the best of times, and there are some broaching rocks on the lee shore leading to Pittwater. However, we are familiar with the area and it holds no fear for us, so despite staying a safe distance from the shore, we were not too perturbed and could concentrate on rolling over the swell without getting the decks too wet.

We were quite surprised to find a small open metal boat motoring along in the trough of the swell, but you get fishermen everywhere and we turned away to give them some space. Suddenly they started waving and shouting; their engine had chosen that moment to give out and they were drifting onto the rocks. There were four people aboard, none with life jackets and, apparently, they had no oars.

The gusts were now hitting 50 knots. We circled around, wary of the rocky shore, and tried to throw them a line. It was incredibly difficult to stand on the heaving deck and throw a heavy, wet rope with any kind of accuracy, and I suddenly gained an immense appreciation for the people who do this for a living. A couple of attempts fell well within reach of their boat, but now it seemed that they didn’t have a boat-hook either; evidently I had to actually drop the rope inside their tiny little vessel.

All the while Bronwyn was fighting to avoid the rocky lee shore, and trying not to crush their little egshell with our five-tonne hull, which meant keeping at least one trough away from them. Over the radio, we could hear the coastguard rejecting calls from any boats in inland waters; all their efforts were concentrated on a series of dismasted yachts and men-overboard along the coastline. We weren’t going to get any help from them.

At one point I did manage to get the end of a double-length rope into their boat, but somehow while they were making fast a knot came adrift and they ended up with both ends of one of our mooring lines, while I was left standing with a loose end of a second one secured to our boat. We were just going round for another try when we spotted another small motor launch heading our way. We intercepted it and asked if they could help. They were much closer in size and weight to the stricken tinny and I thought that they should be able to get in close without danger, and that is what they did.

We hung around and escorted the pair as the new boat towed the old one out of danger, and then watched in stunned amazement as a fuel can was passed over and their engine sprang into life. The idiots had run out of fuel! Even worse, without any acknowledgement or backward glance, they then motored off towards shore, taking our mooring rope with them, and we never saw them again.

Ah well. At least it gave me something interesting to write in the ships log.

Updating the Captains Log at the end of the day
Updating the Captains Log at the end of the day

Many feet make heavy work

We had also been taking on board a lot of guests. We soon decided that although it is technically possible to sleep six on board (and day-sail with eight), a total of two couples aboard is really the maximum if you want to have a good time. As captain, we are responsible for all crew, however inexperienced, and we felt that responsibility keenly. After a weekend of entertaining, however enjoyable, we often felt as if we needed another weekend off in order to recover. And then we had the guests who insisted on “helping”, and others who just broke everything they touched… Thankfully, these were in the minority, and of course on most weekends we had a real ball even if we were completely knackered.

Chris pretends to be happy about far too much wind
Chris pretends to be happy about far too much wind

Parties at anchor were one thing; it wasnt until we started giving interested friends basic helming instruction and found ourselves quietly compensating for their mistakes that we realised just how far we had come since our first forays onto Lake Burley Griffin. It was also always a lovely moment to see somebody suddenly “get it” and become a completely natural helmsman.

A season of sailing, and a season of guests, all took their toll on our nice shiny boat. Inside and out she started to get a bit ragged around the edges, and we began to notice obvious scratches and stains in the fittings, and wear and tear in the equipment. It was time to call a halt to the festivities, and do some maintenance.

Up the mast

One of the items that had been broken right from the start was the close-hauled indicator, an instrument that tells you where the wind is coming from. In actual fact, that didn’t bother us greatly because it isn’t particularly useful in ordinary sailing. You can get the same information from the wind arrow on top of the mast, the telltales (our wedding ribbons!) flying from the stays, the state of the water, the wind on your face, and so on. The real purpose of the close-hauled indicator is to feed wind direction information to the autopilot. Our autopilot has two modes; one where you simply give it a compass heading and it chugs along in that direction (useful under motor), and the other which is supposed to emulate a self-steering windvane (a kind of extra sail and rudder which you find on proper cruising yachts). The idea is that you can set the sails, and then tell the autopilot to always maintain the same angle to the wind, thus giving you a break from steering.

The wind sensors at the top of the mast
The wind sensors at the top of the mast

This still isn’t critical for anything, but its an expensive piece of broken equipment to carry around, and in any case, since the sensor is at the masthead, it gave me the perfect excuse to climb up the mast. There are a number of authentically nautical ways of going aloft, but I already owned a perfectly good climbing harness which I trusted to keep me safe while abseiling down waterfalls in the Blue Mountains If I was going to climb a fourteen-metre mast, then I wasnt going to mess about with unfamiliar techniques.

In actual fact, climbing is a bit of a misnomer. You wouldn’t want to put your dirty great feet on the expensive aluminium spreaders, and the mast itself is shiny and smooth without much in the way of finger-holds. No, what you do is assign a likely-looking crew member to the winches, attach the main halyard (and the topping lift as backup) to your harness, and lie back in luxury while she winches you to the top.

Helloooo from the top of the mast
Helloooo from the top of the mast

This is what Pindimara looks like from up there:

Seagulls eye view of Pindimara
Seagulls eye view of Pindimara

Buffing and Polishing

Our yacht is made of fibreglass. We had naiively assumed that this was a fairly indestructable material that would look good with nothing more than the odd hose-down now and again. However, in the marine environment, the gel coat discolours and even oxidises. Add to that the roughening impact of endless guests and their bags, and the deck and the inside of our cockpit began to look decidedly shabby.

Scratches on the deck
Scratches on the deck

I tried to buff the deck myself with a 12 volt sander and a sheep’s wool pad, but it was impossible to get a good finish. We engaged the services of our friendly local shipwright, and the weekend after a phone call telling us that she was as good as new, we popped out to the mooring expecting great things. Sadly, it was not to be. The yacht, which we had recently cleaned inside and out, was absolutely filthy and the cabins were full of dust. The deck was, if it were possible, even more matt than before, and the various old oil stains and bird droppings had apparently been ground into the deck with a power sander. The cockpit itself, which had been our main concern and the reason for getting the job done in the first place, had not been touched apart from to fill it with a layer of dried paste and some old rags. We were not amused. After some quite energetic discussions, the shipwright agreed to waive the bill, and we looked around for somebody else to do the job.

The general consensus among local people was a company called Reflections, who agreed to come aboard during the week and sort it out. After their phone call, I rode straight from work to the marina, got in the Zodiac, and rowed out to have a look, preparing myself for the worst. When I got to the boat, I almost didn’t dare set foot aboard. Somebody had apparently taken our yacht away and replaced it with a new one; it was an incredible transformation. In addition to spotless, shining decks, our teak flooring, which had always been a sort of beech grey, was suddenly a rich golden colour. I rowed straight back to shore, headed for their office, and willingly gave them a pile of cash. What an incredible job!

Compare and contrast with the previous photo
Compare and contrast with the previous photo

Sucking oil

Pindimara’s motor is a three-cylinder 29-horsepower Volvo Penta diesel engine. The service intervals are 100 hours, or once a year, whichever is soonest. We had now owned her for a year, and I had long been suspicious that precious little maintenance had been done thus far; not unless the previous mechanic had carefully repainted all the new filters in the original Volvo green colour.

Volvo Penta MD2030 lives under the stairs
Volvo Penta MD2030 lives under the stairs

In addition, I am always uncomfortable running an engine that I haven’t seen the inside of, so it was time to roll up my sleeves and get oily. Being more used to land-based engines, I had to learn some new tricks. Even changing the oil was interesting. Since the bottom of the block rests directly in the bilge, there is no room to get a tray underneath it. In fact, you cant even get a spanner to the drain plug. What you have to do is to buy a special pump and suck all the oil out from the top. I read various manuals and descriptions of how this process was supposed to work, and all clearly stated that the oil was sucked out of the dipstick tube. I managed to buy an oil pump (a nice shiny piece of engineering, made of brass) without any problems, but just could not fathom how I was supposed to push the sharp end down a tube that was almost completely inaccessible and shaped like yesterday’s share index. After much cursing, and to-ing and fro-ing with bits of brass and plastic tubing, I finally banged my hands painfully on a hitherto invisible pipe projecting from near the base of the block. Aha! A special, purpose-made oil pump tube. How convenient. From then on, it was just a case of pumping. And pumping. And pumping…

It works!
It works!

The Penta is water-cooled, by means of a seawater heat exchanger. All the various filters are easy enough to check and to clean, but the screws that held in the pump impeller had clearly never been moved, and one of them snapped right off, so that I was obliged to call in the local shipwrights for a bit of work with a drill and thread-cutter. The impeller is downright weird; it’s made of rubber and is designed to be far too big for the hole it turns in. The crankshaft obviously provides enough power to turn it, but it looks like a piece of old chewing gum when you finally cram it into place. As for the fuel filters… I broke two strap wrenches trying to get them off, and postponed it for another day.

Scrubbing the Bottom

It was by now some eight months or so since we had treated the underside with antifouling paint. During the process we had been forced to miss out on treating a transverse strip that had been occluded by the load-bearing strap at the yard, and I’d been keen to drop under and see how that patch was doing. For some weeks I had also been noticing a distinct sluggishness in the engine response, so one day at anchor in a small bay, I donned a wetsuit and went down to have a look. The strip of untreated hull was thickly overgrown, but I had expected this and had brought a stiff brush to scrub it off. However, there were other surprises in store.

Growth on the sail drive, and on the band of untreated hull
Growth on the sail drive, and on the band of untreated hull

First of all, I found a length of fishing line wrapped around the prop. This had been intercepted by our line-cutter which had almost cut it all away, so it wasn’t hard to pull out the melted remainder. The real surprise was the amount of marine growth over the propeller and the sail drive itself. You may recall that while we used expensive semi-professional paint for the major fibreglass portion of the hull, we had borrowed some cheap copper-free paint from a neighbour to do the few metal parts; the sail drive and the through-hull fittings. This was, it now turned out, a mistake. While the main bulk of the underside was perfectly fine and untouched by marine life of any kind, all the metal fittings, including the crucial seawater intake vents, were festooned with coral. An hour or two with a snorkel and brush soon sorted that out, and then it was time to quit working, and go sailing.