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Monday, January 18, 2010

A few tough days ~ January 18, 2010

I felt like a mouse trapped in a corner with a big shoe coming down. The weather dons said it would blow for a day or two, and being exposed at Wybalenna, we high tailed it for Lady Barron, the only sea port on Flinders Island. The other time it had blown strongly, we’d had a horror night dragging anchor across a weedy bottom, and unsuccessfully trying to reset it in the middle of night, at great expense of sleep. Windy, cold, roaring like a lion, malevolent forces had pushed us about. Terrible for me at the front of our ship; in just a flimsy nightshirt, torch in hand, looking for a clear sandy patch amongst dark weed with Jude yelling above the engine noise asking where to go? How would I know, everything was black.

This time we thought the main port would be a better place to find shelter. Trouble was; Lady Barron lay up wind, reached by threading the shallows of Franklin Sound with its strong tidal streams. It was a noisy motor, but late in the day a few houses broke through the hillside bushes, a jetty emerged then other craft appeared. First we spied a single yacht, followed by another emerging from behind Great Dog Island. Neither looked like they’d gone anywhere for a time. White splotches of gull poo peppered their cabins and tattered sail covers.

At the big timber jetty, a medium sized purse seiner noisily disgorged twin columns of seawater while more of those gulls fought in the wispy grey sky just above its structures. Next to it sat a smaller trawler, and scanning it with binoculars revealed an empty space closer towards the shore.

“We might be able to tie up in front of that blue trawler,” I mentioned to Jude while she concentrated on following a pair of triangles, points together, that lead through the last shoal and into the Lady Barron Harbour. A quick look about revealed what I had deduced from the chart, Lady Barron wasn’t well protected from stormy west winds. The roadstead was open in that direction for the entire extent of Franklin Sound and beyond. Nasty west winds came from Antarctica to attack Bass Straits, and that’s what I was seeing from the deck of my ship as we approached the dock.

Down here in the Roaring Forties, winds come from all directions. Cold fronts and depressions are regular features on their weather charts; each bringing their own mixture of winds. On this day we had a feisty one out the northeast that blew straight onto those docks. Tomorrow late they’d switch round to the west, and the day after that we’d be blasted from the south. But for now, the wind blowing onto the docks made coming alongside a bit dicey, requiring good brakes before hitting the trawler or running up the shore. I hate looking a fool or hearing a bunch of yelling while panic driven bile rises up my throat. So, after checking the rest of the anchorage, which was all rather weedy, we dropped anchor just off the jetty with the thought that if the wind eased at sunset or dawn, we could slip in with less risk.

An easy night followed. The northeast blew steadily then eased just before dawn. I got up then, and peering at those docks through binoculars, my mind’s eye moved Banyandah in alongside the trawler then I hit astern gear and prayed our back-end wouldn’t slew out towards the shallow water I’d seen from my dingy the previous evening. Problem was where to hook on our ropes? Everything was too tall, built for bigger boats. Jude would never reach. Oh, what to do? Wake Jude and go in, or look for another spot.

The wind returning with renewed gusto made up my mind to stay put. I woke Jude and suggested we wander round the town to see if we even wanted to stay. Because in the back on my mind, I had thoughts of using the last of this wind to sail to another spot. Jude didn’t take long to pull on her jerkin and thermal pants, and by half seven we were rowing past the very spot we would have been trying to pull into.

“I’d never get a hold of that,” Jude said pointing to the huge piles.

“I thought you might have gotten a rope around that ladder,” I answered, but now I could see it was set back more than her arm’s length.

So, instead of racing back to Banyandah, we landed Little Red then wandered up a rough deserted road, past tall stacks of logs ready for shipment and a mess of shipping containers. Flinders Island port wasn’t in great shape. Even the flaking paint on a factory building showed cracks in its brickwork.

In fact, not much we saw was in good repair. A lone resident we spoke with summed it up, “It’s quiet. Just the way we like it.” Lawns were mostly weed; paint was peeling off half the houses; windows were cracked, a number of doors hung off their jambs.

Upon empty streets we wandered, taking photos of Banyandah amongst the many islands surrounding Lady Barron. None had trees. Only blonde granite rock with that orange fungus so typical of the area, and dry summer grasses set alight by aqua blue water showing an artist’s mixture of dark weedy splotches intermixed with lighter shallow patches.

The only store stood forlorn and locked tight, its twin petrol pump standing guard till a nine o’clock start. There were no other shops. No businesses, except a pseudo pub offering cabin accommodation. No souls on empty streets had my mind returning to the sailable northeast wind, wondering where I could get on it.

Back at the docks we ran into two old codgers talking about nets and their catches and I interrupted them with my problem.

“You can tie alongside me,” the shorter, grizzly one said, indicating the blue trawler named First Pride. I thanked him for the offer then asked whether Jamison Bay would be good holding in the coming west winds.

“Good holding there. Pure sand. But those mountains make the wind.” Meaning, I guess, it was subject to bullets down a mountainside.

“Pretty,” I asked.

“Yes. Quite the picture. Good Flathead too. But I’ve never been able to stay. Maybe my cabin's too high.”

That planted the seeds of doubt, but I’d already decided. Lady Barron seemed a waste. I’d be bored waiting for the weather with nothing to do, especially if we could sail another thirty miles to a pretty bay with good fishing.

The trip down was bumpy with swells bouncing off Pot Boil Shoals, and then we got into some strife when threading the needle between Vansittart and its off lying shoals right next to the 1912 wreck of the Farsund. In fact, it wasn’t a nice trip. But, we did sail the miles and not have to motor. And once passed Gull Island, we ran in towards a crescent of golden beaches at the base of the 500 metre Mt Kerford on Cape Barren island, and there we found peace tucked away in the NE corner of Jamison Bay.

The Cape Barren Island community can be traced back to the early 19th century, when European sealers brought Aboriginal women to the remote island to become reluctant wives and workers. Mutton-birding replaced sealing as the main economic activity in the 1850s and the community led a lifestyle based on a mix of both Aboriginal and European ways. Today few Straitsmen inhabit the island.

Our very pretty spot soon got even better when the biggest Dusky Flathead we’d ever seen came wiggling over the railing hooked to Jude’s fishing line. Later on, while talking to the kids during our free phone hour, I landed a second one and thought we’d found heaven.

We’d just finished a scrumptious fish dinner when the nor’easter faded. Pausing to catch its breath, a minute later the wind returned from the north then immediately got stronger shifting round west. Good, I thought, we’ll shift before dark and get settled at the other end of the beach. Easy to do, although the swell still attacked that end of the beach. In increasing blasts darkening the water and helping to flatten the swell, we set our hook in open clean sand, taking the precaution of establishing a GPS position as it went down. Pulling it in brought wide smiles when our bows were pulled sharply in line with the full scope of our anchor chain. Then quite soon it became dark, leaving just a blinking icon on our GPS to show where we were at.

Darkness brought the first bullets down the mountain and Banyandah groaned under their impact then she slew round with the swell running up her backside. We rocked. We rolled. We danced about. The wind gods got angrier, screaming abuse, and sleep evaded us both. We could only lie flat, listen, and wait for the next attack. Every few minutes, particularly after a savage hit, one of us would get up to peer at the GPS and check if we had dragged. But all through the night, it kept saying .03 NM to our anchor. That relates to the 60 m of chain we’d laid out.

Next morning at first light the sea behind was white and blown here and there into spray. Worse, the wind had travelled past west and was now starting to invade the bay with a bit of southing. A few more hours would expose us to a nasty sea, so we were being forced to move. But where? Back around the corner? Yesterday’s swell would still be running there. Our only choices; all the way back to Lady Barron, or further on, entering Banks Strait. Ten mile in that direction lay Clarke Island where my guidebook noted an all weather anchorage. Could we punch ahead? The current would be going our way, but the wind and chop would fight us back.

Winds generally are lighter at first light, so without breaking our fast, we pulled the hook, raised half the mainsail then ventured round the corner keeping as close to the rocks as was safe. The first four miles was easy with wind blasts more off the land. But then we came to Sea Lion Narrows, a tight opening between Passage Island and Cape Barren that the pilot says should only be used in case of necessity as tidal streams attain rates of 5 to 6 knots. Above water rocks restrict the opening to 2 cables and there’s a submerged rock mid-channel.

Passage Island provided some shelter and it was there in the calm water we found a lone fishing boat laying what I thought was a net. A call on our VHF brought a laconic reply confirming the floats as just being pots. “Clear water round them,” was his short answer. And when I asked about Sea Lion Narrows, wondering if my small donk could get us through, he replied, “Current's going with you.” Nothing else was said. So we hugged the calm water behind Passage Island, passed his buoys then headed towards a line of white water.

I expected some disturbance. Wind against tide will always cause overfalls, but I thought we’d just barrel through, and then continue our beat up wind. Well, in seconds we were in the gap and from the GPS screen I was telling Jude to head more right when she screamed out, “Straight for the rocks?”

Popping my head up, multi-story granite boulders were a boat length ahead. Alarmed, I yelled turn hard left, then looking that way saw what appeared a white avalanche, one wave after another for as far as I could see.

The first one washed over us, sloshing water round the wheel house. It stopped our lady dead in her tracks. Straight to zero the speedo sank when the next one sloshed several more feet of water onto our decks. We gave the donk a kick, but that only added more noise to the mayhem as those twin boulders on our right seemed to loom even closer. I ducked below to see us on the screen and was instantly amazed to see a tiny dotted track going forward at nearly six knots. Crash, more waves came on board, sending spray through the rigging. Even though the speedo said zero, we were leaving the obstructions behind.

“Just keep us pointing into them,” I said to Judith. And as she hurriedly spun the wheel back and forth reassured her that we were getting through at an unbelievable rate of knots.

A nasty hour followed. The wind increased and more sand banks narrowed the safe water to a single roadway. With the tide going our way, against the wind we battled a short, wet sea. On the positive side, Clarke Island kept getting bigger until it offered a bit of a lee, shortly after we entered Kangaroo Bay.

Feeling proud, and more than just a bit buggered, we were ready for a quite sit down and a hot cuppa, so we motored in as far as the depth would let us, before sending down our forty-five pound plow. But do you think it’d hold in that dark bottom? Nah! Starting dragging with the first heavy blast. So we tried another spot. But that was just as bad. For our next attempt we searched the darkened water for a lighter sand patch, but couldn’t find any. So, a third time we hauled up our anchor thickly covered in a soft almost gelatine weed that was blown in smelly lumps upon my deck.

“Keep driving about while I change to the admiralty anchor,” I told Jude as I went below to retrieve the heavy monster from under our floor. I wasn’t feeling very confident dragging it up the stairs because it had never proved very effective. The change over was heavy, dangerous work in the wind blasts, but we needed a solution.

At last, the monster was sent down and for awhile seemed to hold us at .03 nm from the spot. Then a bigger blast sent us to .04, and another blast shoved us further. We didn’t let go like the plow, just every big blast dragged that hook through the weed until our keel was nearly touching the bottom. We tried the admiralty in two other spots, but it was useless. A difficult day after little sleep, needing something secure for the coming night now only hours away, I became despondent.

“I’m going to hook up the Danforth. Yes, I know it’s only our lunch hook and rather light, but keep your fingers crossed.”

Straight away its big flukes harvested a whopping big crop and that sent us flying sideways straight towards the beach. Great! Gonna sleep real well with that holding us. Its second attempt pulled us sharply around and for a few minutes I walked on egg shells so as not to loosen its grip. Meanwhile my mind’s eye kept seeing us side-on to the wind and sailing fast towards shore. Fuzzy head, unable to decide what should be done next, darkness started falling. My anxiety soared.

The plow was best all-round, but clogged easily. The admiralty dragged slowest, but held poorest. And our lunch hook, the Danforth, presently had a grip, but would let fly if it move an inch. Oh, I hated boats right then. Why couldn’t we just cuddle up in front of a TV.

We talked about laying two anchors in a vee, but that would be inviting disaster, especially at night when they might twist and become a big mess. Unable to decide what to do next, my brain simply froze into an ice block. Slumping down, sipping a beer, just then the wind gods must have taken pity and sucked back their demons. Suddenly only a gentle breeze breached the low shoreline and Banyandah settled to a slow waltz around her anchor instead of a mad samba.

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