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Monday, March 29, 2010

One World to Another

Halfway along Tasmania’s wild west coast, the tidy town of Strahan lay at our doorstep, its single street reflecting a golden age when ships of sail loaded copper ore at a rough timber jetty and log jams of giant Huon Pine and King Billy littered its black waters. Banyandah now lay upon those same waters looking like a toy boat adrift on an alpine lake with the town’s federation colours painted on the green forests adorning the slopes.

In the silence of dawn, all seems at peace - until looking skyward. Darkening wisps of mare’s tails are being whisked off bare rock peaks, and at that moment our true predicament is revealed. There’s trouble here in paradise.

Banyandah had journeyed halfway down the Australian Continent and across a notorious strait just so Judith and I could climb one peak. And now that we have conquered Mount Sorell, she’s trapped on one of the world’s most dangerous lee shores. To the west of those verdant green hills, the great southern ocean roars with the unfettered might of ten thousand sea miles.

While summer turned to autumn we had done much more than climb just one mountain. During our stay, several ‘old timers’ had greatly expanded our knowledge by telling us their experiences of timber getting, trail blazing and working the mines within this enclave of Nature. In addition we walked forty kilometres along a historic railroad that once transported refined copper down from high mountains along the infamous King River, a once pristine waterway that is now a trickle due to acid mine runoff and tailings. Listening to these learned men and looking about with keen eyes, we learnt a bit more about man’s ability to govern and manage. And reflecting upon that knowledge, we now more fully understand why mankind has come so little distance towards properly managing this planet. But, our journey here has come to an end. A new destination beckons; South Australia, the driest state in the driest continent on Earth.

This new challenge requires a 550 nautical mile sail northwest to South Australia’s Kangaroo Island. That’s a distance greater than Sydney to Brisbane, but upon open sea, not down a major highway. Some undertake such a journey in short hops. The first, an overnight sail to King Island followed by another overnighter across Bass Straits to the mainland. From there it can be managed in several day sails along the coast to our destination of American River on Kangaroo Island.

But, Jude and I prefer to make these moves in one big jump. We like to reach open water, get the boat set up then sail day and night around the clock. That leaves us ample free time to reflect and savour our last destination, while pondering the next.

Aye, but doing this across the roaring forties of the great southern ocean requires particular care and good planning. Winds from southwest round to east would be the best. But those only occur when depressions pass under Tasmania, producing nasty storms, or when a high pressure system passes north. In addition there’s a further complication, timing the outflow of tide through the infamous Hell’s Gate.

In the forty years since we began sailing, weather predicting has improved immensely. We can now access the Bureau of Meteorology’s computer model over the internet which predicts wind vectors up to seven days ahead. That’s what I was doing this early morning in Strahan. For days numbering more than two weeks I have been studying the weather website and following the tides, searching for just the right conditions.

Never mind the wind clouds scudding overhead, they’re only reminding me that here it can blow savagely anytime, for this morning I was delighted to see the right combination of vectors appear on my screen. After the weekend, the wind will back from north through west to south, and then continue round to the east over five or six days, sufficient for our journey to South Australia. We’ll have light winds at first then these will strengthen as we close with our destination. In theory providing the proverbial “wet sail” sending us speedily towards our destination. But studying the vectors indicates we'll need an early start or be confronted with adverse winds before clearing Tasmania’s north coast. So I told Jude we’d be leaving early Monday morning.

It would have been grand if that day had brought a perfect dawn. But no such luck. It had rained all night and departure morning arrived with black clouds and big drops of cold rain. Nevertheless, several friends came to see us off. First to arrive, Trevor’s good lady Megs rushed down the shiny wet wharf with her short fluffy hair framing red lips that seemed even more purposefully set. And as usual, her outfit perfectly colour coordinated. This time lime greens. Slinging a mauve knitted muff aside she knowingly ran her hand along our wet railing to displace the raindrops, then slung her leg over and niftily ducked under our awning to escape the rain.

While Jude brewed a final round of coffee, Max and Marie sauntered down the jetty decked out in wet weather slickers. Talkative as usual, Max was loudly wishing us god’s speed well before reaching our boat. Arm in arm, his lovely bride of more than 50 years beamed a pert smile lit by sparks from her high voltage blue eyes.

We chatted and reminisced for more than a half hour. Then hearing the ship’s clock strike the hour, there seemed little else to do but share one last cuddle before starting our engine, its roar awakening the town. Untying our ship, we waved goodbye as Banyandah slid from the jetty, and as she did, a ray of sunshine parted the dark clouds, bathing the town we’d come to love in brilliant radiance. While storing mooring ropes and fenders, a collage of buildings went past and one stood out. It was a ramshackle tin shed with stacks of dirty yellow logs and piles of bright yellow sawdust outside. And in large, faded black letters across its corrugated roof, Morrisons Sawmill, The oldest working Huon Pine sawmill in the world. Still family owned after five generations, Snowy and Erin run it today, mostly to supply fine timbers to the craft industry and to display the old ways for visiting tourists. Each afternoon when the Eagle catamaran returns from its Macquarie Harbour cruise, it lands passengers alongside; then Snowy fires up the last working vertical saw in Tasmania to show them how his grandfather cut planks from Huon logs.

From out the shadows of the open building came the four we had come to cherish, and standing in a pool of sunshine they gave a wave and cheery Bon Voyage. We had been in their mill many times, talking timbers and the old ways, and they’d been over at our place for a meal. Lovely times, listening to their stories, so we yahooed back at the top of our lungs.

Once our friends merged into the forested background, we turned forward to seek new sights, and as we did, the last clouds evaporated from the peaks. Magically bathed in glorious sunshine, each individual tree seemed to jump straight and tall out the mountains surrounding the harbour.

I won’t pretend to know how Macquarie Harbour was formed. I can only say it’s a unique place on Earth. As big as Sydney Harbour, it takes Banyandah five hours to motor from one end to the other, and yet no one live along its shores. Two major rivers feed into it, and although their outpourings have been damned and diverted by white settlers, there are still hundreds of smaller creeks discharging huge volumes of mountain water. And like many waterways, it is tidal. But Macquarie’s rise and fall is hampered by an extremely narrow opening.

When first explored by James Kelly, the man credited with its discovery in 1815, its only opening was a maze of narrow channels coursing through a wide bank of sand with a tiny rock island plumb in the middle. James Kelly and his group spent three days exploring its huge 285 square kilometres and their descriptions of vast stands of trees, within a year, had timber cutters entering the harbour to cut down the magnificent Huon Pines. But, early ships had little success navigating its torturous entrance and many mishaps and disasters occurred. So, between 1900 and 1902, the Macquarie Harbour Entrance Works constructed a training wall to form one deep channel between the rocky Entrance Island and the even more rocky southern shore. Since then, Nature has filled in the other channels leaving just this one narrow opening barely three houses wide. This is Hell’s Gate. It’s not named for the torrent that is always a threat, but by the convicts taken through its portal to a life in Hell on Sarah Island, the most horrid penal colony in the world.

Once within the grip of Hell’s Gate, we had no chance of turning back. Taken out by more current than our engine could challenge, it was then our journey began in earnest. For the wind was not the favourable south of west expected, but from ahead. Disappointed that our well planned voyage was off to a poor start, we shrugged, muttered under our breath then tried sailing close to the wind. But our lady seemed destined to charge straight through the surf onto a nearby beach, making motoring the wisest choice.

Alongside, on the sailing ship Tiosjem, were John and Jo, a couple older than us bound for Geelong to complete their very first voyage. And they seemed to agree. So, in concert we ploughed ahead through the easy nor-westerly slop until darkness fell. Soon after, under an inky blue-black sky punctuated by a billion pricks of silver light, the light breeze shifted more onshore, allowing Jude and me to set full sail. Tiosjem continued motoring ahead on a different track.

Great grandmother Jo had once asked us if we still didn’t get a wee bit apprehensive when going to sea and I honestly answered that we don’t think that way anymore. Banyandah floats. She has in seas far higher than many buildings. And she has for longer than many folk live. So, unless a quirk happens, which it might, she’ll survive and so will we. With that fear removed, an ocean voyage is a special experience for many reasons. One is to experience the true wild side of Earth where man’s laws have little meaning.

The moment our engine’s mechanical hammering ceased, Nature’s sounds suddenly surrounded us, and with them came the natural motion of Earth. Cool caresses ruffled our hair and lightly touched our cheeks, and the sea took us for a swaying but soothing ride through the forever-ness of the heavens, filling our souls with the joy of life. And not for the first time as I watched our sails soar across the galaxies did I wonder if other creatures felt this great joy of life. Do sea eagles, when their wingtips lift on an updraft smile inwardly with gratification? Does a gannet, its golden head gleaming as if dipped in saffron, feel joyful anticipation as it folds its bright white wings into a missile before piercing the sea to great depths? And how does a grey kangaroo feel when lopping easily along in giant leaps across red country, a golden sun silhouetting low saltbush and sweet spring growth filling its nostrils? At those magical times, do other creatures also enjoy life?

Our first night passed in tranquil ecstasy, first watching Sandy Cape’s lighthouse blink ahead on a dark shore. And later, as it drew abeam and I’d retired, Jude saw the full moon light distant mountains. “It was like a spiritual vision with a white laneway sprinkling across the sea from the moon,” she said next morning. And then narrated how she’d weaved Banyandah through a fleet of fishing boats, revelling in the knowledge that she could go either right or left on a flat sea without laneways.

Next morning, upon an unblemished cerulean sea, the rising sun brightened Banyandah’s taut white sails as she slipped ever so smoothly northwards past the top end of the Tasmanian Island. By nine, all land had disappeared, replaced by a large flock of seabirds hunting nearby. Clouds then appeared where land had been and the breeze eased to a quiet whisper, and yet we still managed an easy three knots towards our destination. When the moon rose that night, the breeze backed further to the south forcing us to pole out the headsail during our change of watch. Then with the mainsail on our right, we waddled  wing’n’wing down the wind at little more than a fast walking pace.

Having slept well two nights at sea, we became one with our ship’s easy motion, and in what can only be described a journey without time, remembrances of Tassie and other stray thoughts wandered through our minds while we gazed upon the sharp horizon. At times other creatures joined us. Dolphins came to ride our bow wave and albatross soared alongside just above wavelets that storm petrels skipped along searching for tidbits. Often we’d call out. And it didn’t surprise us when they turned as if to answer. These small interactions make us feel truly connected to Earth, her rhythm and creatures, and subjected to the real laws of Earth life. Survive and cohabitate.

Ever the hunter-gatherer, each dawn after Jude slipped aft for her second sleep, I’d set out our trolling line then watch for the slightest twang. My eye often measuring its catenary to judge whether a small fish might be on. Twice I hauled in barracouta. Tasmanians call them Axe Handles, a long, slender, silver fish with three dagger teeth. Stinky and slimy, often wormy, I set these free. But during sunset on day three, my line didn’t rise gently from a Couta, but snapped bow string tight. Taking hold I felt the head snapping fight of a much bigger fish fighting for its freedom, and from that moment the battle was fought. Hand over hand I pulled as steadily as I could. No light tackle for us. This isn’t sport. It’s food gathering. And if the fish is well hooked, as this lovely ten kilo Albacore Tuna was, well it’s soon flopping madly about our cockpit. That’s when I grab a tight hold and pierce its brain with my knife, killing it quickly. Yum! Crumbed tuna steaks for tea that night.

By next morning, the forecast stronger winds started to roost, so I went to work rigging the hammock I’d purchased months earlier. While Jude can sleep standing on her head, I have trouble disengaging my mind when the boat’s working hard and making so many sounds. Normally on long passages, about day three I’m so buggered I sleep through the night. But if it’s been calm and then gets rough, the best I can hope for is a quiet rest.

We had a good run across the feared Bass Straits, easy really. Crossed paths with a few ships on their rhumb line to Wilson’s Promontory and then had a vacant ocean again. Then on that fourth night, mainland lights became visible, reassuring us that the outside world hadn’t blown itself to smithereens while we’d been crossing from one world to another.

A rain squall the following sunrise increased the wind off our starboard quarter to more than desired. And after reaching hull speed, it only made us rock and cavort down the waves. That spoiled our peace, and made our jobs all the harder. But, sailors take what comes. We know Nature can humble any man. So we enjoy the good times, and make the not so nice a challenge.

Gosh, you would have laughed at my antics trying to stop my hammock from swinging madly. There I was. Buggered, praying for sleep, but madly rocking like the devil burning his fiddle. I rigged shock cords to slow the swing, but after much exertion, they achieved little. So I carefully manoeuvred out the hammock, praying not to be flipped, and tried lying against the hull. But our violent motion crushed my head into the pillow then levitated me into space, so I climbed back into the hammock. There I grumbled and cursed hearing the ship’s clock ring every half hour of that dark windy night, while out in the cold spray I could hear Jude hum and occasionally giggle as she surfed atop a swiftly moving swell. Easing my discomfort, that day we doubled our speed, clocking a very respectable 141 nautical miles in 24 hours.

With the first hint of dawn I was out the hammock and quite unsteady on my feet, slipping across a wet floor with the violent motion. Clinging desperately to the chart table, I struggled with my wet sailing gear while icy downdrafts made me shiver. And in a comic act, arms akimbo, in poor light, I was first flung onto my back by one wave then skidded to crash headlong into the desk with the next.

Immediately outside, spray wet my face, snatching the last warmth from my tired body. Suddenly wide awake, I looked round alarmed that our ocean of deep blue had escaped and been replaced by one whipped white. With Banyandah carrying far too much sail, there was no time for coffee, and straightaway we went to work reefing the main, which requires me to go forward.

Now I’ve done this nearly a million times, and in far worse conditions, but leaving the relative safety of our cockpit is not a step to be taken lightly. One slip, an over balance, could have me heads up lost in those ocean waves with my ship speeding away. Imagine the panic Jude would feel trying to get rid of all sail and then powering back across a white sea. And if she managed to do that, searching for my melon head in the vastness of the ocean waves. So, when stepping out the cockpit and onto our heaving deck, if those images pop into my head, I block them out or fear will appear. And fear freezes the mind. It’s a killer. Instead, I become single minded, focused on my task, with steady feet and hands like talons.

After several wettings reducing our overly large main, I cranked in some headsail, shortening it to nearly its smallest. Then because the wind had shifted in the night, we switched both sails to their opposite sides, which requires dropping one pole and rigging the opposite before pulling the headsail over to it. All, rather hard work, especially now that we are seniors.

But instead of the nearly out of control bucking bronco we had, once cinched down and locked in, she didn’t become a tame pony, but rather like a stallion racing across the waves with us holding tightly to its halter.

Wet from my work, Jude briskly towelled me down while I dreamt of brewing a very strong coffee. But before that, I had to dash aft to reset the Aries windvane steering device. Then just as I was ducking below, Jude’s squeal of anguish spun me round. Where out the corner of my eye, I saw a vision of red flying away like a sheet of newspaper on a gust of wind.

Realisation of what had happened sank home real fast. “Oh! Shit! We’ve just lost the vane blade,” we shouted in unison. And in that instant Jude lunged for the wheel as an out of control Banyandah slew round into breaking seas.

“What the?” I stammered while staring behind at the red dot quickly disappearing in an ocean of white. We’d had that vane blade since the earliest days. It still had our Four J’s logo painted on it in blue. Deeply affected, we could have cried. The places it had taken us, the storms it had withstood, it had been a silent partner working day and night.

From the wheel, Jude voiced her disappointment, “That was the last link with the kids.” Then she muttered without conviction, “We should go back?”

But the seas were running far too high to think that, so I fished out the spare blade from our lazaret. Clamping it into position and standing back, its plain ply face brought home the fact that we’d just lost a long time crewmate.

From the vastness of plain ocean ahead, distant land was coming into focus. A look at our GPS showed us approaching the narrow “Backstairs Passage,” named by that intrepid explorer Mathew Flinders, two hundred eight years and three days earlier. On the 27th of March 1802, he had sailed between what is today the Yorke Peninsula and Kangaroo Island, naming the straits after his ship. And upon reaching the open sea again, he wrote: “This part of Investigator's Strait is not more, in the narrowest part, than seven miles across. It forms a private entrance, as it were, to the two gulfs; and I named it Backstairs Passage.”

Two days later at four o'clock, when abeam our position he noted, “A white rock was reported from aloft to be seen ahead. It proved to be a ship standing towards us; and we cleared for action, in case of being attacked. The stranger was a heavy-looking ship, without any top-gallant masts up; and our colours being hoisted, she showed a French ensign, and afterwards an English Jack forward as we did a white flag. At half past five, the land being then five miles distant to the north-eastward, I hove to; and learned, as the stranger passed to leeward with a free wind, that it was the French national ship Le Géographe under the command of Captain Nicolas Baudin.”

At that time the French were snooping around on a supposed scientific expedition, which the English feared to be a guise in order to claim land for France. Baudin had passed south under Kangaroo Island, naming many headlands. Hence today we have Cape Bedout, Cape de Couedic, and Cape Gantheaume along Kangaroo’s south coast. While Flinders had sailed its north coast, naming Castle Hill, Marsden Point, and Antechamber Bay. If you love history as we do, a book well worth reading is, “My Love Must Wait,” by Ernestine Hill. It’s the adventurous but rather tragic life story of Mathew Flinders.

Like the Investigator, Banyandah cleared for action. But not from fear of French attack, but rather in respect for the steepest seas encountered on our journey.

Jason and Amanda on the English catamaran Pegasus, who we met along the New South Wales coast, had written that off Cape Jaffa, our present position, they were forced to put a fourth reef in their mainsail for only the second time in their round the world voyage. Obviously a windy place.

When properly rigged, Banyandah loves heavy seas and strong winds. Her long keel and full forefoot keeps her tracking straight on any wave front. And though her rigging may hum, and spray or sea wet her decks, she roars ahead. And so quite soon after leaving one of the wettest islands another came into view. Bland, featureless, devoid of forests, a brown mass becoming a far greater contrast to the Tasmanian Island than we ever imagined.

Then ahead, amongst the white water, three small rock islands popped up equidistant to both shores. Flinders had named them The Pages. Then surprising us, a ship suddenly appeared astern and raced us for the gap. Jumping between deck and nav station, quickly on our left, the light structure on Point Willoughby stood brightly white against beige limestone cliffs, and soon after, in a rush, we were zooming past Antechamber Bay lying behind that cape. With great relief, that put us in calmer water, the fierce wind now coming off the summer brown grass of Kangaroo Island.

This is always one of the best treats of passage making. Winds off the land carrying new aromas to enhance what our eyes perceive and where details are limited, our imaginations fill in. Soon the buildings and small harbour of Penneshaw came into view, but it wasn’t until they had passed that we saw the mainland ferry approaching.

All too quickly, our journey reached its climax. Rounding Kangaroo Head, also named by Captain Flinders after his party shot several marsupials there, we entered Eastern Cove, an immense bay, with our sails still blessed by wind now flowing across the barren island.

Kangaroo Island is Australia's third-largest island after Tasmania and Melville Island. It is located 112 kilometres (70 mi) southwest of Adelaide at the entrance of Gulf St Vincent. At its closest point to the mainland, it is 13 kilometres (8 mi) offshore from Cape Jervis, which is on the tip of the Fleurieu Peninsula. The island is 150 km (93 mi) long and 57 km (35 mi) at its widest point and has a coastline 540 kilometres (340 mi) and highest altitude of 307 m (1,010 ft). Our destination of American River lay an hour across Eastern Cove, and as we sailed across its calm water we could see a beehive of boating activity near the river entry. Strange that, until we realised we’d made landfall on Easter Saturday, with throngs from Adelaide and beyond holidaying on the Island.

American River, home to 120 permanent residents, was first settled by a group of American sealers, who camped there for four months in 1803, a year after Flinders charted the area. They arrived on the brig Union and built their own schooner Independence from local timber. Reading that, I reckoned they must have harvested the only trees because the hills are now devoid of anything but twisted scrub.

After five days of lonely ocean surrounded by unrestricted vistas and only our own company, in a matter of minutes we were dodging speeding tinnies filled with landlubbers enjoying their brief respite. Handing the sails at the first post marking the channel entrance, we stopped long enough to watch the flood of humanity enjoying their moment in Nature and smiled to each other. Yes, we are blessed. We have a craft that can safely take us to the far ends of Earth, to live amongst and observe Earth’s other creatures. It can also be uncomfortable, tiring, arduous, and even scary at times. But the rewards far outweigh the discomforts that are soon forgotten while the memories of our time in the wilds remain forever.

After entering American River, a mooring was assigned near the river mouth where we sat exhausted and rather dumbstruck by such a busy parade of holidaymakers. To be truthful, after tidying our ship, we found the voyage had drained our resources to such a degree Jude and I were content to merely sit in our cockpit, watching others or writing notes and reading in utter peace.

We recommend ocean voyaging to all. If not for the adventure, beauty and satisfaction, then to gain a rather different perspective of Earth and human life. Maybe it will help alter the direction mankind takes as we wreck havoc upon the wild kingdom, taking all we want, and leaving little while polluting Earth in our quest.

1 comment:

  1. Fabulous tale well told - as always