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Monday, January 17, 2011

A Journey Much Feared

Joshua Slocum, the first person to circumnavigate the world single-handed, chose to avoid it. Jessica Watson experienced some of the worst seas of her whole round-the-world journey there. Yes, the voyage across the Great Australian Bight has many perils. Without a single safe haven across 500 miles, the prevailing winds send stricken vessels towards a hostile shore of limestone cliffs. To a shore that doesn’t hold much hope for life - unless you're a skink, snake or rough n’ tough kangaroo. Beyond those cliffs a desert begins that sweeps nearly all the way across the great continent; and in the other direction there is no land until Antarctica, only sea. And that body of water is unique. The only to completely encircle Earth. Swept by storms that build up so much latent energy its surface jumps in peaks even after days of calm weather. And when the wind comes, the Bight quickly becomes a monster. No wonder few yachtsmen attempt this voyage. But we did. Retirees, aboard a homemade yacht.

Leaving the mainland harbour of Streaky Bay, with church bells calling the faithful to prayer, we set sail before a strong easterly that painted the bay steel grey streaked white. So, our journey began under double reefed mainsail and much reduced jib. Swiftly we passed the Point Gibson sand spit, and leaving the bay’s protection, laid a course for the last land before the open bight.

Several hundred years before Captain Cook discovered Australia’s east coast, the Dutch had been regular visitors to its west. But the south coast remained undiscovered until 1627 when the Gulden Zeepaerdt, under the command of Francois Thijssen, sighted the most southerly part of a continent known then as New Holland. They continued sailing east as far as present day Ceduna. On board as a passenger was Pieter Nuyts, a senior executive of the Dutch East Indies Company, and an archipelago discovered near Ceduna was named in his honour.

Our first anchorage in the Nuyts Archipelago, St Francis Island, fifty-five miles out to sea, is the largest in a group comprising twelve islets and rocks. In years past, two homesteads were built upon this 13 sq km bit of limestone, and the ruins were starkly visible on the treeless slopes as we cleared the NE tip to enter Petrel Bay. Before us, scrubby hills fronted by white sand, splodged with needle sharp limestone rock and apart from a slight swell, the bay belonged solely to our ship. We had caught a 10 kg blue fin tuna that afternoon, and against the golden hue of a low sun decorating night clouds, I set to clean him as the sky darkened further with mutton birds returning to the island. In family groups, they soared right above us, squawking the news of their day. And then if by magic, each of them zeroed in on their particular nook, their hole in the ground amongst so many. How did they know which hole baffled us; especially as these migratory birds travel thousands of miles each year and return to exactly the same tiny opening.

Next morning, after launching our dinghy, we landed through surf then walked to the island’s highest point to view the navigation light and radio tower, being very careful when negotiating the mutton bird burrows that numbered many thousands.

Next day, after a working morning maintaining some machinery, changing the raw water V-belts, and getting our ship ready for her voyage, we wandered along the shoreline till under the ruins. These dwellings have been abandoned for more than forty years, since these islands were declared a nature sanctuary. While walking the beach home, a family of dolphins was seen working the shallows, back and forth, obviously herding together a school of fish. But occasionally a frisky one surprised us by racing pell-mell then jumping clear out the sea to leap through an imaginary hoop. Who needs to go to Sea-World?

The following morning, an hour's motorsail brought us to Masillon, the next island south, and to another anchorage recommended by a fisherman we’d met in our travels who’d said these two were not to be missed. Masillon is a strange island, much smaller than St Francis, it rose abruptly from blue sea sporting a white collar that marked the start of pockmarked yellow gold rock. The anchorage we almost missed. It was nothing more than a narrow chasm that ended in an eroded cliff, undermined by sea action, three caves added a bit of mystery. At first Jude thought it not safe to stay as the wind was strong and the sea ran high just beyond the opening. But up against those cliffs we found calm water with a tolerable surge, so I lowered our anchor then stood back agog. Straightaway we relaunched the dinghy to get even closer, and I rowed Jude around investigating each of the caverns we’d seen on entry. But the surge was unpredictable, sometimes sucking us towards a rocky death, while at other times, sudden downdrafts propelled us against our will towards the open sea. So we rowed home to absorb the scenery from the safety of our ship.

Next morning, after a glorious sleep, we packed our dinghy with emergency supplies secured under the thwarts; ten litres of drinking water, several flares and a knife, a watertight drum containing medicines and essentials, then lashed the dinghy down to the deck.

Just the day before Jude had put together our “grab bag” containing more emergency essentials such as dried food, medicines, fishing gear, sealed packets of water, more flares and flotation. That lot, well waterproofed, she now packed in a stout, bright-yellow sail bag with a long lanyard attached to a buoy. The whole affair stored within easy reach inside a cockpit locker, ready to grab in case of a disaster. These are our normal precautions, as well as having an in-date six person liferaft that self deploys. We have sailed too many oceans not to have the greatest respect for its fury and destructive nature. And we whole heartedly support the old sailor’s norm of looking after oneself.

Thus prepared and feeling easy, while a pair of white winged sea eagles soared on thermals rising above the cliff face, we hoisted our admiralty anchor, stowed it, then hoisted the mainsail with one reef. Our video camera recorded one last good look round, and with everything locked in place, I directed Jude to point our floating home towards the open horizon. As Jude wrote in the log, “A well oiled departure.”

0935    Genoa unfurled to starboard, swell more than expected for wind (2 m SW)
1100    Last island abeam, sea routine established, Jack reading. Speed 5.3 kts.
1700    Mobile phone connection! 72 nm to Ceduna. Talked with Ally and Lottie.  1800       Sailing down the sun, orange ahead – silver astern, full moon rising. On a beam reach.

An easy first night, so important when trying to become one with the ship’s motion and avoid injuries. We both found sleep while our baby tracked easily across the sea under brilliant moonlight.
Unfortunately, a cold front was approaching and the calm before the storm arrived much sooner than we’d hoped. Just after sunrise the wind backed to the NE then the NW, and then it vanished leaving us wallowing in an uneasy sea. Jude was below catching up on her sleep, so I started the engine and ran at slow speed to steady the ship. We chugged on for several hours, the sea quieted, lunch was being served when a southerly swell starting rolling in. A bit of breeze came soon after and we were sailing again. But then that party-pooper wind left us dead in the water, rolling. The log entry:
1500    Most of the shearwaters and albatross sitting on the sea.
We had known from the start that the front was coming. But we’d left because another was forecast in four days time, which we hoped to miss by being anchored. The first forecast upwards of thirty knot headwinds, and to prepare for this we sailed south of our course line, thinking we’d lay off when it struck. Which it did while I was below having a cat nap around 4 PM. First came a little drizzle followed by icy blasts. And in quick order we had to double reef the main and roll in the genoa to just a single dot. Even short rigged, we couldn’t hold our course with the sea building up and by darkness our decks were awash.
Picking up weather map via HF / FAX
1600    wind SW 20-30 steering 270
Fronts come in blasts that blow apart wave tops. One moment all is fine, the next our ship gets buried and we have to grip something tightly or go flying. Then every movement must be timed to the sea, with at least one hand on the ship, otherwise injuries happen.
2400    Days run 117 N miles logged
The motion robbed us of sleep. Jude first. She lay in her berth listening to the ship’s clock strike the hours until midnight, then after our change of watch, I lay there listening to the rigging, tensing when it shrieked, hearing the gurgling and sluicing of seawater across our decks and thinking of the sails stretched so tautly, waiting for them to burst, planning an emergency strategy, over and over, until the portholes started to lighten.

0300    Wind dropped out a few minutes, decks less wet.
0400    Conditions easing, wind S 20

By 1100, conditions had eased to a comfortable 12 to 18 knots, and had backed further to the SE allowing us to sail with a single reef and full jib.

1300    Caught a tuna. Shearwaters enjoying feast, not one drop of seawater on their feathers after diving for scraps. Robust chocolate brown.
2100    Moon up – Sweet Ride – slowing down
2400    Days run – 116 N miles

Day four began with a three-quarter moon peeking through 90% cloud and 1½ metres of SW swell, Banyandah rolling along nicely in just 10 knots of breeze from the ESE.

0600    Sun up - a bit more blue sky. Supposed to be 15/20 SE today. Need it to reach an anchorage tomorrow and beat the next front.
When I got up, I immediately shook out the reef. Flying all sail we just covered four miles in the hour.

1200    360 N miles made good since Masillon Is. Another 130 to go.
1300    Sky clearing, wind backing and picking up, now ENE 15 knots

By nightfall it was again blowing 20 knots, and sailing more conservatively in our mature years we reefed the main and rolled in the jib to 3 dots. Setting the staysail poled out to weather helped steady our ship as we ran nearly dead down wind. Still it was too much motion for me to sleep, although Jude says she heard me snoring loudly! Don’t know how she could. It rained heavily on her watch when the wind eased and the heavens opened.
Next morning when the sun should have come up, grey cotton wool filled the sky taking away every vestige of wind, leaving us rolling around on a left behind sea. Again, to help ease the motion, I started motoring, letting Jude get her catch-up sleep.
Bellinger Island - remote - one of the first islands in Recherche Archipelago
0800    Slight breeze - from ahead!
0900    LAND! Vague mountains in thick mist bearing North

We motored until 1 PM then sailed for an hour when the breeze freshened a little from the south, but it left us again.
1500    Bellinger Island well in sight
1545    Anchored in WA. Yellow hulled lobster boat in anchorage. Friendly, and quite amazed that we had sailed in from South Australia. Handed across a 3 kg lobster for our landfall dinner!!!

Bellinger Island, salt tolerant succulents

Our Landfall Dinner !!
490 N miles made good in 4 days and 7 hours averaging 4.8 knots (115 N miles/day)
Max speed 7.8 knots.

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