More Fisherman's Tales

Fri 6 Nov 2009 08:36
Date: Friday November 6th
Location: Coffs Harbour
Position: 25 yards from last time here, so 30:18.5S 153:09E
No, I havn't been fishing, it is the pinch of salt which you may feel is required.
Regulars will recall that ocean blogs could seem, and indeed were, succinct: Day 20, slept till the warm sun crept across my face, fresh bread for lunch, nice sunset. By contrast, and I know that I repeat myself, sailing on the Tasman Sea, just off the coast of Australia, is a different kettle of fish entirely (pun, or what!).
Wednesday morning dawned bright and clear in Port Stevens, and with no suggestion that the weather had changed in any way. No reception on the anchorage, so no weather updates from my dongle, and no birthday greetings out either. Happy Birthday, Conny!!  Anyway, I didn't fancy another day of flying ants, so set out early, cutting all the harbour corners now, as we have been here before, and indeed have surveyed it from the top of Tomaree Mountain. The weather being fine we also short cutted behind Boondelbah island. All in all about a mile and a half saved, which equates to what we will lose from the adverse current in our first hour at sea. I'm sure I have mentioned it before, but the next 150miles are those most affected by the East Coast Current. On one headland it often reaches more than 4 kts, which is about as fast as we comfortably sail, so we could be there for literally ever!! Anyway, out at sea there was indeed evidence of a southerly change: much cooler, and wind SSE. We reached out to Broughton Islands, then ran with goosewinged sails towards Sugarloaf Point. Goosewinged means half an hour setting the spinaker pole, but in truth this is a pretty slick trick these days, and a far cry from our first effort which left Geoff Fisher wondering how he would sail the boat back into port with the skipper/imbecilic fordeck hand lost overboard. Also setting the pole always deserves another cup of coffee. Sugarloaf hes two offlying rocks, imaginatively named Big Seal Rock and Little Seal Rock. With modern GPS it is difficult to imagine that anyone could bump into these things, but that is what happens. Little Seal Rock is the one to watch for, as at high tide it carries only a metre or so of rock with just little patches of grass and scrub hanging on for dear life. I know this detail as having brewed and drunk my coffee, I emerged from the companionway to find Little Bloody Seal Rock about 50 metres in front of me. I had forgotten that resetting the sails always disturbs the balance of the boat, therefore the windvane has to be adjusted to get the boat back on course. This I had not done, hence we had gone astray. Once again, vigilance is the key, and it is close to the shore that things go wrong. A minute later and the boat would have hit and sunk. Although not rough the swell would probably have washed me off the rocks; if I made it to the grassy knoll at the top, well, who can know? 
A Hart cheese pickle and apple sandwich for lunch, but the afternoon was cool, and I experimented with my backdoor: a 'zip in' creation that closes off the back of the spray hood. It's good but probably most useful when motoring, or in harbour. When sailing I was always on the wrong side of it! I mention the fact as having sweltered in the heat the day before, I was now in my thermal long johns, waterproof overtrousers, and fleece top: English Channel Weather in the Autumn. Warmed myself up by executing three more pole changes during the course of the afternoon: in out, in out, shake it all about; and yes the coffees did cause a bit of a diuresis.
Rewarded by better than expected progress over the ground. As long as the wind is more than 13 kts (curious that this unlucky figure should turn out to be the critical one) there is enough pressure in the sails for them not to be upset by the rolling waves that that same amount of wind creates. That's a good breeze for drying clothes, but you would need a few clothes pegs. By the evening it had started to rain, and the wind dropped. The usual slatting sails, big ships appearing out of the gloom, then a thunderstorm ahead. Chris Gregory told me about these. They are common in November. They start over the hinterland montains, move down to the coast regions where everyone lives in the late afternoon, cause the havoc that thunderstorms cause, and then roll out to sea and are never heard of again. Unless you are out at sea, he failed to mention!  Anyway this one just caused a sound and light show, no big deal, but the wind went completely after that, so on with the engine to mark time with the current. That night there were no fishing boats out, a big relief as they move in such unpredictable patterns: one moment they seem miles out of your way, the next they are trawling, or whatever it is that they do, right across your bows. Big ships, and there were a few about, are much more predictable in their behaviour. A decent breeze sprang up at 02.30 hrs so I got the sails up; at 03.30 the spinnaker pole had to go out; at 06.00 this had to come back in, and at 06.30 the wind died and the motor went back on. Not a bad night, but no sleep, so feeling jaded at dawn, and tempted to put into Port Macquarie, which was abeam, but below the horizon. Then some SW breeze reappeared: southerly wind is what I am out here for, what I need to get back up to Bundaberg for Christmas, so I put the sails back up and we were off again. An hour later, with Port Macquarrie behind us, the wind evaporated, back to the iron horse!  A depressing air onboard was reflected in the rest of the weather and we endured thick cloud and rain. At 10.15 there was a little more wind, enough to get at least the jibsail drawing nicely and boosting the speed from the engine alone by nearly a knot, giving us 4kts over the ground, 6kts through the water. Later the wind increased considerably, and by 11.00 the engine was off, the main was up and reefed, and the jib was gybed and poled out (yet again). The wind even blew the worst of the rain away, and by lunchtime the boat was rattling along, and the notorious current bottleneck of Sandy Cape was in view. My initial exhilaration at our good progress was tempered by the thought that if the wind could go from 0 to 20 knots in one hour whatever might it do next? Squalls continued to blow in from behind, but soon we whizzed round the cape, and I began to feel that we were on the last leg of this particular trip. During the afternoon the wind dropped a bit, and whilst making yet another cup of tea I was disconcerted to discover that quite a lot of water was leaking below: all the cabin windows has pools of water around them, and two of the main chainplate fittings on the starboard side were dripping: leaks from there go straight into the bookcase! I suppose that even on a house you have to replace the windows from time to time, but I'm grumpy because all these leaks are the result of engineering for economy, rather than for quality.
At least we were getting where we wanted to go, 4kts with an easterly F5. I called up Coffs Harbour to check that there would be space for us, and hoped to arrive around midnight. That was at 17.00. Very quickly afterwards it got very dark, with a bank of cloud coming in across the SE horizon, and suddenly whipping us with gale force winds. It never ceases to surprise me how at sea the wind arrives suddenly. Anyway, I needed to reef quick, and pulled down the second main reef, and mananged to tame the flogging jib and get it down to the proverbial pocket handkerchief size. Still no control of the boat however, so down to third reef. In this state Fleck will 'heave to': she simply wallows in the sea, at about 45 degrees to the wind and waves, neither moving forwards or backwards. Given the conditions this is hardly a restful situation, but it is much better than bashing into the seas, and you can ride out a moderate gale in relative safety. Problem is that the boat does not in fact remain stationary, it moves sideways, downwind, at about 2kts. I was about 8miles from Australia: 4 hours, at most, before hitting rocks, or just as bad, a beach. Another option would be to try to sail obliquely forwards towards Coffs Harbour: if the gale abated it would be possible to enter, if not the boat would probably founder in the breaking seas at the entrance.
It was therapeutic to tidy up the cockpit, by this time the various rope tails trailing over the sole made it look like a snake charmers basket, and gave me something to do rather than just wring my hands. I also wrapped a fresh towel around my neck, as my oilskins are lightweight, and have a big waterproof problem around the chin and neck; you can't avoid flying spray. This was sensible: if you think you may be getting a little cold, you are already chilled. In the cold I am demoralised, and I suspect particularly slow witted. Rearmed by the warmth, an options appraisal exercise revealed that drowning in the harbour entrance was preferable to drowning on an uninhabited lee shore, and I managed to wake Fleck up and steer off on a reaching course for the Harbour entrance. Waves build very quickly, and with an awesome whistling in the rigging she crashed from one wave crest to the next. Suddenly (yes everything was suddenly) a bolt of lightning came down from above and struck the sea, visibly, about 400 yards off our starboard bow.  I was immediatly relieved: if one of those was to come again and hit the boat I would certainly know nothing about it, ever!  That seemed less frightening than this screaming wind and sea; moreover, despite the appearances, perhaps I was in a simple thunderstorm, rather than a new weather system. So far we have survived thunderstorms!  And yet again, this was something I could watch - behold would be better - and again this controlled my nagging fear. It was one of the best displays ever: the opposite of an eclipse: giant flashbulbs illuminate everything for a second or two. It is a brilliant white light, nothing like sunlight, and the spray blowing off the crests of the waves makes the sea a giant white carpet. Great stuff. Although the lightning stopped after an hour or so, the wind continued, but perhaps not so strong, and the seas were more regular. I was thus able to get the windvane to steer, so that I could go below and find out where we were supposed to be going. The pilot book said that the harbour is only dangerous with onshore gales, which is unfortunately exactly what we were experiencing. The book correctly recomended remaining out at sea in these circumstances, but I was already in a lee shore position, and knackered, so I stayed with option one. 
Suspecting that the entrance lights might be obscured by the spray and cloud I managed to plot a couple of GPS waypoints, picking up a big bruise from the cooker in the process, and I turned up the illumination so that I could see the screen from the wheel. Then I grabbed a hand bearing compass and the mariners knife (to cut yourself free from your harness if you get trapped under the boat!!) and returned to the fray. And I can report that there is at least one god in heaven, because when I got behind the wheel the wind guage was down to 30kts, and the boat was moving more easily. I even spotted the harbour lights, more or less where I expected them to be, and suddenly I felt confident. Just as well, as getting the remaining mainsail down was dreadfully difficult in that sea, and I didn't want to run straight in and deal with a gybe at a critical moment. So boat sorted, engine on, play the computer game with the blue fluorescent lights, ignore all to the left and right, and into the valley of death? Well, no, dear reader. In truth the harbour entrance was a doddle, it got a bit rough outside but the real steep breaking waves just inside the entrance were simply not there. It was still blowing like the clappers, and it took some time in the very bumpy outer harbour to assemble the lines and fenders for docking in the confined marina area. When all was ready I went in to find someone else in my reserved place. A lap of the marina with my windvane rudder trying to prevent my main rudder from turning anywhere was exasperating, and the rain came lashing down in solid sheets. Finally I spotted half a space in front of a big yacht that was occupying two boat lengths of pontoon. I would have to cut in very sharply to get alongside, and not hit him, but by this time I was beyond that sort of care, and of course relieved of this additional software package, which is an automatic update that comes with old age, my little inbrain computer did a great job: we turned and stopped on a sixpence, I didn't trip over or tangle the shore lines as I jumped ashore, and in seconds (that's all you have in thirty knots of wind and no one left on the boat) we were made fast.
Postscript: I wrote this earlier today after a wonderful sleep. When I woke it was still raining, when I had finished I reported into the Marina Office and got soaked. At 4pm it stopped raining so I went for a walk in my still soaking oilskins to my favourite little coffee shop. They seemed pleased to see me, as there were no customers and no one on the streets. The coffee shop has newspapers. There have been storms up and down the coast, and they ae expected to continue over the weekend. 8cm hailstones are reported from somewhere. It remains the most unusual weather for at least a generation. I left the coffee shop and it started to rain again. I went for a short walk to the creek entrance, previously a very pretty little place. The creek was a torrent of brown water which had completely coloured the sea in the bay. Back on board the rain is worse than ever, and at dusk there has been more thunder and lightening. I have reappraised my leaking windows: it is a miracle that they are keeping so much of the rain outside!