The Final Leg Across the Pacific
16 - 22 October 2008: Passage from New Caledonia to Australia
We sailed from New Caledonia with an average weather forecast. The wind was not predicted to be as favourable as we had hoped, but we realised that if we waited for perfect conditions we could be stuck in Noumea for a long time. There wasn't anything nasty expected, just some strong southerly winds which would make it difficult to lay a course for Coffs Harbour, our intended landfall in Australia. We decided to make as much southings as we could in the first day so that when the wind strengthened and turned south we could head west and keep the wind behind the boat, which is the most comfortable point of sail. This unfortunately meant that our first day at sea was spent pounding into the ocean swell as we steered the boat just west of south into a SE Force 4. Overnight the weather started to deteriorate and rain squalls started passing overhead, bringing stronger winds. The wind freshened and veered further south, forcing us to make more westings than we had planned.
On the second day the wind blew constantly from the SE at a Force 5. We trimmed the sails to make progress as close to the wind as we could, but this also meant sailing into the wind induced swell, which was uncomfortable. By late afternoon the wind picked up even more, and we could no longer maintain out course to windward, so we decided it was time to bear away and head west. Every time we tried to turn further south a big wave would crash over Rahula's bows, sending water cascading down the decks all the way to the cockpit (I even had to start wearing long trousers at night so it must have been miserable… J). We had become so used to sailing down wind and swell that we had forgotten how horrible and wet it was to pound into the weather.
The third day was not much better, with the wind refusing to back to the east as forecast. It stayed obstinately from the SE and we soon realised that we would not be able to make enough southings to reach Coffs Harbour (without shaking all our teeth out… J). The latest weather forecast we received that morning also showed some bad weather coming from the south (locally called a Southerly Buster, so probably wise to avoid it… J) in a few days and we wanted to make sure we were in harbour before it hit. We looked at the chart of Australia and decided to head for Brisbane, which was almost directly west from our position and the closest port of entry. The rest of the day was spent sailing with the wind on the quarter, the most comfortable and fastest sailing angle, helping us to make great progress towards our new destination.
Unfortunately this progress was short lived as on the forth day the wind eased and we were back down to average speeds. It was a pleasant sunny day and we took the opportunity to dry out the boat and warm ourselves up after the previous cold and wet days. The tranquility was broken by the sound of a plane flying low towards us. We looked up as it flew over and recognised the Australian Customs plane. We had to notify the Australian authorities of our arrival 4 days in advance, and we had been warned that spotter planes might come and check our progress. After the fly by someone on the plane called us up by name, and proceeded to ask lots of questions about the boat and our intentions. They were very courteous and friendly and it was reassuring to know that someone was looking out for us.
We spent most of the fifth day at sea under engine as the wind died completely. We were still pushing hard to make it into harbour before the bad weather hit so we didn't want to lose any time trying to sail in light airs. The need to rush was reinforced by the constant strong wind warnings the Australian coastguard was issuing on the radio. We finally sighted our first continent since America at 1645 local time on 21 October (Trafalgar Day!), as the Queensland coastline came into view. We were very excited to have finally crossed the biggest ocean in the world, but the celebration was muted as we were aware that we had a way to go before we were safely in harbour and dark clouds were looming over the horizon ahead (dramatic music please… dun, dun, duuuuuuuun… J).
As we neared Brisbane the menacing black cloud over the harbour continued to build and we could see a thunderstorm raging inside it, lighting striking every second or so (spectacular! J). We hoped that the storm would move SW and away from us, but as the wind continued to increase and the sky above darkened we realised we were not going to escape. We deliberated our options: we could stay at sea, and ride out the storm which was forecast to last about 48 hours (possibly the correct and seamanlike thing to do, but when a comfy marina with nice hot showers beckons, priorities are slightly askew… J); we could take the closer but shallow East channel into Brisbane; or we could head for the main channel which was further, but deeper. In the end we opted for the west channel, as it seemed the safest option considering the size of the waves and strength of the wind.
We reefed the sails to bare scraps and continued to make fast progress towards the main channel. The wind and swell were on the beam, and whilst Rahula was flying along thanks to the wind, every so often a wave would crash into the side knocking her sideways and showering us with salty water. As we passed through the eye of the storm the wind changed from 20 knots from the north to nothing to 20 knots from the south, all in the space of 20 minutes. We tried to keep up by adjusting the sails and using the engine to maintain progress in the lulls but it was hard work. In the midst of all the frantic sail changes, George, our trusty autopilot gave up and we had to set up our spare, Georgina, who is not as reliable in heavy seas.
By this stage it was pitch black, and we were sailing in a thunderstorm towards land, only just making out the navigation marks through the heavy rain. We sailed over the continental shelf and the sea bottom shoaled making the swell even larger. The wind finally settled on a northerly heading, but was gusting 35-40 knots. We were beam on to the sea and swell and Georgina was struggling to maintain course so we dropped all the sails and started the engine, thus avoiding any more exhausting sail changes. Half an hour after starting the engine it suddenly starting making horrible metallic grinding sounds and we shut it down immediately. The noise sounded terminal, so we didn't even try to restart it. Considering our position close to shoals, the main shipping channel and the terrible weather, James immediately issued a Pan Pan call on the radio to notify all the ships around us and Brisbane Harbour Authority that we were in trouble but could manage for the moment. Once the Pan Pan was acknowledged by the Brisbane Harbour Authority we hoisted minimal sail and continued heading for the main channel. Even under such little sail Rahula was doing 9 knots in the strong winds and the whole boat was vibrating as she powered forwards. Normally we would run downwind in these conditions, but with shoals on either side and worse weather to come we stuck with it and hoped nothing else would break. All we needed to do was make it to the main channel, then we could turn south and thus downwind and things will be far more manageable.
After a nail biting hour we were finally about to turn into the main channel. As this involved a 90-degree turn we had to drop the mainsail, turn, then bring the Genoa over to the other side so that we could continue sailing down the channel, all before we hit land 600 yards away. It was going to be the nautical equivalent of a handbrake turn, and as we were preparing to execute it James spotted a large ship coming down the main channel. It was due to arrive at the same spot in the channel as us at the same time, further complicating the manoeuvre. James called the ship up on the radio, explained our situation and asked if they would kindly move over a little bit (he actually had a lot more room than we did! J) to give us room to turn and set the sails. The friendly pilot agreed, and as the huge ship adjusted its course we set about changing ours. Once we were round and safely in the channel we breathed a sigh of relief. It seemed that the worst was over, and as if to demonstrate the fact, the sky started to clear as the storm finally made its way offshore. James discovered that the engine was not terminally dead and the grinding noise was the sound of the starter motor engaging due to a possible short circuit, so just as the wind died again we were able to start the engine and motor down the 50 mile channel through Moreton Bay and up the Brisbane River.
It was a long night as we weaved our way though the navigation marks leading to Brisbane. We finally turned into the Brisbane River at 0600, and were alongside the quarantine berth two hours later. The next hurdle was clearing Customs and Quarantine. We called the authorities on the radio, and the Quarantine inspector arrived 20 minutes later. He sat inside and completed all the paperwork while chatting amiably. Once all the forms were completed he got a heavy-duty bin bag and a torch and started rummaging through the boat looking for illegal items. In all our travels we have learnt that when dealing with officials it is best to make their job as easy as possible. We had heard all sorts of horror stories about the Australian authorities boarding boats with dogs, taking everything apart and generally making life difficult for the innocent yachtie. So I spent most of the previous day cleaning the boat and throwing out all the items that were on the banned list I downloaded from the Australian Quarantine website before we left New Caledonia. As the Quarantine guy ferreted around the boat he kept exclaiming how boring we were as there was nothing for him to find! Eventually he found half a clove of garlic and some ginger that barely made a dent in his huge sack.
While I was following the Quarantine Inspector around the boat James was dealing with the Customs officers. They asked many pointed questions, often rephrasing a question and asking it again later on as if trying to catch us out. Again, we were honest and prepared, so we had no problems. James downloaded the customs forms from the internet and had most of it completed and ready to hand over, which saved the officials a lot of time. The two officers were again friendly and chatty, and listened to our tales of the previous night's storm with sympathy. They went through all the paperwork with us, and explained what we were expected to do as we travelled between different regions. It was all so straightforward and quick we were left wondering why the Australian authorities have gained such a fearsome reputation among cruisers.
After a long, hard journey, where at times it seemed the Pacific did not want to let us go we had finally officially entered Australia and crossed the biggest ocean in the world.