Down Under in Sydney
26 October - 9 November 2008: Sydney, Australia
We had a pleasant start to the sail down the east coast of Australia from the Gold Coast to Sydney. The sun shone, a good wind blew from astern and got Rahula going at a fair speed and the sea was fairly calm. But, as often happens at sea, things were about to change, and this time they got much, much worse. Overnight we started hearing strong wind warnings being broadcast on the VHF radio, and the latest weather forecast we received showed the wind increasing to 25-30 knots from the North the following day. We considered our position, and having just sailed past the nearest safe port of Coffs Harbour we decided to carry on. We had been in such strong winds before, and we know that as long as they remained astern Rahula could handle it. We were keen to get to Sydney by the end of October.
We had 1-2 knots of East Australia current helping us on our way south, and with the strong winds this had the potential to be a very fast passage. We steered inshore to try to get some protection from the strong winds, reefed down the mainsail and the genoa and braced ourselves for a rough ride. As the sun set we were still bowling along in a Force 6-7 and were treated to an acrobatic display by a huge pod of dolphins which stayed with us for ages. The dolphins jumped out of the water in the big waves, doing back flips and summersaults, as if they could hear us cheering them on. James took the first night watch as that was when we expected the wind to be at its strongest. I lay in bed and listened to the wind increase until it was howling through the rigging. The wind was now 30-40 knots (gale force), with the strongest recorded gust measuring 48 knots, and the waves had started to build in size. Rahula was handling the conditions with her usual calm, but every so often a large wave would break under her and send her surfing forwards at breakneck speeds. On one of these surfs we reached 14 knots and the autopilot struggled to get Rahula back on track. (Our primary Raymarine autopilot which is normally brilliant in these conditions was broken, so we were using the slightly weaker standby autopilot). I got up and dressed as it seemed it was time to take action. James was thinking the same thing. We rigged the staysail and furled the genoa completely as the forestay was shaking from the force of the wind. The autopilot was still struggling to steer so James decided to stream ropes from behind to hold our stern into the wind and help with the steering. We collected up our longest and thickest ropes, set up the bridle from the two stern cleats and tied the long ropes to the apex of the bridle. In the mean time the wind continued to howl, the waves continued to roar all around, and the amount of sea spray in the air was making it difficult to see. We threw the ropes over the stern and Rahula immediately slowed down a little. The loop of the bridle created a slick behind us and seemed to stop the waves breaking astern. The weight of the rope trailing behind slowed us down and kept the wind on the stern. The autopilot was back on track and things were under control once again.
By 3am the wind started to finally start calming down and I was able to set a little more sail. At dawn the wind had reduced to a Force 4 and the boat was barely making any way with all the heavy ropes trailing behind. We brought the ropes in, hoisted the main and the genoa and were sailing once again. The seas were still very confused and big and to make matters worse the wind started to shift towards the south. By 9am we were hard on the wind, pounding into an uncomfortable swell. We were both exhausted, and we still had 100 miles to go to Sydney. The prospect of beating our way there did not appeal to either of us. I had a look at the chart and Port Stephens was 20 miles away to the north west, which would be downwind and much more comfortable. It meant going backwards, which we hate doing, but would give us a chance to rest and wait for the wind to turn back to the north. We altered course and were anchored in Shoal Bay at the entrance to the harbour by 1345. We had some lunch and went for a short doze, but managed to sleep straight through until dawn the following day!
We spent the day resting in Shoal Bay, and finally that night the wind swung back to the North East so we sailed in the dark to finish our passage to Sydney. This time the passage was uneventful and we made good progress, arriving in Sydney by 11am on 30 October. We were so excited to be sailing into Sydney harbour as we really felt that this marked the end of our Pacific crossing and was a major landmark in our voyage. The weather was cloudy and cold, but as the tall city skyline came into view, framed by the Sydney Harbour Bridge, we couldn't stop smiling. After 22 months and 18,500 nautical miles we had made it to what we considered was half way around the world.
We weaved our way through the harbour, passing many yachts, ferries and ships - it was busier than the Solent on a summer weekend! Finally we came to Rushcutters Bay and the Royal Australian Navy Sailing Association's small pontoon. We had contacted the RANSA weeks before our arrival to ask for advice on where to moor in Sydney. They had kindly offered us the use of their pontoon, and we were delighted to be offered an alongside berth in such a central location, especially as empty berths in Sydney are at a real premium (and although there are anchorages, there are very few places where you can leave a dinghy unattended… J). The pontoon is all that is left from the Sydney Olympics in 2000, and there are only 10 berths, as the rest of the pontoon is reserved as a temporary mooring for club members. We took up one of these transit slots for 10 days and were incredibly grateful to have the use of such great facilities, all for free. We only hope that if an RANSA member visits the RNSA in Gosport, our sailing club will offer equally generous hospitality.
One of the main reasons for visiting Sydney was to meet up with Rahula's previous owner, Sue, who was in town for her son's wedding. The boat meant a lot to the Burton family and they reluctantly parted with it after the sad and unexpected death of the husband/father. We have been in touch with Sue and her son, Richard, throughout the trip, and were looking forward to seeing them again. We arrived the day before Richard's wedding and that night Sue invited us to a family BBQ. It was great to see Sue again and to meet the rest of her children, their husbands and offspring (including another family of Goulds! J). Sue seemed very proud of with what we had achieved in Rahula and was pleased that the boat is in good hands. We spent a lot of time with the Burton family while we were in Sydney, as it seemed that by buying Rahula we had become part of the family. We took Richard, his new wife and father-in-law sailing around the harbour on one day, and Richard got a little emotional at seeing the boat again. The boat was a big part of his father's life, and Richard had many happy memories of sailing the boat. We are certain that we will stay in touch with the family as we all get on very well, and have formed a strong connection through Rahula. If this sounds corny, I would like to explain that a boat is more than just an asset in the way a car or house would be. She looks after you in bad weather, and is your home away from home. She has a character of her own, and you learn to listen to her gripes and know when she is happy. We are completely attached to Rahula now…
My uncle, his wife and kids also moved to Sydney from Israel on the day we arrived. It was nice to know that we had family there, and we went to visit them as soon as we could. (Just watch 'My Big Fat Greek Wedding' if you want to know what A's family can be like! But despite this, I'm very fond of them all and it was really great to see David and Robyn. Despite the fact that they had only just moved half way round the world with three kids <5, they seemed to be taking things in their stride and were really helpful to us… J) I was happy to finally meet my two new cousins, who had been born since I was last in Israel. The kids were great and it was nice to catch up with David and Robyn and brush up on my Hebrew (even I learnt a few new words as the kids would speak a kind of 'Hebrish' or Englew' at times and I soon worked out the important bits… J).
In between all the socialising with family and friends we did find time to do some sightseeing. Sydney is a wonderful place, and we loved it from the first day we wandered through the city. Our first stop had to be the Sydney Opera House, apparently one of the best known landmarks around the world. The building was striking when viewed across the harbour, and up close it was just as impressive. It was built in the 1960s, according to a vague design by a Swedish architect. At the time the technology wasn't available to build the required curve of the roof, and it took some groundbreaking thinking to achieve the final look. (The way they did it was similar to 'Constant Camber' boat building; all the curves of the roof can be fitted onto a sphere with a constant radius, so to build the massive arched beams for the roofs, only a few concrete moulds are required, with each beam being taken from a different section of the same mould. This means that the beams can be made quickly and easily on site. This is a bit of a simplified explanation, but it was how I got my head round it… J) The shape of each roof, the way the curves and angles led the eye around the building and the shimmer of the white (well they're off white actually… J) tiles in the Australian sun all gave the building and captivating appearance. We took a tour around the building, and got to see the interior of all the performance halls. The inside reminded us of the South Bank Centre or Barbican in London, and was just as fascinating. The concert hall includes the world largest organ, which took 10 years to design and 2 years to tune. Each auditorium was carefully furnished to provide the best acoustics for the type of performance, whether music, opera or theatre. Unfortunately we didn't get to see a performance at the Opera House, but maybe next time there will be time and money…(Although one guy on our tour who was dressed as a Hells Angel with a long white pony tail turned out to be an American opera singer who sang for three US presidents and he gave us an impromptu rendition of Ave Maria! J)
From the Opera House we headed to the other Sydney landmark, the Harbour Bridge. It was built in the 1930s, and was the largest arch bridge in the world when it was built. The bridge ended up costing 10 times the original estimates, but has become one of the main features of the harbour. It is a steel and concrete giant, built to be functional rather than attractive, the Art Deco pylons at either end providing the only concession to aesthetics. We climbed 200 steps inside one of these pylons for a bird's eye view of the huge natural harbour which Sydney has been built around. The city stretched as far as we could see, and we could only just make out the Blue Mountains in the distance. The pylon also housed a museum about the Bridge's construction, and it was interesting to see how they managed to join the two sections, built from either end, with great accuracy. There was also a fun display of all the bridge opening commemoration souvenirs sold at the time, from snow globes to tea sets.
The Opera House and the Bridge are built in an area of Sydney called The Rocks, which is where the First Fleet landed and the original European settlement began. The area is filled with 19th century brick warehouses and small cottages that were saved from demolition in the 1970s by a forward thinking worker's union. They are all now filled with expensive flats and shopping centres, but the narrow streets and old buildings have retained a certain sense of colonial charm. A meander through the streets and up a hill brought us to the Sydney Observatory, which was built to calculate an accurate time and provide it to the ships in the harbour. There was a small and interesting astronomy museum inside about the Southern Hemisphere stars and the Australian contribution to space science. We got to go into one of the observing domes and get an amazing look at the sun through a modern telescope. (The highlight for Amelia though was when the tour-guide let her close the dome with a big bronze wheel which turned big greasy cogs… J)
We went to a live music performance at The Rocks one night, and the atmosphere changed completely. Instead of the hoards of tourists the streets were filled with young and trendy Sydneysiders, spilling out of bars and waltzing along the pavements. The music was average, but we danced and listened anyway, enjoying people watching and being part of a crowd. (I got back-ache from dancing with Tali - David and Robyn's eldest- on my shoulders, still she enjoyed it I suppose… J).
We couldn't come to Sydney by sea and not visit the National Maritime Museum in Darling Harbour. The excellent and huge museum covers the history of Australia as a seafaring nation, but also includes how the sea is part of Australian life, covering the surf culture, immigration and fishing. We started by touring the ships berthed in the museum's docks. First we climbed the gangway of HMAS Vampire (I nearly saluted…J), an Australian warship built in the 1950s. We were taken on a tour of the ship by an old volunteer, who we assumed was ex-navy, but soon discovered he was a docky who worked in the yard which built the ship. This meant he knew all about the ship's construction, but absolutely nothing about the navy life! In true naval tradition he didn't let truth stand in the way of a good dit, and we smirked as he blundered through various stories about life in the wardroom and messdecks. Eventually we took pity and told him we were ex-navy, though we still didn't have the heart to correct him, and instead cheered him on! The Vampire looked like any good old British pussers grey, and it was all I could do to stop James sitting in the PWO's seat and cover everything in Chinograph (she mocks what she doesn't understand… J).
From the Vampire we stumbled across the pontoon to a new version of a very old ship, the replica of Captain Cook's ship, HMB Endeavour. We were told that the replica is as true to the original as possible, and still sails through Australian waters today. In fact, the ship has completed 3 circumnavigations. After reading so much about Cook and his voyages as we crossed the Pacific it was interesting to finally visualise the ship he made his discoveries on. It was much smaller and more cramped than we expected, and made Rahula looked positively luxurious. Hidden from sight below the main deck were the modern amenities that help the ship take paying passengers today, but the rest of the ship was a pretty good imitation.
We couldn't miss out on a visit to the world famous surfer's hang out at Bondi Beach. We took the train there one Saturday, and initially got distracted by the huge shopping centre near the train station. Australia has been our first bit of commercial plenty since Panama, and with the Aussie Dollar being so weak everything was dirt cheap. Once we managed to drag ourselves out of the shops selling cool surf wear we made it to the beach. As we strolled down the hill on a cold, overcast windy day, we were both struck by one thought - we were in Brighton! It was all there - small beach, Victorian houses lining the waterfront, dark clouds overhead! The water was full of surfers trying their luck with the rolling breakers, and the shore was full of dudes being, well, cool. The place has obviously lost its appeal to the real die hard surfers and is now full of wannabes, but it was fun to wander through and strut our salty behinds along the promenade.
After 10 days in Sydney we were beginning to reach the limit of a polite stay on the RANSA pontoon. Our thoughts were also turning to the imminent haul out of the boat and all the work we had to do before flying back to the UK in December. We checked the weather, and it seemed we had a chance to head north to Port Stephens at the weekend, otherwise we would be weather-bound in Sydney for another week. On Sunday 9 November we reluctantly let go of the mooring lines, and drove Rahula out of Sydney harbour for the last time. We would return before our flights, but by then the boat will be tucked up in her new resting place ashore.