East coast low hits Coffs
Saturday 4th June 2016
Sometimes we make the right decision, and sometimes we don’t. Our decision to stay at Coffs was an example of the latter, and a corker at that.
The weather coming through was indeed an East coast low, and as it turned out far worse than the one in 2013. It was in fact a series of lows hitting one after the other, with devastating effects on the marina. On Monday, when we’d made our decision to stay, the forecast for the weekend had been for 30-35 knots of wind and 3-4 metre seas. We were not worried.
As each day passed, though, the approaching low deepened and by Saturday the winds were forecast to be 50-55 knots and the seas 4-6 metres on top of a 5-7 metre swell. By now it was too late to change our decision to leave, so we doubled up on lines and fenders, made sure everything on deck was secured, and waited for it to arrive.
The forecast issued on Thursday showed a Gale warning for Saturday with seas of 2.5 to 4 metres on top of a north-easterly swell of 5-7 metres.
By Saturday the winds were forecast as Storm Force up to 55 knots with seas 4-7 metres on top of swell of 4-5 metres.
And arrive it did...
The radar on Saturday shows the rain in the low – Coffs is at the bottom of the big yellow/orange section.
The low is moving south. This shows only what was in 128km range of Grafton.
The radar at 512 km. The low stretched from north of Brisbane to south of Sydney.
The wind and rain started on Saturday morning and built during the day, so that by the evening we had consistent 45 knot winds, gusting higher, and heavy rain. This was not the worst of our problems though. By high water at 2100, huge waves were regularly coming over the top of the breakwater, bringing tons of water into the marina, crashing down on the boardwalk and boats and setting up wave conditions that the pontoons just were not built for.
The level of water in the inner harbour continued to rise as the thousands of gallons pouring over the breakwater had nowhere to go, and the pontoons rose to less than a metre from the tops of the piles. The wave action caused finger pontoons to begin to break away from the main arms, turning on their sides and laying uselessly alongside the boats they were still attached to. Some boats had been tied directly to the piles, and as a result stayed put, but others had not, and these drifted with their pontoon until they came to rest against another boat or pontoon.
The noise was tremendous. The wind continued to howl and rain drummed on the deck, but loudest of all was the ocean, roaring as it leapt the breakwater, hurling rocks and moving concrete blocks as if they were pebbles and Lego bricks. Were we frightened? You bet your sweet life we were, but there was no way off the boat now. We would have to sit it out.
Sometime around 0200, there was a knock on the boat. We had to listen for it to come again, unsure whether it was just something flying around out there. Who the heck could that be in all this? Dave, a live-aboard yachtie of just 2 weeks, had decided enough was enough when firstly their hammerhead pontoon turned turtle and then the weather update said that yet another low was forming and the conditions were expected to last a further 12-24 hours. He had called the State Emergency Services requesting help to get ashore, and if we wanted to leave we should be ready in 15 minutes.
So now we had another decision to make, and we hadn’t done too well with the previous one. We didn’t want to leave the boat to fend for herself, but we felt there was little more we could do to keep her safe. If she broke free, possibly taking the pontoon with her, trying to drive her to safety would be impossible in the conditions and close confines of the marina. Getting lines re-attached to piles or other boats would likewise be virtually impossible and definitely hazardous, and so we felt we could serve no good purpose by staying with her. Weighing up the personal risks of getting ashore now against those if we stayed on the boat, we decided, with heavy hearts, to leave.
We packed a few things into dry bags, donned our foul weather gear and head torches, wished the old girl good luck and set off towards the boardwalk, carefully stepping over or ducking under the mooring lines that criss-crossed the pontoon. When we reached the end it became clear that the ramp that usually joined the pontoon to the boardwalk was no longer there, and instead a ladder was being held in place by members of the SES. It could not be fixed at the bottom because of the moving pontoon, and every few seconds another wave showered seawater over it, but it was the only way off, so in turn we crawled on our knees across the ladder to waiting hands that pulled us onto the boardwalk.
In the dark it was easy to become disorientated, and a strong hand stopped me in my tracks as I started off in the wrong direction. “Not that way,” the hand’s owner explained, “Go that way, and stay on the right.” As we hurried along the boardwalk, automatically ducking when each new wave came over us, we hoped that there would not be one that brought a rock with it. Then we saw why staying on the right was a good idea: the left hand rail had been washed away.
As we reached the marina office we were greeted by a Police lady who gave us a ride to the Water Police station just along the road where we sat in the dry with a hot drink while we tried to find somewhere to go. Dave and his wife would be collected by friends, another couple were locals and drove themselves off, home presumably, and Phil & Di were waiting to hear if their friends ashore had been flooded out of their house. Our problem was finding a motel with a 24-hour reception, and the Police lady offered to drive us to the Ibis which she knew was the only one that did.
We drove through a very wet and windswept town to the Ibis, but there was no room at the inn. Their only vacant room was flooded. So we drove back to the Water Police station, which seemed to be the only safe haven for the night. John, the Officer on duty, welcomed us to the “Master Suite” – a side office – where we made ourselves comfortable on the floor and tried to sleep for the last few hours of the night, wondering what we would find in the morning.