Sydney to Mooloolooba

Here begins the big one for Sylph VI and her crew, me, Ann, and our two
chihuahuas, Nelson and Emma, our ambition to circle the globe, no less.
Whether we make it or not time will tell.
This, our third voyage in Sylph, was not planned to start on Christmas Day
2001, December 27th was our intended departure date, but this was in fact
when we left Berrys Bay Marina, our home for the past nine months. We
enjoyed Christmas breakfast with our marina neighbours and then Christmas
lunch with friends at our sailing club, the RAN Sailing Association.
Boxing Day weather conditions looked good and we were underway just after
nine, before the Sydney to Hobart yacht race crowd had started to
accumulate, with a view to making either for Broken Bay or, if conditions
looked favorable, Port Stephens. As it turned out the wind was fair so we
turned our bow in the direction of Port Stephens.
Our first night at sea after many months was marred by a relatively minor
incident but one that had the potential to be a lot worse. At 2030 we
jibed in the shifting wind conditions and as the boom swung across the
shackle securing the mainsheet to the traveller parted, resulting in a
damaged rope clutch for the second reef point and the zipper on the
mainsail cover; a small bruise to the hip pocket but undoubtedly a useful
reminder of the vigilance required when taking a yacht offshore.
Conditions ended up being somewhat variable as is common on the NSW coast
but were good enough so that at 0445 the next morning we were at anchor in
Shoal Bay, Port Stephens.
On Wednesday we went alongside the public wharf at Nelsons Bay where we
enjoyed a couple of relaxing days in the holiday atmosphere.
Having overstayed the time limit on the public wharf but with no
favourable winds in sight, on Saturday 29th December we slipped from
Nelson Bay and motored 6 ½ miles to Fame Cove. This is a delightful
little inlet within Port Stephens which, combined with the fact that we
were in the middle of the holiday season, meant that it was pretty crowded
with other boats, but fortunately there was still plenty of room for us to
anchor. Later in the day as other boats finished their day’s sailing
many other boats continued to fill up the Cove until it was pretty well
packed out.
Over the next couple of days we had a very relaxing time not doing a lot
in particular, generally lazing around and enjoying an occasional dip over
the side. But it wasn’t all play and no work and we spent a couple of
hours each day with our trusty hand operated Singer sewing machine
progressing construction of a series drogue. This is a device developed
by the US Coast Guard for use by small boats in heavy weather to prevent
them from broaching and capsizing. Basically it consists of a long length
of line with a series of small fabric cones attached to it at regular
intervals; ours will consist of some 120 cones on 100 meters of nylon
line. The idea is when the weather gets really rough you stream the
drogue over the stern and the drag it creates slows the boat down and
keeps the stern into the wind and waves. Making 120 small cones is going
to take a while but we should have it finished well before we might need
it, hopefully never.
On Monday 31st December we weighed anchor with the intention of making our
way to Shoal Bay, but once around the headland we found ourselves punching
directly into a fresh nor’easter so, not feeling in the mood for a rough
ride, we decided Fame Cove was as good as anywhere to enjoy New Years Eve
and we turned around to re-anchor a short distance in from where we had
departed only an hour before. New Year’s Eve thus ended up a rather
uneventful affair and we celebrated the arrival of 2002 over a quiet and
very pleasant drop of red.
New Year’s Day we tried to head back for Nelson’s Bay again, this time
leaving in the morning so as to avoid the afternoon sea breeze, instead
finding no wind whatsoever we had to motor the 6 ½ miles back. We were
fortunate to find a spare berth at the public jetty again where we
subsequently tied up. January 2nd was our 20th wedding anniversary, but
with the forecast indicating a promising southerly breeze, Ann suggested
we celebrate a night early so as to leave us free to sail the next day.
It seemed a good plan to me so that evening we enjoyed a fair feed at a
local seafood restaurant and thus it was that our China (and last)
anniversary was spent at sea.
We departed Nelson’s Bay at 12.45, made a good start but by late afternoon
the wind had boxed the compass and by early evening had died completely.
After flopping around for a few hours at about 19.00 a breeze started up,
sail was set and an hour later we were happily reaching up the coast at
six knots. It was a beautiful evening with a full moon now a quarter way
up the night sky. I was on watch and had just put a fix on the chart and
come up on deck for a look around. I stuck my head up over the dodger to
make sure all was clear ahead and then looking astern noticed off our
starboard quarter about 600 yards away a large graceful racing yacht
rapidly overhauling us. As she closed I could hear her slice effortlessly
through the water with a delicious swish. She was certainly moving and I
assessed she would pass easily to windward of us. However this proved not
to be the case and I watched, incredulous, as she continued to close, a
collision looked imminent. I unlashed the wheel to override the windvane
self-steering and bear away but it was too late. Fortunately our hulls
did not touch, I am certain the other yacht would have come out second
best if they did, but the asymmetrical spinnaker the racer was flying
certainly touched. It billowed all over our rig, enveloping our smaller
mast. Something had to give and it did, the spinnaker rent and moments
later the shreds were flying everywhere. The unknown yacht hauled away to
windward, heaved to for a moment, and then, presumably having ascertained
all was OK, put on speed again and a few minutes later rapidly disappeared
into the night ahead.
We knew the boat must have been participating in the Pittwater to Coffs
Harbour Yacht Race but had no idea who it was. I tried calling the
mystery yacht on VHF radio but only raised another racing yacht, Liberty
II, also in the vicinity of Seal Rocks and reportedly doing 18 knots.
They could shed no light on who might have been the subject of our close
encounter.
The immediate excitement past I shone a torch aloft to inspect the damage,
fortunately the only damage we suffered was a broken navigation light at
the masthead. This was a tri-light, which uses less power than the
conventional separate navigation lights, and being at the masthead is
visible at a greater distance than lights lower down. Fortunately we also
carry navigation lights at deck level so it was a simple matter to switch
to these. The remainder of the night was uneventful though we did note
that when the wind veered to the south at about 02.00 it brought with it a
very strong smell of smoke from the numerous bush fires then raging around
New South Wales. We thought this amazing, as they must have been over 80
miles away.
The fresh southerly now had us averaging 6½ knots so that our arrival off
Camden Haven was perfect for the flooding tide at 08.00 and at 09.25 we
had secured to the Laurieton United Serviceman’s Club jetty. We had
visited Laurieton only once before in our last yacht Karin, and knowing
that we would not be passing this way again for quite some time Ann and I
were keen to call again as it is one of the prettiest spots on the NSW
coast, nestled under North Brother Mountain and the lovely broad Camden
Haven River forming its eastern boundary.
We enjoyed five days here during which time we heard on the yachtie grape
vine that the winner of the Coffs Harbours yacht race, Grundig, had lost a
couple of spinnakers during the race. Grundig is owned by an
acquaintance of mine whose company had re-rigged Sylph a few years
earlier. I called some friends who had participated in the race and they
confirmed that Grundig had indeed had a close call with a cruising yacht
off Seal Rocks. On hearing this I immediately gave Sean a ring. He
admitted it was he who had nearly run us down. On losing his spinnaker
they apparently set another larger one which blew out a short while later.
Sean reckoned this loss of horsepower cost him his chance at the race
record. He must have been mightily annoyed but he is a gentleman and
graciously agreed to replace our navigation light
On Tuesday 8th of January we thought we had a good forecast for heading
north again so we slipped from the jetty with the high tide and were soon
clear of the river and making good speed against a light north-westerly.
We had hoped to get to Coffs Harbour but at 15.00 the wind had swung round
to the Northeast and with the East Coast current against us we were going
nowhere fast. With Port Macquarie only 15 miles behind us, downwind and
down current, we decided to make a U-turn in order to make the entry
across the bar before sunset. With a little help from the engine we
entered the port at 18.30. An acquaintance we had made in Laurieton
happened to be on his boat as we came in. He recognised us and kindly
directed us to a vacant mooring that wasn’t in use. As Port Macquarie
doesn’t have a lot of spare room we greatly appreciated it. The only down
side of this mooring was that when the wind blew from the south at low
water our stern was only about 3 meters from the beach. Initially this
was bit nerve racking and in fact we worked out that we could send the
dogs ashore by placing them in the dinghy and letting out the painter
until the dinghy drifted onto the beach. Nelson and Emma weren’t
particularly keen on this mode of remotely operated transport so after one
attempt we abandoned it, still it was certainly the shortest row I’ve ever
had to make to take the dogs for a walk.
Port Macquarie is not our favourite spot and as soon as the forecast was
fair we got underway again, which turned out to be four days later on the
morning of Saturday 12th. As we slipped the mooring we found ourselves
amongst a fleet of amateur fishing boats lining up for a Le Mans start to
what we presumed was a fishing competition. This added to the excitement
of getting away with the wash of numerous powerboats speeding past and
stirring up the harbour’s entrance. We were soon clear of Port Macquarie
and the fishing fleet and after drifting around for an hour or two the
expected southerly came in, early as it turned out, and as the afternoon
advanced so the wind freshened. By evening we were being pushed along
before a near gale with wind against current causing short steep seas to
build and making for wet conditions in the cockpit. By this stage we were
down to a double reefed main and poled out jib averaging over six knots
which wasn’t bad given that I estimated we had two knots of current
against us. We covered the 78 miles in 17 hours, which had us alongside
Coffs Harbour Marina at 00.45.
Sunday we booked in to the Marina for a week and here we used our time
primarily for some boat maintenance, including replacing the damaged rope
clutch and navigation light, and other chores integral to the cruising
lifestyle. As well as being an all weather port, a rare thing on the NSW
coast, and therefore a convenient stop, we had some boating acquaintances
to catch up with, in particular Zed and Fay of Journeyman, who we knew
from our previous stops here. Over the past three years they had been
labouring over their boat, a beautiful timber ketch of American origins,
very stylish with heavily raked masts and lots of lovely brightwork and
bronze fittings; probably sails OK as well, though I suspect she is not
likely to set any speed records. Journeyman had belonged to an American
cruiser who, the story went, had blown her up with the overzealous use of
some aerosol water dispersant on the engine. The result was a disaster:
holes in the topsides, sprung planks and interior completely wrecked,
basically a write off. It seems the owner was lucky he wasn’t seriously
hurt. Consequently Zed and Fay picked the boat up very cheap and have
been working non-stop since pulling her apart and putting her back
together again. This visit they were now finally back in the water and
while a bit of work remains Journeyman looks a treat.
Zed and Fay’s plan from here, once the remaining essential work is
completed, is to sail down to Broken Bay and do nothing for a while to
regroup financially, physically and emotionally. Zed is an ex-SAS soldier
and Vietnam veteran so Broken Bay seems a good spot for them to lay up a
while as it was from here, in WW2, that the famous Z Force set off from
for a clandestine raid on Japanese shipping in Singapore, described as the
most successful operation of its kind in modern history. Maybe the link
with history will provide them with the spiritual boost they need before
setting off once more on new adventures.
After our week alongside was up, ever conscious of our cruising budget, we
decided to leave our marina berth and pick up a mooring in the Outer
Harbour and there await a favourable wind for our next destination, the
Clarence River. Coffs Harbour Outer Harbour is a rolly anchorage at the
best of times so we were keen to move on as soon as possible, on the other
hand the bar at the mouth of the Clarence can be treacherous, so not only
did we want a southerly to take us north but also we wanted one that was
not too strong, otherwise the bar might not be navigable when we got
there. Accordingly we waited a few days, but with high pressure systems
dominating the weather map and no change in sight, we decided to try for
an overnight sail when the afternoon sea breeze had died off, hoping we
might be able to pick up an evening westerly. Studying our weather faxes
we concluded that Wednesday 23rd January looked fair, we slipped the
mooring at 16.45 and motored out of the harbour in a light northeasterly.
But things did not work out quite as we had hoped, not at all unusual when
it comes to the weather, and despite staying close to the coast (looking
for a land breeze as well as staying out of the East Coast Current) we
found virtually no wind at all and ended up motoring the 58 miles. This
meant we had to steer the whole way as the wind vane obviously doesn’t
work with no wind and we have chosen not to spend our hard earned cruising
kitty on an autopilot. Ann and I took it in turns to do an hour on the
wheel and an hour sleeping. On the plus side when we finally got to the
Clarence River mouth at about 6am the bar was almost flat, and as it was
my turn on the wheel I let Ann sleep as we motored past the breakwaters
and on up to Iluka Boat Harbour, where Ann suddenly awoke very pleased to
see we had arrived.
We swung to a courtesy mooring for three days to enjoy the peace and quiet
of Iluka, population 2,200. Our recreations included a walk through a
piece of coastal rainforest, which at 90 hectares is apparently the
largest area of this particular type of rainforest in Australia. Apart
from all the logging that took place in New South Wales’ early history,
this sort of rainforest, being so close to the coast and living on top of
sand, is very vulnerable to changing conditions such as erosion of the
coast and protecting dunes, also encroachment from exotic species proves a
continuing problem, hence there is very little of it left. The Iluka
Rainforest is now World Heritage listed so hopefully its future is
reasonably assured.
Having about exhausted the highlights of Iluka we dropped the mooring at
7.30 Sunday 27th and motored over to Yamba on the other side of the river
where we topped up with fuel at the marina. Full up we motored a short
distance to the Yamba Shores Tavern which provides a free berth to
visiting yachts, their only rule being that you have to buy a couple of
beers from them during your stay, a rule we were happy to observe. We
enjoyed the pub’s hospitality but being rather public we departed there
the next morning and continued 12 miles up the Clarence to anchor just
short of the Harwood Bridge.
While at anchor a flash little inflatable boat came up to us from a medium
sized ship secured to a wharf about 500 meters away. The driver turned
out to a friend of ours, Andrew, who we had not seen for three years.
Andrew is a shipwright by trade and last we had heard of him he was fixing
up some rich blokes yacht in Italy. Now it seemed he was working for the
same fellow, this time as the project manager for the refitting of this
big blue boat, turning it from a French Navy patrol boat into a private
yacht. Obviously he had satisfied his boss well while in Italy. He
invited us on board for a drink and a look around later in the evening.
Here we met his partner, Dianne, and had a good yarn catching up with the
last three years and having a look over this very ambitious project.
The next morning we were aweigh at 0.30 and loitered just short of the
bridge. Spot on nine (the time for which we had booked the bridge to
open) two blokes strolled across from the northern side, climbed the
ladder to the control hut astride the central span and after some messing
around the span eventually began to rise. Waved through, we then
proceeded another 1½ miles and came alongside the public pontoon off
MacLean. We had been through this way before just under 12 months
previous as we were returning from our Queensland Cruise but at that time
the river was in serious flood and our visit had to be cut short as the
waters were threatening to sweep the whole pontoon away. Now conditions
were much different, the region suffering water shortages and the river
several meters below what we had experienced the year prior.
The highlight of our visit to MacLean was a walk to the town’s lookout.
It is certainly beautiful country with acres of sugar cane plantations
amid rich bushland and the great Clarence River winding through it. The
lookout provided a magnificent view of the surrounding countryside and the
passing rain clouds in the distance contrasting with bright patches of sun
and the river’s shimmering broad meanders created one of those scenes we
live for.
Also while we were here we caught up with a couple of friends, Ken and
Margaret, who we had met while berthed at Berrys Bay. Ken owned a 60 year
old yacht there which he was refitting. They also owned some property
near MacLean, so when we arrived at Iluka I had called him but was advised
by someone on the other end of his phone that he was away at a PSG and
would be back on Sunday. PSG? - we were to find out what a PSG was when
we caught up with Ken and Margaret in MacLean. PSG is the Pagan Summer
Gathering and we found it interesting to learn a little, very little,
about what witches get up to on the weekend of a summer full moon. We
also met some of Ken and Margaret’s clan who were also rather interesting
though not exactly contributing to the mainstream life style of Australia.
At 3 p.m. on Friday 1st of February we departed MacLean and headed back
down the river to Iluka where we picked up the courtesy mooring a few
hours later. We had arranged for our mail to be sent here so we ended up
having to wait until Tuesday 5th of February before it arrived and
therefore got underway again on Wednesday. As usual we timed our
departure for slack high water to ensure a minimum break and maximum depth
of water over the bar which protects the mouths of most of NSW’s rivers.
Despite this there was still some significant breaking seas and our little
30 HP motor at times struggled to keep the bow into the seas. At one
point a sea broke, pushing the bow round and before I could get Sylph back
head to sea another wave broke and crashed over her beam on, not a good
scenario! I had taken the precaution of wearing a safety harness for the
departure so watched with interest and was pretty pleased with the way the
boat handled the breaking seas, simply rolling a little and allowing the
white water to pass harmlessly over her. Fortunately we managed to get
her head up into the seas before any more breakers came along and were
soon past the surf line, back out into the open water and once more under
sail, the way I like it.
The wind overnight was fresh from the east which meant a beam reach
averaging just under 6 knots, a good sail though at 7.30 the wind died and
we had to flash up the motor to bring us into Southport on the Gold Coast.
A bar also covers Southport’s entrance and our arrival time was actually
on an ebbing tide, low water. This is about the worst combination if
there is any onshore swell (which on the east coast there always is) as it
causes the swell to heap up against the outgoing tide over the shallow
water and break just like the waves on the beach, not the sort of water to
be taking a relatively small boat through. The swell was pretty minimal
however so as we approached we called the local volunteer coast guard who
advised the bar was safe. I steered while Ann navigated below using the
trusty GPS (Global Positioning System), it truly is a wonderful invention.
Again we encountered a few small breakers but none that came too close
and before we knew it we were in the flat waters of Southport.
We spent two nights at anchor and then continued on our way, motoring up
through the Broadwater to Tiger Mullet Channel. This looked a good spot
to stop for a night but it was rather disappointing, just mangroves and of
course where there are mangroves there are lots of bugs, especially
mosquitoes. We cacooned the boat in her anti-mosquito netting for the
night and were happy to get underway again the next day nice and early for
a short motor to a favourite spot of ours in a channel between Karragarra
and Macleay Island. We stayed here two nights, the highlight of which was
dinner at the local pub. It was incredibly cheap, the service was
excellent and the view and atmosphere was priceless. They even threw in a
flying umbrella stunt for free to add to the excitement – a gust of wind
caused the umbrella at our table to shoot straight into the air a good 15
feet then, fortunately, land harmlessly some 10 feet downwind.
Tuesday 12th we sailed to Manly Boat Harbour where we spent two nights at
the Royal Queensland Yacht Squadron Marina. Here I had to attend a Navy
medical appointment that night at Bulimba Barracks in preparation for a
couple of stints on board Young Endeavour coming up, and also we took the
opportunity to catch up with a friend from the Navy Reserves, enjoying an
excellent BBQ including some beautiful home brew and classic wines from
his extensive cellar. We were planning on leaving on the Thursday but
because we had enjoyed the previous night so much decided that an extra
night at the marina would be wise.
Friday morning we departed Manly and enjoyed a short sail across Moreton
Bay to a magic spot off Moreton Island called Tangalooma. Tangalooma is
tucked in behind an extensive sand bar which has been reinforced with
several wrecks, mainly old dredgers, which the Queensland Government put
there to improve the security of the anchorage. It didn’t really achieve
this but it did provide an excellent haven for absolutely millions of
fish. Mind you between Ann and I we couldn’t entice even one of them onto
a hook. The beach and water here is just perfect. So when we weren’t
trying to fish we spent time just swimming, snorkelling and generally
lazing around.
But all good things must come to an end and because I had a commitment to
Young Endeavour coming up we reluctantly weighed anchor on Monday the 18th
of February, wended our way under sail in a pleasant south-easterly breeze
out of Moreton Bay via the North East Channel and then on towards
Mooloolaba. Unfortunately as evening approached the wind became very
fluky before dying off completely so we had to motor the last several
miles to Mooloolaba where we came to anchor at 19.30.
Here we again have enjoyed a few pleasant days including catching up with
some friends we had made on our previous cruise to North Queensland, Phil
and Trish. They live a very palatial life on one of the canal estates
with their catamaran, Kimberly, just outside their backdoor on their own
jetty. They are both very down to earth people with many interesting
stories, including some very exciting times aboard an earlier catamaran in
which they cruised from Perth to Queensland, spending some five months in
the Kimberlys along the way. As we are hoping to visit there later in the
year we listened intently to all they had to say. The scenery sounds
spectacular but murky waters, poor charts, huge tides and numerous
crocodiles obviously make for very challenging cruising.