April 30, 2009

Surfers Paradise

As well as the official marine charts produced by the Hydrographic Office, we have also been using the coastal cruising guides written by local sailor Alan Lucas. His books (Cruising the NSW Coast, Cruising the Coral Coast) are useful but frustrating, comprising impeccably detailed research and surveys combined with often opaque or downright misleading editorial and layout. Still, they are a tremendous help and typically begin where the official charts leave off, being full of details and charts of otherwise uncharted inland waters.

We were particularly interested to see that Lucas has travelled in his own yacht up inland waters from Surfers Paradise to Brisbane, and had painstakingly surveyed and charted a route that seemed to be of sufficient depth for Pindimara, as long as we were careful to travel through a couple of shallower zones at the top of the tide.


However, Lucas' surveys were done in 2003 in a boat with much shallower draft, and the rivers run over continually shifting sands, so we called the local Marine Rescue patrol and asked for their local advice. Often these groups are not keen to offer specific advice, but on this occasion after some muffled discussion they told me that their unanimous opinion was that our keel was too deep and that they advised against it. We were a bit disappointed, but we'll go with the experts.

In the meantime, then, we are sitting at anchor in Surfers Paradise, a rather strange and artificial concoction of high-rise holiday homes, beaches, and amusement parks. It's not exactly quiet due to the continual howl of high-performance engines from sea-doos, jet-boats, helicopters, float planes, and speed boats from the adjoining Sea World amusement park, but there's certainly a lot to see while bobbing around in the sun.




April 29, 2009

Arrival in Queensland

The wind died in the morning, but we persevered until we were completely becalmed and then turned the motor on. It took most of the day to chug up to Queensland and the Gold Coast Seaway (an artificial channel leading into the river system), where unfortunately the tide was out across the bar. We pored over the charts and decided that there was just about enough depth for us to get in, so long as we didn't veer from the channel. Actually sticking to the channel proved to be a little exciting because the fishing trawlers were coming out, and they were deploying their tackle inside the breakwater which made them very wide indeed.

We managed to dodge around them, although we did attract the attention of a great number of black helicopters which kept buzzing our mast. They didn't have coastguard markings, so we ignored them. Maybe they were impressed by our outstanding seamanship.

After a couple of moments with only a metre of water under the keel (I was having kittens at the helm while Bronwyn was very calmly reading out the seconds until the next turn), we felt our way upriver and squeezed into a crowded anchorage outside Seaworld. I'm writing this at sunset with the barking of sealions in the background.

Escape from Iluka

Bronwyn's homework assignment was finished and we were champing at the bit to move on. Pindimara was even growing roots, and I spent one morning scrubbing them off. We had enjoyed our stay in Iluka and had had some fun times with local people here and there and our friends on Pelagic, but it was a relief to catch the morning tide and sail across the bar and out into the open sea. It was a bonus to do it under a clear blue sky over glassy smooth water virtually unruffled by the perfect breeze.

The day continued as fun as it started. We were close-hauled and doing 5-6 knots, even managing to hitch-hike on a couple of the mystical 'reverse currents' that run sporadically and unreliably up the coast here. Pods of dolphins passed by, heading south. Fighter pilots flew training circuits around the boat, and one even waggled his wings at Bronwyn when she waved. The sun shone. We smiled a lot.

As evening fell, we found ourselves in a wide bay south of Ballina. The off-watch prepared food, each according to their ability. I made Bronwyn a peanut-butter sandwich. She made me a warm chicken and cous-cous spinach salad.

Bronwyn went to bed to get some rest before the night passage, and I started to put in some long tacks to get around the Ballina headland. Out there in the deeps, my old enemy the Eastern Australian Current was lurking, robbing me of two knots and making the easterly tacks pretty hard to judge. For about half an hour, I'm pretty sure that I made no progress at all.

Still, there was a lot to be happy about. I was sailing again, and I'd just finished - thanks to Bronwyn - an excellent supper of home-made meatballs with freshly baked sourdough bread, hot out of the oven. An orange sliver of crescent moon sank slowly beneath the sea. I turned down the lights on the cockpit instruments and lay back on deck to admire the stars. The sky was packed with them. Not just in the Milky Way, which was gloriously spectacular, but also from horizon to horizon I was hard pushed to find the smallest patch of empty black sky. Both of the island galaxies were there, and big fat shooting stars were dropping from the north.

There were stars in the sea, too. Phosphorescent micro-organisms were being churned up in our wake, leaving a line of bright fairy lights in the water on either side.


April 26, 2009

Hello John, Got A New Motor?

Before we left Sydney, somebody - we can't remember who - predicted that we wouldn't make it far up the Queensland coast before I got fed up with rowing everywhere and bought an outboard motor for the tender. Up to now I've been happy to use the oars, but these last few weeks of wind and tide have forced me to reconsider. Having had some not so wonderful experiences with an old second-hand outboard, we bit the bullet and bought a brand new Yamaha 3 horsepower 2-stroke.

It's been a ball. We drove it straight out of the shop and over the river to an uninhabited little island near to Yamba, just because we could.

That was yesterday. Today, while Bronwyn's been working on her CAD assignment, I've been running back and forth to the shore, fetching water to fill our tanks, as well as going for the odd burn around the bay just for the absolute hell of it.

And I've had to learn new tricks. For instance, now that our dinghy has an engine sticking out underneath, I can't just run it up onto the shore, jump out and tie it up like I've been used to. Instead, I've bought a small anchor, and the sequence goes something like this: Approach shore, avoid weed and rocks, look for a shallow bit, slow down, lift the engine halfway out of the water, chug inshore until my nerve gives out, throw the anchor, put the engine in neutral, and step out into the sea. If it's too deep, I haul on the anchor rope until I float over to the anchor, pull it out of the water, throw it a bit further, repeat. This manoeuvre is called "kedging" and is remarkably effective. We just hope that we never have to do it with the yacht.

The motor is brand new, but doesn't run very well at the moment because we're using up the old and dirty fuel in our fuel can. We're kind of stuck with this, as there isn't a socially acceptable way of disposing of old fuel (chuck it in the sea and set light to it?), so we just have to keep using it up until it's gone and then we can replace it with good stuff. Shouldn't be long now. I'll just pop over to the breakwater with the camera to see if I can photograph any lizards.



April 23, 2009

Still here!

We popped out to the heads yesterday to have a look at the bar. Even under what would normally be ideal conditions of tide, it was completely impassable. Enormous white-capped green rollers were breaking across the whole width of the channel. Great for a professional surf competition, perhaps, but not so good for our little boat. Even the fishing trawlers are staying in harbour. Looks like we're not leaving the Clarence River any time soon.

Our Ampair wind generator started squeaking in the night. I took it down and disassembled it to reveal a worn bearing. I contacted the manufacturer in England, because it's only nine months old and we've had some other problems with it before. They're sending us a new unit, but we don't want to have to wait for it in Iluka, so we're getting it delivered to an address further up the coast in Brisbane (thanks, Kate) and in the meantime I've dropped our shaft into the local machine shop to see if they can source us a new bearing.

In other news... it's wet, it's windy, and it's even a bit cold. We're getting a lot of schoolwork done. We've used up all our internet allowance for the month, so the last couple of blog updates have come to you via satellite. It's nice to know that the technology is working, because we are likely to need it around the top end.

April 21, 2009

Gales, Rain and Wine

The next batch of weather has rolled in across the Tasman Sea, bringing heavy winds and rain. Although the ocean wind speeds are finally dropping to 30 knots, the gales have left a legacy of four-metre swells, so we're staying put until either the wind or the swell dies down a bit. Since we're now at the northern end of the Bureau of Meteorology's New South Wales report, we have been peeking at the southern end of the Queensland report. We notice with some jealousy that the Queenslanders have perfect sailing weather; if only we could make it around that last corner!

After so long at anchor and unwilling to risk slamming up against
fishing jetties in the high winds, we were running very low on water.
We couldn't use our water maker because the bay is thick with eroded
mud from upriver, so I spent an afternoon rowing back and forth in 25
knot squalls to the nearest caravan park, repeatedly filling our 20
litre jerry-can and emptying it into our echoing 150 litre forward
tank. Pouring water from a jerry-can into a small hole in a pitching
deck is exciting to say the least, especially when much of the working
space is taken up by our emergency spare anchor (which is set up ready
to be dropped in case the main one drags in the bad weather). Despite
losing several litres here and there as the wind whipped the pouring
stream over the side and into the anchor locker, I got the forward
tank three quarters full before Bronwyn returned to shore with six
bags of provisions and two sacks of clean washing.

Although the dinghy was quite heavily loaded, I reckoned that I'd be
OK because I had the turning tide working for me, but half way back to
the boat a headwind blew up and I found that I couldn't make any
progress at all. The Walker Bay doesn't row very well with weight in
the stern, so Bronwyn suggested that we row side-by-side instead. We
have often done this in the sheltered bays of Pittwater, and after
some hilarious circular routes we have become quite proficient at it.
Usually Bronwyn takes the starboard oar and rows with both hands,
while I sit with one arm around her waist and one on the port oar both
stroking and steering. We hadn't tried it in heavy weather before, but
we quickly found that with all the weight in the centre and both of us
pulling hard we skimmed across the wave tops.

The reason that we so urgently needed water and supplies was that we
were entertaining our Alaskan friends Alisa and Michael with their
young son Elias from the neighbouring yacht Pelagic. We made it back
to Pindimara in the nick of time and were able to quickly clean up and
start cooking before they arrived. After some initial excitement when
Pelagic's tender's new outboard failed in the wind and rain just short
of us, we had a great evening of laksa, wine, cake and conversation.
One advantage of the continuous wind was that the wind generator kept
on pumping out power and we managed to keep the cabin lights and hi-fi
speakers working the whole time.

A night of rain brought the welcome sight of a dinghy full to the
brim, so we nipped out in a gap between squalls and pumped all that
precious sweet water into the aft tank.

April 18, 2009

Waiting at Iluka

The bay at Iluka is a pleasant enough anchorage, and it is but a short row to the local pub and shop. More northerly winds were forecast shortly after we arrived, and we had to catch up on some schoolwork, so we decided to stay a while.


The winds improved, but we had some more work to do both for university and on the boat, so we stayed a few days longer, and now we're waiting out a 40-knot gale that is expected to last all weekend. Luckily the holding here is very good, because the boat is being thrown around like a child's toy even inland behind two breakwaters.

It hasn't all been work work work. Iluka has a very pleasant walk that leads you to the impressive sandstone bluffs via an unusual beach rain forest ("beware the shiny-leaved stinging tree") and back via the very long beach itself. We've done the walk in both directions, and on one occasion came back through the rain forest at night. As our eyes became adjusted to the gloom, we realised that there were little scattered spots of fairy light both in the undergrowth and up in the trees. Thinking that they were glow-worms, we sneaked up on one with our trusty wind-up torch, and switched it on to reveal that we were actually looking at phosphorescent mushrooms. Very cool.



On the other side of the channel is the slightly bigger town of Yamba. As well as indulging in a bit of tourism, we needed to buy some items that weren't available in Iluka, so we took the ferry over. It is possible to take a yacht, but we didn't like the look of either the channel depths or of the anchoring options at the other end. This was the first time that I regretted not having an outboard motor for the tender. The tidal flow would have made for rather too exciting a row to Yamba and back, but we could have motored the dinghy over without any problem.

Still, the ferry was very pleasant, and we had breakfast in the excellent Pot Belly Pie Shop (the serving lass was wearing a tight little T-shirt reading "I got my pot belly in Yamba"). I also badly needed some shorts to wear, having torn all my existing ones to shreds, so we dropped into one of the many surf shops to buy some board shorts, thinking that they probably had the right durability in sea water. Once we'd made our purchases, I found that there was something hard in one of the pockets, which turned out to be a very unusual combination comb and beer bottle opener. Welcome to the surfer lifestyle!



We had a nice day clambering about on the rocks, watching the surf and the surfers, fossicking in chandleries, and yes, looking for second hand 3 horse power outboard motors. We didn't find a motor (apparently nobody hereabouts would be seen dead with anything less than 75 hp) but we did get enough other bits and pieces to finally allow me to add some finishing touches to the sewage tank in the head, and a replacement pump so that I can finally change the engine oil.

But not today. It's just a little bumpy at the moment.

April 11, 2009

The Solitary Islands

Since we'd spent much of the preceding evening steering by the flashing white light on South Solitary Island, we decided to go and have a look. Presumably the name is some sort of cartographer's joke, because there are many islands, rocks and reefs in the "Solitary" group, and they are all close in to shore. Our cruising guide mentioned that there were moorings on most of the islands, and when - after our problems last night - we double-checked on the internet we found that the whole group was part of a marine park, that anchoring and fishing were forbidden, but that visitors were welcome to use the courtesy moorings which were rated for boats up to 13 metres. An afternoon walking about on an uninhabited island sounded like a grand adventure, so we set off for South Solitary.

It was such a beautiful morning that we didn't mind that all we had was a gentle nine-knot northerly breeze. Petrels flocked around, and squabbled over their catch. A big black dolphin that escorted us yesterday came to say hello again, but at two knots we weren't giving him much chance to play in the bow wave, so he didn't hang around. The only other boat on the water was a local yawl who was also obviously heading for South Solitary, so we traded tacks with him until lunchtime, when the wind increased to the high twenties and we put in a reef. He didn't, and forged ahead.

By the time we got to South Solitary, the wind was consistently strong and the waves were pounding on the sea cliffs. We couldn't see any of the promised moorings, and even if we'd found one, we didn't fancy going close enough in to pick them up. We could also see that there were some buildings attached to the lighthouse, so perhaps South Solitary was inhabited after all.


Our old foe the Eastern Australian Current was back, making tacking progress very slow, so we decided to extend our shoreward tack and see if we could tuck behind - and maybe visit - and maybe stay on - South West Solitary Island (also known as Groper Islet) instead, which lies less than a mile from shore. Both our Lucas guide and the Marine Parks website told us that anchoring was forbidden but that there were courtesy moorings here, too.

The northerly current was strong even close in, but we finally managed to tack along the southern, sheltered side of Groper Island, where we could quite clearly see that there were no moorings at all. Making good use of our new charting software (Passage Plus, with the Australian Hydrographic Survey digital chart pack), we threaded our way through a number of reefs, shoals, breaking rocks, hidden rocks and other hazards which littered the small space between the island and the shore, before triumphantly emerging unscathed to tack along the north side of the island. There were no moorings there, either.

Evening was coming, so we gave up on our idea of overnighting on one of the Solitary Islands and began tacking in earnest to make some northing. Several hours passed as we zig-zagged back and forth between the 20 and 30 metre lines, heading northward into a northerly wind against a northerly current, and then the wind died. The current was now dragging us backwards at over a knot, so it was almost a relief to give up and to start the engine. We were going to have to head further out into the stronger current now anyway, because the shoals shoreward from the next island, North West Solitary Island, looked far too complicated to thread at night. We set our sights on the white beacon on faraway North Solitary Island, and powered into the swell. That sounds exciting, but even though we were motoring at over 5 knots, we were only making 2.5 knots over the ground. It was going to be a long night.


We settled into our usual night watch pattern of two and a half hours on, two and a half hours off. Pindimara is set up for single-handed cruising, which means that the helmsman doesn't need to set foot in the cockpit proper in order to control the boat; everything can be done from the wheel. This leaves the cockpit clear, and it has become one of our favourite sleeping spots on night passages. We put down a soft mat and an inflatable cushion, and then sleep completely dressed in our sailing gear and still in harness. Being on the centreline, any rolling motion is minimised, and we are always available to leap suddenly into action if required. As a bonus, when we open our eyes we get to see the Milky Way.

I woke at around midnight when we were just coming abreast of North Solitary Island. We needed to do a bit of careful navigating to avoid a couple of nearby shoals, and then we knew that there wouldn't be any more danger spots until half past four. Bronwyn went down to the forecabin for a proper sleep, and I motored on against the current.

Apart from the tedium, the main problem with hand-steering under motor is that your bum gets very sore from sitting on the hard wooden helmsman's seat. Under sail, you get to move around every so often, to trim the sails or look at the view or just to stretch your legs. Properly balanced, the boat is quite capable of sailing itself for surprisingly long distances even with Harriet turned off, but under power it is much less forgiving and you need to keep a firm hand and quite an eagle eye on the compass.

I tried a few different arrangements before finding that I could lie on a soft cushion up in the aft corner, drape my arms over the targa rail, and steer using one of my feet while still being able to see the compass and the sea ahead. Much better.


Time passes remarkably quickly on watch. A few hours went by, and we swapped places. Usually we just sleep until we hear the sails flapping or a bad drop off a swell - a sure sign that the helmsman is getting tired - but this time I set my alarm for 4 am so that we could tackle the next shoal together. Since the tidal stream was still pushing us backwards and sideways, it was difficult to steer a course in the dark that would ensure that we stayed out of trouble, so it was much easier for one of us to steer and for the other to call out new headings from the GPS and chart computer.

Once clear of the shoal, Bronwyn headed for bed and I sat and looked forward to the dawn. It rained a little, but our ever-so-expensive targa is brilliant at keeping the helm dry, and in any case I had my sailing gear on. The hours passed, the skies cleared, and the first vestiges of dawn touched the eastern sky.

The mind plays strange tricks when you're tired, and I find it particularly hard to judge the wind direction at the end of a watch. However, since we were still motoring along into a mild 9-knot northerly headwind, it wasn't terribly important. On one of my regular sweeps of the horizon I suddenly noticed a tall black sail silhouetted against the pre-dawn horizon. He was far, far out, and was not showing any running lights. Idly I wondered where he'd come from; had he tried to beat the current by going dozens of miles to seaward, or was he perhaps arriving from New Zealand? Perhaps he wasn't showing any lights because his batteries had died overnight, or perhaps he was so far away that for him it was already dawn and he'd switched them off. In either case, this part of the coast is all wilderness and he was going to be disappointed when he found out that he'd come in ten miles short of Iluka and would have to spend the next few hours tacking up the coast.

I chugged on, hoping that the rising sun would give me a change of wind. Every ten minutes or so I checked over my shoulder, and I could still just make out the dark shape coming toward me. The next time that I looked, his profile had changed and although he was still many miles away, he was now heading north up the coast. I wondered how on earth he'd managed that, since he was now going directly into a headwind, and pondered idly on dark ghost ships passing in the night.

Suddenly I realised that, of course, that the reason that he'd turned was that the wind had changed and we suddenly had a nice beam reach all the way to Iluka. I undid the preventer on the main sail, unfurled the headsail, killed the engine and gratefully accepted a blissfully silent four knots of speed. I glanced over to my dark companion to see how he was doing. The sun had now risen in a blaze of orange and blue, giving me clear visibility from horizon to horizon, and there was no other boat in sight.



April 9, 2009

Hat Head to Coffs Harbour

We hadn't got a great deal of sleep, but we'd had some rest and weren't feeling at all sea sick. We decided to start the day with half a sea-sickness tablet each and then try to finally get our sea legs. We hoisted the sail (David's method again working a treat) and set off up the coast, determined to hug the shoreline as close as we could to stay out of the pesky Eastern Australian Current. There wasn't much wind, but we spent a pleasant couple of hours sailing along the beach, occasionally bumping over some of the curious steps in the sea level that are common hereabouts. Presumably the edges of underwater currents or rips, they are marked by trails of spume - often yellow - and a noticeable drop of several inches.

Our first navigation point was called Fish Rock, and it did look extraordinarily like a prehistoric lobe-finned fish, crawling out of the sea on its way to evolve some lungs.


At about lunchtime, though, the wind died completely and we reluctantly started the motor. Motoring on passage is very tedious; the boat pushes through the waves rather than moving with them, and we have to hand-steer because Harriet the Hydrovane needs the wind to function. Admittedly this is rather my fault; we do have an Autohelm unit that will automatically steer us under power, but I took it apart some months ago to fix a rattle, and never got around to putting it back together again. I hereby move it closer to the top of my list of "things to do when it's quiet". On the other hand, Bronwyn took advantage of the gentle chugging to proof some dough and bake some bread and a pizza for lunch.

After a splendid meal, we not only got our wind back, but also hit the semi-mythical northern current, a retrograde offshoot of the Eastern Australian that allegedly and occasionally runs northward close inshore. For the first time, our speed-over-ground was higher than our speed-through-the-water. The rest of the afternoon passed with alternate sailing and motoring until dusk, when we began to think seriously about stopping for the night instead of continuing with a night passage. Although the roadstead anchorage at Hat Head had given us a break and we weren't feeling at all sea-sick (hurrah!) we were not feeling particularly enthusiastic about losing another night's sleep, so we decided to stop at Coffs Harbour. Our cruising guide said that although the anchor holding at Coffs was terrible, there were courtesy moorings inside the harbour.

We were really grateful for our excellent new charts. Coffs is a blaze of vari-coloured and flashing lights, not only navigation markers but also multicoloured aircraft beacons and a plethora of lights on the shore. As we approached, we slowly ticked off all the different lights on our chart until we finally sorted out the wheat from the chaff, rounded the beacon on Korfs Islet and picked up the clear lead lights into the harbour. There's no real bar at Coffs, and we surfed gently in on a swell.

There were no courtesy moorings. We tried to drop the anchor a couple of times, but the bottom seemed to be hard and flat and we couldn't get it to bite. We called up the local Coastal Patrol on the radio, and they confirmed that there weren't any moorings and suggested that perhaps we could try the fishermen's public jetty inside the marina. We had a look and then squeezed in front of a large fishing boat, hard up against some massive wooden pilings constructed for boats made of steel and twice our size. Bronwyn did a fine job of manoeuvring us in under the amused and somewhat inebriated eyes of the fishermen. After that we slammed into the jetty a few times because there was a tricky swell that alternately pushed us into the un-fendered pilings and then dragged us away. It was a bit of a juggle to get the mooring lines right, but eventually I was happy and we grabbed something to eat and went to bed.


We'd come in on the top of the tide, so as usual I set the alarm for the falling tide so that I could get up and check the lines. However, this wasn't necessary because the low was heralded by a loud "crash" as our inflatable fenders shifted away from the pilings and allowed us to slam into the battered and pitted wood. After that, I was up and down every hour or so, discovering by trial and error that the best plan was to leave the fore and aft lines alone and simply play with the springers as the level changed. Finally the tide came back in and everything calmed down. I was just drifting off into my first deep sleep of the night when we were awoken by "Oy! Is anybody aboard? This is a working jetty, you know!". It was a fishing charter arriving early to pick up passengers. He was hoping that we could move up a bit to let him squash in behind us, but I really couldn't see how we were all going to fit, so we just cast off, motored into the main harbour, and bobbed about while we ate breakfast and prepared the boat for sea.

April 8, 2009

Escape from Camden Haven

At last, on Monday morning, the post that we had been waiting for arrived; a new bilge pump for the toilet and our set of digital charts from the Hydrographic Survey. We intended to leave Camden Haven on Tuesday's dawn tide, but while checking the weather on Monday afternoon we found that Tuesday's southerly change was going to be associated with gale-force winds. We decided to wait one more day and then follow the change up in the more well-mannered southerlies forecast for Wednesday. Since we'd already paid off and said our goodbyes at Dunbogan Marina, we went alongside the free jetty at the RSL instead.

I needed to pop into town to pick up some hose clamps for my ongoing toilet reinstallation, and Bronwyn wanted to pick up some food and medical supplies, so it was fairly inevitable that we ended up having a Guinness or two at the Laurieton Hotel. Two beers turned into eighteen (we know because the cash register was broken and the barmaid wrote them down on a post-it note) and very few of the urgent tasks were remembered that evening. We didn't exactly make Wednesday's dawn tide either, but we did end up being dragged down the channel in the overrun and spat out to sea before we were really ready.

In a previous blog, I commented on the tendency of our main halyard to wrap itself around everything when we try to hoist the mainsail in the slop at sea. David emailed us a suggestion, and we amended it to suit our boat and gave it a go; before leaving harbour (I actually did this balancing on the fore-deck while Bronwyn fought the tidal rip along the channel) we attached the main halyard to the sail and then lay a length of it halfway back along the boom, tying it off there with a piece of rope. When we got to sea, I just whipped away the rope along with the four normal sail ties. Bronwyn started the hoist from the helm, and by the time I'd nipped back to the cockpit I could take over and finish the job while Bronwyn concentrated on keeping us headed into wind. It worked a treat. Thanks, David.

I had previously decided that today was the day that I would wean myself off seasickness tablets. After all, we have to gain our sea-legs at some point. Maybe it was the Guinness, but the immediate result was that I spent most of the morning leaning over the rail and feeding the fishes. However, by ten o'clock I was feeling much more chipper, and launched the tow-generator. I reckoned that we would be needing the electricity, because we'd been stationary for a week and we now had to power one of the Macs so that we could use our shiny new digital charts.

The tow line for the generator was a little kinked from our test run outside Sydney harbour, and we'd certainly never tried it at the speeds at which Pindimara was now capable, so we were a little surprised when the generator set up a noticeable but not objectionable hum. We were happy to note that at seven knots of boat speed we were getting seven amps of power, and were even more delighted when the dolphins seemed to find the spinning torpedo greatly fascinating, and spent almost half an hour playing with it.

By early afternoon, it was clear that our bold decision to head straight for the Clarence River some 160 miles away was being vetoed by the wretched East Australian Current, which was robbing us of a whole two knots however we tried to avoid it. As light fell, we were both feeling decidedly queasy and decided to call it a day at Hat Head, where we experienced our first ever 'roadstead anchorage', which is a grand name for hiding behind a big rock and dropping your anchor in the sea.

In retrospect, we could have dropped the pick a little farther from the beach. We arrived at high tide and the night started comfortably enough, but as the tide dropped the beach swells began to start forming to seaward of our position, which made the boat roll unpleasantly and had me up and down every couple of hours checking the anchor (and on one occasion resetting the snubber, which had come undone with a disconcertingly loud "bang"). Still, once the tide had come back in, we slept well enough.

April 7, 2009

The Mountain


Laurieton, where we remain at anchor sheltering from the storms, is dominated by a 500-metre mountain called North Brother, but known locally as Brother or just The Mountain. The locals hold it in some affection. It breaks up the wind, they say, and is an effective weather vane; if the top is in cloud, then it is going to rain. This is perfectly reasonable because North Brother is the first high point encountered by any incoming moisture-laden sea wind, which will have to shed at least some of its load in order to rise over the top. The slopes are therefore covered with dense rain forest, and Laurieton has a healthy rainfall. One morning we pumped nearly half a tank of fresh sweet rainwater out of our dinghy and into our depleted tanks; we'd have easily filled the 150-litre tank if the bottom half of the boat hadn't been a bit silty.

I have long held that humans are attracted to edges. If we see a lake, we go down to the edge and skip stones. If we see a beach, we go down to the sea and say that we are invigorated (and build retirement homes). If we see a cliff, we go to the edge (perhaps not too close... depending on the rubber band effect of your own personal manifestation of vertigo... but we still go) and look at the view.

This isn't too surprising. Life is all about edges. Walk through a natural forest, and you'll see that most of the action happens around the perimeter, where young trees can compete for resources and animals can see danger coming, and yet still hide from it. Deeper inside the forest, the number of species drops and the forest is relatively quiet (except where a glade opens up when a tree falls; but that's another, newly created edge). At the microscopic level, almost all of our biochemistry is mediated at the surface of the catalyst molecules that we call enzymes. We evolved from the moon-ministered tidal zone at the edge of the sea. Go diving, and it is immediately obvious that most of the life is congregated either in that tidal zone, or in a reef band further out just before the bottom slopes away into the deeps. Most of the rest is underwater desert.

To a greater or lesser extent, then, we all seek edges. Our urban and social life has removed our access to the more natural ones, and so we make up our own. How far can I swim? How high can I climb? How fast can I drive my car without going out of control? How close can I get to earning my salary without working too hard? How far can I push him before he cracks?

Having sat in the same stretch of river for a week, and having fixed and maintained just about everything that could be fixed and maintained, I was becoming increasingly obsessed with the idea of climbing to the top of The Mountain. On one particular day, with yet another set of storm warnings, gale warnings, and general mayhem out to sea, I shouldered a backpack and set off.

On the way through Laurieton, I stopped to ask about a footpath. It seemed that there was one, but nobody knew quite where it was as they usually drove to the top, so I just headed uphill until I found a trail and a NSW Parks sign said that it was a hard four-hour return trip. I know from experience that NSW Parks always inflate their figures by at least 100%, although I have never been able to decide whether this is to discourage the uncertain or to challenge the determined. Be that as it may, I knew that I'd be up and back in a couple of hours, so I checked my watch. The temperature was in the high twenties, the humidity must have been in the eighties, and the sun was just reaching its zenith; perfect timing for an Englishman to go exploring. Humming Noel Coward, I set off up the hill.

The trail had been hacked directly toward the summit. It was bloody steep, and shored up here and there with tree-trunk steps. At first I leapt gazelle-like from bole to bole, thinking "Hah! Four hours my foot!", but before very long I slowed to a more reasonable pace. Sweat began to pour down my back, so that I first rolled up my shirt and then took it off and put the soaking rag into my pack. Venerable gums towered above, with a dripping understory of ferns, cycads and 'black boy' grasses. Birds shrieked in sudden startlement as I passed by; from the reaction of the animals and from the deep fallen brush along the trail, I could see that not many people passed this way. The trees were mainly scribbly gums, their bark decorated by the intricate maps of burrowing beetles.


Every now and then, an igneous rock outcrop thrust through the soil and towered over my head, making the way slippery underfoot with loose eroded pebbles. I began to pant in the heat, and to wonder if I was going to make it, the legacy of too many months doing overtime in an office chair followed by days of sitting around doing schoolwork on the boat. I struggled on. I was glad to note that my heart wasn't pounding and that my breathing was relatively normal, but I was sweating buckets and my legs had begun to go rubbery when I emerged blinking into a clearing that marked the top of the trail and the beginning of what was described as 'the easy traverse'.

With sudden renewed energy I set off along the new path, which ran in a gladdeningly horizontal fashion before - horror of horrors - actually running downhill and robbing me of hard-gained altitude. Round the next corner came the punchline of the joke; the trail reverted back to the familiar vertical climb.

After an hour's sweaty effort, I emerged suddenly onto a neatly grassed forty-five degree lawn which turned out to be a launch pad for hang gliders. Spinning around, I was presented with a view that made the whole thing worthwhile. Not just one edge, but three, if you included the distant beach and the even more distant horizon. Far below, I could just make out the shape of Pindimara bobbing on her mooring.


A half hour for lunch while I drank in the views. Edges are good for the soul.

Then back to the trail, initially running with sheer exuberance until my legs turned to jelly, and then a more cautious descent to sea level, which was in its own way just as much hard work as the journey up.

Back at the marina I took a shower and then stood on the dock looking at the yacht. Usually I would call Bronwyn on my mobile so that she could row over and get me, but today the Vodafone signal was unaccountably absent. As I waited to see if she would happen to appear on deck, I saw a small movement out of the corner of my eye, and crouched down to have a look. A small leech was inch-worming its way across the wooden planking, mouth parts eager and stretching at the top of each loop. I stepped back to let it go by, wondering what it was doing in such a bare and unfriendly environment. It came to the edge of a plank and then snuck down into a crack, whereupon I became aware of a lot of crimson splashing; there was fresh blood pouring down my lower leg. I couldn't feel any pain, but when I wiped it away I could see a couple of fresh bite marks, so presumably I had been carrying more than just memories home from the rain forest.

Ah well. Salt water would fix it. I stashed my bags on the dock, and swam out to the boat.

April 5, 2009

Sojourn in Laurieton


Because of the inclement weather, we haven't moved from Laurieton in Camden Haven. On the other hand, we would much rather be in here than out there. The news has been showing pictures of floods and mayhem; the locals are talking about boats dis-masted and abandoned, and the weather bureau reports wind speeds in excess of 60 knots and swells over 7 metres. All the while we have been bobbing more or less serenely at our mooring, although the wind did get a bit fresh now and again. One gust almost knocked us down in a flurry of flying crockery, and on another night although we couldn't see our actual wind speed indicator (it's on deck and we were warm and dry inside), our wind generator clocked 7 amps, which is a record and probably represents well over 40 knots.

The weather reports continued to broadcast doom and gloom, so we took a stroll down to the entrance bar to see what it looked like from the land. It was a pleasant walk past an enormous lagoon packed with oyster leases and along the causeway to the head, where we were greeted by shrieks and screams from the water. In fact it was only some kids boogie-boarding in the protection of the breakwater. They had some decent surf to play in, but the bar itself looked impassable, and the sea beyond was a maelstrom.



That night, I announced that rather than walk all the way around the bay, I would row us across the river to the pub, a distance of perhaps 300 metres. This would be the work of a moment on a flat lake or sheltered bay, but we had thus far avoided the attempt because of the fast-flowing tidal streams. It took me about an hour to row upstream to my suddenly well-deserved pint, and then, some hours later, about the same to row back in the dark against the now incoming tide. Not exactly a lesson learned, but certainly some calluses earned. Bronwyn will tell you with some glee that she even heard me muttering something about buying an outboard.

This is a pleasant spot to stop over. Flocks of pelicans follow the fishermen, and sea eagles float overhead. As well as the inevitable cleaning and maintenance tasks, we've been able to catch up and even get slightly ahead with our schoolwork, which has been particularly useful for Bronwyn because she suddenly found that in order to complete one particular assignment, she needs to learn how to use AutoCAD, which is not something you pick up in five minutes.


When the time came to go to the launderette (which is, again, across the river), we chose to take the whole yacht rather than just the dinghy, and to fill up with fuel, water and gas on the way. On that particular day, the marina was being manned by Graham, coxwain of the local Marine Rescue, and he was gracious enough to compliment us on our effortless docking in opposing wind and tide, commenting more than once that "not many yachties here could have pulled off a move like that", which gave us a pleasant warm fuzzy feeling. Luckily we didn't disgrace ourselves when docking at the Marine Rescue jetty opposite to offload the laundry, and we must have looked vaguely professional because Bob the radio operator invited us inside for coffee and a chat.

There was another cruising boat here, Liquid Motion, which we had seen in Port Stephens and which had arrived in Camden Haven shortly after us. We never did get to speak to the skipper, but we saw him attempt the bar shortly after we'd gone down to see it. He didn't make it, and came back, but on the next tide he was gone, after what Bob called "a lumpy exit". We wished him luck because he was heading straight into a nor'easter, but the word on the grapevine said that he was in a hurry to be gone.

We're in no hurry; we'll wait for nice friendly conditions before we leave. In fact, the weather is shaping us to give us a good start on the dawn tide on Tuesday, and we're aiming to bypass all the urban centres such as Port Maquarrie and Coffs and go straight to Yamba, where we intend to spend a few days exploring the Clarence River.