When the sea roars like a pack of hungry lions and the wind howls as if a world of living dead, who amongst us are warriors.
BOUND FOR TASMANIA
My head hurts like it’s going to shatter. Aye, from too much celebrating. You see, we made landfall yesterday. And my body still aches, but not from celebrating. From a thrashing by an angry sea.
Jude and I were bound for Tasmania from the West Australian coast, but the weather gods had different ideas. Have a peek at this weather chart for the waters between Australia and the South Pole and you’ll see a crisscross of swirling depressions that, if anything, make the weather down there unpredictable.
Two years ago we completed this very same passage and when setting off, filled with trepidation, we found a way south through the coastal headwinds to the westerly flow on the other side of the summer anticyclone. Gales and storms rage down there. But though that crossing took sixteen days and nights, it was as placid as sleepy kittens and we purred along surrounded by nature so pure Jude and I felt we were the only people upon a pond stretching to heaven.
This time we waited in Albany for a perfect weather pattern. And we had to wait weeks. Our resolve sorely tested, at last a gigantic high pressure cell established itself over the Bight and I assiduously copied five days of weather maps that showed we’d have nothing but north winds off the backside of that immense high pressure cell. After that, well, we’d be at the mercy of King Neptune. What I didn’t see was that those winds would be vicious.
(11 more photos 1700 words 8 minutes reading)
When departure day was set, last invites poured in from our Albany friends and hectic though it was victualling our ship, we enjoyed some of the finest moments before the sea claimed us. And when departure day arrived, a Sunday morn with church bells ringing and motorboats speeding past, we packed emergency supplies into our dinghy and got it ready to lash upside down on our foredeck. After a last look round revealed everything locked down, we started our diesel and began a journey into the unknown.
Almost every long distance voyage begins with relief. The exacting preparations, hectic last goodbyes, and worry over what might lie ahead extracts a tiresome toll. So, by the time the last item was secured and the actual journey began, we were so relieved we were lolling back somewhat exhausted marveling at the receding coastline.
That coastline, bold with granite massifs, the world’s whitest beaches and bluest waters, was sighted by Europeans as early as 1627 when the Dutchman Pieter Nuyts sailed across the Great Australian Bight in the ship Gulden Zeepaardt. Based on his report the Dutch showed no interest in settlement. But the map he drew inspired Jonathan Swift, when writing Gulliver’s Travels. Swift located the land of the Houyhnhnms almost exactly at present day Albany. With some kind of extraordinary vision, Swift had Gulliver land on the coastline, eat oysters and be chased by Aborigines. He could not have known that 65 years later in 1791, George Vancouver would enter one of the bays of King George Sound and name it Oyster Harbour because of the abundance of oysters he found there.
We left with little wind and had to motor across King George Sound to the huge granite outcrop called Bald Head. Ominously as we reached that point, our path crossed two Police vessels bringing in the body of an 18 year old fisherman swept from the rocks by a king wave. Once past that point and now in the Great Southern Ocean, right on cue, the north wind found our sails. Engine secured, peace descended, but it was soon shattered by sloppy waves splashing our aft deck. Moving under the cockpit’s protection, unbeknownst to us, that would be our last walk round our decks. When a black moonless night filled the heavens with twinkling stars, and all land gone from sight, the wind started to moan.
We are cautious sailors. Why get out of a warm bed to battle too much sail when it’s so much wiser to reduce sail area before losing light. So our first night saw us flying under double reef mainsail and tiny headsail. In the following first light, the seas were extraordinarily steep and sloppy. Not sure why, maybe the north wind driving against the southerly swell, producing not flanks of white soldiers marching against us, but erratic, individual suicide bombers. And in the grey light, the wind just didn’t moan, it now began to howl. With each screech Jude stood grating her teeth pleading for it to go away.
For five days we flew at some of our greatest speeds while the sea crashed into Banyandah’s side, sending cold green water over our ship, filling her cockpit, flooding over her seats, forcing Jude and I to stay below behind the protection of our lee boards. Naturally with water being so forcefully hurled at our poor little ship, seawater found every minuscule entry, and with what we tracked below on our sodden garb, Banyandah soon became waterlogged. Our best food, pumpkin soup from a pan lashed to the stove, and cereal. The jarring simply sent other stuff flying.
Day five saw the high pressure chased away by a developing low. Each day, I was grabbing weather maps off our amateur radio through some fancy software that converts faxes into images, and at first the developing low didn’t look severe. But that soon changed.
Not all bad weather precedes a front. As with this one it was much worse after it passed, on the sudden rise of pressure from a new high. Generally a good judge of wind strength and direction is to look at the pressure gradients between the two systems; the tighter the pressure gradient, the fiercer the winds. In the southern hemisphere, winds rotate clockwise around depressions, and anticlockwise around high pressure cells, with the wind blowing parallel to the pressure gradients.
When the actual low passed overhead, the morning became quiet and rainy, and the sea quickly became more subdued. Our mood changed. What a blessing being released from solitary confinement. At last we could walk our decks. But when we did, to our shock and horror, the powerful seas had ripped off part of our toe rail; that’s the timber cap running along the outer edge of the forward deck. And the strong winds had ripped out an eyelet at a reefing point on our mainsail. Hmm, we think ours a stout ship, plenty of blue water has passed her keel, so we took this as a warning; that we needed to be much more careful.
Not as young as we once were, with granny naps now a part of our routine, these seas were proving far more powerful than us mere mortals, and both of us had had our frights. I’d missed my handhold more than once and had been sent flying and seen a timber bench edge rush straight at my face. Jude too had become bruised violet yellow with finger tips sore from hanging on. A broken hip or smashed arm would be catastrophic, especially now nearly a thousand kilometres from help. So we spoke repeatedly about being extra careful, taking our time, making sure before leaping into action. But sometimes this ocean going ship needs sudden attention. Things just happen! Like a line controlling a sail lets go and unless there’s immediate action, the powerful winds will destroy that sail. Or, middle of a black night, a metal reefing cringle comes loose, smashing into a cockpit window. We had to run off the wind or it would have shattered the glass. Another time, a huge waves shifted the dinghy then smashed straight through our aft doors, flooding below. Nothing really serious – just wet, wet, wet, and so cold.
For awhile the high pressure following the depression looked perfect to take us all the way around South West Cape and beyond to Hobart. Then one morning that all changed. As the day’s weather map printed out, it showed the high splitting into two, one part going north over the mainland, the other moving south, and that was going to be disastrous. By its shape and position, southeast winds were coming our way, plenty of ‘em, strong ones.
In light winds Banyandah can sail 50 degrees off the wind and make good headway. It may not be comfortable with the sails pulled in as tightly as they can, but, in light winds we do go forward. In strong winds, gale winds, the sails pulled in tight would blow apart and the seas would tear bits off our ship, so we have to lay off. The stronger the wind, the more we are forced off the wind. Above 40 knots, it’s wise to run with them. Some boats have to trail warps or sea anchors to slow themselves from such powerful forces. But our “Miss B” is such a strong seaworthy ship, she’s never needed do that. Just once did we encounter such ferocious winds that we lay her ahull; that’s with no sail up, allowing the wind to force her over nearly horizontal, the waves breaking straight over us.
After the south gale set in we replotted our course to the north of Tasmania, hoping that we could lay tiny King Island in the middle of Bass Strait. We’d been there a few years earlier and knew Grassy Harbour to be a safe refuge on the island’s east coast. But this too proved impossible as the strong winds never let up.
Our log is peppered with comments like: “Black, too much wind, squalls to 50 knots (90 kph), Jack says aft cabin all wet, Jude to bed – on floor outside head, both of us very tired, mainsail down, jib only, wind screeching, waves filling cockpit.”
And others, just a few: “Lovely sunset through clouds, touched 9.3 knots, bands of clouds with strips of blue sky, hauling up course line, can make Portland. Yippee! Hopefully abeam Cape Nelson at first light.”
The last 24 hours were misty wet with dark low cloud, the wind still from the south, but now a spent force. In the poor conditions, it became even scarier because we were now smack dab in the middle of the shipping channel out of Bass Straits. After more than a week all alone, Jude spotted the red and green nav lights of a cargo vessel coming straight at us. Jude held on til the last safe moment, but when about to change course; maybe he saw our lights, maybe his radar picked up our small target, but whatever, he turned and passed a few hundred metres down our side. Such a good feeling knowing that ship was watching too.
First light our tenth day, through grey mist land was visible and as we rounded Cape Nelson, the fierce motion finally abated. What a relief! By nine, Banyandah was entering Portland, the second largest harbour in Victoria.
Entering between the break walls, our diesel was fired up and we proceeded directly towards a mass of moored craft. All just glorious. That was – until our faithful donk started sounding sick. She slowed down. Sputtered then stopped. Yep. Right in the middle of the busy harbour. Quizzical exchanges between Jude and I marked the last moments of our forward motion, then I made a dash for the anchor. Down it clattered and fortunately we seemed out of harm’s way, at least long enough for me to dive into the engine room. Turning this and prodding that revealed fuel starvation. A common problem after a very rough voyage. Sediment in the tanks gets stirred up and either blocks the filters, or in our case the fuel outlet line.
But, oh my goodness. What a mess. Everything in every locker had shifted, blocking steering cables, crushing spares, spoiling food, and even shorting out our electric freshwater pump.
Yes, we had our butts kicked good and proper by the sea. And know what? We’re buggered and sick of being knocked about, but we’re also feeling sort of lucky. Lucky to have survived, lucky not to have broken bones, and lucky to have witnessed the impressive power of nature and know we are a team who can overcome great difficulties. Will we do it again? Sure, while we can. At our age when something’s gone, it’s gone forever. And besides, the world has just gone on and on doing its same old thing while Jude and I have had a grand adventure that we’ll never forget.
And here’s the dessert. We just worked out that this was our fastest passage ever! We might have been bound for Tasmania, but where we ended up, we got there super fast!!
1300 nautical miles (2400 km) in under 10 days!!