Closing the Ring
It’s a misty wet Sunday morning and I’m finding it hard to leave my cosy bunk after a long healing sleep. But I’m going to sit up, pull the doona up with me, and tell you about our great escape from Port Davey on Tassie’s SW coast that closed the ring around the Apple Isle.
Our last blog ended with a prophecy, “… that getting back to Strahan, the hardest miles are yet to come.” Little did we know just how dangerous and hard those miles would be.
Leaving Orford, our next few voyages were a treat. The kind you dream about when lying idle in the sun thinking of faraway lands. They took us to Nubeena via the bold cliffs along the Tasman Peninsula, the abrupt dolerite columns reminding us of colossal organ pipes.
Rounding Wedge Island took us past the massive array of fish pens lining the entrance into Parsons Bay and the quaint township of Nubeena, where we celebrated a mate’s birthday. What a lovely day that became when his dozen neighbours rocked up with a birthday feast and massive trifle fit for royalty.
Sailing for Untouched Lands ~
Sailing is dictated by the wind, which got us out of bed early the next morning, setting sail for the untouched lands of southern Tasmania, where humanity stands in awe of the creation. No roads or phones for hundreds of kilometres–the only way in and out is on foot or boat–and recently by small aircraft to a primitive airfield first constructed by the King of the Wilderness, Deny King. (Highly recommended book)
Mountainous barriers and raging icy rivers traverse these untouched forested lands with names like Precipice Bluff and Saw Back Ridge and Frenchmans Cap.
Jack and Jude do not fear these isolated outposts of pure Nature. Instead, we relish the opportunity of isolating ourselves from the maddening world and being humbled and awed by the glory of Earth. So we sailed direct, non-stop out of civilization, rounding Tasmania’s South East Cape as the glorious red sun dipped below the sheer walls of the southern shores. Spume and mist faded into one last rainbow as the lighthouse on the last corner of humanity came alight, marking our passage into the wild abyss.
With my lovely wife heading into her 76th year, we pointed our veteran craft towards the darkness, knowing that only the brave and well prepared escape unscathed.
Blessed with a lovely following breeze, we gave South East Cape a wide berth, avoiding the chance of entangling a cray pot, and away from the nasty backwash of powerful southern ocean swells. This helped us keep the fading north wind filling our sails, driving our ship onwards into the star filled night.
Halfway across Tasmania’s forty-mile south coast, the breeze finally slipped away, leaving us floating through the heavens of glittering stars with the single flash atop Maatsuyker Island seven miles dead ahead. I stood the first watch while Jude slept till awakened at 2 AM, then I slipped into her warm bed.
We drifted silently until the eastern horizon lightened with molten gold that gave shape to first one, then another of the islands braving those challenging seas. Treeless, abrupt ramparts of poetic beauty keep the greatest of all seabirds company. Wandering Albatross, curious who would venture where few dare go, glided close on steady wings, their hooked beaks and hunter’s eyes seeming to welcome us to their domain. Watching them glide effortlessly over the sea, I could feel the free spirit of Earth’s wild creatures enter my soul, and once again felt at peace with my creator.
Louisa Bay ~
When a gentle zephyr touched Banyandah’s sails, enough for us to drift forward at walking pace upon the unruffled sheet of grey, we pointed our ship towards a tiny bay lying below the intimidating Ironbound Range. The famous South Coast Track, taking walkers from Cockle Creek to Melaleuca, climbs from sea level to its 900-metre summit over five kilometres before descending to the wide yellow-sand shores of Louisa Bay. Within that bay lies a calm weather anchorage alongside a lonely Island sharing the same name that’s connected to the mainland by a low sandy isthmus, offering some protection from the sea. Having visited this majestic patch of Nature several times, we looked forward to an overnight stop and await a fresh wind to complete our passage to Port Davey.
Once the anchor was down and dug in, we immediately launched our Green Machine kayak for a paddle along the island’s red-rock cliffs topped by a light forest of Peppermint and smooth bark Swamp Gum with an understory of Manuka and scented paperbark. Then we landed on a pebble and sand beach for a wander along its rarely visited shores, immediately spying footprints of little penguins and short-tailed shearwaters. Louisa Island is part of the Maatsuyker Island Group Important Bird Area identified by BirdLife International, the world leader in Bird Conservation; because of its importance as a breeding site for seabirds like little penguins and short-tailed shearwaters, fairy prions, common diving-petrel, Pacific gull, sooty and pied oystercatchers.
The beaches of Louisa Island bewitched us with treasures of seashells, sea urchins, mats of displaced seaweed, and swarms of flying insects that filled several shoreline caves.
Port Davey ~
With a sailing ship, one great treat is waking to a fair breeze that found us hoisting sail as soon as the anchor clinked home and away we went to tackle South West Cape. Our next treat, enjoying morning coffee while the southernmost islands on the Australian continental shelf slowly slipped past. The dramatic Maatsuyker Island Group comprises six islands and two groups of rocks. Maatsuyker, the main island, with a manned lighthouse, is 2.6 km long and just over a kilometre wide, a ridge rising to a height of 284 metres. The Needles, a series of tall abrupt rocks, pop up southwest from it. The largest island in the group, De Witt, locally known as Big Witch, is a place we want to explore. It’s a place that evokes back to basic contact with Nature, with its forests and freshet streams and ungodly beautiful rock formations the likes we’ve seen nowhere in the world. Our only hurdle, the weather and anchoring depth of sixty metres!
As the breeze gained strength, the bold cape facing the might of the Southern Ocean came closer in focus. Even in the moderate breeze, we could see white spume flying high as if deflected off a gigantic ship as we set our fishing gear trolling to capture one of the marauding tunas that hunt off this meeting of currents.
It’s always a treat passing this cape and witness again the sheer cliffs running north towards the safety of Port Davey. This morning was even more special as we carried the wind around it, propelling us north like sea eagles flying fast over the calming seas. Ahead, the strange formations called the East Pyramids, poked up like gigantic seal teeth, long, slender and pointed.
Full sails carried us around them too, into the broad expanse of Port Davey, where we shaped a course for Breaksea Island, the saviour of this sanctuary, blocking Southern Ocean energy from invading Bathurst Harbour.
With our heads filled with the special images of Nature’s beauty, we really didn’t want to mingle with other vessels taking us back to reality. So we chose a quiet spot in Bramble Cove under the colossal might of Mount Misery, a memorable climb from that anchorage.
Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to scale the heights of Misery before the weather turned sour our second day in Davey. Maybe we’d had our run of good fortune, for the bad began with rain and strong winds that only got worse.
A series of rainy gales kept us boat-bound with only one fine day in between them, when we’d rush out to scale a mountain or walk to a waterfall or visit the Deny King Heritage Musuem at Melalueca. Getting itchy to do something more made me a little grumpy until I started work on our next book.
African Honeymoon ~
This next tome will complete the series we began with Two’s a Crew and Around the World. With a working title of African Honeymoon, it will take readers with two naïve newlyweds on a year-long journey, driving a dilapidated VW van down a continent grappling with independence and rife with wars, looking for a new life in an unknown land.
Writing books like the ones we produce requires a fair amount of research because we like to paint vivid, informative images, and add historical notes and accurate descriptions of the people and geography we visit.
This trilogy is being written out of order because we’re not so professional as to have launched a proper campaign from the onset. For over five decades, we’ve just jumped into new challenges, eager to swim, not sink. We’ve learnt heaps. Neither of us excelled in English, but we found by recording diaries and writing short stories, learning to be a good wordsmith is like learning any craft. Practice, practice, practice, and have something worth saying.
Our intense involvement with Earth and her people led us to believe we have something worth saying.
To us, Earth is the credible proof of a creator. Everything works so perfectly, with such intricate beauty interdependent on balance. In our long lives, we’ve learnt that many people seem to think humanity is the special thing. And that has given powerful forces the opportunity to alter what has kept Earth in harmony since the beginning.
It’s the young we want to reach. They’ll soon be the lawmakers. We’re also reaching out to the wider public because with social media, there is genuine power to make the greedy and anthropocentric change course. A sustainable human population is necessary to protect the natural world and improve people’s lives.
Provisions Looking Thin ~
After several weeks of hiding from storm winds, our provisions started looking thin. We measured our cooking gas, recorded our fuel and fresh water levels, looked into our booze locker, and counted the days we could comfortably last. As a result, our search for a weather window became a little more intense.
Weather Window ~
In Port Davey, the weather calls the tune. There is no internet, no phone coverage, only VHF and HF radio. Three, sometimes four times a day we would record the weather forecast, either poorly on VHF channel 68, sometimes more clearly on HF. Such a short forecast period doesn’t allow for planning, so we went back to a system we used when crossing oceans that spanned weeks.
Every day, the Australian Bureau of Metrology issues a series of weather charts on radio fax, which we recorded then sent through a decoder that produced informative weather images. The most useful were the four-day forecasts, just like the ones found on the internet. I could then plot the positions of the highs and lows and figure out what we might expect. The BOM also produce an Indian Ocean chart that shows all the systems that might affect us. Of course, doing this takes discipline and considerable time, but that’s our job—to navigate our ship safely through troubled waters. Over a three-week period, the charts showed only three favourable possibilities to sail north.
What we needed to get safely around the obstacles on the ninety-mile voyage to Macquarie Harbour were southwest winds. The course to Low Rocky Point is the first and most demanding, requiring a ship’s course of 310 True. Our lady is no racing machine. To be effective, Banyandah needs to point at least 50 degrees off the wind. Less than that, she stalls. But sailing that tight in the Southern Ocean might break something. Preferably, we’d like the wind to come across our beam, especially in heavy weather. That meant we needed a true south-westerly.
Not wanting to bore you, here’s how it works in southern latitudes. The wind in low-pressure cells rotates clockwise; in high-pressure cells, wind rotates anti-clockwise; the systems feeding each other like a figure of eight. The first touch of a depression-a low-pressure cell-comes with wind from the north-west. As the centre of the depression gets closer, the wind backs to the west. Then there is a short period as the centre passes over, when we get the desired southwest wind. The situation with a high-pressure cell can be much better, especially when the centre of the high-pressure cell is north of us and the cell elongated in a SW/NE direction. That’s what we wanted. A long period of mild SW winds bringing clear skies and settled seas.
After measuring our remaining stores, we had three promising weather systems that turned into dangerous conditions in the last days before reaching us. One system had looked so good, we imagined stopping midway for a wander around Pyramid Island to visit the seal colony at Hibbs Point. But tropical cyclone Seroja spoiled that by racing across Western Australia to link up with a nearby low-pressure cell to produce a monstrous northwest gale that forced us to secure our vessel against horrid storm winds. We got little sleep the night it passed overhead.
These events went on and on. Each time dashing our hope of escape. But it was important to take a positive view or the moody blues would spoil our life. Jude and I kept at our projects, researching information in our electronic library, interspersed with jaunts on shore in between the storms.
Hopes Rise ~
On the 14th of April an oblong high appeared on our weather chart with widely spaced isobars, indicating easier winds from the southwest. Our hopes rose. We might escape. Even if we got light winds, we were ready to motor all the way back to home base.
Our heightened hopes slipped the next day when the next chart showed a small trough intruding into this high-pressure cell. But the angle behind the trough still looked perfect, so we started making preparations.
Next to us during our wait, we got to know a charter vessel with six brave passengers who went out each day in wet weather gear to gander the extraordinary Port Davey landscape. Their last night before flying out coincided with our last night, and they invited us to a dinner party on the large motor vessel.
Just what we needed. Laughter, storytelling, contact with other folks not dependent on wind and sea conditions. We even had hot showers.
Out for a Look ~
All that night, it blew strong NW. Next morning, the trough passed over around 10 AM, bringing hail and showers. We made final preps; lashed the oars in the dingy, organised the emergency safety gear, checked the grab bag. I gave our ancient engine a drink of oil and a good look over the belts, pumps, and couplings.
The early morning weather report mentioned a change to SW winds after the trough. So, at 1 PM, we started our engine, just as the bosun ferried his passengers away for their flight. As our engine warmed up, the vessel’s other tender pulled alongside with the skipper and chef, who called out, “Happy Birthday, Jude,” as he handed up a large bag containing their leftover food.
“Oh Wow! Thank you very much.” Jude beamed as I lifted it aboard, noticing a loaf of bread, lots of leafy vegetables and other treats.
The skipper raised his eyes skywards to grey scudding clouds. “Not what you hoped for,” he said, running a hand through his thinning hair.
Shaking my head, I replied, “You’re right. At 6 AM, Maatsuyker reported WNW winds of 49 knots.” Then managing a weak smile, “But that was before the trough passed. Last night’s isobar chart showed the wind going south of west. So we’ll go have a look.”
The skipper looked to the birthday girl, “How you feeling?”
Ten minutes later, both parties went off to meet their destinies. Wondering if their plane would brave the elements, we motored over to Bathurst Narrows, where we met our first nemesis, a nasty chop straight in our face. This we handled in our normal calm fashion, using the shore shoulders for protection where we could, but it took much longer than planned to reach the end of the seven-mile channel, reaching Breaksea Island late in the day. Through binoculars we got our first view of the open bay and knew a battle lay ahead.
Strong winds create enormous seas that rebound off headlands and rocky shores to collide with the incoming swell, creating a confusion of forces.
Drama Clearing Obstacles ~
We needed to gain ground on those winds to clear the obstacles awaiting us on the far northwest corner of the bay. First there’s North Head, a steep rocky bluff we could see creating mountainous explosions of white water. Further out, another obstacle, the West Pyramid and Coffee Pot like erupting towers of seal teeth. There’s foul ground around them, shallow stuff, breaking horrendously.
Businesslike, Jude drove our adventure machine down the narrow cut between the rock shores of Breaksea Islands and equally dangerous rocky mainland while I worked out how to rig the third reef in our mainsail. Something we’d never done.
Screeching wind, crashing waves, rocks on either side while trying to do something not done before. That is when cool thinking is needed. Jude, dear heart, kept Banyandah bashing straight south down the alley, asking for reassurance every few minutes. Each time, I assured her we had room to turn about and sail back, then shouted from the foredeck, “Steer a little left! Give that breaking water off Shanks Island more room.” while still trying to attach the third reef tack with a new strop. Once in place, I hoisted the mainsail, nearly losing the halyard to the strong wind and horrendous motion. The main looked tiny.
Amazingly, all went to plan. We made it down the alley into open water near Spain Bay, then hugged that southern shore, slipping north of Nares Rock into Port Davey Bay.
When we lost all protection from the land, I ordered Jude to lay a course to clear the Coffee Pot then released a third of our furling headsail and together we cranked it in as tight against the rigging as it would go. Our nose pointed just seaward of the breaking rocks.
As if our lives depended on the outcome, we watched our progress across Port Davey Bay, noticing our ship steadily losing ground to the washing machine seas. My heart sank and my mind went into overdrive thinking we’d have to turn back. We’d not make the corner.
In our long sailing career, we have faced several frightening moments. Some caused by an error of judgement. Ahead a slender new moon shone bright amongst the heavens, So I kept us going until forced to turn back by unmanageable forces.
Fighting Nature is futile. She’s not our enemy, but Nature’s forces deserve respect. So while Jude continued to do what she loves best, guide our ship, I scanned the obstacles ahead through binoculars while pondering the best course, and decided to carry on until the breakers ahead became a clear and present danger. Then we’d try to go seaward under engine alone.
Still with a safe margin, we furled the headsail, cranked the mainsail in tight, then gave the engine her moment to make the voyage north possible, knowing we could turn back.
Quite impressively, our engine, circa 1950, pushed Banyandah through lumpy waves with a steady deep thrum while we kept our eyes on the breakers on the furthest Coffee Pot as they slowly slipped past.
Away for Low Rocky Point ~
When satisfied with our clearance, we switched on our bright LED deck lights to thoroughly inspect of our craft. Checking the rig and running rigging, everything looked to be in order, soI set to work increasing the size of our mainsail, shaking out the third reef to secure the second. Then Jude laid a course to a waypoint six miles offshore of Low Rocky Point, the next obstacle along that hostile coast. With the wind coming at us forward of the beam, we unfurled about half of our workhorse headsail.
In the eighty miles to home base, we must clear two points of land. The first, Low Rocky, would be the hardest, requiring the tightest angle on the wind, which now that we had cleared land, the wind proved not to be from the south-west as expected.
Strong winds and rough seas challenge a yacht. With sails pulled in and the rig bowstring tight, we rattled and hummed, and Banyandah’s scant few tonnes shook when smashing into head seas. In the night’s blackness, that created worry. It was impossible not to think about what we’d do if a catastrophe struck. Call for help? What good would that do in the lonely southwest of Tasmania? The water is freezing cold. The seas over seven metres. The rocky shore so close we could hear the death drums of breaking seas pummelling the shore.
The best and only course is to keep a clear head, check our vessel every few minutes and identify every noise to ensure there are no lines chafing and no sails overstretched, no rigging working loose, nothing that might suddenly let go. Then relax a little, and let our minds cope. And if possible, enjoy the moment – working with the unbelievable forces of Nature is both humbling and uplifting at the same time.
Shortly after clearing the Coffee Pot, I sent Jude to be bed, not that she’d get any sleep in our violent crash and bang, but she needed rest after her day at the helm. So would I in a few hours. Then I jammed myself in a corner of the settee where I wrapped a warming blanket around my frozen feet. Seems my boots, pants, and thermals got drenched with seawater during the action.
Twenty-five hard wet miles on a close-reach took us to our waypoint six miles off Low Rocky Point Lighthouse, which we reached by the goodness of karma at one AM. Its single flash gave me great satisfaction when I thought we’d almost given up.
Jude and I then swopped positions. Me into her warm rocky-rolly bed. Jude into the cold to keep lookout and keep us tracking for our next important waypoint. Jude did a marvellous job while I rested, gaining a couple extra miles to weather while maintaining ship’s speed. When I arose, Banyandah was tracking ten miles off Hibbs Point with our destination Cape Sorell lying due north, only twenty-five miles away.
I’d love to write that we were safe. But Nature is always in command and let us know this in the 6 AM weather report. An early change would arrive before noon, a change back to the northwest that would strengthen into a gale by nightfall. By this time, the seas had settled into a regular rhythm. Seabirds, both the erratic flying mutton-birds and aloff, graceful albatross, were skimming the wave tops looking for breakfast as the wind began to ease.
Having come so far, conquering so many obstacles, enduring anguish, and feeling like we’d aged a hundred years, we’d not be turning back! So, while Jude slept like a princess in a dream, I fired up our trusty Perkins P6 diesel to assist the dying wind.
When our speed went from 2 to 3 knots to touching 6, sometimes 7, I went below with a cheeky grin to make a coffee and a bite to eat. Aargh! Pirate Jack doesn’t go down without a fight.
These seafaring dramas often end in a whisper that is rarely apparent at the beginning. Our arduous hours spent planning in case a disaster struke, analysing choices versus outcomes, all fade so quickly when your destination comes into view, and it’s easy to forget that lives were under threat only hours before.
This salty tale ends on a high note, not only of success but also, instead of battling a fierce outgoing current as expected through Hells Gate, Banyandah raced into safety at high speed. Usually, heavy rains and a rising barometer would send water out the Gate at up to a hefty five knots.
A few hours later, upon securing our valiant lady to her mooring, we raised a glass of ale to toast each other’s mighty efforts and gave a cheer for our stout homemade ship. She’d performed admirably, keeping us safe so that we can set out yet again on another adventure. That’s when our weakened legs wobbled, and we felt the aches of bruises that blushed purple. So we dragged our weary bodies below for a well-earned sleep that lasted thirteen hours….
Wrap: Ever since we escaped Port Davey, it’s been very inhospitable down there with a continuous cycle of heavy rain and nasty gales. Which means if we hadn’t made the break, we’d be sodden and miserable.