New Zealand turns it on for the homecoming team

We’d given ourselves a few days’ grace to recover from the passage and sail back home from Opua, not wanting to rush the trip nor undertake any more unnecessary overnighters, and so we wafted down south on day-trips, spending a night at Matapouri and another in Tutakaka Harbour before venturing for the last time out to a remote island. We chose the tiny island group of the Mokohinau’s, based on the recommendation of a fishing charter skipper we met at Tutakaka who drew us a chart on the back of a beer mat and gave us great advice about local conditions. With a strong wind warning in force for the area there was only going to be one viable anchorage there, and we set out at dawn from the snug protection of Tutakaka Harbour to make the 40 miles crossing, fingers firmly crossed that we’d find room there.

We needn’t have worried. After all it was New Year’s Eve, and only the truly anti-social or friendless would chose this remotest of Hauraki Gulf islands to see the new year in, so we found ourselves on our own in the most stunning and beautiful of sceneries. Towering craggy rockfaces loomed on all sides over crystal clear water in ‘the cathedral’, the bay with the best protection from strong Southerly winds, and as the winds raged in the sea outside we sat snuggly at anchor in our echoey cove. We hadn’t expected to find such beauty, and felt privileged to have travelled so far but still found scenery to gasp at on our own doorstep.

Luca by this stage had refined his rope-climbing skills to the point where he could free-climb the shrouds almost to the top, and left us wondering vaguely how we’d cushion his fall as he climbed the mast once again. Gabriel had picked up a diving weight belt as a Christmas present, and this was to be his first outing. We set out that afternoon with spearguns to hand, and after basic safety instruction we snorkeled around the cove, through the rockface and out into the ocean wall to hunt for dinner. Gabriel showed off his spearfishing talent once again with an impressive haul of butterfish, and the table was laid for fried fish that evening.

We’d arranged to catch up with good friends Greta and Jason the following day as our last stop before arriving at Beachlands, but I’d wanted to try one last time to spear a kingfish (one of New Zealand’s renown gamefish), and so set off at dawn the next day to check out a rock pinnacle some six miles south. Simpson Rock is a pinnacle that sticks up in the middle of the sea to the west of Great Barrier Island, ostensibly in the middle of nowhere, so we were unlikely to be able to anchor there. Our plan to get as close as possible, and for me to plunge in and freedive the site whilst Rebecca stood off with the engines running. The birdlife grew in intensity as we approached, until around the pinnacle it culminated in a huge flock of seabirds floating and diving, signifying plentiful fish. This was a classic work-up, where large pelagic fish ‘work up’ a school of smaller fish into a frenzy as they feed on them, driving them to the surface where seabirds can also strike. It’s spectacular viewing, and at one point the sea around the boat started to boil as thousands of kahawai tried to escape vertically from their predators. Gabriel dropped into his own personal frenzy, grabbing his fishing gear and deploying his lure a fast as he could, and sure enough within minutes a nice-sized kingfish was his reward.

With that drama over I dropped over the side, swam to the rock and began snorkeling and diving down it’s face. I’ve only had the experience of diving through a work-up once before, and this was equally amazing. The sea was full of large kahawai and terakihi, literally thousands of them swimming around completely ignoring me but somehow managing to avoid bumping into me. You could reach out and touch them. Any one of these would normally have made a respectable catch, but I was on a mission for kingfish so continued on. It was an incredible experience, diving on a rock face so full of large fish, and I was loathe to shorten it by shooting anything. But it wasn’t long before several large kingfish swam into view and my moment had come. By this stage I think my perception had been altered somewhat by seeing so many other large fish, as I remember lining up the largest and wondering briefly whether it was of legal size (kingfish must be min 75 cms long). My shot hit the target, and much to my surprise the fish seem to barely notice, allowing me to drag it away from the rock and back towards the boat. It finally livened up a bit when we tried to bring it onboard, but none of us realised quite the scale of the thing until we’d gaffed it and hauled onto the back step. The thing was enormous, weighing in at approx the same weight as Gabriel (45kg). In retrospect, my shot must have entered its backbone, as kingfish are known for their strength and there’s no question that a fish of that size would have towed me had it not been somehow disabled.

We sailed on to meet up with Jason and Greta at Mototapu Island for the night, and spent a wonderful evening with them in Home Bay, devouring scallops, kingfish and snapper and watching with interest as Jakey restored his friendship with former 3 year old girlfriend Ella. From here to our final arrival at Pine Harbour Marina, where we were met by several of our Beachlands friends in a welcome that left us feeling quite tearful. We weren’t just returning to a great house and a warm community, but good friends to boot. Friends who immediately started helping us by shifting luggage, lending cars, loaning fridges, sharing internet access and bringing food to help us in the transition from sea to land. To the families Keasts, Woods, Reids, Dudleys and Derbys – thank you so much for your help. You guys rock!

As expected, the transition was peculiar. After 18 months living and sleeping in a 42 foot floating box, we all found the relatively cavernous space of our house quite overwhelming; Luca kept walking around saying “it takes so long to walk around it!” Luca and Gabriel, despite having their own bedrooms, sought the familiarity of small boat space and elected to bunk up in the same room, and we all crashed out on the floor on mattresses brought in from Tonga Moon. Rebecca and I found sleep hard to come by that first night, both finding the silence and stillness of our house quite unsettling, having for so long drifted to sleep with lapping waves and the familiar and ever-present sounds of the boat around us. But for all that, there’s no denying the joy of having hot showers on tap, full-sized and flushing toilets (our yacht loo seats are small circumference and never very comfortable), a front-loading fridge (god, how we grew to hate our top-loader where the food you were looking for was always at the bottom), and a guaranteed dry bed.

Maybe the final moment of transition was the opening of our container, in which we’d stored almost all of our worldly possessions. Running on a tight budget, we’d decided not to pay for a lock-up but instead buy our own container and stuff everything inside… amazing how much you can shove inside a 20 foot container if you try. But the million dollar question was – would it be dry? We both doubted this, given that the summer we were away was one of Auckland’s wettest, and so approached this moment with some trepidation. The padlocks slid open, the doors heaved apart, and amazingly there sat all our stuff looking as dry as the day we put it in. Phew. As we dug further into the container we started to uncover mould and mildew, but nothing a bottle of jif and some good old fashioned scrubbing wouldn’t resolve. Fred suggested that scrubbing furniture was probably a job for the 1st mate, and herein learnt one of the harshest lessons on stepping ashore. Now back at home, he found himself rapidly demoted from skipper to general dogsbody with seemingly no interim steps in between.

So we’re home, and starting the slow process of unpacking and settling back in. The boys will return to a real school in a few weeks’ time, which doesn’t fill them with joy, although being able to hang out with mates all day certainly does. Hah! – that should put some perspective to their complaints about 3 hours home-schooling on the boat! Rebecca starts work at the end of the month, re-donning her Florence Nightingale outfit but this time in fancier surroundings. And Fred must find a job. Anyone with work for a retired yachtie do get in touch. We’ll clean up Tonga Moon, complete some repairs and put her on the market to sell. But despite all these immediate urgencies, we’re already looking forward to our next project. These last few days have reminded us quite what a lovely and privileged place New Zealand is, and we reckon it’s time to see more of our homeland; so a circumnavigation of New Zealand could be on the cards once we’ve found our next boat.

So now this blog must end (altho’one or two more photos to come). It’s been really heartening to receive such great comments from many of you on the blog, and now we’re home to discover how many people have been following it. You sad buggers…it’s time to get a real life! Several people have suggested we should convert it into a book, and we’re keen although completely clueless on publishing. Anyone with publishing knowledge, we’d love to hear from you.

We feel extraordinarily lucky to have been able to undertake this trip, and we’ve returned with many mementos and tens of thousands of photos to remind us. Anyone suffering from insomnia should borrow our laptop and view them.

 

Thank you for all your wonderful support all the way around.

 

In the words of our Rossel, PNG friends: “bam-banga tpene yar. Choo-lemee ngar a kpap nmoo-or”. Take care, and God bless you all. Now try saying THAT with a mouthful of sago!

 

This is Tonga Moon signing off. 

New Zealand and home

After a rocky few days as we passed the eastern Tasman Sea and bashed our way through the outskirts of tropical cyclone Evan, we were blessed with lighter winds for our last two days at sea. Inevitably too light of course, as these things go, so we motor-sailed our entrance into New Zealand waters. But the flatter seas were a relief to everyone, especially Charlotte and James who made a rapid recovery, the former breaking her Tonga Moon diet for the first time in five days. Amazing how quickly seasickness passes once the motion settles down. For myself and Rebecca, the potential threat of bad weather associated with cyclone Evan had undoubtedly given us several days of stress, and the final resolution of these forecasts in our favour was probably the turning point in our enjoyment of the trip.

We rounded North Cape on our last night at sea and awoke in the morning with the rocky shoreline and green rolling hills of Northland on our starboard bow. I think we all approached New Zealand with mixed feelings – all, that is, except our faithful cousins who couldn’t get there fast enough! – but there’s no denying the elation of an imminent landfall after a long ocean passage, laced with the prospect of warm showers, a cold beer, and an uninterrupted watch-free sleep. We sailed into the Bay of Islands with the sun above us as a flock of gannets spotted a baitfish shoal and starting dive-bombing the water all around us. A beautiful display.

Clearance was quick, efficient and friendly, and before we knew it we were anchored off Paihia enjoying fish and chips and a beer on the beach with James’ family. Everyone was shattered but happy to have arrived and, looking forward to a long sleep and extended lie-in, and we turned in early. We awoke at around 1am to the sound of heavy feet tramping on the deck and loud hollering. Rebecca and I started up, hearts pounding, to find a young reveller standing on the foredeck shouting to his mates ashore, having presumably swum out to the boat as a dare. I think he was as shocked as we were, presuming that the yacht was unoccupied, when I appeared on the deck with just a T-shirt on and Rebecca popped up out of the deck hatch wearing nothing at all. The boys learnt a new range of expletives as we politely asked him to vacate the premises, and he took off as fast as he could back to the beach. Ridiculous really, to think that in 18 months of sailing around some of the remotest and arguably lawless countries in the Southern Hemisphere, the only place we get boarded is back home!

From Opua we travelled South down the coast, stopping off at Matapouri for a day before treating ourselves to a stop-over at the Mokohinau Islands Fred’s last ditch attempt to spear a kingfish.

We plan to arrive back at Pine Harbour Marina on Wed 2nd January. It will have been nearly 18 months since we left, and we can feel the drawing to a close of a phase in our family’s life that won’t be repeated. Arrival at Opua was the start, but probably the more significant moment will be stepping off Tonga Moon once back in Beachlands, and leaving behind the family cocoon we’ve created on our 40 foot floating condo. How this translates back to the wider expanse of dry land we’ll discover, and whether we can retain some of the positives we sorely hope. But for now, we’re still some distance away from Beachlands, intent of a quick recovery from the passage, celebrating Christmas for the boys, and making our slow way back further South to home.

NZ arrival

Arrived in Opua on the afternoon of 27th Dec after just over 10 days at sea. All well on board. More detailos soon.

Watery Christmas 2012

Sailing at night, charging through the ocean when all around you is a moving and restless darkness, certainly serves to heighten the senses; hearing in particular. The boat creates it own symphony of noises wind in the sails, water rushing past the hulls, waves slapping the bridgedeck, structural stresspoints creaking under load, autopilot beeping off-course, bilge pump alarm telling us to pump all these become part of the noises we hear and filter at night. Rebecca and I find ourselves constantly scanning noises to check that we recognise them all; unidentified noises need immediate investigation.

So it was with anxious racing hearts that we awoke in the early hours of 25th Dec to unidentified noises up the mast, racing out of our bunk and throwing on lifejackets we emerged into the moonlit cockpit to discover one of Santa’s reindeer had caught their bridle in the rigging. Blitzen, you buffoon, get down here shouted Santa in an uncharacteristic display of frustration. You could forgive this momentary lapse in decorum, given that Santa had managed to track Tonga Moon all the way from the North Pole down to its watery path some 200 miles off the New Zealand coast. Impressive. Equally impressive was that none of the boys woke up. Or believed us when we told them, even Jakey. And so we welcomed in Christmas 2012.

Funny how history repeats itself. This day 1999 we were in a similar predicament, trying to sail back to NZ from the South Pacific in time for christmas day on our beloved yacht Jemima, but failing to make it and stuck in a storm north-west of Cook Strait. You’d almost think New Zealand doesn’t want us back? That year Santa brought us a shredded mainsail and two knockdowns. This time we’re pleased to have avoided the storm, but have again failed to get home for Xmas day and are again being thrown around by decent sized seas.

The last two days have been pretty grim, slamming our way into the 25 knot winds that formed the outer influence of the gale (formerly cyclone Evan). Poor old Charlotte has been very seasick, and James also unwell. But they’ve both shown fantastic fortitude, never failing to fulfil their crew duties on watch despite offers, and although having a pretty miserable time their presence has alleviated Rebecca and my sleep deprivation, for which we’re hugely grateful. Actually the ones we must thank most are their spouses, Andrew and Jeni, who supported them in coming with us knowing that they’d be absent over Christmas. Thanks guys.

Charlotte says she’s learnt a lot on this trip: mostly how seasick she can get, I think, and how she’d rather set her hair on fire than go sailing offshore again. She’s been on what we’ve now named the Tonga Moon diet (no food, water only) for most of the trip, (“wonderfully slimming” she says, “Betty Ford clinics ain’t got nothing on this”) and yesterday Rebecca raised concerns about her hydration and rigged her up with an intravenous saline drip. Extreme measures? I suggested. Oh no, says Dr Starr, this is standard procedure for most doctors after a big night out!.

In anticipation of a tough passage, we’d agreed with the boys before departing Australia that we’d postpone Christmas celebrations until we got to New Zealand and can really enjoy it, so celebrations today for us were mute. But the wind dropped last night and swung round in our favour, and we’re making good progress to our landfall at Opua which we hope to reach in the next 48 hours. We’re in our traditional eat everything in the fridge before quarantine confiscate it mode, and the meals are becoming more extravagant. The sea has flattened somewhat, and today both cousins have started to recover, even breaking their Tonga Moon diet this evening to try a tentative mouthful of spare ribs and spud. So things are definitely looking up.

I woke Rebecca at midnight Christmas Eve for her watch, and in that bleary and dishevelled ‘just woken’ state she donned her foul weather gear and harness and took station at the helm, my greeting of merry christmas receiving only a wry smile. Things will definitely become more merry when we get home.

So in the meantime, MERRY CHRISTMAS to anyone reading this. We look forward to seeing you soon.

Skirting cyclone Evan

Coordinates: 30deg47S, 166deg15E 7th day on passage.
Any mention of cyclones in a sailing blog and you’re expecting high drama, right? But in our case it’s more drama avoidance, and the machinations we’ve been through to achieve it. We delayed our departure awaiting the fate of cyclone Evan, and then departed into fine Tasman weather knowing that we’d need to keep our eyes out. The issue isn’t bumping into the cyclone – Evan has already been declassified as such, and is now just a nasty little storm. NZ Maritime Radio are referring to it as the former cyclone. A bit like the artist formerly known as Prince, it’s way past its best but can still rock the house. Ooww! And while it no longer packs the punch of it’s former nastiness, it’s still generating 30-40 knot winds and big seas in its forward quadrant. So, not dangerous, but still damned uncomfortable and worth avoiding.

Having left its calling card at Samoa and Fiji, the wretched thing seems determined to visit NZ and intent on arriving around the same time as us. Most inconsiderate. So we’re playing a game of dodge the depression but without knowing exactly where it’ll go. Ironically, the same becalmed state that we’ve been cursing earlier on this passage will have helped us, as our spectacularly slow progress means we’re further away from the NZ coast than planned, and therefore further away from the weather. It’s tempting to drop sails and just sit here for awhile and watch it pass, but we’ve had all we can take of Luca’s knock knock jokes, we’re running short of believable blog dramas to write about, and we need to get home, if only for the sake of our crewing cousins who’s spouses are gamely looking after their kids whilst they gallivant around the Tasman with us.

We shook off our becalmed state a couple of days ago, and have been pursuing a path devised by our good friend Dave to avoid the storm, initially a southerly route and now more northerly. The influence of the storm formerly known as cyclone Evan extends some 300 miles from its centre, and we’re already sailing through its farthest influence. Last night we dropped down to our 3rd mainsail reef with winds regularly over 25 knots, and today has continued in the same vein. We can do good speeds in this, but because we’re sailing into the wind, the faster we go the more slamming the boat does, and at this late stage in an otherwise happy sailing sabbatical we can live without the slamming. The swell is up to 3 metres which in itself would be fine, but the seas are rough so the movement of the boat is unpredictable and unpleasant. Cousins Charlotte and James, having both overcome early seasickness when we left Australia, have unfortunately succumbed again and are having a pretty miserable time. Both troopers though, manfully insisting on continuing with watch duties etc. Some debate as to whether we should clear into NZ at Auckland or perhaps Opua, and I suspect the feeling amongst the crew is to get off the boat asap! Can’t say I blame them.

Forecasts suggest the wind should abate in the next 24 hours and swing in our favour, so there’s light on the horizon and now only a few more passage days to go.

The longest passage

Coordinates: 31deg45S, 161deg15E
This is our longest passage of the whole trip, beating our journey from NZ to Vanuatu by some 200 miles. We’ve tried setting milestones to alleviate the monotony, the first of which is the official halfway point which we should reach in a couple of days’ time. An important psychological point, for a passage this long it tends to arrive at a time when everyone’s wondering whether we’ll ever get there and morale may be down, and it marks the start of the uphill leg. Not quite sure how we’ll celebrate this one, but Rebecca has suggested she might have a couple of treats stashed away, and we may break the dry-boat-on-passage rule and pass out a couple of beers that evening.

We’re logging our position daily with NZ Maritime Radio who keep a 24 hour radio watch, so we can call them in the middle of the night when radio reception is best. We haven’t done this before, but the length of this passage and the Tasman Sea’s reputation persuaded us that, on this occasion, it might be comforting to have someone know where we are. But there’s not a lot of comfort to be had on the radio with these guys they’re all business. Despite calling at the same time for the last four nights, they still start the call with a nonchalant Ahh, Tonga Moon, how can we help you? We dutifully relay our position, heading and speed and receive the entirely impersonal thank you for calling, Tonga Moon signoff. No sympathetic enquiries of all well on board?, nor how are you guys doing out there?. No, these guys aren’t sitting up in the middle of the night to provide spurious comfort to anxious sailors state your business and begone! Which is all fine, of course, and despite it we still like the thought that they’re tracking our progress. Either that, or pretending to jot down our positions and flicking the imaginary paper into the nearest bin, filed in the usual place! Who can tell?

Charlotte’s presence continues to provide a ripe field of anecdotes. She’s spent the first two days inspecting the anatomy of a bucket with the intensity only afforded a doctor of her standing. This, despite loading up on an impressive range of drugs designed to keep seasickness at bay. She’s a consultant anaesthetist, so has managed to put even the good Dr Starr to shame with the complexity of her pharmaceutical solutions, but sadly they haven’t really worked. She initially spurned suggestions of raw ginger (our own personal favourite), but two days of vomiting will break down the hardiest of non-believers, and at this stage she’s trying anything. Despite all this, of course, she’s shown true grit by determinedly doing her watches good on her.

James is his usual tower of strength. He’s a bull of a man with an impressive track record in managing building works and a can-do attitude that would overshadow the most ardent kiwi. The combined positivity of Bob the Builder (can we fix it?) and Barack Obama (can we do it?) has nothing on him. Incidentally, the correct answer to both questions was yes we can, although I understand that after Obama’s first term in office his campaign had to revert to the more pragmatic slogan can we do it, this time?. No job outfoxes him, which is handy for a skipper like Fred for whom many jobs don’t just outfox him but leave him completely bamboozled. No surprise to James then, to arrive to discover we’d quietly amassed a long list of head-scratching boat issues for him to puzzle out, our personal favourite being the perpetually-blocking holding tank. What better way to welcome your long-lost cousin on board than to give him your poo problems to fix?

Our progress has been slow. Yesterday we were becalmed for most of the day, and so motored laboriously with one engine ticking along on 2000 revs, ever mindful of the need to conserve fuel this early in the passage. It was a slow day, but the sea’s flatness helped Charlotte recover and even swallow an exploratory bowl of supper come evening. The wind returned around that time and gave us a lovely 15 knots on the beam. The seas were still flat, and for all her floating condo-like qualities Tonga Moon picked up her skirts and romped along for most of that night at over 7 knots, compensating nicely for the slow day. Today showed a similar pattern with a morning of slow motoring and the wind picking up late in the day. We’re determinedly heading South of our rhumbline in anticipation of southerly winds arriving in the next day or so, so we just keeping our fingers crossed that they’re gentle with us when they eventuate.

Sailing home

Coordinates: 28deg04S, 155deg40E
We’re off. After a few days initial delay waiting out strong South Easterlies and then further info on cyclone Evan, we’ve found our window and we departed Brisbane Monday afternoon. The forecast was good, or at least light winds for the first few days, so we topped up with diesel in anticipation of some motoring. The cupboards were groaning with as much fresh food as Rebecca could reasonably buy without denying the whole population of Scarborough their own rations, and the departure checklist completed.

Actually we were ready to go several days ago, but sat watching cyclone Evan wreak it’s vengeance on poor old Samoa, with Fiji next in its sights. The big question was where would it go after that, and for awhile the predictions suggested it would travel south to New Zealand in a trajectory beautifully timed to coincide with our arrival. Our trusty forecaster and friend Dave told us in no uncertain terms to stay put, so we waited and watched. Increasingly the view of professional meteorologists was that it would still head South from Fiji but disperse as it covers colder waters, and by the time it reached NZ be no more than a bit of a breezy depression. We had our own somewhat breezy depression as we sat in Brisbane facing the possibility of a long long delay to our crossing, but the wind Gods have now smiled on us and indicated that it’s time to depart.

We feel hugely fortunate to have two special crew to help us with this passage – James and Charlotte Johnstone. As siblings and Fred’s 1st cousies, they share the same eccentric streaks. Charlotte has just turned 50, and clearly wanted something to persuade herself that she wasn’t over the hill. Meanwhile James has always been a bit of a mad bugger and so was game from the start. Remarkably, the prospect of being cooped up in a 42ft floating box with the Nolan family at sea for 10-12 days doesn’t seem to have deterred them. This alone, you’d think, would be grounds for questioning their sanity. But for us their presence means great company, a lot more sleep, and overall the potential to turn an otherwise drudgery-filled passage into a fun trip.

The cyclone-fuelled delay gave us the opportunity to show off the Tangalooma Wrecks to our two new crew members, and we spent a very happy couple of days out there enjoying the beach and working through our passage preparation jobs. Charlotte and James are sharing a double cabin and bed, for the first time perhaps since they were kids, so we figured this should lead to some interesting anecdotes. Sure enough, Charlotte surfaced from her cabin one morning with a disgusted look on her face, complaining that she’d mistaken James’ thrush cream for toothpaste and despite repeated rinsing was struggling to banish the after-taste. This tickled the boys no end, and has led to their fanciful design of a range of new toothpastes, each one more disgusting than before. I shan’t lower the tone of this blog with the details.

At time of writing we’re about 140 miles off the Australian coast at the end of our 2nd day at sea. Poor Charlotte is still struggling with her seasick demons, but everyone else seems pretty well and we’re starting to drop into our passage routine. 1330 miles is a long way, and at this stage it feels like we’ve got a lifetime of endless ocean in front of us… not a wonderfully uplifting thought. But the forecasts are for light winds and presumably small seas for the next few days, and this alone will reduce stress levels (and hopefully bring Charlotte’s appetite back).

Our last week in Australia

It was time to seek civilisation again, not least in order to pick up the first of our cousies’ crew – cousin James; but we also needed water, fuel and more fresh food. Scurvy was still some distance off, but the boys’ complaints of brown bananas and rotten apples were gathering steam and starting to have some substance. We’ve found there’s only so far you can push disgusting food down a child’s throat, a fact that my father no doubt discovered many years ago when trying to persuade the rest of us to drink sour milk by downing half a pint of the stuff in front of us whilst camping in France. It didn’t persuade us one bit, but I do recollect a sort of revolted fascination at the spectacle.

Scarborough was our destination, where we hooked up with Rebecca’s old friend Debbie and her family, who welcomed us into the bosom of their home for an evening of food, booze and showers, without once mentioning the huge inconvenience of being descended on by a family of five just one day after moving into their sparkling new house.  It was sparkling somewhat less by the time the boys had finished the evening, and there was certainly no hot water left.  Debbie and Dave have two gorgeous girls aged 13 and 14yrs, and our initial meeting was filled with unspoken trepidation on both sides as to how our kids would get on.  Of course Luca was all good with the prospect, but Gabriel had looked utterly dismayed; “but they must have at least one boy?” he’d wailed.   So it was astonishing to watch the rapid transformation through phases starting with the painfully shy initial meeting: ‘I wish my folks hadn’t dragged me here, when will the world open up and swallow me whole?’, on to “wow, like, they’ve got car racing on PSP, AND they like Harry Potter?!” and into the final clinching phase “you know, Mummy, they’re not really like girls at all!”   What greater compliment could a 10 year old boy give?  Thanks guys for such wonderful hospitality.

Many people on the offshore cruising circuit complain about the passage to New Zealand.  It seems to have generated a long history of nightmare weather stories, and in fact we’ve met several yachts who’d love to visit but don’t fancy dealing with the high winds associated with a New Zealand landfall in spring.  NZ can be windy in Spring and weather can change pretty fast there.  The storm that brought vicious typhoons to Auckland two weeks ago was a good example, but we’re hoping the law of averages determines that this will be the last storm this side of our own return.  Despite all this meteorological doom and gloom though, the good news is that the predominant weather in the North of NZ is westerly, and we’re approaching on a south-Easterly route, so if it gets strong at least it’ll be blowing us in the right direction.

So we’re now pouring over weather forecasts each day, trying to predict the unpredictable – that is, ocean weather for the Tasman sea 10-15 days forward. We have the able assistance of our good friend Dave back home who bamboozles us with undecipherable statements like “the rate of the southward vector of the cyclone is governed by the pressure differentials along its path” and seems to be spending so much time drawing out forecasts that we’re amazed he’s still keeping his business going, but it’s all great info to help with the Big Decision: when to depart.

We picked up James ‘action man’ Johnstone from Scarborough Marina, fresh off the plane from his sisters’ 50th birthday party in Sydney and looking a tad green with it.  We’d planned to pick him up and sail straight out to Moreton Island, so the poor guy barely got a welcome hug before his bag were chucked onboard and we were off, eager to make our anchorage before sunset.  We figured a few days snorkelling and fishing would help pass the time, and sleeping in a rolly swell-dominated anchorage would speed up our sea leg re-acquisition.  And since then we’ve sat happily at anchor back at Tangalooma Wrecks, thoroughly enjoying our last few days of Australian cruising with the added impetus provided by the indefatigable humour and momentum of my cousin. The big departure day approaches and the forecasts are indicating light winds for at least the first half of the trip, so a Saturday departure looks on the cards.

Housemaid’s knee

Coordinates: 27deg1S, 153deg21E

I reckon these doctors make up the names for ailments as they go along.  A few days ago I mentioned to the good Doctor Starr that I had a sore knee, in a tone intended to convey the excruciating pain, the high levels of uncomplaining stoicism and the full extent of long-suffering martyrdom exercised over the matter on my part. She’s not fooled, of course, but then neither am I now by the “ooh, that must be very sore” response that my complaint elicited, a stock response honed after years of GP clinics. My announcement was carefully timed in a rare and brief pause between resentful home-schooling and screaming children, and I was pleased to see the Doctor taking me seriously enough to take a look. After a few cursory questions and an insistent prodding until she had me gasping in pain, she announced that I had what was known as “housemaid’s knee”, an ailment usually caused by spending too long scrubbing floors on hands and knees (possibly named before the age of suffrage).  This seemed to amuse her no end, arming her with plenty of witty quips about the irony of someone with my housecleaning track record managing to get the ailment.  “It should really be called ‘downtrodden husbands’ knee’” say I, but she’s too quick and in a flash has responded with a “maybe, except that it is caused by repetitive pressure”.  Touche.

We sailed the 60 miles South from Fraser Island down to the small port of Maloolooba, hooning through the narrow breakwater passage and large waves late afternoon into the peace and quiet of its waterways. Neither of us had discussed it, but we’d both approached Maloolooba with the same mental image of an old rustic seafront fishing town, and so were totally thrown to find a massive canal development lined with grand new buildings, each house with its own jetty and gleaming yacht parked outside. The waterways extended in every direction, and from our standpoint it looked like every one of the 7,000 residents had their own pontoon. Incredible. The idea of having your own canal-adjoining house with a pontoon for your yacht at the end of the garden sounds wonderful, but the houses were cheek by jowl, and as well as being able to peer into your neighbours’ affairs across the fence, you could look across the canal and snoop on all of them too!  Wonderful lace curtain-twitching opportunities.  So with the infallible Nolan nose for cheap entertainment, once the sun had set we sat happily in the cockpit peering shamelessly into the houses around us and comparing Christmas decorations. By now you’d imagine that we’d twigged Christmas was coming, but in fact we’ve been so cocooned in our own little watery world that none of the festive build-up had touched us. So it was a timely reminder to find every second canal house adorned with neon mistletoe, twinkling fairy lights and electric Santas with Rudolph’s nose flashing red as a novel (and potentially misleading) maritime beacon.

We used the opportunity of a close proximity Maloolooba town to celebrate the coming of age of our youngest; Jakey now turning 5, the little man, and had a lovely day alternating between boat-based treats and fish and chips on the beach.  A huge thanks for everyone who sent email birthday messages.  But ultimately the shock of anchoring at the end of several people’s gardens proved too much for us, and we elected to move on the following morning, sailing the 40 or so miles down to Moreton Island to get one step closer to Brisbane. Moreton Island is another sand-based affair, stretching parallel to the mainland and enclosing Moreton Bay and the whole Brisbane marine area. We were now in the realm of shipping lanes with huge container ships ploughing back and forth, and we could feel the presence of a major city. But surprisingly Moreton Island, only 15 nautical miles from the urban sprawl, hosts an impressive marine park that holds dolphins, turtles, dugongs and whales, all of which but the last we saw within hours of arriving at the Tangalooma Wrecks.

Tangalooma was the location of an attempt to create an artificial reef and breakwater by dropping a line of large wrecks into the sea 100 metres off the beach. This has since become a tourist attraction, and with it’s own marine eco-system it makes great snorkelling. The wrecks themselves look pretty impressive, and they’ve brought in a diverse range of fishlife that are used to swimmers and amazingly friendly. What it hasn’t achieved, though, is to create a breakwater from persistent Westerly swell, a fact that we discovered first hand on our first night when the wind shifted direction and we sat broadside onto it.

One of the many advantages of a catamaran over a monohull is its ability to handle swell. In situations where monohull owners would be thrown around from side to side, the cat will simply bob up and down peacefully.  This opens up many more viable anchorage options.  But when the swell gets severe enough, even multihulls suffer. Ours has a tendency to creak and groan as the beams connecting the two hulls come under pressure, much like they do when on passage in fact. And so we had two terrible nights’ sleep, and heaved collective sighs when the wind finally swung back behind the island and the swell disappeared. You might wonder why two nights, when surely the first was sufficient to inform us of our mistake? Yes, well you’d think so. But as the eternal optimists, we’d followed someone’s dubious advice and moved down the island a few miles, only to find the wind kicking in with even greater ferocity just before dark, and our options for avoiding the swell pretty much gone. We decided that someone wanted to prepare us for our next passage, and so we accepted our sleep-deprived fate accordingly.  Those who’ve spent much time sailing will know that much of the time it can be likened to hitting your head against a brick wall…because it’s such bliss when you stop!   So it was on the third day that the wind finally shifted, and we could start to enjoy Moreton Island properly.

The preparation for passage-making isn’t lost on us, though. We’re rapidly approaching our departure date and slowly working through lists of final boat jobs. The forecasts have been pretty favourable for the last few weeks giving us hope that our departure wouldn’t be delayed, but unfortunately this pattern disappeared around the time of our intended departure, and it now looks like we’ll be waiting for several days for the South-Easterlies to swing around.  Still, not a bad place to be waiting.

Through the Great Sandy Straits

Imaginatively named they may not be, but there’s no denying that the Great Sandy Straits are sandy, and great. Straight they are not though, a point Gabriel was quick to point out. “They really should have called them the Great Sandy Wiggles” was his proclamation.

We picked up advice before venturing through the 50 or so nautical miles of shifting sandy banks and multiple turns that make up the straits, part of which included an understanding of the strong tides which flow from both the North and South to meet in the middle. This makes for a pretty cool navigational trick whereby, with smart timing, you can ride the flooding current halfway down, and pick up the ebbing current to whisk you out the other half. So is exactly what we did, and enjoyed every minute of the hours of flat cruising as the waters pulled us through. Several other yachts had the same idea, and we joined a line of some 10 or so boats travelling South. There was momentary drama when a gust blew our plastic handline reel overboard, and we executed a man-overboard drill to recover it. This is something we’d practised a couple of times before, and we recovered the thing without problems, although the other yachts in line were clearly perplexed by our 360 degree turns.

The Southern end of Fraser Island and the Straits includes a wide sand bar that needs to be crossed with great caution, opening as it does to the open ocean. The sand banks shift so often that even electronic charts can’t keep up, and the coastguard broadcast updated waypoints to boats on a regular basis. The narrowest and shallowest part of this bar is locally referred to as “the mad mile” and can kick up horrid standing waves in strong wind-against-tide conditions, so most yachts anchor just inside the Southern end and wait for suitable conditions. We joined a number of boats doing this, anchored in a row tucked up inside a long sand spit that makes Inskip Point, bobbing away at anchor just metres away from a group of pelicans. What is the collective pronoun for pelicans, I wonder?… more fodder for tomorrow’s homeschooled English class no doubt.

We discovered that one of the few methods for vehicles to get over to Fraser Island is to drive to the very end of this sand spit and board a car ferry that crisscrosses the strait all day. This in itself wouldn’t have been noteworthy, except that it involved driving in deep soft sand along the spit, and we watched as car after car got stuck. After years of witnessing landfolk entertain themselves watching yachts go aground or stuff up marina manoeuvres (including ours once or twice), we found it refreshing to have the shoe on the other foot.

Some of these hopeful Strait-crossers were rugged four-wheel drive guys, muscly hardmen with shaved heads, long goatees and cut-off T-shirts (are we back on Thursday Island, we wondered?) – driving hoiked-up trucks with shovels strapped to the side. Abit like the “Hitcher Hikers’ Guide to the Galaxy” where intergalactic travellers who really know their stuff always travel with a towel, it occurs to us that anyone driving with a shovel must know what they’re doing in the outback. Either that or they have serious incontinence issues. These guys have no problems with the sandy drive, gunning their high-diff engines before tearing along the spit fishing-tailing most of the way but in perfect control throughout. Pretty cool viewing actually.

But this wasn’t where the real viewing pleasure lay. Inevitably there were the others. Young wild things out for a week of alcohol-fueled fun, tearing along the beach in their beaten-up front wheel drive stationwagons. Stuck! Or sedate older couples in their beautifully clean city SUVs, the four wheel drive gears probably never been used and certainly not designed for offroad, making what seemed like the fatal mistake of going slowly over the soft sand. Stuck! Cruel fun at the expense of others, you might think, but let’s face it these guys were going to get stuck with or without us looking on. One kind outbacker with a proper four-wheel drive truck, dogs in the back and yes, spade strapped to the side, had adopted the good Samaritan role and busied himself hauling stricken cars out of the sand, not perhaps realising that he was building for himself a full-time role.

We’d spent a happy couple of days exploring the spit and checking out Tin Can Bay, the nearest place to reprovision. All in all, The Great Sandy Wiggles had given us a few good days. Luca had exercised his dune-boarding expertise, demonstrating a surprising fearlessness that none of the rest of us could match in tearing down huge steep sand dunes on his boogie board. Gabriel had shown an equally surprising doggedness in fishing for five straight days off the pier at Kingfisher Bay, only on the last night to be finally rewarded with a large jewfish that he brought back triumphantly to the boat. The pier there was a popular fishing spot, and there’s no doubt that part of the allure for hours of biteless fishing for him was partaking in the ribald conversation shared between drunk fishermen. This is an education they don’t cover in the Correspondence School curriculum.

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