South to Sydney

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Index of slides from this report.

The New South Wales coast is very different from Queensland, much more like Northern California. Very few of the ports have all-weather entrances; most are inside barred river mouths. Entry into the barred ports requires small swell and the top third of a rising tide, conditions not usually present when you really need to get into port. On the other hand, the surf is better, and there are even places where the harbour is actually convenient to a surf break.

The Whamma Blamma Yamba Weather-Rama

Why does bad weather always happen at night?

We left Southport around 11am with the plan being to pull in at Tweed Heads if an overnight run down the coast to Yamba didn't suit. The forecast from Queensland was for SE winds building to 20 knots, while the adjoining district in northern NSW had it as variable winds generally E to SE to 15 knots. The isobars on the chart didn't look like they were going to pack a 20 kt punch and we were headed south anyway so we sided with the NSW forcast. The actual conditions were 8 knots from the NE until past Tweed Heads. From just north of Cape Byron until Yamba (about 60 miles on a dark, moonless night) all hell broke loose. We had conditions ranging from flat calm to 25 knot winds from every point on the compass. Thankfully, not all at the same time.

As we sailed towards Cape Byron (Australia's easternmost point) I tried to decide whether the dark shapes I was seeing were thunderheads that we would have to sail through or just shadows cast by the clouds around Mt. Warning. As the afternoon wore on, the winds gradually increased and the question was resolved in favor of thunderheads. Seeing white caps ahead, we decided to reef and tack out east away from the storm.

After letting us make a bit of easting, the fickle wind moved from NE to SW, putting us on our original course just in time to hear the first of the "Severe Thunderstorm Securité" broadcasts. Winds kicked up into the twenties and moved S so we tacked east again (opposite tack) only to have them die off to nothing. On with the motors, course now due south, hoping to punch through the east-west band of storms.

Scott's Reading List

One of the benefits of the cruising lifestyle is that one has plenty of time to read. I was planning on writing a more detailed book review page, but doing so would have pushed me dangerously close to spending more time writing about adventures than having them. So I'm stealing one of Tristan's labour-saving ideas and just listing the books with a hip-shot critique instead.

The Fatal Shore Richard Hughes
The current cannon history of Australia. Very readable.

The Journals of Captain Cook James Cook
These are just amazing, particularly the first one that was not as heavily edited (by Cook) as the other two. For someone without a formal education, his writing is amazing lucid and readable.

Blue Horizons Tony Horowitz
Sorry if I got the title or author's name wrong on this one as I don't have a copy in hand. The author retraces some of Captian Cook's travels with results that vary from comic to insightful. Every travel writer needs a loutish Australian sidekick, but not all receive them.

The Alexandria Quartet Lawrence Durrel
Gerald Durrell's brother is actually a great writer though not as funny as Gerry. No one is. The Alexandria Quartet, Justine, Balthazar Clea, and Mountolive, is the same story told (or re-told) from differing perspectives. So in one book one has a traditional first person narrator, in another that narrator is telling someone else's story, and in another the narrator appears as a third person character. Each book stands on its own, but the complex shift in interpretation from book to book is really mind boggling. Makes me wonder whether Lawrence figured out all the details up front or just wrote one ordinary novel and then re-wrote it three more times after losing a bet.

By the way, it's about love.

Guns Germs and Steel Jared Diamond
Why did western Europeans conquer the world? Seems like an obvious question. Diamond provides an answer that satisfies.

The Future Eaters Tim Flannery
This was the first book that really explains the motivation behind the polynesian explorations: Finding a new island, filled with animals so tame that they could be "hunted" by the simple expedient of walking up and grabbing them is the closest thing to finding paradise that people have ever experienced. Find a new island and you and your family will live like royalty.

The Emperor of Scent Chandler Burr
I have always been partial to French cheese, stinky, unpasturized, and strong red wine. Eating food that can't kill you is a bit cowardly. Anyway, of all the human senses, only scent is unexplained by science.

The book is about scent and about scientists and science and might as well be subtitled Why I am not a Scientist. Can't shake that nasty belief stuff. Perhaps there's a genetic explanation.

Adam's Curse Brian Sykes
An amazing tour of the Y-chromosome by the scientist who popularized the study mitochondial DNA a decade earlier (The Seven Daughters of Eve). Fascinating.

I don't think he handles the "competition" between mitochondial DNA and the Y-chromosome very convincingly: skirts around the remarkable fact that in spite of æons of such "competition", the contest is still dead even. My hunch is that an injection of game theory (a nice book by Poundstone, I forget the title) would help things.

The book is somewhat marred by the author's slobbering genuflection to the academic feminist goddess polemic but wading through a couple of chapters of unsupported - even contradicted by preceeding chapters - wishful thinking is a small price to pay for the insight into the essence of maleness.

Baudolino Umberto Eco
Dorothy Dunnet on acid. I don't mean to knock Dorothy but her whole plot development is just a bit too uptight and formal. The essential premise of this book is: "what if the middle ages had spin-meisters?"

Another of William Weaver's translations. I think one could assemble a great reading list just by following his career. Translation is one of those neat subliminal threads in literature. For example, I was recently delighted to find out that Papillon, which I read in English as a boy, was translated by Patrick O'Brian shortly before he started on his now famous Aubrey Maturin series. Read 'em all.

The Happy Isles of Oceania Paul Thoreaux
He is occasionally insightful, though perhaps not frequently enough to make one forgive his incessant whining about the fatuousness of Japanese tourists, or the corrosive influence of "western" society on the polynesians. People give up things like traditional seafaring because it is difficult, dangerous, and, given the wide availability of superior alternatives, just plain stupid. Get over it.

Interesting to see the underpinnings of Tim Flannery's work showing up in Thoreaux' interview with a Hawaiian archeologist, for all the world like the freshly excavated bones of a new beast.

The Logbook from the Sea of Cortez John Steinbeck
Bang! But then I already wrote about this one and so did Karin.

And now I've really got to stop before this sidebar takes over the whole travelogue.
After half an hour of motoring, the wind was back in the SE at 8 knots. Sails back up, steaming lights off, tricolor on. and so it went all night. Neither Karin nor I got more than half an hour's sleep as there was always something going on. Around midnight, we stopped going any further than the settee when off watch. At one point the winds changed from E to W so quickly that the autopilot never had a chance to react. I just tacked the jib and reset Otto to the opposite tack. The one good point of the variability of the wind was that the the sea remained quite flat.

To top it off there was lots of ship traffic so we were continuously busy with radar and binoculars.

Around 3am we had just decided to skip running in to Yamba in the dark and sail another 50 miles to Coff's Harbour, when the wind shifted such that the current tack aimed us straignt at the Clarence River bar. Taking a gentle hint from Neptune, we reversed our completely rational decision and decided that anchoring at Yamba would be just the ticket. Amazingly, the wind held true and we sailed on the same tack for almost an hour before dropping sails just outside the bar which we crossed uneventfully, just as the eastern horizon was lightening up.

We followed the circuitous channel into Yamba and dropped anchor just north of the marina. After a few hours of sleep, I awoke to the smell of frying bacon. The kids, having had the benefit of a full night's sleep, were making brekkie.

After breakfast and cleaning up the boat, we lowered the dingy and went to explore the town. Parenthetically, the new dingy is a huge success. We carry it on the targa bar fully rigged and can launch it seconds after dropping anchor. It will make living off of a mooring or at anchor so much easier. We got it just in time because there are relatively few marinas on the NSW coast.

Yamba was really nice: an old fishing village, not yet fully converted to tourism, it was just the right mix of working port and resort. We had a nice wander and lunch (good meat pies), before straggling back to the boat.

Coffs Harbour

With Yamba being so pleasant, we really wanted to stay longer but it looked like there was one more day of northerly weather on tap (no thunderstorms) so we up'd anchor and headed south to Coffs Harbour. The land breeze lasted for an hour and then we had to motor sail a bit until the sea breeze filled in out of the NE, 7 knots. It wasn't the ideal direction for us because we had to jibe but under screecher we kept up a steady 6 - 7 knot average.

Near North Solitary Island, we passed Raw Nerve (it was motor-sailing north), a localy famous racing cat, perhaps moving north for the Brisbane-Gladstone race in April.

Warmed by the East Australian Current, the islands host some of the southernmost coral in the world. Unfortunately, we had no time to stop for a snorkle. As we sailed past South Solitary Island, the end of the chain, we scrapped the plan to overnight to Port MacQuarie. On the one hand it was only 70 miles, with a 2-knot boost from the EAC. But, on the other, the weather was supposed to deteriorate sometime the next afternoon as a high pushing into the Tasman Sea bumped into the remains of Cyclone Grace. If that happened a bit sooner or we went a bit slower, we'd be badly screwed because the next all-weather port would be Port Stephens another 70 miles upwind in what were forcast to be gale force winds.

At the marina, we snagged the very last available catamaran-sized berth, our luck holding true as the anchorage in the outer harbour is vile (even for a cat) and anyway, it was closed because a crane barge had broken loose, drifted into the southern breakwater and sunk. The two local tugboats made daily visits to their stricken charge, fussing ineffectually about like mother hens. Nobody knew what to do.

Nearby, at the entrance to the boat ramp a tight pack of surfers played a dangerous game, catching waves and then pulling out just before they exploded on the breakwater.

The change in the weather came later rather than earlier so we wound up spending 6 nights at the Marina. Sadly there was nothing to do.

The winds kicked up some of the largest surf that we'd seen in Australia and the kids had a great time standing on the harbour wall waiting for big waves to soak them. Wait, there was nothing to do. Never mind.

So I won't say anything about jumping off the pier. Just toe the party line. There was nothing to do. Only homework.

For me this was the closest to what I'd imagined this trip would be like: carefree surfing next to a snug harbour while the kids writhe in agonized boredom, there being nothing to do. There was a decent left off of Little Mutton Bird Island, just north of the harbour. It was irregular enough to keep the short boarders away but still delivered a really nice ride if you managed to pick the right wave. As the swell was generated just a couple of hundred miles away, it was ragged and lumpy. You could spend an hour and get no more than 3 or 4 drops, and then luck into the most amazing ride that would wall up, back off, reform, all the way to the sand. Which would send you right back out for another hour.

Pittwater

After five nights in Coffs the gales and storms started to drop off. We could have left immediately, but the surf was still good and we needed to do some shopping so we waited another day, leaving early Friday morning. Wind was very light from the NW so we motored the whole morning, finally putting up a spinnaker after lunch when the wind started coming NE at about 7 knots. The port jibe allowed us to head due south, gradually away from the coast, an arrangement which suited us just fine as a weak southerly change was moving up the coast which should give us SE winds. That extra distance off the coast would then allow us to lay Broken Bay (the bay north of Port Jackson) in one tack instead of having to tack back and forth just off the coast. An important consideration, because tacking (or needing to tack) makes nighttime navigation more of a hassle.

Figuring out the weather is like surfing on a larger scale. Instead of checking the horizon for sets, then judging the pitch and heave of each wave, and finally selecting one that gives the best ride, you look at the procession of highs and lows, the cold fronts and try to get the winds that give you the easiest trip. Do it well and the ride can last for days. Screw it up and you can be "caught inside" for days. Unlike surfing, you don't get full motion video, just individual frames of the movie corresponding to surface pressure analyses which come twice daily via the weatherfax. Or, more frequently but less accurately via dockside rumour.

Anyway, we were 20 miles off the coast when we doused the spinnaker so we jibed back west and settled in for the night. The sun set behind Smokey Cape and revealed a fabulous starry night with a waxing sickle moon. After repeatedly dodging my hints about how I'd be happy to take the first watch and, oh, wasn't she feeling sleepy, Karin took the first watch, and woke me around 11 for my shift. After the moon had set. I watched Orion set (consolation prize) as we eased along at 5 knots under full sail. Towards the end of my watch, a band of shadow on the southern horizon presaged the arrival of the cold front and the southerly change. It came through right at 3am, the wind veering to the NW, W, SW (southern hemisphere so veering is a counterclockwise change of direction) before dying for half an hour. We motored for a bit and then the southerly filled in, building gradually to 7 knots at which point I went to bed.

Karin always gets the windy watch. The wind continued to increase such that when she woke me at 5:30 it was 10 - 12 knots still mostly SE. Endless Summer was bashing along close hauled on the port tack: 10 knots when the waves eased up, then down to 7 or eight as we crashed through a set. I extrapolated down our course and discovered that we would just barely lay the entrance to Broken Bay. For the next hour the wind and seas continued to build, showing 16 knots a couple of times. As we were hard on the wind and I didn't want to roust Karin out of bed to help reef, I held on to it and the winds started easing and veering east shortly thereafter. The time to reef is when you first think of it unless it involves getting the admiral out of bed.

Making coffee was a little twitchy. At one point the espresso maker catapulted off the stove, but as it hadn't gotten hot enough to actually make any coffee yet, nothing spilled. Good luck again. I just put it back on the stove and held on to it until it had brewed, then stored it in the sink while I heated milk. Sailing allows one to feel triumphant about even trivial things like making a mocha for one's spouse.

The wind eased off until it was down in the sixes and eights and obligingly veered east enough to get us in to Broken Bay without tacking. Just north of Broken Bay, we started to see the famous cliffs. They're quite steep-to so we sailed within a few cables (a cable is a tenth of a nautical mile) of them. After 36 hours alone on the ocean we sailed into a pleasant saturday afternoon on Pittwater. Rounding Barrenjoey head were hundreds of sailboats some obviously racing, others just knocking around and still others in the grips of some indeterminate panic-stricken activity. We merged in with the throng heading down Pittwater (the southerly arm of Broken Bay) like country bumpkins in the big city for the first time. We could have sailed another 15 miles south into Port Jackson, but friends had warned us that traffic on a weekend could be more than a little hairy. Given what we had to deal with in Pittwater, I'm glad we stopped early. Also, stopping in Pittwater allows us to explore the area a bit in advance of coming back here with visitors.

There are so many sailboats in Pittwater than anchoring is actually a bit of a problem. Most of the good spots are filled with moorings. Without a guide, in this case Alan Lucas' Cruising the NSW Coast, to tell you that "south of this or that jetty and just outside of the moored boats one could anchor in 6 metres" it would be a maddening place to sail into. As it was, we rounded up right behind Barrenjoey Head (the southern headland of Broken Bay), dropped the sails, and picked up an empty club mooring. Many of the moorings belong to various boating clubs and can be used by the public (that would be us) as long as you're willing to move off the mooring if the rightful owner shows up. We spent an anxious couple of hours until dark, but weren't evicted until well after breakkie the next morning.

One of the more infuriating aspects of this sort of adventure travel is just how spoiled the kids get. "Look, dolphins!" we say and Tristan barely looks up from the tattered copy of PC Gamer Addict that I know he's read at least 8 times. So we sailed down Pittwater through something like 500 oncoming sailboats - we had cleverly arranged to be on starboard - and Nicoline made banana muffins and tea. "Wanna drive?" I asked Tristan, "It would be like swerving through TIE fighters in your Star Wars game." He gave me the withering glance usually reserved for when I do something really stupid in public and slouched resolutely behind his current book. So Karin sailed and I trimmed and somehow, in spite of our obvious adult stupidity for choosing to go sailing instead of renting an apartment above a combination roller disco, video arcade and go kart track, we managed not to hit anyone.

We spent the night a few convolutions deeper into Broken Bay at a fjord-like indentation named American Bay. As it was mid-week near the end of the sailing season, we had our choice of several hundred vacant moorings. It was a little erie. We found out later that during summer weekends the entire bay is jammed with boats, some even rafted up five or six abreast. Evidently, the trick is to go bush during the week when everyone is slaving away at work, and then to come in to town for the weekend when the entire population moves en-masse to their favorite anchorage to escape the urban hustle.

We reconnoitered nearby Refuge Bay in the dingy and discovered that in addition to fjord-likeness, it could offer a sandy beach and a handy on-beach waterfall. We cast off our mooring in America Bay with embarrasing, almost unpatriotic haste and motored over to Refuge Bay where we got the mooring just off the beach/waterfall. The kids swam, played on the beach, and explored the nearby rocks. Snorkling near the beach they saw a really large ray working the bottom for yabbies (crayfish).

We had planned on sailing the last 15 miles to Port Jackson on monday but Refuge/America Bay was so nice we couldn't tear ourselves away until late tuesday and then we only got as far as Careel bay back in Pittwater. We had just found a nice anchorage when the phone rang. It was Geoff Mercer, down in Sydney and trying to look us up. After a mad scramble with place names as our nautical charts have only the most liminal overlap with street maps, we gave him a rendezvous at the public jetty in Palm Beach which turned out to be easy for both of us to find.

After lunch and a swim with Geoff, we moved back to the anchorage at Careel Bay and hiked a mile or so in to the nearby town Avalon. While it used to be the case that arrival from the sea was usual, most places now provide access to travellers arriving from the water as an afterthought. Coming in to town from a boat is often a little odd, like entering a house through the bathroom window. No one planned for anybody to come in to town from this direction. There are no signs, no public transportation. You just walk through residential neighborhoods following a compass course for downtown and tacking whenever you arrive at a promising larger street. Anyway, we found downtown and it had a good fish & chips shop.

Sydney at Last

After exploring the possibilities of Coaster's Retreat, an arm of Pittwater, we set sail for Port Jackson, known to land lubbers everywhere as Sydney Harbour. We had a 7-knot breeze out of the NE and the only real drama of the trip was whether or not we would be able to hang on to the spinnaker the whole way. The winds, which had been solidly NE when we left Broken Bay, shifted progressively more east making it harder and harder for us to stay clear of the coast. We shaved Long Reef rather more closely than I would have liked but gained enough easting off Manly to make it past North Head with a couple of cables to spare. The swell was small but very irregular which made it difficult to trim the spinnaker because some collapses were due to wave action and others to pinching too hard. Still, we sailed faster than the wind most of the way. Sailing faster than the wind always feels like you're getting away with something.

The entire fleet of the Sydney-to-Mooloolaba race passed us. Lots of expensive carbon sails, full crew sitting on the rail. We wished them a long slow passage as we were planning on occupying their marina berths while they were away.

Just after rounding North Head the wind dropped to 3 knots and the lumpy swell made the popping and slatting of the spinnaker intolerable so we gave up any thoughts of actually entering Syd... uh, Port Jackson with the spinnaker flying.

So we motored into Port Jackson, just us and 4 intrepid laser sailors. Actually, we motored in on one motor as the starboard engine started smoking as soon as we put it in gear. Minor crisis. As soon as we were in smooth water a quick look revealed that we had collected a huge glob of kelp around the prop. Running in reverse seemed to shake most of it off and we dropped anchor in Spring Cove, the traditional first anchorage just north of the harbour entrance.

Our first sight of the fast cat ferry was fearsome indeed. It travels really fast, something like 30 knots, leaving giant plumes of white water and pureed windsurfers in its wake. Ferries have unconditional right of way.