Newcastle

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"Let's sail her in."

We were just lining up the entrance to Newcastle harbour after a great day of sailing from Broken Bay. At Karin's urging we'd motored out of Broken Bay, shivering in the 5am darkness. Winds were supposed to be W/NW 10 - 15 knots, ideal for the NE'ly course to Newcastle and we wanted to milk the morning land breeze for all the distance it was worth. As the winds were very light, we decided to start out with the spinnaker, hang on to it as long as the VTW (velocity to waypoint - how fast we were moving toward Newcastle) was acceptable and then motor or sail the rest of the way depending on the wind. I trimmed the kite for an apparent wind about 40° off the bow, and Karin enjoyed a nice morning at the helm, making 7 knots of boatspeed out of 5 knots of wind.

Around noon, the wind moved north which caused our course to bend until we were sailing E. We dropped the spinnaker but with 5 knots of wind, we were only making 4 knots of boatspeed and Newcastle was still 20 miles due N. We tacked back towards the coast. Swansea and Lake Macquarie was a possible intermediate stop though the quality of anchorage in the channel looked poor and the drawbridge and tidal constraints for getting into and out of Lake Macquarie would complicate the remainder of the trip up to Newcastle. Because Swansea is a shallow bar, one can only enter or leave with small swell and a high tide. The bridge, of course, has its own schedule.

So we ate lunch, well seasoned with hypothetical time/distance calculations. Just after we convinced ourselves that a nighttime entry into Newcastle would be OK, in fact, preferrable to dwaddling around Swansea, the wind picked up and soon we had a steady 12 knot breeze out of the north. Since we were in the lee of the coast which tended NE, conditions were ideal and ES skipped along at 9 knots, hard on the wind. We had crossed tacks about two cables behind a mono on our way toward shore, and I noticed another, very tall rig, on the same tack as us but further south. A race.

The tack towards shore kept lifting (allowing a course more directly toward where we wanted to go) us so we decided to stick with it until the depth hit 30 metres. We were trimmed as best I could manage but the rig in the south kept growing taller and taller. It looked like it had fancy racing sails. In fact, the jib was almost transparent. Aha! In fact, there was no jib. The cowardly enemy boat was motorsailing.

Feh! We tacked to seaward in disgust, going in search of prey that was at least sailing, leaving the 60-foot Beneteau (or whatever) wallowing in its own diesel exhaust. The other boat was a speck on the eastern horizon too far off to judge how we were doing, particularly given the change in wind direction. Nothing to do but drive as smoothly as possible, keeping the jib telltales flying just so while easing us through the waves. The winds were still 10 - 12 knots and the next hour found us 8.5 miles further to the NE with the first sailboat now on the same tack (port) and dead ahead.

Meanwhile, the cowardly enemy boat, having motored well to the windward of us, suddenly flashed out a jib. No honor whatsoever, as he could sail a much lower course, potentially going faster, and appearing to "beat" us. Gradually (sailing is really slow), the line to boat ahead of us moved from dead ahead towards starboard bow: we were climbing higher and sailing faster! At the same time, the sight line to the cowardly enemy behind moved steadily towards the stern. After chasing for an hour, the big boat gave up, furled the jib and fired up the motor again.

Having passed the (honorable) boat about 100 metres to the windward, we lined up the last tack for Nobbies Head through the ore carriers anchored off Newcastle and raced the setting sun for the harbour. A pod of dolphins came to check us out, and fat-bodied albatross-like birds dive-bombed for fish. We were badly beaten. The sun set while we were still a few miles from the entrance - not entirely a bad thing as it was much easier to pick out the lights marking the channel. Newcastle, being a major shipping port, is very well lit.

We decided to sail in because it would give us right of way over the fishing fleet on the way out (yeah right). And besides, the harbour was U-shaped, ideal for coming head to wind to drop sails. And it was going well right up until I realized that the navigation lights I was trying to figure out were actually moving, slowly and ponderously, right toward us. If the three tugboats in attendance weren't a surefire indication, we had a definite case of "vessel constrained by draft" approaching and hence a loss of the right of way we had been enjoying. Fortunately, we were toward the right side of the channel, where we were supposed to be.

We did start the engines, due to cowardice and because I figured that the pilot would notice the switch from tricolor to steaming lights and take it as a sign that we were awake and did not plan on contesting the channel. Seemed to work as we got to our berth without incurring any wrathful toots.

Newcastle

Newcastle is a delightful dose of civilization where we can tie up the boat and forage for food and used books. Searching for a grocery store in Sydney, we frequently wandered through acres of tony coastal suburbs which appeared to lack the basic ingredients of life: no sign of food, in fact no sign of any sort of commerce, just empty houses. In an odd sort of way, ours mirrored the experience of the early colonists exploring the "uninhabitable" bush.

Newcastle, still recovering from the loss of its steel industry is just the right combination of burly working port, and trendy urban oasis.

One sunny day with light NW'ly (ie. offshore) winds I got Karin to dingy me a mile or so across the harbor so that I could walk across Nobbies Head to the surf break on the other side. The break, remarkably unpopulated on such a nice day, was a rocky reef, almost submerged in beach sand. The left was just a drop and bottom turn but the right could really wall up under the right circumstances. I pursued such circumstances avidly until wind chill and the scheduled dingy pick up time put an end to the session. Life is good.

There are an abundance of used book stores in town. I found an old dog-eared copy of The Bafut Beagles, one of the few books by Gerald Durrell that I haven't read. It turns out that the proprietor of the used book store used to be a Volvo salesman on Jersey, the English Channel Island on which Durrell founded his zoo. He even went so far as to allege that he had sold Gerry a Volvo. Since Karin grabbed Beagles before I could get to it, I had to content myself with a not quite so dog eared copy of The Island of Lost Maps (Miles Harvey). Ironically enough, it was a draft "reader's edition" which was missing all the map illustrations. While the map metaphore grew increasingly strained as the book wore on, I did stumble across the following quote by Gaston Rébuffat, a boyhood idol of mine:

"In this modern age, very little remains that is real: night has been banished, so have the cold, the wind, and the stars."

Perhaps this trip really has been a long time in the making.

Experience Needed?

One of the more frequent questions, I get is: "How much sailing experience did you have before starting this?" People are usually somewhat taken aback when I reply: "very little." But it is true.

The very first thing to remember about experience is that it is both a matter of how much you have and how much you learned from it. Thirty years of sailing experience is only impressive if the posessor has been learning for the last twenty instead of clamping himself ever tighter to the things that he thought he learned in the first 10. Secondly, experience is a poor substitute for knowledge. Thousands of people have died in the service of figuring out all the stuff in Bowditch via firsthand experience, there's no need to duplicate their effort. The popular advice for learning to cruise, is to start with a small boat and gradually work up to larger and larger boats and longer and longer voyages until 20 years later you are a grizzled old salt. What a load of bunkum. If you're going to go cruising, there will come a day on which you slip the dock lines and sail out of the (safe) harbour by yourself for the first time. You can't sneak up on the experience.

Basic Coastal Navigation:
"If we're here, then what the hell is that?"

Advanced Coastal Navigation:
"All right, who moved the Broughton Islands?"
Much of what is commonly labeled as experience is really skill. For example, being able to take a quick glance at a chart and from it construct the expected eastern horizon (fx. pointy island, flashing white light (2 every 8 seconds), loom of small city, radio antenna, low flat island) in your mind can only be learned by trial and error. While theoretical knowlege of charts and horizons is essential, it is not sufficient. Fortunately, sailing is a slow process and allows time for a lot of practice.

With experience, rules such as "Don't leave the harbour if the winds are forcast to come above 20 knots" morphs gradually into "Be prepared to turn around if the winds are greater than 20 knots" which in turn evolves into a vastly more complex set of rules based on what sort of sailing is acceptable to the crew, expected weather, tidal flow, and how the bilge water tastes. While incrementalism is the name of the game, the rules don't require that the increments be small. Skipping levels is OK as long as you're prepared (in terms of knowlege). For example, jumping straight from 10-knot days to 20-knot days is OK as long as you know that the wind on a 20-knot day is 4 times as powerful as the wind on a 10 knot day and that fully developed seas in a 20 knot breeze will be close to 3 metres high, exciting, but not dangerous to an 10-metre boat unless some other factors such as current or shoal water come into play. And, of course, you would know that if "significant wave Height" is 3 metres then "maximum wave height" will be nearly 6, causing occasional breaking waves over harbour bars as deep 8 metres.

In my specific case, the following non-sailing experience seems to have come in handy:

  • familiarity with wilderness
    First and foremost, the ocean is a wilderness, and as such the best that can be hoped is that it is merely indifferent to our survival. It sounds simple, but modern "civilized" life is so heavily engineered for our success that being in a wilderness demands considerable mental adjustment. In wilderness you don't "just do" anything. All action is calculated risk, with contingencies, backup plans, and spare parts.

  • mountaineering
    In addition to taking place in a wilderness, mountaineering is an activity in which your life frequently depends on your equipment and your judgement of weather.

  • Topographic maps: orienteering
    While a topo map is quite different from a nautical chart, the mental trick of moving from 2D to 3D and establishing a position by multiple bearings is the same for both. Furthermore, on nautical chards "interesting" bits of land are usually described with contour lines.

  • cooking
    While it can backfire at sea, there's generally nothing that will improve morale and general well being as quickly as a tasty hot meal. Being able to cook, particularly, to improvise, has been a huge help.

  • surfing
    I can't think of a more remarkable transformation of preception than that brought about by my first year of surfing. Waves went from being a nondescript jumble at the edge of the ocean to a sensible environment with obvious pathways and obstructions. Fundamentally, surfing is the complement of sailing as it is preoccupied with everything that sailors seek avoid: breaking waves, no wind, large storms.

In all honesty, the activity that has, on occasion, has left me the most rattled in the past year is docking the boat. So to close, just a few points of advice that I do actually follow myself:

  1. Keep the theoretical model: separate engines, forward/reverse, wind pushing the boat like so, burning in your mind. Use the force.
  2. The mistake is always too much power. Be patient.
  3. Beware of the black hole: drifting sideways into an obstacle. To go upwind either the bow or stern (preferrable) has to be turned into the wind and that takes time and space.
  4. Make a clean transition between steering with the rudder, which requires boat speed to work, and steering with the engines which doesn't. When switching to engines, remember to center the helm so as not to be surprised later.
  5. Remember to breathe.

As I've said many times in the past 10 months: "Any docking you can walk away from is a good one."

Leaving

We were hoping for a mid-week (16 June or so) departure to Lord Howe and New Caledonia but the latest batch of weather downloads predict howling sou'westerlies, perfect for getting to Lord Howe, but awful for staying there, through the end of the week so we're waiting until the situation clarifies.

Not having any sunset pictures from Newcastle, we'll have to make do with this left over one from Sydney.

Yachtie Details

Newcastle

After Sydney, Newcastle was such a relief. The marina was friendly, economical and just an easy walk from downtown. Showers, laundry, a nearby fisherman's coop, what more could a yachtie want?

Atlas

"It is full"

Karin says.

"Couldn't be, we just emptied the tanks yesterday."

Say I.

But I was wrong, so wrong. One more pump, just to feel if there really was unusual preassure:

"Ska-BLaAATZ"

Says the tank. And we all run around shreiking and swearing, some trying to approach the scene of the disaster some to escape it and yours truly doing both.

It was bad. Most of us are blessed in not to have to do with anything "icky" much beyond the toilet. (Icky in quotes is, of course, an ironic reference to the great feminine ick, the perfectly manicured teasing mousketeer head cheerleader peanut butter saleswoman that won't give you the time of day sort of ick, which it gives this author a delicious and pervy frisson to employ in this context. Also, it delays the actual thing in itself icky part.) Some are not so fortunate, myself, newly among them.

"Do you knot that most vitamins don't digest? We have a special strainer that we clean out every day. Piles of one-a-day pills. Really..."

Not now Charlie. But Charlie, as always, is unsupressable and rants on at a suitably horrified Annette on about municipal sewage treatment while I sponge away.

And everything was going so well... I rang Steve who gave me the number of the tank manufacturer, Atlas Tanks (so now you know that this story is either going to be very good or very bad), and I phoned them up. The voice on the other end, was not attached to the name Steve had given me, but to Graham Leonard, the guy who had purchased Atlas Tanks from the founder. Right. This is pretty much the nadir of my boating experience. I was explaining the situation to Graham (just pro forma as there was no way I was going to get any help) and starting to think of how to sell a boat with one slightly leaky holding tank when Graham suddenly started spouting the most utter nonsense:

"Well, even though your tank predates my involvement in the business, I take the quality of an Atlas product very seriously..."

Unbelievable. Graham suggested a temporary repair strategy using my soldering iron as a polypropylene welder and made arrangements to meet us in Newcastle where he would fix the tank properly with a real polypropylene welder. And he did.

So if there is any justice in the world, Graham will get a holding tank contract from the entire US Navy, or some other organization of similar size, digestive throughput, and reckless disregard for budgetary constraint.

Oil Changes

Just did my fourth oil change and I'm getting it down to a science. The trick with oil changes is not changing the oil per-se, it is cleaning up afterwards (or mimizing the need to do so).

  1. Run the engines for a bit to warm up the oil. This makes it much easier to pump.
  2. Remove dipstick (wipe carefully)
  3. Insert hose into dipstick hole. I use a drill powered pump which I keep in a plastic bag. A 14.4 volt Makita provides the power.
  4. Insert other end of pump hose in a leftover 2-litre bottle. Juice bottles are preferrable to milk because they are much less stinky.
  5. Pump out the oil. This a little tricky because you need to hold the drill pump with one hand while using the other two to marshall the various hoses. Failure to hold the drill pump securely will allow the drill to spin the whole pump, pulling oily hoses out of oily receptacles and slinging oil everywhere. Fortunately, you can swear really loudly without it carrying too far out of the engine room.
  6. After the oil has been pumped out, put the output tube into a second 2-litre bottle and cap the first.
  7. Pull the hose out of the dipstick hole through a rag so as to clean the outside, and then place it into a bucket of bilge cleaner.
  8. Pump half a litre of bilge cleaner through the pump to clean it, then return the pump to its bag.
  9. Take a strip of oil absorbent mat (some people use a disposable diaper) and position it under the filter.
  10. Remove the new filter from the box.
  11. Unscrew the old filter, dump it into the new filter box, and knot a plastic bag around the whole mess before tossing into the general trash bag.
  12. Lubricate the seal on the new filter with some of the spillage and screw it on.
  13. Wipe up spilled oil with the absorbent pad. It can pay off to let it sit and soak up oil while you refill the engine.
  14. Refill engine. The top of a 2-litre bottle makes a great disposable funnel.
  15. Replace dipstick.
  16. Run engine, recheck oil level, top up if necessary.
  17. Using bilge cleaner (Super Green or some equivalent), sponge engine room clean. This is important because it makes it easy to see if oil is leaking or belts are shredding.

The net result is a happy diesel engine, a couple of bottles of waste oil and bilge water, and a bag of trash.

Because I have a fabulously redundant catamaran, I get to do this twice.