Lord Howe Island

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Sailing to Lord Howe Island

Our theory, was to wait for a southerly or southwesterly change in the weather which would be indicative of a passing cold front. By following the front east we should be able to profit from a couple of days of ideal running or beam reaching conditions. Hopefully, time enough to get to Lord Howe Island, where we could wait for the next weather system for moving east and north to New Caledonia. It sounds entirely sensible, but I suspect any theory of winter weather in the Tasman Sea is akin to a theory of crossing a 4-lane freeway in a soap box racer.

Deeply in touch with my most atavistic inner primitive mammal scurrying beady eyed with fright from shelter to shelter, I was nervous the whole trip.

Day 1 - Monday

On Sunday, 20 June, all weather forecasts looked like what we wanted and the vigorous westerly winds we were experiencing were forecast to ease to shift to SW on Monday. Monday morning we did the did the last bit of shopping, settled our marina account and met customs at 10:30 to complete the check out formalities. We made sail at 11am and ran with the brisk westerly wind under main and jib until 2 at which time it became clear (we were pointing at the beach) that the wind was shifting to SW and easing. We jibed and put up the kite, blasting along at 10 knots until sunset when the wind picked up a bit and quashed any silly ideas we (well I) might have been harbouring about flying the kite all night.

We did carry full main until Karin woke me at 1am having seen gusts as high as 17 knots in a squall. The woman is a wind magnet. I stay on watch an extra hour so that she can catch a bit more rest, hand over the watch and no sooner does my head hit the pillow than she's shaking me awake, shouting something about needing to reef over the wind which is making that ugly howling noise in the rigging. We snubbed the main halyard around the winch pedestal and cranked home the first reef without rounding up. Karin drove another few hours and then I took over the early morning watch, reading Burn Rate and listening to ES bash and surf through the unruly cross swell, zsscht - 11 knots, Zssschhhhh - 14 knots, zzsSSSSCCHHHHHHHTTTTT - 17 knots. A whole litany of now familiar noises: the creaking of the boom, the sharp twang of the jib sheets, the slapping of the jack lines and every 20 minutes the "b-b-b-beep, b-b-b-beep" of the egg timer that we use to remind ourselves to check the horzon.

Day 2 - Tuesday

Dawn found us far out to sea in some sort of rapidly shifting fairytale landscape of waves and clouds. One minute it would be sunny and we'd be out admiring the rainbows and in the twinkling of an eye a squall would hit and we'd be huddled back in the cabin eyeing the wind speed nervously and watching the slate coloured waves build.

The Abel Tasman Weight Loss Regimen (Eat all you want!) had a few new subscribers.

On the positive side, We had averaged better than 9 knots for most of the night. Not exactly restful, but we were well on our way to making a two-day trip.

In the afternoon, winds dropped off into the 5 - 8 range giving us a nice break but effectively killing our chances of a 2-day trip. Since daylight is required for entry into the lagoon, we had an additional 6 hours over the two-day mark in which to make it in. The afternoon's light air and the promise of more to come suggested that we were not going to make it. It did not seem to be worth carrying full main all night, risking a repeat of the first night's squally drama (little sleep) only to miss the deadline by a couple of hours. We put in the first reef and had an easy (ier?) night than the first.

Day 3 - Wednesday

The wind stayed light, mostly out of the south, all night long dropping off towards morning. We motored and sailed in fits and starts all day.

Along the coast of Australia, the barometer seemed to follow the weather charts pretty closely. Here, in the middle of the Tasman, the barograph seemed to bear only the most cursory resemblance to what was on the chart. I realized, that, statistically, almost no one cares about isobars in the middle of the ocean and there's basically zero feedback. What you see on a weather chart is just an educated guess.

Late in the afternoon, about 55 miles from Lord Howe we sighted the top of mount Gower. A NE wind started to fill in at around 6pm so we put in the 2nd reef as we hadn't far to go. Even with the second reef in and close hauled ES was too fast, making 6 - 8 knots in a breeze of 10 - 15.

I had just turned in (again!) when Karin woke me about some lights astern. It was a large motor boat, evidently heading straight for us. I stared at it with the binoculars until it became really apparent that they were either on a collision course or determined to intercept us. When I went to hail them on the radio - "Eastbound motor vessel, this is Endless Summer, the sailboat, to your east, what are your intentions?" - I noticed that the volume had been turned down. It was the Australian customs patrol boat "Corio Bay." They had tried to raise us earlier, but we hadn't responded. They were quite apologetic about disturbing us and went away after collecting our particulars.

The wind continued to build and even with the second reef in we were still making 8 knots. At around 3 am, we hove to about 5 miles due west of Lord Howe Island. Heaving to is a way of parking a sailboat by tacking without releasing the jib. The jib and main, driving in opposite directions, cancel each other out. It was a little spooky as the night was moonless and there were no lights visible on the island, just a vague darkness on the eastern horizon. With the NE'ly blowing about 15 - 20 knots, it was surprisingly comfortable hove to. ES moved east at about 1 knot, and, after some initial adjustment of the main sheet we were completely stable.

At dawn, Lord Howe island materialized out of the gloom on the eastern horizon like the improbable set of an old monster movie. It is such an abrupt departure from the surrounding ocean that one continuously finds oneself gaping at it, even days after arriving there.

Bright and early, we contacted "Lord Howe Maritime" on VHF channel 12 and Clive Wilson, the harbourmaster, guided us through the north passage to a mooring. I think that he was a little nervous about us as I'd owlishly asserted that I was hove to "east of the island" when I meant "west of the island" when first raising him on the radio.

Trip Statistics

great circle miles370
log miles440
time2 days, 20 hours
average boat speed6.4 knots
average speed5.4 knots

Exploring Lord Howe Island

After making a big brekkie to celebrate our arrival, we dingied over to the boat ramp and went in search of Wilson's Bike hire where we could pay our port dues. We turned the wrong way, and wound up at Arajilla resort where Bill Shead promptly invited us to morning tea. Bill has a cat of his own, Cut Loose, which was currently in Gladstone having just finished 3rd in April's Brisbane to Gladstone race. I had swapped emails with Bill about visiting Lord Howe on the way to New Caledonia and he was positive about the idea.

Having missed the 10 - noon slot at the harbour master/bicycle rental shack, we ate lunch at Humpty Micks, "downtown" and walked to the museum. The museum devoted a whole room to the recent stranding of the HMS Nottingham on Wolf Rocks. Wolf rocks are dead obvious and in an area of the chart that should make a prudent navigator squeamish. It is hard to imagine any excuse for hitting them but I'm willing to bet that someone was looking at a fancy chart plotter instead of out the window. The Wolf was the first ship to run aground on the rocks. The second ship to run aground gets no naming rights, just a court martial for the captain.

We met the Wilson in charge of bicycle rental and collecting harbour dues and rented bicycles for all at six bucks a day. She gave us a key to the facilities without deposit. The Wilsons, one of original settlers on the island, are quite prolific.

Newly mobile, we ventured down the island to the Met Office next to the airport where we relieved the duty officer of a half hour's boredome in exchange for the latest weather information.

The next day, we found a room at the Oceanview Lodge right across from the jetty and proceded to abandon ship with unseemly haste. Anchorage in the lagoon is an improvement only relative to the raw Tasman Sea. As soon as that memory fades, the lagoon becomes vile.

Flora and Fauna

Somewhat like a Palo Alto kindergarten class, virtually every animal on Lord Howe is endemic, endangered, unique, or at very least, multiply talented.

Lord Howe is also the only home of the Kentia palm which is heavily cultivated on the island. So to hear, most of the island's crop is purchased by a canny Dutch horticulturalist for resale (at a, no doubt, substantial mark up) world wide.

The impact of human fauna is limited because the island limits itself to just 390 tourist beds.

Mount Gower

At 875 metres, almost 3000 feet, Mount Gower looms over the island like a jungled covered El Capitan. That sucker is steep. While it can be climbed independently, a guide is recommended as the trail is difficult to follow in places. We booked a tour for Monday, weather be damned.

Monday morning, bright and early we met our group and Dean "Ocker" in the role of sober responsible guide with Mark "something derogatory I forgot" as his garrulous, cigarette smoking sidekick. Mark immediately made it clear that the record round trip was well under the two hour mark and that he himself had recently made the trip in three hours and change, pausing several times for a smoke. Mark also made it clear that his background as a jungle combat instructor made him ideally suited to guide worthless slobbering tourists (such as ourselves) up Mount Gower. Dean mentioned that he would be happy to answer any questions we might have during the rest stops, and that we should address all inquiries about island politics to Mark.

We strolled down the coast until the flank of Mount Lidgbird, falling sheer into the sea, made further progress along the shore impossible. A short climb of 200 metres straight up brought us to a grassy ledge which we followed around the east side of Lidgbird into the densely forested valley between Lidgbird and Gower.

We stopped for a snack at Erskine creek in the bottom of the valley. Mark smoked a couple of cigarettes and scanned the jungle anxiously for hostile movement. Oblivious to trip wires, dead falls and the simple pleasure of a cigarette before dying, the rest of us finished our trail mix and filled our water bottles.

From the creek, the climbing began in earnest, diagonalling up to the ridge above the saddle between Lidgbird and Gower, and, having attained the ridge following it straight up to the summit. If it wasn't covered in jungle, I doubt people would climb it, because it is really quite steep and the rock is poor quality igneous stuff. As it is there are fixed ropes to hang onto in several places, one so steep that we had to go one at a time.

Gradually the slope eased off and we followed the increasingly indistinct trail through the most amazing cloud forest to the top. The top is several acres of dense cloud forest criss crossed with ravines. Seldom higher than 4 metres, the palms and trees are covered with moss and miniature orchids and lots of other green stuff, presumably of interest to botanists.

We rambled through the could forest to a small clearing with a view of the island where we stopped for lunch and were duely inspected by the resident wood hens who crowded around like diffident customs inspectors. As they ate none of the proffered tidbits, it seems that curiosity (or perhaps just politeness) was their only reason for seeking us out.

Sailing Away

Important Signals

Like most nautical communication, these are equally applicable to navigation and courtship:

I am on fire and have dangerous cargo on board: keep well clear of me, or I am leaking dangerous cargo.
You are running into danger.
Stop carrying out your intentions and watch for my signals

I don't make this stuff up. There are international committees that concern themselves with this sort of thing. Honest.

Tuesday afternoon's visit to the met office, produced a bundle of print outs all pointing to exactly the sort of SW'ly conditions we wanted. We paid our bills, returned the bikes and arranged to host the Sail Aways for a "sundowner." Actually, it was already dark and as the tide was high and the wind was up, conditions were pretty vile, but the Sail Aways were still game for little socializing. They bundled into their foul weather gear and dingied through the three-foot chop to marvel at our relative (very relative) stability. A box of wine was broached, some beers distributed and we all (9 of us) packed into the main cabin and spent a very pleasant couple of hours swapping yarns. It turned out that one of the Sail Aways had seen us back in Sydney on one of the occasions that we moored in Bantry Bay. I hope that they weren't the boat that we beat from the rugby scrum at the Split bridge to the last mooring.

Like us, Sail Away planned to leave on Wednesday, but unlike us, they were going to be heading NW for Frasier Island. They'd probably have a day or so of hammering to the windward before the wind veered SE. Objectively seen, a rough start, but a piece of cake compared to the dingy ride back to their boat.

Yachtie Details

Lord Howe Island

"a winter cruise might be idyllic" says Allan Lucas (Cruising the New South Wales Coast), "but, don't count on it."

Picking the right weather for getting to Lord Howe is relatively easy, but staying there is another matter. The basic problem is that the lagoon, the only decent anchorage, is sheltered only by coral reef to the SW. With a high tide, the swell rolls right over the reef. A sou'westerly wind is actually OK as the wind will hold boats bow-to the swell, the killer is a N'ly wind and a SW swell which will hold you beam-to the swell. Since winter features more SW winds, it may actually be better than summer.

We had three advantages over Lucas:

  1. Cats are generally much more comfortable at anchor. Even with a beam swell of exactly the wrong wavelength, we tend to dampen out oscilations while a mono will gleefully roll through 90°.
  2. Our visit was during a neap tide and thus we had the best possible protection from the reef.
  3. By coming in winter (low season) we could reasonably hope to find a room for a few nights.

In our experience #3 was the most important.

As we were the only boat when we arrived there we got the primo mooring, just SE of Dawson's point. The mooring is a huge block of concrete, with a thick length of what looks to be 6" chain and a longer leader of wimpy 4" chain. Lifting the damn thing up to the deck was the most difficult part. We had to swap our usual roles: Karin drove and I tried to get a pin through the shackle with out inadvertently catching anything else.

I was actually a little worried about the shackle as I barely had time to screw it closed before a 25-knot bullet yanked the whole mess off the trampolines, but was too tired to do the right thing and either pull it up on deck again or snorkle it. As there was a solid looking set of bridal lines attached to the mooring, I made those fast to the front cleats as back-up. Good thing I did, because the shackle pin promptly fell out leaving us hanging on the cleats.

Stupid of me. Another lesson in doing everything 100% right most especially when one is tired. Ironically, I'd been thinking about getting a spare but hadn't seen one in any of the last half dozen or so chandleries I'd visited. Clive sold me a gargantuan steel D shackle for $18.

Mooring was $29/day, with a one-time port fee of $30 per person. A bargin, given the abundance of barbecues and the generally well-kept nature of the island.

VHF Channel 12 is sort of a local party line with everyone, most particularly the harbour master listening in.

The islanders observe a local time which is half an hour earlier than NSW. They are somewhat reticent about informing visitors of this, however.