May 2001 : The ‘Terrible Tasman'



G’day from us here in warm and sunny Brisbane – deep midwinter Queensland style!

We got back to cruising life with a bump, rudely reminded of its frustrations when we tried to leave New Zealand. Just as we were ready to go, and having thought we understood the local weather patterns, a new and entirely different system developed to fox us, preventing us from getting away as planned. This is typical – but we had forgotten quite how frustrating it can be to do the ‘final’ food shop, the ‘final’ washing, fill up with water, say our goodbyes - only to find ourselves still there, eating up the food, wearing the clean clothes and drinking all the water – several times over.

Eventually, a small gap in the persistent strong northerlies appeared and we ventured out of Auckland. First a mere dozen miles or so to the beguiling island volcano of Rangitoto with friends Alison and Jess who came to see us off. The next day we set off northwards the 120 miles to Opua, motoring with no wind at all. We had planned to spend only a day or two in the Bay of Islands, but were delayed there too by more weather, including a gale which hit the anchorage two days after our arrival, causing choppiness of such violence that the bow was being plunged almost underwater every few minutes. Good not to be at sea for that, we thought.

It was not until the middle of the month that we finally left New Zealand. Because we are so often asked about our life at sea, I thought of writing snippets of this letter on a daily basis – initially with the idea of showing what a surprisingly uneventful, relaxing and sunny lifestyle we enjoy. However, it didn’t quite turn out like that.

Monday 14th A bright sunny morning. A forecast for settled weather across the Tasman from Bob McDavitt confirms our view that todays the day to leave. The morning spent taking on fuel and water, a really final food shop, and clearing out. NZ has a very good departure form for yachts going offshore, seeking all sorts of information about us should we need rescuing. The rather glum customs and immigration officer wishes us bon voyage, dourly warning that the northern tip of NZ is a graveyard for over-confident yachties! We get away at midday and while motoring through the Bay of Islands join a list of a dozen or more yachts reporting their departures to Des of Russell Radio. Des is an ancient NZ mariner and radio enthusiast who operates Russell Radio for the benefit of yachts approaching and departing from the north of New Zealand, providing a daily check-in and weather information service. The number of other yachts also leaving reinforces our view that there is a good weather window although no one else is actually going our way across the Tasman Sea to Australia. The others are all heading for Tonga, Fiji and New Caledonia. Without friends on this passage to chat to on the radio, we will be more lonely than usual. Out of the Bay into lumpyish seas and a flukey but sailable wind on the beam not bad at all. It feels strange to be embarking on a voyage of 1,300 miles after such a long lay-off from sailing and we feel almost nervous. No doubt it will take a day or so for us to get back into our usual ocean passage routines watches, meals, tea-time, happy hour, radio check-ins, etc.

Tuesday 15th Not a very nice night as we pass through a series of large squalls. Strangely (luckily for me) these all seem to occur during Chris watches. I get very little sleep anyway, always finding it hard to settle into the night watch system. Chris and I have our debate habitual at such times on the balance to be struck when sailing overnight, between sailing the boat actively at maximum efficiency involving lots of hideous graunching winch winding and much clattering heard below, or a quieter, more conducive to sleep, but possibly less efficient approach. Perdika is well into her groove what I think of as her willing horse mode resolutely forging her way through the waves, bow bobbing up and down, occasionally knocked off course, but always getting back on the straight and narrow. My last sight of NZ was at the end of my second watch at 4 am the flashing lights of Cape Reinga and North Cape with the faint shape of the latter in the moonlight. The squalls continue all night and into the morning, but mysteriously only when Chris is on watch! How does he do it? and why? This is not quite the weather we had expected, but we are making good progress a respectable 120 miles in the first 24 hours. The wind gets stronger and seas bigger all day. Chris gallantly takes the brunt of watches during a boisterous night. Normally we divide the night into four three hour watches, starting with mine at about 7pm. Obviously, with all the weather he attracts, Chris time is spent heroically battling the elements, pulling in sails, letting them out again, and hand-steering in fearsome windshifts under torrential rain. My watches, where nothing much seems to happen, involve not much more than regularly checking the course to make sure the automatic steering is doing its stuff, and scanning the horizon for shipping. In between I sit in the cockpit gazing vacantly into the darkness, listening to the radio or reading down below.

Wednesday 16th The weather quietens off during the morning. By midday we have made another 154 miles very good news. The bad news is that on todays weatherfax, a small low shown innocuously snuggled into the Great Australian Bight on Monday, has now turned into an enormous angry looking bullseye with an aggressive front streaking northwards to the top of Australia. With the weather systems invariably tracking west, there will be no avoiding it at some stage of our crossing. We consider calling in at Norfolk Island a potential refuge and make a course allowing for that possibility. A peaceful afternoon in dying wind and sunnier weather. By the evening, the wind has gone and we are motoring an easy night in prospect a chance to read. Chris has just finished Salman Rushdies Beneath her Feet and started The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood. Im reading Simon Singhs The Codebook which is excellent.

Thursday 17th After motoring all night we decide to give the engine a break and just sit becalmed in a gently undulating swell in the pleasant sunshine as always, quite eyrie to be becalmed mid-ocean. The mornings weatherfax shows the front has now become a more innocuous trough. Things would be quite pleasant were it not for the fact that I am suffering from extreme drowsiness and a sick headache possibly an allergic reaction to all the chunks of cheese I scoffed last night on watch! We decide against the detour to Norfolk Island after all. Although Chris had a yen to go there he had envisaged a meal out on his birthday tomorrow the anchoring is apparently not very secure and the advice is not to go except in settled weather not exactly what is being forecast for us. There could also be customs, immigration and quarantine issues to complicate matters.

We get going again at midday still motoring . The calm continues until the end of my first night watch at 10pm, when the wind suddenly kicks in quite strongly from the NW. Not a great direction for us but at least its wind and we get sailing again.

Friday 18th Chris birthday his second in a row at sea. The wind continues to blow strongly from the wrong direction, but it is sunny and we feel good. However, the early afternoon weatherfax shows the trough to have spawned a little low right in our path! We speculate with some bravado that this could provide a more exciting answer in future, to our most eagerly asked question: "Have you had any really bad weather". Although we have experienced a few episodes of quite heavy weather, never actually a full scale gale at sea. We feel a bit apprehensive. During the afternoon the weather gets more squally wet and frantic the wind seems to change direction and we wonder whether this might be it. The angle of heel is inconvenient to say the least. While cooking, everything keeps coming crashing out of any locker I open which makes me quite grumpy not ideal conditions for Chris birthday meal! However, things calm down again a bit on my watch. We tack to try for a better course, but at the moment cannot head anywhere near where we want to go. I sight only the second ship of the trip so far. Chris appears from below and decides to have a chat on the radio. He asks if they had seen us, to which the answer is a slightly unconvincing yes! The ship is apparently en route from Malaysia to New Zealand and has just come through the Great Barrier Reef.

Saturday 19th Unfortunately we stayed on that tack rather too long and find we can do much better than we had thought on the other. When we report in to Des this morning he advises that the front should pass us at lunchtime. Our morning weatherfax shows the low to have disappeared leaving us just with the trough. As we are receiving this information we are approaching an area of particularly murky looking cloud in an already solidly overcast sky. Visibility reduces dramatically, the heavens open and wind drops off before suddenly picking up to 20-25 knots. Our main worry is the possibility of encountering shipping, but we see nothing on the radar. This episode however lasts only about an hour before we are out the other side clear, sunny and windless. That seems to have been the trough, low or front whatever it calls itself a very damp squib indeed. After motoring on for the rest of the day without wind, we stop at sunset for a drink and evening meal stationary in the huge ocean our houseboat in the Tasman!

Sunday 20th= Wind from the south kicked in late last night giving us a brilliant beam reach - perfect sailing all night in 15-20 knots. This has continued all morning, gradually backing to the east by the evening when, after some procrastination, we put up the pole and started goosewinging. The mornings weatherfax showed a huge high dominating the Tasman hopefully for the foreseeable future. Another easy day. I am now reading Bill Brysons Down Under so funny I laugh out loud, and also dipping into the Queensland Lonely Planet starting to make plans, now it seems we might actually get to Australia we hope on Friday. We are over half way there now.

Monday 21st A busy night first it became preposterously rolly, so that neither of us got much sleep on our first off watch. We sighted two ships an unusually high concentration this must be a very busy stretch of ocean. The first passed by harmlessly, presumably on its way to NZ. The second very brightly lit appeared to be on some sort of manoevres presumably a fishing vessel - a very large one. It spent two or three hours roaming around in our vicinity before moving off. Next a white flashing light the like of which I had not seen before. I called Chris and having decided it must be a buoy, he tried contacting the fishing vessel for clues, but got no response to our radio call. Chris had to get me up later to help reef in strengthening winds rather a performance when goosewinged and poled out. The final watches were in torrential rain with wind and seas becoming ever more boisterous. Just when the visibility is at its lowest point, we identified a ship in our vicinity on the radar and called it up. Luckily it answered and, not having seen us, changed course. We got a misty sighting of him through the murk a few minutes later, passing down our side about three miles away. Des tells us, when we make our daily check-in that there is a low a few degrees above us heading our way, and advises us to get out of its way as fast as possible a bit worrying coming from the usually reassuring Des. We had sort of known about this low from the 72 hour forecast a couple of days ago, but rather dismissed it because it seemed to have disappeared from the next days forecast. Now here it is, as advertised. Lets hope it also goes away as advertised. Our 24 hour run at midday is 124 miles with 462 to go. By lunch time we have the mainsail down but are still making around 6 knots under a tiny gib. The sky clears all day and we assume we must be through the low but there is no sign of the wind decreasing or going round, and the pressure is not rising as it should which is worrying.

Tuesday 22nd Late last night the wind strengthened and the squalls started again. I found sleep impossible and started feeling rather desperate. Chris valiantly did a double night watch and I came up sometime after 4am. - straight into a violent lightening storm all around the boat - completely helpless - a sitting duck waiting to be struck very nasty. The lightening died away after about an hour to be followed by the most torrential downpour yet, and then winds coming from behind at 40 knots frequently gusting to 50 a real gale. This continued for some hours. Chris kept watch for ships on the radar and reported in to Des who told us we were right in the centre of the low and suggested we check in with him again later today! The skies gradually start clearing and the sun comes out, but the wind never falls below 30 40 knots. With angry waves of 5 metres, we are being constantly deluged 2 foot of water in the cockpit at one stage - our proud boast of an ever-dry cockpit is sadly belied. We cant interpret the weather system it is too rough to risk using the computer for faxes so we are losing the plot somewhat. The low has deepened rather than disappearing as forecast. At 4 pm Des thinks we have also had a front pass over us a double whammy? Maybe. He says it should calm down for us tomorrow SE 10-15 his usual prediction, but comforting! A tough day, but no real fears and nothing broken. It was even quite exhilarating surfing down waves at 11 knots just a bit scary not to be able to say when youve had enough and would like it switched off! Perdika was magnificent, and if we had to have a gale, the wind direction is exactly what we would have chosen.

Wednesday 23rd The wind did not start abating until midnight, leaving a lumpy sea. However, things improve all the time and by the afternoon it is a lovely sunny day with a gentle breeze and slight swell amazing the change in 24 hours. We manage to get a few wet clothes and towels dry, relax and even catch up on some sleep. We start planning our landfall at Scarborough Marina, the port of entry at Brisbane now only 217 miles away. By evening the wind is so light that we cant sail faster than 3 knots. A nice day but there is a hint of mackerel sky and the barometer has dropped. One forecast is talking of a trough off Brisbane . were not there yet.

Thursday 24th We motored all night under a clear and starry sky, but with an invisible horizon which I always find rather spooky, and lightening flashes a long way off. After an amazing red sunrise, we find ourselves approaching a vast and ominously powerful looking squall system complete with lightening bolts shooting downwards. The best lightening protection we can muster is to run a spare piece of anchor chain from the foot of the mast out into the water off the side deck to divert any strike and to hide all portable electronic gear in the oven. The squall arrives over us with torrential rain and a sudden windshift from NW5 to SW30. This lot only lasts for about half an hour and we reckon we are through the trough as we emerge out into clear sunny and calm weather again. Hopefully this is it only 95 miles to go now. We spoke too soon - after two or three windless hours, a 25 knot blast arrives suddenly out of a clear blue sky, right on the nose. Together in the cockpit, heeled hard over like weekend sailors out for an afternoons race on the Solent not necessarily what you feel like after the last 1200 miles and with the prospect of nearly 100 more Chris says "It had better be good, this Australia". On what may or may not be our final evening at sea we dine on Bubble & Squeak au Salami the menu dictated on the basis of consuming all items of food we suspect will be confiscated by Australian Quarantine. For my next trick I have to invent a dish for two using 10 eggs, a dozen or so onions, a couple of potatoes, popcorn and cloves. At around 9.30pm a faint loom appears on the horizon which we take to be Gold Coast Australia at last - about 70 miles off. However, it seems obvious that we will not make it in tomorrow with this wind against us, which is hugely disappointing. We are very keen to arrive now both worn out and ragged.

Friday 25th The wind continues strong and on the nose all night. We tack on my 14am watch, disheartened to find ourselves going slightly east. As we career along in the wrong direction in the pitch black, things take on a surreal air. I envisage us sailing vainly forever up and down the Australian coast unable to beat our way in to land, attacked at intervals by fronts, lows and troughs. However, just as I am thinking these despondent thoughts, the wind starts to shift and we find we can start to make a direct course at last. As the wind decreases we make full speed towards Brisbane sails and engine no messing about! We sight land at around 10am. A couple of hours later I sight what I take to be a torpedo streaking towards us. This turns out to be the first of a large fleet of athletic and welcoming dolphins to escort us in. At around 2pm we enter Moreton Bay. On first impression it seems unneccessarily large so large that we cant see across to where we are heading. It takes 6 hours of patient motoring to get to Scarborough Marina, where we will be officially cleared into Australia tomorrow. However, it grows on us, with its immense peacefulness and a glorious deep red sunset, and we actually enjoy our final few hours of this voyage. We think we detect a hint of mackerel sky, but what do we care - its champagne and a full night's sleep for us tonight!