Sunday, November 19, 2017

Australia: The Last Leg

We departed Southport on the ebb tide hoping for a quick run down to Sydney in predicted light southerly winds. Unfortunately when we rounded the breakwater the wind was a steady 22 knots and higher, right on the nose. Our friends on Plastik Plankton who left just ahead of us took a starboard tack to get further offshore in an effort to clear well named Danger Point. We opted to motorsail directly into the wind hoping it would let up or change direction. At times we were making on 1.5 to 2 knots to weather, with large waves slamming into the hull. My hope was once we got closer to Danger Point the wind would shift and give us a better sailing angle, but it didn’t.  It took us over 10 hours to clear the point where we could ease off on our course and at least sail close hauled, not what we had hoped for on this final leg of our six year odyssey.
On our second day at sea the direction of the wind eased allowing us to sail close hauled towards our destination.
We opted to check into the Australian Marine Rescue Service coast stations as we worked our way south along the coast. A volunteer service, stations are placed about every 50 to 60 miles along the coast with volunteer staff who monitored both VHF radio and cell phones. We would check in and give them our ETA to the next station. If we didn’t check in to the following station by the appointed time we would get hailed on VHF radio or a cellular phone call. If there were an issue, each station has a high speed rescue craft (usually inflatable RIBS) that can respond quickly to any emergency. I have to say this gave us tremendous peace of mind as we transited this very dangerous coast.

As we progressed further south the coast line moved more to the west allowing us a better sailing angle, finally to the point of some very enjoyable sailing as we approached the Pittwater area. We could see the lighthouse at Barrenjoey which guards the entrance to the Pittwater area. Think of Pittwater as a mini Puget Sound, with hundreds of miles of shoreline inside the protection of the coastal hills.

Weaving our way through the race boats in Pittwater. They race almost every day of the week here.
As we worked our way south towards our destination of Newport we were amazed at the number of boats, especially sailboats, out on the water on a Wednesday. We literally had to remember the racing/right of way rules as we weaved our way through a group of boats on the reaching leg of the race course. Soon the water was covered with moored boats, more than I’ve every seen in one place in my life. Luckily the guys from the brokerage came out in a small boat and guided us to our mooring buoy just off two major yacht clubs near Newport. 

It was a tremendous feeling knowing this was the last time (probably in our lives) that we would tie up to a mooring buoy and end a voyage. We’d had two overnights, so we were both very tired and had a quick dinner and then collapsed into bed with a great sense of relief that we had finally reached our destination. 
A typical house in the neighbors. Prices start at about $1,000,000 for waterfront views.
The next day we took the dingy into the small marina where our broker was located, met the office staff and got a quick 411 on the local area. We then walked about six blocks through a rather posh neighborhood (Newport is a very affluent area) to Barrenjoey Road, the main thoroughfare from Sydney to what are called The Northern Beaches (mainly Mona Vale, Newport, and Avalon). We were pleased to see lots of neat restaurants, bakeries, shops, and a great Coles grocery store. After a relaxing Thai lunch we stopped at a physiotherapy clinic where I signed up for some sessions to get my stiff knee back into shape. Next was a visit to Coles were Meryl stocked up on supplies, the bakery for fresh bread, the news agent to buy our Opal bus passes, and then a nice walk back to the boat.

On Friday our broker, Rod Waterhouse, took us on a cook’s tour of Newport and Mona Vale to check out the local marine chandlery, a storage place where we can offload stuff from the boat, and a neat restaurant complex called The Newport.

In subsequent days we rented a car from a local guy and secured a 4.5 square foot storage locker and began hauling loads of extraneous gear off the boat. We hope to sell most of it locally and ship the rest back to Bend, OR. 

My computer was still an issue so we took it up to the local Apple retailer but were told it was too old to work on. After exploring other options I decided to buy a refurbished unit from Apple in the US and have our friends the Ballews bring it with them the following week. Naturally just after I did this one repair shop I’d contacted online gave the email address of another repair guy in Melbourne who did motherboard level repairs. I talked with his Chinese wife, and later that day sent it via Express Mail to Melbourne and amazingly had it back with two days. The repair meant disabling one graphic chip, which means I can’t hook it up to an external monitor, but otherwise it works great.

Just a side note, it’s amazing in Australia how well stuff works, such as the Postal Service. They don’t want UPS to take over deliveries like in the US so they offer stellar service. When I shipped my package to Melbourne I received emails informing me of its location along the way. The bus service is similar. You buy an Opal Card (like a credit card), load money on it at any 7-11, and tap it on a reader as you get on and off the bus. No worries about carrying money or exact change. And it works on toll bridges, trains, etc. Most Americans are unaware how much we are falling behind other countries in areas such as transportation, airports, and mail delivery.
Meryl browsing at the Avalon Market.
There are beaches like this all the way along the coastline from Sydney northwards.
On Saturday Nov 19th we took the bus five miles north to the town of Avalon, which was hosting it’s once-a-year Market Day. There must of been over 500 booths and stalls selling everything under the sun. Meryl was in 7th heaven just browsing at all the clothing shops. Afterwards we went across the street to the Avalon beach where a gently surf was rolling in. All the public beaches have a specially built “swimming pool” area (usually made out of rock and facing the ocean so waves keep it filled with fresh water). It must be nice to swim in a protected area without having to worry about a Great White Shark having you for dinner.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Australia: Getting Accustom to Customs

We had spent a lot of time researching and planning our passage to Australia as we’d heard Australian Customs was one of the toughest in the world. Our plan was to sail from New Caledonia on a more southerly route to Coff’s Harbor, a smaller port north of Sydney with less strict Customs and BioSecurity. Unfortunately with the storm coming out of the south we had no choice but to sail a more direct westerly route into Southport. The problem was that Southport’s Custom’s, Immigrations, and BioSecurity people were headquartered in Brisbane, well known as one of the strictest ports on the coast.

Soon after we arrived at the luxurious Southport Yacht Club, Australian Customs showed up. They were very professional and checked us in with minimum hassle. Since we still weren’t 100% sure we were going to sell the boat in Australia, we deferred on importing the boat at that time. Next was BioSecurity. Think of yellow hazmat suites. They were the ones we were most concerned with since they had a reputation of confiscating various foodstuffs and other items. We got a senior offical with two trainees, not a good sign. They were also very professional, but when they snapped on their latex gloves and got out their CSI lab kits, we knew we were in trouble. First they went through our fridge and food storage area, confiscating some fruit, vegetables, and other items. 

Next was the bug hunt. For the trainees, eager to make a good impression on their boss, our boat was Nirvana. Flying Cloud was a Taiwanese-constructed boat full of teak and other wood, which could be home to any number of nefarious beasts. They looked in every compartment on the boat, taking samples with their tweezers and putting them into little glass vials. They were mainly concerned with termites, looking for telltale sign called frass,  and God knows what was in our boat after visiting over 20 tropical countries. They got all excited when they found a small bit of yellow powder in a corner, until we told them that was left over from sanding the yellow glue that held on our old headliner. They said a more experienced officer would need to come the next day for a more thorough inspection. Ugh.
The crew from Plastik Plankton: Kathi and Wolfgang (Wolfie).
On the plus side, we loved Southport. Part of the famous Gold Coast of Australia, it featured endless white sand beaches, mountain range sized condominiums, and great restaurants. It was quite the culture shock after our time in stone-age Vanuatu. We finally got off the boat and walked down the street a bit where we met Kathi and Wolfgang from Plastik Plankton for a delicious fish and chips dinner. 
This is delicious, expensive food that Australia deemed "to dangerous for entry." Off to the trash bin.
The next day the A-team from BioSecurity showed up, a senior agent and another trainee. They also took the boat apart, taking various samples of whatever in their little glass vials. These would go to the lab for analysis, and they said depending on what the lab found, they might need to bring down the termite dogs later in the week. Double ugh. On top of everything else, they never looked at the bottom paint that I had painstakingly cleaned while in New Caledonia. Since a rare southbound weather window was opening the next day, we were greatly concerned we’d have to stay in quarantine in Southport, but they gave us permission to head south. The irony of all this is we never heard back from them, despite several emails to their office. Apparently we came out clean on the inspection.

On Nov. 11th we took the bus with Plastik Plankton over to the Australia Fair Mall, about four miles to the west. I spent most of the time trying to get my new SIM card working (turns out they never took out my old US SIM card) while Meryl and Kathi went grocery shopping. Again, very weird to be in a big fancy shopping mall after our experiences in Vanuatu. 

While we would have liked to stay much longer to explore Southport and the Gold Coast, we had to get ready to depart at 11:00 am the next day (to catch the outgoing tide) for our three-day sail to Pittwater, just north of Sydney.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

New Caledonia to Australia: A Tough Passage

As mentioned in our previous blog, we were in an quandary about our weather window from New Caledonia to Australia. Normally a six-day, 906 mile passage, our routing was complicated by an low gathering strength south of Sydney and predicted to head north up the Australian coast just about when we were schedule to arrive in Southport. All the other days looked fine, from light wind to 14 knots, but the the last two days were questionable. All three weather (computer) models disagreed, but one said winds could be southeasterly in the 25 gusting to 35 knot range. We agreed with our weather forecaster that if it looked like heavy winds were developing, we would take a more southerly course to try and “get below” the 9- to 12-foot waves and sail a more downwind course back up to Southport.

Ironically, as we departed Nge Island just west of Noumea, the wind was very light — in the 7 to 8 knot range — causing us to alternate between sailing and motor sailing. We had a full tank of fuel, but obviously wanted to minimize the amount of motor sailing we did.

While the weather was OK, Meryl had a sore throat that was getting worse as time progressed. By Day 3, I was also feeling a scratchy throat and a cold that was quickly going straight to my lungs.  While Meryl’s cold slowly progressed, mine took off like wildfire and I was coughing, fighting an excruciating headache, and having flu-like symptoms. Our routine quickly became me sleeping all the time I wasn’t needed on watch. I had no appetite and generally felt miserable. 

But the weather Gods didn’t care and over the days the wind increased. We decided to start sailing a lower, more southerly course to get below Southport so we could ride the heavier wind/waves more downwind and back to Southport during the last two days. That also meant sailing closer to the wind on a close hauled course, normally not a lot of fun during an ocean passage.

Out for the count.
In preparation for the stronger winds, I had to go up on deck and help Meryl jibe the boat. This meant bringing the preventer around to the other side, rolling up the genoa (ours won’t jibe or tack since the roller furling staysail is in the gap), and other adjustments. While normally a simple job, I had to rerun the preventer line three times since I was so sick I couldn’t think straight, and just keeping my balance on the rolling deck was a challenge. I almost fell overboard at least three times. Very scary stuff. After that I immediately went to bed and slept three straight hours until Meryl’s shift was up. I don’t think I’ve ever gone five days with no food, but I had absolutely no appetite. And of course, since we were selling the boat, we just wanted to get us and the boat to Australia in one piece. We’d suffered damage to the rig and sails in other storms and  we didn’t have the energy to deal with damage control in our current condition. I had to depend on Meryl for just about everything and she did a great job of filling in with the stuff I’d normally do.

A secondary concern was that almost all of the ports on the east coast of Australia are river bars, which meant that large southeasterly or easterly waves could easily shut down the entrance to the port. Luckily our friends Kathi and Wolfgang on Plastik Plankton had just cleared the entrance to Southport in similar conditions, and while it wasn’t fun, they did say it was doable. That gave me a huge sigh of relief since the idea of heaving to outside the bar in heavy waves was not something I looked forward to.

The storm trysail worked perfectly in the heavier winds and seas. Like we were out for a Sunday sail.
When we originally bought the boat six years ago I had a storm trysail made by Neil Pryde Lofts in Thailand. The sales guy said you’ll probably never use this sail, but if you need to, you’ll be very glad you have it. By Day 4, with the winds predicted to increase to a steady 22 knots plus, we decided to lower the main sail (which has only two reef points) and hoist the storm trysail. It sits in a bag at the base of the mast and has it’s own sail track. Since we’d only hoisted it once at the dock, we weren’t totally sure how to rig it. Turns out it was very simple to attach snatch blocks to the aft mooring cleats with Dyneema loops and run the sheets through the blocks and back to the big sheet winches in the cabin. The sail is bright orange and made of 9 oz. sailcloth, the equivalent of a sheet of plywood. It set beautifully and even with the winds hitting 25 to 30 knots, the boat was totally under control. I so wish we would have used this sail when we got caught in the storm off Tonga. We also flew our staysail so we had total control of the boat in the heavier winds, with a boat speed of about six knots. What a relief to not have to worry about the main sail getting trashed in the heavier winds.

We were now sailing close hauled trying to get far enough south to ensure a downwind  entrance into Southport. In retrospect we probably could have just maintained our rhumb line and gotten in a day earlier, but we had little experience with the storm trysail and didn’t know what to expect.

By Day 6 we were predicted to get in to Southport at around 9:00 pm. I didn’t want to enter a narrow pass at night in an unfamiliar area, so we decided to see how the boat would heave to (a method of slowing the boat down with little forward movement). We had tried it before with our mainsail, but it was too big to balance with either the genoa or staysail, so we tried it again with the smaller storm trysail and it balanced perfectly, even though we were more forereaching than heaving to. In forereaching the boat makes very slow progress to windward, although it is still sailing, where in heaving- to you are more stalling out the boat while pointed just off the wind. All of a sudden the boat became calmer and life was more livable down below without the constant banging of the waves against the forward hull.

Our new vinyl side curtains kept the breaking waves from dousing the cockpit. This was especially disconcerting when you were on night watch and had just put on your last pair of warm clothes and a big wave crashes over the side.
We both relaxed and slept, checking for boat traffic and AIS targets about every 20 minutes. Another huge change on this passage was we had our new vinyl side panels installed, meaning waves could no longer roll up the sides of the boat and be blown into the cockpit soaking us with salt water. The temperatures at night were definitely cooler now that we were further south, so it was a huge advantage for us on this passage.

Land Ho! The towering condos of Australia's Gold Coast.

I don't know if you can tell by our expressions, but it was sheer relief to have just sailed 17,000 miles, across two oceans and numerous seas over a six-year period, and having made it alive.
We were also now running downwind which added to the comfort level. By daybreak we could see the towering condominiums of Australia’s famous Gold Coast and eventually picked out the narrow pass leading into a vast inland waterway/canal system typical of this part of Australia. As we approached Southport we could see waves breaking against the south side of the breakwater, but they didn’t look like they would be a big issue. We contacted Marine Rescue Southport and they advised us to stay mid channel since a shoal was developing on the normally deeper north side of the channel. We got a little ride surfing in as we rounded the breakwater but nothing that Flying Cloud couldn’t easily handle.
We have never  been so happy to be tied up to a dock with the realization that we were finally safe and back in civilization.
We were so relieved  when we finally round the corner of the pass and sailed into the relatively calm (although still very windy) waters of the inside passage. Now the only thing we had to deal with was tying up at the dock and of course Australian Customs and Immigration.  More on that in the next blog post.