New Caledonia to Australia – Part 2

Following the passing of the front, the wind and waves increased throughout the afternoon of the 7th December. I remained hove to through the rest of the day and night and by morning began sailing NW in 25 knots of wind. Felt very fatigued after no proper sleep in the last three days and couldn’t help but feel demoralised as the forecast was showing no improvement. Conditions were at their worst over the next couple of days and I spent the time mostly hove to. Winds peaked at 25-30 knots in the afternoons which wasn’t so much the problem more the seastate. Despite being outside the EAC the waves were very steep and confused and this made being onboard uncomfortable. Fathom handled everything superbly and I had no concerns about being unsafe yet without being able to make progress towards shore it was tough times indeed. I even resorted to having a couple of sips of rum one night in order to switch off enough to sleep for a few minutes! To try and perk myself up I wrote myself a mantra on the white board which I read everytime I felt properly pissed off. The Wind will moderate, The Seas will calm, The Sun will shine, Just give it some time.

 

By accident I come across an area of sea with a small eddy of north going current alongside the edge of the EAC. By heaving to on one tack for a few hours then the other for a few hours I realised I could hold position within a few miles which worked well and stopped Fathom being pushed too far NW. I contacted the weather forecaster on the afternoon of the 9th who suggested a plan B, give up on trying to cross the EAC for now and head north on a 350 mile detour to Bundaburg. Initially this new idea gave me some encouragement before I realised that such a big detour could end up being a huge mistake if the currents changed so decided to wait it out for Brisbane. I received an email from the marina to ask where I was and after updating them they informed me their offer of a cold beer had now turned into a six pack! I contacted the border force again and asked if I could anchor inside Moreton Bay to get some rest before proceeding up the Brisbane river to check in at the marina. After checking with their bosses they agreed. By this point Alex and David had reached Coffs harbour but continued to send me supportive messages and weather information – legends!

The forecast still showed big waves and wind for the following 48 hours so I had to be patient and not try and head to shore too early. It was great to read morale boosting emails from friends – thanks everyone that messaged. Fathom was knocked down to about 80 degrees on a couple of occasions by breaking waves (see video at bottom). I can’t imagine what the conditions would have been like in the middle of the EAC. I must have been tired because I couldn’t stop myself thinking about selling Fathom and ending the voyage in Australia. It gave me a lot of comfort to think i’d nearly finished the trip. By the 12th I felt that, at long last, conditions and the forecast were good enough to head to shore and I spent the day and following night sailing the 90 or so miles to Moreton Bay, slowing in the wee small hours so as not to arrive at the channel entrance until first light. Conditions were bad in the EAC but not as bad as I had faced already and improved massively once inside the 100m depth contour. As the sun rose I finally began to feel positive and encouraged again.

By mid morning on the 13th Fathom was about 10 miles into Moreton Bay motoring against current and short steep waves. I emailed the border force to let them know I was proceeding to the anchorage to rest as previously agreed. A short and firm email come straight back instructing me to proceed up the Brisbane river to the marina immediately and without delay. I was then met by a border force boat which came alongside and told me again to proceed to the marina, still about 20 miles and several hours away. They then spent the next five hours following Fathom a few boat lengths behind. What’s going on here I thought?

 

I reached the marina about 16.00 and waited for the customs to come aboard. Six armed officers approached and I was heavily questioned about why I had spent several days holding position at sea, why I diverted from Coff’s to Brisbane and why I asked to anchor in Moreton Bay before coming to the marina to check in. I realised that they suspected me of picking up something from another ship and trying to smuggle it into Australia. I was so tired it all felt surreal and a bit like a weird dream. They asked to see the chartplotter and Fathom’s track. The area I had ended up holding position in for several days was close to a seamount (underwater mountain) over which were confused seas and bad waves so I had put a waypoint over the seamount on the chartplotter to remind me it was there and stop me drifting too close. It just so happens I had chosen a skull and cross bones symbol for the waypoint so this needed explaining too…! Eventually they seemed satisfied that I was just a tired sailor in need of a cold beer and left. The quarantine officer then came aboard, didn’t find any creepy crawlies, took my fresh food, complimented me on coming so far and having a nice boat and left me alone. A very friendly Aussie couple on the next pontoon having watched all this play out invited me aboard for some food and wine and I could finally relax at last.

The next few days were spent recovering, sleeping and giving Fathom a good clean and tidy. The marina staff were very helpful and fulfilled their promise to give me a six pack of beer and also drove me to the local supermarket a couple of times so I could stock up on food. I decided to head towards the Gold Coast on the 17th and was up early having a coffee in the cockpit that morning when a voice from behind me on the pontoon said “excuse me sir, could you please step off the boat”. I turned round to see eight armed border force officers and two dogs. They told me they were not satisfied and wanted to search the boat again. For the next two hours they interrogated me, went through every nook and cranny on Fathom, the dogs went aboard and sniffed round and they even took up the floor and pushed camera probes around. I had to give them my mobile phone which was then plugged into a machine and everything on it downloaded. Eventually they told me, I sensed with a hint of disappointment, that all was ok and I was free to leave. I couldn’t help saying that they had told me that the first time! The worst part was probably that Fathom’s nice clean cabin was now covered in dog hairs.

 

So, 18 months and 16,200 miles after leaving England, Fathom and I have made it to Australia! And for anyone wondering, after catching up on some sleep, i’m not quite ready to end the voyage quite yet :-).




New Caledonia to Australia – Part 1

I set off from Noumea, New Caledonia on the 1st November bound for Coff’s Harbour on the east coast of Australia, 950 nautical miles to the SW. After sailing in the tropics for so long I was aware that this leg of the voyage could potentially be tougher as there was the possibility of hitting some bad weather from the south at some point. But the weather forecast, backed up by a professional forecaster in New Zealand, showed moderate E to SE winds and I hoped to make landfall in eight days time. Due to a history of drugs and people trafficking the Australian border force are very strict and I made sure I had emailed off the mandatory notice of arrival to them before leaving to ensure I wasn’t welcomed to the country by a $2,500 fine.

storm jib set as the front approaches (left of photo)

The first couple of days was good sailing and Fathom romped along under cruising chute in the daylight hours. My friends Alex and David on Bonavalette departed Noumea a few hours later and overtook on the second day. By day three I decided to ask the weather forecaster for an update as I could see on the long term forecast something stiring in the lower Tasman Sea a few days ahead. Sure enough an update was emailed back showing a cold front associated with a low pressure system sweeping up the east coast of Australia in a few days time and bringing with it a prolonged period of very strong S to SE winds. It was touch and go whether I could arrive in Coff’s Harbour before it hit. At this point I wasn’t overly concerned and decided to wait another 24 hours before making a decision on whether to divert to another entry port.

The following day it was clear that if I was to arrive in Coff’s Harbour I would have to meet the weather front at sea and then make landfall in the proceeding strong conditions. Despite Coff’s being an all weather entry I began to make enquiries about diverting to Brisbane, 200 miles to the north, but the more I read up on the approach and entry the more concerned I became. To clear in to Brisbane it is necessary to enter Moreton Bay through one of two narrow channels surrounded by shoal areas and rough seas, proceed more than 30 miles upwind across the bay to the entrance of the Brisbane river and then past the commercial ship docks six miles upstream to the Rivergate Marina. This would be simple in good weather and settled conditions but in strong winds and waves and when fatigued and sailing alone it would not be easy. After much tooing and froing I decided that despite the difficult entry the most sensible decision was to make landfall before the worst of the weather hit so peeled off from the Coff’s route and headed to Brisbane. I called the marina on the sat phone to let them know my intentions and they kindly said a cold beer would be waiting for me on arrival and wished me well. I notified Customs of my intended change of destination which they acknowledged. Alex and David already 150 miles ahead of me decided to press on to Coff’s.

It was the calm before the storm over the next couple days. The wind died and the engine was required to make progress westward but it was slow as Fathom encountered a head current. I started to become more and more tired and sleep was harder to come by as various scenarios kept playing round in my head. Every time I downloaded an updated weather forecast it showed higher winds and waves which would last for longer and arrive earlier. It was hard to find any positives. I realised that there was now no chance I could make landfall before the front hit. To make matters worse I still had to cross the EAC. This is band of south setting current which runs along the Australian coast at up to 4 knots and when up against 25 to 30 knots of southerly wind creates very steep messy seas and occasionally breaking waves. I suddenly felt extremely helpless as there was not one obvious solution to the situation I was in. I was caught in no mans land, hundreds of miles of open ocean astern and the dangerous sea conditions between me and the Australian coast. How on earth had I got myself in this situation when only a few days before there looked like a perfect weather window! The only seamanlike decision I could think of was to find an area outside of the strong southerly current to meet the weather front and bide my time by hoving to before conditions improved and I could cross the EAC safely without taking a big risk. On the evening of the 6th, 200 miles from the coast, I spotted a fishing trawler on the AIS and called them up for a chat, hoping they could give me some useful info on entering Brisbane in bad conditions. “I wouldn’t want to be in your position”, they replied, “friends of ours died when a fishing boat sank in similar conditions a couple of months ago at Bundaburg. Brisbane is not an easy entry when its blowing from the south, good luck, I don’t know what else to tell ya”. Certainly not the reassuring conversation I was looking for and I felt a whole lot worse afterwards.

I started making preparations for the weather front to hit during the early hours of the 7th December. The staysail was replaced with the storm jib, the first time I had hoisted this sail since leaving England and three reefs put in the mainsail. Lightning filled the sky to the south as the low pressure system spun up from the Tasman Sea and added to the feeling of apprehension. I tried to nap while waiting for the wind to back to the north as the front approached but couldn’t sleep so decided to list in the logbook what I thought would be the significant mile stones over the next days.

1. Windishift to the north (25 -30 knots)
2. Front hits – heavy rain & wind backs to S and builds. Waves build
3. Successful crossing of the EAC and big seas
4. Arrival and passage through Moreton Bay
5. Approach along Brisbane River and arrival at Rvergate Marina

It was fascinating watching the cloud formations during the morning as the front approached. At 2.30 in the afternoon a band of low lying cloud stretching from horizon to horizon consumed the sky and the front hit. I had already hove to and Fathom comfortably saw out the next hours as I stayed down below reading and trying to sleep while the wind howled in the rigging. Many birds filled the sky during the late afternoon and I stood in the companionway and watched them for some time, amused that they didn’t have a care in the world. At least I could now tick off the first two items from the list but knew that this was only the start and the worst was yet to come.