On the 3rd April I let go the mooring at Pittwater for the final time and pointed the bow north. The next chapter of the voyage had begun and it felt good to be on the move again. I was prepared for some tough sailing up the New South Wales coast and so it proved. Strong head currents, big swells, wind blowing out of the north for days on end, thunder storms and heavy squalls, dangerous river bar entrances and port to port distances too far to complete in daylight. Plenty to keep me occupied.
The first leg was an overnight sail to the large natural harbour of Port Stephens with progress aided by a gentle southerly breeze and to my pleasant surprise a weak north going tidal eddy right inshore. I didn’t feel very relaxed and was quite apprehensive about being at sea again. Despite having sailed many thousands of miles I quite often feel uncomfortable and lethargic at the start of a passage and this time particularly so despite it being relatively short. After 10/15 minute cat naps through the night and some weaving through a fleet of fishing trawlers I took Fathom through the entrance of Port Stephens at first light on the flood tide. Captain Cook discovered this place in May 1770 and commented “on the northern side of this point is an inlet that appeared to me from the north head to be sheltered from all winds.” He wasn’t wrong and I anchored Fathom off the beautiful Jimmy’s Beach in complete calm.
The weather turned with strong northerly winds pummelling the coast so I stayed put within the confines of this natural harbour over the next days. One night was spent on a free mooring off the largest settlement of Nelson and I took the opportunity to stretch the legs ashore and buy some fresh food. An enjoyable hike to the summit of Tomaree Head with beautiful panoramic views (photo below) and a visit to the local marine rescue station to see how it operated helped pass the time. Despite having paid a diver to clean Fathom’s hull less than two weeks previously it again looked foul so I spent four hours in the water one morning cleaning it off. The anti-fouling applied in Tonga appeared to have given up so a haul out required further up the coast unfortunately. I spontaneously decided to cut my hair one morning and with not much material to work with these days it didn’t take too long and wasn’t a complete disaster. No more visits to the barbers needed from now on! It was good to meet a couple of other yachts waiting to head north , Paul and Jenny on My Ruby and Chris and Neil on Tusitala and we studied weather forecasts together over cups of tea and coffee.
By the 9th April a short weather window appeared so I departed Port Stephens just before sunset that afternoon for an overnight sail to Camden Head. The south flowing East Australian Current (EAC) (see image) began to set in north of Seal Rocks but a 10-15 knot southerly breeze meant Fathom could maintain enough speed under sail and the engine wasn’t required. The Camden Head bar was crossed mid morning the next day without drama just before high water in convoy with four other yachts and I anchored Fathom up river in 5m water off the town of Laurelton. The local services club offers its facilities to visiting yachtsmen so it was great to use their showers, bar and make the most of their cheap eats. The town has an excellent bakery and butchers and the local hardware store filled up my gas bottles. A steep hike to the 490m summit of North Brother gave incredible views with Fathom a tiny dot swinging at anchor below in the river. Wherever I have sailed on this voyage I always enjoy the company of new friends and here was no exception. It was great to meet Bob and his crew Jacinta on Robara and Dave and Rosemary on Alfresco and catch up again with the My Ruby/Tusitala gang. A nice sociable time waiting for the next break in northerly winds.
Next stop after Laurelton was Coff’s Harbour, 85nm to the north, an all weather entrance as opposed to river bar. I hauled the anchor early morning on the 15th but the engine was needed for the remainder of the day as up to 2.5 knots of head current slowed progress. Overnight a southerly breeze filled in which thankfully provided enough propulsion and Coff’s was reached early morning after another night of 10/15 minute cat naps. I tried the anchorage outside the marina but it was too prone to swell and Fathom was rolling widely from side to side so a few days were spent on a pontoon inside waiting for the next batch of strong wind and waves to blow through. Nice to spend time again with Robara and Alfresco and meet inspirational sailors Phil And Di on their 28 footer Matira who spent 25 years circumnavigating the world and still live on board!
By the 19th it looked like there was another weather window to get north so just before sunset I headed out to sea for yet another overnight sail. It was frustrating that the distances were too far to sail in daylight but i’d much rather reach a destination in daylight rather than risk a night arrival at a river bar entrance. The bar at Yamba is renowned for becoming dangerous very quickly and I made the mistake of looking at some footage on youtube before I left of boats trying to enter in breaking waves. It was with a sigh of relief that I got over and inside the bar without drama on the morning of the 20th and anchored on the south of the river beside My Ruby and Tusitala. Paul picked me up in his dinghy and we all had a nice lunch ashore.
The forecast now showed an unstable airflow over the next few days before wind and swell got up further at the end of the week. Either we left tomorrow for the Gold Coast Seaway or risked being stuck at Yamba for a week or so. We all decided it was worth leaving despite the risk of thunderstorms and squalls. Only an hour after departing Yamba on the morning of 21st April the first squall cloud passed overhead with the wind rising from 15 knots to 30knots+. I used a combination of radar and the Bureau of Meteorology radar feed on their website to keep track of the storm clouds. It was like trying to dodge bullets as they roared up from the S.E. Mid morning a very active cell approached and there was nothing I could do to get out its path. I dropped the main sail completely and left a scrap of headsail out. As the cloud hit the wind smacked into Fathom peaking at 49.1 knots and blowing over 40 knots for several minutes, the highest windspeed experienced since leaving the UK . I don’t think I have ever seen rain as heavy it pretty much flattened the sea. I hid below as the Aries steering gear kept Fathom heading north. A bolt of lightning came down I estimate less than a mile to our starboard side which knocked out the depth sounder for several minutes. If there is one thing that gives me the heebie-geebies at sea it is lighting and the risk of all electrical equipment being knocked out and permanently damaged.
Conditions deteriorated further through the rest of the day and overnight with lumpy and confused seas especially off the aptly named Point Danger. Squall clouds still passed overhead from time to time and the wind maintained a steady 25-30 knots even though the forecast had only been for 15 knots. It was a horrible and uncomfortable night and the Bureau suddenly issued a strong wind warning. As the ‘border’ between New South Wales and Queensland was crossed the weather remarkably improved to such an extent that on approach to the Gold Coast Seaway at first light the skies cleared and Fathom was welcomed by a rainbow hanging over the skyscrapers of Surfers Paradise. It was a great relief to have won the battle with the East Australian Current and the treacherous NSW coastline and make it to the safety and comfort of the Gold Coast seaway. Over the following days it was fantastic to spend time again with Allison and William from m/v Esparanza who I first got to know back in November on my way south. They found me a free mooring, cooked me food and I thoroughly enjoyed their company. The highlight of our time together was surely visiting the ‘Fox & Hounds’ English pub with toad in the hole for lunch and a pint of ‘Old Speckled Hen’. Just like being at the local back home in the UK. Next up I sail Fathom up through the Broadwater and into Moreton Bay.