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 :-).