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.
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.