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Sunday, July 18, 2010

Noumea to Coffs Harbour

That good old quote ‘it was the best of times, it was the worst of times’ was obviously written about this trip... I seem to recall writing some tripe in Noumea about the weather being nice and having a good feeling about this trip. The good feeling disappeared as we motored out of the harbour in the cold, wet, grey weather but I was living in hope that it would all be fine if I just stayed positive!

We had decent wind, however it seemed to be blowing straight from Coffs Harbour. Of course we can’t sail directly in to a head wind so our course, which in the past has sat right on the rhomb line, was up and down and all over the place. No, we weren’t hand-steering unsuccessfully as some have queried – we just couldn’t set a direct course! The swells were massive and it was cold; not a pleasant start. I also recall singing the praises of the sea sickness wristband that I wore on the trip from Fiji to Noumea. I don’t really want to take that back...let’s just suggest that if I hadn’t been wearing it maybe I would have thrown up 20 times instead of 10. In the end I was eating simply so I had something in my stomach to get rid of an hour later. Eventually Stu insisted I take a tablet and I zonked out for about 12 hours while Stu treated that time as if he was single-handing. I felt terrible when I eventually came to and realised that I had been sleeping for so long – I was convinced that I’d only had my two hours sleep and was ready to do my next watch. It was worth it though as I felt 100% better and was able to function much more successfully.

Within a day or two the weather improved – the wind eased, the sun came out and we were back to shorts and t-shirts, enjoying sitting in sun in the cockpit with a book. You can have too much of a good thing, however, and in this case the weather calmed until we had no wind. The water was flat – not even a ripple at times, and definitely not enough wind to give us our planned 120 miles per day (we work on that number but generally do a bit more) to get us to Coffs in 6 or 7 days. We were making very slow progress of 60 or 70 miles a day, and one day we only achieved 44 miles. A couple of nights we took the sails down and drifted – there was no point exhausting ourselves even more by sitting up and trying to steer all night when we were only making 1.5 – 2 knots.

At least, I hear you say, we had the autohelm fixed in Noumea. At least that was working! Yes – the autohelm worked perfectly well for the entire trip. Unfortunately by day four the engine didn’t....which meant that we couldn’t run it to charge the batteries....which meant that we didn’t have enough power to run the now-working autohelm.... You guessed it – hand steering! How frustrating to know that the autohelm worked perfectly but we couldn’t use it! On top of that, the inability to charge batteries meant that we needed to conserve the power that we had in order to run the chart plotter when we got close to Coffs to navigate the approach and entry to the harbour and marina. This meant that we had to turn everything off so we had no autohelm, chart plotter, navigation lights (or lights of any kind) or fridge and had minimal water pressure, VHF use, bilge pump, etc. Obviously we could flick the batteries on in order to have short stints of power to enable us to cook and to get water, etc, but the power hungry things were kept off. Where we would usually have the chart plotter on showing us our position and course (follow the pink line – easy!!) we now had to mark our position on the paper chart using a handheld GPS. Not a major inconvenience, but I have to admit that I like to see the little picture of the boat and our course on the chart plotter – it’s like proof that we’re actually ‘somewhere’ rather than feeling like we’re just bobbing around aimlessly. Where are we? I don’t know exactly but look, you can see us on the chart plotter so we’re obviously somewhere, and heading in the right direction for our destination along the pink line.

We were also limited with food. We had enough, however we had been unable to refill our gas bottles in Noumea so we were unsure just how much gas we had left. Based on previous consumption we were pretty sure we’d get two weeks out of it, but if our calculations were incorrect it would mean cold food until Coffs, plus with the lack of wind our trip could well take two weeks! We played it safe and meals consisted of whatever took the least amount of time to heat up – lots of tinned soup, baked beans and 2-minute noodles...

We both agreed that this was by far the worst sailing leg of the trip...’the worst of times’... Then, on day 9, after what felt like the longest and most exhausting night time steering session of the whole trip from California, we realised that we only had about 70 miles to go! Five hours later, after much squinting at the horizon, there it was – the Australian coast – ‘the best of times’!

35 miles from Australia
(Trust me, there is land on the horizon!!)

About 15 miles away

You have no idea how exciting that first sighting was! All land sightings after being at sea are great, but this one was by far the best. This was our country, which we hadn’t seen for almost 6 months! This was being so close to our friends and family! This was coming home! Suddenly the day was brighter, our mood was happier and even steering was no longer a chore as I belted out the national anthem (yes, both verses!) and ‘I Still Call Australia Home’, much to Stu’s amusement.

Steering us home!

This last 35 miles was the longest – being able to see our destination but knowing that we were still 5 hours away (provided the wind didn’t die out again) was torture, although it was made so much more bearable by the fact that my phone picked up a signal and we were on the Australian map

We’d seen some whales spraying earlier, and suddenly Stu called for me to come up and have a look because we were following a couple of whales! Stu’s eyesight isn’t all that wonderful (either that or the light wasn’t very good – ha!) and as soon as I saw them I realised that rather than following them they were coming straight for us. Of course whales are highly intelligent creatures so they would know to avoid us, but just in case we had stumbled across the duds of the species we steered around them and the two humpbacks came past us about 10 metres from the boat. Wow. They were absolutely massive! Their backs were hardly breaking the surface of the water and the bit we saw was still a good 2 – 3 feet wide! An awesome moment, but also a little scary... one flick of their tail... Typically the camera was downstairs.

We also had a couple of dolphins leaping around the boat. We have seen a lot on the trip, mainly in the US, and compared to the US dolphins, which were rather small and stumpy, these were huge! I’d put my money on an Aussie (bottlenose, I guess) dolphin VS an American dolphin in a showdown, that’s for sure!

As we got closer the weather deteriorated, as did our mood... We were listening to the weather warnings on the VHF giving us gale warnings and predicting big waves, and we could see the clouds coming in and the rain threatening. We were still about 12 miles away and were starting to stress about the weather and the fact that we had no engine. These factors, plus the excitement of getting to Australia, plus the lack of sleep made for relatively short fuses but a good old argument seems to be part of our routine for getting in to a port!

Luckily for us Stu’s parents had reached Coffs ahead of us, with the luxury of being able to motor through the lulls, and we called them to arrange for them to bring the dinghy out and tow us in to the marina. We finally came through the harbour mouth at about 5:30pm – just on dusk – with the swell and winds building, and out came our ‘rescue’ dinghy with Max and Richard, who had told us that he was starting work again on July 2nd in Sydney but apparently that didn’t eventuate... It was a surprise to see him here but nice to catch up again. So far we’ve met up with him at every port except for Noumea and usually he arrives the day before we are planning to leave. They tied the dinghy to the side of Pelon and in we motored, to be greeted by 4 or 5 guys at the marina berth who did a brilliant job of stopping us before we hit the end of the berth (no motor = no speed control and no reverse to slow us down!).

To our surprise (and appreciation!) the Customs guys had waited for us to arrive so that they could clear us in straight away which would allow us to get off the boat for food and showers. Thankyou!! The process took about 45 minutes as we filled out forms and had all of our cupboards checked for food and products that are not allowed to be brought in. To their credit they did a fantastic job. All countries have their restrictions and at all ports we have been asked what supplies we have on board, but the Aussies were the only people who actually bothered to check and to do the job properly. For all the signs and warnings you see around airports and on TV telling us not to bring pests in to the country, it’s nice to know that it’s not just lip service and Customs and Quarantine are actually doing a great job of keeping nasties out of the country.

Safely in and finally off the boat we headed over to Stu’s parents for a lovely hot shower before heading up to the yacht club for a much anticipated meal. After our diet over the last few days needless to say we didn’t order the soup of the day...

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