Thursday, December 31, 2009

A Pittwater Christmas

Christmas 2009 found Pelagic in Pittwater, an arm off of Broken Bay, the waterway that abuts the northern suburbs of Sydney.  At first glance Pittwater is a soul-less place where the leisure class keeps its generic, expensive, lightly-used pleasure boats, and we were a bit stunned by the anonymous water-scape of thousands and thousands of moored pleasure boats where we would spend the holiday.  But we quickly went about generating a family's worth of Christmas spirit on board, beginning by decorating Christmas cookies:

We also decorated our Christmas tree.  Note that Elias' friend Koala decided to spend the holiday in the tree.

On Christmas Eve, Elias left out cookies and beer for Santa.  I find this Australian-styled hospitality for Father Christmas a decided improvement over the milk-and-cookies tradition in North America.

In the morning, Elias was very excited that Santa had left him Six White Boomers.

Our big reason for stopping in Pittwater was a visit with our friends Peter and Vanessa, long-term local sailors who we met on the tail end of their New Caledonia-and-back cruise last year.  We had Christmas dinner on board their yacht, Akimbo.  Things started off seriously enough:

But the night soon descended to a three year old's level:

For a couple of days after Christmas we knocked around from anchorage to anchorage inside Broken Bay.  There were thousands and thousands of these beautiful jellyfish in some places:

And the weather was gray and drizzly:

This had the benefit of keeping the holiday crowds we feared at bay.  I'm sure it will be different in Tasmania, but Australians in this part of the country seem to completely deflate when the weather is cold and rainy.  It's kind of an endearing trait.

We could have explored the different nooks in Broken Bay for a week.  It's a neat spot, with big areas of National Park that provide a nice escape from the city life of Pittwater.  But we decided that we'd rather spend our discretionary time before the new baby arrives cruising Tasmania instead of Broken Bay.  So we travelled back to Pittwater, where we had a great couple of days rafted up with Akimbo:

During our stay, Peter kindly took me surfing a couple times in conditions that he wouldn't have bothered with himself.  Surfing in Sydney over Christmas - how cool is that?  And then, yesterday, we made the 15 mile hop from Pittwater to Sydney Harbor.  That's where we are now, on the last day of 2009, awaiting tonight's fireworks in the harbor, which is reputed to be the biggest fireworks display in the world.  More on that later, I'm sure.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

This May Be The (Second To) Last Time...

Should this woman be sailing down the coast of Australia?

Our first overnight sail on Pelagic was in 2004 - the 1,100 mile, 11-day passage from Vancouver Island to our home port of Kodiak. With our rookie's feel for the perfectly wrong time to depart, we left just as 25 knot head winds were kicking up. Along with our friend Dan Ruthrauff, who was helping us with the delivery, I braced myself in the heeling, spray-lashed cockpit as night fell. Alisa, confronting a rolling, pitching galley for the first time, served a dinner of top ramen - not cooked, but with luke-warm water just added to the noodles in the bowl.

The jump that we just made from Camden Haven to Pittwater, in the northern suburbs of Sydney, will likely be, next to the the crossing to Tasmania, our second-to-last overnight sail on Pelagic.

It was a fitting outing for our nearly-last overnight trip, offering a certain majectic symmetry to the Pelagic years, this epic ocean-going chapter in our lives.

Which is to say that as much as you might learn about going to sea, some things don't necessarily improve.
Camden Haven.

We spent five days in Camden Haven, waiting for favorable sailing weather to return. When the forecast finally called for moderate northerly winds, we plotted our next hop to the south. We had three basic options - hop to an intermediate anchorage 35 miles away, hop to Port Stephens 80 miles away, or go all the way to Pittwater, a bay in the northern suburbs of Sydney, 140 miles away.

The stop 35 miles away was awkward because crossing the Camden Haven bar at the proper tide would mean arriving at the new anchorage at the wrong time for crossing that bar. And, because the best tide for leaving Camden Haven wouldn't arrive until 0830, making it the 80 miles to Port Stephens in daylight seemed pretty improbable.

So I suggested that we do the overnight to Pittwater. When some of the other yachties at Camden Haven said they'd just leave early in the morning, while the tide was still ebbing over the bar, so that they could make Port Stephens in daylight, I wasn't tempted to change our plan.

"We haven't had any favorable current yet coming down the coast," I said to Alisa. "So making it 80 miles in 14 hours of daylight would be a huge push. I'm sick of that part of coastal sailing, where moving along at five and a half knots isn't good enough because you're trying to make it to a bar before the tide turns, or to a new anchorage while it's still daylight. Let's just leave here at the right tide, put up the sails, be happy with whatever speed we're making, and get to Pittwater some time the next day."

It all sounded so reasonable. But it all went so horribly wrong.

When we got sailing the next day, we made an effortless 8 knots over the bottom. We had found the current. It was hard not to think of how easily we could have made Port Stephens, and thereby enjoyed a quiet night asleep at anchor.

Then, at nightfall, the "local thunderstorms" of the weather forecast revealed themselves as a black wall bearing down on us from the west, backlit by evil-looking flashes of lightning. I wasn't quite keeping up with all the sailhandling that would turn the gusty, shifting winds into a course that would keep us safely out of the way of the three ships that were all within five miles of us. We heard one of the boats that had left Camden Haven early checking in with the Volunteer Marine Rescue, reporting that they had safely arrived in Port Stephens. The motion had been rough for hours. And then Alisa ran up to the cockpit and vomited voluminously into the sea.

"Don't lean over so far, for Chrissake," I snapped. "Kneel down and hold on tight."

(This is the very first time that Alisa has ever puked off of Pelagic. Up to this point, it's been all me. She felt sick all night. I got two hours of sleep. And we had ships to deal with and shifting winds all the night long.)

It was hard not to think of how easily we could have made Port Stephens, and thereby enjoyed a quiet night asleep at anchor.


Safely anchored in Pittwater - haircuts in the cockpit.

"I told Santa that I've been very very good this year."

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Farewell Tour Begins

We're on the third anchorage of our Iluka-Tasmania tour.

We started our last day in Iluka wondering if the weather forecast was really right for us to leave, or if we should wait a few days for a better window. But then we had a get-together with a few of our Iluka friends at the pub, and said goodbye, and made ourselves feel completely awful, and then we were bound and determined to leave.

Nothing is so awkward as bidding a tearful goodbye to someone and then bumping into them at the grocery store the next day.

We motored down the Clarence River at dawn and took a right hand turn when we reached the ocean. Every mile we travel from that point on will take us further south than we have ever been on Pelagic.

We reached Coffs Harbour after a long day. Coffs is an artificial harbor, created in part by a giant causeway that joins Muttonbird Island to the mainland. "Muttonbirds" are several species of shearwaters whose chicks get so fat in the nest that they are a traditional food in the Antipodes. My Inner Biologist, the one who is no longer suprised at the conservation disasters of the world, looked at that name on the chart and said out loud, "Well, there won't be any muttonbirds there any more."

Wrong again! There are thousands of muttonbird nests on Muttonbird Island, and a nice paved walking track that takes you right through the heart of the colony. From the top of the island you look back over Coffs to verdant valleys disappearing into the rainclouds that occasionally drape the east coast of Australia this time of year. And the marina in Coffs Harbour has this nice flow through feature from the waves breaking on the causeway that keeps the marina so clean that we could stand on a walkway and look down on a sea turtle grazing on macro algae inside the marina.

All that, plus there was a great beach where Elias really rode waves on his boogie board for the first time.

We left after one day, the perfect length of a stay if you want to keep a utopian opinion of a place.

The famed East Australian current, which is supposed to make southward sailing an exercise in trying to slow your boat down, has been nowhere in evidence. So the 70-odd mile trip from Coffs to Port Macquarie took all day and then some.

We woke at 0430, made it out of the marina at 0500, and then motored south for eight hours, hand steering all the way. The wind finally came up, but so did the swell. With ten miles to go I took down most of the sail so that we'd reach the bar at the correct stage of tide. With little speed, we rolled viciously, dipping one side of the boat and then the other into the seas that came sweeping down on our beam.

Alisa was gamely trying to take on all of the Elias care so that I could concentrate on the boat, but reading "A Year On Our Farm" for the 18th time while fighting off nausea was nearly more than her maternal instinct could bear.

-Oi, she said to me. I can't remember a time when this kind of sailing was fun.

-Fun? I said. Never! This kind of sailing was never fun! I'm not pregnant, and it still isn't fun.

We reached Port Macquarie and went through the "stranger" cruiser routine: pick out the leads to the bar with binoculars, come screaming in past the breakwater with the full flood tide behind you, speeding over the bottom at seven and a half knots with the engine just ticking over enough to give you steerage, trusting that you've figured out the chart correctly and so won't hit anything, then follow the reticulate little channel that leads through shoals to a little anchorage at the head of a creek, all the while guarding against the hazards that the locals know all about, but which are all mysterious to you.

I didn't realize how much that took out of me until Alisa said "Um, Mike" as I was rooting around in a locker for a mooring line after we had reached the anchorage. I had completely let my guard down after the long day, and was letting Pelagic drift right into a moored cat as I dug through the locker.

Port Macquarie (from the water) appears to be one of those places that has crossed a certain threshold so that it is more of an economy than a community. We took a mooring for the night, then woke at dawn, motored the 13 miles to Camden Haven, a sleepy place that looks to be more our style, and here we are, snuggly anchored for the 3 or 4 days of rough weather that is currently forecast.

That's Elias and me at lunch in Camden Haven today.

I Had Her!

I had her... Alisa had officially reached the apogee of cruising-partner status.

She woke up on one of our last mornings in Iluka and said, "I had the greatest dream. We had this really basic brand-new aluminum yacht and we were choosing the electronics to install."

Ha, I thought. This is it. Every other cruising dude in the world can officially eat his shorts in pure burning envy. My six-months pregnant wife closes her eyes... and dreams of buying electronics for a new aluminum yacht!

It's a good thing that I reveled in the moment so fiercely. Because, dear friends, (and this may be news) NOTHING GOOD LASTS.

Yesterday, on hour twelve of our thirteen-hour "day sail" from Coffs Harbour to Port Macquarie(new rule - if it's longer than 12 hours, it doesn't count as a day sail), as we were slatting along under a draconically shortened rig, trying to delay our arrival at the Port Macquarie bar so that the tide might reach a more genteel stage for the crossing, as we were slamming from one side to the other in the growing swell, Alisa, gently cradling the new life within her with a protective arm on top of her swelling belly, uttered the words that every cruising dude trying to work the Good Life Trifecta (Family, Sailing, Miminal Work) dreads to hear:

"I wonder what catamarans are really like."

UGH! Make it stop make it stop, I thought to myself. Catamarans, it is said, don't roll from side to side in a seaway. But used cruising catamarans, as near as I can tell, start at around a million five and go up from there. You see lost souls out on the water in cruising cats, worrying about whether they remembered to send in the insurance premium, and they all seem to fall into two groups: oldsters who are trying to put off life in a caravan ("RV" to those of you in North America) for another year, or dudes who are blowing all their money in a losing battle to convince the non-sailing spouse that life at sea can be comfortable.


(If anyone who lives on a catamaran actually reads this, please know it's a joke! You're not old, and you're not trying to keep your partner happy:)

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Dolphins Afrothing

During February and March of 2009 while anchored in Iluka Harbor, we observed dolphin pups as they swam past Pelagic. Just a few days ago, while Mike was out surfing, I was lucky enough to see dolphins least that's what it looks like to me. I am no expert but I know what I saw was not a feeding frenzy. And aside from food and sex, I can't imagine what else would result in dolphins afrothing. Don't worry, the following photos are G-rated.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Santa Surfs!

Santa came to Pelagic early this year! Alisa, with some crucial guidance by a local friend, surprised me with this red boomer. Her guide to the world of surf gear pointed out that she could get a brand-new mass-produced board imported from Asia for less than the price of this used board, but she wisely went for the locally-shaped, tons-of-soul choice. It's a long board, as you can see, which Australians universally call a "Mal", as in "Malibu". Elias, by the way, is flashing the hang loose sign.

I went surfing a few times when we were here last summer, and got more or less trashed every time. But this summer things have started to click - I can paddle around without getting exhausted, and I get up on a fair number of waves, even if I do fall off right away. I've been out on my new board four times in the week I've had it, and I can see that the day might arrive when I'll be able to call myself a surfer. Tasmania, by the way, is known to have good waves.

But now, the problem. What the heck do I get Alisa for Christmas that can compete with this? Any suggestions would be gratefully received!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Leaving Iluka

Our friend Michelle organized a barbie at Woody Head last weekend for the whole Iluka crew. After everyone had eaten we all went for a walk along the shore. These pictures of that walk sum up the best of Iluka for me - good people, a big crew of kids for Elias to slot into, and a setting where those kids have every chance of enjoying an idyllic childhood - a place that is very beautiful and not crowded, where life can be reasonably slow of pace and (though this part doesn't appear in the photos) families are not organized around earning two incomes.


The next morning as we were heading out for a surf, my friend Miles said, "Yeah. They're not a bad mob."
The inescapable condition of social life in a small town is that you are dependent on the chance collection of peers that is available to you - there's little room for searching out a more convivial social scene, as you might in a city. And that's the joy of Iluka, that there's such a good group of people here. It's fun to think of us settling down here long enough to have the next baby, and Alisa and I have considered it... but the horizon still calls! Tasmania is in the offing! Winds allowing, we're out of here on Saturday!
While we're excited, it's also sad in a way to leave - we can look down the path of a potential life here and see ourselves quite content. And that's one of the real tensions of our permanent state of travel. We move far enough afield, and travel slowly enough, that we end up meeting wonderful people in places that we never even heard of before we left home. But then we keep moving.
Tasmania is a thousand miles away, and we've left ourselves about a month to get there before Alisa's third trimester begins. Today Alisa and I realized that this trip to Tassie will most likely be our last cruise aboard Pelagic. We are firm in our conviction that a fourth person will make this boat too crowded for us, and the plan is to sail to Hobart, buy a car and rent a house, get into the boatyard, get a coat of fresh paint on the old barky, and put her on the market.
Although we're excited at the prospect of a new home afloat, we're a bit gobsmacked that the end of the Pelagic years is suddenly upon us.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Our Australia

My dad was born and raised in Australia, but has spent most of his adult life in the U.S. On his trips back to Oz through the years he has of course mostly visited family, and hasn't spent much time exploring new parts of the country.

He just visited us in Iluka for two weeks. This was a great chance for us to catch up with him, and it was also a chance for Alisa and me to show him "our" spot in Oz - a place that we discovered on our own, and that, not at all incidentally, is similar in some ways to the more rural, more lightly populated coastal Australia that my dad remembers from the good old days - a place, in other words, where you can still find solitude on a beautiful beach without trying very hard at all.

Elias slept over at my dad's holiday unit a lot - half the nights dad was here, or more. The first night he had trouble going to sleep - "I don't want you to go!" he said as I was tucking him in, losing all his bravery. He woke up that night crying and didn't fall asleep again until my dad had sung Waltzing Matilda ten times, and in the morning he was inconsolable until Alisa and I returned from Pelagic. But within a few days he was volunteering how much he liked sleeping in a room of his own, and by the end of the visit he was crawling into bed with my dad early in the morning and falling back asleep.

Elias also enjoyed playing cricket with my dad. Cultural milestone - cricket, not baseball, was his first sport with bat and ball! The cricket-savvy among you will realize that Elias isn't quite using the wicket in the accepted manner.

My Dad arrived with goodies we had ordered from the U.S. - including Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Alisa, let loose in the vast expanse of a real kitchen, as opposed to our tiny galley, outdid herself. She even made pork chops, which I have been requesting(fruitlessly) for two years.
Having Elias and my dad together brought up inescapable thoughts about time, and the march of us from one generation to another. My mom's dad is 94, my dad is a hale 71, I'm banging along at 41, and Elias is 3. Early in the visit I got to trot out my authoriatian persona when I looked up and saw Elias kicking his grandad on the couch ("DON'T YOU KICK YOUR GRANDFATHER!"). Later that day dad told me that when his father visited us in the States, my dad looked up at one point to see three year old me kicking my 80 year old grandad. What an idea - I don't have any memories of my dad's dad, and I would give anything to know what he sounded like, to talk with him for an hour and see how similar he was to my dad, hear some of his life experience, etc. But when I was three, I was happy to just sit there and kick him.

Elias, meanwhile, has only the foggiest notion of time spans greater than a year. But when he asks us if we love him, and we say "yes", his next question is, "Will you love me forever?"

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Having Been There

I was sitting in the cockpit in the anchorage in Mooloolaba when a dude motoring by in a beat-up inflatable stood up, cupped his hands around his mouth, and shouted something.

-What's that? I shouted back.

-Were you in Aitutaki? he shouted again.

I scanned my forty-year old synapses while he motored over. Aitutaki. Aitutkai? By the time he had pulled alongside Pelagic I was able to report - No, we weren't in Aitutaki.

-Oh. Well then. Must have been another Pelagic.

He had a great English accent that I couldn't identify at all, something rural and lilting, and he had that lived-in look that yachties get when they haven't had to fit into an office environment for years.

We quickly established that he had crossed the Pacific the year before us. He had been in Nuku'alofa for the funeral of the previous king of Tonga, we had been in Neiafu during the coronation celebrations for the new king.

We fell into the delightful conversation that transpires between two strangers who recognize each other as initiates. He told me about bottoming out on every wave trough in the pass into Haraiki. I told him about wrapping our anchor chain in twenty meters of water in Makemo, and tearing up our list of atolls to visit in Tahanea. He told me a frankly unbelievable story about family interactions on Maupiti and I told him about hunting goats on Ua Pou.

-So what are you doing now? I asked.

-Ah, I've been here in Mooloolaba for two years. Working. You've got to work to make some money, but then there's no time to keep up the yacht, and well, then you're trapped?

We agreed it would be great to cross the tropical Pacific again. We could spend time in places we had loved, see some of the places that are harder to get to. And we would have the benefit of knowing what we know now, and wouldn't have to spend so much time figuring things out.

Then, after talking for ten minutes, he left. When Alisa came back to the boat I told her about the interaction, but it was hard to explain why that little chat seemed so important.

Maybe it was because, casually talking about this island and that, we each realized how lucky we had been to cross the Pacific once, and how improbably lucky we would have to be to do it again.

Dolores and Elias, Taipivai, Nuku Hiva.