Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Bass Strait

We spent our last day on the Australian mainland flushing saltwater out of the outboard and rinsing the sand out of our clothes.  We recuperated that night with a feast of local mussels kindly passed along to us by the crew of Ice Dancer, another Alaskan boat that was waiting to make the crossing to Tasmania.

We began the crossing of Bass Strait, the body of water between the mainland and Tasmania, with 20 hours of motoring, most of it into a light southerly wind and a confused swell.  Since, two years into this adventure, we still do not have a working autopilot, this was a dreary experience in constant hand-steering.  Things were made worse by the fact that Alisa and I both turned green with the motion.  Elias, as always, was completely unaffected.

The next morning a northeast breeze came up, which meant that the wind was behind us, and we were soon flying along under jib and main with the windvane steering.  But the swell was still confused, and Alisa wasn't feeling great.  We were both tired, and considered spending a night in an anchorage off one of the islands scattered off the northeast corner of Tassie.  But even the most optimistic reading of our average speed showed us falling short of the closest anchorage by nightfall.  So we kept going, consoling ourselves with the idea that we had a great sailing wind.

The next day was gray, as you would expect for the forties, south latitude.  Alisa was at this point completely laid up by the combined negative effects of pregnancy and offshore sailing.  Nothing serious, but her third trimester is nearly here, and she is clearly getting past the point at which overnight sailing is a very good idea.

Elias and I kept each other company in the cockpit most of the day.

Lighten up, kid, this is supposed to be fun!

By this point we were only about ten miles off the east coast of Tasmania, but we couldn't see land because of the intervening clouds and mist.  We had great views of pelagic birds as we sailed along, including these short-tailed shearwaters:

and lots of shy albatross, which I believe nest in Tassie:

Two days and a few hours after we left Eden, we ended our crossing at Shouten Passage.  By now the weather had progressed from windy and wavey to windy and wavey and rainy and foggy.  We began to feel at home.

Crap weather - we like it!

Our first impressions of Tasmania have been very positive, even when the inclement weather ended and we were left with more monotonous Australian sunshine.  It's been fun meeting a few locals and, when they ask us how long we plan to stay in Tassie, answering, "a year!".

The anchorage at Wineglass Bay, where we spent our first few days in Tasmania.

The end.

Monday, January 18, 2010


I didn't recognize the risk until we were halfway to being upside down.

Elias' grandmothers may want to stop reading at this point.

We were in Woodchip Bay, a couple of miles outside Eden, New South Wales, waiting out a couple days of southerly breeze before we made the jump to Tasmania.

Alisa and Elias were going ashore for a play on the beach and I was going to stay aboard to knock off some boat jobs.  Before Alisa left we talked about the swell that was rolling through the anchorage, and the fact that the left-hand corner on the beach would likely be the easiest spot to land our inflatable, Smooches.   She zoomed off, but then came back a few minutes later.

-Maybe you should drop us off, she said.  It looks fine to get ashore, but I'm not sure I could get the boat back into the water alone.

I drove them in.  On the way we changed our plan from landing on the left-hand corner to landing on a spot closer to the middle of the beach.

-That way you won't be stuck on the other side of that creek, and Elias will have more room to run, I said.

When we were ten meters off it looked like the swell was breaking as little lapping waves.  I gave the motor a final burst of throttle, then shut it off and swung it up out of the water.  I was about to hop out when Smooches accelerated.  And turned sideways.  And started turning over.

We couldn't do anything.

The wave that had lifted us up curled and broke and flipped the boat completely upside down.  Elias ended up under the boat.  Alisa did, too.  I fell out the back.  My head stayed above the water, so that I could register that they had both disappeared completely.

Then they popped up.  Elias had the completely startled look of a little boy who hadn't even know that dinghies could flip over.  His eyes and mouth were three circles in his face.  He was wearing a lifejacket.  Alisa scooped him up.  I righted the dinghy.  A guy walking along the beach helped me get Smooches out of the waves.

I'll say one thing about human nature.  Flip a boat with your three year old and your heavily pregnant wife in it, and people will come running to help.

Alisa and Elias and I stood stunned on the beach, sand in our clothes, water running out of our hair.  Alisa and I watched the waves roll in.  They looked much bigger from the beach side.  She hugged Elias and I studied the sets coming in, aware that getting off the beach through breaking waves is harder than getting into the beach, which I had just completely botched.

A bloke named Michael, from the yacht Polaris II, rowed ashore and kindly helped us launch.  It all went smoothly.  The motor of course did not start, and I rowed back to Pelagic where we all had warm showers and hot drinks and dry clothes.


It's been ten years since I flipped an inflatable in the surf.  (The last time was on St. Matthew Island, in the Bering Sea.)  Ten years is not too long a time to go between dinghy-flippings - it's really something that anyone should only do once.  And the crazy thing is that the waves were really really small, and with a little concentration we could have landed easily.  But I didn't even recognize that the chance of flipping the dinghy was there.  I just wasn't paying attention.

And not paying attention is something that you can't get away with on the water.

Elias warming up with a hot Milo after it was all over.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

South of Sydney

Our stay in Sydney was brief.  On January 4th the northerly winds returned, and we were back on the road.

After all, we have a deadline.

South of Sydney, we got that delightful feeling that you get when you're travelling on a sailboat and everything goes better than you had hoped - the feeling of getting away with something almost illicit.  We turned steady north winds and a strong south-setting current into cracking-good days of travel - we made 81 miles on one day sail with time left over to fuel and water at our destination - something completely unheard of.  When the northerlies built to 30 knots, we found a great open roadstead anchorage where we bobbed on a calm patch of ocean and slept soundly.  When the southerlies returned, we spent a few days exploring the delights of the vast natural harbor of Jervis Bay - turquoise water and white sand and penguins (!) seen from the decks of Pelagic.

There are other signs that we are getting closer to high latitudes - the water is noticeably colder, and we are beginning to see Diomedea albatrosses.  Excitement builds.

We also, two days out of Sydney, had our best-ever experience with bow-riding  dolphins.  This small group stayed with us for about an hour, long enough for Elias to get a very good look.

I was able to leave Elias on the bow, alone, while I went back to get the camera.  He was wearing his harness, and Alisa was watching him from the cockpit, and he just stood there, holding on with two hands, watching the dolphins.  This is really a huge milestone - a year ago, we would never have thought about getting so far from him on deck. Things get easier for us.

They were (I'm pretty sure) short-beaked common dolphins, Delphinus delphis.

And now we're in Eden (don't ask me how it got that name...), the southernmost port in New South Wales, and our jumping-off point for the two-day crossing to Tasmania. 

Time to get to Tassie!


We came to Australia, largely, so I could get to know the place.  Even though I've been an Australian citizen since birth, I had spent all of six weeks of my adult life here before we arrived on Pelagic. When we got here, I had the bright idea that being on a yacht, and around yachties, might be a great entrée into Australian life, a way to meet remarkable Australians whose paths we might have otherwise never crossed.

It mostly hasn't worked that way.

We have met some fantastic people in Australia, really good friends, who have nothing at all to do with yachts.  We have met some other wonderful people here who have lived on yachts for years and years and years.  But the first group we met in spite of living on a yacht, and the second group has so much in common with us that it feels almost inevitable to meet up with them.  So the idea of the sailing life as a shortcut to meeting remarkable Australians has generally not panned out.

Sydney was the second great city of the world that we have sailed to on Pelagic, the first being San Francisco.  We felt the same wonder of viewing iconic landmarks from the decks of our little boat that we felt in San Francisco, the same aesthetic delight in a city that benefits from a perfect setting, the same satisfaction of viewing the city from the detached perspective of the water.  But while San Francisco was once my home, Sydney was totally new to us.

After we had our fill of dodging ferry traffic and staring at the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge we set a course to meet up with Alex and Diana, seen above next to their yacht Kukka.  We had met them briefly in Queensland last winter, and based on that brief acquaintance, they met us at the dock and rolled out the biggest red carpet that you could imagine.

Alex and Diana helped us with our dock lines and then handed us a key ring with two keys on it - the key to their house, and the key to their marina.  They had arranged for us to tie up Pelagic, for free, at the guest dock at their marina for the duration of our stay.  So all the urban headaches of rolling, insecure anchorages and difficulties finding a safe spot to leave the dingy were immediately forgotten.

We had dinner at their house that night, and found that we had broad areas of overlapping interests, so that we could talk and talk and talk - about favorite authors, and travel experiences, Australian politics and culture, U.S. politics and culture, and so on.  We even talked a bit about sailing.

Alex and Diana both traveled extensively back in the day, and they treated near-complete strangers us with the sort of complete hospitality that is the hallmark of the former traveler.  They had us over to their house night after night for dinner and showers and laundry, they drove us around the city, they introduced us to their kids, they took us to see the mighty New Year's fireworks over the harbor, and (joy of joys!) they babysat Elias so we could go see the new Pedro Almodóvar joint.

More than all that, they turned what would have been a very impersonal visit to the big city into a little taste of daily life around their house in Balmain.  So we got to hang with the locals, which is all that a traveller really wants.

And it all happened because we shared an anchorage with them near Townsville last winter.

Elias touring a replica of the Endeavor, Captain Cook's ship on his great first voyage of discovery, at the Sydney maritime museum.