In late 2009 I had been for some time contemplating taking my nearly 3 year old catamaran, a Seawind 1160 named “Meltemi” up the coast to the Whitsunday Islands. At the time I was living in Nowra on the NSW south coast and the boat was kept in Currambine Creek at Huskisson.
My only experience in coastal cruising had been a few trips back and forth from Jervis Bay to Sydney and Pittwater. I had also done a few delivery trips for Seawind, but only as crew from Wollongong to the Gold Coast. But my navigational experience with offshore cruising was nil.
It was about this time that my next-door neighbour said he was planning a trip to Lord Howe Island. This began to sow the seeds of a plan in my mind to divert around the tiresome river bars of the NSW north coast by sailing from Pittwater to Lord Howe direct and then on to the Gold Coast. It all seemed so terribly simple. What could possibly go wrong?
I had looked on the chart plotter and yes, my charts included Lord Howe Island. I also purchased the paper charts of Lord Howe Island and all the way to the Whitsundays (a considerable expense, I might add). So, by early April of 2010 we were all ready to go cruising and brought the boat into the wharf at Huskisson. We started to load every conceivable item we might need. There was so much stuff that I needed to tow a trailer behind the car to get it all to the wharf. This was the first of the mistakes we made about cruising. Do not take unnecessary things with you that will just take up space and never be used. As the gear was loaded on board and the waterline slowly sank it was apparent, we would eventually need to raise the level of the antifoulwaterline.
My proposed crew for this adventure was my wife, Jenny together with Graeme, an old school friend of mine and his wife Annie, none of whom had any real sailing experience. I had sailed since I was born and was confident that the boat could be sailed single handed in an emergency. Again, what could possibly go wrong? Graeme and I sailed the boat up to Pittwater a week or so ahead in an uneventful journey to do a final pack at RMYC with the girls before departure.
Sailing under bare spinnaker on the way to Pittwater
I was advised that fuel was only available in jerry cans and at great expense on the island, so we took an additional 120 litres of fuel with us as well as the boat’s full tanks which I calculated would enable us to motor all the way to the Gold Coast via Lord Howe if we needed to. As it turned out, this was a good move. We left RMYC on 23rd April at 10am on a beautiful sunny day with a light northerly breeze and motor/sailed past Barrenjoey Headland and out into a calm ocean. Zoom out far enough on the chart plotter and you will find that Lord Howe Island is on a rum line course of 410 nm at roughly 74.5 degrees. Place a waypoint on the entrance to the lagoon and settle back to enjoy the ride. Seemed sosimple!
The crew hard at it during theafternoonwatch
The calm before thestorm
We enjoyed the sunshine during the first day and watched the coast slowly disappear to the west as the sun set. I had read that it was prudent to put a reef in the main when cruising overnight,so we hauled in the first reef even though the breeze was still only light and went to bed. Later that night, amid lots of banging and flapping I discovered we had broken the reefing line and the mainsail foot was loose. No worry, with the wind freshening from the north we simply hauled the sail in to the secondreef.
The last signs of civilization
Then at some time in the middle of the night, there was an almighty bang and all hell broke loose. After turning on the deck light I found that the fully furled screecher had broken away from the bowsprit furler at the tack and was now only attached to the boat by the head and sheet. The only way to get the rapidly unfurling sail into the boat was to pull on the sheet which unfurled the sail even more. After what seemed like an eternity, two of us sitting on the now pitching foredeck without any lifejackets on managed to lower the cantankerous sail to the deck and stuff it into a locker.
We awoke the next day with an ugly beam-on sea from the north which in a catamaran is not very comfortable, inducing a nasty pitching motion and all on board were by this stage feeling a little queasy. Indeed, one wave broke on the side of the boat with such an impact that everything was knocked onto the floor. Looking seawards round a full 360 degrees was nothing but a blue horizon line making us feel very alone andisolated.
The next day dawned to a vastly different appearance
It should have been enough after the previous night’s activities, but the second reefing line also decided to break during the morning. It was then a case of a full main or no main at all as we now had no way to reef the main. Down came the main and we motor sailed on with the jib alone. We were still doing a reasonable speed, so no need to change the plan.
The further we sailed, it became apparent that we were well ahead of schedule and that we were likely to arrive at the island in the middle of the night. Conditions were pretty unpleasant where we were, so it seemed better to press on and deal with the arrival time issue later, rather than slow the boat down and spend an extra night at sea.
Our missing piece of jib track
Then as if we hadn’t had enough dramas for this trip, there was another loud bang and I went to the foredeck to find that a 500mm section of jib sheet track had been torn off the deck and the traveller car was now flailing free in the air. Furling the jib enabled a calmer look at the problem. A section of track had literally torn out of the deck and that piece was now in Davey Jones’ locker. By a miracle, the ball bearings in the traveller car are captive and were all intact, so I was able to refitthe stopper and feed the car back onto the remains of the now much shorter jib track. We were now past halfway to the island, so the decision was made to press on through the next day and into the second night which was thankfully without furtherdrama.
Day three dawned with little change to the weather or to the state of wellness of our crew. We had eaten little more than Jatz Crackers and water for two days and were starting to long for some firm ground under our feet. The boat hammered on motor/sailing under jib alone and despite the breakages we had incurred, at no stage had I feared for our safety. The boat had remained a safe place to be even if restricted in its performance with the gear breakages and the unpleasant conditions we had experienced. By now the wind also had swung to the SW which meant that the Lagoon entrance would be fully exposed.
By the end of the daylight on day three Lord Howe Island was getting bigger and bigger on the chart plotter. As the sun set when still 30 to 40 miles out, we started to try to raise the harbourmaster (who is also the local police chief) on the VHF without success. When we were only a few miles out I was starting to have reservations about what to do on arrival. The normal Lord Howe anchorage is in the Lagoon on the west side of the island accessed by a marked but narrow channel which I was not prepared to enter at night or in this wind. But then at 9.30pm came the call over the VHF, “Meltemi, Meltemi, Meltemi this is Lord Howe Island, how can I help”. What a relief that was. The harbourmaster said the lagoon entrance was unsuitable in this weather and gave us the coordinates of protected anchorage on the east side of the island. As the black cliffs of the northern end of the island loomed eerily out of the pitch dark, we motored round to a much calmer bay on the east side and dropped anchor in about 10-12 metres of water. After 61 hours since leaving Pittwater the crew were all extremely glad to have a quiet and still boat under them atlast.
The protected eastern anchorage
The Lagoon entrance channel
As daylight broke the next day, we found we were actually quite a way from the shore but still very protected. After a quick tidy up we all went ashore for a walk to the east side of the island to find the lagoon still very exposed and choppy. We spent two days anchored on the east side of the island before the harbourmaster finally called on the VHF to say we could enter the lagoon.
Keen to get into the lagoon we began to haul up the anchor only to find the chain firmly wrapped around a coral head. Too deep to dive and after quite a while motoring back and forth in circles we jumped on the VHF (there is no mobile phone network on the island) and appealed to the dive shop to send out a couple of divers who were finally able to free us by lunchtime.
The entrance to the lagoon is a reasonably narrow channel with a sharp bend at the end near the shoreline. It was a good thing we did not try to enter at night on our arrival. The moorings in the lagoon are substantial enough to moor a very large vessel and we felt quite secure during our 10 day stay. That is not to say the conditions are always comfortable, especially at high tide when the seas break over the reef to the southwest.
We were to discover that life on Lord Howe Island is like stepping back in time to an era when people had time to stop and talk and business was conducted at a very slow and sociable pace. The atmosphere is one of relaxation and comfort. There are very few cars on the island and the speed limit is 20kph. There are no keys for the guest accommodation because there are no locks on the doors. We hired bikes to get around and were able to leave them on the shore without the need to secure them in any way.Fantastic!
Bikes from cruising boats unsecured ontheshore
The screecher repairs and the jib track replacement would have to wait till the mainland. But after slowly repairing most of the lesser gear failures and tidying the boat, we spent a glorious 10 days swimming, bicycling, walking, mountain climbing (Mt Gower and Mt Eliza), deep sea fishing and enjoying a daily coffee at the only coffee shop on the island. Everybody knows everybody on the island, and they all know what you are doing.
Mt Gower dominates the Lagoon anchorage
The crew on MtEliza
The view from Mt Gower
With no mobile phone or internet on the island I had to resort to a public phone box to call Seawind and order another jib track to be sent to meet us at Southport. No internet also means that weather forecasting is difficult. We reverted to a visit to the airport to talk with the meteorological employee there who was very helpful in identifying a suitable weather window for our next leg of the journey to Southport. Although still blowing quite fresh from the SW he advised that we would be fine for the next 2 – 3 days as we headed north.
So, at 8am on 7th May we pushed out again through the entrance channel from the lagoon and set a course to the NW, straight to the Seaway Bar at Southport. As the wind was still blowing at about 20kts we put a reef in with the newly fed lines and settled into our routine. It was however not too long before we again suffered a reefing line failure. It was again full main or no main. At least we were getting good at motor/sailing the boat in this form and were able to keep up a reasonable pace. The remainder of our journey was, thankfully uneventful. We motored up The Broadwater to dock at Southport Yacht Club at 3pm on Mothers’ Day some 55 hours after leaving the island. The first thing my young crew, Graeme did was to jump onto the dock and kiss the concrete. Obviously, he had little confidence in hisskipper!
A wild and woolly outlook
Solid land (dock) atlast
After a week or so on the Gold Coast we were able to refresh, repair and rejuvenate ourselves for the remainder of our trip to the Whitsunday Islands, but that is a story for another time. Did we learn anything from our first ocean trip; yes, a lot. Just some of these are:
- Being a bit stricter with the gear list for the leisure part of thetrip.
- How to reef the main successfully both up and down wind without damaging to boat would have to be one of the mostfundamental.
- Reading and researching weather patterns and assessing weatherwindows.
- Taking account of ocean currents that may shorten ocean passages quite abit.
- Having a plan for emergency situations and sticking to it particularly in respect to the wearing of life jackets and harnesses when ondeck.
- Would I do the trip again? Yes, in a heartbeat as this must be one of the most unique and beautiful locations and is just 2½ days sail away. Its also a great way to bypass the northern NSW river bar entrances.
- I am sorry this article is long as it is, but if you have managed to read this far, you are obviously interested in Lord Howe Island. I would be more than happy to answer and explain any part of our journey or time on the island if you want to contact me through the club.