It will probably come as no surprise, Dear Escapees, that sailors have a lot of superstitions. Now I know a lot of them but I also know that I don’t even know half of them. When you deal everyday with the capricious nature of Neptune I guess you could think of it as harmlessly buying a little insurance rider for a specific passage. Recently we anxious few leftovers waiting for weather had a serious discussion during happy hour while holed up at the waterfront Brasserie Bar, Noumea, New Caledonia, concerning how generous Neptune’s passage offering should be. Jann, skipper aboard Bumpy Dog, said just a tot would do but crew shook their heads in disbelief insisting only the whole fifth of rum would work as insurance for what would be a dicey passage. Yours Truly felt that the quantity and quality should be commensurate with the degree of your nervousness, but my point is that it really didn’t matter because starting a passage on a Friday trumps (sorry about that) the Neptune Rum Quandary.
And so it goes. We have good friends that won’t start a passage with bananas on board, a common superstition. We like to observe the seafaring traditions when we can but not starting a passage on a Friday is one superstition we observe. You could say we earned that one the hard way. The only time we turned around and limped back into port was on our 2014 ill-fated Galapagos to French Polynesia passage which only lasted for 450 miles, 2500 miles short of landfall at Fatu Hiva. It started on a Friday.
After three weeks of stressful weatherwatching, a small window opened up with an acceptable level of promised discomfort. We waited for Saturday to roll around to depart. Motoring out of sunny Port Moselle, New Caledonia, our thoughts were on a tropical depression forming just north west of New Caledonia that was predicted to either bear down on New Caledonia, or dissipate completely, or rejuvenate and hunt us down somewhere out in the Coral Sea. It all depended on which weather model you believed and none of them agreed. The man with two watches never knows what time it is.
Let’s see, where were we? Oh yes, motoring out of sunny Port Moselle when Skpr. noticed more smoke belching out of the evil twin starboard diesel engine than is necessary. Engine temperature was hottish but that bastard always runs hot. No one knows why. I shut it down and started the port engine, told Marce that after all we have two engines and I’ll think about that after the sails go up. Of course we should keep calm and carry on. Whenever I do something like this, invariably a newspaper headline pops up in my mind that reads something like, “The crew knew about the cyclone but sailed right into it anyway.”
The sail hoist went smoothly until we noticed the main sail had come out of the sail track about two thirds of the way up the mast. After trying two more tries with the same results we turned around and limped back into port. There’s some shit up with which you must not put!
Before we could grab a mooring back in Port Moselle Marce already had a rigger on the way out to Escape Velocity. While we waited I found and fixed the starboard engine problem. OK, I admit it, I hadn’t kept calm.
The rigger, Georges from Vietnam, did a lot of head scratching but up and down the mast he went and eventually found the problem to be the boom angle even though the sail rolled up in the boom beautifully. We had to dinghy Georges back to his car and then dinghy back into town for some ATM francs. We had skillfully spent all of ours before we left.
Six hours after our initial departure and still sunny, we motored EV back out of Port Moselle, no smoke this time and the mainsail stayed in the sail track as it should. Soon we were just hanging onto the bucking bronco called Escape Velocity. We had plenty of wind from a good direction but the Pacific was up to its usual washing machine mashup of white caps and breaking waves. Think of a rubber ducky in a tub with an overactive toddler. Good progress was being made but this is the kind of passage that reminds me of the dowager explaining one’s marriage night duties by saying, “Just close your eyes and think of England.” Or Australia.
It didn’t take long before 100 percent cloud cover became our default condition. All clouds, all day, all night, everyday. By Tuesday we were nearly half way there and the sun began to poke through the thick cloud cover. The heavy rains that were predicted for the passage never materialized but the huge seas were still pasting us along with 20+ knots of wind. This is not our first rodeo so while the wind was blowing we took full advantage of the power which meant that the compromise between comfort or speed was definitely pointing towards the later. Still, prudently reefed we bounced from wave to wave all in the effort to put distance between us and that circulating evil. The wind dropped down into the mid teens but the seas stayed large and wild. The course we’d decided on described an arc from New Caledonia to northeast Australia where we would decide how far south we could safely make it.
Escape Velocity sails well with 9-10 knots of breeze which is good because on the fourth day out that’s all we had, but the sun was back and the seas had moderated to the point that I fried eggs and toast for crew and Yours Truly. So far the GRIB file didn’t show any fronts, ridges, troughs, depressions, or any of the usual miseries the Aussies like to throw at you.
Have I mentioned that it’s considered bad form for the prudent sailor to comment about what a lovely sail they’re having? No? Well, after a lovely day of sailing, tall thunderheads, the kind with the curly-cues on top, appeared on the horizon. This is the kind that go all the way down to the sea, getting darker and uglier the lower they come. I have to say, Dear Escapees, that Yours Truly had a weakening of his resolve as we relentlessly sailed toward what looked like the end of the world, Mate! (Obviously I’ve been practicing my Strine.) Left to right from horizon to horizon there was nothing for it but to plunge right in. It was a “Hey, who turned out the lights?” moment then the wind went from flat calm to 20kts in the blink of an eye but right on the nose (OTN) with the patter of rain on the acrylic wind screen. You’ll want to write that one down.
Right on time, according to the weather model we placed our bets on, the wind dropped dead. We’d been eking out 3-4kts with a 6-7kt breeze but this was profoundly dead. With the engine running it was decision time. This was a built-in go/no go undefined failsafe waypoint we’ll-know-it-when-we-get-there kind of thing. Think T. Boone Pickins bronco riding that bomb all the way down after passing the failsafe. Do we divert to Brisbane or press on regardless (POR) to Coffs Harbor? Coffs it is.
The regardless part of the equation got very real in the form of numerous nasty looking black cells on the horizon complete with a lot of cloud-to-cloud lightning, but we heard no thunder.
We fired up our radar to check out what we were dealing with and there on the screen were a dozen or so storm cells dancing about, combining or separating, each heading in different directions like a defending army in a video game. We can acquire several targets at once and tag these cells following them on our chart plotter. We watched as their location, direction, and speed changed repeatedly. Our operating theory assumed that the system as a whole would be moving north up the Australian coast. It was about 20 miles ahead of us as we headed west southwest so we altered course 20 degrees to the south thinking we can do an end-around. That’s when great balls of Aussie hellfire arced down striking the ocean and the sky lit up in a spiderweb of jagged electrical fingers with ocean strikes all around us. We turned hard to starboard — north — in a seemingly futile effort to avoid the worst of the lightning. Rain was hammering down as we actually seemed to be making progress around this huge Tesla coil.
We watched the radar screen as great chunks of the cell would break off like the amorphous blobs in a lava lamp and zigzag around helter skelter. And we thought Costa Rica was bad! One cell nailed us, going right over the top of EV giving us a bird’s-eye view up through our roof window, but good karma and clean living on the straight and narrow held Thor’s hand so we just marveled at a magnificent close up display of cloud-to-cloud electricals. It took about three and a half hours for the system to pass, leaving us with confused seas and about 12 kts of wind. I’d been up for most of Marce’s watch and we were both spent but I knew I couldn’t sleep and we were already into my watch so M. went off to la la land. The storm cells dissipated so slowly that I didn’t notice until there were very few ocean strikes. That’s how it works sometimes.
Morning found Yours Truly, a tired and humbled adventure-seeker, hanging on to the steering wheel staring out at a placid ocean. We had to get a move on so we began a pattern of motor-on, motor-off sailing depending on the wind velocity. You don’t loiter in the Coral Sea.
First came the flies. How do they do that this far out? Then the first ships began to appear as little purple AIS triangles marching across the chart plotter screen. We even saw a large majestic sloop with Kevlar sails making 12 kts down the coast. Chatter on the VHF radio began to pick up. A few more birds were wheeling about, but still no cloud build up over land like you see in the islands. Then, the now familiar crack of thunder made us look up from the breakfast table. Oh, not that again. Yes, that again. The good news was that it was daylight. The wind went up to 28 kts but it was right OTN, it began to pour and we could see a complementary train of large wind-driven breakers that we would need to bash through between us and Coffs Harbor. Now EV loves to hobby horse, lively romping into a head sea. We don’t. With the speed over ground down to less than two knots we tacked over towards the light house on South Solitary Island, not that we could actually see it. Five knots in kinda the wrong direction beats taking big greenies over the bows while doing 1.5 kts on the rhumbline into Coffs Harbor. Finally on another tack I saw our goal through the wind, rain, and fog. I bellowed “Land Ho!” winning the coveted “chrome toaster award.”
What a strange scene unveiled as we entered the harbor. Huge stone block sea walls, twenty feet or more high with concrete antiwave blocks on top giving the protective seawalls a crenelated look. They don’t build anything this massive unless it’s needed. Obviously Coffs Marina has been fully restored after last year’s destructive storm. A half dozen yachts bobbed at anchor as we dropped our hook while enjoying a beautiful sunset. I think of it as a kind of peace offering. Seven days, six hours after leaving New Caledonia we have contact with the land called OZ. We’ve come to the land Down Under. Hide the silver!
Nothing to do but feed all the kangaroos.