Well, straight in the sense that we eased mooring lines and motored down Broken Bay to BarrenJoey nestled behind the protection of the light house cliffs. All night long the sweep of that famous light beam played across the headlands and hills of lower Broken Bay. The plan was to leave at first light in an attempt to avoid that famous washer machine effect at the entrance to the Tasman Sea. For a change, it worked.
On the way down in December we made our southing in large chunks but heading north is a different kettle of fish. For one thing, west winds are rare and anything with east in it is troubling because our general heading will be northeast. South winds work but bring cold Antarctic air.
There are several day hop stops along the way but most come with a caveat. Almost all of them are river bar crossings. So what? River bar crossings are usually narrow entrances into rivers or estuaries that have deposited enough material on the bottom to make them unusually shallow which causes ocean swell to rear up into treacherous steep surf sending nasty combers across the bar. Normally one does not want to find oneself anywhere near anything like this. However, on occasion, you’ll find the need to cross a river bar. So the thing is that the shallow bit moves around day by day, moment to moment really, while the authorities try to mark the shifting pass over the bar but you really can’t rely on anything being quite up to date. Current, tides, and wind strength and direction are critical factors in the calculus for successful bar crossing.
Our story, Dear Escapees, does not start at BarrenJoey, Pittwater, but rather in November 2014 at the famous entrance to the Bahia Del Sol estuary, El Salvador. After rerigging in Costa Rica and being kicked out twice, we decided that a more convivial and welcoming atmosphere was called for while we would wait out for the right season to cross the Pacific. We were assured by Ken and Julie on Kia Ora that Bill’s place in Bahia Del Sol was the perfect venue for waiting something out, but you’ll have to cross the bar. When we contacted Bill for details he said, “Call us when you get close and we’ll guide you through.”
We were a little shell-shocked by the time we got within VHF distance of Bahia Del Sol, El Salvador, after having to seek shelter from fearsome Papagayo winds and snagging a couple of fishing lines and nets off the coast of Nicaragua. It was early in the morning and off in the distance, seemingly mixed in with the surf and foam, we could see Bill in a high horsepower panga with a local River bar expert who we learned later checks on the elusive passage through the bar several times a day. Our instructions were to lineup right behind his boat and when he says to hit it, immediately slam both throttles to full power and follow them across the bar.
It turns out that having experienced a scary river bar crossing doesn’t ease one’s mind when faced with another. As a matter of fact we find that the anticipation makes it worse so we decided to only do bays and the easier ins and outs. That was until you find out that on the Eastern coast of Australia most of the little anchorages are river bar crossings. They have another saying down here and it goes something like, “Pump up, Princess!” Not sure what it’s supposed to mean. Due to the rarity of favorable winds and when you weigh your options you ask yourself do you want to cross a river bar or do you want to get slammed in some kind of wind squash zone? I’ll take the bar for 20, Alex.
Timing is everything in the river bar crossing game. Well, not everything but it’s a lot. Marce as usual took on the additional tasks of what has become known as Timing the Bar. I, as you, dear reader know by now, am more of a seat of the pants, gotta feel it, kinda boat jockey. So when nothing matches what you’ve read or been told I’m your man. Our first genuine Australian river bar crossing turned out to be Lake Macquarie where they’ve thrown in my personal favorite for bonus points, lining up transit poles so you don’t go aground. I can never find them on shore so it’s not my strong suit. Combers threaten but decline our challenge and we slip right by, only troubled by turbulent water that endeavors to spin us around. It’s very shallow in spots but we get in safely and score a coveted free pink umooring ball. I pretty much follow our chart plotter track going out but with a few refinements.
Between Port Stevens and Forester/Tuncurry Marce spotted our first two humpbacks after one spy hopped near us. Thrilling. We’re beginning to get the hang of this day hop thing and for a change there’s no pressing schedule other than to get up to fine weather and warmth await us up North in Queensland. It’s hard to put together more than a few days decent weather so it looks like day hops, slow progress, and river bars for Yours Truly.
The New South Wales coast is beautiful with mountain ranges that not infrequently terminate as soaring headlands with miles of scrubby flat sandy areas connecting one headland to the next rocky outcropping. We missed this coastline on the way down because there is a river of water running south at 2 to 5 kts. but you need to stay miles away from the coast to catch the free ride on the current. When you’re only going 5 to 6kts. this is huge. However, payback is a bitch and when you’re heading back up north the Aussies say you need to keep one foot on the beach just to try to keep out of the swift south flowing current.
Another day’s run from Trial Bay where we had to reprise our “anchoring in a squall,” skills, brought us to Coffs Harbour, our first Aussie landfall and more humpbacks close by. As big as they are we’re finding it difficult to photograph them! The next hop would push us to our maximum unless Aeolus the God of wind cooperates.
At false dawn we were already motoring out of the mouth of Coffs harbor, following the flashing red and green markers out into the Tasman Sea. Aeolus is a bit of a trickster so instead of sailing in 10-12kts from the Southwest, we found 15 on the nose and hard choices wether to cut between reefs and islets strewn about in our path or head out for safety but fall into the clutches of that damn current.
We really had to push to make it to the Clarence River so it was serpentine through the rocks while both engines labored, thrummed and placing full faith in the accuracy of our chart plotter charts, a belief I really didn’t share. Several Humpback sightings broke up the tension and once again the sunny weather held. We found the entrance to the Clarence River right on time as both engines were on the edge with heat prostration! This is a place with seriously thin water and transit poles and markers are all over the place. Strangely the Estuary is divided down the middle with I guess spoil and rocks, Iluka to the right and the more resort-like Yamba to the left. We knew a big storm was bearing down on us so we chose the jetty-walled, manmade anchorage at Iluka nestled in a sleepy river town with fishing boats lining the river front. The anchor caught in the shallow harbor and a small pod of dolphins swam by to welcome us. I noticed a nice dinghy dock and we knew we’d get stuck here for a few days with the approaching storm, so we dinghied ashore and found a grocery store. Nice little town. Waiting for weather always goes better with potato chips.