Monthly Archives: December 2017

Boxing Day at Sydney Heads

It seems so odd to us to keep comparing this year to last. We haven’t spent a year in one place since leaving Pittsburgh and now we get to decide whether we want to spend the holiday season repeating last year’s successes or doing things a little differently.

Case in point: one of the big events for sailors is the start of the Sydney-Hobart race on Boxing Day. It’s a rambunctious logjam of every kind of boat you can imagine all jockeying for a good view of the huge and fast racing sailboats trying to beat each other over the starting line without incurring a penalty. Brave souls take their own boats out and chase the leaders through the harbor and past the headlands into the Tasman Sea. Others book a spot on one of the tour boats and let someone else do the driving. Last year, after a few false starts and with the help of a savvy taxi driver, we found the perfect spot on land overlooking the starting line and enjoyed a picnic lunch and a wide angle view of the fleet.

This year, not wanting to try to replicate last year’s fun, especially without Nancy and Dave here, we had a hard time deciding whether we wanted to stay home and watch on TV — now that that’s an option — or find a different overlook. Boxing Day morning found us still foggy from the wine-soaked Christmas lunch. We wavered, contemplating a day spent with our feet up watching on the tube, but at the last minute we jumped in the dinghy with not much in the way of plans hoping to get anywhere near the South heads for a view of the Tasman Sea as the boats turn south.

Not sure what this is about but we passed them while chasing our bus.

We read about a special bus that starts when the ferries stop running during the height of the start frenzy but after jogging from bus stop to bus stop with an increasing number of similarly inclined folks and watching in frustration as the special X bus passed us by, we eventually took the next best thing, a regular local bus to our general destination, Watson’s Bay. It was an excruciatingly slow ride and we thought we might miss everything. As we neared the Bay we hit a traffic snarl and the murmur among the passengers was that it would be better to get off now and hoof it the rest of the way. Jack and I followed them out and over a hill only to find it wasn’t where we’d hoped to be.

We ran back down to the street, which by that time had cleared of traffic, jumped on the next bus and rode it to the end of the line. It was beach level, and although we could see the starting line in the distance, it wasn’t the view we wanted either. A quick check on Google maps suggested if we climbed over the next hill we’d at least find a view of the boats passing the heads out to sea. By now it was about 15 minutes to start time and our knees were not happy with the last two decisions, but at the top of the hill we found exactly what we were looking for, a pretty good aspect of the starting line, and an excellent clear overlook of the heads and the point where the boats would be tacking to turn south.

Hooray! There was even a wide bench to sit on. Our knees were grateful.

We had a few minutes to catch our breath before the start, then we spectators lined the benches to watch the magnificent racing machines charge the line.

After a few minutes we lost sight of the leaders as they passed behind the rocky promontory of south head and we watched as the spectator boats starting coming out ahead of the fastest sleds. And then the leaders came out, not as fast as you’d want because the wind was light, but once they could turn south they’d pick up speed quickly.

We knew some friends were on one of the big blue chase boats, and we passed our binoculars to some of the spectators hoping to find their friends’ boats. There was a near collision between two of the leaders which we happened to catch, and we learned later that sealed the fate of one of them when they were given a time penalty that took away their win on elapsed time.

We watched for another half hour or so then climbed back down the hill to join the crowd on the beach and eat fish and chips, then stood in line for the ferry to take us back to the other end of the harbor. Quite the odyssey for 45 minutes of excitement, but it’s what you do in Sydney on Boxing Day. And now we’ve done it twice. How lucky are we!

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And to all a good night

Last year we had my sister and brother in law aboard EV for the holidays and despite several offers to spend Christmas with friends we opted for a quiet family-only celebration. It may have been a little too quiet for Nancy and Dave, and devoid of the usual tree and other decorations that mark the holiday, but for Jack and me it was as special as it comes. The year before we two were completely alone in the beautiful Bay of Islands, New Zealand, where we hiked all morning and made our traditional curry dinner. It was a little lonely, truth be told.

This year we were facing a letdown after a warm and wonderful visit from Drew and Ericka in November but no family visitors for the holidays. To our delight, the same two invitations we had last year were extended once again and we happily accepted both.

We renewed our old cinnamon bun tradition on a small scale with buns delivered to nearby Erie Spirit and Starry Horizons. Then it was on to the ritual making of our traditional Christmas Eve samosas to take to Alex and Diana’s Schnitzel Fest.

All day long the VHF radio piped up every half hour or so with a dire strong wind warning for Sydney Closed Waters, a sudden 180 degree change in direction and 30 kts with higher gusts. This is the situation we experienced last year when a 35 kt. buster slammed EV from behind so hard that it popped our anchor out and for the first time ever with our Rocna anchor we dragged through an anchorage. The warnings were absolutely specific that between 8 and 9pm this front would move across our position. We listened with increasing concern about leaving the boat in a crowded anchorage with nothing but potentially damaging obstacles on all sides. We decided to wait for the 4pm forecast hoping for a slight change in direction or intensity of the prediction. The updated forecast did nothing to allay our fears and we reluctantly called Diana to say we needed to stay on the boat because of the weather.

In the end, while the wind did pick up and a small thunderstorm blew through, we didn’t get anywhere near the predicted dangerous conditions and we could have safely left EV at anchor, but that’s boat life. When all you have is on one small floating vessel you really can’t take chances. We salved our disappointment with a few samosas and some wine and cursed the alarmist forecasters of the Bureau of Meteorology for screwing up our Christmas Eve.

Christmas Day was gloomy, chilly and breezy but at least there were no strong wind warnings. We left the boat just before 10am for the dinghy, bus and train journey to the suburbs for a mid-day dinner at the home of — stay with me now — the landlady for my brother-in-law who lived and taught here in Australia for a year after college 45 years ago. How’s that for a connection? Noreen and her three daughters and other family and friends made a lively and welcoming group and we were delighted to be included.

There was plenty of bubbly, an abundance of delicious food, great conversation, and most appreciated by us, the easy, familiar story-telling that families do when they have a virgin audience. This was the best part for us, as it was reminiscent of our many years at the holiday table of our adopted family of three Irish Cassidy sisters in Pittsburgh, where singing and storytelling is a finely honed art.

After lunch, while there was much bustling about readying the Christmas pudding, we were entertained by the matriarch Noreen relating what we came to understand is a well-rehearsed tale of a long-ago train journey from Sicily to Switzerland involving a husband who missed the train and a mother left with no passports or money and three children. “Two!” piped up the older two daughters. “I wasn’t born yet,” added the youngest.

There was much prompting and challenging from the listeners, with Noreen occasionally putting her foot down. “Let me finish!” And at each sticky moment in the tale, Noreen declared, “You can imagine, with three children…”


“I wasn’t there.”

At the end of the story, Noreen imparted her well-earned wisdom, “Never travel with three children.”


“I wasn’t born yet.”

We loved every minute of it and were sent home with bags full of chocolate, fruitcake, homemade jam and little gifts, including the most thoughtful gift of all, donations made in our names to CARE Australia of farm animals to families in need around the world. This is a generous and open-hearted family and we are so lucky to be included in their circle of friends.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!


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The view from the back porch

It’s quiet and peaceful on this Christmas Eve morning and I’m up early to make Philadelphia Sticky Buns. The weatherman predicts a strong wind warning for this evening but right now it’s dead calm and the birds provide the soundtrack for baking.

And the results are in.

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South and a reunion

After another week of waiting out the contrary winds we took the first opportunity to make the next leap toward Sydney. The wind was light to non-existent for the first few hours but then it filled in from behind and as our course curved around the coast we had a day of near-perfect downwind sailing with following seas and the East Australian current pushing us south.

It was just about as pleasant as it gets on EV. As day turned into evening the wind increased and eventually we lost the current and our perfect angle on the seas and life aboard got a little less comfortable. We made the decision to divert to Pittwater overnight before making the daylight run into Sydney and that got us excited to see our friends on Flying Cloud and Toucan again. When the wind eased we considered returning to plan A but by then we wanted to spend a few days with old buddies before installing ourselves in the big city for the holidays. We tiptoed around Barrenjoey at about 4am and dropped anchor, then made the short hop to where our friends are in the morning.

Once again, we have no photos of happy times catching up with good friends and putting in some quality time wandering the streets of Newport. We spent the weekend and sailed to Sydney on Monday morning.

A couple of boats we know are already in Blackwattle Bay but we chose to pick up a mooring in Rose Bay for a couple of days. We had another cruiser reunion when Christian, one of our East Coast cruising buddies, met us for breakfast, and we stretched our legs along the waterfront.

Rose Bay is fun but can be a little rolly. We motored the final few miles past the opera house and under the bridge to Blackwattle Bay, only to find it completely packed with big boats. The next best anchorage was also crowded and we ended up in the furthest, shallowest and least attractive anchorage in this neck of the woods, but it’s turned out to be safe and calmer than the rest and we’re ok with that for now. Plus the morning dragon boat training is getting us in the mood for Christmas.

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Finally the ascent

This is our third visit to Coffs Harbour and we’re finally walking up the hill on Muttonbird Island for the view over the sea and the harbor. We joined the crew of Starry Horizons for the short but steep track to the top and the inevitable photo op we cruisers long for as perpetual sea level dwellers.

Whenever we look out to sea from a safe harbor we experience a renewed sense of astonishment and pride that we’ve crossed that ocean in our small boat to get where we are. And sometimes when the wind is strong and the seas are up, as they’ve been lately, we’re grateful we’re not out there now but we’re also reminded that our sturdy boat takes care of us and can handle much more than we’re comfortable with. Still, this year we have no visiting family waiting for us in Sydney so we’re content to wait out the weather for now. Life’s definitely too short to voluntarily spend more choppy days at sea than necessary.

On the way down, sharp-eyed Amy spied an odd reptile identified by a local passerby as a blue-tongued lizard. Our photo prey had a stubby little tail and our informant told us the longer bit would have been sacrificed during an attack by a predator and will grow back. The blue tongue was not revealed to us, however much we must have annoyed it with our camera stalking.

Later a brief squall blew through and we were rewarded with a double rainbow. We hope it’s a good omen.

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Making lemonade

In hindsight we probably should have pressed onward toward Sydney, even though the weather wasn’t ideal. As it is, the day after arriving in Coffs Harbour the wind turned southerly now making the jump south impossible, and it looks like it won’t be changing any time soon.

One morning we heard a North American voice on the VHF radio reporting their arrival in Australia and requesting instructions for inward customs and immigration clearance. It was almost exactly a year ago that we arrived from New Caledonia in this very port so we were eager to welcome them.

They were instructed to anchor in the tiny mooring area for clearance, a daunting task as there’s barely room for the two courtesy moorings with a stone jetty on one side and a massive fishing pier on the other. Still, the sailors positioned their shiny new catamaran in the only tenable spot, closer to us and the other moored boat than you’d really want to be, but safe. I ventured out on deck and shouted over, “Welcome to Australia!” The young man on the bow yelled back, “Thanks! We’re glad to be here!” adding “My wife has read your whole blog!”

It’s not unusual these days. Everyone blogs. In fact you’re only unique if you don’t. Most of us do it because it’s the best way to bring our friends and family along for the ride, and to record for ourselves the experiences we’re having. I followed a lot of blogs when we were still at the dreaming stage, then as we began our journey I read blogs to learn specific ins and outs of the cruising life. We found our boat through the blog of the previous owners and reading every word of the entire four year circumnavigation convinced me that this could be our boat.

Now that we’re Out Here I have less time and bandwidth to keep reading many blogs and we mostly keep up with good friends or consult the blogs of people who’ve visited places we’re considering. An interesting evolutionary step in travel blogging is the move to video, or vlogs, especially among young people. We love that there are so many young couples and young families on long cruises, something that used to be very rare. I imagine more fluid career paths, the ability to work remotely, and the willingness to take a long sabbatical knowing you can always jump back in are all factors, but whatever the reasons, the fact that our community is multigenerational is as enjoyable as its multinational nature. We are always a gathering of very different people, with different reasons for being here, different backgrounds, different cruising destinations and long term goals, but with this one big thing in common, that we all choose to see the world by traveling the oceans in our own boats.

I looked up our new neighbors, Starry Horizons, and discovered they have an elaborate blog (as most of them are theses days; EV is woefully inadequate in the html department. Any volunteers to spiff us up?) and a popular YouTube channel. We applaud the effort they put into sharing their experiences with well-produced travelogues of the places they go. I know if these kinds of vlogs were online when we were planning for the cruising life I’d have been a dedicated subscriber to a lot of them. With high quality compact video cameras and especially drones, the footage can be stunning. When people find out our work life was in the video business they often ask why we don’t shoot video of our travels. “Too much like work,” we say, and when we saw, a few days later, David and Amy shooting a standup for their vlog, we appreciated once again how much time and energy it takes to put together a good video and how much we don’t want to be doing it. But it’s nice to see how many are, and hats off to them. They’re rewarded with thousands of loyal followers. You can check out Starry Horizons here.

Almost as soon as Starry Horizons got the anchor down Marine Rescue hailed them again on VHF and instructed them to proceed to a marina berth for clearance. I don’t think there’s much meaningful communication between Marine Rescue and Australian Border Force, but eventually Starry Horizons got cleared in and a few hours later we met the sleepy crew for happy hour along with the crew of Erie Spirit. It was the first time in recent memory we’ve been in company with two other American boats.

The weather continues to deteriorate and we’ve resigned ourselves to a prolonged stay in Coffs Harbour. We’ve overstayed our welcome on the courtesy mooring but rather than anchor in the rolly harbor we took a berth in the marina. A week at the dock will let us catch up on laundry, take long hot showers and give EV a much needed wash down. It’s all good.

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Moonlight on the ocean

You’d think after 20,000 nautical miles I’d be used to going to sea, but every time we leave the safety of inland waters or a secure harbour I’m full of low-level anxiety and trepidation. I consider that a good thing because it encourages us to go through our pre passage list again and again, checking that the rig is sound, that the dinghy is secured with additional lines, that everything is stowed properly, that our sea berth is set up comfortably, that we have easy food to eat, and so on. We missed one critical preparation, which we discovered while bouncing uncomfortably across the Southport Seaway bar and discovered we hadn’t taken off our deck level solar lights. We’d completely forgotten to reinstall our jack lines, the safety lines that run fore and aft on each side of the boat that we clip onto whenever we go out on deck underway. Oops. It will be impossible to get them secured properly in the choppy waves so we’ll just have to clip our tethers to deck fittings instead.

The wind was supposed to be easterly, a perfect angle for an overnight passage south to Coffs Harbour, but as usual, the weather people once again made only a stab in the dark and came up short. For the first eight hours or so we struggled to find a course and sail trim that maximized speed and minimized discomfort aboard. Line after line of squalls took the wind away or changed the direction of it, and my first night watch in months started out in exasperated futzing with the sails, turning the motor on and then off as the wind went from a useless 7-8 kts. to an acceptable 10-11 kts. but in the wrong direction. It’s times like this I wonder how I ever thought sailing was fun. To make matters worse, the boat we left with, a bigger monohull with much larger sail area, was miles ahead of us within hours.

Eventually, the wind settled into a steady direction I could work with, I trimmed the sails for comfort and speed, and with enough pressure to smooth out the ocean swell and wind waves, we started making serious headway toward our destination. At just that moment, a small hole opened up in the overcast sky and for the first time the sea was illuminated by a hazy moon.

The vision reminded me of the title page of this piece of music, written by my great-great uncle Theodore Boettger. As we passed the headlands, each lighthouse joined the moon in painting light over a sea that no longer shook Escape Velocity off her southward track, thanks to the steady breeze, now about 12-13 kts, and at EV’s favorite angle, just on the beam. The piece, published in 1873, consists of five pages of arpeggios.

I’ve never heard it. It’s beyond my ability to play, and I haven’t been able to convince anyone yet to try it. (Jack makes the generous offer of an official EV boatcard for anyone who will play it and post a recording we can listen to. He’s full of the spirit of giving for the holidays.)

I can’t help but think that regardless of what it sounds like, the undulating patterns of notes describe the motion of the ocean that we experience most days at sea. Occasionally we have more regular longer swells from behind, but more often than not we lurch and wobble with waves coming at us from two or three directions, making moving about onboard a funhouse dance.

At 1am I handed over command to Jack, who enjoyed another couple of hours of pleasant moonlit sailing before more squall lines and close encounters with passing ships interrupted the serenity of the night. I was aware even in sleep, as any short handed offwatch sailor is, of changes in sail trim, wind speed and course.

By dawn it was clear we’d arrive before nightfall, something that wasn’t guaranteed after our slow start the night before. Our wind direction luck held out for most of the day and after a final few hours of motorsailing we were able to pick up a mooring in Coffs Harbour four hours after our friends arrived. Not bad for our first overnighter in months.


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