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The view from the back porch

Shaw Island, where we’ve taken refuge because of a strong wind warning here in the southern Whitsunday islands. Facing west, the full moon. Facing east, the advancing front. We awoke in dead calm, but within 30 minutes the wind is in the 20s and strengthening. We are well hooked along with our six anchorage mates, making coffee and planning a day of reading and cooking.

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Stones like a brass monkey

By 08:30 our lines were eased and the morning sun began to peek out from behind Manly’s early morning dissipating clouds. The reason for such a civilized departure time was our goal just 25nm up the coast, still in Moreton Bay. Not without its hazards, the bay is huge but shallow with lots of things you can fetch up on if you’re not paying attention. The weather report looks good for sailing but we’ve heard that before.

First we thought we’d serpentine around Green Island and run the pass at St. Helena under power, where the water can get a little thin. As soon as we cleared St. Helena the breeze met us and we rounded up into the wind. With all standard sail flying I switched off Charlize, feeling that little tingle I always feel when the press of sail takes over.

This is just glorious in 9-15 kts of SE breeze doing 6-7kts. Soon we passed Mud Island and, in a first, we sailed right past the Brisbane ship channel where we usually turn and head up River to Brissie. Just a lazy sail past Bramble Bay in 25 feet of water now so no worries. Too soon, giving Castlereagh Point a wide berth, we entered Deception Bay where it gets seriously shallow very quickly.

Now Yours Truly doesn’t particularly care for creeping up closer and closer to a beach watching the depth sounder numbers get smaller and smaller and you’re never really sure about the state of the tides around here so at a certain point my courage ran out and we dropped the hook. With weather moving in we knew we hadn’t bought much protection from the expected 30kts of wind and the inevitable swell but I’d had enough. The problem is it’s said that waves will curve around a headland up to 30 degrees but my experience has been it’ll do more than that.

That night the squalls got well into the high twenties and we definitely weren’t in far enough to escape the worst of the swell so in the morning, after a rocky night, we decided to sneak in closer to Scarborough Marina, which friends in Manly told us was doable. Sometimes when they dredge out a channel they deposit the spoil right beside the channel, so if we approached the area in the channel, near where we wanted to anchor, we might not be able to cross over that suspected spoil area.

We came in beside the marked channel as far as we dared and dropped the hook, not as close as several catamarans had, but all that day we could hear it blowing but it hardly affected us. Like Bert Lahr used to say, “What have they got that I have not? Courage.”

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The ties that bind

Another easy day of motoring northward through the shallow waterways finds us approaching a Manta Convergence Zone. No, it’s not an underwater wonderworld of giant rays, but rather the homeports of three other Manta catamarans. Our boats enjoy a near cult-like following and our owners website with a private technical forum means we mostly know each other, if not personally then at least by boat name and often boat history. We share repair tips, upgrades and mods, and a general appreciation for our unique vessels.

Most Mantas are concentrated on the US East Coast and in the Caribbean, but there’s a growing South Pacific fleet and we’re hoping to meet up with a few of them here in the greater Brisbane area.

Our initial idea was to get the boats together for a weekend at some beautiful anchorage but we have an unpredictable cruising schedule and the crews of two of the other boats are still part of the working world. We hoped at least for a visit with Maggie and Peter of Shamara III. We met in Florida back in 2012 just after Jack and I bought Escape Velocity, and again a year later in Grenada. Six months ago they opened their home to us for an entire day of good eating and drinking, and of course admiring their late model Manta and all the beautiful and practical touches Maggie and Peter have added.

We made contact when we knew where we’d be and when, and to our delight not only were they home and up for a visit, but they convinced the others to drop what they were doing and join us. That’s what Manta owners are like.

Raby Bay is not the best of anchorages depending on conditions, but we were lucky the weather was settled and the holding is good. At the appointed hour we dinghied into the canals right to their house, admiring the shiny and pampered Shamara as we tied up.

Peter is an amazing chef and they’re both wonderful hosts. Soon we were joined by Terry and Coralie of Catalina and Glenn and Carol of Speakeasy, and we enjoyed non-stop bubbly, delicious food, and lots of Manta talk.

All three of these Aussie boats are a decade newer than our humble abode but all share the same basic design and layout, with the differences being in more subtle evolutionary tweaks during the production years, and interior finishes that were upgraded in later boats. Mechanical systems remained more or less consistent in all the boats so we can still share tips and tricks among us, even though our boat is hull #30 and theirs are #110, 111 and 114. Mostly we all learn from Maggie and Peter, who’ve owned their Manta the longest and are a treasure trove of experience and ideas.

The next day we motored a quick seven miles to Manly for a couple of days at a marina to do a provisioning top-up and knock a few more things off the list. The harbor is the home port of Speakeasy and we were wined and dined by Carol and Glenn at their club. After work the following day Carol drove us to Ikea so we could stock up on cheese (yes, cheese. Don’t judge) and gave us good tips on where to buy a few items we were having trouble sourcing. It’s good to have a concierge!

As reluctant as we are to leave the company of our Manta friends, it’s time to move on. We have a long way to go and the wind is in our favor. For now.

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A good day

Conflicted, I walked up the side deck, slipped the safety hook off the anchor chain and stepped on the black rubber UP button for the windlass. After stopping to retrieve the anchor bridal I settled into the oh-so-familiar weighing anchor routine. We have the chain marked with colored plastic biscuits every 25 feet, done up in five fashion forward colors. Every time I see a color approach the windlass, I have to stop, reach into the chain locker and move the chain castles away from the hawsepipe to keep the chain from jamming up the works. So I’m busy, but there’s time to look around a little and ruminate.

Boat Works, I notice, is already yanking them in and out of the river. I’ll really miss this first world access, make that 1-1/2 world access to boat parts. It’s not all about the bass, it’s all about parts! It always feels like we accomplished a great deal at these work stops, and we did, but the same old irritants are still staring at me. Mind you, there are very few world cruisers who can look you in the eye and say everything is sorted in A1 condition, and if he does he’s probably lying. I try to concentrate on the positives like the new clothes washer and Charlize, the new silky smooth diesel engine.

The anchor arrives at the surface encased in a ball of crushed shells and mud, requiring ten minutes of washdown hose work. We complain about the mess when we anchor in muck but the truth is this kind of sticky bottom means the holding is good and we don’t worry about the anchor dragging.

Back in the captain’s chair, I slip Charlize into gear and take a sip of hot steaming coffee out of my favorite red mug from The Black Dog café in Martha’s Vineyard commemorating our very first offshore passage in a friend’s boat nearly twenty years ago. With the early morning sun glinting off the muddy river we begin to glide down the Coomera River.

The goal for our first day out is a conservative distance to a popular anchorage called Tipplers Island. As we turn into the passage we see a lot of activity, on shore and in the water. This is a real party spot and it’s a long holiday weekend so the merrymakers are out in full force. There are campgrounds, resorts and even a café. We have trouble finding enough room to anchor Escape Velocity with float planes, ski boats, motor yachts, runabouts of all descriptions, wallabies on the beach, and the ubiquitous Ozzy Mozzies, jet skis.

The next the morning, after the party crowd leaves, we find a floating dock and an almost deserted island to walk around, and when the café opens Yours Truly finds Eggs Bennie on the menu. This is already a good day.

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Yanks and other yachties

It’s been so long since we’ve been in a boatyard I’d forgotten how social the environment is. Maybe it’s because there are so many boats thrown together for a brief period of high energy, maybe it’s because at the end of a day of hard physical labor you want to kick back with a coldie and bellyache about the long list of repairs, or maybe it’s just watching the bank balance drop precipitously and not caring anymore, who knows? In any case we end up having some fine times in the company of other cruisers whenever we pull in to get some much needed work done.

Our first boatyard experience in St. Augustine brought us together with the Boyer family, previous owners of Anything Goes. Then it was Moana Roa and the Haynes clan in Trinidad, and the Jameson/Fitzgerald troublemakers of Toucan in Whangarei. All memorable experiences that took the hurt out of hard work and draining pocketbooks.

This time, with two side-by-side boatyards and hundreds of boats coming and going every week, we had some fun meet-ups at one marina or the other. Most of the boaters were long-distance cruisers like us, but everyone was welcome at our potlucks at the barbie and often included local folks as well. It’s the kind of international social mix we’ve come to love about this life.

One Sunday we took the day off and spent the afternoon in clean clothes enjoying outdoor music and inexplicable stiltwalkers at an nearby plaza.

Inbetween the happy hours and potlucks we not only got our engine woes banished, we also fixed our tired freezer, replaced a broken watermaker pressure gauge, and ticked off a bunch of other small projects that had been cluttering up the list. The only think we couldn’t get fixed was the generator which has been low priority since we rely completely on solar power for battery charging. We don’t like having something onboard that doesn’t work even if we don’t use it, but the consensus seems to be that it’s stuffed and we’re looking at a complete replacement. So for now, it’ll stay on the list, to be dealt with after we win the lottery.

Meanwhile, the boats come and go. And we’re definitely ready to go.

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Getting down and dirty in Coomera

We woke up in Southport rocking to the wakes of frenetic Aussies determined to have a good time at seven on a Saturday morning, sounding for all the world like a plague of giant mozzies screaming around on their colorful but annoying jet skis. We decided to head up the Coomera River to the famous Boat Works Marina which we’ve been hearing about since we arrived in Oz. We’d been warned that it’s particularly crowded and without a reservation it might be tough but we’ve always believed in special dispensation for spunky fools, so we upped anchor and ran right into a healthy two plus knot current. Without the services of the “Evil Twin” (the starboard diesel) this may take a little longer than anticipated.

We eventually wiggled our anchor into an unoccupied spot just off Boat Works and slowly it dawned on us that they are closed for the weekend. Marce busied herself ordering a replacement clothes washer that she’s spent months researching. We are not fooling around here, and they deliver! The watery details of the delivery we’ll leave to personal charm, charisma and a positive attitude, or just refer to the spunky fools paragraph.

We dinghied over to the dock determined to hit the ground running, and immediately ran into friends from Sea Wolf whose advice on a good diesel mechanic is to talk to someone named Craig who Grant says is the only one he trusts with his engines. Fortunate because this is a vast complex with multiples of each trade and getting a personal recommendation is golden.

By Tuesday the women in the office, after a lot of boat jockeying, found dock space for Escape Velocity at, let’s just call it slip 9 3/4. It’s not an actual slip, just a walkway, and there’s no access to water and no electricity, just 3 cleats we can tie up to. I’d be embarrassed to tell you what those three cleats cost per week but that’s cruising. In the meantime plan A with the washer worked when a small but wiry guy showed up at the marina and we lugged the thing down the ramp, down the dock, and up onto the deck of EV. This has been a long time coming.

Later I charmed a soon to be ex-friend, using beer, into carefully manhandling the washer down four steps, through three doorways with doors removed, twisting, turning, tilting, straining everything, but we did it. I didn’t mention that the complicating factor with replacing the washer was that our boat is wired for North American electricity, 120v, and we are in the 240v part of the world. Our new 240v washer required me to install a 240v inverter. This is a pretty common solution among the North American boats we meet on this side of the globe. I think this means we are now truly international.

We’ve spent serious “boat units” on our starboard Volvo over the last year. (1BU = $1k) The mechanics we hired did everything but fix the problem, persistent smoking and running hotter than the port engine. I’ve been managing this thing since day one and we’ve decided that we will leave here with a permanent solution. Our new best friend Craig said he’s got the right guy who can start on the Evil Twin the next day. You can see how this works…this “spunky fools” thing. I admit now that I have great foreboding about where this Evil Twin fix is going.

Ok, the new guy is very young but he soon gains cachet with me by finding smoke coming out of the small coolant overflow tube. There aren’t many ways for that to happen, none of them cheap. Within a half hour we were looking at a shocking crack in the cylinder head. Well at least it’s just the head and not the whole engine. Volvo being Volvo, a new head shipped from Sweden costs double what a new Chevy V8 costs and will require us to cool our heels for weeks waiting for it to arrive. Turns out it’ll be cheaper and faster to buy a whole used D1-30 Volvo and my new best friend “J-Rod the kid mechanic” found two right here in Boat Works, with working alternators which is more than you can say about our engine. Now we start to imagine what this project will mean. J-Rod went over the two available engines and chose his favorite which has only 2,300 hours on it and he compared our old engine with the new engine, using the best bits from both.

With incredible energy and resourcefulness we somehow exorcized the Evil Twin from Escape Velocity and even more remarkably installed the very smooth running “new” engine. Of course this level of spending has to stop and with both engines we can actually maneuver well enough to leave the dock and stanch the financial hemorrhage.

Bobbing at anchor again off Boat Works we accepted that several important projects like a haul out and bottom job will have to wait for South East Aisa. In the meantime I’m really going to enjoy having two reliable engines.

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The view from the back porch

Look closely. There’s a kangaroo on the beach to the right of the plane.

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Monumental days

Life in Coffs Harbor was relatively easy after we negotiated a protected T-berth inside the marina. We must be getting soft, nevertheless we still unfolded the bikes and saw a little of the town. The seas were impressive and pounded the exposed massive granite blocks that make up the jetty wall, vibrating Escape Velocity and the marina water all around us. Sometimes spray would even shoot up over the jetty walls. Ten or twelve times a day huge trucks lumber down the jetty access road, wait until you’re not paying any attention and then, when you least expect it, tip the truck bed filled with those monumental stone blocks making a sound straight outa hell, scaring the bejesus out of Yours Truly every time.

So where was I? Oh yeah, several times a day we’d ride along the beautiful surf beach on the other side of those giant blocks and marvel at the very large waves curling in towards shore and, under our breath saying, “Glad we’re not out there.” Because that’s what we really are doing here. Waiting. Waiting for the North wind to switch to South and whatever’s causing all those combers to just cut it out. It helps that there are a lot of boats waiting for the same thing.

Marce, who feels compelled to read every sign and flyer pasted to every light pole, found a concert and foodie festival in a park near the marina. Just because you’re waiting out a Norther doesn’t mean you can’t have a little fun.

We really need two good days of South wind and reasonable sea state to make it up to Southport where we will see to some long deferred maintenance on EV. Southport Bar has a bad reputation for wrecking boats trying to enter the bar in anything but benign conditions. Trying to sneak through in deteriorating conditions would not be wise. Finally our singlehanded berth mate, Mr. Mojito, dropped lines at 04:00 with a planned stop at Yamba and we followed suit at a more respectable 08:00, favoring an overnight to Southport. Clearing Coffs jetty we found a decent SE wind so with all the laundry full and by we shaped a course north.

All and all we were having a good sail and at dusk our ETA at Southport, all things considered, would be quite early. Not an option against the tide. We reefed the mainsail for night running and when I came on watch at midnight the breeze was getting fluky. By dawn we were motor sailing and running into the stiff East Australia current further reducing our progress to barely 3 kts. With conditions deteriorating at Southport and precious little progress against the current, our ETA, barring some kind of miracle, would be well after optimum tide and in the middle of the night. We began to cast about for a plan B.

Finally we decided to turn around and tuck into Byron Bay, seven miles astern, where with any luck at all we might avoid the worst of the wind and building waves. As we sailed closer to the beach we could see five fishing trawlers anchored on the 30 foot depth contour. Good news or bad, we did the same. These two days we spent at anchor, waiting out the blow in rising seas were not restful. We’ll just leave it at that, but someone posted this photo on line asking who was this anchored off Byron Beach. Yeah, that was us.

We’d had enough of Byron Bay and Southport tower said “maybe” on the entrance to the bar. We said close enough, and we were off at dawn. Once again, as the day wore on, the tower said the entrance was iffy so try for late afternoon, closer to slack tide. By the time we arrived the tower was non-committal and no one was going in or out, but the later the better. Yours Truly has found that there are times in this life when you just gotta say fuck it, and jump in with both feet. One of my chief concerns was that the evil twin Volvo was not behaving and would only be available to the cause for brief emergency duty and there were breaking waves arriving at the entrance from several different directions. On the plus side we’d gone over the bar at Bahia del Sol, El Salvador and lived.

The tower gave us the southern vector approach which meant making a 50 degree turn after clearing the jetty wall. That’s about when I saw a breaking rogue wave coming across from the north. I was able to kick the stern around into the breaker avoiding broaching and manhandled EV the rest of the way in. As we turned to find the channel markers the tower called up and said, “That was a very nice crossing!” I actually got an atta-boy from the tower! Maybe I should retire. It’s always such a relief to glide into protected water and splash the anchor in peace and quiet with a “coldie” in hand, it’s hard to remember what you just went through. Which is probably a good thing.

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Northern hopscotch

Our first couple of days on a southerly breeze took us first to Lake Macquarie for a quiet overnight rest on a public mooring, then a pretty good overnight sail to Coffs Harbour with a few hours of frustrating struggle against the East Australia current thrown in for good measure. The southerly was predicted to continue and another day and night of sailing would get us as far as Southport but I wasn’t feeling well and wanted a break. I assumed the culprit was mal de mer but despite a preventive tablet I had symptoms that went beyond my usual first-day-out nausea and lethargy and I concluded I’d actually caught a bug somewhere. Thinking back it may also have been ill effects from a different medication I picked up for seasickness, as my tried and true remedy isn’t available here in Australia. In any case, we contacted Coffs Harbour Marina and they gave us the same good price on a slip as last time and I was happy to be tied to a dock and recover for a few days.

Unfortunately, those couple of days saw the end of our southerly and the beginning of a long period of north wind and building seas. Boats heading south happily left the harbor, while those of us wanting to go north had to content ourselves with boat chores and the patience we all learn when Mother Nature throws a spanner in our plans.

One day we got a call from Bruce on Toucan who told us to find a boat called Lukim Yu. They’re right near you, he said, and they’re good people.

This is not unheard of in our world. Every once in a while we get a call or an email from a friend pointing us to a boat nearby, urging us to make contact. “You’d love these guys,” they say, or “You’re anchored right near old friends of ours!”

At this point you might be wondering how they know where we are and where their friends are. Modern satellite technology is the culprit, often through Marine Traffic, an amazing website that tracks the movement of ships of all kinds all over the world. All commercial vessels are required to have a device onboard that sends and receives automatic position signals. Many privately owned vessels, like ours, also have the devices. We’ve learned that in the Atlantic and Caribbean, most yachts have AIS transceivers but the farther afield we sail the fewer vessels do. Luckily the practice is gaining as the cost of the technology comes down.

If you don’t mind falling down the rabbit hole of the internet for a while, check out the site (or download the app.) You can choose any place in the world and see what ships are there. Click on the symbol and get details on the ship and its destination, even the weather conditions where they are, a useful feature for us. You can also search for a specific vessel, say maybe Escape Velocity, and see not only our position but our most recent track. Often the data on private vessels is not quite up to date, owing to the fact that our devices are less powerful than the ones on big ships, but you’ll get the idea anyway. You may have to sign up for an account but its free and it’s fun. We track our friends this way, and also check sailing areas we’re headed for to gain helpful information like the correct line to follow when entering a reef, or whether any boats are crossing a river bar in current conditions. It’s great stuff and reminds me almost daily how much we value cruising in the era of modern communications and how much we admire the folks who did it with only a radio, a sextant, a good timepiece and paper charts. Hats off to them, but I prefer living in the future.

We found the crew of Lukim Yu and hit it off immediately as we knew we would. Bruce’s Seal of Approval hasn’t steered us wrong yet! Denise and Jamie are beginning cruisers but planning their first offshore passage to Lord Howe island, and that made me quite envious. We tossed around the idea of Lord Howe when we first arrived in Australia but got sucked into the city life of Sydney and never made it. Now we can follow their adventures vicariously, and you can too here.

The Lukims had a car and they took us for a road tour around the Coffs area, and they joined us to watch Formula 1 on EV. I know you can imagine how happy Jack was to find fellow fans to indulge in gear head chatter for a weekend.

For me, the best part of meeting Lukim Yu was Denise cooking Sri Lankan curry for us. Yum-O! We sure hope we meet up with them again some day, and to our cruising friends, if you find yourself sharing an anchorage with Lukim Yu, a Lagoon 380, pop over and say hello. They’re good people.

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The view from the back porch

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