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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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A social whirl

After a long time on our own, we loved having a family visit. And then, just as we were sinking into a bit of a funk after they left, we had another welcome social whirl.

We anchored near Cleveland close to the crews of two boats we haven’t seen or met up with for over three years. First we navigated into the canal community ashore until we found the beautiful Manta catamaran Shamara III, owned by Peter and Maggie Sharp. We first met them in Stuart, FL, soon after we bought Escape Velocity and spent an impromptu get-to-know-you on the dock before one or the other of us left the next day. A year later we spied them as we anchored in St. George’s, Grenada, and once again spent only a short time catching up before they sailed north to spend the hurricane season in St. Lucia. We gave them a couple of bolts of green marine canvas we weren’t going to use and they gave us what seemed like half their liquor supply in exchange.

We learned recently that there are at least five Mantas here in Australia and most are within shouting distance of this spot. We hoped to share an anchorage for a weekend, but most of the other boats aren’t available until mid-December and Jack and I are anxious to get south as soon as possible. That led us to the canal and Shamara III and a friendly welcome to the beautiful home of Peter and Maggie. Come for coffee, they’d said. Coffee turned into lunch and a ride to the chandlery for a new boat hook, then dinner and laundry facilities and loaned boat parts and a couple of bottles of bubbly and a day you only get when you spend time with people who own the same kind of boat and who’ve shared your unique experiences, albeit at different times. We were so chuffed to be with world cruisers again and the four of us chattered away until way past our bedtimes, so engaged in each other’s company that we forgot to take photos.

The next day we met up with Tom, the former owner of Dancing Bear, whom we met along with his crew Dirk in the Galapagos. Dirk met us ashore when we limped back to Isabella after our dismasting, and he and Tom, along with the crew of Qi kept us sane, entertained and on task as we made our preparations for the long motor back to the mainland to get rerigged. For that we are eternally grateful and it was a treat to relive Tom’s Pacific crossing and hear about his transition back to land life.

All good things must end and the next day we weighed anchor and started the slow and sometimes tense journey down the shallow straits of southern Moreton Bay to the Southport Seaway where we’ll once again take on the Tasman Sea to Sydney. Increasing headwinds convinced us to stop 15 miles short of our goal and we anchored at Jacob’s Wells for the night and continued at dawn for the final leg. It was a beautiful morning, still and full of birdsong.

A few hours later we were in Gold Coast, Australia’s answer to Ft. Lauderdale, anchored near Sea World, surrounded by more international boats than we’ve seen in months and buzzed nonstop by jet skis, helicopters, speedboats and this thing we haven’t seen since, oddly enough, Ft. Lauderdale. I don’t even know what it’s called.

We continued our social week with sundowners on Evenstar along with Erie Spirit, both American boats. Who’da thunk, after all this time?

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Bye-bye Brissy, for now

We suffered a letdown when Drew and Ericka left and we took a day to decompress, rattling around onboard and talking about the week and how wonderful it was to be with our family. It helped, I guess, that the rainy weather continued and it wouldn’t have done us much good to go ashore anyway, much as we were anxious to get moving south.

Eventually the clouds parted and we made a last foray into downtown Brisbane. On the pedestrian mall of Queen Street we were treated to a traditional dance troupe, as well as our favorite buskers, the Fergies, whom we’ve enjoyed a few times at the Sunday market in the botanical gardens.

It’s fun to be in a place long enough to know your way around, to have favorite shops and caf├ęs and people-watching spots. We’ve enjoyed Brisbane, but it’s time to leave. Just after dawn, before the ferries begin their inevitable roiling of the waters in the river, we dropped the lines holding us on the mooring poles and pointed EV downstream. The tide was coming in so we dropped the anchor at a convenient and safe spot to wait overnight for a more favorable current to push us out into Moreton Bay. It was the day before Thanksgiving in America and reading the posts about family gatherings and food preparations on social media reminded us of how much we’re missing so far from home.

We left the Brisbane River on an outgoing tide and bucked a bit of a headwind into Raby Bay as the Thanksgiving posts kept piling up. Thanksgiving for us has always been a 6-1/2 hour drive to my sister’s house in New Jersey, a day or two of prep and baking and a chaotic day of aunts and uncles and cousins we haven’t seen since the previous Thanksgiving and the requisite overeating, and of course, my sister’s pies.

The year Jack was getting chemo and radiation we couldn’t make the trip and had our own private Thanksgiving, no less meaningful for being quiet, but definitely not as much fun.

The year we sold our house, my sister and brother-in-law came to Pittsburgh to help us celebrate the end of a long chapter in our lives and the beginning of an exciting new one, and we made a full on T-Day dinner for four. With pies.

Wherever there are cruisers gathered there’s usually a potluck Thanksgiving dinner and we love being part of that surrogate family.

Our last visit to the States was timed to Thanksgiving and we once again enjoyed the big family gathering. And pie.

This year, we find ourselves alone and not even near other cruisers. We were both feeling a little down when Jack suggested we make a Thanksgiving meal with whatever we have onboard. As soon as got the anchor down in Raby Bay I searched the freezer and pantry for appropriate ingredients and we set to work.

Chestnuts we bought last year in New Zealand that I roasted, peeled and froze became a chestnut-sherry soup with sourdough croutons. Lingonberries from IKEA substituted for cranberries, spiced up with horseradish. Sweet potatoes became spiced oven fries. Frozen peas stood in for fresh green veg and became “World Peace” (whirled peas) and with no turkey, Jack grilled honey mustard chicken and I had grilled tofu. We topped it off with fresh mangos and blueberries. Not bad for a last minute Thanksgiving dinner. But we miss the family. And those pies. We hope your day was full of love and friends and family and that you have a sister who bakes.

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Way too short

After our spectacular day at North Stradbroke Island the weather turned against us and for the last few days of Drew’s and Ericka’s visit rain showers dictated what we could and couldn’t do. Sometimes they went off on their own to explore what Brisbane has to offer, and sometimes we met at a museum or for lunch or coffee.

They spent one gloomy afternoon and evening on Escape Velocity and while Drew attempted to troubleshoot our non-working SSB radio, Ericka took advantage of a break in the weather and paddled one of our kayaks up the Brisbane River and around the bend. I think she got a workout paddling back against the tide, but it’s one of the activities she wanted to do while they were here and I’m glad she was able to fit that in between showers.

After dinner that evening, as Jack ferried them back to the dinghy dock, they were treated to fireworks along the river, a fitting celebration of our time together.

On their last day we took in the little market in the botanical garden across the street from their hotel.

Once again, rain moved in and Jack and I retreated to Escape Velocity leaving Drew and Ericka to their own devices for their last afternoon. That evening they took us out for an early Christmas Eve dinner, Indian food, as is our tradition. For as long as Drew can remember, and for most of my adult life, we’ve spent Christmas Eve with the Cassidy family in Pittsburgh, enjoying a fantastic home cooked curry dinner. We haven’t been able to join the crew since our last trip to the States in 2014, so this thoughtful gesture reminded us of our tradition, and made us a little sad, too, because Drew and Ericka leave early tomorrow, and because another year has gone by without our Cassidy Christmas. But we’ll take what we can get, and being with these two has filled our hearts. We’re so grateful they came!

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A very full day

It had to be planed with military like precision. There were many individual interlocking parts all of which had to go off without a hitch, and to make it even trickier, good weather was imperative. This definitely was a job for Uber Marce. Yours Truly is more of a where-and-when-do-you-want-me-Hon kind of bloke. Drew and Ericka only have 7 days vacation here in Australia, and Brisbane, while nice, isn’t so very different from where they live in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. After spending a week anchored off Peel island and North Stradbroke Island we thought it would be nice to show them this iconic slice of Australian Beach. It quickly became obvious that to pile into Escape Velocity in Brisbane and steam down the river, cross Moreton Bay to the island –a whole day in itself — then hop on the bus out to spend the day at Lookout Point and then reverse the process, done properly would take three days. Not an option when you’ve only got a week.

M got to work. Turns out, after a short dinghy ride to the dock, we would take an early morning brisk walk to the train station, train down to Cleveland where we would hop on a shuttle bus to the docks, take a high speed ferry across Moreton Bay to “Straddie,” reconnoiter the ever so cute Dunwich Village, maybe see the Koala Bear reported to be hanging out at the grave yard, grab a bus to Lookout point, have lunch then hike the magnificent Gorge Walk, hopefully see some kangaroos, dolphins, turtles, mantas, maybe even whales and, given an excess of energy, take the thousands of stairs down to the amazing beaches. One very full day. Brilliant!

It didn’t take much to talk Drew and Ericka into it, but after an hour on the train and another half hour on the ferry they may have had second thoughts.

Ah, but then we were out of the city and back to where the sea meets the sky, our natural habitat.

Drew bought a hat and we had lunch with a view of the Tasman Sea, then we hiked the Gorge Trail that M and I so enjoyed a few weeks ago. We hoped for some wildlife and we weren’t disappointed. From the cliffs we saw sea turtles and manta rays, then as we followed the path around the gorge our sharp-eyed scientist daughter-in-law spied two kangaroos feeding on the other side of the gorge. We tiptoed around to where they were and watched them close up for a while until it was clear they had no interest in us and we walked by within six feet of them.

At the end of the gorge trail steps lead down — way down — to the beach. Drew and Ericka came prepared for some beach time and headed off on their own while M and I wisely got ice cream and stayed topside. We may have made it down, but there was no guarantee of getting back up again. If you look closely you can see the two little pinpoints of our nuclear family on the beach below.

Drew treated us to fancy cocktails at the same restaurant where we had lunch and we took the last bus back to Dunwich, the ferry back to Cleveland, the bus back to the train station and the train back to Brisbane. It’s a long journey but what a great day! Ericka said they liked it so much that if they ever come back to Australia they want to spend a few days on Straddie. We like it too.

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Family time

We made few plans for Drew and Ericka’s visit, mostly because we didn’t know how jetlagged they’d be, and because the weather has been unsettled of late, unlike the weeks of glorious sunshine we’ve enjoyed up til now. We approached each day as a blank slate and let the hours unwind.

Luckily Brisbane is a compact and walkable city with parklands, museums, shops and markets in any direction and the free downtown ferry takes the strain off Jack’s deteriorating knee.

Jack and I wouldn’t have cared where in the world we were, it was just such a pleasure to be with these two, catching up or talking about nothing in particular. They are easy company and we’re reminded of how precious our time together is.

Most of the time I forgot to take pictures and of course now I’m kicking myself.

During their visit Australia announced the results of a postal vote on whether the country should embrace marriage equality, and I’m happy to report they voted overwhelmingly YES. The vote only suggests the government should legislate to reflect public opinion, but we were pleased to be here during a historic move forward on civil rights. There were celebrations country-wide, including a huge rally here in Brisbane, and in the evening the Story Bridge was lit in rainbow colors, a beautiful view from the back porch.

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