Leap of faith

The rain finally stopped, the sun came out and with it a full horizon-to-horizon rainbow. Boaters everywhere see rainbows all the time but we don’t often see a full one. We took it as a good omen that maybe we can continue our journey north. The weatherman predicted about a day and a half of break from the unfavorable winds, and especially a reduction in the sea state before it kicked up again later in the week. We needed about 20 hours to reach the protected waters of Moreton Bay and more winds were predicted in a few days’ time. We had a decision to make: go now or wait at least another week. We decided to go. 

Motoring over the river bar we almost regretted our decision. We timed the tide exactly right, but the increased swell coming in off the Tasman Sea gave us about 30 minutes of slamming into big waves and kept Jack hand steering to avoid possible breakers. We finally got past the most uncomfortable bits and out into open ocean but I was glad I’d downed a seasickness tablet before we left. 

It’s been a while since we did any night sailing and being a little out of practice made me somewhat nervous as the sun went down. I told Jack I wasn’t sure I could do our usual 6-hour watch, especially being close to shore and having to dodge rocks and small islands, not to mention the possibility of hitting a sleeping whale. Since we were close to shore big ships weren’t a problem as they stay further out but fishing boats are generally everywhere and most don’t have AIS, the identification system that alerts us to nearby vessels and warns if we’re in danger of a collision. 

On night watches at sea, where our concerns are more for our own vessel and any threatening weather, we feel safe taking 15-minute capnaps, making a long watch less exhausting. But here, sailing inshore, we must stay vigilant every minute, checking the chart, identifying navigation lights, tracking other vessels, monitoring the radio. Surprisingly, I made it through my six-hour watch more easily than I thought, perhaps because of the constant focus it required. Nevertheless I was glad to wake Jack at midnight and crawl into bed. 

By morning we knew we would reach the river bar too early and we slowed down as much as we could. I called Marine Rescue for a report on conditions and they told me to call back when it was light enough for them to see. A half hour later they were happy to report a calm entrance and that’s what we got. As always, Jack piloted us expertly in following the route marked on the chart and we were in calm and safe waters in no time. 

High winds were predicted for late that night so we took shelter behind a low island and dropped anchor in very shallow but calm water. It was dead quiet except for a symphony of early morning birdsong. We dozed and puttered about the boat all day, happy to have finally reached Queensland. 

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Shelter from the storm

It isn’t really a storm, but a stationary wet system stirring up the seas and dumping a lot of rain. When the wind picks up, as it does every other day or so, it’s only for a few hours and not enough to get fussed about. Still, it’s keeping us from moving further up the coast, not just because of conditions outside, but because the river bar is stirred up and not safe. Day after day we hear boats calling Marine Rescue asking about conditions, and time after time the boats inch up to take a look then turn back to safe harbour. Even the fishermen are waiting it out, and they usually go out in anything short of gale force. 

The water tank is full and we wish, in times like this, that we had more capacity so we could take advantage of this free pure water. I take the opportunity to do some thorough boat cleaning which we need after so many months in the city collecting the airborn grime and dust. This is another of those boat life challenges. When we’re in populated places, the water is often not clean enough to run the watermaker so we need to use less water, especially for nonessentials like boat cleaning. When we’re in less populated places the water is usually cleaner and we can run the watermaker to our heart’s content but the boat also doesn’t get as dirty because we’re away from manmade pollutants. 

We’re boatbound most days and we’re taking on some of the back burner jobs we’ve been avoiding. As part of my bridge deck scrubbing project we did a little storage rethinking and moved some long term items out of short term spaces and vice versa. I also pulled out our huge collection of older CDs that were packed away when we moved aboard and haven’t seen the light of day since. I spent two days digitizing them to add to the rest of our music collection, all on hard drives. 

It took us a few years but we finally have an easy to use system for playing music onboard. We have a double din car stereo that plays CDs and DVDs and accepts inputs via USB or Bluetooth. We used to load up a 64gb USB stick with music and play from that, but the indexing on the stereo is cumbersome and you have to stand next to the screen to choose a particular song. Still, it worked well when we just hit shuffle and let it do its thing, with the ability to skip a track with the remote. 

Last year Drew sent me an unlocked android phone and a 128gb microSD card. We loaded it up with tunes and paired it to the stereo via Bluetooth and now we can play any cut we want from anywhere in the boat. Most of the time we still use shuffle but our collection is so huge and eclectic that we often need to consult the phone screen to identify the artist or album. They say the memory is the first to go. 

I know most landbased people have moved to streaming services like Spotify but our internet access is usually metered and often not fast enough to stream. We’re glad to have a big enough collection that we don’t get bored, but of course keeping up to date is a challenge. 

Now that I have all the older CDs digitized I need to find a home for them. They take up a surprising amount of space and I’m keen to get the weight off the boat. Next project will be digitizing the DVDs, a much slower process. 

We go ashore between showers to stretch our legs and buy fresh fruit and vegetables but mostly we’re waiting. 


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On dry land

We knew high winds and unfriendly seas were moving in and we’d heard from friends that Iluka is a good place to be to wait out bad weather. The town basin tames the ocean swell, and the holding is good. We settled in for a wait. The funny thing is, we’re always happy to be in a nice place when we have to sit tight for a while, but if the weather’s bad we don’t get to do much anyway. In this case we knew we’d have at least one more day of fine weather and we took the opportunity to stroll through the Iluka Nature Reserve, part of the much larger Gondwana Rainforest, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

This is far different from the slip-slidey trek we made in El Yunque, Puerto Rico, or the multi-fording odyssey to one of the world’s tallest waterfalls in Nuku Hiva, Marquesas. For one thing, it’s drier, much like the dry open forest where we come from in Pennsylvania. And while some of the trees look familiar from a distance, they are species adapted to the harsh salt environment. 

We’re finding bird life in Australia even more varied and lovely to listen to than in New Zealand. As we walked through the forest we stopped frequently to listen to the birdsong, musical, insistent, urgent, playful. We haven’t devoted time to identifying birds and often can’t even see them, but their calls are always entertaining. 

The forest track ended at Iluka Bluff, a rocky headland pounded by the surf and marked by millennia of wind and sea erosion. 

We spent quite some time appreciating the gallery of art by Mother Nature. 

Another path leads to the top of the bluff where a viewing platform offers a wide vista for spotting passing whales. There were none today, though, as the sea along shore was too rough for a close approach. Still, I was visited by a butterfly who must have thought my jacket marked me as kin. It stayed with me as we ate our picnic lunch and even followed me for a while as we started back down the hill. 

As predicted, that was the last sunny day we’d have for a while. 

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 Straight outa Pittwater

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. 

We made it. Not without drama, but we made it. By the time my heart slowed down enough to focus I hadn’t seen where they had gone. Bill was waiting at the marina with drinks. Nice touch.

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.

A large pod of our very wet, air breathing brothers, attaches themselves to EV and we are entertained for hours. Dolphins are not an everyday occurrence on EV.

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.

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The view from the back porch

Coffs Harbour, NSW

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More goodbyes

Diana and Alex, of the dearly departed (sold) Enki II, made the arduous drive through Sydney traffic a couple of times to hang out on EV and soak up the autumn sunshine. We took a stab at the world’s problems, ruminated on future plans and just generally reveled in each other’s easy company. 

We don’t know if another boat is in their future, but Alex felt right at home stretching out in the cockpit. 

Days like this and the company of friends made it hard to tear ourselves away and head north to shorts and t-shirt weather. But we do need to get going. 

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The view from the back porch

Pelicans awaiting sunrise, Tuncurry, NSW, Australia. 


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That sinking feeling

The pressure on Yours Truly had been building for quite some time. As crew repeatedly informed me, all the skippers are doing it, nothing could be easier and it’s free! What could go wrong? The list boggles the mind, but I’m man enough to know when it’s time to give up. Tomorrow morning I was resigned to doing something that I’ve spent most of my adult life trying to avoid. I would pilot our beloved home Escape Velocity over to a shallow spot on the beach and run her aground. Well, with any luck at all it would be more controlled than that but that’s pretty much what it adds up to. The plan was to hold EV over the Golden Spot with anchors and chains and slowly sink down with the ebb tide until she was resting on the bottom of the bay. We call this careening which avoids expensive marinas so that bottom can be scraped, protective zincs can be replaced and even those with an excessive over abundance of energy can slap on anti fouling bottom paint. This golden spot had to be really shallow with only a meter and a half tidal range so we’d lose the anchor and backup to the, oh let’s just call it the GS. Things went pear-shaped pretty quickly when, as we fought to back up to the GS, the depth sounders jumped from the expected four feet to fourteen feet. No, no this won’t do. A fourteen foot hole could cause catastrophic damage, bad enough that when the tidal flood waters came back we just might stay on the bottom of the bay. Sounds like an old blues tune where the guy sinks to the bottom and drinks himself up dry! 

Now where was I?

This was pretty much reasons 1 through 7 on my list of why we shouldn’t do what sailors call careening. After three tries, unsure if the problem was technical or if there really were unlikely deep holes in an otherwise benign shallow beach, we decided to poke around in CatNip with a boat hook. So it was back to good old number “14” mooring ball and a fair amount of good natured ribbing at sundowners that evening.

Now my Dutch was up. I don’t like it when my Dutch is up. I become determined, driven, and not the fun-loving guy you might think of me as, plus it can lead to…damage. The following day I found the new GS quickly and backed up until we felt that EV was aground! I hopped down into chilly water clear up to the thermometer, stumbled around to the front of EV where Marce was lowering our main anchor down into my waiting arms. It was a case of, yeah I have it/no I don’t have it kind of thing. You can’t imagine how difficult it was just to walk through this stuff and adding a fifty pound anchor and heavy chain made it nearly impossible. This is how we would later kedge EV off the beach, with any luck at all. Finally I gave a push to the thing, just missing my feet and wobbled back to the stern to run a stern anchor back farther up the beach. I was exhausted!
Now to await the ebb tide. Too soon I thought I’d better get started. I could see about a foot under the water line. It was tough scraping even with my heroic efforts in Blackwattle Bay. Every step threatened a lurch and fall back into the water. Hey, shouldn’t there be less water by now? We seemed to have sunk down into the soft bottom so instead of sitting proud of the bottom EV had sunk down into it, putting pressure on the saildrives. I couldn’t even see the propellers. That would be reason three of seven on my list of why we shouldn’t careen the boat. I had to lie down face first in the water and dig sand away from the blades just to scrape them. With Marce’s help we cleaned everything we could see. Periodically passers-by would come down the beach for a chat. I was a man on a mission so I just told them where the scrapers were. No takers. 

Eventually the flood waters caught up to us and it was time to collect all the broken scrapers and wait for Escape Velocity to swim again. As I climbed the swim ladder I thought my god we haven’t taken one photograph. All I would have to do, Dear Escapees, is climb up into the cockpit, grab the camera, climb back down and stagger across the rapidly flooding soft muck without falling into the water with the camera, take the snap, safely wade back to the swim ladder and climb back up into EV. 

I wasn’t able. You’ll just have to take my word for it.


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Cocooning back home

Our trip back to Escape Velocity was long but without drama. It started with the middle of the night wake-up call, a 45-minute shuttle to the airport with ten other sleepy people, a 6am flight to Brisbane, then a four hour layover before our final flight to Sydney. That was followed by a half hour train ride and a 70-minute bus ride, and finally a two block schlep with luggage down to the dinghy dock where Di picked us up and ferried us to Toucan to be welcomed home with cold beer and hugs. It was good to be back home and I didn’t even tackle the unpacking for two days. 

Escape Velocity is down there somewhere.

We went from two layers of fleece back to thin jackets and the glorious sunshine beckoned us outside every day. The Toucs suggested we climb Barrenjoey to the lighthouse before we venture north for the winter so we loaded the matching picnic backpacks we both bought in Whangarei and joined what seemed like the rest of Pittwater on a beautiful Sunday afternoon to see just how much fitness we gained hiking in New Zealand. Not much, we discovered. 

Barrenjoey is the long thin stickout we sheltered behind at midnight when we first sailed south to Pittwater last December. 

“It’s a tombolo,” said Bruce, our resident smarty-pants. It’s a what? A tombolo, he told us, is a bit of land that was once an island and is now connected to the mainland. That’s a new one on us but obvious once we knew what we were looking at. 

The day was crystal clear and the view fom the lighthouse spectacular. We took pictures of each other and as always Jack was enlisted to photograph passersby. He has the look.

We ate lunch on a flat rock warmed by the sun, happy to be in the company of friends, sad knowing that we will leave this place that’s been a comfortable temporary home. We’ll be back in the Spring, of course, but saying goodbye to people and places never gets easier, no matter how much we do it. 

Australia is huge and there are so many places we want to see, but we’ve enjoyed Sydney and this special corner of the country so much that it’s hard to leave. We still have boat work to do and general planning and organizing for the thousand mile journey to warmer weather and time’s a-wasting. Play time’s over. Back to work. 

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Invasive species or biodiversity?

I have some final thoughts on New Zealand, and I hope people smarter and more educated than I am on this topic can shed some light on the Darwinian conundrum of New Zealand’s relationship with wildlife. 

Let me say first that we love New Zealand. Who wouldn’t? The beauty of the landscape defies description. The people are warm and welcoming. Nature and the outdoors inform the culture. The people take pride in how green the country is, both literally, in the lush vegetation, and politically, in their no-nukes, clean energy, reduce-reuse-recycle way of life. 

That said, we noticed almost immediately when we first arrived in Opua last year and again on this trip to the South Island the complete absence of terrestrial wildlife. There are birds and there are fish but last year when we first went ashore to hike the tracks in the Bay of Islands the only evidence of animal life we saw were the many traps to catch stoats, an animal we had never heard of and which, we soon learned, is considered an “invasive species” to be eradicated. Our education in what Kiwis consider pests continued when we saw a vendor selling hilarious taxidermy of another animal we couldn’t identify and which turned out to be an unfamiliar species of possum. They are killed without mercy and their fur spun with wool and sold in tourist shops as sweaters, hats and gloves. 

We come from a place rich in wildlife, the hardwood-forested Western Pennsylvania, where on my morning walks in the local city park I was guaranteed to see squirrels, chipmunks and deer, and occasionally a fox or raccoon. The sounds of small animals scurrying in the undergrowth make the woods feel alive. All across America you’re likely to find yourself up close and personal with animals, from jackrabbits in the West Texas desert to coyotes in the Sonora to elk in the mountain west, alligators in Florida, black bears in the upper Midwest, iguanas in the Virgin Islands. We love them all. 

For us, encounters with animals are part of the joy of travel. It was always a delight to suddenly come across monkeys and sloths in Costa Rica and Panama, tortoises and iguanas in the Galapagos, pigs in the Marquesas, goats and sheep all over the Caribbean. Unexpected close encounters with wild animals are some of my most cherished memories. By contrast, the only animals we saw in New Zealand were behind a fence. We never heard the telltale rustling of leaves or saw a pile of scat that hints at a hidden creature nearby. The landscape is sterile. Beautiful, but empty and silent.

We mentioned this several times to Kiwis we met and always got the same answer. There are lots of animals, they told us defensively, and went on to talk about the abundant bird and sea life. But what about land animals? Again, the answer was always the same. They are “invasive” and threaten the indigenous species of birds or plants and need to be eradicated. 

“I think they must be taught this in school,” Jack said, because it sounded like doctrine. We read that New Zealand originally had no native mammals beyond a few species of bat. Then European settlers brought rats, cats, possums, deer, goats, pigs, weasels and others, all of which are now considered pests because they disrupt the delicately balanced ecosystem that existed hundreds of years ago.

I struggle with this notion. What moment in time, I wonder, do we designate as Year One, the baseline of an ecosystem beyond which any introduced species is considered invasive? Who decides that change stops now? Or 100 years ago? Or 500? (Listen to an insightful podcast on this issue here.)

This notion is not limited to plants and animals either, as I can think of some religious sects who’ve chosen to remain at a particular period of time as to mode of dress and the rejection of technological advancements. Isn’t time a river? Isn’t change changeless? If evolution is constant, why do we designate a species invasive instead of an example of survival of the fittest? Why do the English want to eradicate the gray squirrel to protect the red squirrel, when the gray squirrel is the more successful species? When is a non-native species valued and allowed to find its place in an ecosystem vs. categorized invasive and marked for death? Can we control nature? Should we try? (John McPhee tackles this question in “The Control of Nature.” He comes at it from the perspective of a geologist, but the quandary is the same.)

I poked around on the internet for answers and found a forum of biologists among whom the consensus seemed to be that science doesn’t decide the value of a species relative to another, but politics and economics do. And with that, the lightbulb went off. In New Zealand, the only non-native species that seem to be valued and protected are the sheep and cows farmed for food. In recent years they’ve added deer and it was a shock to our North American sensibilities to see herds of deer in pastures in the daylight. Where we come from deer are largely nocturnal and live in the woods. “We call them venizon,” a Kiwi friend told us, because they’re only raised to be eaten. That made me sad.

All of this gets to the heart of my discomfort with New Zealand and it’s relationship to animals. The only animals they value are raised to be killed and eaten. As a Buddhist, I’m troubled by the selective lack of affinity for fellow creatures of the earth, by the offhanded way Kiwis explain that whole species must die because they prefer other species to live. We never heard anyone express a fondness for animals beyond their pets — birds and sea life, yes, but small mammals? No. I don’t mean to paint Kiwis as cruel and heartless. On the contrary, they are kind and wonderful people. But their culture does not value or nurture a relationship with animals and as much as we loved New Zealand, we never quite got over the silence of the land. 


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