Closing down sail

It was to be my last sail on Jackella, our 43-foot steel yacht that had been our liveaboard cruising home for the last seventeen years. We had set off from Gibraltar in October 1988, heading for the Canary Islands, Gambia and Brazil on what we thought at that time was to be a three- or four-year circumnavigation.

We soon adapted to the voyaging way of life. We met other bluewater sailors and made friendships that last to this day. With practice, we perfected our voyaging skills until sailing our yacht became second nature. We happily lavished hours on maintenance and minor repairs to keep it to the standards we had set ourselves. In return, it became our home and also our means of transport, to sail to wherever we chose, to move on if we didn’t like a place, to linger if we did. At the end of the four years we were still in Australia, preparing to continue our voyaging.

But now we had found a buyer for the boat. We were selling it largely for family reasons. At home in Europe, our grandchildren were growing into their teens. We had seen very little of them over the years — the downside of our long voyage. Also the years were advancing. Everyone seemed to think it was time we went home and settled down — a prospect that was in stark contrast to our happy, wandering lifestyle. At that time, we were on a mooring in the sheltered waterways of Pittwater, 20 miles north of Sydney. We had sailed there because we were told it was a good market for used boats.
We felt strangely out of place in Pittwater, however. Somehow this made us feel even worse about selling the boat. The foreshore was built up with smart houses and private jetties. We were surrounded by modern yachts that looked as if they never sailed anywhere except in the summer and on occasional weekends. The palatial edifice of the Royal Prince Alfred Yacht Club was just across the fairway. There was none of the easy-going, drop-in socializing that most voyagers love — and we missed it.
A buyer emerges
When finally, after several months, we found our prospective buyer, he was from Tasmania, where we ourselves had been based for a few years, where we still had a rented cottage near the marina in which Jackella had at times been berthed and from where we had cruised the islands of the Pacific.
He and his wife flew to Pittwater, spent most of the weekend thoroughly looking over it and liked it. Naturally, they wanted it delivered to Tasmania, which, subject to survey, we agreed to. What pleased me most was that they were planning to sell their business and take off on an extended voyage. Jackella would continue to fulfill its role as an ocean-going vessel.
It is 600 miles from Pittwater to Hobart, the capital of Tasmania. The course lies along the route of the annual Sydney-Hobart race, which nearly always runs into stormy weather on the 200-nm crossing of Bass Strait. In 1998, a violent storm decimated the fleet and six sailors lost their lives, one of them British.
But a voyaging yacht, with no schedule to keep, can choose its weather; the strait can at times be sunny with light winds. Lella and I had some years earlier cruised the little-known islands of the Flinders Group, visiting small, cut-off communities of fishermen and farmers, and for the most part had experienced peaceful, summery weather.
But on this occasion Lella decided to fly to Tasmania and get the cottage ready: if we sold the boat we would need it.
Before she left, we met Peter Chappelow, who was voyaging with his wife. He was stocky, powerfully built and wizened, as if pickled in salt water and sun. He was ex-commodore of the nearby Port Stephens Yacht Club, had cruised extensively on the coast of New South Wales and had taken part in ocean races; but he had never sailed across Bass Strait and wanted “to see what it was like.”
A third crewmember
At the last moment we were joined by a new crewmember named Christopher. He was the very opposite of the rugged-looking Peter: bleached by city life, inexperienced as a yachtsman, sensitive, on the defensive; but, unlike Peter and I, beautifully turned out in brand new, state-of-the-art Gor-tex foul weather gear, white wellies, and in the way of accessories had an expensive camera, wrap-around dark glasses and white gloves. He was a naval architect, he told us.
The forecast on the day of our departure was for a light northeasterly, but there was no wind at all. We rolled southward off the sunlit beaches of NSW in a leftover ocean swell with the usual problem of a relentlessly slamming mainsail — in the end we took it down. I decided to put into Sydney Harbor until we had some wind.
We anchored in Spring Cove, just inside North Head, near Manly, a snug anchorage away from the harbor ferries. A yacht from Guernsey was anchored up ahead of us, but its crew was ashore, so we couldn’t meet them — it’s a small world for voyagers, and we like to swap news.
The next day was just as sunny and as windless. It is unusual to have calms on this coast, which is better known for its fronts that move up from the south and sometimes bring rolling, cigar-shaped clouds, a sure sign of an approaching “southerly buster” with gale-force winds or worse.
Along that coast, Eden is 200 nm to the south from Sydney, and en route there is only one all-weather shelter, Jervis Bay, 80 nm away. I had it in mind as a possible refuge from southerly busters and other undesirable weather systems when we finally set off.
As we cleared the famous Heads, Christopher pointed out to me that I was steering too close to the shore. According to the chart, we had many meters of water under our keel and there were no dangers ahead, but I didn’t tell him so. I also didn’t tell him that one of the worst errors on Jackella is to tell the skipper how to sail his boat — perhaps I should have done.
Reading the signs
There was still little wind, but the forecast was for NE 13 to 18 knots with a trough approaching from the west. In the afternoon, as we sailed slowly to the south, helped by the East Coast Australian current, which flows at anywhere between 2 and 4 knots, there were clouds to the west over the land, and then came a light misty rain, a sure sign of the approach of the trough. Off the southern end of these troughs, which is where we were, nasty lows sometimes develop very suddenly.
I decided on Jervis Bay for the night. Its rocky entrance is marked by a lighthouse that stands on low cliffs on this otherwise unlit shore.
But first of all, we had to work our way round the John Young Banks, a series of shoals that extend six miles offshore. This is where GPS and echo sounder are very useful: formerly, navigating by DR (dead reckoning), we would have had to give them a much wider margin, especially in a current carrying us to the south and on to them.
Peter was on watch with me as we approached the entrance to the bay. It was pitch dark and raining. We groped in under mainsail only. The holding is poor, due to extensive patches of sea grass, but somehow in the inky, dripping blackness, we found one of the two courtesy buoys, both of which were vacant. The buoys are put there because conservationists do not want us to anchor in the grass. It was 0100 before Peter and I had secured to the buoy, stowed our dripping sails and tidied up.
The whole of the following day visibility was down to less than a mile — the cloud was just above our heads — and drizzly rain persisted. We remained on the buoy. Jervis Bay is a large empty stretch of water several miles across, surrounded by bush and scrub. An Australian naval training college was hidden among the trees, but we were the only boat in the murk.
Over breakfast, a visibly angry Christopher demanded to know why he had not been called for his watch at midnight and accused me of always favoring Peter. I explained to him that I hadn’t seen any point in all three of us getting soaking wet for a relativelys simple and unexciting maneuver. But he was not to be appeased.
Bailing out
When we left Jervis Bay it was still raining. Two days later, after a rainy passage, Eden was blanketed out by thick fog. We groped in and anchored in seven meters off the canning factory, well clear of the wharves. Five minutes later, Christopher extended his hand and said, “No hard feelings, Jack, but I’d like to get off here.”
No explanation was given. It had been obvious from the start that he and I were not on the same wavelength, but there had been no open clash. But, if he was unhappy with me, or felt there would be clash, he did the right thing in getting off the boat. Peter took him ashore.
The next morning, Wednesday, Peter and I got our anchor and sailed across the bay to the southeast. The sun shone for the first time in three days. We reckoned we had until Friday to make the 200-nm Bass Strait crossing before the next front hit us. Our barometer was steady at 1,015 millibars. A low pressure had formed off Adelaide and was expected to pass to the south of Tasmania and bring gale force westerlies, but we hoped to be in the lee of Flinders Island by then.
As we made for Cape Howe on the southeast extremity of the Australian continent, the wind was NNE, 15 knots, and gave us a southerly course, a little east of the rhumb line. Later, it became more northerly and pushed us yet more to the east, to the edge of our Bass Strait chart, Aus 422. The barometer was down to 1,012 millibars.
In the night we gybed and came back on the chart. The next morning there was a bank of low cloud above the horizon to the west, and as the day wore on it spread toward us — the advance guard of the front. The barometer was down to 1,008 millibars. In the afternoon the wind fell light. Peter coaxed Jackella along at 2 knots. It began to rain.
Then the wind sprang at us from the southwest. We had already dropped the mainsail, but the headsails flogged uncontrollably, and by the time we had rolled in the genoa the staysail was in tatters.
We set the trysail, which was already bent on with its slides in its own mast track, and lay hove to on the starboard tack. The wind was 35 knots and rising. At least we had sea room; we were in the middle of Bass Strait, 40 nm from Flinders Island. The low had moved much faster than forecast.
Heavy weather in the Strait
The wind continued to increase. I noticed that the lines on Peter’s weathered face had tightened. But I was not unduly worried: hove to with just the trysail and the wheel secured with a loop of shock cord, Jackella lies quietly like a big, bobbing duck, drifting to leeward at about one knot, and creating a protective slick on the weather side that has the effect of preventing seas from smashing against the hull — though occasionally one does break through.
I said to Peter, “This is what you came to see …”
He looked glum.
To cheer him up, I said I thought it would soon be over, if the low was fast moving surely its attendant front would soon move away.
But it didn’t. We were hove-to until until 1700 on the following day (21 hours). We got hit hard once or twice, but there was never any danger, though Peter was not quite as sure of this as I was.
The wind went westerly and reached 45 knots, gusting at 50 to 55 knots. The seas were not as big as they might have been. Flinders Island to the SW was giving us a bit of a lee, or at least a shortened fetch. We kept a lookout day and night, but there was very little chance of meeting another vessel. All Bass Strait fishermen were at home watching the telly.
Run-in with an albatross
The rest of the voyage was uneventful — well, almost. To our everlasting shame and chagrin we caught an albatross!
We were trolling a couple of fishing lines off the Tasmanian coast. One of the two albatross that had been soaring and gliding superbly across our wake us must have dived on the lure. He was hooked in his body and we were towing him backward.
The strange thing was that other albatross appeared from nowhere and dived and swooped frantically overhead. Peter and I were aghast. We reduced sail, but the bird was heavy and we were unable to reel it in to the boat. In the end, very regretfully, we had to cut the line. Thoughts of Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” flashed through my mind and I wondered how we were ever going to expatiate the terrible curse of killing an albatross.
At least the bird was hooked somewhere among its feathers: the hook was not stainless and would rust away. With any luck it would live. That could have been the case, because the breeze continued to blow, neither Peter nor I fell down dead and nor did it become “ … Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.”
By now we were behind schedule and I decided to make for Blackman Bay and cut through the Denison Canal, a route that cuts off the whole of the southeast corner of Tasmania and avoids working round solitary Tasman Island and beating across Storm Bay — always strong headwinds — a saving of a whole day.
But it’s a tricky passage of shallow water and shifting sands. Even local fishing boats have been known to go aground there. The markers are not reliable because the channels are constantly changing. At the entrance to Blackman’s Bay there is a bar, which must be crossed at high water. We radioed Tascoast Radio, Hobart, for tidal information. High water at the bar would be 2 hours and 16 minutes after high water at Hobart; the bar should only be crossed in settled weather, we were told. We planned to arrive an hour before high water, so that if we touched it we could hope to float off.
In fact, we were lucky — perhaps the albatross did not die after all.
The bar was calm. And it was a clear sunny, behind-the-front day, with crisp air and excellent visibility. We could pick out the navigable channels by the dark blue of the water. Even a red channel marker that was hidden from view by a green vessel that was servicing it, did not wrong-foot us! Motoring slowly, with Peter on the lower mast steps watching the color of the water, and with my eyes consantly on the echo sounder, we came through unscathed.
On arrival in the marina in Kettering, in the D’Entrecasteaux Channel in SE Tasmania, I was torn between the picture of the albatross riding the waves with a length of fishing line attached to it and unable to take off, and the grim prospect of unloading the amazing amount of personal gear that we had somehow managed to acquire over the last 17 years— and then handing Jackella over to its new owners.
I felt a little like buying a black armband.
The sale of Jackella, as described above, went through. Jack wore his black band.
Jack and Lella Gush now live in Spain and are looking for a boat on which to cruise in European waters.
By Ocean Navigator