Singlehanding across Bass Strait

It had been a long and rather difficult trip. I was single handing Saraband, a tough 25-year-old, Kiwi-designed, “easterly” half-tonner. We had port-hopped down Australia’s rugged but beautiful New South Wales coast from Sydney in mostly bad weather.

Saraband had spent the night tucked up in the great little anchorage behind Gabo Island at the southeastern tip of Australia. I left at dawn feeling not a little nervous. The next leg was straight across stormy Bass Strait to Flinders Island. I would lose VHF radio contact – and weather forecasts – by the time I was 20 miles out. This is one of the most notorious stretches of sailing water in the world, where summer storms like that which trashed the 1998 Sydney-Hobart fleet can blow up with frightening rapidity.

Thirty-six hours later I was breathing more easily; the open-water leg was almost over without incident even though we had spent most of the time roller-coaster sailing under a triple-reefed main through huge seas.

The autopilot held course pretty well as the boat swooped and yawed through the waves, but we would still gybe from time to time. This was no cause for alarm; the Dutchman boom brake – one of the best investments I ever made for offshore sailing- kept us safe. Running with just a storm jib in a gale with big seas was not pleasant. As the boat yawed, the jib backwinded, slatted, and then filled with a horrible pistol-shot bang. It put a great strain on both the boat and my nerves.

I prefer a triple-reefed main with the boom held down by the brake. The tension on the braking lines that wrap around the sheaves of the brake mounted under the boom is set on a winch so that it matches the wind strength. When the boat gybes the boom simply swings slowly across, restrained by the friction on sheaves. There is no drama.

With steady, gale-force NE winds (twice the forecast speed!) pushing us most of the way across the strait we had made excellent time.

In the final six hours as Saraband closed Flinders Island, the winds slowed and then swung round to the southwest, a sure sign of bad weather to come, but the change also meant that the whole east shore would now be sheltered. By the time we arrived it was dusk and the sea was down. The holding was good off the long sandy beach that runs down much of the east coast of the island, and Saraband didn’t roll too much in the night. There were no signs of human habitation.

The following day our destination was the tiny port of Lady Barron at the southerly end of the island. To get there meant sailing a good distance back out to sea to clear the edge of the ill-famed “Pot Boil” shoal and then swinging back inshore – sailing west to thread a relatively narrow passage that runs right through the middle of the shoal.

“Pot Boil” has a fearsome reputation, and as Saraband began to butt into the short, but very steep, seas it wasn’t hard to see why. The shoal itself is sand, and waves don’t so much break on it as explode.

The wind was now 25- to 30-knots, gusting to 35 and right on the nose. The water was a translucent milky green, and the blowing spray made it impossible to see the leads. But the GPS kept the boat on track, and it was fairly easy to see the edges of the shoal on either side of the mile-wide passage.

We were motor-sailing under just the triple-reefed main and, as the wind speed rose and the waves increased in height and steepness, our speed slowed. The reliable, single-cylinder 12-hp Yanmar simply didn’t have the power to push us fast enough against wind and sea. Part of the problem was that the motor was over-propped, and at full throttle we were not developing full power – black unburnt fuel stained the water in Saraband’s wake.

The impeller on the regular log had stuck a couple of hours earlier, but the GPS log showed that our over-the-ground speed was dropping from three knots to two to one knot. Then it bounced up to two knots, even though the wind speed had increased still further. I couldn’t understand this until I noticed that our course over the ground had changed by 180°. We were still pointing west but we were now being swept backwards to the east! The tide had turned and was running fast against us.

It was time to turn tail and run. In 20-odd minutes we’d covered the three nautical miles that had taken some two hours to acquire against the wind and then the current. Clear of Pot Boil’s dangers, I headed Saraband back to the northwest. As we slowly closed the island again the waves subsided. The anchorage off the beach was flat calm, and only the crazily dancing scrub at the top of the ridge gave any idea of how strong the winds still were.

Safely at anchor, I was sipping a large glass of red wine and watching the sun drop below the island when the VHF, which had been silent since three hours after we left Gabo, burst startlingly into life. Lady Barron, it turned out, had acquired a volunteer VHF land station, mostly for the small lobster fishing fleet. I called up immediately. I knew that there was an inner passage through the shoal that would allow Saraband to stay in the lee of the island. But I had been told that it shifted from time to time and shouldn’t be attempted without local knowledge.

Good news! As I’d hoped, a fishing boat would be transiting the inner passage in the morning. I could follow it in.

The following morning the sun shone out of a cloudless sky, but the wind speed was still around 20- to 25-knots. With a relatively short passage and with the wind mostly on the nose, I saw no reason to put the main up, so I followed the 40-foot fishing boat through the shoal under motor alone. The passage was lumpy, though nothing like the day before, but it was also much narrower – too narrow to tack in – and the breaking waves were sometimes less than 20 meters away as we rolled and wallowed through the confused seas.

Once through the shoal we were in relatively sheltered waters, weaving in and out of a series of shoals, islands and headlands that lay in the way of Lady Barron. Careful pilotage was needed, but there were no real dangers.Losing the engine

Then it happened. The usually reliable Yanmar coughed, spluttered, died, and refused to restart. With no forward power we were rapidly set by wind and current toward the sandbanks on the port-hand edge of the channel. It’s amazing how quickly a jib can be unfurled in an emergency; but in this case it wasn’t quick enough. Just as I was about to tack we slid onto on sandbank on a rapidly dropping tide. We stuck fast: leaning the boat failed, kedging failed, and, of course, the engine was useless.

There was nothing to do but wait. I checked the engine only to find that it was out of fuel. This was a real shock since, although there was no fuel gauge, I had calculated consumption very carefully. At our usual 0.36- to 0.4-gallons per hour we should have had at least 1.6 to 2.1 gallons to spare – a quarter of the eight-gallon tank. Now I would have to sail the last couple of miles into Lady Barron up a narrow, shallow channel into a strong headwind.

Three hours later the incoming tide was high enough to kedge off the sand bank. I raised sails, hauled in the lightweight Fortress anchor, and started short-tacking up-channel toward hot showers and a good pub dinner. The plan was to anchor off rather than try and come alongside the jetty in 25 knots of wind under sail alone.

It was not to be so simple. On what I hoped would be the last tack, I closed the shore of the island guarding the entrance to Lady Barron as near as I dared, spun the wheel, and freed the jib sheets. The wheel spun with no resistance – and kept spinning. Steering gone! I threw off the mainsheet and rushed for the anchor, getting it down just in time to avoid being blown aground again.

Embarrassingly, all of this took place within full view of the little port, and once the sails were down a calm, and only slightly amused, voice asked over the VHF if I would like a tow in. I accepted gratefully, and within minutes a fishing boat with two 100-plus-hp outboards had shot out and taken my towline. I was more than somewhat nervous since it was still blowing 25 and I had neither steering nor motor.

In some ways this was the scariest part of the whole trip. We slewed alarmingly across the harbor under tow, but the fisherman knew exactly what he was doing and lined Saraband up perfectly for a gentle landing alongside a big trawler on the jetty. The towline was slipped and we glided forwards with just the right amount of momentum. The young man driving the fishing boat refused my offer of payment and shot off with a cheerful wave.

The kindly trawler skipper took my lines and, once we were secured, his wife and first mate served strong, hot tea in big china mugs.

It was only when I sat clutching the steaming mug and began to relax that I noticed my hands were shaking. Lessons

– I had tried without success to get tide tables for Tasmania before leaving. I should have tried harder. Had I known when the tide was going to turn I would never have tried to navigate the Pot Boil shoal in those conditions.

– Running out of fuel was really dumb. I thought at first that there must have been a fuel leak. Not so. My fuel consumption running at full throttle was nearly twice the normal 0.36 gallons per hour. I never dreamed that so much more fuel could be burned with what seemed like a relatively small increase in the throttle setting. A salutary lesson.

– I should have kept the main up while motor sailing into Lady Barron. Then I could have tacked way from the sandbank and into deeper water when the engine failed.

– It would anyway have been quicker in the shallow water to anchor when the engine failed rather than try and set the jib and sail away.

– When Saraband was aground, the rudder had been pressed hard against its limits. This had seriously weakened one of the brackets holding the steering quadrant blocks. The bracket had simply torn away during the last tack. I should have checked for damage.

– Being towed into port without steering was quite unnecessary. I had completely forgotten that I had an emergency steering tiller in the cockpit locker.

Saraband was hauled out in Lady Barron. Repairs were made expeditiously while I enjoyed life ashore for a week.Flinders Island

Flinders Island is a wonderful cruising area with scenery reminiscent of the Scottish Highlands. The beaches are stunning – but Australians from farther north find the water is very cold. English sailors seem to find it acceptable. Lady Barron has moorings and you can often tie up alongside the main jetty. Hot showers and washing machines are right alongside the jetty, there’s a small store, most marine engine problems can be fixed, and the hotel restaurant is terrific.

On the return, the Yanmar blew up in spectacular fashion in the middle of Bass Strait. But that’s another story.

By Ocean Navigator