Sunday, March 27, 2016

Port Fairy to King Island

 24/3/16 to 28/3/16

On the eve of our departure for King Island Brian and Maree joined us at the Caledonian Inn, known locally as “The Stump” for a meal at Victoria’s oldest licenced pub (1844). True to its heritage, it is adorned with sepia pictures of a younger Port Fairy, including one from the great flood of 1946 when you might have done well by setting a mullet net from the front door of The Stump, across to the other side of the main street. Our thoughts though were more on the passages we were planning to start in the morning. We were all keen to go, because yet another delay might mean missing the “window” of weather to King Island. Another frontal system was brewing in the Great Australian Bight with its tail set to flick the waters of Bass Strait in a couple of days’ time. But there was a problem looming.

Barometric isobars in Bass Strait that determine wind direction and speed had pointed to a light southerly for our departure, which was nigh on perfect for Calista. The late afternoon forecast prior to our leaving showed, however, that things had changed and that overnight winds would swing to a contrary Sou Easter that would last until the morning and could derail our plans. The return of the Devil Wind!

..........We certainly do!

At night on board we slept lightly, with the moan of the Sou- Easter in our rigging making us fitful and frustrated. In the wee hours of the morning the BOM site “Victorian Coastal Observations” showed that the Sou-Easter had dropped from nearly 20 knots at Port Fairy at 1am to about 12 in the pre-dawn with a promise that it would drop away further in the new day. We slid out of the Moyne with Urchin, before the coffee houses up the street had any steam in their Latte machines. Brian and Maree were making for Lake’s Entrance via Wilson’s Promontory, and as their fine cat headed in the direction of the Great Ocean Road, we watched them go, hoping that somewhere in the great marine outdoors our bows would cross again.

On board our little ship we felt all of the remnant slop from the Devil Wind in decline. It was lumpy, bumpy uncomfortable, and hard to get around on board. We set a reefed main and tried to find a sweet spot about 30degrees off the wind that would best provide comfort, speed and progress in our direction of passage. Our “way point” that we would reach in the early hours of next day was off King Island’s notorious Cape Wickham, Australia’s tallest lighthouse, which lords over a coastline that has claimed the lives of many a seafaring soul in days gone by. We were keen to not add to the human misery inflicted over the years along the King Island coast.
Great to be at sea again!

If we departed on the faith of a Sou-Easter in decline, by mid-day our faith was rewarded and the wind collapsed to the bottom end of the Beaufort scale. The sea state improved and the coastline to the north saw Warrnambool disappear and the craggy coastline near the Twelve Apostles appear indistinctly off our port bow. We were at sea again, with nautical sea miles sliding under our keel, converting diesel to distance. This was no time to wait out in Bass Strait, waiting for the wind, and an agreeable point of sail. A stiff westerly was due next day, and we wanted to get in to Grassy Harbour on the Eastern side of King Island before it hit.

As day became night, the routines of donning our life vests and illuminating our navigation lights followed a sumptuous evening repast, one of Cookie’s famous – famous to us at any rate – veggie pastas in cheese sauce. To hit the evening, when we start our two-hourly watches, with this delightful brew providing us warmth, succour and sustenance was worth being out of sight of land for. With Calista on autopilot, we purred our way south of east, with the light of Cape Otway winking away in the distance to the north, before it was finally doused by the unending curvature of the earth.

In the dog watch hours, I did it again. At 2am I headed below for some sleep leaving Cookie to come up for another jousting contest, between two big ships, which altered course in respect of their size, leaving our tiny vessel in the middle with the important job of staying out of their way. By the time I came up to the cockpit again the ships had grumbled away in the distance and the reassuring light of Cape Wickham away off our starboard bow showed us that, happily, we were on course to King island.

Dawn broke with us closing an unfamiliar coastline and we elected to give it some safe sea room. We mark our location on our paper charts about every two hours and the 0600 plot showed us 5nm to the east of Cape Wickham, and about to round Lavina Point and make south along the eastern side of King Island for Grassy Harbour, about 30nm away. Our departure from far-away Port Fairy was timed for us to get to Grassy for a day-time approach and hopefully to get in before the westerly filled in to spoil the show. From the village of Naracoopa on the Eastern side of the island, the coastline bears away to the South West, and any change in the weather would see us cop it fair on the bow.

The town of Grassy perched on the hill on approach to Grassy Harbour

As we made our way to Grassy, our radio crackled to life with the wonderful Mary of Smithton Radio on VHS Channel 21 providing the latest forecast for Tasmania’s rugged NW coast and giving small ships like ours the chance to check in or report any difficulties or emergencies. Mary like Carol on Kangaroo Island and Garry at Tumby Bay VMR, has been doing this invaluable volunteer work for an eternity. She is understandably held in the highest esteem by all seafarers in these parts. We logged on with Mary, whose distinctive tone we fondly remembered supporting us through Bass Strait on our 2010/2011 voyage to PNG.

Then, with clouds gathering, and a threatening curtain of black appearing to the South West, the wind filled in. By this time though we were abeam of Bold Head, and the town of Grassy was in sight, perched atop the surrounding hills. Heavy swells broke on Omagh Reef and Grassy Island as we picked up the beacons to lead us into the harbour, and as we  turned hard to starboard before Frog Rock, a lashing rain squall seemed to say to us….“welcome to King Island”.

Grassy Harbour

In entering little Grassy Harbour, we were grateful for a quality shared by seafarers that in other areas of the commercial and professional worlds is called networking. We were aware of three yachts from SA, Far Star, Astrid and Equanimity that were in the finishing stage of a circumnavigation of Tasmania. Knowing Royce and Delene from Far Star we had messaged him from Port Fairy about obtaining a mooring in the confines of Grassy Harbour. Royce had met “Bear”, master of the Grassy-based Cray-boat Johanna Cherie in the slip yard at Port Fairy and Bear – no one calls Bear by any other name, and no one uses his real name, including Mary – offered to find moorings for the visitors when they came to Grassy. We followed Royce’s lead and called Bear, to find him a generous and helpful mariner, only too pleased to help. He was out of port and directed us to his mooring, the one with the sign, Bear’s Mooring, Keep OFF. Bear let us know that he would be returning to port in a day or so but if necessary, he would pick up a mate’s mooring. “Don’t you move” was his recommendation,” the professionals are returning to port with the weather on the way…we’ll have 4-6 metre seas off here in a day or so”’. We were more than happy to settle back in Grassy Harbour, held by the stoutest of moorings, and put the kettle on to celebrate our arrival in King Island. The rain could lash and the wind could howl, but we would be secure in this delightful location.
Calista on the left secure on Bear's mooring

Next day with conditions having ameliorated, but still threatening, we set ourselves for the short dinghy ride into shore and the longish stroll up the hill to the modest township of Grassy. Just then, however, Sue and Kerry, off a large cat , also sheltering in the harbour, drew alongside to say hello and to offer to take us into Currie, King Island’s largest town, for a look around while they played a round of golf. We instantly scratched Grassy, inserted Currie and were soon off traversing the traffic-free roads across King Island. Sue and Kerry originate from Mackay in Queensland, and had just arrived from the West Coast of Tasmania. They, like us, are headed along the North coast of Tasmania, and eventually up the NSW coast before heading out to Noumea and Vanuatu. On the drive across the island we discovered that Sue and Kerry had been to Noumea several times before and might be an invaluable contact for us as we get close to departing Australian waters. Listening to advice from a couple who had circumnavigated the globe would be a very good idea we felt.

The town of Currie, Capital of King Island!

To arrive in Currie is to step back in time. There are only a little over 1700 souls living permanently on the island, enough for Currie to earn the status of town and for there to be three footy teams in winter. We are sure that on a windy day in mid - July, you’d kick with the breeze if you won the toss. Sure, King Island has the Internet but in all other respects the locals embrace older values and especially have discovered how to care for and about each other and how to slide back a gear or two in life. Pass a local in a car and they wave to you as though, even if they don’t know you, they’d like to. In Currie keys are left in unlocked cars and in the shops there are queues because everyone wants to talk to each other. It reminded me of Port Elliot when I was a kid. In Currie it appeared that locals lived by the old African proverb that it takes a village to raise a child. Cookie had a local contact, a friend of her nephew who had recently moved from Adelaide’s bells, whistles and bright lights to laid-back King Island. We called him to say hello and got the word that his young family were loving life on the island where already they had more friends than they had in the city they had left behind.  

I’ll admit that I headed straight up for the King Island Bakery that promoted itself as being famous for its gourmet pies. How do you select a morsel from a gastronomic catwalk specialising in blending flagship local products like KI (locals call King Island “KI” just as South  Australians refer to Kangaroo Island)  beef, cheeses and yes, crayfish. I have never seen a crayfish pie until at the KI Bakery. Herself arrived back from the Supermarket, breathless, to report that a wheel of KI Brie, not a wedge mind you, could be procured for a $5 note. She fixed upon a KI Camembert and Broccoli pie, and wept with delight in its consumption. For me, what with the privations of our arduous voyage from Port Fairy in mind, I was unable to separate a local KI beef and mushroom pie from the asparagus and camembert, so, in a moment of weakness abetted by temptation, bought them both. If an asteroid was closing on earth, and there was time for a final nosh up, you’d settle on one of KI’s famous pies before signing off.

Leaving the KI Bakery was like leaving a half a bottle of Grange on the table, but then again we did want to see Currie Harbour. On the way we happened upon a Gallery, specialising in local artwork, dried seaweed ornaments and a host of other curiosities. Strangely, the door was open but after browsing for a while it was clear that not only was the gallery unattended but this was the normal practice. A sign said, “If you like an item, leave the money in the honesty box”. Honestly it did. Only on KI!

The "honesty box" Gallery

The harbour soon opened up as a panorama before us, and although fishing vessels were tethered agreeably to the town wharf, the entrance to the harbour looked challenged by rocky outcrops and open to westerly gales. We would only contemplate Currie as a destination in benign conditions or in an emergency. Those fishers who operate out of Currie and ply their trade along this forbidding coastline earn every scale or carapace that they collect. We always enjoy a stroll along a fishing wharf, looking at the paraphernalia that the boats carry on board, and mentally assessing what they would be like out at sea in a blow. They are hardened souls, the KI fishermen.

The wharf at Currie Harbour

The quest for crayfish at a price... the rough entrance to the harbour !

In the harbour precinct we found Heidi a delightful young lady from Naracoopa who runs a curiosity and condiments shop, called “Isle Inspired Providore”. Heidi’s card proudly declares that “this miss is made on King Island” – and well made, too, was my estimation. She was keen to show her iPhone pics, fresh off the net, of Naracoopa beach on sunrise. Seeing them made us want to drop our anchor there next time we are in these waters.

Along the harbour with an outstanding harbor side view is a unique restaurant, “The Boathouse”. It has no staff and no food, but the view is superb and free. Bring your own is its mantra, bring your friends, cook up a storm, clean up afterwards and yes, again, leave your money in the honesty box. Only on King Island! 

The Boathouse "restaurant" below the lighthouse.

Inside the Boathouse

On the headland overlooking over the harbour is the Currie lighthouse, which has shone out its welcome, and its warning since 1879. This imposing and impressive steel structure was prefabricated in England, and arrived locally to be assembled like the ultimate Lego challenge, here on KI. Its role was far more important than guiding vessels into Currie. In the days of sail, ships plying the great Southern Ocean and bound for Melbourne faced a deadly challenge relating to navigation. If you look at a map of the Southern Ocean, including Australia, you will readily see that to accurately steer for Melbourne between Cape Otway on the mainland and Cape Wickham on KI required pin-point accuracy, and indeed it was referred to by mariners of the time as “threading the needle”. On board, taking sextant “sights” on storm-tossed seas in conditions where visibility was often poor, often left mariners relying on “dead reckoning”, the process where direction of sail plus estimated speed gave some idea of location, in relation to the closing Australian coast. At night, some ships were too terrified to progress and hove to for the hours of darkness. Others simply got it wrong and paid the price.

The original light from the Cape Wickham Lighthouse

The carnage of wrecked ships off the Victorian coast led to the construction of the Cape Otway lighthouse in 1848, then the Cape Wickham light, Australia’s tallest Lighthouse at over 48m, on King Island, in 1861. This should have helped ships to ‘thread the needle” although wrecks still occurred when mariners mistook Cape Wickham for Cape Otway and sailed south of the light to miss it…slap bang into  the cruel western coast of King Island. The Currie light overcame this problem and saved countless lives in the process.

Currie lighthouse

Alongside the Currie Lighthouse sits the light station which is now a marine museum. It houses the original Cape Wickham light apparatus with its hand crafted French glass prisms as a flagship feature. Also to be explored there are fascinating relicts retrieved in recent years from local wrecks by divers, including memorabilia from Australia’s greatest marine tragedy, the loss of the Cataraqui, wrecked in 1845 with the loss of over 400 souls. The Cataraqui slammed onto rocks south of Currie in the dead of night in a winter’s storm. The terrible scenes on board as the ship broke up can only be imagined. 63 families were wiped out and only one passenger plus eight crew members survived, and the bodies of women and children dressed in night attire littered the coastline, draped over rocks and washed up on the tide without respect or ceremony. Another wreck saw a number of barrels of spirits “disappear” without trace, whilst yet another wreck saw armed patrolmen defend a similar cache (!) We could have lingered longer at Currie’s maritime museum. Back in town and waiting for Sue and Kerry to finish out on the links, it was de rigour to convert some currency to camembert for the ship’s stores before the trip back to our anchorage.

The following day saw us negotiating local walking tracks on our way up the hill to Grassy. The paths crossed the former scheelite mine site which, from out at sea looks somewhat like rice terraces in Bali, and brought prosperity and people to Grassy. Scheelite, a tungsten relative, adds hardness to metals but the closure of the mine in the 90’s brought hardness of its own to Grassy. It was sad to see the former mine buildings in forlorn disarray, roofs holed, gutters drooping and asbestos sheeting waving in the breeze. Grassy has seen better days.

The track from the harbour through the mines to Grassy

Up in town the retail sector took little time to digest. Marie Reed, an ornament to Grassy, runs a café come general store and gathering spot. We wiled away some time over a lunch that featured one of her famous hamburgers with the lot and two very fine coffees. Thus fortified we retraced our steps, this time with gravity on our side, back to the harbour. There the Grassy Boat Club was in full community and family mode with sailing races out to Frog Rock, a sausage sizzle and treasure hunt down on the beach keeping smiles on all faces.

The Grassy Harbour, by the way, and in spite of its limitations in size, is the berthing location of the weekly Melbourne – Devonport – Grassy ferry, known locally as “The Ship”. Whilst this vessel carries all manner of stores, requisitions, fresh produce, cars and the like, it carries no passengers. Sadly, if King Island is your destination, you need to fly there, or sail there like we did.

A night out at the Grassy Club

Up in town, across from the Café we had noted the Grassy Club which under the pilotage of Chef Stephen has built a reputation for fine food specialising in local produce. When in Grassy, do as the Grassy’s do we thought, so with eating out being limited to the Grassy Club, which meant  facing another trudge up hill, we settled on doing exactly that; dining out up in Grassy. We found the Club to be modest in appointments, but universally welcoming and with a most excellent cuisine to boot. The only drawback came at the end of our worthy night out when, with a mellowness borne of consumption, we stepped out into the dark of the night in a bracing air to confront the lonely and uncertain path back to our ship. We should not have worried, for the spirit of King Island was about to come to our rescue. “Do you two need a lift?” came the call from the open window of a departing car….”where are you headed?” We needed no committee meeting to resolve to accept the kind offer, as it turned from two ladies who came to KI and stayed for the lifestyle, and for the generosity of locals that now they were sharing.
Bear's lovely vessel Johanna Cherie

Back on board we noted that Bear’s fine fishing vessel Johanna Cherie, was back in port, and with us leaving at first light there was a real likelihood that we would not get to meet this really decent bloke from Grassy. The declining weather and swell looked like providing a welcome Sou-Wester of about 15 knots, giving us near ideal conditions to embark on a 47mile passage to one of Tasmania’s wild offshore features, Three Hummocks Island. From there if the weather predictions were right, a stopover in the historic port town of Stanley might be on offer before a “tourist sail’ along Tasmania’s North Coast to the Tamar River, Launceston. With the healthy colony of Fairy Penguins, in raucous voice ashore, we slipped easily into the slumber of sailors in contented anticipation of the day to come.

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