Friday, March 11, 2016

Robe to Port Fairy
11/3/16 to 12/3/16

Fog. Clammy and seeping fog. Oozing all around us and reducing visibility across the basin to a blur. It slithered in, as thick as cold gravy, in the early hours of our projected departure. The throaty diesels of the fishing boats seemed amplified in the pre-dawn murk and they grumbled their way past us like ghostly beings with shadowy forms going about their tasks and duties on the afterdecks; in shrouded work lights as they put to sea. In the damp stillness, the marina lights across the harbor struggled to assert themselves and the scene was akin to a gas lit street in winter in Victorian England.

It put me in mind of Dickens’ unforgettable descriptor of a Thames pea-souper as a mood-setting introduction to the grim novel Bleak House.

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls deified among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little 'prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.
Ready to go into the fog !

Our morning at Robe was bleak too, but a dockside collusion in the pre dawn mists between the crews of Urchin, Force Majeure and Calista reinforced our resolve to go; with chart plotters providing a crucial navigational guide, and a general agreement to make a course steadily out to sea, ultimately to beyond the 35 fathom (200 foot) line where cray pots should be beyond consideration. We had no idea how far the fog would extend out to sea or when it would clear. On board Calista we agreed to set a forward watch as we made our way beyond South and Stewein reefs, and we were greatly assisted by being able to follow our line in to port on the plotter, like an electronic snail trail, guiding us out to sea. What was certain was that apart from maintaining radio contact, we would soon lose the other boats in the eeriness of the gloom.

Crew of Force Majeure, Urchin & Calista

We edged seaward, cocooned in a capsule of grey and up forward the moisture laden air condensed on clothing and dripped off one’s brow as though it was raining although really it was not. A handful of pot-ropes came and went and the oily swells beyond the headland came out of a world off our bow that was nearly opaque. Our track on the chart gave us our position and the AIS (Automatic Identification System) device fitted to our chart-plotter gave us early warning of the presence of big ships – which are compelled to have AIS these days – and of smaller ships that, like us have AIS capacity. Urchin has AIS, so we could locate them on our plotter, and had their location, course and speed at a click of a button. On our plotter, a “target” ship comes up like a coloured elongated triangle with a narwhal-like pointer preceding it, giving its current direction on the chart. Added to this though are some crucial features, and by “clicking” on the target, we get the ship’s name, size, destination, radio call-sign, and crucially, if the vessel is headed our way, how close it will come to us if it stays on its current heading and how long it will be before it reaches us. Because AIS is VHF radio linked, we get to “see” ships that are still over the horizon, and if they are likely to pass close to us we have their unique radio ID (callsign), so that we can communicate with each other to ensure that we pass each other in safety. Changing watches at night sees us routinely share what is “coming up” on AIS. These features would prove invaluable to us as we made for Port Fairy.
Difficult to see the harbour exit let alone craypots!

The wonder of AIS technology did not account, however for the presence of smaller vessels such as the cray-boats that we knew were somewhere out to sea, and like us, enveloped in fog. We are certain that they leave clear marks on their chart-plotters so that they can return to their pots, day, night, rain or fog. Some boats have “AIS receive” only, so that they can see other ships but other ships cannot “see” them. Fishermen, since the dawn of time have not wanted other fishermen to see where they are operating. For us to “see” non – AIS vessels, like those that left Robe before dawn, we have set up our radar linked to our chart-plotter screen, and with a warning set at 10 nautical miles, we could “see” most boats ahead of us although looking out from our bow was a waste of time, as the fog, even in late morning, continued to envelop us.

The limestone coast dropped astern of us, unseen, with Beachport, Southend, Carpenter Rocks and then Port MacDonnell all existing for us only on our chart. By nightfall, the skies had cleared and we had passed into Victorian waters, with the loom of Mount Gambier faintly visible away to the North-West. We were plying waters above the continental shelf, and although in 400’ of water where cray-pots were no longer a consideration, there were other obstacles in our way that demanded our attention.

The African Lark (orange triangle) heading straight for Urchin (blue) and Calista behind Urchin on the  orange line as seen on our Plotter. Both Urchin & Calista had to change course to starboard to avoid a collision.

 Abeam of Discovery Bay an AIS target showed a 95’ seagoing tug, the Molly Grace, bound for Adelaide, dead ahead and coming our way. The Molly Grace was listed as having “limited maneuverability” and we were unsure if this ship was undertaking a tow of some form. Following the AIS information, we called up her night-watch and agreed to pass within a mile of each other, starboard to starboard. Later, at 4am and deep into the dog-watch, Cookie had to contend with a bigger problem that might require some course alterations. The container ship African Lark was charging at us from Portland waters, and appeared to be a genuine concern for both ourselves, and for Urchin, just ahead of us. Cookie could not be totally sure if Urchin had seen the African Lark bearing down and could not be sure if the Lark, on autopilot, was mounting a sharp watch on the bridge. Cookie was about to place a radio call alert when a sudden deviation by Urchin to starboard (Maree would later tell us that she was on watch), showed that they thought it necessary to change course to let the big ship through. The African Lark – love the name – lumbered on past us into the night doing 16.5 knots. We hope the images drawn from our chart plotter – in night mode – will help readers to know a little more about navigation on our small ship at night.
Details about the African Lark on our AIS. Note the CPA closest Point of Approach only .35nm so a change of course was necessary to avoid a collision !

With the dawn came Portland waters and we were relieved that yes we could effectively navigate through fog, and that the soggy air had probably kept the lid on the Sou-Easter, that had been forecast to rise during the night off Port MacDonnell waters. We would rather motor through calm that beat our way into the Devil Wind. With dawn upon us, Bridgewater Bay abeam, and Cape Nelson ahead, we heard that both Urchin and Force Majeure were bearing away for Portland leaving us to cover the 20 plus miles via Lady Julia Percy Island to Port Fairy, alone. Force, on a tighter time frame than us, was set to re-fuel then head immediately for King Island. We hoped that we would re-connect with Brian and Maree, later at Port Fairy.
Wind farms on approach to Portland.

With scudding showers threatening but not really eventuating, we headed on with the industrial infrastructure of the port of Portland, slipping astern off our port quarter. Lady Julia Percy Island soon loomed ahead, rising like a Nevada mesa, with its table top apparently providing home to a horde of Short Tailed Shearwaters, known colloquially as Mutton Birds. A couple of cray pots captured our attention in the vicinity of the island, and by then the unmistakable pinnacle of the Port Fairy Lighthouse gave as a landmark to steer to, with us giving it good clearance in the prevailing onshore conditions.
The majestic lighthouse of Port Fairy.
Great to be back in delightful Port Fairy.

With our eye on the port marker that leads mariners into the delights of the Moyne River we could see the white forms of enormous tents that had sprung up on the local green like mushrooms following autumn rain. We were in luck! We had arrived for the 40th anniversary Port Fairy Folk Music Festival, and if we could muster the energy after 32 hours at sea it would be time to tie up the ship, remove the wet weather gear, throw on the Kaftans, and join in the party. After the fogs of Robe and the essence of Mutton Bird off Lady Julia Percy, now there was something else in the air.  

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