Monday, May 30, 2016

Lake Macquarie to Port Stephens
18/5/16 – 24/5/16

( Blog readers please note - by left clicking on  photos you will see them full size and a photo gallery below. The same applies for previous blog posts..see blog archives below.)

Planning a voyage such as this one has been made more complex by all that is involved in leaving Australian waters for another country, in our case, to New Caledonia and Vanuatu.  In our first post of this blog we spoke of journeying to these destinations on a “big ship”, in this case P&O’s Pacific Pearl as invaluable background for what we are soon to undertake. There have been many other things to investigate, before we consider ourselves remotely ready to go. Linking with others who have been to these places is invaluable, and in January this year our fine Port Lincoln sailing friends Jonathon and Wendy Newbury put us in touch with medical friends from Newcastle,  John and Ann Marley, who fortuitously sailed to this part of the south-west Pacific in 2015. Coincidentally, John and Ann, on their 37’ Beneteau Oceanis, Essex Girl have future plans to sail to PNG’s Louisiade Archipelago, a fabulous string of tropical isles that we have visited in 2008 and again in 2010. It was natural then that we have had things to share about these respective destinations, and before we set sail from SA we exchanged cruising notes, and marine charts with each other and resolved to try to meet when heading north, in the vicinity of Newcastle. When we found that Jonathon and Wendy planned to join John and Ann about the 23rd of May to jointly sail north in the direction of the Whitsundays, we decided to do our best to connect with them prior to their departure. We were very much looking forward to meeting John and Ann, and this was uppermost on our minds as we slipped from the mooring at the Swansea Bridge, and made our way down the channel on the short leg to the major port of Newcastle.  
Leaving Lake Macquarie entrance

Beyond Swansea a long sweep of coastal dunes hides the bustle of Belmont from those out at sea until the ruddy bulwark of Red Head marks the resumption of coastal cliffs and bays that end with Nobbys Beach and Nobby Island, which lie abeam of the breakwaters that shelter the entrance to Newcastle. Many will remember Nobbys beach as the scene of the stranding of the 76,000 tonne Pasha Bulker, in a gale in June 2007, and the remarkable efforts by all and sundry to re-float her and return her to the high seas before she broke up. Often these marine dramas are played out in remote places, away from the public gaze, but this incident took place not more than a short walk from Newcastle’s Town Hall, with the good folk of the city having front row seats. As we left Nobbys Beach to port it was in conditions that could hardly be more benign. We were grateful for this.
Nobbys Beach & Nobbys Head

The port of Newcastle is one of Australia’s busiest, and entering here often sees a small ship like ours sharing the channel with a steel monster and its clutch of tugs fussing in close attendance. Newcastle is in fact the world’s biggest coal export port although with growing concern about the role of burning coal and global warming, this may not be the point of pride that it used to be. Our first entrance here in 2010, saw us miss the last of daylight and having to squeeze past an immense coal ship in the entrance, complete with courtiers, heading seaward.  This time, using our AIS to assist, we were delighted to see a VBS, very big ship, depart the port and head south for the other side of the world. In drawing level with the breakwater “leads” we were relieved to see that, almost literally, the coast was clear.
On approach to the Newcastle Cruising Yacht Club Marina

After tying up at the Newcastle Marina and exchanging the requisite paperwork and payment – it costs $240 per week to stay at the Newcastle Cruising Yacht Club, with excellent facilities available either there or near at hand – we set about working on the endless lists of tasks that were underlined and in italics in Cookie’s notepad. Newcastle has long been a worker’s city, and we would be working here too, for much of our stay. What we needed though, was some mobility to get to places that were not close to hand, and we were fortunate in that, after meeting John and Ann over a coffee, and having them accept our invite to dine on board Calista, they let us know that we could make use of their daughter’s car whilst in port, given that she was currently overseas in London. This was a kind gesture from a fine couple of kindred sailors.
Nobbys Beach

Having transport also allowed us to “down tools” for parts of each day to see Newcastle, to make for Nobby’s Beach for a plunge in the surf and, predictably, to head for the Newcastle sea – baths to get in some daily laps to keep ourselves nimble. Our fondness for town “Baths” has grown on this voyage, with these seaside attractions dating from days before modern pool technology where clever engineering created shore-side pools that were filled and refreshed by the natural processes of swell and tide. Once built, these facilities largely ran themselves and provided a safe place for many people to go “sea bathing”. These were the days of striped jackets, straw boaters and ladies in parasols. With their ornate facades, baths like those at Newcastle have played a key role in creating a fondness for the sea in Australia that today we call “beach culture”. Certainly, plunging into the Newcastle 50m sea-pool was very different from the Olympic Pool in Homebush. Unlike the 26 degrees of Thorpie’s kingdom, the Newcastle pool had nudged down to 18 degrees and swimming 20 laps left one with a gathering chill. Although this pool has seen better days and many moons have passed since the cement steps of its amphitheatre have brimmed with spectators, the pool does have some remarkable features, such as the numbers of fish that have made their home there and look up with curiosity as you pass overhead. Amongst the fry was a trio of substantial Bream that looked as though they were doing just fine in their predator-free home. We have no idea how they got there.
The Ocean Baths, City Beach

 There were uplifting moments for us too, such as attending a program of evening lectures at the Newcastle Town Hall on Humpback Whales and Seahorses; by marine aficionados, around the theme of preservation of oceanic species. We were well aware of efforts in recent decades to restore the numbers of Humpbacks in Australian waters, but the compelling story of preserving populations of seahorses in Port Stephens to the north, was truly enlightening.  Beyond this though, to be able to head into town for a product or part, and to head to the shops to re-supply made life so much easier, especially, had we hired a car, it would have sat idly in the marina car park for much of the time whilst our heads were down in anchor wells, bilges, lockers and the like. At times on board our boat it looked as though we had been in a blender, with tools, gear, locker contents and equipment strewn in all directions.

We were saddened to see that central Newcastle, which suffered considerably from the serious earthquake that devastated the area in1989, killing 13 people and injuring many others, has left many buildings too costly or complex to repair. To us it seems as though by one means or another, locals have shifted their enterprise and their focus from the centre of town to the suburbs. Empty shops, faded facades, and businesses that struggle to make ends meet seemed to us to be a hallmark of the centre of Newcastle City, 2016.  Above all though, on passing by the grand Newcastle Railway Station, we were appalled to find that a recent “development” plan has seen the rail from Sydney terminated some way out of town, with plans to erect high rise properties on railway grounds, winning the day over strident opposition to the closure from locals. The power of money has won the day. At least just alongside the old station, where shuttle buses have replaced the trains, the legendary “Café d Wheels”, an iconic Pie Cart that has seen to the internal needs of locals and visitors since 1945, is still plying its gastronomic trade. Its gourmet piece de resistance is a pie – flavour of choice - topped with mashed potatoes, mushy peas and gravy. I can be now included amongst its converts and devotees. Cookie cannot. Should the developers place their grimy sights on the “Café d Wheels”, we think that the people of Newcastle will take to the streets, and march upon Town Hall. The tomato sauce will flow!
A very happy Colin!

With our “tasky” regime at the Marina, days skipped by and we were looking forward to seeing Jonathon and Wendy again before making ready for sea. Their time in Newcastle was to be fleeting, with John and Ann ready to head for Port Stephens and their imminent departure to the north. This left one opportunity for us all to dine at the Yacht Club; spend a little more time with John and Ann, catch up with some old friends from Lincoln, and chat - until the staff called time on our conviviality by pointedly clearing tables and shutting the doors. It had been a fine, but all too fleeting night in the Port of Newcastle.
Servicing the anchor winch

Oiling the teak Hungry Board
Dining at the Yacht Club with Jonathon, Wendy John, Ann & family

Back on board the fresh southerly change which had swept Newcastle’s dusty air to the north brought with it strong wind warnings to the Hunter Coast. Closer inspection though showed that whilst further out to sea the winds would be formidable, closer to the coast they were a little easier and would allow us to depart Newcastle with fresh airs on our stern quarter, providing us with the opportunity to sail the 32 nautical miles across the Stockton Bight to Port Stephens. There was another incentive as well. The BOM forecast for the Hunter and nearby coastal areas carried a “marine caution” for the next two days relating to a developing 3-5metre swell that would make conditions potentially hazardous for vessels entering or leaving ports. Because we had not entered Port Stephens before, we were wary about entering there in adverse swell conditions, in spite of cruising notes that suggested that due to the depth of water in the entrance channel, swell size should not be a concern.
7.5 knots!!

With Calista bearing a reefed sail pattern the next morning saw us make our way down the ship channel and out to sea. Ahead, the ocean appeared in profile like corrugated iron, and the sharp WSW streaming off the dunes of Stockton Beach threw up a top sea that ran contrary to the building ground swell, and caps of white were all about. Our prudent sail selection had us in good stead though, and after setting our headsail we romped away in the direction of Port Stephens. This was a sleigh ride with hand – steering ruling the waves. Times like this have been in short supply on this trip, with either too much or too little wind being the norm, but this time we shared the helm and allowed our Swanson 36 to show what she was capable of delivering. The swell had built to an extent that, when a “set” was upon us, the wind fell to a zephyr in the “valleys” and hit us with conviction up on the crests. In no time though, it seemed, the fans of spray off Fingal Point and Big Rocky Island had us scanning the coast in awe, and the lighthouse on Point Stephens signalled that the turn to port into Port Stephens was not far away. On rounding Point Stephens and with Tomaree Head, the entrance to Port Stephens closing, the swell was blunted and it was clear that our concerns about waves in the entrance channel were groundless. In fact, of more concern to us was the out-flowing tide backed by the wind, now on our bow, that with our sails furled, and motor engaged had our speed reduced to three knots. Getting in to Port Stephens would be a bash.

Approaching Tomaree Head and the entrance to  Port Stephens

In the calmer waters near Nelson Head, with our destination almost in view, the sight of a sleek cruising yacht hoisting sail and preparing for sea had us reaching for our binoculars. It was Essex Girl, with John, Ann, Jonathon and Wendy on board, making for the entrance and an overnight passage to Coffs Harbour. Instead of tying up alongside our friends at the Nelson Bay marina, we were about to wave some hasty farewells as our two ships passed, and we made our way to Essex Girl’s pen, which, by the kindness of John and Ann, might be our home for a time as we readied ourselves for our own passage to Coff’s Harbor. Our voyage to New Caledonia and Vanuatu was getting closer, but still there was a great deal to do before we would be ready to go. In the meantime, in Port Stephens we might get a chance to take in some of the highlights of this exquisite destination. As a premier drawcard for visitors, both afloat and on land, we had heard a lot about Port Stephens and now hoped to see some of it for ourselves.

Farewell Essex Girl


  1. Sailed into Rosslyn Bay at Yeppoon last night on sunset, having left Coffs Harbour Sunday am, refuelled at Mooloolaba, Tuesday morning after too much motoring, then pushed on outside Fraser then enjoyed (?) a rough ride to Curtis island, passed Cape Carpentaria and easing our way through the islands south of Great Keppel Is.
    Now (Friday) it's sleep in, shop and watch the rain fall.
    Wendy's AIS app tells us your safe in Coffs Harbour
    Talk soon
    J&W, J&A

  2. Hi Colin and Cookie, it's Wendy your niece here. Mum put me onto your blog and what an amazing read. Not too amazing bout the storm you endured but at least your safe now. Have a wonderful time and I'll follow you on your adventures. Take care, be safe, love Wendy x