Port Stephens to Coffs Harbor
24/5/16 – 2/6/16
( 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.)
Everyone we have spoken to with a saline inclination is fulsome in their praise of Port Stephens, and those confined to the terrestrial world share the same view. On our 2010 voyage we were hard pressed to get to Coffs Harbor on the “up” portion of our journey, and on our return, despite earmarking Port Stephens as a “must do” stopover, heavy rain and collapsing conditions, with worse to come, had us scuttle past the entrance to seek refuge in Newcastle, rather than attempt a night entry with zero visibility into a port that was unfamiliar to us. At the time, we attempted to retrieve some of this lost opportunity by hiring a car and driving back to Port Stephens so that at least we got to see what we had missed. As things turned out, we were out of luck on land too, because the day was spoiled by abysmal conditions, with sheets of rain that allowed only glimpses of attractions through the tempest. Even so, adorned in the top end of our foul weather gear, we splashed and slithered our way to enough locations to tell that Port Stephens is a destination of considerable merit, not to be missed next time.
Now, courtesy of John and Ann Marley, here we were, in row A of the glamorous d’Albora Marina, with its palatial appointments, raft of marine facilities and eateries – Cookie, in the absence of a freezer on Calista had her attention immediately taken by the gourmet ice cream shop (should that be shoppe) – and literally across the road, it was but a doddle up the rise into the charming tourist mecca of Nelson Bay. If we thought back to our home marina at Wirrina, the d’Albora Nelson Bay Marina is, by comparison, on a distant planet and we chuckled about the wind-blown Atco Hut that masquerades as an ablutionary facility at Wirrina compared with the personal staterooms at Nelson Bay; leading off the relaxation lounge, with their individually tiled appointments, gleaming vanity areas, glamour mirrors and personal hair dryer. At Wirrina, if you want to dry your hair, you stick your head outside the dunnies and count to twenty…or more often, five, when the sou-easter is whistling down the valley. To get to Calista in Nelson Bay, the stroll down A Row saw one passing a line-up of wedding cakes afloat, which if sold in a lot, could purchase a brace of African Republics. Sadly, there were few masts to be seen, and we wondered if the multi-tiered luxury cruisers found here are more often show than go.
|Spot the sailboats!|
You would think that here in the zenith of living afloat, we would have become lounge lizards, seduced by a program that flowed from latte, to tapas, to canapés with a view, washed down with selected extracts from the Hunter, Margaret River, or even the Barossa; with a window table selected for sunset. Not so. Although we noted the great range of temptations close to hand, and the menu at Mavericks on the Bay, which lords over the marina, is acceptably and fairly priced, our focus was taken more by what we had seen on our approach to Port Stephens and what we soon gleaned from the friendly staff at the Information Centre, which was - you may have guessed - only a short stroll away. Yes, we had some vital voyage-related issues to resolve before we left Port Stephens, which would steal slabs of our time, but in amongst this we wanted to see more of the wild side of Port Stephens than we had been able to glean from our vantage point out at sea.
Port Stephens is a substantial waterway, greater in area than Sydney Harbor, and offering recreational opportunities afloat that, like Lake Macquarie and the Pittwater, could mean that one might be delightfully content without ever putting out beyond the headlands to the open sea. Given our tenure in A Row, and the need that we had to be close to both facilities and to on-board technologies, we resolved to stay put in the marina, do some exploring by land and maybe see some of the anchorages of Port Stephens on another day. The clincher in achieving a work and play balance at Nelson Bay was to find, again courtesy of the Information Centre ladies, two brochures of great value to us: the Port Stephens Bus services timetable that would give us scope to visit a range of places beyond the marina, and the Tomaree National Park brochure that revealed a network of coastal and forest trails that looked just there for the walking.
Added to the list of features at Nelson Bay was the presence of two fresh fish outlets alongside the marina, giving us the opportunity of dining aboard on fruits of the sea without getting a line wet. The broader marina complex is also home to the fishing fleet, the Police and Marine Rescue vessels, a raft of tourist boats and the ferry that plies a regular trade across the harbor to the centres of Tea Gardens and Hawks Nest. Offerings such as snapper cutlets, sand whiting fillets and whole pan fried flounder – Cookie took a little convincing re the flounder and wanted to know if the beseeching eyes of these creatures had been attended to in the gutting process – graced the griddle on board Calista. Whatever the good patrons of Mavericks on the Bay were enjoying, our on board marine fare, complete with lightly tossed green salads, olive oil brushed potato and sweet potato wedges, was incomparable.
Having been regular visitors to “fisherman’s cooperatives” along the NSW and QLD coasts for our on-board dining in 2010, we have noticed, this year, a concerning trend. We are very fond of “Flake”, gummy or school shark fillets, which are delicious steaks of the sea, and have been the staple of good fish and chip shops for decades. This year though, our imprecise survey of fish outlets has shown that flake, as we have known it, is rarely seen these days on trays at the fishmongers. The sad conclusion is that we have fished the species of potable sharks to oblivion. It is clear that the science of sustainability being aligned to catches is missing; and that those in authority have done little to address the disappearance of some species from our seas. A result of this is that some species, once discarded as offal, are now promoted as premier table fare. Humble and harmless shovel nosed rays are now swept up in nets; meagre fillets are separated from their tail sections, and sold as a variety of “flake”. At Nelson Bay the sign of “flake fillets” had me excited until some further quizzing revealed that the “flake” was really chunks of shovel nosed shark, fine to use if you were re-soling your walking boots. The same applies to other species such as leatherjackets, once condemned to the status of Crayfish bait, and now proffered as premium fare.
|Anyone for "Flake"?|
Up in Nelson Bay though, there was another gourmet outlet that we had noted in 2010, and had more than proved its sustainability over time. The term “Pie Shop” does not conjure up all that much, unless you are referring to Red Ned’s Pie Shop, Nelson Bay that deserves a status above and beyond all other outlets for baked produce. Red Ned’s is a bakery that needs no interior decorating, because its walls are completely adorned with trophies and banners, won over the last 18 years from competitions all over Australia. Prevarication is a problem at Red Ned’s, because apart from the range of specialty Pasties, Sausage Rolls and “favourite” Pies, is the Gourmet, Seafood and Vegetarian Pie range, over 50 in all, that has to be seen, and tasted to believe, and leaves the client with impossible decisions to make. Take wagyu Japanese marbled beef, with onion and cheese: Thai authentic green curry lamb with capsicum and shallots; scallop and prawn in honey lime and chilli sauce; crocodile with baby spinach, mushrooms in white wine sauce and deluxe vegetarian with 9 hand cut vegies in hollandaise, garlic and pesto seasoning. Wow! Yum! I couldn’t help remembering growing up in Port Elliot, where if you strolled into Willats’ Bakery, Mrs Willats would keep it simple with the time honoured line “what’ll it be, Pie Pasty or Sausage Roll?”. I wonder what Ernie Willats would have made of Red Ned’s.
On board, our frustrations in achieving a sat phone driven connection to the internet for offshore weather and communications was growing apace. Try as we might, the signal from our highly regarded Iridium 9555 proved not strong enough to link to either email or weather sources. Experts from afar were called to lend a hand, but the goal of achieving a reliable connection via this technology to the outside world proved elusive. Cookie has been in the driver’s seat of this quest, and to quote her verbatim…”this is doing my head in!!!” Hours slipped by on board Calista and everything we touched turned to clay. Happily, though we were well positioned to seek relief from our screens and to head out, off the boat to the outside world. Call it respite care for non-geeky sailors if you like.
The day after our Nelson Bay arrival saw swells of up to 5m forecast and we decided that with deft use of the bus timetable and the Tomaree National Park map, we could head for Fingal Bay, and with luck, take some walking trails to see the spectacular coastline for ourselves. Compared with the hoopla of Nelson Bay, the solitude of the Tomaree National Park, and the grand vistas that it offered, were a delight. Many more hours of hand wringing and peering at screens might have injured our mental health. Maybe those who suffer from technological morbidity could do as we did, and on the Big Rocky Walk, watching huge seas pummel Little and Big Rocky islands; hurling cascades of spray aloft, they, like us, might find peace of mind in the wilderness. There is nothing like salt spray and wind in your hair to restore equilibrium.
|Spectacular coastline south of Fingal Beach|
Flushed with the success of our outdoor activity, we embarked on more. Another foray saw us head to Shoal Bay, the next bay around from Nelson Bay ,and next to the Port Stephens entrance, from where a hike to the top of Tomaree Head offered stunning views to all points of the compass. From here, having a sea eagle like elevation, our attention was drawn to Zenith, Wreck and Box beaches that were crescent shaped indents in the coastline extending to Fingal Bay. At Fingal, it might be possible to nimble our way across the Fingal Spit, and in spite of the dire warnings about being swept away by seas covering the isthmus, get to the Lighthouse on Fingal Island.
|Great walk and views from Tomaree Head|
In between, though, we planned a weekend foray to Solder’s Point, deeper into Port Stephens, where another marina is to be found, that might be a valuable referral point on another occasion. The Sunday bus to Soldier’s Point required a stopover and bus change a Salamander Shopping Centre, a facility that, in spite of attracting a host of locals seeking retail entertainment, had little to maintain our interest or enthusiasm. After a trundle down the peninsula in the Soldier’s Point bus, we arrived at the marina to find it more like a two-story restaurant, brim-full of people seeking gourmet entertainment to while away their Sunday. We are folks who are not wedded to lunchtime dining, and the thought of a pricy nosh-up, leaving us replete, dreamy, and lighter of pocket, had us seeking solace in a middling café around the corner. We just had time for a bite before catching the bus, when, in the process of seeing good our bill we were aghast to see our cherished bus streaming past at a merry clip, in the direction of our intended travel. Rushing outside and waving like castaways on a desert island was to no avail….and worse was to come, beyond admitting to my minor mis-reading of the timetable; on breaking the news to my travelling companion that because it was Sunday, the next bus was two hours away!! Cookie is a solution seeker and her response was both immediate and to be expected….”we’ll walk”. Then, with the realisation that walking might see us still at it beyond sundown she had plan B in hand in a trice….”we’ll hitch!.....hitched my way around Europe in the 80’s…and we can hitch our way back now!” She strode off, arm outstretched like a railway signal whilst mine was extended limply, like a spinach leaf left too long in the sun. On we trudged, as our confidence and ebullience steadily eroded. Car after car swept past, judged us as inappropriate, and drove on. No dreadlocks, no piercings, no black t-shirt with skulls, and not visibly affected by substance or drugs; we were shunned. What has society come to when a respectable gent and his more than respectable partner can draw no response in their hour of need? Then…a car stopped. A lovely lady hailing originally from back of Dubbo took pity on us and offered us a lift. What’s more she was headed for Nelson Bay and could drop us off, just abeam of the marina. In the end we got back before the convoluted bus process via Salamander, met a charming lady who typified everything that is “country”, and we had time to investigate a glass or two to restore our jangled nerves before sunset. I resolved to triple check bus departure times in the future.
|Now what time was that bus?!!|
Our last Tomaree excursion, achieved via a carefully constructed connection with the local bus, took us to Shoal Bay from where the walking trail to Wreck and Box Beaches originated. These beaches, reached after an enervating stroll through the forest, were every bit as good as they had appeared from Tomaree Head. With a warm sun and gin-clear water a swim here was tempting, although with the tide on the turn; to swim would mean that we might not have time to cross the isthmus to Fingal Island. A swim is a swim, but crossing the isthmus was something else!
On our arrival at the spit, with the seas of earlier days in retreat, the stroll across appeared a breeze and what was more there were vehicles on the Fingal Island side that underlined its viability. On arrival there, with our feet nearly dry, we came across a group of net fishers intent on getting a cast around a shoal of sea mullet, or black bream, that were schooling just off the headland. They were using a jet boat for net deployment with the ends of the net hauled ashore by vehicle. We sauntered across to say hello and they were surprised to hear about our background of jet boats, mulloway fishing on SA’s wild Coorong beach, and experience of setting heavy nets in equally heavy surf. They referred to a SA fisherman who had been on the ABC Landline program, about net fishing off the Coorong Beach, and were astonished, again, that our good friend Alistair Wood, known fondly by us as the Mulloway King, was the very same identity. It was a one in a million connection because, with the isthmus profile deeper in recent times, they had not been fishing at this spot off Fingal Island for the last nine years.
|Retrieving the net|
Fingal Island is not huge and a short walk along a clearly marked trail saw us at the Point Stephens Lighthouse, a regal structure with bright blue trim that we had ogled from out at sea. Sadly, the equally grand keeper’s cottages, with the head-keeper’s residence, complete with its bay window overlooking the cape, was gutted by fire in the early 1990’s and the residences are but a forlorn relic of their former glory. If we were well heeled tycoons we would love to see the buildings restored to what they used to be. Good company, a roast in the oven and spray leaping from the rocks beyond the lighthouse….we wonder if tycoons are as attracted to these things as we are.
|Relics of a a bygone era at the Lighthouse|
|Incoming tide and threating skies as we returned across the Isthmus|
Our last excursion in Port Stephens was the easy stroll from Nelson Bay to Nelson Head, to visit the Port Stephens Marine Rescue Centre, sitting up on its position of advantage overlooking the port entrance. Manned 24/7, the facility is impressive with facilities that underline the importance placed in volunteer Marine Rescue, both by government, and by the broader community. We thought of the fabulous work done by Carol Miell of American River VMR, and Garry and Sue Smith of Tumby Bay VMR, back in SA, and how their threadbare funding was light years away from what we now saw in front of us. The MR Officers, there were three on duty, were very welcoming, and willing to discuss any aspect of their work in the area. They were proud of the work done by their group, sometimes responding to emergencies during horrendous conditions out at sea. Earlier this year, yachts returning from the Pittwater to Coffs Harbor Yacht Race, were hit by a terrible storm when returning south; one yachtsman was drowned and the Marine Rescue vessel was knocked down by the enormous sea. To us, with weather events like this now predicted and not random, we wondered what the yachts were doing out there in the first place, especially as the incident occurred on a Tuesday and concerns about the weather prognosis were shared with the boats at Coffs on the Sunday before. Hearing the harrowing tale of what eventuated, with Marine Rescue personnel clearly putting their lives on the line in the process, we reflected on the differing mentality that exists between racing “yachties” and cruisers like us. We would have stayed in port.
|Port Stephens Marine Rescue|
Back on board, the need to head north, combined with a temporarily fine weather prediction, had us readying Calista for sea. Following our discussion at the Marine Rescue centre, a detailed look at the weather outlook back on board showed the ominous development of a weather system in a few days’ time, out in the Coral Sea but heading for the NSW coast. Although showers were currently forecast, winds were expected to be light, giving us the opportunity for a comfortable passage, north to Coffs Harbor; a voyage of 165 nm that would take about 30 hours at sea. The strong westerlies of previous days had dissipated, but the chill in the air had an unmistakeable sniff of winter.
|Last sunset at Port Stephens|
We were away and out of the d’Albora Marina, before many had stirred and well before the first coffee was stirred at Mavericks on the Bay. The passage beyond Tomaree Point was disturbed with an outgoing tide in conflict with a light onshore wind, and what the passage would be like in a dedicated Nor-Easter, against an ebbing tide was horrible to contemplate. Soon, however we were free from the area of confluence and making between Cabbage Tree and Boondebah Islands, we set a course for a point off Seal Rocks. With our at sea routines in front of us, we set a double reefed main, engaged the autopilot, and attempted to get some rest in between taking turns on watch.
Not far out of Port Stephens, beyond Hawks Nest and Providence Bay lie the Broughton Islands, where island anchoring offshore, common in South Australia but not so in NSW, is possible. We glassed the islands but did not linger, with a long night, and some, in front of us before we reached Coffs Harbor. Of more appeal, with its beach anchorage sheltered by Sugarloaf Point, was the Seal Rocks anchorage; just the thing if the weather was holding fine from the South or Sou-West. For us though it was not the time to delay and explore, and we made our way past Seal Rocks, and later Cape Hawke, to see the wink of the Crowdy Head light, off our port bow as darkness fell.
|Seal Rocks Lighthouse|
|Another amazing sunset|
Port Macquarie, like a number of the prominent Marine Rescue stations, is manned 24/7, although probably “staffed” would be a better term as these days, as, like Carol on Kangaroo Island, female voices calling the shots on the airways is becoming more common. On leaving Port Stephens we were asked to nominate a coastal station, somewhere near the mid-point of our passage, to call up and register our progress. We drew level with Port Macquarie at 1am, and despite some reticence from us in calling at such an untimely hour, a chipper voice came up in a moment or two, deflecting our apologies for disturbing his peace, and saying that our call was a good excuse to put on the kettle. Some cruisers choose not to log in with the Marine Rescue network, although we prefer to have our presence known to the professionals ashore. If something went wrong out at sea, they have our particulars, and in the event that we did not reach our destination, time would not be lost in starting a search for us. Our experience is that if we say we will be arriving at a location at a designated time, and we do not radio in, they will place VHF calls out for us and will start calling us on our mobile phone, as this contact is part of the standard log-in procedure. With our home port far away, we appreciate this.Through the night we could see that something was brewing out to sea, but in spite of faraway flashes of lightning, nothing malevolent presented itself and we emerged into the new day off one of our favourite NSW places, Smoky Cape. With its Trial Bay at Sou West Rocks and a fascinating past as a penitentiary by the sea, it would be good to drop our anchor here, although thunderheads out to sea, lit by the ochre rays of the new day, kept our focus on the fresh waypoint past Nambucca Heads, and battling the notorious East Australia Current; the topic of much fun in Finding Nemo, but a bane to any cruising yacht making to the North. The EAC bares its fangs between smoky Cape and Coffs Harbor, but in our corner on this occasion was a sprightly breeze from the SW, which allowed us to trundle along past the unmistakeable Hat Head, before the islands off Coffs hove into view.
|Snug in the lee cloth berth off watch|
|The southern breakwater wall at the outer harbour entrance|
|On approach to the Marina entrance|
We rounded the Coffs Harbor breakwater and made for berth D42, at the behest of Marina Manager Elise who, when we presented at the Office, suggested that given the ominous weather forecast for the weekend, with gale force winds, sheets of rain and seas building beyond 6 metres in height, having our bow to the weather would be a very good thing. We had a day to prepare for the tempest, and do all that we could to be ready for the storm when it arrived. In an ironic touch a sign near the port facilities proudly declares that works are about to start on raising and strengthening the north-east facing breakwater, the barrier that will bear the brunt of what is to come. Previous storms have seen seas crash over its wall to cause considerable damage to the marina, and in the marina office is a photo taken during a blow that shows the breakwater completely smothered by an enormous sea. With locals telling us that “this one could be the worst one yet!” we felt a growing sense of apprehension……as our ship’s barometer began to fall.