Scarborough Marina (Brisbane) – Noumea
MAD. Marine Anxiety Disorder. This has been newly coined by the crew of Calista, identifying the malady of pre – voyage fears, doubts, uncertainties and concerns that afflict most souls on small vessels who are about to embark on a long voyage over the broad and boundless sea. Anxiety rears its horrid head in many forms, but the experts have made the diagnosis of this condition a little easier by coining a one size fits many term called GAD, or General Anxiety Disorder. We think that MAD is a confirmed disorder, and should be recognised in nautical circles for the marine disease that it is, for those who are sufferers of it may sadly never leave port, or even sadder still, never experience the joys of owning a boat in the first place. Even those who appear to be seasoned salts, have to deal with, it, and if not slay it, learn how to overcome that gnawing feeling of being “uptight” before putting to sea. The reassuring thing for us is that although MAD is common, it can be overcome, especially by those whose keenness to do is overridden by the temptation to defer, possibly forever. After our traumas at Coffs Harbor, it would be easy to sideline our Voyage to Vanuatu for the comfort of heading north, maybe to the Whitsundays, and beyond. To put it plainly though, we would never forgive ourselves if we did, so head east to the South Pacific it is to be, when the time was right.
|Time to go....It's cold here!|
At Scarborough, after months of planning, viewing and reviewing weather prognoses, provisioning, checking and re-checking our systems on board, and dealing with the endless items on Cookie’s daily lists of tasks, there is nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, and we are facing the MOT, the moment of truth. A pattern of weather had formed over the Coral Sea that could deliver a reasonable passage to Noumea. A front was due to pass through Tasman Sea waters, turning winds to the nor-west around Brisbane, and in its wake creating a sou-wester, which would tend to the south, and later sou-east out into the Coral Sea. We had been watching this pattern as it developed, at first thinking that it would be too strong out at sea, for us to embark – setting out into rough conditions carried too many risks – and it also presented potential problems at the Noumea end of the passage as winds looked like swinging to the nor-east, and “heading” anyone well before New Caledonia was reached. For us a passage of over 770 nautical miles might take us 7 days to complete, and we had to be confident that conditions would be reasonable, for the entire journey, and not just part of it; and with some to spare. Now, with a focus on the modelling of Predict Wind and Windy Ty – which provides an up to 14 day prognosis – it looked as the weather at the Brisbane end was not as strong, and out near Noumea, the headwinds might be replaced by something a lot calmer. We checked and re-checked this pattern before a decision was made, and agreed to by us both….yes, yes, it was time to go, provided we could deal with the anxieties of leaving in the process.
|No more excuses!|
When normally leaving port, we can make a decision to go at any time, when conditions look good and we are ready to go. Leaving Australian waters for an international destination is another case altogether, for we are a Registered Australian Ship, and cannot depart until we are cleared to do so by Customs, or Border Security, as this service is now known. For us, these formalities involved contacting Customs days in advance and arranging for officers to visit our yacht, to check our passports and papers and to see that we were compliant with the rules and regulations that apply when leaving the country. Yes we have to each fill out one of those embarkation cards, just like you might do when boarding a Qantas flight, except that in our case it was not, say, QF22, but SV Calista. We were chuffed by that. With Customs booked for 0700 on Thursday, 30 June, there was no turning back now, and no scope for MAD, to stop us from setting free our lines and putting to sea.
Thursday 30 June began crisply with a lick of southern chill in the air, and after a delay in the arrival of the Officers, the formalities were met quickly and convivially, and we were free to go, or, as the two female officers firmly put it, we must go, and as soon as we could. So, that was that, and with no ceremony at all we loosed our lines and made for Moreton Bay, and the open ocean beyond. Day 1 of our passage was finally under way. After all of the uncertainties of putting a date on our departure, it felt good to be finally going, come what may.
Moreton Bay, bounded by Moreton Island to the east, the coastline of Brisbane and the Redcliffe Peninsula to the west, and Bribie Island leading to the Sunshine Boast, is a large and shallow expanse, beset by a labyrinth of channels and shoals, and requiring some careful navigation if we wanted to avoid the long haul south to the Brisbane ship channel, to follow the commercial route to the sea. With Diddys booked to clear, and depart behind us, we had pre-set a series of way-points that should provide safe passage beyond the bay to Flinders Reef and the open sea beyond. We did not want to fetch up on one of the shoals and have to activate one of the emergency procedures that could be employed to see a “cleared” ship return to port. Creating a diplomatic incident was something that we were keen to avoid.
Had we been able, we would have left port on Wednesday June 29, because a friendly southerly caressed the waters of Moreton Bay and beneath it we would have romped out of the bay before rounding Cape Moreton and setting a course to Noumea. A day later though and conditions had softened, but with winds predicted to lift from the nor-west with the leading edge of the change. We hoisted sail but needed to motor to assist our progress under what we call on board the “5 knot rule” that says,” if you are not doing five knots when on passage, it is time to start the motor”. Our at sea passage times are all calculated under the 5 knot rule, although we know that there are many purists who are happy to drift on a painted ocean for hours, sometimes days waiting for the wind to arise. When we first bought Calista in 2007, one of the first projects we undertook was to install two stainless steel saddle or “day tanks” in lockers alongside the motor to double our fuel carrying capacity, so that with 4 additional jerry cans in reserve, we carry about 280 litres of diesel on board, and given that in calm conditions our Yanmar 40 hp motor, consumes just shy of 2 litres an hour, and takes us between 5 and 6 nautical miles in the process, all this adds up to us being able to motor from home to Sydney if we really wanted to. These are crucial calculations for us, and would mean everything in a passage to Noumea where fluky winds might impair our progress.
Flinders Reef, abeam of Cape Moreton guards the entrance to Moreton Bay, and here with the shoals behind us we had a pod of Humpback Whales, heading north, put on a display especially for us, with cetacean animations such as breaching and tail waving to see us on our way. We were now in the shipping channels, about where the wonderful Jessica Watson had a brush with a steel monster, having just left on her around the world odyssey and we were keen to not duplicate that experience. Then just to remind us of the importance of watch keeping and checking our AIS on the chart plotter for approaching ships, the immense MV Eugenia, a 902 foot steel leviathan, more like a Manhattan sky scraper on its side, than a container ship, churned past our nose, before turning to starboard in the direction of Sydney.
With the day receding we had set a course to the East and were readying ourselves for the routines for our first night at sea. We had watched as Diddys with four crew on board, had come up from Cape Moreton, and with everything aloft, they took a northerly course and disappeared over the horizon. It had been recommended to us that the best passage to Noumea, which lies to the North East of Brisbane, was to head east for two or three days before picking up the south-easterly trade winds further out to sea that would give a cruising yacht an ideal angle to bear north and make for New Caledonia. On a chart, this course would appear as a Glenn McGrath outswinger, straight for much of the journey but curving away to the slips at the end. Whether we could execute this plan and whether the winds would align with the theory, we were about to find out. What was certain though, as the outline of Moreton Island sunk into the horizon and the Glasshouse Mountains became pimples in the west was that our nights would be long and dark out at sea. We were near to the winter solstice, and there was not a sliver of moon to assist.
|Sunset, day one|
On our first eve at sea, as we dined early - on one of Cookie’s famous veggie pastas - lit our navigation lights, donned our safety harnesses and settled into our overnight watches, there were only two reminders of the vast continent that we were steadily and inexorably leaving behind. The first was the bright wink of the Cape Moreton light that for a time defied the curvature of the earth, before being extinguished for good. This left only the loom of humanity emanating from Brisbane, the Gold and Sunshine coasts, that appeared for hours as if they were moons that were endeavouring to rise, before they too were snuffed in the west and an all pervading darkness fell upon us, that was only relieved by a glimmer of starlight when the clouds parted and gave access to the heavens. The long, dark nights of this voyage became a burden for us both, and it seemed that no sooner had the sun risen in the east, it was already contemplating its decline in the west. O we longed for summer cruising in SA when at 9pm at night there is still potable light, which returned again by 5.30 in the morning. Being dark shortly after 5pm was a gloomy prospect, from every respect.
Then, in the early hours of the new day my attention on watch was drawn to a string of flashes in the south, which might have marked the northern frontier of the change sliding away and underneath us. Lightning! Drawing ever closer and possibly heralding the arrival of a storm! Go away I mused, just go away. We have had some frightening experiences in recent years with lightning and storms, and their approach does little for our anxiety at sea. Only this year a balmy late summer eve saw us nodding at anchor under Beatrice Shoal out from Kingscote in South Australia - we will forever link this lagoon like locale to the position report to VMR American River, from the incomparable Alan Cotton who once intoned that he was “lying comfortably under Beatrice” – when our evening of relaxation post-passage from Investigator Strait was shattered by a vicious storm with its forked handmaidens, cracking and shattering its way down upon us from the north-west. Out at Beatrice Shoal we felt like a teal on Bool Lagoon at the onset of the shooting season, and voted to make with all haste to a spot abeam of the Kingscote jetty where there were at least other structures taller than us might draw the attention of the deadly forks, now drawing ever closer. When the tempest hit, the simultaneous bolts of light, bombs of thunder and the whipping winds, came in a terrible trilogy, and saw us huddled in the cockpit, just hoping for the best. Then one terrific crack lit up the entire landscape; lights on the jetty were doused, and we just held on, hoping and hoping for it all to pass. A direct hit and only a couple of hundred metres away! Would we be next…..???! This had been a narrow miss, a call too close for comfort, and left us with a distinct aversion to electrical storms at sea.
|We eat well on SV Calista !|
Whilst we were lying winged at Boat Works on the Coomera (see earlier blog), I reflected on this horrid experience and sought, in this precinct of marine eminence, to find someone who was qualified to advise us about what we might do to “lightning proof” Calista, for our proposed voyage. Our yacht has a “deck stepped” mast, and is not like other modern keel-linked rigs that are often “earthed” to their keels so that, in theory, a lightning strike will pass through the boat and not shatter everything on board in the process. For us there is the fear that with “nowhere to go” a strike might travel down our stainless shrouds and explode its way out the side of our boat via the chain plates to the sea. I wanted to seek advice about having a temporary battery cable, or similar, attached from our shrouds to the sea, that might encourage a strike to travel that way to the sea. So with all this in mind I sauntered into the biggest marine electrical facility on the Coomera, and shared my enquiry. “You need to see Sparks about that” was the collective view of the blokes in the workshop. Soon “Sparks” – I never learned his real name, but figured that anyone dubbed “Sparks” was my man – arrived and listened to my query with great interest. “I’ve had boats up the Queensland coast sit through hundreds of storms and only one ever got hit…..and they ended up ok” was his assessment. Then he went on to suggest that having a temporary conductor to the sea might actually encourage what was called the “pre-flash”, the upwards flash of energy that precedes the downwards bolt. That was the latest research, he declared. So, with this in mind I asked him what he would do in our situation and he thought wistfully for a moment before declaring…”go sailing”. Now as the lightning became more pronounced off to starboard, I thought of the good Sparks and wondered whether I should have gotten the reassurance about lightning in writing. It was now past 3am and as Cookie and I changed watches, we hoped that the disturbance to the south would stay exactly where it was, south of us.
|Through the squall line!|
Wake up! Wake up! Wake up! was the clarion call from the helm. The approaching weather in the pre-dawn had arrived with a handful of drops that in seconds became a torrent, accompanied by a gale of wind. Cookie had leapt to the helm, disconnected the autopilot, and was now in a waterfall, holding the boat head to the weather. For her it was too late to think about dryness, but to me she yelled, “get your wet weather gear on and come up!” She was dressed for the comfort of the cockpit and was now soaked to the skin and starting to shiver. Then as I arrived, the clouds parted, and the wind fell away. A very sodden Calista crew member was last seen heading below where the sight of her clad in head torch only as she searched for warm clothes caused me some mirth. My call to “hand me the camera” went unanswered.
After the storm came the dawn and the calm, as the weather swung to the sou-west in fluky proportions. Optimistically we set up “Kev” our windvane autopilot, only to find that it struggled in the light following sea and we reverted to sailing and autopilot before we fell below our 5 knot limit and engaged the motor. For this and the following two days we chased the wind, setting sail when it allowed, engaging the wind vane when we could, but falling back on motoring and mainsail when the airs wafted. All the while we held course steadily to the east, and by now, as we left Australian waters, we felt that we were well and truly alone.
|KEV at the helm|
|Captain Araldite at the helm|
Our daily routine saw Cookie each morning talking to the satellites, as via our Iridium Go system, linked to X Gate and Predict Wind, we were able to obtain the latest wind prediction “grib files”, and via the last of these technologies get computer generated routing options, between our location and Noumea. When these charts emerged on our screen, to a triumphant cry from Captain Araldite (because she sticks to the wheel), all the frustrations that we had encountered in sourcing, installing and troubleshooting these devices and their programs, seemed somehow worth it. The models told us that yes, by staying south of the “rhumb line” (the direct line to Noumea), we had avoided heavier weather to the north, but we would need to keep our progress up as, closer to New Caledonia, winds might turn frustratingly north of east. However, if the new models held, we might just be able to drop into a temporary pool of calm a day out from Noumea, from where we could motor or drift to Dunbea Pass, the navigable gap in the barrier reef, just 12 miles from journey’s end. Seeing all these things come together, and actually work, was in the realm of miracle. For me, I kept us in touch with the outside world via our HF Radio, and a daily “sked” to Charleville Radio, giving our 0900 position, status, course and speed. If something happened to us out at sea, Charleville Radio, which is linked to the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, would have a good idea where to start looking. They were not the only ones listening. One morning Tas Coast Radio in Hobart came up to wish us well on our voyage. In effect, we were alone but still in touch with the outside world.
On Sunday July 3, we altered course to the north-east and tried to hold a line south of the rhumb, to keep “money in the bank”. The frustrations of sailing and motoring, setting up self-steering then motoring again, continued into Monday as we clawed our way to the nor-east. Coming up the East Coast, we traversed our marine charts at a gallop, and two hourly plots showed the progress we were making. Now out in the vast reaches of the Coral Sea we crept across the chart plotter and the marine chart at glacial pace, cruelled by scale, and not much to show on the chart for 24 hours of hard work at sea. At least, day by day, Noumea inched closer.
Monday night into Tuesday proved to be the testing time as we resolved to maintain our “easting” into difficult headwinds, sharing watches of two hours on, then two hours off, as we fought to hold our line before we might bear away and sail on the easterly as close as we could to Noumea. Turn too soon and we would miss New Caledonia altogether. Late in the afternoon, an AIS “target” showed the Pacific Jewel over the horizon, and out to starboard. Apart from an Asian “long liner”, adrift before a night of fishing, this was a rare encounter in the blue expanse, of the Coral Sea. We thought of the cruisers on the Jewel hitting the cocktails and the dance floor, whilst for us the night fell black and horrid, as we pitched and ground our way forward on our course. With the wind varying in both direction and speed, we helmed to make the most of what we had. Keeping our course proved to be difficult enough, but clouds drifted in giving us few “sighting” respites, from staring at the instruments. Added to this was the onset of the contrary New Caledonian Current, which cruelly headed us and reduced our speed over the ground to a miserable three knots an hour through the night. Each of us slumped from the wheel to our bunk, before returning to the wheel all over again. We were on autopilot, and not Calista. Would the dawn ever come?
Lovely sailing at last
At first light we bore away to the nor-east, trimmed our canvas and made for “home”. Our efforts in holding our “easting” had been worth it, and now with the grip of the easterly we hoped we could hold our line until we were within “sight” of New Caledonia, that is, provided the wind held. Even now we could not relent as when we engaged our autopilot in the close hauled winds to starboard, we could not make the best of it, so, to maintain our course, and keep our line, we were back again, on the wheel. For hour after hour we worked the wind, “making ground” when it firmed and doing our best to hold our line when it softened. Our weather models predicted that at about 0200 Wednesday morning the wind would collapse and, as if on cue, this is precisely what happened. Cookie was about to emerge for the “dog watch”, and I broke the welcome news to her that it was time to engage the autopilot and bare away in gentle airs for “home”. “Tim” our autopilot – we are not sure of the origin of Tim but we have kept the name nonetheless – would do the work from here on in.
|Pleasant slow sailing Day 6|
|Preparing our flags for entry to New Caledonia|
Our last day at sea was ironically one where we reduced sail and speed so that we reached our waypoint off Dunbea Pass at dawn, giving us the best sighting of the entrance and the personal pleasure of a morning arrival in Noumea. We celebrated our last day at sea with a hearty breakfast, we call it a Port Lincoln breakfast – grilled tomatoes and baked beans on toast - followed by a generous basin wash in the cockpit, laundering hair, body and soul. It was a glorious day for a “drifter” and as we edged closer to Noumea, the trials and vicissitudes of the previous two days seemed also to drift away, astern. During the day we encountered the African Weaver bound for China with what remains of Australia’s forests, and when we called them up to discuss the proximity of our intersecting courses, they immediately offered to bear away to port and pass safely astern of us. As we settled into our last night at sea, which as if by reward, was as pleasant a night at sea as one could imagine – the absence of moon notwithstanding – we peered ahead on watch, until in the early hours of Thursday 7/7/16, we could see it! Yes, there it was: the loom of the lights of Noumea, just over the horizon, right where it should be.
As we made our way through Passe de Dumbea, and picked up the fairway to Noumea, conditions were as benign as one could imagine and we were both totally and utterly elated. We had made it! We remembered joining Captain Tony Herriot on the bridge of Pacific Pearl, a day or so out of Noumea bound for Sydney. The good Captain, a delightful and engaging British professional, asked us, after a “look around’ the nerve centre of the great ship whether we had any questions. We had a night passage out of Dumbea Pass, and whilst all others on board were engaged in the aforementioned excesses of life, we were on the top deck, in a nipping air, examining the processes of departing the harbour for the open sea. To the good Captain, Cookie said “yes, we saw where you dropped off the pilot, and picked up the port and starboard entrance beacons, but could not make sense of the white flashing light out from the port light as we made seaward. Could you tell us what that flashing light was?” The good Captain looked at her in utter disbelief. “Well…well…we need to consult the chart…Number 1 can you get the Noumea entrance chart for us…” Now we saw the pile which holds the white flashing light – it marks the end of the fringing reef – and remembered fondly our time on the “big ship” as we steered our little ship into the channel that leads to Noumea, just 12 miles away.
|VHF Channel 67... We have arrived in New Caledonia !|
As we eased our way down the ship channel toward Petite Passe, and the harbour of Noumea, we called Port Moselle Marina on VHF radio, so we could complete the arrival procedures for New Caledonia. Cookie went to the mast and hoisted aloft three flags, the new Caledonian, Australian and yellow pratique flag, indicating that we were arriving from far away and needed clearance, into the country. Was that a hint of burnt coconut husk in the air? Was that a waft of cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves?
Entering Petite Passe into the harbour ... we did it ..we are here!
|Port Moselle Marina|
We entered the port of Noumea after 7 days and two hours at sea, and with 24 hour passages of 123, 144, 131, 133, 106, 100, and 87 nautical miles, we had traversed 843 nautical miles since leaving Scarborough Marina, Brisbane. After four months, seven days and 2620 nautical miles from home we had arrived in New Caledonia, ever grateful that we had crossed the great Coral Sea, and had arrived in one piece.
|Our route across the Coral Sea|
Noumea – vous beaute sanglante! Allez equipage de Calista! Allez Calista vous merveilleux petit bateau! Nous l’avon cree!!
Noumea - you bloody beauty! Go crew of Calista! Go Calista you wonderful little boat! We made it!