Wednesday, November 30, 2016

 Noumea to Brisbane
10/11/16 – 18/11/16

Frustrations! Whilst life in Port Moselle Marina was delightful, as days slid by and the vagaries of the weather of the weather systems out in the Coral Sea continued we became ever aware that we really did need to be on our way, especially as November ticked on and the “Cyclone Season” approached. At least we were in good company. It became routine to see experienced boat skippers with furrowed brows accessing met details on laptops and iPads via Wi-Fi up in the marina lounge, and for them to voice a common concern that weather models that showed promise one day changed markedly the next and that even the models themselves seemed to agree to disagree. The Gulf Harbor Radio service operating out of New Zealand is highly regarded for its professional weather advice for waters extending up into the Coral Sea and stretching to Tonga and Fiji, and even David their consulting meteorologist was bemoaning the erratic nature of the weather systems currently being experienced in the South West Pacific. At least mortals like us were not alone.

In the meantime, with more than an eye on the weather, we continued with boat works and preparations, escaping as often as possible on Bus 11 to Baie de Citron for some recreation and a swim, and delighting in sharing time with fellow cruisers. Simon, Jodi and their son Joey on Manaroa 3, for example, returned from Vanuatu cock-a-hoop with evidence of the 150 odd cm Wahoo that they had captured en-route, and we were delighted to join them on board Manaroa for a fish curry that was as aromatically enticing as it was tasty. Then, with Justin and his mate “Kingy” – we never discovered Kingy’s real moniker – arriving to help Marcel take Diddys back to Australia, a weather pattern with more promise than others seen in recent days began to form.

A pre swim icecream !

Dining out at Anse Vata

We had given up on finding a “perfect” weather window for our return to Australia and had come to realise that we might have to ultimately settle for something that was “doable”, or better than other options; with portions that were not entirely to our liking. For days the weather off Noumea had been fine, but out in the Coral Sea and close to the Australian coast there were features that caused us concern. A “trough” of weather extending to the north, all the way from New Zealand to a line between Noumea and Brisbane had persisted for days but now showed signs of at last drifting to the SE, and strong winds off the Australian coast looked like relenting for long enough to let us through to Brisbane. We might have to “slalom” our way around these hurdles, because either side of them there were variable winds, with the promise of good sailing and patches of calms. This potential passage was a complex one that would keep us working to adjust to the prevailing conditions and having to be ready to respond to daily weather updates that we gleaned via our satellite driven Predict Wind system, although, once you are “out there” and far from land, we would committed and would have to cope with the weather hand that we were dealt.

We finally settled on Saturday 12th of November as the day to leave, and headed into Noumea and its port precinct to complete the “formalities” involved in “clearing out of” New Caledonia. Once “cleared” and with our papers in order, we technically had 72 hours to leave the country, enough time to attend to last minute provisioning and, with our departure documentation, head to the Duty Free shops for some crucial re-stocking of the ship’s cellar. In both New Caledonia and Vanuatu the physical process of “clearing out” is a convoluted one, with offices of Immigration, Customs and Port authorities scattered hither and yon and no attempt whatever to undertake the seemingly obvious undertaking of locating them under one roof.  Curiously though, whereas in Vanuatu the process also involves the payment of a raft of duties, charges taxes and levies – which we did not mind as long as the monies collected went to the betterment of the country – in Noumea both clearing in and clearing out is…free! Given that New Caledonia is significantly more expensive to visit than Vanuatu, we found this both puzzling and welcome, Maybe the French felt sorry for seafarers like ourselves who  headed off traipsing forms and paperwork from Immigration, Customs and then to the far reaches of the Port to the office of the Port Captain, to get the clinching bit of paper, the Official Port Clearance – which we would retain as a curiosity – so that SV Calista, Australian Registered Ship 856287 with two Australian Citizens aboard, could depart the Port of Noumea bound for the Port of Brisbane.

Farewell Noumea

Then, back in Port Moselle, yet another weather check showed that there was little to gain by waiting for Saturday, and like Diddys a Friday departure, apart from attracting the superstitions associated with leaving port on a long voyage on a Friday, faced weather issues out in the Coral Sea that were very much the same. After completing a raft of last minute tasks, Paul, off Bumpy Dog was there as our farewell entourage to wish us well, to free our lines, and to kindly suggest that once we were on our way we were not to come back. It was nudging one pm on 12/11/16 after 128 extraordinary days in these unforgettable isles, that we once again nosed Calista out of Port Moselle and hoisted sail for Noumea’s Petite Passe, the harbour exit, and made for Dunbea Pass, the ship channel that marked the gateway through the fringing reef to the open sea. Diddys had left some hours before us and we knew that with their advantage in speed, they were likely to be next spotted in faraway Brisbane, if at all, about a week away.

We might have been excused for casting a nostalgic eye astern as we rounded the Port mark in Petite Passe, and set a course to the west, but there was a far more practical issue to deal with. After days of friendly sou-easters in the Noumean afternoons, the breeze on this afternoon had swung to the west, and bang on our nose. Maybe it was unwise to leave on a Friday after all!  Clearly we had two realistic choices, one, to bash our way out to Passe Dunbier into the wind, or to bear away to Passe du Nord abeam of Amedee Island on a sailable angle, whilst conceding some ground to the south in the process. In no time, the grand white pencil of the Amedee Lighthouse was rising off our port bow as we romped toward the outer reef. By late afternoon we had negotiated the pass in the Grand Recife, and the rise and fall of the swell under our keel marked our arrival upon the open sea ahead. By nightfall the last outline of Grand Terre, had disappeared into the sea mist and only the flash of the Amedee Light remained astern. As we settled into our night routines and supped on portions of Cookie’s pre-made vegie pasta, Amedee slipped under the horizon astern and we were again alone and at sea.

Amedee Lighthouse & New Caledonia disappearing!

We had hoped for a kindly breeze and sailing angle for our first night out at sea but the wind stayed naggingly on our bow and we motor-sailed through the night on our preferred pattern of watches – 7pm to 10pm, 10pm to 1am, 1am to 3am, 3am to 5am - with a fulsome moon shining its reassuring beam over an ocean that steadily rose and fell as a result of the great forces at work far away to the south. Before nightfall we had placed a HF Radio call to Australia’s Charleville Radio, and set up a daily “sked”, a “reporting in” process whereby we would advise AMSA, the Australian Marine Safety Authority of our location, course and speed, so that someone had an inkling of where we were and how we were coping out in the vastness of the Coral Sea. To us this seems a crucial aspect of maintaining our safety whilst far out at sea. If we struck real trouble, connecting with AMSA was only a radio click away, and key details of our voyage were well known to them. This was an outstanding service that we hoped we would never need.

Reporting our position via HF radio

On our way from Australia to Noumea in July, our boat speed on approach to Noumea was slowed by a contrary ocean current and we reasoned that heading now in the reverse direction we should find the currents in our favour, but this simple logic proved to be disappointingly wrong and as we plugged on through our first night at sea motoring under mainsail our speed fell to a disappointing 4 – 4.5knots. At first light we set up “Kev” our Fleming Wind Vane, hoisted all sails, and for a while we were buoyed by fair winds and good boat speeds before the breeze faltered, the contrary currents returned and we were left with a day of frustrations as we worked our sails all we could to keep Calista moving westwards.

Sunset Day one
Relaxing below off watch

The patchy airs that we had experienced thus far continued into the next day, Sunday the 13th, although we were well aware that there were far greater challenges that lay ahead, that would be heralded by a gathering northerly with a change of unknown quantity to follow, Our examination of the Predict Wind information via our Iridium Go satellite system suggested that maybe the currents that we had bemoaned could have actually worked in our favour and that by slowing us down we might not only escape the worst of the change, but could experience the strongest portion of it in the much preferred daylight hours. All this was due to occur, though on Monday 14th at about the mid-point of our passage with us close to 400nm from Noumea, a similar distance from Brisbane, and very much reliant on our own resources and the sea-going qualities of our little ship, that felt all the smaller as the wind began to build from the North.

Reefed down & romping along.......
....with Kev still steering at dawn

As the wind built and clouds gathered in the west, we shortened sail and romped along with “Kev” in fine form and sea miles disappearing under our keel. When the clouds arrived, we were doused by a sprinkle of rain but the wind only rose to 22 knots as the worst of our fears were not realised. Maybe we had experienced a great escape and the “trough” might prove to be a toothless tiger. Soon though our AIS warning system told of a big ship approaching, the enormous Legend of the Sea cruise ship, although peering ahead through the mist and spray, even this 800plus foot monster remained enveloped in cloud, until it emerged out of the gloom and charged silently past us although we were only about two miles away. Being curious about the weather that might lay ahead for us, I called their Radio Officer to enquire about the conditions that they had experienced over the last six hours or so, although their friendly reply gave the understandable impression that when you are the size of the Legend of the Seas, weather troughs are of little concern to the Officers on the bridge! Then, back on Calista, my attempt to photograph the great liner as she steamed away to the east ended badly with my losing my hold as a swell caused us to lurch and I cannoned across the cockpit, crashing into the combing down my left side in the process. Having nursed some back problems over the previous weeks, this was the last thing that I needed to do, and was a tart reminder about how easily it is to injure oneself on a small ship out at sea when the ocean is on the rise.

The real trough hits!

In an hour or two though, the ‘real’ trough arrived with wind, rain and a squall that gusted to 30knots and caught us somewhat off guard. We scurried to gather in our headsail and started our motor to nose our way into the blow until the worst of it passed. Then, with night falling under a leaden sky and a rolly remnant sea, the wind dropped out and we motored on through the moonlit hours, expecting that in the new day a sou-easter would form behind the trough which with a little luck could give us some stability in the weather all the way to Cape Moreton. Into Tuesday, though, the wind remained fluky and we motored on toward Australia accepting that there was little that we could do except convert diesel to distance until the wind finally arrived.

Light airs & comfort in our cockpit .... a chance to catch up on my log

It took until the afternoon of Wednesday 16th for the wind to fill in with any consistency and “Kev” again came to the fore as Cape Moreton inched ever closer. By the morning of the 18th, our last full day at sea the sou-easter was up, and under scudding clouds and showers of rain we were driven onwards on a sea that had rapidly built, making conditions on board Calista very difficult if we went below to make our way from one side of the cabin to the other. One of us stayed on watch whilst the other lay cocooned in the passage berth below, as we entered a zone where ship traffic might be experienced plying their trade off the Australian coastline. We had hoped to reach Cape Moreton and the Moreton Bay approaches to Brisbane in daylight but this was proving to be a fond hope and it was nightfall before the loom of the lights of Brisbane became apparent ahead and the flash of the Cape Moreton light gave us reassurance that, yes we were on course for the entrance to Moreton Bay.   

Night passage to the Port of Brisbane

In fading winds it was 11pm before we drew abeam of Moreton Island and found our way into the main ship channel leading to Brisbane, and the glimmer of the new day was already rising in the east before the weary crew of Calista entered the Brisbane River, and made our way along the industrial waterfront of South Brisbane where the odours emanating from plants that belched steam and smoke assailed our nostrils that had for days enjoyed the purity of the marine airs out in the Coral Sea. We tied up at the Customs and Quarantine wharf outside the Rivergate Marina at 0530, and to our delight, found ourselves immediately astern of Diddys, who had arrived the previous evening.

Approaching Rivergate Marina

Soon Justin strolled over to enquire how our passage had been, and we were a little shocked to find just how close we had come to experiencing conditions out in the Coral Sea that could have become a nightmare. Although only a dozen or so hours in front of us the trough for Diddys was announced by a northerly that shrieked in to above 50 knots, and then when it swung to the west and eventually the south, belted them for hours in a gale of 35 knots of wind. Only Justin’s and Kingy’s considerable experience in yacht deliveries saved them from emerging with only superficial damage to their headsail. Then, on approach to Moreton Island the sou-easter howled in again to above 30 knots and in the end they were all very relieved to reach Brisbane. We listened to Justin, horrified at what he was relating, and realised just how close we had come to experiencing conditions that might easily have overwhelmed a smaller yacht like Calista! Little wonder that when Marcel made his way along the pontoon to greet us, he bore all the hallmarks of one who had emerged from a war zone. We felt really sorry for Marcel, who in turn must have felt really grateful in having mariners of the ilk of Justin and Kingy on board to bring them all safely home.

Quarantine dock at Rivergate

Soon the Customs and Quarantine Officers arrived and we found them obliging and friendly in going about their duties, in total contrast to the “horror stories” that we had heard from other cruisers in the islands about the supposed officiousness of Australian entry authorities. With us now “free to go”, one glance around the industrial landscape of the south Brisbane River told us that in spite of our heavy weariness, we should escape from the Brisbane River and head for the familiar and comforting surrounds of the Scarborough Marina, just three hours away across Moreton Bay in the direction of Redcliffe. Besides, this is where we had departed for Noumea, and in returning to Scarborough, our journey would be, in a way, complete.

We did it !! Well done Calista & crew!

When we tied up at Scarborough under the brightest of azure skies and no breeze to speak of we were understandably elated and relieved to have achieved what we had originally set out to do, to sail from Australia, to New Caledonia and Vanuatu, and most importantly of all to return safely back to Australia. We had travelled 1521nm in New Caledonia and Vanuatu waters, and since leaving South Australia’s Marina St Vincent on the first of March, 2016, 4991nm had passed under our keel. On our passage back across the Coral Sea we had achieved daily logs of 113, 116, 123, 118, 124 and 135 nautical miles, covering 859nm over 6days 16 ½ hours at an average boat speed of 5.3knots. There were a host of things that we now needed to do to ready Calista for long voyage back to South Australia, but for now we had quarantined a bottle of most excellent Distant Shores Coonawarra Shiraz to assist us in the process of “raising a glass” to our safe return to Australia. That, and an early night in a stable bed were two things that we were very much looking forward to! 


  1. Amazing journey and a great read - it felt like we were there with you (although not being a good sailor it was better for me to just read about it!) Welcome back to Oz.

  2. A wonderful effort; this blog. Please update us re developments from here ...

  3. Wonderful to read of you Adventure Colin and Cookie. You are both so courageous! I know Noumea and the marina. My sister and I rented an apartment in Baie de Citron for 10 days with a side journey to Ile des Pines back in the mid 2000s. We used to take the bus or walk to Petit Casino to buy our pate, French cheese and wine or go to the morning market in town. What a fascinating cultural mix the place is. Sounds like you experienced the famous French bureaucratic way way of things with the paperwork. Our French friend Danielle would be shaking her head bemoaning the fact of how ridiculous the French can be.
    Hope your latest challenge is progressing positively and we may catch up soon.
    Cheers Marion