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.  

Thursday, March 10, 2016


2/3/16 to 10/3/16

If by grand design Robe could be helicoptered to a location closer to Adelaide it would be a pre-eminent destination for cruising yachts in SA waters. As it is the lonely expanse of ocean stretching beyond Kangaroo Island, which we call the Blue Paddock, plus the gnarly waters of Backstairs Passage that mark its preamble keep most vessels away, apart from those transiting to the East, or making West from Victorian waters. To the East the mere mention of the phrase Bass Strait, keeps even hardened salts from venturing beyond Eden. And for good reason.
The quaint Port of Robe

Then there are the Sou-Easters in summer, the Devil Wind. Gaps in the Devil Wind have been as rare as compassion in Syria. We were exceeding fortunate to get to Robe when we did, but then getting out of Robe to head Sou-East into the prevailing wind has proved to be another challenge of its own. Through summer and now lingering into early autumn, the Sou-Easters have beset the coastline of SA with a dominant high pressure system squatting like a sumo wrestler off Western Australia, feeding a constant ridge of pressure gradients into SA waters where they compress along the coast ushering in our whistling nemesis, the Devil Wind. High pressure systems that sit out in the Tasman and bring northerlies to SA, and hence respites from the SE’s have been rare this year. In March though, the approaching change of season normally brings with it softer airs more conducive to yacht travel. So far we are still waiting.
View of lake Butler Marina from the boardwalk on the way into town.

After a traversing the Blue Paddock and dodging the Cray-pots that dot the marine horizon in these parts, we approached the harbour at Robe, keeping Snewin Reef to port, South Reef to starboard, and following the channel inside the breakwater to the modern and welcoming shipping basin in Lake Butler. In no time Michael Wilkin the affable harbour officer was aboard to complete our arrival formalities and inform us that for the princely sum of $44 for our first night, and $22 a night for subsequent nights we had the keys to marina facilities, hot showers attached to the nearby Yacht Club, and almost keys to the city. Michael is a rare multi-tasking male, being de-facto Harbour Master, local inspector, impounder of stray hounds, travel lift operator for hauling out fishing vessels, and most importantly, go-to person for visiting sailors needing transport into town for heavier haulage. His offer that “if you need help...ring me” was genuinely given and later, would prove invaluable. With obtuse weather on the way, including the threat of thunder and storms from a broad sub-tropical trough, we settled into a lifestyle that we will admit was passing comfortable. You could easily get attached to Robe.
Helpful Michael (on right) took us all into town to refuel.

In summer Robe and its delights are no longer a secret. Hordes of visitors from Adelaide’s leafy and prestigious postcodes descend on this outport, and as it bursts at the seams it could easily be re-named Burnside-By-The-Sea. To be seen in Robe is de rigour. Happily Robe is quieter now although in town the number of caf├ęs and boutiques that have sprouted there to cater for the desires of the transients is impossible to miss. You would be awash if you took coffee in all of the places it is available along Mundy Terrace, the main drag. It could be re-named Latte Lane.

Dotted everywhere in Robe are the grand old buildings from its halcyon days of commerce and trade in the 1800’s. They give the town its charm, its links to its past and ample opportunity for buildings of yore to be converted to boutiques, eateries, galleries and fine places in which to repose. Tales from Robe’s colourful past abound with a favourite of mine being the insanely clever customs scam that could be dubbed the great Chinese takeaway. Robe was in its infancy when gold was discovered at Bendigo and Ballarat in Victoria, and when news of this got out, wannabe fortune hunters from around the world descended on the port of Melbourne, including a large number of Chinese who brought with them their curious appearance, customs and language, causing alarm in an Anglo colony where the embracing of multi-culture was aeons away. To deflect the “celestials” the Victorian Government slapped a ten pound Poll Tax, on every new arrival from China and smugly believed that the Chinese invasion had been averted.  To this move to “stop the boats”, Robe responded a treat, by advertising a one pound entry duty for Chinese arrivals, plus the offer to show the newcomers the way overland to the diggings, out of South Australia and into Victoria. Robe got the money, Victoria got the Chinese – via the back door and by the thousands. Sweet for Robe, sour for the Victorians - who were furious. Was the “take-away” of Adelaide’s Formula 1 Grand Prix, by the Victorians, a century later a case of the Vics getting even?

Former Governors residence overlooking the marina.

As we arrived we happened upon good Port Elliot and Surf Club friends Rod and Janet Ellis, who were coincidentally in town for a few days with a group of colleagues from the South Coast, with most drawn to local links for a regional golf tournament, whilst non-players, like us, immersed themselves in the languid life of Robe. We joined Rod Janet at what we could term a familiarisation evening  at The Cally which is Robe-speak for the Caledonian Inn, and succumbed to their invites for us to join the group at the local Pasta eatery and again at The Cally  on subsequent nights. Hearing of our unusual mode of travel to Robe, their questions about our life afloat led us to offer a tour of our modest ship, which, to our great surprise, drew universal appeal. On board Calista the following morn they were surprised, we think, to find out how much living space we actually have below, and were fascinated by the systems on board that combine to give us a life on the sea.
The Caledonian Inn " The Cally"

Soon, Rod, Janet and their golfing friends departed, but we could not. Needing around 30 hours of viable winds to make it to Port Fairy, we got glimpses of opportunities, but as if on cue, the Sou-Easters filled in again and we were confined to port.

It would be wrong however to assume that in Robe we had descended into the hedonistic lifestyle of the summer entourage. After weeks of preparation, we arrived at Robe with a list of “boat jobs” to do. Some we will admit tested our patience, our technical skills and our ability to manage our frustration at so many things failing, so early in our journey. Tracking down the failed Navigation Lights saw us hunting down and eliminating a list of prime suspects until we found the culprit in the anchor locker where a re-wire of the leads to the port and starboard nav-lights was needed. Threading the new wires up under the toe-rail via a hole we drilled to access the stanchion piping, and threading up the new leads to the light in the confined working space up forward tested all but our resolve. We were delighted to see that amongst the South Coast visitors was former Victor Harbor sailor and Auto Electrician Bill Discombe. Whilst the “tour” of Calista was occurring Bill was keener to head to the pointy end of the ship and, armed with our multi-meter, to give us some specialist advice re our works in progress. His master class left us with some crucial ohm work to do in our re-instillations.

Success at last ... We have nav lights!

With the essential navigation lights back in action, our equanimity was challenged by other malfunctions such as: the wavering gas supply to our stove, a new “G Deck” entertainment system that chose to go on the blink, a new water pump that was misfiring and  a tap in the vanity bowl in the “Head” that continued to drip…drip…drip…in spite of new washers and being patted. The bloke from GME caused a pyroclastic response from the Admiral when, from his air-conditioned office in Sydney he suggested that we “just drop it back to them”!! Changing to a new gas bottle seemed to avert deeper problems with our newly-installed gas regulator and solenoid safety switch, but in spite of multiple dismantlings, the tap continued, in spite of our interventions to drip…drip…drip. One of the questions we fielded from our visitors was…”what do you do all day?” You go from port to port fixing your boat, that’s what you do.

These frustrations might have driven a less resilient crew to the bottle, and as if on cue opportunities to down tools and do exactly that were growing and not receding. First, Brian and Maree, whose cat Urchin had shared the Blue Paddock with us bound for Robe, invited us on board for a stern barbecue alongside long-term locals Michael and Verity, owners of Cloud Nine a trim Duncanson 26 Yacht, moored permanently in the basin. Our foray into boat ownership started with a Duncanson 26 Crystal Voyager in 2000, so we immediately had things in common to share. Being local vignerons, we supped royally as Mick related some of the background to Robe’s fine marina including the hard to realise fact that the development was not universally welcomed by locals when it was first proposed. A fear of the unknown we suppose brought on this response, although we would lay odds that, judging by the constant traffic at the commercial wharf and the boat ramp, the facility have universal acclaim these days.

Brian & Maree's lovely catamaran Urchin.

Long-time friends of ours, Bill and Tammy Mallyon, are the only Robe locals that we know. They have restored Dingley Dell the charming cottage of 19th Century bard, Adam Lindsay Gordon, on the outskirts of town. Bill and Tammy now oscillate between this rural icon and a cliff-top cottage with breathtaking views above Whalers Bay on Thistle Island, some 20 odd miles offshore from Port Lincoln. Last summer Tammy was the driving force – with Bill proving a dab hand on the griddle – at the Retro-Look Coastal Kitchen caravan that did a roaring trade on Long Beach, and at events such as Robe’s “be there or be square” New Year’s Eve celebrations. We have it on authority – Bill is an authority - that international visitors came to SA this year, not for the Tour Down Under, but to make it to Robe for one of Tam’s famous Pulled Pork Rolls. Check out the latest edition of SA Life to see Tammy and her Coastal Kitchen in centrefold. Now via landline we found that Bill and Tammy were flying back to Robe, and that yet another visit to The Cally was in the offing. The staff of this watering hole has suggested that if we stay in town much longer we will have to join the pub social club and enter The Cally 2016 Footy Pools, the surest test there is to being judged a de facto local. It was great re-connecting with Bill and Tammy and yes, another tour of our ship ensured, to allow Tammy’s mum to come aboard for an admittedly modest morning tea by Coastal Kitchen standards.

Great to have the Mallyon's on board.

And…still the SE’s persisted, but maybe with not the fervour of earlier days. We had been in close contact with good friends Rod Hunter and Craig Westlake, who with Rod’s friend Bob Sobels were in the process of delivering Craig’s recent purchase, the 38’ Bavaria Yacht Force Majeure to Hobart. Rod is one of SA’s most accomplished yachtsmen and Craig was in good hands with Rod calling the shots on Force across these complex expanses of oceans. Just when we thought our social program was levelling out, Force entered the marina after a tiring haul from Kangaroo Island to greet us with the immortal line “good to see you…what are you doing tonight?...why don’t we go to the pub”. Indeed.
Neighbours.....Calista & Force Majeure

With the social whirl enveloping our ship there was a danger that having arrived as passengers, we would depart as cargo. We attempted to offset these excesses by taking vigorously to the boardwalk into town: embarking on the cliff walks that head south from the marina; by rowing our tender around the marina, and by taking to the waters of Karatta Beach, just abeam of the marina, for what turned out to be some enervating immersions in the ocean. Crisp! Having left the comparatively tepid waters of Horseshoe Bay Port Elliot, the waters of Robe were merciless and cruel. Luckily our forays into the sea were followed by hot showers at the adjacent Robe Yacht Club, whose facilities were thankfully accessible to us as visitors.

Rowing into the village of Robe

Scenic boardwalk around the marina into town

Crisp waters on the swimming beach adjacent to the marina !

Maybe Rod Craig and Bob brought marine fortune with them, for no sooner had Force Majeure arrived than a day of calmer conditions to Port MacDonnell and beyond to Portland and Port Fairy emerged from the forecast. We would need about 30 hours of agreeable weather to make it to Port Fairy or Portland and at last a good forecast held. The stormy conditions had headed east and all we needed to do was to refuel and prepare for sea. Here the generous help of Michael Wilkin came to our rescue, and courtesy of the Council Inspector’s vehicle we lumped an array of jerry cans from Urchin, Force Majeure and Calista to and from the refuelling facility, on the opposite side of the basin.

We were ready to go, but not prepared for what the morning of our departure was about to deliver.