How did it happen that two landlubber computer programmers, on contract in the far corners of the world, decided to exchange their perfectly good if somewhat hectic lifestyles for the uncertainties and trials of bluewater cruising?
This is the tale of the how. The why you can figure out for yourselves.
It was time to spend some big bucks and to get a stainless steel frame made for the stern. This would carry a sunshade for the helmsman, provide extra security around the cockpit, and serve as a mounting place for solar and wind generators.
After getting a number of quotes, it was quite clear that getting work done in Sydney was far more expensive than getting it done further up the coast, so we decided to shift our base of operations up to Port Stephens, about seventy miles to the north east.
Chris and Nicky were keen to do some offshore sailing, so we invited them along for the trip. After a quiet night on the mooring, we got up sometime before dawn, waved goodbye to Gibson Marina for the last time, and motored out to the heads.
We had only been going for about half an hour when the engine overheat alarm went off. I quickly shut down and we drifted under the stars while I searched inside the engine bay for any sign of a problem. However, everything looked just fine, and the engine restarted with no problems at all, so I could only surmise that a plastic bag had temporarily wrapped itself around the cooling intake.
Dawn came as we cleared the headlands, bringing with it a light wind that span gently around the compass for a couple of hours, before firming up into the promised 10 knot easterly, punctuated by 25 knot squalls that each merited a reef in the mainsail. We tried to reef the foresail, too, but it wasn't terribly effective when partially furled so we just left it flying. Apart from the odd drop of rain and some mal-de-mer, it was a beautiful trip, very different from our last attempt. We headed out on a broad reach until we reached a depth of 40 metres, passing lines of empty coal carriers queuing up to enter Newcastle.
In sight of Moon Islet we dropped the sails and motored across the bar. Last time we'd hit bottom, but on this occasion we followed the lead lights religiously and got through with 0.6m under the keel. Rather than go through the bridge and up into Lake Macquarie, we just hooked up to a courtesy buoy, as we were planning to leave early the next day.
The engine hadn't caused us any further grief. I had intended to dive down and have a look at the intakes, but there was a strong tidal rip and I didn't want to risk it in the gathering dusk. We judged that the same currents were also too strong for our rapidly deteriorating Zodiac, so instead of rowing over to a nearby pub, Bronwyn knocked up a meal from things that she found in the lockers. As usual, it was excellent.
During the night there was a heavy squall and the boat got caught up in the battle between the tide and the wind. I got up several times to try to prevent the courtesy buoy from banging on the hull and, on one occasion, I noticed rainwater pouring in through the ceiling of our forecabin, running down the bulkhead and disapearing into the bilges. Finally, then, I had tracked down the source of all that mysterious fresh water that kept accumulating in the bow.
The tide finally turned at 01:00 and I dropped off into blissful sleep as the boat settled down quietly. Of course, I was up again at 04:00, motoring back down the channel in the dark. We cleared the bar, only to find that the horizon was lit end to end with the lights of dozens of bulk carriers, all anchored along the 50 metre line. It looked like an entire city out there. As we headed towards them, the sun came up to reveal patchy blue skies with flocks of little white cumulus marching out the south east and small squalls mooching about beneath.
Our plan was to head out past the anchored ships to the 100 metre line and then aim straight across the enormous width of Stockton Bight toward Port Stephens, because the inshore waters had a bad reputation and in any case have never been adequately charted. However, just as we reached a depth of 40 metres, one of the squalls came our way, so we turned to run before it, and once it had passed we were right in amongst the ships.
This turned out to be an interesting detour. Most of the ships seemed to be, as far as we could tell, either Japanese or Korean, although most were registered in Panama. There was a lot of foreign language chatter on Channel 16 and many of them seemed to be undergoing repairs; at least, there was a lot of angle-grinding going on.
The wind came and went as we zigzagged between the enormous walls of rusty steel. The bottom readings were very strange; at one point the depth jumped from 48 metres to 4.1 in less than a second. I put the helm over hard and we didn't hit anything. Because of the flaky nature of the charting, we couldn't tell if we'd encountered the mother of all sea mounts or an inquisitive great white shark, but Bronwyn quickly plotted us a direct-line course to Port Stephens, which was still over the horizon, and we got the hell out.
The weather turned beautiful and we got up to our maximum speed of five knots. A pod of dolphins showed up to play in our bow wave and surface-skimming petrels, groups of yellow-headed gannets and long-necked divers congregated all around. Our charting proved to be on the nail when land appeared on the horizon and we dropped sails to motor across the entrance of the bay, which turned out to be shallow but with no real bar. Willing hands took our mooring lines as we backed into an easy berth at The Anchorage, where we headed for the excellent Merretts restaurant for a well-earned restorative. We had arrived.