We left Port Arthur on Friday, 4th April – Trevor scoffs at superstitions such as not leaving on a Friday. A pity, really – I rather like these old traditions. The end of Tasman I was an impressive sight as we sailed past.
There was some debate about our route: Trevor was feeling jangled by the gale and wanted to wind off latitude, while I, ever the optimist, was convinced that the change from summer to winter would be gradual and was concerned about getting stuck in high pressure north of Tasmania. As usual, Trevor won the argument and we went for latitude, but still with quite an easterly component because we were hoping to visit Lord Howe I. That evening, we had a wonderful display of Aurora Australis – just to make us wonder if we really should be heading towards the Tropics. We were soon close hauled and this continued for day after day as the anticipated westerly wind failed to materialise and we started to feel the effect of the SE Australian current. It was interesting to watch our progress through the water as against that shown on the GPS screen. While the compass pointed resolutely NE, our course made good varied from due E to due W! On one occasion we hove to for repairs and although we were apparently drifting at about 110° at a knot or so, the reality was that we were being set 170° at about 3 ½ knots. The net effect was to keep us close-hauled and making little progress.
On the morning of 8 April, we got into a favourable eddy: this kicked up a nasty sea, but at least we started reeling off some miles in the right direction. We were now somewhat harassed by discovering a leak – not what you either want or expect in a steel boat. At first the windows were blamed, but later Trevor traced it to corrosion around the exhaust pipe. During a calm spell, we hove to on the port tack and he hung precariously over the side with a tube of silicon rubber and managed an adequate temporary repair. Our favourable eddy died away and we were back to plodding away against wind and current.
By day 6, we were bored with our lack of progress and as we’d never sailed into Sydney, decided this might be just as interesting in its own way as visiting Lord Howe I. and a lot easier; so we altered course accordingly. The following night we picked up the loom of the city lights – over 100 miles away. The wind headed us again and the morning found us close-hauled once more and not laying our course. This was getting to be something of a habit! A series of afternoon thunderstorms affected the wind in our favour and the buildings on the cliff tops grew noticeably larger. However, as we sailed through the heads, just before dark, a tremendous thunderstorm came sweeping down on us with torrential rain. This promptly killed the wind and blotted out all the landmarks and most of the lights. We started the engine and Trevor steered into the rapidly deepening gloom, while I dodged from chart table to hatch, identifying lights as they appeared, for the impatient helmsman, and trying not to drip too much on our cruising guide.
Finally, we worked our way into an anchorage in Rose Bay as the rain eased off. The hook went down at 1950 – 9½ days and 773 miles after leaving Port Arthur, although Trevor reckoned we probably sailed at least 300 more through the water. We were heartily tired of the contrary winds and currents and joined the ranks of those who rate sailing in the Tasman Sea as one of life’s less enjoyable experiences. A couple of hot whiskies, some cheese and salami and a pile of pasta and pesto, washed down with plenty of good, cheap Aussie wine, restored our tempers.
In the morning, we took stock of our surroundings. We could see the Sydney Harbour Bridge, which Trevor informs me is nicknamed ‛The Coat hanger’ a few miles in the distance and the shore line was covered in large, and undoubtedly very expensive, houses. Unfortunately, with one or two exceptions in the style of an Italian palazzo, they were hideous, vulgar, ostentatious and, all too often, all three of the above. With so much wealth and with a new country untrammelled by historical precedent, it seems a great pity that Oz architects have failed to rise to the challenge of providing houses that reflect their country. Indeed, the older, vernacular architecture, is the stuff worth looking at: many houses built by ordinary people at the turn of the last century, are attractive and appropriate to the landscape. It is even possible to live in them without the need for air-conditioning – which can’t be said for most of the contemporary designs!
Rose Bay is reputedly one of the more expensive suburbs in Sydney, and certainly the prices in the shops were sky high. Apples and bananas were nearly $13 a kilo and one shoe shop had its sale prices at over $250! We found the streets noisy and full of traffic that had no time to let pedestrians cross in front of it. The bay was busy and noisy with ferry traffic and light seaplanes,
so the next day we moved to a more attractive and interesting anchorage. The sail was filled with interest: it was easy to see the appeal of the harbour area as a home. Islands and inlets abound and there are miles and miles of waterfront, some covered in luxurious houses, some in factories modern and decrepit, some in native bush. With low hills around many parts, it can’t be difficult to find a home with a view of the water. Sydney is truly centred around its harbour and ferries provide a huge amount of public transport. It makes for an attractively lively scene, with an endlessly fascinating array of craft: bustling passenger ferries, tugs, cruise liners, high speed ferries, launches and yachts sailing in all directions at every speed. We felt like country bumpkins in the city, and hugged the coastline, trying to keep out of everybody’s way. It was strange to be sailing with yachts that simply ignored us – just another east-coast Aussie boat among thousands. Iron Bark had come home. Tasmania may officially be part of Oz, but to me, Sydney felt like a very different and new country.
Under an overcast sky, I found the Opera House a disappointment, drab grey instead of the
gleaming white of my imagination, but we anchored right next to it between the Botanic Gardens – noisy with cockatoos – and the CBD with its myriad skyscrapers. The shoreline was walled in stone with nowhere to land a dinghy, but it was a wonderful place to sit and watch as continuous stream of joggers passed, isolated from everyone else with their headphones and solipsism.
The next day we sailed under the magnificent bridge to a small bay called Balls Head Bay, where we could anchor within an easy walk of a station. As we went ashore, we met a couple who recognised Iron Bark as a Wylo II design. It turned out that Ian and Robin knew Nick Skeates (who designed and built the original boat) very well, from when they all lived in New Zealand. They, too, were planning to go into the city for the day, so we went up to the station together, bought tickets and got on board the train. This took us over the bridge, with a splendid view of the shipping below and then into a very modern station, which our new friends told us was the best situated for visiting the waterfront. It was the first time that I had been in a city in years and it was rather overwhelming. We made our way to the waterfront area, which, like in so many cities has been transformed into a recreational area. Everything seemed very expensive and the city appeared to be awash in money and leisure – certainly there was no shortage of people enjoying the facilities and a large number of the voices we heard were Australian. Our day turned into something of a busman's holiday, because the four of us spent hours on the barque James Craig, shown over by David, one of her crew, who had joined the project in its early days and was still filled with enthusiasm for the lovely old ship – mentioned in one of Alan Villiers’ books. She had ended her working life on a beach in Tasmania – oddly enough in an anchorage we had visited only a few weeks previously – in the 20’s. A devoted party of people managed to get her afloat and to Sydney, where she languished for many years while they collected the money necessary to rebuild her. David told us that an astonishing amount of her plating, frames and deck beams were original, pointing them out to us when we went below. She had however, been completely ‛refastened’ with hot rivets, each one put in by hand using volunteer labour. A tremendous job. She is now a fully-functional sailing vessel, with the original rig, but 2 large engines. Because they want to keep her looking more or less as she did in her working years, she cannot be permitted to sail very far offshore because of the vast, open hold not being subdivided with watertight bulkheads. OK for cargo, but not for paying passengers (I suspect that many other things would be needed, too), so she has never been able to go back to Tasmania. However, she travels up and down the coast so many Australians have been able to get a taste of those more humble working ships that we hear so little about, unlike the tea clippers or warships. I'm not generally very interested in larger vessels, relating much more to fishing craft and pilot cutter type boats, but I found James Craig absolutely fascinating. A few days later, I re-read one of Villiers’ books and it all meant so much more after having been on this wonderfully restored barque.
There wasn't much time left to look round much more of Sydney, so we bid good-bye to Ian and Robin (whom, unfortunately, we never saw again, because I stupidly forgot to get their telephone number), and I dragged a reluctant Trevor up some of the streets to do some window shopping. We spent a fascinating half hour in an opal dealer’s shop. I wanted to look at some of these wonderful gems unset and although the young man who dealt with us realised straight away that we were not in the market to buy, he very kindly got out several different trays and explained the good and bad points of the stones, told us a bit about how they were mined and explained what a jeweller would look for when selecting a stone for a particular piece of jewellery. Like all true enthusiasts, he was very interesting and I learnt a lot. The day had been both exciting and exhausting and as we sat in our double-decker(!) train passing back over the Harbour Bridge, I was rather glad that I didn't have to do this every day.
Hicks that we are, we soon tired of Sydney and the impossibility of buying sensibly-priced produce, so decided to press on north, back out into the Tasman. Again we had contrary winds and current. Not enough that you could say we battled against them, but enough to
make progress tedious. Then, on 26th April we sailed into the Coral Sea. It greeted us with a boisterous WSW wind, but this sent us bowling on our way with surprisingly little sea. The breeze gradually moderated and the barometer started to climb. Although the wind and current hadn’t quite finished with us, the weather was definitely improving, instead of mollymawks skimming over the wave tops we saw flying fish and the sky was patterned with puffy little Trade-wind clouds. We debated sailing into the south entrance to Wide Bay, but there was a more attractive alternative, strongly endorsed by these new, Trade-wind conditions. We could go to Lady Musgrave Island – a platonic coral atoll, just off the coast – and watch boobies and noddies while enjoying blue sea, warm sunshine and the sense of isolation that such anchorages bestow. It wasn’t a difficult decision to make.
Winter days are short, even this close to the Tropics, and as so often happens, we had to heave to until daylight made it safe to enter the lagoon. Our (old) chart showed that the nearby Lady Elliott had a light and its characteristics were confirmed by one of the more astonishing features on our hand-held Garmin 76 GPS (given to me by my old friend Aubs, back in 2001). We were surprised to find that even little Lady Musgrave now has a light – the Australians do not appear to believe that the advent of GPS is an excuse to eliminate navigation aids: on the contrary, they are strewn around with an almost Breton generosity.
The night was squally, as was dawn. We waited for the light to improve and then made sail, perhaps a little over-cautiously, seeing as the the pass is clearly marked. However, it would have been embarrassing to put Iron Bark on a reef just as she was so nearly ‛home’ The wind was blowing straight down the pass into the lagoon and with a vigorous spring ebb against us, our 16 hp engine had its work cut out. Another yacht came steaming up behind us, but slowed down and waited outside the pass when they realised how we were struggling. After we’d anchored and made sure that we were staying put, we were surprised to see that it was someone we knew from Survarov. Later we got together and found that Pat and Marg had spent most of the time since we’d last seen them in Australia. Aqua Magic had been given a refit and was looking very spruce. They had travelled inland and had family to visit them and both looked fit and rested. Now they were looking forward to their next adventure – heading off into the Indian Ocean. It was fun to have a few glasses together and catch up on all the goss of mutual sailing acquaintance.
Lady Musgrave is particularly beautiful ashore, with splendid trees housing hundreds of
and myriad flightless rails pottering around rooting in the undergrowth.
Day trippers come across from the mainland, but the island is a sanctuary and the birds are unafraid. At certain times of the year, turtles haul themselves out to lay their eggs. It’s a little piece of paradise – an outlier of the Barrier Reef proper and a taste of things to come, for those continuing north.
Iron Bark was built in the town of Maryborough in Queensland, and we intended to take her back there for a good refit. There was some corrosion along the stringers, which were inadequately sand-blasted when the hull was still upside down. Three winters frozen in resulted in a lot of water resting on the stringers, causing them to rust. The corrosion had to be dealt with, as did some rust on deck. The yellow cabin sides were looking pretty weary and there were plenty of other jobs, which would be done depending on how energetic we were feeling and for how long we could haul out. The slipway we planned to use can only be accessed on a spring tide and what with one thing and another, the earliest we could hope to haul was the beginning of July. In the meantime, we anchored in the mouth of the Burrum River, at Burrum Heads, whose main claim to fame is that it’s a very popular place for ‛grey nomads’ to spend the winter in their caravans. There is apparently no shelter between the anchorage and Fraser Island (of dingo fame), some 25 miles away, but in fact extensive sandbanks reveal themselves by half tide and we enjoyed superb protection, in spite of there being less than 2 metres range.
The winter weather was perfect, with sunny days and temperatures in the 20s and cool nights. The trees were noisy with rainbow lorikeets and kookaburras woke us in the morning as daylight crept in. It was a good place to get on with those jobs that could be done afloat and for me to meet Trevor’s friends and get to know his part of Australia. Brendan and Caroline O’Brien, whom Trevor has known for about 30 years, live nearby – which, indeed, is the main reason we chose to go to Burrum Heads in the first place – and they made me very welcome. We had free run of their lovely home, with a washing machine and hot showers available whenever we wanted one, true luxuries for those who live aboard small boats
However, living in rural Australia has one severe drawback – a vehicle of some sort is an absolute necessity – so obtaining one was our first priority. With the thought of doing some travelling around the country, we decided to buy a four-wheel drive, with plenty of ground clearance and room to carry a tent, food, cooking equipment, bedding, etc. While we had been in Nelson, some friends had taken us for a day tramp in their Isuzu Bighorn and we had been impressed by the vehicle. So when we saw the Australian equivalent (supposedly made by Holden and called a Jackaroo) we were very interested. It was being sold by a second-hand car dealer, who had had it for some time. Too old and too small to have any cachet, it would suit us very well, although I had doubts about a 2.6 litre engine. I was assured that by Australian standards, this is a fairly small one! The car seemed to have been well maintained and after some negotiation we bought it for AU$4,000. While we went raiding the local cash machines, the paperwork was sorted and in a surprisingly short time I was driving back to Burrum Heads. We called the vehicle GEG from its registration plate, as ‛car’ seemed an inappropriate word and the really vehicle didn’t seem flash enough to qualify as an SUV!
Then Trevor got down to work. Steel needs protection and for a good paint job, Preparation Is All. Ten years ago, The Man hired to sandblast the hull, prior to priming, was – as the Aussies say – a piker. The hull was sandblasted while still upside down and the stringers near the ground were awkward for him to reach, so he didn’t bother to do a proper job. This left us with the abovementioned corrosion problem. Steel craft are a boat-within-a-boat, so the interior joinery has to be removed and the corroded areas chipped and painted: a thankless and tedious task.
By the time Trevor had dismantled, repainted and re-mantled the forepeak and saloon, he was understandably ready for a break.