Cruising: Australia’s Rugged Southern Coast

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Onora eastbound sailing hard on the wind

Onora eastbound sailing hard on the wind

After a hard 33-day crossing in the Roaring Forties from Cape Town, South Africa, Jeannie, my wife and shipmate of over four decades, and I arrived to kiss the dock in Albany, a small but well-serviced Victorian town on Australia’s southwestern coast. We were glad the trip was over, but after repairing and provisioning Onora, our 62ft, Chuck Paine-designed, Kelly Archer-built aluminum cutter, I was excited at the prospect of following in the wake of Matthew Flinders, the English naval officer who surveyed these shores 200 years ago in competition with the French captain Nicolas Baudin—the two of them leaving various English and French place names in their wake.

The distance from Cape Leeuwin in the west to Tasmania’s South East Cape is 1,600 miles. It’s inhabited by many kangaroos but few people and noted for its challenging sailing. We would cover long stretches of uninhabited sandy shoreline broken by the Recherche Archipelago, the Spencer Gulf, Kangaroo Island, Melbourne’s Port Phillip Bay and finally, Tasmania, on the far side of the Bass Strait. In the middle also lies the Great Australian Bight, which captures the deep lows that swirl up from the Southern Ocean to break upon its barren shores.

South Australia

The Southwest Coast

On arriving in Australia, we were lucky to hand our lines to Aussie Mark McRae, who calls Albany home. There he makes a living running a small sailing school, making yacht deliveries and skippering in the occasional maxi race aboard the Russian Open 85 Alye Parusa. While I quizzed him about the coast ahead, Mark helped me get my ripped jib serviced in Perth and make a bullet-proof collar for our rudder bearing, which had sheared off mid-passage in the Southern Ocean. Mark also loaned us his Fremantle Sailing Club Western Australia Cruising Guide, annotated with hand-drawn charts and firsthand observations drawn from a number of club members’ personal experiences. Unfortunately, he had no choice but to dash any hopes I may have had that the Australian charts for the area might fill in C-MAP’s uncharted patches and provide more large-scale detail. In many locations, the charts lacked shallow depths and, as we would discover, had not been updated for GPS, often showing us on dry land when we were still floating. (Although the water is so clear there that with the sun overhead, we often had the eerie sensation of floating on air.)

Mark’s advice on crossing the bight was patience. Wait for an easterly gale and, as soon as the strong headwinds passed, leave on the veering northeasterlies. These would then slowly lose strength as they moved west, giving us a fair wind. If necessary, we could always turn on the engine and push the throttle to arrive at our destination before the next gale arrived, bringing with it more winds in our face.

After a week in Albany, we left for Esperance, the last real town before the bight. I had picked uninhabited Bald Island as our first anchorage because it promised shelter from the wind. However, the prevailing southwest swell drove us out. After that we continued on to Dillon Bay, arriving after dark and discovering why Mark had shaken his head at our anchor. At the time he had pointed to the local boats with unique anchors that looked like a plumber’s copy of a longhorn rack with “hook ’em” flukes. Believing bigger is better, I was confident his fears were unfounded, given Onora’s monster 220lb CQR. However, this night served as our introduction to “carpet weed.” The area’s CQR-friendly golden sand patches are easy to spot in full daylight, but disappear when the sun goes down. In the dark, we found only weed, and could not get the anchor to hold. In the end, we were forced to rely on its weight, the forecast light winds and our anchor alarm. We went to bed vowing to anchor before sunset from then on.

Early the following morning, we were just underway in a near calm when Jeannie uttered her first words of the day: “Something’s wrong.” I hate it when she says this.

Reluctantly, I grabbed a flashlight and ducked into the engine room only to find a blood-colored puddle of hydraulic fluid under the gear box. The engine was smoothly spinning, but the shaft and the propeller were not. Fortunately, the outpost town of Bremer Bay (population 240), was just 10 miles away, and by 0800 we had secured their entire supply of transmission fluid—three liters—purchased from the only open establishment, a combination gas station/convenience store/café, so that by 1000 we were on our way again. A fair breeze promised a rare 85-mile run to Investigator Island, but Jeannie said, “No way. We will get in after dark.” We, therefore, dropped the hook in Doubtful Bay, the only other good anchorage in this wind. Luckily, the wind held, and leaving early the next morning, we were able to make it to Investigator by nightfall.

Nine days out from Albany, we arrived at Esperance on the western edge of the sweeping Nullarbor Plain, which forms the rim of the Great Australian Bight. An Aussie told me “nullarbor” is an Aboriginal word for “no trees.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him it also works in Latin.

With carpet weed everywhere, we failed to get the anchor to grab and had to tie up on the windward side of the Esperance jetty, along with a fishing boat and a small tourist ferry. This required running lines around some nearby rocks to hold us off and keep us from bashing it to it. I had hoped to gather some bight-crossing knowledge in Esperance from the locals but struck out. I was left wondering if there might not be a good reason why no one seemed to want to cross it.

Two nights later, we set sail for the nearby Archipelago of the Recherche. Our first stop was Cape Le Grand where we dropped anchor in front of emus on a white sand beach, backed by rocky scrub-covered hills. After that we spent a couple of peaceful nights in Lucky Bay, aptly named by Flinders, who’d somehow managing to miss the surrounding reefs when he sailed in one night well after dark—without charts, of course. After that came Victor Harbor, where we were surprised to find a bloke surfcasting on the lonely shore. “How is fishing?” I said.

“Just killing time, mate.”

He went on to explain how he was down from the Kalgoorlie goldfields, some 250 miles north in the Australian Golden Outback. Hearing our accents he asked us where we were from. He was taken aback to meet his first-ever Chicagoans. “You don’t look like gangsters,” he said.

As we were chatting he also mentioned how he’d seen us in the water, adding, “A white pointer (great white shark) got a surfer right here not long ago,” which curtailed our swimming for a while.

The Great Australian Bight

A month of worry had now passed since our arrival, and being on the precipice, so to speak, we needed to get the 630-mile crescent of desolate beach that is the Great Australian Bight behind us. With the exception of the occasional northerly scorcher, the prevailing winds here wheel easterly around the top of a semi-permanent high that lives to the south during the antipodal summer. Eastbound mariners are advised to wait for winter, when the high moves north and westerlies arrive. In the words of Aussie sailor Roger McMillan, the bight can be done in the summer, in fact, it can be crossed anytime, “Just don’t ask me to go with you.”

The GRIB files I’d downloading via SSB and feeding to my MaxSea system on a daily basis now gave us two choices. We could leave the next day and motor through the high in light winds. Or we could wait a few days for a low to arrive and then head well south to squeeze between it and the bottom of the high and do some sailing.

Being seasoned sailors we know deadlines are dangerous, so we decided to wait a day, and then another three days after that. All the while the forecast remained surprisingly consistent. The MaxSea’s projected track swung in a great arc to the south, taking us over 250 miles away from land. Because this was also the limit of our insurance, I emailed our intentions to our insurer, Pantaenius to let them know our plans. They quickly responded with, “Good luck.”

Trusting to the technology, we left Cape Arid at dawn on March 3rd, dropped down to 35 degrees south and found our sou’easter. As predicted, it ferried us north under poled out headsails and delivered us four days later to the far end of the bight where we dropped anchor in sheltered Boston Bay and fell into bed. We awoke at noon the next day happy to see Port Lincoln in the distance.

Arriving ashore we made the acquaintance of Miles Stevens—Port Lincoln sailor, entrepreneur and itinerant cruiser’s benefactor, who owned the agency from which we rented a car for the day. Miles invited us over for a family feast and refused further payments for the remainder of our stay. We quickly found ourselves drawn to this tuna-fishing port of 15,000, so much so our planned week there became nine months.

A hundred years ago, Port Lincoln, on the western shore of Spencer Gulf, and Port Victoria, 60 miles to the east, both served as grain depots for the last of the world’s deep-sea sailing vessels—great steel-hulled barks that would race around Cape Horn in the hope of being the first to England, so that they could secure the best price for their wheat, as immortalized in Eric Newby’s The Last Grain Race.

Walking Port Victoria’s sunbaked main street a short while later after making a quick passage there, we didn’t see a soul. At one point, we went into what looked to be a deserted fish shop to buy a flathead for our evening meal. A rubber aproned, white-booted young woman in a hair net emerged from out back and, assuming we must be from the newly arrived sailboat, asked where we were from.

Wandering back to the small store at the head of the pier that served as a combination post office, convenience store and tearoom, we met a gentleman named Timothy, age 87, who pointed to Onora and authoritatively explained how she had sailed there all the way from New Zealand. Timothy reminisced that as a young man “on this very spot,” he had watched bags of grain travel down the long-gone railroad tracks to the end of the old wharf—not this one, the one lost in the storm—to be loaded onto the last sailing ship.

On to Tasmania

Eventually, of course, all good things must come to an end, and the following January, we shed a tear for Spencer Gulf and headed south to Kangaroo Island. Because a big low had turned the island’s normally sheltered north coast into a lee shore, I called Carol, the island’s radio operator, who invited us to tie up on the seawall at American River, named by a homesick sealing crew in 1803. Carol told us our only choice for dinner was The Shed, the dining hall of American River’s Community & Sports Association, where volunteers cook up a communal chow twice a week. Carol also warned that heading east meant facing a washboard mix of wind, current and shallows known as the “Backstairs Passage” between “KI” and the mainland. In a perfect world, we would’ve waited for the right day with 15-knot winds on the beam. But we were under pressure to meet Jeannie’s two nieces in Melbourne for the Australian Tennis Open, so when the 25-knot winds backed, we locked in our weatherboards and headed out into the bucking seas. Thirty-six hours later, wanting very much to make it before darkness, we arrived in Portland. “Only racing boats with big crews make it that fast!” Carol said when we told her about it afterward.

From Portland we left for Melbourne under yet more “high wind” warnings, although this time we didn’t push it, travelling instead under staysail alone in order to time our crossing of the bar at Port Phillip Bay, known as The Rip. I was also concerned about getting our 25-meter mast, plus antennas, under the Bolte Bridge in order to reach our destination, the Docklands marina. We had 12 hours to cover 33 miles and arrive at low tide. The tidal range was about 0.7 meters, which I calculated would give us inches to spare. But I couldn’t help but wonder how much water the 30-knot southerly may have piled up underneath it.

As we crept ever closer under bare poles, I called the marina, which thought we would be OK, but suggested I call the coast guard. They, in turn, suggested the Port Authority, which recommended CityLink, Melbourne’s tollway network. None wanted to give me a definitive answer. The last, CityLink, which is responsible for roads and bridges, said the bridge clearance was 25 meters, but the representative was baffled by my “at what tide” question and referred me back up the chain of command. Finally, CityLink took pity on my plea and allowed that the bridge was probably a bit higher. “Don’t forget that you are bound by law to call us if you hit it,” they added. Suffice it to say, we made it safely through and were safely tied up at the Docklands 15 minutes later.

After that, came the 500-mile leg to Tasmania. While in Melbourne I had received some additional advice from Yachting Australia on how best to deal with The Rip. This included the suggestion that “one is well advised to take a course from the Ocean Racing Club of Victoria” before attempting a transit. I ignored this advice, however, and we set out to cross it on a lovely morning with a can’t-miss, slightly outgoing tide and winds at my back. In contrast to our first crossing, the seas buried the foredeck and green water hurled over our pilothouse flooding the cockpit. Nothing broke, though, and we were soon crossing the Bass Strait under sunny skies with sails flying from the poles.

As the light broke the next morning, Tasmania’s mountains appeared as a hazy serrated silhouette below soft cirrus. Onora moved in light winds, gently rocked by the southwest swell, one meter every seven seconds, telling me the closes low was still far away.

On our second morning, we slid behind Breaksea Island where we discovered Port Davey, 217 years after Matthew Flinders first sailed past it. This southernmost bit of sheltered water at the very end of Tasmania must stand up against the worst fury of the Roaring Forties, with a fetch stretching all the way to Cape Horn. Because of its unique flora, beauty and the advocacy efforts of the late tin-mining naturalist Deny King (incongruous but true), Port Davey is now part of the UNESCO Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Site. With no roads, it is a magnet for the few adventurers willing to arrive by foot (six days from Hobart) or boat (24 hours from Hobart around a cape windier than Cape Horn). Unfortunately, it can also be reached by air—just 30 minutes aboard a Cessna—although there are no real facilities for these camera-toting tourists, just a boardwalk for a two-hour taste of the same wilderness we were able to explore for a week.

Jim and Jean Foley

Jim and Jean Foley

From Port Davey we sailed on to Hobart to join Miles, our friend from Port Lincoln, and Brian and Eva Oldfield, originally from Perth and now on Zofia, a Jeanneau Sun Odyssey 42DS, who, like us, had been befriended by Miles. Brian and Eva were a year into their dual quest of circumnavigating Australia and fulfilling Brian’s dream of finding Australia’s best sausage roll. Brian was especially fond of Hobart, where he believed he might have found the Holy Grail, announcing that “bundles of joy” were available at Jackman & McRoss, just up the hill from the dock.

The Royal Yacht Club of Tasmania is a special place for us. We’d last been there in 2005, and this latest arrival completed our second circumnavigation. This time around Brian and Eva had appointed themselves our “advance team” hyping our reputation so that expectations were out of control and we were wonderfully hosted and toasted

Our next stop after that was the Hobart MetService. They predicted strong winds and swells from opposing directions and an uncomfortable start. However, they also promised things would then settle down allowing for slow sailing or motoring the last half of the 1,250 miles to Nelson, New Zealand. We considered waiting for something better. But we were now under some time pressure. We had a date to be in New York, where The Cruising Club of America would present us with its Far Horizons Award at its annual meeting in March. I had thought we might ask them to mail it to us. But Jeannie, given the chance to see her grandchildren in New York, said, no. And so, we left. 

Ed Note: Jim and Jean Foley, originally from Chicago, completed their first circumnavigation, going east to west, aboard the Mason 44, Mara. Their second circumnavigation, aboard Onora, was from west to east. In 2015 the Foley’s received the Cruising Club of America’s Far Horizons Award in recognition of their more than 100,000 miles of offshore cruising. They are also recipients of the club’s Vilas Literary Prize. The CCA is North America’s premier offshore cruising and racing organization. It is comprised of more than 1,300 ocean sailors, has 14 stations around the United States, Canada and Bermuda, and together with the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club organizes the biennial Newport Bermuda Race. For more on the CCA, visit cruisingclub.org

June 2020

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