Friday, February 24, 2017

Back-track. Noumea and the passage to Australia

We departed Tanna in Vanuatu in the early afternoon in a fresh breeze, beating our way out back towards Fiji so that we could get a good sailing angle to pass the southern tip of Tanna in a south-easterly wind. We watched the volcano spewing out its regular plumes of ash as Tanna sank into the horizon in the early evening light. 
Route from Tanna, Vanuatu to Noumea, New Caledonia

The winds lightened to around 10 knots or less and I had to head off course, on to the wind, to keep some apparent wind in the sails to stop them flogging. I would have put up the asymmetrical spinnaker but our hydraulic backstay tensioner has been playing up and the back stay is not as tight as I would like it. 

We sailed slowly, and comfortably through the night and then a rather unnerving and familiar alarm sounded: the autopilot had malfunctioned. After having had a closer look the bolts holding the hydraulic ram to the bulkhead had sheared. Of course this happens at night! Jude took the helm with memories of our 18 days of hand-steering coming back. Worst case scenario would be 24 hrs of hand steering this time. 

I replaced the bolts on the bracket but the hydraulic ram mounting bush had been damaged when the bolts sheared. Having learned my lesson last time I had purchased a spare ram so I mounted the new one ( I love it when I have a spare when things go wrong) and after about 1 hour we were back using the autopilot. 

We sailed through the night and arrived at the pass through the reef at the south eastern tip of New Caledonia at dawn, as planned, to get the 4 knot flood tide into the worlds largest lagoon. We sailed at 9 knots through the pass with a light wind on our beam and weaved our way through the smaller islands and reefs to Noumea at a slow but leisurely pace.  

Jude had been bitten by a mosquito on Tanna which had subsequently become infected and swollen and her leg was looking rather nasty ( I won't go into what it looked like) so a visit to the hospital in Noumea would be top of the list for things to do.

Having tied up to the dock in Noumea we all went for a walk around town given that it was too late in the afternoon to check in to immigration and customs. Noumea was surprisingly modern and quite similar to many cities in France, not surprising as it is actually part of France. Having been deprived of a decent supermarket for quite sometime we were delighted to look at the well stocked shelves of the nearest Carrefor and bought some French bread and croissants and French cheese enjoying the sounds of local bands playing in the nearby restaurants and bars.

The following morning we went to check into immigration which was totally painless and then we went to the accident and emergency at the hospital to get Jude's leg examined. The verdict was inconclusive and Jude was prescribed a course of antibiotics and asked to come back in a week for a further examination. The hospital was great, not that new but they were building a new one down the road but very efficient, helpful and friendly in a French way.

The next week was spent preparing Sarita for our entry into Australia, a notoriously rigorous examination by customs with many restrictions on what we could bring into the country. We opened every locker, storage space and cleaned it and through out any items that might cause a problem. We wanted the boat spick and span for our entry. I repaired the hydraulic backstay, albeit temporarily as the seals have worn and will need to be replaced in Australia and I had the old autopilot hydraulic ram mounts replaced, actually having to have new bushes made. Jude's leg did not improve so we went back to the hospital and they performed an X-ray after a specialist had a look at it. Again we were told to continue the antibiotics and com back in another week. 

We were already behind schedule and we were now officially in hurricane season with a 5-7 day passage ahead of us, not my preference but we had no option to stay.

We were pleasantly surprised by New Caledonia and what it has to offer the sailor. It has some great anchorages, albeit somewhat exposed to the winds but sheltered by reefs. The diving was supposed to be excellent. 

Our friends, Neil and a Jessie had arrived in Noumea a few hours after us and we spent a few days together diving including a wreck dive in the pristine waters. This would probably be our last chance to dive for quite sometime. 
Neil (Red Thread) below on the wreck dive

An abundance of turtles in New Caledonia

We visited the Amendee lighthouse again anchoring in crystal clear waters and surveyed the vista from the top of one of the oldest lighthouses in the Southern Hemisphere.

A view up the stairs of the lighthouse

We had been keeping an eye on the weather, trying to see local patterns emerging. Ideally we would depart Noumea on the back of a high pressure system peeling off the coast of Australia and our plan was to make a landfall as far south as possible, Sydney if at all possible or Coffs Harbour. 

Jude went back to the hospital for another check up and although the sore had not developed further it still looked pretty angry. The doctor advised us to double the dose of antibiotics and told me how to operate, or cut out the infection, if it got any worse on the passage to Australia, something a Jude was understandably not too keen on. 

We identified a potential weather window with a high pressure system giving us the winds we needed but there was a rather nasty low pressure system predicated to develop on the equator sometime after the high pressure system developed. I had been watching the weather patterns in this region for a few months and this was the first low pressure system predicted in that time and it could be a potential cyclone. We would have to watch it carefully.

We did our final provisioning which was not that extensive given we cannot bring much into Australia and left the marina in Noumea and anchored in Ilot Maitre planning an early morning departure in a couple of days.

Dolphin wanting his tummy tickled
We departed the anchorage in light winds, drifting slowly under head sail alone headed for the pass into the open ocean. As we exited the lagoon the ocean swell built up and eventually the winds did as well but coming closer to our bow setting us on a close hauled south east course pounding into the waves making a fast pace of 8.5 knots but unfortunately having a 1-1.5 knot current against us. 

Approx route to Coffs Harbour

 We had engaged the services of a weather router who had advised us to head almost directly west until picking up the east Australian current which heads at a rate of up to three knots down the coast. I decided to ignore his advice for two reasons: firstly I hate going off the rhumb line to a destination but secondly I was nervous of this potential developing low to our north and wanted to get as much southing in as possible before it started its track south. 

One last ice cream
We made good speed through the water over the fist couple of days albeit into wind but the current was set against us. Our friends on Red Thread had left after us and had decided to take the less direct route and managed to pick up a good current so although their course was longer they we gaining ground.

We checked into the shortwave radio net and gave our position to the controllers in New Zealand with them replying that they thought we were "brave" leaving a Noumea with the predicted low developing. This made me a bit nervous and we double checked the weather forecasts. One of the predictions was for the low to develop quickly and head south and then west on a direct course to Australia just north of our route, which made me even more nervous. Since leaving Mexico we have sailed pretty much all the time in mostly reliable trade winds and now as we head south we enter the less predictable and somewhat stronger wind patterns that peel off the coast of Australia.
The winds started to lighten as predicted and we ended up raising the spinnaker which we kept up for three days straight mostly doing only only 3 knots but very comfortably, Jude even cooked up a full roast chicken dinner which we ate at the table in the cockpit as flat as if we were in a marina. We were nearing the coast of Australia and wanted to get there as soon as possible but did not want to turn the engine on if we had to. We decided that given the weather predictions we could not make it all the way to Sydney as the predicted low was going to swing to the east of us and then north blocking our route with 30 knot winds from the south and 3-4m seas so we headed for Coffs Harbour.
38 hrs of spinnaker sailing. Slow but very comfortable
Neil and Jessie on Red Thread had meanwhile overtaken us on their longer route but positive current. I should have followed the routers advice! 

We ended up sailing into Coffs Harbour having only motored 2.5 hrs from pulling up the anchor but it could have been quicker. Now to run the gauntlet of Australian customs and border services. 

The Australian customs and Border services don't have a great reputation with overseas sailors, with stories of over officious, rude, strict and expensive processes so we were somewhat nervous of our arrival.
Ariel view of Coffs Harbour

We hailed the authorities on the VHF and were advised to drop anchor and wait in the outer Harbour as the inner Harbour was still being repaired from a violent storm earlier in the year. The outer Harbour was subject to an uncomfortable swell coming from the east so we did not plan to stay long after clearing customs.

We waited to be summoned and after a couple of hours were directed to tie up to the customs dock and "prepare to be boarded" after we tied up to the dock a Jude leapt onto the dock and gave one of the officials a hug as she was so excited about being back in Australia. I don't think he quite knew what to do.  Three officials boarded the boat and gave it a reasonably thorough look over but we pleasant and efficient. They confiscated a few items, mostly food and stamped our passports. We had officially arrived and were relieved to pass the process. It was relatively painless and they charged us A$340 for the privilege (in fact they charged me twice and it took me 2 months to get the overcharge back) but it was OK in the end. We have heard that other boats were treated very rudely in Brisbane and Bundaberg but it's all hearsay.

We spent a bit of a rolly night with 20 knot winds on anchor in the outer Harbour and departed early in the morning for Port Macquarie where we would meet Mike, Irit and Daniel, Jude's family, Daniel would be sailing down to a Sydney with us. It was on,y. A short 70 mile trip down but we had to cross the notorious narrow river bar at slack water. We spoke to the marina office who gave us some advice as to how to cross the bar and told us that there was a web cam to make sure that there were not too high standing waves. The crossing went without a problem although our depth gauge did read 0 feet as we crossed which made me hold our breath for a few seconds. We slowly motored a short way down the river to the Marina where the very friendly manager met us and helped us into the slip.

Arriving in a medium sized Australian town after being so long in remote areas was a bit of a shock. One of the first things we had to do was go to the supermarket and get some food. Walking down the isles seeing the huge selection of food and other goods after having a minimal selection for so long made us question the fairness.

Mike, Irit and Daniel arrived laden with champagne and other goodies and we enjoyed celebrating our arrival in Australia and completion of our Pacific crossing with them, feeling elated and relieved. 

We spent a couple of nights in the Marina, walked around the typically provincial Australian town and had a few drinks with a Neil and Jessie who were soaking up Australia even seeing some kangaroos and Koalas with the local butcher who was generous enough to show them. 

Mike and a Irit departed and we left the marina early in the morning with Daniel bound for Port Stephens, about 100NM. The bar crossing was OK and we headed a few miles offshore to try and pick up the southerly current, not that we caught much of it. 

The winds picked up as we approached the entrance to Port Stephens which is about 0.5 mile wide. With the wind from the NE we jibed and shot into the protected port under darkness, a bit nerve wracking as there were no lights marking either of the headlands and there was a bit of traffic coming out. 

We decided to anchor on the northern side as the forecast showed strengthening NE winds and we wanted a good nights sleep. Sure enough as we approached an anchoring spot the winds and seas died down and we dropped the  anchor in just 15 feet of water and enjoyed a good night of sleep until dawn when the wind picked up from the south and along with it the swell. We raised the anchor, and the sails, and had a short sail across the bay to Shoal Bay where we went ashore and walked along the beach and had a fish and chip lunch, quite a luxury for us. We had our first swim in Australian waters and I have to say it felt quite "bracing", bloody cold in fact. I had forgotten how much colder the Australian water is compared to the tropics.

Our next passage would take us from Port Stephens down to Pittwater which will be our home for the foreseeable future. If we left at dawn the 70 mile passage should still enable us to arrive before darkness. So before the sun peeped its head over the horizon we wee on our way in light winds. There were two other boats heading out at the same time. We motored out of the large Harbour raised the sails and made a slow heading south east to try and pick up some of the southerly current. 

We continued heading offshore for a few hours before heading south towards our destination. The seas were pretty comfortable and the sun was shining so it was quite pleasant.

We entered into Pittwater around 3pm and headed towards a mooring field known as "The Basin" is an area set inside the national park and has probably over a hundred moorings, mostly club owned but some public. We picked one up and enjoyed being back home, a really strange feeling I must say.