Lord Howe Island is ridiculously, stupidly, mindblowingly stunning but for the cruiser it comes with a healthy dose of the ouch factor, or at least it has for me.
Getting here. Lord Howe lies about a third of the way between Australia and NZ – it’s about a three day passage from the mouth of the Clarence. Once you’re out here there’s really nowhere to hide if a big gale blows up from the west, as the whole anchorage faces west. A fellow cruiser described the moorings at Lord Howe as “ocean moorings” – i.e. like being in the middle of the ocean. We wanted to be out here for Christmas so we started watching the weather on about the 15th December. Right in the middle of the ten days before Xmas, a low pressure system was due to track across Lord Howe. It looked like strong winds (gusts to 40 knots) would last about 12 hours, and then a pulse of swell (up to 3 metres) would arrive a day later; both wind and swell from the southwest. It would be yucky on the mooring. But…
“I’d rather be at anchor in 40 knots than at sea,” I said.
See? After two years, we’re still not real sailors; we still have the mindset that shore = safe and that sea = danger; despite the fact that all of our hairiest moments have happened close to shore or at anchor. Real sailors mutter sea room under their breaths and make for the wide open ocean.
So we left Iluka following the patchiest, most disorganised passage prep ever in a tearing hurry to beat the low to Lord Howe. As we motored out the bar Miles was still tying stuff down and the kids were still heartily unimpressed at the two hours warning we’d given them that – surprise! - we were leaving.
It was a horrible passage. All five of us got seasick, even Captain Fantastic. I hadn’t had time to prepare any passage food so the least affected member of the crew had to go below and make soup in a confused 2.5 metre swell. He briefly and noisily became the most affected member of the crew before settling down to a queasiness that never really abated. One good thing about Lord Howe is that it doesn’t get a lot of traffic, so if whoever was on watch started to fall asleep at the (auto)helm, they could just lie down on the cockpit floor, set an alarm for 15 minutes, have a little kip, wake up, stand up, scan the horizon, the sails and the instruments, and repeat.
At dawn on the third morning we woke to see the cloud-wrapped basalt spires of Lord Howe about 12 miles off and we hooked up to the mooring at Comets Hole at 9am under an innocent baby blue sky. We felt a little smug. We spent the day finding our way round the island and making the mooring safe. Miles tried a number of configurations but finally settled on diving down and shackling our anchor chain directly to the mooring chain. Which was lucky.
Being here. At 3.30am the low hit Lord Howe Island like a train. Within minutes all three kids were awake, running down to the aft cabin and crying. The engine was on, the instruments were on, Miles was up on deck in his life jacket, tethered to the rail and checking the mooring. The bow of the boat kept catching the wind and slewing us first one way, then the other, heeling us wildly. One of the mooring lines was chafing badly on the anchor, slowly rubbing through. In the brief lulls I applied some throttle and Miles stuffed some rubber between it and the boat. But the worst part was the noise of the wind shrieking through the rigging. Other than a child screaming in terror, I cannot think of a more horrible sound. My fear was, as usual, boundless. “You need to keep it together,” Miles said at one point, seeing me frozen in the companion way with bug-eyes. “The kids need to see that you’re calm. Go down and reassure them.”
I suck at hiding my feelings. Nobody is ever in any doubt about how I’m feeling, least of all my kids, so I didn’t think it was such a good idea to go down the back and try and convince them everything was fine, but I followed orders and went aft, to find Sylvie asleep and Budi and Reminy mock fighting about whose feet were more in whose faces. Je-sus. Don’t you know we’re about to die?? I wanted to bellow at them. If the mooring chain snaps we are going straight onto that reef and then we’ll have to deploy the liferaft which will inflate and cartwheel away to Sydney before we can get in it and then we’ll all drown trying to get into the tender so quit mucking around and prepare to meet your doom goddammit.
I couldn’t join in their bonhomie convincingly but I sat in the aft cabin whenever Miles didn’t need me on deck and repeated the only things that seemed like the truth: We went through stronger wind than this in Iluka Bay. Pandion’s previous owner had her at anchor in 90 knot winds one time and she was fine. Mike and Alisa once sat in Galactic with 100 knot gusts for three days down in Tierra del Fuego*. I couldn’t quite smile when the kids quavered “Mum, are we okay?” but I just kept repeating those things like a mantra and eventually all three kids fell back asleep, lucky ducks.
The wind dropped down to a brisk 25 knots by day break but the swell picked up and came straight over the reef to add to the general discomfort. We rugged up, packed breakfast and extra clothes into dry bags and waited for a “lull” before piling into the tender and heading for land.
Land. So flat and unmoving. So steady and predictable. So safe. I wanted more land in my life and less sea, so after a BBQ breakfast at one of the foreshore parks, I went to the visitors centre to enquire about accommodation.
Holy farmer, LHI is not cheap. Lord Howe is a favourite holiday destination of the rich and privileged. I was given two quotes for a night’s accommodation for two adults and three kids: $800 and $1800.
I clasped my hands together and tried out my puppy dog eyes on the nice man trying to find us a room for the night. “It doesn’t need to be much,” I said. “A garden shed would do, or a tent, or a chook run, we’re used to roughing it.”
It turns out that one does not rough it on Lord Howe. There are a very strict number of beds available on the island and how they get filled is a highly contentious topic. There’s no camping, no air bnb, and the off season is in winter. Airfares are $1000 per person. Unless you sail here on your own boat or are friends with someone on the island, you’re looking at upwards of $15000 for a family to stay for a week during school holidays. I get why the locals have such strict policies regarding visitors, and they have done an amazing job at preserving the pristine beauty of the place but I really wish you could camp on Lord Howe. I have a firm belief that beautiful wild places should be accessible to all, regardless of their income and family situation. Sure, limit the numbers, make a booking system, post a super-strict set of rules about rubbish, toilets, whatever, but if they can manage camping on fragile coral islands like Northwest and Masthead, surely they can manage it here.
In any case, the two options I was quoted turned out to be full, so there were no options. The wind was due to die down to a mere 25 knots with 35 knot gusts, so we spent the day on land and went back to the boat as late as possible so that we could all go to bed at peak rolliness.
The weather. Our nice little low turned out to be a brooding monster with no plans to go anywhere anytime soon, so we were looking at 3-5 days of strong winds, uncomfortable swell and rain. We made the best of it. We hired bikes, rode all around the island, went walking during the dry spells, did laundry at the jetty, had hot showers at the public amenities, hid out in picnic shelters during the squalls, went and hung out at the boat at low tide when the swell dropped and tried to be off the boat or asleep when the tide was high. A friend of ours comes here every other year and he says he never has a trip to LHI without at least one low dropping in. The first night we were here they recorded 55 knot wind gusts at the airport. A boat that’s here at the moment copped a 70 knot front one year. It’s a notoriously windy place in the middle of the Tasman Sea, and in winter east coast lows seem to snag on the mountains and stick around for days on end. Bags not being here in July.
|Have bikes, will travel|
No room at the inn. Having consulted Predictwind, Windy, BOM, etc and seen that more nasty wind was expected in the days to come, and having exhausted the official accommodation options, I spent a fearful day wandering the island looking for unused sheds, out of the way groves of trees, picnic shelters, church verandas, a manger in a stable…
“I’m not sleeping on the boat tonight,” I announced to Miles at sunset and saw his face fall as he registered my unwavering determination.
Why couldn’t I have married someone more sanguine, he was clearly thinking, but he asked, “Where are you going to sleep then?”
“I dunno. There?” I said, pointing at a patch of pine needles under one of the iconic trees in the park.
“We can sleep in the laundry,” he said, resigned.
Brilliant! Why hadn’t I thought of that? The laundry is at the quiet end of town, there are no houses nearby, we had a key to the door and there were no other cruisers around who could burst in on us in an embarrassing moment at daybreak. If the police showed up, we’d say, sorry officer, we tried to get beds on land, there weren’t any and we felt unsafe on the boat. Also my wife is tetchy, unreasonable and stubborn as a rhinoceros.
We headed out to Pandion, piled the cockpit cushions into the tender, packed up sheets and sleeping bags and broke the news to the kids.
“The laundry?” they wailed. “We’re sleeping in the laundry?”
“Come on, it’s an adventure!”
“Why can’t we be like a normal family?”
The laundry was dirty, musty, a bit damp and quite smelly. But it was also immobile. I loved every minute of it.
The next night we were sorted. Our cousybros from Bella Luna had met a fabulous local family when they were out here a month or two earlier than us. By serendipity, we crossed paths with the parents of this family the day after we arrived. With only the slightest hint dropped they offered to have us sleep at theirs for a night. Praise be, there is a god.
Since then the weather has been sensational. Stunning. Offshore, flat, sunny, cool at night, warm in the day, dry, everything you could wish for. But…
Mt Gower. There’s a walk up the highest peak on Lord Howe that makes it into Australia’s top ten day walks. Mt Gower is the peak on the right.
To be honest, both peaks are straight up vertical, but Mt Gower is a little bit higher. Reminy and I were keen as mustard, the others emphatically not, so we hitched a ride on the obligatory guided tour. The guide, local man Jack Shick, has climbed the mountain more than 2000 times. Two thousand times. He doesn’t even pant. The youngest person ever to summit was 4 and a half, the oldest 85 and a half. The fastest summiter is Jack’s cousin, at 1 hour and 40 minutes up and down. It took our group from 7.30am to 3.30pm and it was haaaarrrrrd. It is relentlessly uphill and at one point I exerted myself so much that my vision clouded and my ears started ringing and I had to cling on to an endemic palm to stop myself from fainting. Once you get to the extra steep section, there are fixed ropes to haul yourself up on and lower yourself down on but that was my favourite bit because you got a five minute breather while someone else was above you on the ropes. I stopped berating myself for being grossly unfit when I saw how hard my svelte daughter found it. We couldn’t move without yodelling until a good four days after the climb, during which Jack Shick, age 58, had climbed it twice more. Incredible views, totally worth it, but Holy Ow Batman.
Since our rocky start, LHI and its people have been so good to us. The snorkelling is superb, the surfing has been awesome and very family friendly (soft reef), the wildlife is funky, the vegetation is unique, you can ride bikes everywhere, the people are lovely and there is so much to do. Miles has been pulling three activities a day ever since the weather cleared up and a three activity day is a good day. We’re unlikely to ever come back here in this boat, so we feel blessed to have made it out here for what might be our last hurrah before the good ship Pandion goes on the market and we go back to The Real World :(
Of course there’s always Getting back. Stay tuned.
|Dinner on Blackburn Island|
|Fish feeding frenzy|
|Milking Cleo the Cow with local legend Millie|
|O Christmas Mast O Christmas Mast, of all the masts so lovely|
* I found this statistic enormously comforting and was shaken and indignant when Miles said a few days later, “No, you pelican, Galactic sat out forty knot winds for three days, not 100 knot winds.”
“Bullshit, the wind exploded their wind generator. A forty knot wind wouldn’t do that.”
We’re still arguing about it, so if you’d like to clear it up for us, Alaskans, we’d be much obliged. I prefer to hold you in my heart as The Most Hardcore People We Know, so if you want to stretch the truth a little, I won’t tell.