Tuesday, 5 September 2017

The night is dark and full of terrors: a reality check on the joys of cruising, by Miles

Like the 23 boats that left before us we ran from Lady Musgrave ahead of a 30 knot southerly change.  Only one boat was willing to brave the weather, an experienced couple with over a decade of cruising under their belt, 120 meters of chain and a 20 tonne steel boat.  They called us as we left them, and while confident, I did note the "it’s very lonely here" tone in his voice.  Mother Nature is both beautiful and terrifying, and that is always in the back of our minds, even in calm weather.  The first reality check of the cruising life is that ¼ our time is being somewhere between concerned and downright worried.  I get it now: fair winds, a safe anchorage and good holding = the joyful sleep of sailors.
So we left Lady Musgrave. It was low tide and the narrow passage out the reef was transformed into a white water rapid as a few square kilometres of water emptied through a 20 metre wide channel.  I was up the mizzen looking for bommies, Liss had a confident hand on the helm.  I found myself yelling, “looks good, just run guts!” incongruous words, usually applied to the white water, where running the most obvious line is straight down the centre through the biggest waves (through the guts).  The boat heaved and hobby-horsed and dipped her bow in the standing waves until we cleared the outflow.  Away from the reef, the team settled into the mechanics of sailing all day to Cape Capricorn.  Another sailing truism: sailing means wind, and wind (generally speaking) means waves, and waves mean rocking, either side to side or front to back.  I like it; I like the feel of the wind loading the boat up with power through the keel and her surging forward. The downside is that it’s a workout, gut muscles tensed a hundred times just to sit still, getting from cockpit to galley a delicate dance of balance and just missed head knocks, hands dry and calloused from the spay and working the lines.  The ever-present potential for seasickness.  I am impressed with all the old silver backs and doughty women out sailing – it’s a rigorous life and they’re all fit and hardy.  That is the second reality check of cruising: it is ¼ being exhausted.  8.00am is a pretty regular bedtime.
The cruising guides stated that Cape Capricorn has good S and SE protection but the wind was tending more SW when we arrived.  We dropped anchor at 3.00pm in the tiny anchorage and looked and felt and wondered about how it would be if the wind stayed SW instead of going SE.  Liss had stayed at the lighthouse keeper’s house as a child and really wanted to stay and explore, but those rocks afforded no sea room, so we sadly decided to move. Yellowpatch is spitting distance away, but it’s flanked by shallow sand banks, and the only info we had recommended a shallow water reccy or local knowledge.  Sorely lacking in local knowledge, we informed the tired crew that we’d head for Hummocky Island, 7 miles north.  It was a rough ride, but I think we congratulated ourselves on being increasingly comfortable in 20 knot winds. 
Hummocky is a beautiful island, a curving bay with rocky slopes plunging in the water surrounding a little sandy beach.  We dropped anchor 30 minutes before sunset and received a welcome call on the radio from John Barleycorn, the only other yacht in the bay.  A quick trip to shore ended in rowing over to John Barleycorn when the outboard flooded and we enjoyed some popcorn, nuts and olives, and gave ourselves an early (and unwarranted) pat on the back for finding a good anchorage and good company.  Cruising is also this ¼ freedom and discovery and the wonder of what might be just around the next corner.  Kids safely to bed, we tidied up, secured the deck, tied up the tender.  That is another thing about cruising, it’s prudent to lash everything down in the evening.  It’s old fashioned work with an air of military routine – but it does mean most days end with some hard chores and heavy lifting, often in the dark.  By 10pm bed was calling but the boat was lying strangely and there were new noises. We know EVERY noise on the boat.  Liss went up on deck for a while to suss it out. The weather had been for developing strong south-easterly so we expected to lie safely away from the shore all night, except that now the stern was pointing at the shore and those pretty, “falling away into the water” cliffs were now looking dangerously close (although it’s hard to estimate distance from the water with no point of reference.)  Then we started to spin.  I got up and sat on anchor watch with Liss, which really means sitting around feeling nervous and trying to tell if the boat is getting closer to rocks in an environment where it is really hard to gauge distance.  Liss went to bed about 2am and I stayed on.  For myself, the situation is indicative of our whole cruising adventure: learn on the job and learn fast.  I learnt a lot that long night. I ran three chart plotters and trusted none of them, I took GPS points every 10 minutes and learnt what I knew already, we were moving a lot but couldn’t tell if we were dragging closer to the rocks.  Liss and I had discussed upping anchor and resetting it, but the thought of re-anchoring in the dark, and swell and wind seemed more dangerous than staying put.  Maybe that was a good call, not sure.  I found myself googling “how can you tell if you anchor is dragging?” and then laughed at how preposterous that was, like googling how to fix a jet engine as the plane goes down.  I gave up and went back to more proactive ideas.  Somehow I hadn’t had time to change out of my pyjamas (undies), so spent a lot of time in undies and ugg boats spotlighting the shore, holding the chain and listening for vibration, looking longingly at John Barleycorn who, inexplicably, wasn’t moving at all.  Later I put pants on as a pro-active action - you can’t face a crisis in your undies.  Another proactive action was downloading an anchor watch app, which is a program that measures your location from the phone’s GPS and then lets you know if you drag more than a certain distance.  I laughed hard (maybe hysterically at 4.00am) and picked the one called “drag queen.”   Its alarm is a loud siren, like a count down to nuclear launch.  It went off every 10 minutes and was therefore useless, other than to let me know what I already knew – we were still spinning. Another part of that ¼ fear is that night time is really disorientating, distances warp and merge, it’s easy to get turned around 180 degrees.  I have been lost in the featureless pindan scrub on the Kimberley and terror rises surprisingly quickly, triggering something primal that must be urgently fought down, lest you succumb to panic and start running around in the heat, taking off your clothes and drinking your own urine.  Ultimately, the spotlight proved the best tool, and the rocks didn’t appear to be moving closer, unless it was an incremental creep.  I made a mental note to get more back up batteries.  Another side of cruising: for an exercise immersed in nature it is utterly dependent on “stuff” – chart plotter GPS, batteries, epirbs, alarms, apps – not to mention 2 inches of fossil fuel transformed into fibreglass between our family and the deeps.  For a survivalist at heart I find it a little challenging.  If I cruised long term, I would filter them out, simplify simplify simplify.  But for newbies they are wonderful and they make up where experience falls off.  Or perhaps they just allow us to get ourselves in over our heads.  I didn’t sleep that whole night; I planned how to get the kids out of bed if we ran aground, I watched every twist and turn of the boat transform into a wavey black line on the chart plotter, a fractal of current, wind, keel and tide.  Eventually a finger nail moon rose over the cliffs, and east brightened slowly.  Liss came up in the predawn and we drank tea, and the light chased away demons, like it so often does, and after all that, the cliffs were no closer. 
As we drank the tea, we started to figure out what had happened.  Liss pointed out the north end of the bay where a giant eddy circled, the strong current causing the bay to be noticeably lower at that end than where we were.  For the second time in 24 hours I recognised the patterns of a white water river, bringing back memories of the high volume rivers in Canada where the eddy fence can be a foot high and whirl pools can stand rafts on their end.  We were anchored right in the nexus of all that water, being pushed one way by 20 knots of wind and the other by current.  We will recognise now the small and gently bubbling wavelets that are thrown up by wind against tide, and know them as an innocuous warning that significant forces are at play beneath the surface.
In the morning the kids wanted to climb the hill, Liss went with them on 2 hours sleep (the power of mums!)  I was left pondering cruising, inspired to provide the other side of blue water blog posts displaying joyous kids.  I would sum it up this way:  ¼ fun, ¼ exhaustion, ¼ sleep and ¼ something on the spectrum between caution and fear.  But 6 weeks in, I would rate it worthwhile. Being compelled to live (by choice or not) in such a range of human emotions feels like living fully.  
The long night ends

Hot tea + dawn = relief

Top of the hill the next day

Looks innocent,doesn't it?


  1. Great distillation of events Milo. I think your synopsis puts early cruising life somewhere between the realms of type 2 and type 3 fun. Stay safe.

    1. Hey Bro , remind what type 2 and 3 fun is again? From memory different levels of being terrified, while maybe (or maybe not) actually enjoying yourself?

  2. Stunning read, Milo, we really felt like we knew more about it all. Don't lose any of these wonderful blogs, please. They are precious to us. L Poppy and Mama

  3. Thanks for the read Miles makes me a bit anxious here and there though. I have had dreams on anchor dragging in my land lubber bed only to wake to find the kids flushing the toilet. The first time I sailed into Pitwater I dragged though the night in what I thought was a secure hold only to find I had drifted closed to shore. It was a bump on the hump (Keel) that woke me up. I bought some bigger hangeronera's after that experience. I think the more you do the better you get at anchoring. I suck at it, I mean really suck, so what that means is if you see Hawkeye out the don't anchor near me lol. (I think that should give me some privacy hehe) Honestly though I think we all drag from time to time and we all learn from it even when we haven't dragged we have learnt from it. It may be fearful at the time but how many people have woken up in that spot to see a sunrise. I don't call it fear I call it adrenaline. Keep safe, Paul.

    1. thanks Paul, pitwater sounds interesting, our current strategy for anchoring is to just keep pulling it up and dropping again until we feel 100% comfortable. so far that seems to work.

  4. Compelling read Miles. Took me back to some of our more testing moments on the boat. I'm loving your adventures! xx

  5. Completely awesome. I have a new favorite sailing blog.