* I wrote this a week ago but couldn't post it until now. It's still very relevant. We're now "stuck" in the Whitsundays, no northerlies in sight.
"So, which one of you was the sailor? Whose idea was this?"
This question gets asked of us a lot, by sailors and non-sailors alike, and it always makes me squirm.
Neither of us were sailors before we started this. Miles had done a few yacht charters with mates in his misspent youth, and I'd done some, um … windsurfing as a teenager.
Realising early on that this might be a major hurdle in our Grand Sailing Plan, we asked an experienced sailor friend of ours: is sailing hard?
"It can't be that hard,” he replied, “because lots of stupid people are good at it."
That was heartening news in some ways, and not in others, as it implied that something other than intelligence was at work here, and we had a sinking feeling that that thing was experience.
In the year before we left, we tried to get as much experience as we could. We both did a competent crew course, Miles did a day skipper course, I crewed as often as I could on a racing yacht, I served as seasick ballast on a delivery trip from Iluka to Southport, Miles and Tony sailed the boat from Geelong to Iluka with a professional boat deliverer. We sailed around in the river whenever the grueling repairs schedule would let us and went in and out the bar a few times. But that was all. When we motored out the Clarence Heads on the first night of our trip, we had never left the Clarence River as a family on our own boat.
Four and a half months later and almost 1500 NM in the log, would I call us sailors?
No. Sure, we can sail. We’ve sailed on every possible wind angle, under every sail arrangement (except The Dreaded Spinnaker) in many different conditions. We’ve anchored in mud, shale, coral rubble and sand, in rivermouths, outer reefs, protected (and unprotected) bays and lagoons. We’ve practiced heaving to in stiff winds. We’ve sailed off and onto moorings and we’ve sailed through many nights. We’ve stitched up sails, replaced furling lines, practiced man overboard drills, greased winches, totally revamped the (abysmal) set up on the mizzen mast, and Miles even bodgied up a mizzen staysail that he was very proud of (see video below). We’ve plotted our course on paper charts (which is considered quaint by most of the yachties we’ve encountered) and taken bearings using a handheld compass. An added bonus to this style of travel is that it turns out that I quite like sailing. I like hearing the hiss of water along the hull as we pick up speed and chew up the miles, and I get an inordinate amount of satisfaction from seeing two parallel telltales.
But some aspects of sailing lore are still a complete mystery to us. As an example, take our present predicament. We’re “stuck” on Magnetic Island waiting to head south out of cyclone range and back to our families for Christmas. The wind is relentlessly and unseasonably coming from the southeast when the direction we need to sail is right into its teeth. Tomorrow there will be a very brief period of north easterlies during which we’re going to attempt to sail, very close-hauled, down to the Whitsundays. It’s possible that the angle will be too tight and we’ll end up tacking way out to sea, or doing what so many coastal sailors seem to do without any self-flagellation whatsoever, turning on the engine.
Now, what would a real sailor do in our place? Would they have turned south months ago when there were solid northerlies? Would they shrug their shoulders, crack a warm beer and wait patiently for more northerlies to arrive and enjoy the (slightly) cooler weather? Would they sail all the way out to Davies Reef and then take advantage of a better sail angle, even though the whole passage might double in length? Or would they do what one enormous cat did a few days ago, head out to an ugly sea and bully their way south into the wind? (These are not rhetorical questions – if anyone wants to chip in with advice, be my guest.)
I’ve found myself to be an ultra cautious sailor, when in other arenas of my life I’m reasonably adventurous. I don’t like being out in uncomfortable seas, I don’t like flogging the boat, and I especially don’t like being scared. The way we’ve managed this trip has been very affected by the age of our crew: 14, 10, and 7, and our determination not to scare the pants off them either. So far so good. The only time I’ve been really terrified was crossing the Wide Bay Bar, and while I was curled up in the salon in the foetal position loudly singing hymns the kids were reading in the cockpit, happily oblivious.
Obviously there is a place for caution, but I look forward to the day I can relax a little, like one blasé family we met whose engine croaked just as they came in across the Clarence Bar (three little kids on board). “We just pulled up the mainsail and brought her round right in the middle of the bar, (the sail ripped, but not too badly), and then we sailed up to Southport through the night, rigged up the outboard off the stern and motored into Bum’s Bay under 8hp. One of our best sails yet.”
There’s only one way to achieve that kind of sangfroid. More miles in the log. More screw-ups, more successes. More time.
p.s. There are worse places to be stuck than Magnetic Island and the Whitsundays.