Tuesday, 1 January 2019

Lord Ow

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.
First Bolthole

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.  
White Tern

Blue Tern

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. 
Second Bolthole

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.  
Mt Pain

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
In between squalls

* 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.

Thursday, 6 December 2018


The little boat, its small spaces, beds, communal areas and decks becomes so very familiar.  Throughout Vanuatu we had a fairly predictable routine.  Arrive, anchor, meet the chief, swap t-shirts for fruit, explore, swim and sleep on the boat.  Sleep on the boat.  

Pandion ready for nightfall - Chesterfield Reefs

Anthropologist Yasmine Musharbash wrote an article about sleeping in yunta, the Warlpiri desert peoples' practice of sleeping in a line outside, side by side, with a windbreak at their heads.  Some interesting highlights were that the most spiritually competent women sleep on the outside, ever alert to repel spiritual threats, or the more mundane approaches of dogs.  However her point which is valid here, is that a certain bond exists about where you sleep, whether it be outside or in the "domestic fortification" of our homes; a bond of trust, a bond of connection.   Sleeping on Pandion is somewhere between yunta and a house.  It is probably more safe than sleeping in the open, less safe than a house, but still relies on the ever present attention of your co-sleepers to wake up when danger is imminent.  

So when we land back in our ‘homes’ in Brisbane, Stanthorpe and Iluka, there is the strangest feeling of not sleeping on the boat.  Everyone feels a bit discombobulated.  I wish we could ease the transition, perhaps a few nanna naps on the couch before returning to Pandion at night then gradually work up to a full overnighter.  Like some youngster practising for their first sleep over.  However it rarely happens like that and always feels abrupt. These strange transitions are what have occupied us for the past few weeks. 

There are also the “sea legs" - that first 24 hours on land where everything has a wobble from side to side.  But on the up side, land has many attractions.  Friendly faces and family.  Fresh water – as in the kind that cascades over your body and the kind that washes your clothes – holds an almost magical mystery for our first two weeks back on land.  Land life is so …. easy.   But land life is also so ... busy. So many more options, obligations, and the every present need to “engage” with the world.  For example a week was spent re-registering our car.  I am often lost in a sea of internet passwords attempting to reactivate those aspects of our digital life that seem to be necessary.    

It was all getting quite stressful.  On top of everything else, we are touring high schools and primary schools in the region, and I dashed out to the desert to work for a while.


On passage in the desert

Nyirripi Road - plenty beach

We have discovered that although our life has always been full of uncertainty, unconventional work and last minute decisions, we are really craving some certainty right now.  Two days ago we moved back onto the boat.  A 30 knot southerly front was predicted for that night, so we sailed over to the Yamba side of the river out of the wind. SV Stowaway was there and some friendly chatter preceded an average anchoring attempt from team Pandion that left us only a boat length from shore.  Good enough, we knew the southerly buster would swing us offshore later anyway.  

Almost immediately we noticed how much of the tension had gone, like we had left it all in Iluka as we sailed 5 minutes across the river.  We are living on the boat again now.  It feels cosy, we have 360 degree ocean views and as much nature connection as you could want.  

Here are some pics from Chesterfield Reef, our last offshore stop and the birdiest place on earth (well, the bits we have been to.)  Next stop Lord Howe Island, weather permitting.

At anchor - Chesterfield Reef, West side.
Point your camera anywhere in the sky at Chesterfield Reef and this is the likely result

or this

Milpirri Cloud , Tanami Desert.
* Night, sight, and feeling safe: An exploration of aspects of Warlpiri and Western sleep
Yasmine Musharbash. The Australian Journal of Anthropology (2013) 24, 48–63

Monday, 19 November 2018

Moments of Pure Terror

I’d pitched this whole sailing gig to myself as an opportunity to emerge bolder, braver and more courageous but in fact the opposite has happened.  I can spend many hours pre-passage lying saucer eyed in the dark all but overwhelmed by visions of krakens and white squalls.  My heartrate can go from resting to infinity as I slam the helm over to avoid a last minute bommie. Anchoring was initially the activity that brought Miles and I closest to divorce and even though we’re much better at it now, the thought that we’ll drag and founder still niggles at me in even the most bottlenecked of anchorages.  I’m a great big scaredy cat.

But there have been a couple of moments of terror in the last few months that (as Miles has encouragingly pointed out) would have had most people shitting their britches. Here they are.

Ray and Navman
The previous owner of Pandion was heavily into redundancy, which is why we have two autopilots, two complete sets of sails and two depth sounders.
I call the sounders Ray (short for Raymarine) and Navman (short for Navman) and they can rarely reach a consensus about how much water we’re in.
Ray goes to sleep in anything over about 150 metres.  He says, ‘-.-‘ which roughly translates as, ‘okay lady, we are in seriously deep water here, wake me up when something happens.’  Navman just stolidly reports 57 metres, no matter what the actual depth is.  ‘Fear not,’ he says, ‘you’re in at least 57 metres.’
Ray only really comes alive in 57 metres or less. And I trust Ray at these depths.  When Ray says you have 20 centimetres under the keel, listen up folks, that’s all you’ve got.  Oh, but don’t forget to account for the offset that Milo can’t remember how to program into the plotter, so when Ray says you have 5.5 metres under your keel, you really have 4.5 metres.  So if a day comes that Ray really does say 20 centimetres it’ll be because we’re 80 centimetres out of the water.  And that will be bad.

This is what passages look like

Right, so we’re out in the deep blue, halfway between Vanuatu and Australia.  The chart plotter is uniformly white without even a single contour line to break up the whiteness.  The paper chart (yes, we do carry those, like quaint old fuddy-duddies), says we’re somewhere in the neighbourhood of 2.5 kilometres above the sea floor.  Naturally Ray is asleep, giving his standard ‘-.- talk to the hand, dollface,’ and Navman is saying we’re in 57 metres. 
When we’re in water this deep and I’m by myself on watch, sometimes I like to go and get one of the kids’ shells from their collection and drop it over the side (please don’t tell them). I like to sail on and imagine it sinking slowly down to the ocean floor long after we’ve gone and landing with a tiny puff of silt in some lightless trench. I like to imagine a deep sea research vessel scooping up a sample of sea floor to analyse and delivering a shallow reef shell to some bewildered researcher.  But I digress.

Earlier today, on hearing that we’d be passing within cooee of some 44 metre deep banks at sunset, Miles begged me to pass right over them in the hopes of a fishy encounter, but there were no fish, the sounders didn’t budge and according to my chart reading we are now well and truly past them.
It’s pitch black, 9pm, Miles is asleep, and I’m just running my eyes over the instruments in a not very attentive way when I see Ray wake up. ‘19 metres,’ he says chirpily. At that depth, Ray doesn’t lie.  Now, 19 metres might seem like a whole lot of water to have under your keel, and if you’re looking for an anchorage it’s way too much.  But in the middle of a piece of ocean that’s supposed to be several kilometres deep, it’s alarming.  Especially when Ray starts a death dive: 14.1, 9.8, 7.1, 5.5, 4.9, 4.1. I race down to the nav station to consult Navman who says … 57 metres.
At this point I throw open the aft companionway and yell at Miles loud enough to wake the dead. I’m not sure what I expect him to do.  We’re under full sail, moving at a steady 6.5 knots.  If there is something looming up in front of us, I can’t see it.  If I veer off in one direction or another, I might inadvertently veer right up its backside.  True to form, Milo’s on deck in seconds. Ray’s telling us there’s 3.9 metres under the keel, which really means 2.9.

I manage to squeeze an entire nervous breakdown into the next 60 seconds.  I brace myself for the hull-rending grind of us becoming shipwrecked some 500 miles away from land.  Miles opens the tablet which has another chart plotter on it with more accurate depths and I stop looking obsessively at Ray and go below to plot our position on the paper chart, still cringing against a crunch.
‘What’s it saying now?’ I call up to Miles.
‘5.3,’ he says, ‘but that can’t be right. We’re in seriously deep water.’
I intersect our lat and long and confirm that we’re in seriously deep water.
I can’t believe it, Ray lied.  I feel betrayed.  Navman lied too but he always lies; I expect better from Ray.

It’s five hours later and I’m back on watch.
Ray’s asleep -.-.  Navman’s telling me we’re in 87 metres, which makes an interesting change, and the paper chart’s telling me we’re in approximately 2151 metres.
All’s well.

2. The Thing of Which I’m Proudest
Our cockpit roof is just under 6 feet high and Miles is just over 6 feet high so for him to helm comfortably he either needs to sit in the chair or stand with his feet far enough apart to reduce his height.  Almost from the beginning of our trip I took over the helming and almost straight away I loved it.  I love the adrenalin rush you get from parking a big unresponsive beast in a tiny marina berth, narrowly avoiding million dollar boats all around.  I love knowing just how much to gun it in reverse to slow her down and how much turning circle she needs if something goes wrong.

We arrived at the outer anchorage at Petersen’s Bay two hours short of high tide and went over in the dinghy to inspect the notorious passage into the inner anchorage.  The Vanuatu cruising guide has a number of way points with which to navigate the pass but we weren’t sure how much we should rely on them. 
‘Don’t trust the way points,’ someone had told us not long ago.  ‘They’re completely wrong.’

Two boats in the previous week had gone aground on their way through the pass, and both of them were catamarans which traditionally have shallower draughts than monos like us.  Another boat told us that they’d had 0.0 under their keel when they came through and they draw 20 centimetres less than we do.
It was overcast and late in the day, two conditions that should be avoided when picking your way around coral bommies.  We also weren’t sure of the tides because the three models we had access to showed three different heights for high tide and three different times, as much as 60 centimetres and 2 hours difference.  Why were we so keen to get into the inner anchorage? Because a cyclone had blown up in the Solomon Islands and we were expecting three days in a row of heavy rain and thirty-plus knot winds.  The inner anchorage at Petersen’s Bay is protected from all swell and any winds.  It’s like heaven.  It has two blue pools you can dinghy to and a bar with cold beer.  We were very motivated to get in there.

We took soundings in the dinghy for half an hour and confirmed that we might have as little as 20 centimetres under us at the shallowest point.  The pass is complicated.  You go through two markers like goal posts, keeping to port, then cross an expanse of pure white sand before arriving at a field of lowish coral, then you line up a buoy that marks a boat-killing bommie and then veer hard to starboard over some more coral pavement.  We knew we wouldn’t be able to see much because of the low light, so we made a list of instructions: through the goal posts, straight ahead, when the hut on the hill lines up with the coconut tree on the ridge, veer right to line up the buoy, pass the buoy to port and then veer to the right again to line up the exit way point.
We ran through it five times to cement it in our brains, programmed our own way points into the tablet and then went back to Pandion to wait for our best guess at high tide.

I lay curled up in the aft cabin paralysed with fear.  As places to go aground, it wasn’t bad.  Petersen’s Bay is reasonably close to Luganville and the pass itself is well protected from swell by a couple of islands.  I just wasn’t sure I could do it.  There was an occasion, early on when we were making our first crossing of the Wide Bay Bar, when I let go of the helm and left it to Miles and went below to hug a pillow.  My modus operandi in crises is to freeze like a rabbit in the headlights.  There’s a reason why Miles is in charge of crises and cocktails. 
Miles came down to see how I was going.  ‘I’m so scared.’ I said between chattering teeth.  ‘I’ve never been this scared of helming before.’
‘Just imagine it going well,’ he said.  He looked calm but maybe he was faking calmness in order to keep me calm.  He does that.
‘Are you scared?’
‘Why not?’ I demanded.  ‘Aren’t you afraid I’ll freeze? Or crash?  Both of those things could happen.’
He shrugged.  ‘I know you can do it.’
I was profoundly touched by his trust.  I’m not sure if the boot had been on the other foot that I’d have been capable of such trust.  There are times I definitely don’t trust Miles to helm and I wrest the steering wheel out of his hands. (Anyone who’s seen Miles drive a car will understand this. It’s not that he’s reckless, he’s just often in such Deep Thought that he hums past turn offs that we were supposed to take, or drives down one way streets the wrong way.)

The kids were not unaware of the tension. 
‘You can do it, Mum,’ Reminy kept saying, but later on she let me read her diary which reads: I’m terrified. It. Is. So. Shallow. (emphasis hers)

When the time came we gave the kids specific instructions to keep them busy: during the pass nobody is to talk to Mummy except for Daddy; Budi, read the numbers on that depth sounder but don’t call them out, just remember the shallowest number; Reminy stand amidships to relay messages from Daddy on the bows to Mummy at the helm; Sylvie, go below.

We lifted the anchor and headed for the goal posts.  The sun had just gone down but it was still reasonably light.  I cleared the posts, covered the sandy straight and turned Pandion to line up the buoy.
Which wasn’t there.
Unbeknownst to me, at this point Miles had a private wig out of his own.  The buoy had vanished under water, its tether being shorter than the tide.
But I was halfway through now and there was no room to turn back.  I ignored the real world and went to the cartoon world of the tablet, where I kept the little black ship that was us moving over each of our four waypoints.
As we passed the Death Bommie Miles saw the buoy suspended some 30 cm under water by our port side but by then I’d already turned out into deeper water.
“You did it!” screamed the kids, and all the good endorphins that follow imminent danger flowed through my body in a trembling moment of pure joy.  Budi reported a minimum depth beneath us of a wholesome 40 centimetres.

We dropped the anchor in 10 metres in good solid mud and slept like babies even though the wind picked up and howled through the rigging all night long.
I would have to traverse the pass three more times over the coming weeks, but that first time was the best.
My Main Man at the Petersen Bay blue hole