Up until the time we left Jervis Bay we remained undecided about where we would be heading to. Our eyes continue to be focussed on Tasmania for summer, but man – it’s a loooong way away. The night before we left M and I had a Council of War – we decided that we would be cruisey about the journey further south and would just do a daysail to Ulladulla or Batemans Bay.
M arose the next morning as if our diplomatic discussion had never happened. “I think,” he announced, “We should take advantage of the forecast – it will take us straight to Tasmania. If we leave today, we’ll be there by sometime on Friday.”
He wanted to take the ‘rip-off-the-band-aid’ approach, grab the northerly wind and get the journey over with instead of doing daysails down the coast. Sigh. I totally understood his point, I just was not mentally prepared to embrace Bass Strait for the third time.
Oh woes. He disappeared in the dinghy to get fuel in Vincentia and I texted him a passage-to-Tasmania shopping list, steamed a stack of potatoes, stewed some apples and hardboiled a whole lot of eggs. Small DB whipped up a bowl of ‘breakfast jelly’ to eat the following morning.
Within two hours we were heading down the coast. I felt slightly anxious, trepidatious about the sudden change in our plans. There’s a certain frame of mind I have to be in to be chill with a long, possibly tricky, passage ahead of me, and I hadn’t had a chance to attain it.
The first day and night were uneventful. We were fanging along – at one point we hit a new record – 19 knots….
Bolognese for dinner kept us all happy and the night-watches were straightforward. Coming into the second day, the strong northerlies had pushed the swell to 3 meters. A mountainous travelling companion heading to Tassie with us.
We had studied the forecast and knew that the wind would strengthen when it did. Bella Luna had two jibs goose-winged and continued to whizz along. Of course there were the occasional hiccups – a rogue wave flooding the kitchen floor via an open hatch was particularly uninspiring, prompting the shriek: “TOWELS! TOWELS!! TOWELS!!!”
Later in the afternoon M was napping on the couch, I was on the wheel, hand-steering – because it is fun in big waves and to give my brain a rest from the sound of the autopilot. Also, my steering seemed to be a bit gentler than AutoPie.
It was all straightforward for an hour or so, and then the boat was coming down a wave and took a huge lurch – not in a good way. I inevitably assumed it was my fault and that I’d done something wrong. I checked the rudders and they seemed fine. M was out on deck immediately. “What’s going on?”
I shrugged, kept steering. There was another lurch, M glanced back at the rudders. “Rudder stick is gone!” [I think I’ve mentioned before that we have a round, half-inch wide wooden stick, about a foot long, holding each rudder down. They’re sacrificial – meaning that if the rudders hit something, they will bounce up and bust the sticks, thus avoiding/reducing any damage.]
I was relieved. I hadn’t stuffed it up. I had my lifejacket/harness on, so I climbed down the back steps, trying to time it to avoid the waves. The stick hadn’t broken – it had slipped across. I shoved it back into place. What I should have done is replace the stick with another, slightly wider one, because it happened again about an hour later. Gah. Then I swapped it.
The sea and swell were big and things were definitely not as easy the second night. There was no way anyone was going to actually cook anything. Small DB ate cold cooked potato while the rest of us had potato salad and called it dinner.
By dark, the Smalls were in bed. M decided (with his sixth sailing sense humming) to sleep on the couch. This has the added benefit of avoiding levitating two inches off the mattress every time a waves whacks the bottom of the boat.
I did my two hours. M got up a few times during my shift – he wasn’t happy with the sound of the autopilot. He took over at about midnight. I’d been in bed for about 25 minutes, unable to sleep – when I heard him whistle for me. This is such a rarity (ordinarily he would come and grab me by the toes) that I knew something was considerably amiss.
Up on deck, he was hand steering grimly while the wind and the waves seemed to be vying for volume. “The autopilot belt’s snapped.”
I thought of the people we had met in New Caledonia, who had had to hand-steer, one hour one/one hour off for days when this had happened to them on their passage from Australia. They had literally started to hallucinate. All I could focus on was getting through the night – it would be light at 5am – and then everything would be easier to fix/deal with.
“OK. Let’s hand-steer doing one hour shifts until daylight, and then see if we can sort it out.”
M agreed. I said I’d be back out in an hour. I slept for 45 minutes, then spent 15 minutes finding my beanie, my two jumpers, my ugh-boots, going to the toilet (why I always have to have my period on long passages continues to puzzle me – an extra bloody thing to think about*) get into my life jacket and put my phone into my pocket, just in case I’m able to listen to a podcast. I go out to take over.
“There’s no way we’re fucking hand steering the rest of the night,” says M, through gritted teeth. “This is bullshit. I’ve taken the steering wheel and autopilot apart a million times, we’ve got a spare belt. We’ll just do it all slowly.”
I take the wheel and hand steer while he methodically and carefully furls the jibs. To do this he has to clip his harness to the lifelines in order to remove the extra ropes from his double-jib setup that are around cleats on both sides of the bow. I can’t look at him because I must try and keep on course, but I sneak a look every now and again, and think to myself that if he goes overboard on this black new-moon night, that’s it baby – I would never be able to find him.
He is not unhappy now that we are working on the situation, and grins as I surf us down a wave while he’s hanging over the side unwrapping the rope from one of the cleats. The big lights mounted on the mast are on, illuminating the decks. I am thankful there are no ships anywhere nearby.
Once the sails are down, we’re still doing four or five knots. M pulls the centreboards up and I round the boat into the wind and our speed decreases further – we’re bobbing about like a cork, but it’s not as hideous as I thought it would be. M is relieved. There are big breaking waves, but it’s not dangerous, just dark – no moon, but a blaze of stars. We pull the rudders up before we dismantle the steering wheel.
There are lots of little bolts to undo with an Allen key – and the bolts must STAY IN ORDER so they GO BACK IN THE RIGHT PLACE. It’s when he is doing this fiddly and focussed work that M starts feeling the quease. Seriously – this is the dude who has not thrown up on a boat since he was 14 years old. But he is so sailory that his body can’t cope with the fact that we are at the mercy of the waves, shrouded in black night and stars – he needs to be going in a direction – which is exactly what we are not doing.
He throws up over the side, comes back, puts on the new belt, does up a few nuts, throws up over the side again and breathes deeply trying to orientate himself with the constellations above. And repeat. And repeat. We finally get the wheel bolted back on and aligned…
I tell him that I will clip on and put the rudders back down; he’s looking poorly. It’s as I am taking off my socks that I see a dark sticky trail on the cockpit floor – it looks like catsick, and I think to myself, “Oh my god. M has puked like a cat and left it there. I might stand in it, ugh, that’s so gross…” And then I see an eye in the sick, looking up at me dolefully. Quite dead. It’s a squid. Inky and crushed on the cockpit floor. I point mutely at it.
“Jesus,” says M, grabbing a tentacle and throwing it out into the heaving water. He glances around the cockpit as the boat continues to roll about. “Here’s another one!” He throws that into the heaving blackness as well. In retrospect it’s bizarre that someone so nauseated could have so little problem picking up a squinting, catsick mimicking, squashed squid – but it didn’t seem to faze him.
I take the rope from under the rudder, letting it slip back down into the water. I push the stick through to keep it down and wrap the rope around the cleat. I climb back up on deck, unclip my harness and repeat the process on the other hull.
It is as I climb back into the cockpit that I see a black plastic ring on the floor. With a feeling of doom, I pick it up. M is moving toward the steering wheel.
“Wait! Don’t touch it yet!. What is this? Is it important?”
He looks at what I have in my hand and his whole body slumps. “Oh no.”
We have to take the steering wheel off again – as M continues to vomit intermittently over the side. His hands have a tremble in them as he tries to use the Allen key to undo the bolts connecting the wheel to the autopilot. I undo all the bolts. He keeps standing up to look at the stars to position himself and to take big gulps of fresh air.
I make sure all the bolts are in the right order. When I’ve got it all apart he is able to fit that stupid black ring where it is supposed to go. We carefully check that everything is where it should be. This involves M testing the tension of the autopilot handle and whether it’s moving freely. Once that is done, the screw holes have to be aligned – but it’s too much and he’s heaving over the side again.
I do it. I often can’t tell what needs to be done in relation to angles of the wind and the optimal position of the sails, but I can take things apart and put them back together again. So I put it all back together again.
Placing the steering wheel plus the attached autopilot back in position is a two person job. Poor M. Being seasick is awful, but it’s even worse when you’ve thrown up and the nausea doesn’t stop. He takes a few breaks as we try and align the bolts. We finally get it all back together…again.
AutoPie is working. We couldn’t bear to pull up the rudders again before we did the second dismantling and so now, the marker on the steering wheel that tells us we’re going straight ahead, is wrong – we sidestep the issue by marking the ‘new middle’ with some electrical tape. It will do for now.
M hits the couch. I stay on watch until it starts to get light. The autopilot is working fine but there is an awful cracking noise coming from it every so often – it’s either the new belt slipping, or something more sinister. We don’t care – it’s getting us there.
I pass out at about 5am and M somehow pulls down the second jib. We sail onward – no mainsail. I’m up again at 8.30am – the Smalls, quite composed and oblivious of our nighttime hassles, gaze into their magic rectangles iPads XX. Thank god for the already made breakfast jelly.
The cracking noise continues intermittently and it’s AWFUL to hear; M and I hand steer for chunks of time purely to avoid it. By about 10am or so I can see a smudging of the horizon. IT IS LAAAAAAAAND!!!The best bit happens at about 1pm as we slide into Jamiesons Bay on Cape Barren Island. There’s one cray boat anchored there. The swell stops, the sea flattens. We motor in close to the shore and drop the anchor. Back in Tasmania. Sweet relief.
Jervis Bay, New South Wales to Cape Barren Island, Tasmania = 48hours