Four in 24

Hugh at the wheel of Longway on a daysail outing in Bateman's Bay

It seemed like a good idea at the time.  But four in 24.  If we’d only known before.  It all started out well enough. Trevor, Duncan and skipper Hugh easing into the sun, sea, and a bit of breeze.  A leisurely sail in Hugh’s Citation 34, Longway, only a short way, from Bateman’s Bay south to Moruya.  An overnight, a bit of a bite, then down to Montague Island – southerlies forecast to swing in and a reach or run back.  Good.

First stop en route was Broulee Bay. A 15 knot northerly was driving us down so we anchored off Tomakin town in the northern part of the bay to enjoy the sun and a bit of lunch.  We even got the brand new inflatable out to go ashore and swim with the locals.  All good.  Next stop Moruya.

The Moruya bar.  Well, there’s always a bar isn’t there.  It looked harmless enough, and it was on this occasion, although you could see it had another side.  We pushed on up the river to towards Moruya town itself.  Things were going surprisingly well, but we were on alert.  The river, once you’re in it, twists and turns with shallows and mudflats until you feel like you’re swinging to an African beat (this is worth remembering). But it was daylight, we were under power, little tidal flow: it was all go.  The plan was to get up to the Moruya bridge by late afternoon, scoot ashore, shower, a few deserved fine drinks, dinner and a glorious quiet night on board. You couldn’t ask for more.

The skipper doesn’t believe in omens, but he also like to think of himself as a sensitive individual.  We were barely anchored, when a powerboat was gouging towards us.  In addition to being sensitive, the skipper is also very cynical and is inclined to the dramatic: it’s got to be pirates, NSW Maritime (or are they the same?) or some other disaster planned especially for Longway.  Well, yes and no.  Of course, it was just a local who was well, oddly insistent that he could show us the town, collect us from the boat, crack a few beers (ours?) etc, etc.  Maybe he was just a friendly guy, or maybe he was the local axe murderer (they have to live somewhere).  Anyway, we said thanks, but no: we might look like we’d just crossed the world’s oceans but we’re actually from 20 minutes up the highway.  “Oh”.

But now we were motivated to make our own pleasures.  “Get the inflatable out”.  Panting, puffing, huffing, gruffing.  After a while of this, some insensitive crew member was then heard to say: “hey, where’s that guy with the powerboat?”   but we were committed now.  Three notional adults then got into the tender, and it was, very tender.  Duncan got his fresh set of dry clothes just a bit wet.  We laughed, but soon had cause to regret.  Just as we set out, it gusted up, chopped up, and we all ended up, being repeatedly splashed.  So, we were now wet, cold, hungry, dirty and grumpy: and no more dry clothes.  Plus, we were all a bit on the nose.

But, we had a cure.  A swim in the local pool, a following hot shower, and a very fine, boozy dinner at a local restaurant overlooking the river (by which time our clothes would be dry, or we would no longer be in any condition to notice).  The trip back to the yacht should have been fraught but wasn’t.  However, we did have an early start to voyage south to Montague Island.  High tide at the bar, no the other one, was just after sunrise, and the trip back down the river, ummm, maybe 30 minutes, but perhaps before first light.

Mornings are funny things.  Clocks actually run faster in the morning because they’re as shocked as you are at being up at this time, particularly when it’s still dark.  It slowly dawns on you that time is running out, like the tide, and you need to be somewhere else before it does: across the bar.  Yes.  It is still pitch dark and no, there aren’t any lit channel markers.  Brave, foolish, hung-over.  All of the above.  We’re off.

It’s got the lot really: it’s black, moonless, misty, cold, mudflats, rocks, sandbars, oyster leases – everything that you could see during daylight, when you were swinging to that African rhythm.  But memory is now even less reliable than it might have been after that dinner and its seemingly innocent pleasures.

However, we were doing well, and there was a glorious newness and mystery to it.  We were going a bit quick, perhaps, but did we want to attempt the bar on a falling tide.  Not when it often breaks so much that you have to dodge the board riders.  “Hurry up, will you”.

“Oh oh”.  That sudden sense of quickly slowing to a stop.  This was not wholly unexpected.  Well it was basically pitch black, the bloody river was more of an itinerant creek, there were no lit lateral marks, and we were trying to slowly race towards high tide at the bar.  I was surprised we’d got this far.  So it was full reverse, bit of a 180 degree port turn and head towards what could be trees on what might be the farther bank.  A close thing, we laid an all too temporary mark in the shifting sands of the riverbed and were making for the bar,” Yeehah.  It’s not that far now”, cried the exultant skipper at his close escape.

Time was still doing its speed thing, but so was daylight.  We now had a sense of where we were.  And it was almost the entrance to the breakwater, the bar, Montague Island in prospect, and northerlies with a promised late southerly change to bring us back to Broulee Island and serious celebrations for a voyage well done.  The lateral marks were now in view. Phew.  And then, there’s that now familiar feeling again: an unintended slowing, a growing sense of…..  “But I’m in the channel” the skipper yells at no one in particular.  More reverse gear.  Much engine revving, swearing, looking perplexed.  Vexed.

We were not moving.  The bar.  “It’s just there.” the skipper says.  “Quick.  Hail a passing powerboat to pull us off”.   Where are they when you need one?  “Bugger it.  We’ll have to kedge off”.   The inflatable.  Deploy it.  Now this is not a quick thing.  Unpack, find oars, kedge, inflate (again).  Over the side, lower anchor, rope, try to row on toy plastic oars.  The tide of course is now starting to run, if not rush out, so rowing is more than usually challenging.  We have an in transit meeting by yelling between the oarsman and the yacht to decide where to drop the kedge.  “Where is the nearest part of the channel?”  “Port”. “Starboard”.  “No, back a bit”.  “No, I think it’s over there”. “Where it’s greener” “Where?”  “There. You dingbat”.  This isn’t fun, but it’s finally done; while, of course nearly losing the oarsman, and his temper, with the kedge.  So foreseeable.

This is now critical. If we can’t kedge off now, we have 12 hours to discover what other disasters are as yet unrevealed.  “Right.  Reverse”, calls the skipper.  “Hang off that boom Trevor. You had a big steak last night.  Put some weight into it”.  “Duncan.  Winch us off.”

Now.  When you’re in a bit of a rush to cross a treacherous bar, into a northeaster with a northeasterly swell in which boarder-riders are getting barrels, you’re inclined to throw yourself into the winching business.  This meant that the anchor, lonely as it was, resting contemplatively on the seabed, just wanted to come home.  “Quick.  Lay it again, someone”  calls the skipper.

Duncan takes up the challenge and struggles into the inflatable.  Less shouting now.  A sort of resigned desperation ensues.   Duncan re-lays the kedge with a new angle of pull, but hope is dropping, like the tide.  The anchor does hold, but so does the boat.  Montague Island and fair winds are now a fading dream.  But, of course, it’s not over.  Will we, in fact, go over?  What’s the drying height of this particular sand bank?  There’s nothing to do at this late stage but gently heel the boat to present the yacht’s high side to the next incoming tide (Yes, 12 hours away).

And there’s not long to wait to see our fate.  Fortunately, (and unfortunately) the keel has made its own little gully in the sand and the tide has left us sitting with about 3 feet of water around the hull.

There is a point where struggle becomes unhelpful.  We decided that we had never really wanted to round Montague Island and that a leisurely relax on a now listing waterfront beach property was a fairly pleasant way to spend the day.  Breakfast was prepared (since we now had at least 12 hours in which to eat it) and the coffee brewed.  The sun had risen and the tide had dropped.  Soon we were having a leisurely swim around the boat and a bit of a hull inspection.  And yes, all too late of course, powerboats and dinghies now speed by, and waved.  I hate that.  We soon stopped waving back, or even calling out.  Especially after one local observed: “mate. You don’t want to follow the leads.  You’ve got to hug the breakwater wall”.  Timely advice that.

Yes, it was all academic now.  Time moved, slowly, just for a change.  We mused, speculated, solved the world’s problems, discovered the meaning of life, several times, planned the big escape and generally tried to make the best of it.  The only real sour note was inspired by an unnecessarily precise observation by an unnamed member of the crew: “well, that’s a record – two groundings in two hours”.  Prophetic words those.

Eventually the tide did come back.  The moment had arrived.  And we had cunningly noted (during low water) just where we had gone wrong.  Oh, so close.  So, of course we re-laid the kedge again (well, we each had to have a turn).  Then the plan: we calculated to have the incoming tide aid us in kedging-off, hoist and sheet-in the sails to provide heel and motion, dangle off the boom (again) and winch with cunning.  The waiting.

Duncan, with the finesse of a pianist, eased on the kedge, edging the warp round the winch, sensing the pull, backing-off, drawing, not overstraining the flukes, the bite, which might pull free.    Trevor and I dangled, angled off the boom.  Feelings of fear, foreboding of gloom.  The sails began to fill, we heeled, twisted, wheeled.  But the boat had dug a gutter and the keel was held hand in glove.  Still, there was a bit more rise in the tide, but it would soon turn and so would we, into something unthinkable if we had to spend anymore time here.

But Duncan was communing with the cord.  He had turned his head and appeared to have his eyes shut as his hands caressed the line, feeling each slackening and winding it home.  The movement was so slight, the fear of dislodging the anchor so great that an almost reverential silence descended.  The wind, the water, the winch: inch by precious inch.  Then free.

“Quick, quick.  Engine on. Haul those sails”.  It was a close thing.  We got off at the very last and made for the bar and deep water.  The wind had come in as expected (it would have been a beautiful run round Montague), so we now had a southerly to take us back.  Oddly, we were now pretty pleased with ourselves.  Problems yes, but we solved them.  We learnt a few things and didn’t attack one another with blunt instruments, verbal or actual.

The skipper is feeling a bit like a master of the universe: “what about a nice fast run to Broulee Island, overnight there and back to Bateman’s Bay on the morrow”?  “Mate, there’s food, wine.  We’ll be fine”.

Now, once you’ve made a mistake, you can tend to overcompensate.  So, after a screamer of a reach back to Broulee, we were coming on towards dusk and began looking for a snug anchorage in the lee of the island.  The tide was now on the fall, but we’d all been here before and knew what was in store.  Still, recent experience was instructive.  We held a board meeting and finally dropped the anchor.  The skipper now felt compelled to once more justify the outrageous cost of the inflatable.  So up it went again and the skipper went ashore.  Meanwhile, Duncan declared he would do dinner – his renowned gourmet pasta extravaganza.  Things were looking up.

On the skipper’s return the meal was on the go, but the chef was looking stressed.  So too was the pasta.  It was a one-pot sort of thing which either got mixed together too early, or too late, or shouldn’t have come together at all.  Still, whatever it was, or had been, Duncan assured us that whatever was in there now had recently been recognizable food – even if it wasn’t anymore, neatly observing: “so, we can eat it without dying.”  “Well, that’s comforting”.

We ate it, or we nearly did.  Actually, we mostly drank the wine that came with it.  But this pleasure was irritatingly interrupted by Duncan’s increasingly loud and anxious tapping of his foot while we bravely tried to down the gourmet feast.  The food may have been loosening our entrails, but the wine was loosening our tongues: “Duncan, will you stop that bloody banging?” demanded Trevor.

“That’s not me.” says Duncan.  A sudden realization.  “Quick.  Get that anchor up.” calls the skipper.   Yes, the seabed was trying to grab us again.  Time once more seemed to go too fast, while we were manually pulling in the anchor, which, of course, was lying towards the shore.  This was not an easy thing.  It was all rather inevitable.  By the time the anchor was in, it was too late to reverse out under power.

We were stuck again.  But the circumstances were less promising.  Night was now coming in, the tide was going out.  But how far?  Was the seabed sand or rock?  Would we be on our beam ends in the middle of the night, getting a sloshing down below?  Probably not, but darkness does make you anxious.

No one was brave enough to comment that this was grounding number three.  However, the crew was holding up well.  There was still plenty of wine and we were not expecting a cyclone.  The skipper was, not surprisingly, somewhat downcast (plus anxious about the boat beating its brains out on the sea floor).   Still, as Trevor commented: “at least it gave us a good excuse to throw Duncan’s pasta over the side.”

There wasn’t much to do but worry and wait for the low tide, to assess all consequences and listen to the increasingly loud and jarring bangs as the keel rose enough on each small swell to be able to slam itself back onto the seabed.  Eventually, we just sat in the low tide on the keel, while periodically rising (and falling) enough to jar the whole boat.  Sleep did not come easily, if at all.

At some point the tide rose, and we were gently floating.   We were shattered, but then, it was a beautiful day, the sun was up, a light breeze, clear green water, the coffee was on and no damage to the boat (egos being a separate issue). What’s to complain about?

The run home to Bateman’s Bay was a fairly leisurely affair.  The wind had backed to the east so we just sat on starboard tack all the way back.  We regaled ourselves with the events of the preceding days, including our three groundings.  The skipper did feel obliged to observe that even though not everything went to plan, there was no injury (the pasta wasn’t mentioned), damage to the boat or mutiny among the crew and we solved all our problems without outside aid.  We were practically heroes.

Our home port is in sight at last.  We speed past Black Rock, then Tollgates to starboard, finally Snapper Island to port and across the bar.  Painless.  Sam’s pizzas, garlic chili prawns and a bottle (or two) of red and all will be right with world.

The entry through the breakwater, sand bank one side, marina the other and Longway’s berth is in view – so too is a small tinny with two equally small boys who have maneuvered (or not) their vulnerable craft into the middle of the fairway.  Now, this isn’t one of those situations when you start acting parental and stern.  Avoidance is the thing.  It not being at all clear what the boys would do next seeing a big, black yacht coming their way, the skipper makes a decisive turn to port with a plan to make a wide circle around the tinny preventing any possibility of collision.  Job done.

But, strangely, we seemed to be hastening to an unplanned stop.  Duncan could not contain himself: “four in 24. That’s got to be a record”.  Unfortunately, the skipper thinks it is.

(First published in Australian Yachting, December 2007)