Longway To Ulladulla

Skipper Hugh (left) and crewman Duncan in an untroubled moment

Skipper Hugh (left) and crewman Duncan in an untroubled moment

We were ready.  A long weekend.   Food, wine, a load of fuel all securely stowed on Longway and a fairly long day-sail to Jervis Bay – the south coast’s natural wonderland.  A brief explore, then, all too soon, an early Sunday return to Bateman’s Bay.

We’d tool up there, even if the winds were leaning into the north.  Sally forth.  It’s only a bit of weather.

The crew: Duncan, Barry and Charlie assembled to let go the lines.  “Cast off, lads.”  Confidently, skipper Hugh put the engine into reverse.  But strangely, not much seems to happen.  “I’ll just give that another go.”  “Bugger.   Belay those lines”.  Now, reverse is one of those aspects of a yacht to which you never give too much attention, unless you need to use it.  It was fortunate then that Barry was on board.  He is very good with mechanical things, and we now looked to him.  Barry also knew that this was his moment, but he looked a bit downcast.  Well, weren’t we all?  We’d stopped before we’d started.  But, he does tend to feel that whenever he is on Longway, he is always fixing something.  We, of course, think that things only need fixing because Barry is on the boat.

Anyway, Barry dumps the sea-going apparel and descends to the entrails to read the residue of the mechanical menace.  Pushing.  Banging.  Thumping.  Swearing.  “It’s the nut not binding the pull-brace on the reverse hemispherical rod-end which is not traversing the lever-arm.”  Pause. “Sorry?”  “It’s buggered.”  “Can you fix it?”  “Yes,” a rather resigned voice responds.

Barry works the usual miracle.  “How does he do that?”

Time has passed.  The weather has now decided to buck-up a bit.  The formerly sunny morning is clouding over and the wind is building.  Nothing to bother the hardy, who have just tamed the under-deck dinosaur.

We’re off.  Now, Barry is already at a disadvantage.  The six foot two of him has been twisted into the engine bay access, sucking-up the miasma (diesel fumes, oil, grease, bilge, general slosh) while doing the aforementioned miracle-working.   Unfortunately, he appears unable to exercise supernatural powers on himself, and almost immediately we cross the bar and encounter any sea-motion, he makes his own motion to leeward and an unequivocal statement.

Duncan has no such excuses.  Before we’ve even passed Tollgates (the islands at the entry to the bay), he confesses to feeling that a gangrenous rabbit wants to exit his main speaking tube.  The usual pointless discussion follows about seasickness cures: stare at the horizon, take drugs, get busy with unnecessary tasks and have a positive attitude.  Oh dear.

Charlie has been lying to himself (and us).  He can now no longer hide the fact that he has turned white and has stopped talking.  We assume that this is because if he opens his mouth his own gangrenous rabbit will hop, if not erupt out.  But nothing can keep that which is within, without satisfaction.  Duncan, Barry and Charlie alternately vie for personal bests.  Needless to say, they are quickly relieved of all they have and are reduced to convulsive, empty, heaving roars.

This is all a bit taxing on the crew.  The skipper Hugh is both sympathetic and stead-fastly cheery (well, he’s not sea-sick).  He also feels a responsibility to keep his own spirits up while trying to buoy the boys: a selfless effort not always enthusiastically received.  Still, seasickness notwithstanding, the lads are stoic.  No one is backing out.  The jelly belly will pass, surely.

While we have been indulging our fragility, we have progressed (although that may not be the right word) and we’re now sort of, “punching north” through mounting seas.  The wind is now a northeaster (funny, that’s the direction we’re going) and building.  We also have an opposing southeasterly swell which is increasingly making things lumpy.  The decision is made to reef.  Barry (although prepared to muck in) is so not up for this, so Duncan and Charlie go forward.  It’s now a bit wet up there, and reminiscent of those bucking bronco rides you’ve seen on television.  The for’ard team seems to be a bit confused: trying to vomit, not vomit, yell to each other, not fall overboard, hold on and actually reef the sail.  The skipper decides to use the loud-hailer voice and direct proceedings from the cockpit.  This gets things done, but it hasn’t been much fun.  Duncan and Charlie sort of bounce/bang their way back to the cockpit.  We now are no longer filling our sea boots with green sea, but we’re not covering much distance over the ground either; especially when on port tack when we’re heading only marginally north of New Zealand and on starboard, more towards Canberra than Ulladulla.  Still it is only a matter of (slow) time.

It soon becomes apparent that the wind, like the sea, is rising further.  Nothing Longway can’t handle (built like a brick shithouse) but the crew are somewhat in decline.  There are now three soggy clumps of clothing in the cockpit.  It’s probably the crew, but the passivity prevents positive identification.  Still, we now need to furl the headsail.  This shouldn’t be too difficult.  Barry rises to the call.  Good lad.  “Hold some tension on the sheet and heave on the furling line while I luff-up, then haul in,” instructs the skipper.  In the current sea-state this is really a two-handed job, but Barry is into it, his tenacity seems oddly restored (the longing for land perhaps).  The skipper luffs-up slightly to ease the pressure on the sail.  However, not much progress is being made.  In fact, the sheets have immediately turned into bull whips and whack Barry in the head for his trouble.   “Mate, you’ve got to tension the sheet and pull on the furling line, at the same time”.  Duncan, alerted by Barry’s loud and imaginative use of profanities, is now wide-eyed and willing.  He puts the furling line round the winch and starts to grind with full body force.  This captures the skipper’s attention who fears that the thin line will explode or the furler will leave the foredeck: “Stop winching! It’s stuck.”  Hugh calls.  Barry, with more determination that sense, now decides to go forward to see what the problem is.  He must have been comatose when Duncan and Charlie tried this.  The skipper briefly wonders if he should wave goodbye.

We watch Barry, nearly prone, squirm his way forward, periodically involuntarily levitating from the deck and are rather diverted, and somewhat anxious.  Finally he grabs the pulpit, struggles to his feet and apparently tries to cartwheel over the bow.  Is he trying to escape?  On his fortunate return to the foredeck, Barry takes the situation seriously and locates the problem.  The headsail is wrapping on the spinnaker halyard which has unfortunately been secured in just the wrong place on the pulpit.  Barry now performs a second miracle and walks on water, largely because it is completely covering the deck.  But he does manage to release the halyard and secure it at the mast.  He is welcomed back to the cockpit like the prodigal son.  The furler is duly furled.

The motion starts to settled with reduced sail, but we are now only making about 1 knot over the ground.  We have been at sea since 0730 hours.  It is 1700 hours and Ulladulla (25 nautical miles from Bateman’s Bay) is still ahead of us.  Jervis Bay?  Perhaps another day.  The skipper calls Coastal Patrol Ulladulla to advise a revised ETA of 1930hrs not 1800.  The skipper is being optimistic for reasons that are unexplainable.  We decide that progress is required before mutiny, death or more of Nature’s mayhem ensues.  “Let’s get that iron sail going and head straight for Ulladulla,” suggests Barry.  It seems like a good idea.  The need to go via New Zealand has lost what attraction it had (if any).  “We’ll need to pull the main down or it will flog itself to bits,” says the skipper.  No one says anything.  The skipper recognizes that it’s pretty well all over for the crew.  Duncan takes the helm and the skipper leaves the cocoon of chaos to enter the foredeck of frenzy.  This should not be that hard: hold on, work with the rhythm, release the halyard, haul down, re-tension.  Going well.  Unfortunately, there is always that moment when, however briefly, you have to let go the hand on the boat for just a micro second.  Nature somehow can foresee this, and sends a single swell to strike at just that instant, so that whatever is in your hand is released, as you automatically try to grab something (anything) to stop yourself going over the side.

It’s the neatness thing.  If only the skipper had just left the halyard attached to the main, it could have been tied up and tensioned.  No problem.  But releasing the shackle was just asking for trouble.  The halyard had discovered its freedom.  It had joined the now near-storm-force winds and was heading south, but oh so temporarily.  At full stretch the halyard was whipped back across the deck with the penetrating power of a ballistic missile looking for soft tissue.  There was a selection of that about.  The skipper had several options, none good.  After the first fear inducing sweep at speed across the cockpit, the decision was clear: hoist the halyard to the masthead.  However, action always just lags that little bit behind decision.  But it was enough.  The halyard sensed this, and set its sights on Duncan who, strangely at this dramatic time, was urinating over the pushpit, while swinging from the backstay.   This proved to be oddly fortunate.  The halyard, whistling and wailing like the undead, struck at Duncan whose hands had a precarious purchase.  He staggered (possibly disgraced himself) while the halyard, momentarily distracted, wrapped itself around the backstay.  Hurray.  Duncan grabbed it, and other loose appendages, and saved the moment.

We were now very wet, bruised, exhausted, 75% sickbay contenders and night was looking increasingly likely.  However, the boat was all secured and the engine was running, but we were not exactly hooning along.  In fact, our speed had dropped to about ½ a knot over the ground, and the motion was, as you might expect, even worse.  Full throttle also seemed to produce a brown, bubbly scum on the water, which instilled its own level of anxiety.  Would we soon need another miracle (probably had more than our share by now)?  Anyway, we were at least pointing at our new destination.

We debated raising the sails again, but it was really a choice between Ulladulla via the Land of the Long White Cloud or bludgeoning our way northwards.  Being now familiar with being brutalized, we choose the latter.

We could see Warden Head (but knew we soon would not) and between us, it and Ulladulla Harbour was Sullivan’s Reef which also extended off Warden’s eastern edge.  This demanded both another call to Coastal Patrol with another revised ETA and, importantly, some seriously chart work to plot our course before nightfall so we could safely steer by compass (no, not chartplotter) and clear the headland and the reef, over which breaking seas were worryingly visible.

No one had been down below since very early in the morning: no one being particularly hungry and it not seeming like all that good an idea under the circumstances.  But now skipper Hugh was obliged to enter the cave of despair, read the chart’s fine print and plot (variation, deviation, true to magnetic) a course to steer.  Oh dear.  The initial shock of the chaotic state of the saloon was promptly expunged by the noisome smell of diesel.  This was not good.  However, wherever the leak was, it wasn’t of destructive proportions.  The bilge was surprisingly clear, so we weren’t going to sink, immediately run out of fuel or blow up.  However, the cabin was toxic.  The skipper reflected for a nano second on the relative merits of staying below and being poisoned or alternatively steering Longway onto the reef in the dark.  Diesel poisoning seemed strangely appealing.  The job was finally done, and the skipper, well, undone.  Emerging from the cabin at speed, he was compelled to make a significant contribution to the mean sea level by releasing some of his own internal stores.  We had achieved a 100% success rate, although no one was celebrating.  In fact, Barry had now draped himself on the dodger (a bit like a foo cartoon) with his head on his folded arms staring beseechingly at the recently illuminated Warden Head lighthouse.

A call to Coastal Patrol finally raised what sounded like a very distant female voice: probably on a portable radio set, warm and dry at home we thought, standing on something that wasn’t trying to throw her off.  Still, she duly noted our revised ETA (2100hrs), provided some advice on mooring (if we ever got there) and said that she would continue to monitor the radio.  It was a comfort.

Night was now with us.  Strangely this was something of a relief.  Not being able to see too much of Nature’s capability, cunning and life-threatening whimsy, made it seem like there was less to worry about.   Fortunately (or not) Ulladulla and its lighthouse was still so far off that the threatening reefs weren’t a concern.  Well, not just yet.

Now that everyone was seasick, time became decidedly glacial, a bit like our progress.  Several more calls to Coastal Patrol ensued with the ETA slipping ever later.  The radio contact remained entirely positive and professional, but we couldn’t help but feel that they were a bit worried about us.  Finally, when advised that our ETA was about 2230hrs, Coastal Patrol suggested a tow.  Nice of them, but we weren’t in any real bother – just slow, sick, tired, wet, the usuals.  Well, we were sailing after all.  Still, the offer of a warm shower on arrival provided that spark that ignited the will to live.

At long last we did arrive, only to find people calmly fishing off the wharf and life going on surprisingly normally.  Given that we had just been struggling with untold perils and the unknowable forces of Nature, this seemed rather insensitive.

However, we were very focused.  Getting off the boat and onto solid ground had become an almost primal urge.  So much so that there might have been some near mutinous mutterings about not even bothering to tie the boat up.  Just get off and run.  However, it is surprising how quickly you forget.  Once ashore, we recovered our accustomed jauntiness and descended on Coastal Patrol for the much desired shower.  We also discovered that Coastal Patrol was something of a one-stop shop, and in the morning our dedicated Coastal Patrol volunteer would be downstairs running the café and serving bacon and eggs rolls for breakfast.  Unbelievably, we all now felt the need for food, and promptly walked up the hill for pizza (although Barry didn’t seem to have quite his usual appetite).   Duncan, Charlie and the skipper rallied however, and also managed to damage some wine into the bargain.

ullladulla

Peaceful Ulladulla

The morning revealed Barry, with Duncan, digging into the lazarette and pulling out numerous diesel-soaked sails, ropes, anchors and assorted bits and pieces.  Ugly.  Yet another fix followed with the offending split fuels lines being replaced.  With crew and boat now fully recovered, we passed the afternoon lolling about under the boom tent, drinking beer and watching fishermen tangle their lines.  We were beginning to feel a bit like masters of the universe, and when an easily-60 foot production money-bucket showed up, we handed the lines and gained ourselves an invite to afternoon drinks.  Things were now really looking up.

Longway is a canoe stern, narrow sort of boat, not that beamy, very traditional.  So, crossing the expanse of deck on our host’s gleaming aircraft carrier was a distracting experience which was only further emphasized by descending the stairs (so much more than a companionway) into a lounge/dining space with a walk-in kitchen (no mere galley) with pantry.  We sat in leather sofas that were so far apart it was taxing to pass the brie and antipasto.  The champagne proved less challenging, being lighter, and us more familiar with similar beverages.  This was then followed by fresh lobster (several).  Had we actually died at sea and gone to Heaven?  The navigation station appeared to have various exotic computer screens built into the walls (could you really call them bulkheads?).  While for’ard and aft, unknowable numbers of staterooms disported. Now, anyone is going to feel in this situation that a bit of best behaviour is in order and no small curiosity.  So, following general good humoured banter about Longway’s long way to Ulladulla, the skipper sought to exercise his curiosity but not to great effect.  While our host was keen to regale us with recent tales of prowess in crossing from New Zealand (a land we almost visited) and diving for lobsters (ours, now eaten) in special unknown locations, there seemed an increasing air of unreality.  It wasn’t just that they looked like they had never seen bad weather, ever, or that there was only two of them on this liner, but the hostess seemed to have her fingers almost fully occupied with expensive, fat rings and our host had a definite limit to his effusiveness.  The skipper discovered this only when he sought to show polite interest in our host’s background: “Are you both escapees from the big city, like us, then?”  “Oh, no.  Not us.  More lobster?”  A polite interlude of fluff conversation about food, boats, sailing followed.   Then, the skipper: “I often wish I’d gone into private business instead of the public service, and I might’ve acquired a dream boat like this”.  “Ha, ha,” our host replied.  Now, call me naïve, but two good conversational gambits encouraging a bit of disclosure were politely ignored.  It’s not the Spanish Inquisition, but you would think…

Further fleeting inquisitorial forays followed, but they were casually parried and we resigned ourselves to wolfing lobster and champagne. Yes. It was a pleasant distraction, if not a somewhat unsatisfying social gathering.  And we did still wonder: “Who are these people, where did they come from?  Why are we eating their expensive provisions?”  This may seem ungrateful, but well, unresolved curiosity is disturbing thing.

A partial explanation did perhaps present itself next morning.  We awoke to find the police on their boat.  Now, the conversation, from what we could see, was amicable enough.  No one had a gun out, no men dressed in black with baseball caps, mouth-mikes and night goggles were hiding behind bollards ready to pounce yelling indecipherable instructions.  There was no strange flotsam or jetsam in tightly packed plastic bags floating away from their boat.  Still, it did give one pause for thought.

Eventually, the police left.  This was a bit disappointing, since, rather childishly, we were sort of hoping (obviously unkindly, given our previous indulgences) that they would be dragged away screaming and cursing and declaring their innocence.  All that actually happened was that they didn’t wave, went below and were not further sighted before our departure.  Nevertheless, we felt that we had briefly supped with the devil: international drug dealers using us as cover to maintain a maritime fiction.  And oddly, I don’t remember their names.  In fact, I don’t even remember knowing their names.

Curiosity and time eventually ran out.  We set sail the next morning for Bateman’s Bay.  We’d come a short way in Longway and taken a long time.  Yes, we’d set another record: 15 hours to Ulladulla from Bateman’s Bay.  No one from the Bay would break that record in a hurry.   And, of course, no one would want to.  Jervis Bay?  Well, that’s for another day, or two, or possibly three.  We’ll see.

 (First published in Australian Yachting, October 2007)