As you might expect, getting to the finish was a mighty relief. Especially for those still to remove the cork! First night in Hobart was one big piss-up. And why not, we deserved it. Can't remember too much about the evening. Jugs of rum, scallop pies and staggering down the dock (after five days at sea you walk like you are pissed anyway). I seem to remember stepping over Andy in the middle of the night. He never quite made it to the cabin and lay face down on a sail bag as if a passing seagull had dropped him off after deciding he was too big to swallow. I don't know how he resurrected himself for his early morning flight. All that was left to say he'd been there was a flattened spinnaker, some loose change and his Alice band. Eye witness reports had him barging through airport check-in shouting 'Hobart hero coming through'.. only he could get away with it.
We kicked our heels for a few days in Hobart. New year was good and so was the food and drink festival. After feeling like I would never go to sea again at several times on the way down, I was itching to get back on the water. Chris Townsend, the new skipper for the delivery back to Sydney, had arrived. There was just Jim and I from the trip down and Alistair, Chris' mate for the trip back. Bit short handed really. Then providence stepped in and provided us with Jean-Michelle, Etienne and Jo-Annie. Three French-Canadian backpackers looking to hitch a ride to Sydney. They had never sailed before but the extra pair of hands would be more than welcome. I was only one page ahead of them in the sailing experience book anyway.
The weather for the return trip wasn't looking quite so friendly as the way down. We set off on Wednesday the 3rd but as we were looking to round Tasman Island at the end of Storm Bay we felt the full force of the northerly blowing at nearly forty knots. As it was getting late in the day, discretion was the better part of valour and we headed to Port Arthur for the night. At 4am we slipped out to try again. Much calmer now as we headed back to Tasman Island. The island is at the end of a long rugged peninsula, separated from the mainland by only three or four hundred yards. Chris decided to sail through the gap as he had done it before. As we got closer the two hundred metre high cliffs towered over us on both sides. It was still only an hour after dawn and the sea was a dark blue black against the slate grey cliffs. Bullets of wind battered down from the headland and whipped the surface off the water. As we pulled under Cathedral rock it was like that bit in the Lord of the Rings where they paddle through the Argonath with the stone kings looking down on them. Only this time it was the open sea with a gale blowing. We were moving with the tide until the flow met the incoming swell and made great standing waves. Water was breaking over the boat as it took all the sail and motor power we had to batter through. I think the Canadians were wondering what the hell they had signed up for. I could have guessed what it would be like as the headland had names like Hurricane Cove and Tornado Ridge.
Once through, the sea settled down a bit, although we were still beating against the wind. Progress was slow and rather than face a rough night on the water we headed for Triabunna to lay up for a bit. Boating has a habit of keeping you on your toes. Just when you relax it hits you with another problem. The entrance to Triabunna is a shallow river estuary and as we were ferrying the crew off another returning yacht, Kioni - too big to get to the jetty - we ran into the mud. It wasn't going to shift. So to tilt the keel enough to lift out of the mud we swung the boom out and got some heavy bodies on the end of it (yes that's me!). It worked but then we grounded again. This time a passing kelp fisherman gave us a tow-in after unloading all the surplus bodies (me again). No problem, I was four rounds ahead of the lighter weights by the time they got to shore.
The wind was still blowing hard from the north so we laid up until Sunday when a southerly change was forecast. We couldn't wait for the weather forever. Jim had a flight booked back to New Zealand to get back to work and my visa was due to run out in a week and also had a flight booked to NZ on the following Saturday. Chris was playing it cautious with a rookie crew and quite rightly so. But the prospect of getting a decent wind behind us and making a few good miles was too much to turn down, so we headed off again.
The barometer had been dropping rapidly as the low came through from the south. We could see great black clouds forming behind us and there was thunder in the air. The wind steadily picked up. I was off watch in the early evening, getting some kip in my Harry Potter cupboard. The HF radio was right by my head and I awoke to Chris getting the weather forecast. He didn't look that amused when I asked him how bad forty knot winds and four to six metre swell would be. I didn't get back to sleep.
Its amazing how much the sea changes when it gets a big wind driving it. It wasn't just choppy any more. The wave period had expanded so that you could fit a couple of football pitches in the valley between the peaks. The waves were breaking as the wind whipped the tops off them and blew great lines of spume. By now we were in a ten metre sea and the wind was up to fifty knots, storm force ten. There was only Chris and Jim who could steer the boat and Jim hadn't been out in a blow this big before. We had been knocked down three times by huge waves coming at us from an unexpected angle. The boat goes right over and the sails practically touch the water. Everything below falls out if its not secure. The two Canadian lads had turned green. The noise is frightening as the wind whips through the rigging and a house sized chunk of water drops on the deck. At this point Chris decided it was too dangerous to try and out-run the storm and we hove-to. Just the storm tri-sail set and the helm tied-off to balance the sail. Its an old sailing trick, but not many of the modern racers know it. The change was amazing. Instead of battling against everything we just bobbed along, side-on to the waves as they slipped underneath us. We had two on deck to watch for shipping, one hour on, two off. Everybody got some rest and was safe.
We were the lucky ones. Two other yachts put out Mayday's that night. Berrimilla, a tough yacht with several circumnavigations behind her was rolled and lost her rigging - see here for a description. Another vessel lost her steering.
At dawn the wind was beginning to die and later in the day had almost dropped altogether. The seas were still big though. I was steering for a bit until I accidentally gybed twice. Bit like scoring two own goals on the trot. It wasn't a big surprise to get substituted then. I was quite happy to spend a few hours on the bench.
Still no favourable wind so we motor-sailed the rest of the Bass Straight. When the wind did eventually pick up it was from the north and bang on the nose again so progress, still slow. We decided to stop in Ulladullah for a few hours to top up on water and food. We pulled up alongside a trawler to tie up and a wiry, weather beaten fisherman popped up, stoned off his head, and more or less told us to piss off - 'we don't want yachties here'. He changed his tune when we said we were too deep to moor by the other small boats and that we had just done the Hobart. Its like a magic word in these parts. He changed completely and gave us some bread and invited us in for a beer. This was when he revealed he was going to jail tomorrow for manslaughter for 6 years!!! We were getting a bit edgy now and it didn't help when he disappeared only to reappear with a rifle!!!!! Would you like to see my gun..... er no thanks, actually we must be going now, if that's OK. You expect to meet some colourful characters in some of these small Aussie towns, but crocodile dundee with a gun was the last thing I could have imagined. Anyway, we escaped and headed on.
No wind meant more motoring, meant another stop. Port Kembla this time for diesel. Stopping for a short while gave Jimmy the chance to cook his fish. No, not a euphemism. He had brought some fishing lures on the trip and had them trailing from the back of the boat from day one. It only took five days to catch one. A lovely silvery tuna about a foot long. He butchered it and bagged it in no time with the equivalent of a pen knife.. what a guy.
We eventually got in to Sydney Thursday night, eight days after setting off from Hobart. Ellie and Kathryn were on the dock with beer and pizza to meet us, what saints. It had been a trip and a half. The Canadians had gotten over their sea sickness after a few days and I think in the end, enjoyed the experience. I for one would be happy not to see a boat for a loooong time. Its like when your parents catch you with a cigarette and make you smoke the whole packet in one go. Talking of smoking the guys on the boat enjoyed a fag (not me!). Don't want people to get the wrong idea, what with Chris being an ex public school boy. Its a awesome thing to watch someone light a smoke in a gale with water spraying everywhere. Like Chris says, with sailing the first twenty years are the hardest. You have to serve your apprenticeship to be able to light up in those conditions. Its a wonderful paradox of the human condition that the smokers would happily poison their own bodies with tar and nicotine but still not pollute the ocean by saving their fag ends in a jar.
I can't not mention the perennial personal deprivations that happen on board. Toilet time as usual, is a complete mission. This time it was a bit better. The head had been jammed with something unmentionable, which caused all the problems on the way down. So it was performing a little better, if occasionally regurgitating its contents onto the deck. I assumed Kathryn's roll as chief lavatory attendant, in charge of the rubber gloves. Well some one had to. The three experienced lads were getting the boat home in one piece, the two Canadian lads were just about holding onto their lunch and Jo-Annie was a semi-permanent galley slave. We all have our place!!!!! At least the infamous pee bottle was dispensed with on the trip back. When it was calm enough, the back of the boat was a prime spot for the boys to do the necessary. When I asked Jim one day if the water was cold, he said it was... and deep too.
I'd like to finish by giving a big vote of thanks to Chris. His vast experience and permanently optimistic attitude got us home safe. I also need to thank Alistair and Jim who did the bulk of the helming. Thanks guys.
I'm writing this up in Christchurch, New Zealand. Just off in a camper van to explore the south island. What next? Will it be leaping off a 200 foot bridge with my ankles tied to a rubber band or a nice cup of char in a little tea room?? Its all going to be an anticlimax for a while, but I can take a bit of that......