Careful what you wish for

Galaxy III set off Lord Howe Island on Monday 20th June with three on board; Chris Canty, Ben Canty and David James.  A sequel to the dream run to Lord Howe Island in March/April, this trip was planned around Ben’s semester break from marine science studies at University of Tasmania, Launceston.  A keen surfer, fisherman and photographer, Ben was excited to be visiting the marine wonders of Lord Howe Island.

While we wanted to test ourselves in more challenging conditions, we had to experience the difference between hypothetical and practical to understand what “challenging” can mean.

Departure was planned to be in the lee of an east coast low, which had threatened to repeat the destructive storms from an earlier east coast low in June.  We thought we might need delay departure for a day or two for the wind to ease.  It turned out the weather pattern was less intense than forecast and we headed out early Monday morning.

Time for some better wet weather gear

The auto helm developed a fault as we motored through Sydney Harbour – thinking it was adjustment or configuration setting that resulted in drifting off course after 30 sec or so, we continued, reasoning that we could sort it out on route.

Having some form with first day seasickness, I found reading Raymarine technical manuals is a sure fire catalyst for headaches and nausea, so I preferred to stay in the cockpit than go below to study.  While we eventually did recommission the system and re swing the fluxgate compass, it was to no avail and the three of us helmed for almost three days until we covered the 420nm to Lord Howe Island.

The winds were a comfortable 20kts downwind for the first day and as evening fell, the wind and swell began to build from the west.   We prepared for a rough night with a second front coming through, bringing the mainsail down and furling in the headsail to a very small jib.  With very little sail, Galaxy III was pushing hull speed of 6-7 knots and up to 9 knots with gusts and swell.

With three on board and the need for two on watch, we settled on a 6 hour cycle of 4hrs on watch with 2hrs rest.  So while 4 x 2 hr sleeps equals 8 hours, in practice it feels a lot less.

Keeping an S&S39 on a sort of straight course downwind in a force 9 -10 winds (34-47kts), was indeed a physical and mental challenge for all of us.   The swells looked to be at least half way up the mast (about 8m) and the breaking caps regularly came over and through the deck, companionway and cockpit.  In addition, the wind was foaming the surface of flat water.  In hindsight, I regret not getting any photos or videos of this and at the time it was beyond even considering.

While the wind did ease somewhat, it remained around force 7 (26-33kts) for the remainder of the passage.  We poled out the headsail on the 3rd day and pushed Galaxy III over 10kts on some swells.  After a three day ‘bobsleigh’ we arrived at Lord Howe Island around 11pm on Wednesday and with the lagoon windward, we anchored for the night on the lee of the island.

With seasickness, lack of sleep, the physical effort required and a wet boat, we were grateful to arrive, albeit a few kilos lighter with pre prepared meals and beer supplies untouched.  Galaxy III took it in her stride, with everything in tact apart from a block on a preventer line after one too many accidental gybes.

Next morning we motored around to the lagoon, to come in on the high tide and secure Galaxy III to her mooring.    We organise ourselves, inflate the dinghy and SUP to go ashore and look forward to a few days enjoying and exploring what the island has to offer.  The island is spectacular to see and colour and clarity of the water is still amazing in winter. Winter had set in with wind and or rain most days we were there, limiting the options for fishing and surfing.  The three of us became regulars at Earls Anchorage for morning coffee and afternoon beers.

The lagoon also had some challenges in store for us, with strong winds and currents resulting in the dinghy flipping over during the night and dunking the outboard motor.  Not once, but twice.  Making a mistake is OK, making the same mistake twice, not so much.   We became proficient at drying the motor & electrics to get it going again.

We were keen to fix the autopilot for the return passage and after contacting Raymarine technical support from the island, Dave & I tested the components with a multimeter and it seems the rudder sensor is the culprit.  To be sure, I order both on line for overnight delivery, thinking that even if it takes a few days, we would get the parts before we leave.  The airport manager almost collapsed in mirth at my expectation and he was right – we left on our return passage a day after we planned, the same way we arrived.

The wind was easing as we left on Wednesday afternoon and Thursday we motor sailed.  We got OK at balancing the sails and rudder with shock chord on the wheel.  So far, so good. We continued westward as the wind began to build again from the north west.  The wind built through the night with thunderstorms under patches of cloud.  The plan was to head south and reach across to Sydney when the wind turned south around midday on Friday.  Except the wind was SW and we got hammered following our plan. Dave had suggested we head for the coast, even if we landed at Port Macquarie and then head south – he now has instructions to use much more force when making suggestions.

By Friday evening we were physically and mentally fatigued, partly assisted by the realisation there was no way we were going to make it back to Sydney on Saturday.  So I decided to stop the boat for the night and regroup in the morning. We brought the sails in and deployed a sea anchor – the webbing broke almost immediately.  I thought the webbing looked light relative to size of the sea anchor and rationalised it must be designed to take the load of around half a tonne of water and a 8 tonne boat.  Not so.

So we hove to with no sail out and got some reprieve from the angry sea. It was relatively comfortable apart from waves periodically crashing into the boat – the noise and force felt like a collision with a wall at speed. We drifted NE at 2-3 knots and in hindsight a small amount of headsail might have pointed us more westward.

Saturday we head NW hoping we can make Newcastle.  Morale lifted as the glow of lights on the horizon grew brighter through the night and we made landfall north of Seal Rocks on Sunday morning. We arrived at Nelson Bay mid-afternoon, after debating how much more comfortable a modern boat would have been.  Galaxy III may not be the most comfortable or driest boat on the water, though it always felt robust & safe.   Dave and Ben left the boat at Port Stephens with commitments to get to on Monday.   Cruising and fixed time windows can be an incompatible mix.

While somewhat shattered after the experience, it was surprising how quickly I recovered on a balmy Sunday afternoon in Nelson Bay and by Monday morning I was ready to go again.  After making some minor rigging repairs, I set off south in light NW winds.  The whales were breaching at the entrance to Nelson Bay, almost like a choreographed show for the tourist boats.

Handling the boat in light winds and seas was fun and easy after the previous 5 days, so I continued on to Pittwater, arriving around midnight and after a sleep, made the 1115 Spit Bridge next morning.

The challenge was more than we bargained for and the lessons learned in rough seas were well worth it – well, the memory is much better than the experience at the time.

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