Friday, March 13, 2020

Passage to the Mainland

[Kyle]Oh, it was tough to leave Lord Howe. Unfortunately, they have a two week limit. Even more unfortunately, Cyclone Gretel was forming over the Queensland coast and half of the forecasts said there was a good chance it would try to head for Lord Howe. Our initial plan of sailing north to Middleton Reef to spend a couple of days there would also put us in the cross-hairs. We had to get out before it had a chance to get too close.

Farewell to Lord Howe Island

It was such a perfect, sunny, clear blue day. It would have been easier to think, “good riddance” if it had been cold and rainy.

When we cleared the pass, we hoisted the spinnaker and off we went. Since we were now moving almost the same speed as the waves, I dare say it was smoother for us at sea than it had been in the harbor. Our only motion was a nice, gentle pitching on a twenty second cycle - perfect for rocking the off-watch to sleep. By the time the sun set, we were fifty miles away and could still clearly see the twin humps of the tops of Mt Lidgbird and Mt Gower.

As morning arrived, so did more wind. Cyclone Gretel was tracking north of us. We were still a safe 500 miles from the center, but were feeling the effect. The waves also started building to more than we would ordinarily expect from our current twenty-knot winds.

By Day 3, we were back to being in proper storm conditions, like we had on our sail to Lord Howe. We weren’t bothering with the mainsail at all, just flying a double-reefed (25% area) jib. The wave crests were now high enough that we couldn’t see over them when we were in a trough, When standing on deck, my eye height is 3.5m above the water, so I estimated most waves to be 4-4.5m. Generally, Begonia is fine in seas that size. The bummer thing is that waves that high have little problem reaching over the gunwales and dumping a bathtub’s worth of water on any poor sucker standing there trying to roll another reef in the jib. The good thing was that it was now warm enough that it seemed like a better deal to get occasionally soaked in lightweight, breathable clothing than to swelter inside foul weather gear.

On Day 4, we arrived at the Queensland coast. I had planned our arrival to be at the only slight lull in the forecast in the hopes that we would have mild enough conditions to cross the Wide Bay bar.

Wide Bay bar is tricky, though, because it requires a big dogleg to get in. The initial course requires passing between two shallow sandbars over a slightly less shallow valley between them. The wind and waves were such that we would almost certainly get “totally awesome surfer waves” on both sides. The big question was whether there we be a sufficiently large smooth patch in between for us to get in. We were battened down for a pretty scary transit.

Since the sand at Wide Bay bar is slowly shifting, it is necessary to get up to date coordinates from Marine Rescue Tin Can Bay to be sure of traversing the initial leg over the valley between sandbanks. Maryanne called them for these and was told not to even try it, the bar was too rough. In fact, they said that the day before, they had to rescue three people who were swept overboard from a monohull that tried it. Granted, conditions were worse then, but only slightly.

That left us with three options. Option one was to turn and run with the wind up the coast to go around the north side of Fraser Island. That was bad because it would take us into really strong winds that were going the opposite direction from the East Australian Current. That current would oppose us until we cleared the shoals at the north side of the island. After that, we would be facing forty knot headwinds. Yuck!

Option two would be a windward bash southward until we could find some protection, maybe at Mooloolaba, if we could make it across that bar, but most likely not until we got in the lee of Moreton island. That would be at least a day and a half of beating into big seas.

Our third option was to tuck in at Rainbow Beach on the south side of Wide Bay. There are lots of notes saying “Calm weather only” and, “Extremely uncomfortable.” about the place. This is when it is great to be in a catamaran. A lot of anchorages that are so rolly that they scatter monohulls to calmer anchorages are merely uncomfortable for a catamaran. Also, our low comfort bar was reset at Easter Island. Those anchorages were like being at sea on a bad day, so as long as our anchor is holding and we’re not in the zone where the surf is breaking, we think it’s great!

So - Rainbow Beach it is. It’s a pretty place, named after the multi-colored shades of sandstone making up the cliffs behind the beach. We deployed the whole lot of our ground tackle, which held onto the bottom like an eye bolt set in concrete and gave us enough shock absorption to keep the anchor from feeling the motion of the boat above. It was certainly rough here, as anchorages go, but it is much smoother than it had been underway AND we were relieved of the necessity to have someone at the helm twenty-four hours a day.

Waiting things out at anchor outside the bar
Amazing cliffs of Rainbow Beach

The forecast was for it to be almost a week before conditions calm down enough to cross the bar. There is way too much swell to land ashore, much less even launch the dinghy, so we have to content ourselves with enjoying the view and not having to sit watches.

When we were settled in, we connected to the internet for the first time since Tasmania and discovered that our little five hundred mile sail from Lord Howe had taken us to another world entirely. The minor, but worrying coronavirus outbreak that we had left behind was now beginning to cause worldwide chaos. Markets around the world had crashed and governments were instituting travel restrictions and advising people to avoid going into public places. Only a couple of days later, most of the world was in lockdown and any long distance travel seemed like it would be very difficult and also a really bad idea. Our whole reason for sailing to this part of Australia now had been to have Begonia hauled while we visit friends and family in the US and the UK. That plan is cancelled for the time being. We have already applied for a visa change to a type that won’t force us to leave and come back regularly.

Our isolation a mile from the beach has turned out to be a good thing under the circumstances. As of this writing, we have already been eight days since being close enough to anyone to exchange even a big full-arm wave. We have plenty of food and water and our solar panels and wind generator are putting out more electricity than we can use.

Without the need or ability to travel, our new plan is to do a quick haulout to apply some desperately needed bottom paint, restock, and spend a few weeks in isolation at remote reef or island anchorages with few or no other boats. Because of our lifestyle, we tend to only go shopping infrequently. So far, in the last year, apart from little trips to replenish fresh produce or to buy bread, we have been to the grocery store only four times. Our average visit is three cart loads for over a thousand dollars. That may not be possible anymore without at the very least getting the stink eye as hoarders. We’ll have to see what we can do.

I can certainly understand that most people have far more to worry about than we do. I feel silly now telling stories about cute fishes or romantic beach walks when the whole world (as are we) is worried about whether their lives are about to implode. Perhaps it’s time to lay off it for a while until everyone feels like they can stomach a bit of self-indulgent fluff. We’re still here, though and we’re hoping everyone reading this is able to get through this relatively unscathed. We wish you all the best.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Lord Howe Island (A very special place)

[Kyle]Lord Howe was in fact so nice that even though we were both bushed from many off-watches with no sleep and both being awake since Ball’s Pyramid, we decided to de-lifeboat the dinghy and get right ashore, just to orient ourselves.

First impressions - Lord Howe Island
Kyle has a young white tern come and take a perch on his hat,
Maryanne gets to see a baby LHI Stick Insect
and we both enjoy an afternoon tipple

We walked down the main road to “town”. The road is basically a really nice, wide, paved footpath that is also used by a three-times hourly pickup truck. Drivers seem happy to slow down to walking speed and weave their way through. The most common form of transport on the island is by bicycle. Almost every guest house has a rack of loaners outside. What they don’t have is room keys. Sure, you get a door, but what would you need with a lock?

We had a walk on the beach and popped our heads into a couple of tour operator sheds, which we exited bristling with brochures and maps with which to plan our stay. Back on the road, we met some wildlife. There were several Tern chicks sitting on low branches, waiting for their parents to return with a meal. I stopped to look at one of them.

The little guy was almost in adult plumage, minus some remaining fluffy down on his head. When I stopped, he gave me that look I haven’t seen since my parrot days. He was looking at me and leaning forward and twitching his little wings like he really wanted to come see me.

I didn’t think he would (or could). He’s a wild bird, right? I turned to see if Maryanne was seeing all of this and when I did, the little guy flew over, hovered over me for a couple of seconds and then landed on my hat! He hadn’t been conditioned to use a finger as a perch, but after a couple of gentle tries from me, he figured it out and happily hopped off of my hat onto mine and then started chirping away at me as if he had come over to share some birdy gossip with me. When he was done, he flew back to his branch to wait for dinner.

We saw several others and while they weren’t as gregarious as my little friend, they seemed perfectly content to let us get in nice and close for a look. Their parents were equally unfazed by us and only seemed wary of humans to the extent that we are big and meaty and might accidentally squish them. As long as they were out of arm’s length, they seemed happy to come over and chatter away to us as well.

We enjoyed being bird spotters (not hard to do)
The white terns are on the the main drag so easy to find
We even get to see parents bringing fish back to their chicks

We walked to the Museum, where we found a lecture schedule that would keep us entertained for a few evenings. Lord Howe has what may be the most endangered insect in the world - a walking stick called a Phasmid. Maryanne asked where on the island we might be lucky enough to find one. Even though the museum was closing in, like, thirty seconds, the guy behind the counter took us into a back room where he brought out three of them in a vivarium. It turns out the phasmid had been eaten to extinction on Lord Howe Island by invasive rats. They were thought to be gone completely until one intrepid climber many years later found a small population living on a tiny ledge on Ball’s Pyramid. Since then, they have had some of them in a breeding program with the intent of re-introducing them to Lord Howe once they are absolutely sure the recent massive rat eradication program there has been successful. At the moment, they have been officially declared rat free, but they are waiting a little longer, just to be sure.

Lord Howe is also free of snakes and, my favorite, free of mosquitos! We walked back to the dinghy via one of the nearby nature trails and even though the sun was about to go down, we were not being mauled by mosquitos. Oh, I love it here! That Phil, he’s the greatest!

The next day, the weather was good, so we decided to do some hiking before a multi-day forecast of rain arrived. Lord Howe has lots of trails. The longest and most grueling is to the top of Mt Gower, which is usually the right-hand peak in photos. For that hike, you must pay for a guide. Since Gower is furthest from town, it was explained to us that the guide keeps up a pretty brisk pace to be able make the round trip in daylight. We remembered chasing our guide up the volcano in the Galapagos and decided we were not up for a whole day of that.

Scenery from the numerous trails
Mt Gower & its neighbour Mt Lidgbird dominate the view

Next in difficulty was the climb up to Goat Cave, most of the way up Mt. Lidgbird, the left-hand mountain in most photos. No guide was necessary, but it still sounded pretty grueling. I wanted to try it, but was worried Maryanne wouldn’t want to climb at the pace I thought we would need to maintain to get back by dark. We often divide and conquer for errands, but rarely on tourist stuff. This time, we made an exception. She would hike one set of trails and I another. That would tick almost all of them off of our collective list and still leave us with a big loop around the north part of the island on another day that we could do together.

The trail to Goat Cave did indeed turn out to be grueling. It started with a long walk to the other side of the airport, which from the dinghy dock essentially traverses the entire inhabited part of the island. Then it goes steeply up a sugarloaf mountain to the intervening viewpoint at Intermediate Hill. The nice thing about sugarloaf mountains is that they gradually level off as you climb. I got great views of the whole island, the lagoon and I could even see Ball’s Pyramid in the distance, just poking out behind Mt. Lidgbird. Then it was down the other side almost halfway back to sea level before starting up Mt Lidgbird itself.

Lidgbird is not a sugarloaf, but is instead a mesa. This means the climb starts out at a reasonable pitch, but then increases inexorably until it’s near-vertical. By the time the trail gets to the cave, the fixed ropes (recycled supply ship mooring lines) are necessary to keep from falling backwards into oblivion. I’m pretty sure Maryanne would have hated this part. I had been pushing myself pretty hard up until then and I was wiped out when I finally reached the top.

Most of the climb was through thick jungle, where not much could be seen but a continuum of trees and vines. Just before the cave, though, the view opens up and you finally see what all of the effort was for. Wow! I could see all of the way over the top of the high northern lobe of Lord Howe and had a good view of the Admiralty Islands beyond. These are a chain of small islets that serve as seabird sanctuaries.

Maryanne did her trail, which started up Intermediate Hill, but then peeled off part way up to go to some viewpoints on the far eastern side, most notably Muttonbird Island, which not only has loads of mutton birds (Shearwaters), but also Australia’s largest Gannet rookery. She came back the long way, which crossed over the ridge to the western side of the island. I came back via the same trail, but she was hours ahead of me. At the museum’s first lecture (seabirds), we compared days. She had walked 17km, I had gone 22. We were tired enough to have been in real danger of falling asleep during the lecture, but luckily our soreness prevented us from getting comfortable enough to do so.

Enough with hiking for a while. Our next thing was snorkeling.

We were delighted to be back in water warm enough for swimming without wetsuits. We spent the next day hitting every highlight of the lagoon’s reef system.

Lord Howe Island has the southernmost coral reefs in the world and we were keen to get a look at them. This is particularly so because as the world’s oceans continue to warm, more and more of the coral closer to the equator is suffering bleaching events from temperature stress and dying off. Coral in cooler higher latitudes has so far fared better, but the crisis is moving poleward. This may be our last chance to see a mostly healthy coral ecosystem before it gets this far. Maryanne knows a lot more about this than I do. Her Marine Biology dissertation was on coral.

Indeed, it was magnificent. There were a few stressed areas, but overall there were huge swathes that were over 90% living, compared to the typical 30-50% we have seen in the Tropics. There was a great variety, too, both of coral and pelagic fish species. We spotted several of the endemic Lord Howe Clownfish, which only exist in this lagoon. We took the dinghy from site to site, marveling at the multi-colored vistas below.

Our swimming tour of the lagoon took us two whole days, ending just after the nick of time with a shivering ride back to Begonia in a rainstorm.

We were blown away with the variety and quality of coral and fish-life in the lagoon

Begonia must have had enough water fall on her that night to fill her to the gunwales had the deck not been in the way. In the morning, it was as if it hadn’t happened at all. The sky was clear and blue and the wind was down to a gentle breeze. This was the day for Maryanne and I to do our northern loop hike.

That took us up to the ridge on that side of the island. The land there slopes upward to the top and then plunges vertically to the sea, offering high views of the Admiralty Islands below. At the highest point, we sat eating our lunch of granola bars while watching Tropic birds soar in the updrafts at eye level just a few meters away. Many of them seemed to be teaching their young to takeoff and land from their nest ledges. It looks pretty hard. Turbulence near the rock face seems to foil even the experienced adults, who have to abort and come back around for another try two out of every three times.

So many birds to see

We had planned to call it a day after the loop trail, but then changed our minds at the end and decided to try to hit every other trail spur we had missed. We capped that off with a trip to Ned’s Beach, where we waded in and fed greedy, swirling fish.

More trails and beaches - more scenery...

We rounded off our time in Lord Howe with two more lectures at the Museum, one on marine life and one on geology.

Phil is right (Maryanne, too). Lord Howe really is one of the world’s special places. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site for its physical beauty, pristine environment and incredible biodiversity. It has no snakes or marsupials, but in nearly every other category hosts a greater number of species than the entire Australian mainland. Many are found only on Lord Howe.

Lord Howe protects its unique environment very carefully. The island has just under four hundred residents and has a cap on visitors of no more than four hundred on the island at a time. It wasn’t until after we got here that we learned that airfares to the island from Sydney often cost more than going to Los Angeles and have to be booked a year in advance. We are indeed very lucky to have been able to see it.

One more little vignette: When Cyclone Uesi hit the week before we arrived, people went out en masse afterwards to find and rescue chicks who had been orphaned during the storm. Oh, it was tough making that last trip home in the dinghy. We really loved it there.

Wednesday, March 04, 2020

Passage to Lord Howe Island

[Kyle]We left Wineglass Bay, Tasmania as soon as it was light enough outside to do so. While we still had the protection of the bay, we unfurled both sails, each with two reefs. It took us about five minutes to get far enough out to sea to be out of the lee of the trees behind the beach. Then the wind came in hard. Two reefs wasn’t enough, so there was a scramble to shorten sail even further to keep the stress on the rig down.

We made a turn to diverge from the coast, which put us with the wind right on the beam. As we sailed behind a headland, the wind would drop to five knots and we would slow to a crawl. Most of our speed then was from the following current. Then we would pass abeam a valley and the wind would shoot up to thirty knots within about fifteen seconds. We would hold on for the ride until the next lull and then repeat. As we slowly increased our distance from the land, the peaks and lulls smoothed out and we ended up with just a whole lot of wind, but at least it was now from our port quarter.

From departing Tasmania and all through the passage we did at least get some dramatic skies

When we were about forty miles offshore, we made a turn to parallel the coast in order to get the most out of a big back eddy peeling off of the East Australian Current. We should have made it fifty, because we soon sailed into a big bubble of calm in the lee of the the northeast Tasmanian mountains. That left us bobbing around in big, sloppy waves. We held out as long as we could, but eventually decided we were going to have to start an engine to escape.

Maryanne had just shut it down when she woke me up for my first night watch. We were now downwind of the gap between Tasmania’s northeast corner and Clarke Island. The wind accelerated through there and reached us still going thirty to forty knots. Since it was mainly from behind, our wind gauge mostly hovered just above thirty. That is still a lot of wind, though. It had built the seas up to three and a half meters or so. With the wind came cold rain which mixed with cold spray and the occasional dousing from the errant cold wave. What the hell were we doing out here?

Well, I knew, because it was my fault. The wind down in the forties is pretty much always howling. I had to select our weather window from a series of pretty poor options. I had picked now because we at least had a few days of wind howling in the direction we wanted to go. We knew before we left that it was going to be a rough, awful sail and indeed it was shaping up to be.

We had the same conditions for pretty much the whole week it took for us to get to Lord Howe. The whole time, I kept thinking, “This place had better be NICE! If it’s not, that Phil is in BIG trouble!” Phil was the Phil off of Muse, who had shown us his lovely pictures of their visit and insisted we just HAD to go. Maryanne had been making not-so-subtle hints about Lord Howe for a while. I was still on the fence. It did sound nice, but it is a third of the way to New Zealand, which makes it more than a bit out of the way on the already long trip up Australia’s sizable East Coast. Phil’s recommendation had pushed me over the line on the decision to go. This was all Phil’s fault.

To be fair, the weather would have also been bad on the way to the mainland. Actually, within the current system, it would be worse there, but that’s not the point.

The good thing about our predicament was or big back-eddy. It had formerly been the East Australia Current, delivering warm water from the Tropics along the coast. When we entered it properly, the water temperature increased five degrees Celsius in six hours. It was still cool, but the bite of getting hit in the face with ice water was much reduced.

The water going the same direction as the wind made for slightly smaller waves and we got a big boost of speed. We had slowed way down through the the water to about six knots to take the strain off of the boat, but we were still having an easy time making nine or ten over the bottom.

Dolphin visitors way out to sea!

Even though, all of the motion took its toll. On Day Five, I found a bolt sitting on the deck way forward on one bow. I tackled it before it got swept away. This is why all offshore sailors should go up the mast regularly to inspect and, just as important, to memorize every piece of hardware up there. I recognized it as a set screw from one of our mainsail slider cars. From the deck, I couldn’t tell which one until I got the binoculars out. It unfortunately was one way up toward the top.

There was a LOT of rain on the passage
Thankfully things waited until the sun came out to break

Our mainsail cars slide up and down the mast track on ball bearings. They are attached to the sail through a big pin that runs vertically through both the car and an eye bolt screwed into each sail batten. The bolt I found on deck holds the pin in place so it doesn’t fall out. This is a minor version of what is known as a Jesus Nut in aviation. A Jesus Nut does not take the strain, but secures the part that does. They, like our little bolt, are often surprisingly flimsy little things. Seeing one and realizing it’s ultimate responsibility as the thing keeping the tail or the main rotor from falling off often causes one to exclaim “Jesus!”. Also, if it breaks, you’re about to meet Jesus, hence the name.

The true Jesus Nuts on Begonia are probably the secondary Jesus Split Pins securing the primary Jesus Nut at the end of each of the stays that support the mast. That was a modification we made to buy us time to fix the problem as the failure works its way through the extra level of redundancy. The pin falling out of the sail car would have just made the sail a little floppy until we could shuffle the car order to get the bad one on the bottom. Then we would just have to sail with a reef in until we could repair it, which might be a while in these rough seas.

As it was, the only thing holding the pin in was the tension on the sail. Soon, it would work its way out. The problem was that lowering the sail would definitely remove the strain and cause the pin to fall. Maryanne and I worked together to try to lower the main while keeping a load on it. We managed to get the problem car down to about five meters above us when the pin finally fell out. It bounced on deck and I was just able to chase it down and tackle it before it went over the side or I reached the limit of my safety tether. WHEW! Ten minutes later, it was fixed and the sail was back up and pulling.

Before we got to Lord Howe Island, we decided to divert slightly to Ball’s Pyramid, the “other” big island in the Lord Howe chain. We were close enough by my last night watch that I was able to spend almost all of it hove to. I tied a shock cord to the wheel to keep the rudders producing a force in opposition to the triple-reefed jib, which kept us well under one knot.

I first spotted Ball’s Pyramid at about 2am. It was a new moon, so it revealed itself as a blackening out of the background stars. It was a bit creepy, because the silhouette looks like a lot of rocks one sees at sea in the 50-100 meter elevation range. Ball’s Pyramid is 551 meters high. That kept me constantly thinking it was a lot closer than it actually was, so I spent most of the night double and triple-checking our position and the charts to make sure we really weren’t about to accidentally drift into it.

The sun rose to reveal a giant wall of rock towering above us with waves crashing at its base. The waves seemed unusually quiet though, which of course was because it was still a third of a mile away. This thing is enormous, but with few visual cues to reveal scale. As the light improved, all we had were that the little white specks at the top were whole sea birds. In the photos, it looks like a nearby run-of-the-mill rock, but we had to get more than a mile away to get the whole thing in the frame.

Ball's Pyramid (and adjacent wheatsheaf rocks) was a worthwhile detour

I unrolled the jib to get us moving and Maryanne took photos as we headed toward Lord Howe. A little further on, we had sailed to where we were edge-on to Ball’s Pyramid. The wall is certainly a very big and impressive wall, but side-on, you can see that there is no backing. The other side is also a sheer cliff! From the side, it looks like a giant dagger thrust up out of the sea. The enormous prominence is the remaining hard center of a once great volcano. The rock is strong enough to support its weight without being crushed by gravity into a mound of rubble. Amazingly, we later learned that a handful of people have actually done the multi-day technical climb to the summit of that thing. It’s supposed to be up there with scaling El Capitan for difficulty. The first problem is that they have to wait for a calm enough day to get close in a boat. There’s no place to land, so the first step is straight up.

Finally - we arrive at Lord Howe Island
Now we just hope the weather clears up

A few hours later, we made it to Lord Howe Island. We rounded the south coast, where the even bigger cliffs of Mt Gower plunged into the sea. We called the harbor office, who promptly handed us over to the local constable, Simon. He directed us through the pass and to our mooring ball over the radio from his truck. He then gave us a long list of documents to bring ashore with us for check-in. Most people sneak in an emergency stop on the way from Aussie to NZ, so he was surprised when we said we left Tasmania and were going to Queensland. In that case, no formalities necessary. “See you whenever. Enjoy your stay!”

This place is beautiful! Phil is likely to be off of the hook for a passage that was basically a 172-hour earthquake.