“All ships, all ships, all ships… This is VMR Coffs Harbour, Victor Michael Romeo, with a strong wind warning for Coffs Harbour and surrounding areas on Saturday…” the radio informed us almost hourly on Friday, April 22. It was day 19 of our Adelaide to Brisbane sailing journey, delivering my new-to-me Adams 38ft yacht, Kuna.
You wouldn’t have guessed what was coming though, as we struggled to sail up the central NSW coast with such light winds there was barely a ripple in the water. We spent our time lazing around on the deck with books, podcasts, cheese and wine enjoying the spectacular views of the NSW coast, but could see on the BOM charts that the South-Easterly was coming. This was just the calm before the storm.
I stumbled up on deck the next morning, just as the sun was rising at 6am, greeted by Nicola who was finishing her 3am-7am watch, the same one she had assumed for the past 19 days at sea. The swell was a following one of 3m at that stage, with a 25kt south-easterly. It was messy, but much more fun than a glass-off, and Kuna handled it with ease.
“All ships, all ships, all ships… This is VMR Coffs Harbour, Victor Michael Romeo, with… ahh…”, the VMR controller hesitated “…violent gust warnings today for surrounding areas”. The warning from the previous day had been upgraded. Gale force winds were coming, but for some reason we were more concerned about the notorious Southport Bar crossing and navigating the channels up the inside of North and South Stradbroke Island than we were about the weather. It was forecast with a high of 33kts, and 3.5m swell – above our self-imposed safety limit of 3m swell or 30 knot winds. But we were on a schedule and, after all, the weather wasn’t calming down for another five days… so on we went.
As the sun set, I was briefly on deck alone. “13 KNOTS!” I shouted to the crew as I spotted the speed on our GPS while we surfed down a wave.
Jason, who had only ever gotten Kuna to 8.5kts, shook his head from the galley below. The previous boat record was 12kts, held by Jason’s friend Nicola. He promptly joined me on deck, disappointed that I’d beaten his high, but prepared to be there the next time it happened.
As the sun set over Byron Bay though the wind picked up significantly. Tiny eyelets of water were now being swept across the surface, like sand on a windy beach, the tops of waves being blown off as they curled over, bubbled up and then died down. Noticing the increasing intensity, Jason checked WillyWeather for the Byron reading – 37kts, gusting to 39kts.
As luck would have it, right on dark was when things started to go awry. We were all laughing about the speeds we were hitting – 11kts… 12kts… 13kts!!! We had just beaten Kuna’s previous speed record, three waves in a row! Jason checked WillyWeather again.
39kts, gusting to 44kts now. Gale force warnings flooded the radio once more, just as they had been all day. Only this time, the reality of what that meant began to settle in for all of us.
We were still 50nm from the Gold Coast Seaway, our destination. Kuna had been averaging 100nm a day… With nowhere to go, no way to turn back and nothing ahead of us until the Seaway, we were in it now and just had to deal with it. It’s a strange feeling, being completely at the mercy of the weather and a raging ocean, with absolutely no other options but to just grit and bear it, hoping for the best. The winds hit a top of 49kts or 91km/h that night – the strongest winds in the area for the year so far!
Things went from jovial banter to battle stations in moments as Jason called for lifejackets while 5m+ waves erupted all around Kuna. The change was so sudden that we were all-but-drenched before even having time to think about putting on wet weather gear. The full moon rose over the horizon, casting its light on the chaos unfolding around us while we bobbed around like a tiny speck of debris in a washing machine.
A set rolled in and Kuna dug in, gliding down one wave while another hit from side-on with a crash. The cockpit, normally illuminated with the glow of the chart plotter and the lights from the galley below, was suddenly shrouded in darkness.
50nm from our destination, we had lost electrical power.
Everything seemed silent in those moments of realisation, as my mind ticked over the consequences of being without power. No power meant no chart plotter to show us where to go, no bilge pump to disperse water from our hull, no navigation lights to alert other ships to our presence, manually starting the Bukh 24hp engine (a mission at the best of times), no light but for torches, no radio…
Even Jason let an “oh, fuck” escape his lips before the lights flickered back to life and we were able to re-boot the chart plotter, once again directing us safely towards the Gold Coast Seaway. That was close.
My boss and General Manager of Adreno, Peter Clark, had been messaging me throughout the day with weather updates, tips for crossing the Gold Coast Seaway bar, and places to anchor in the seaway. Tonight though, my messages had a sense of urgency as I requested Byron Bay and Tweed Heads live wind readings and trends from him while I radioed through to the Gold Coast Seaway tower for a bar crossing update. “How are you going?”, Peter asked. “Not good. Just lost power.” I responded. “Water in the hull? Bilges working?”, he asked. I checked the hull, no water. A connection must be loose… Let’s just hope it holds for the night.
The first couple of hours saw my stomach living in my throat, and my legs took on a slight tremor as my automatic fight or flight response kicked in with the surge of adrenalin. As the night rolled on though, my confidence in Kuna grew.
She was built for this, her builder Steffan would take her out in gale force winds “just for fun, to see what she can handle”. Kuna handled the swell like an old race horse let back on the track after a long sabbatical – she was stretching her legs and wanted to gallop across the tops of the waves with confidence, her enthusiasm stemmed only by Jason’s movement of the tiller forcing Kuna into the wind, quenching the power in her sails (less power = more control = safe!).
The waves grew taller, and Kuna’s speed increased… 15kts… 17kts!!! We were all excited (but also apprehensive) to see Jason reclaim the speed record for Kuna, and one that I hope not to break in the near future!
Jason’s control of Kuna was brilliant given this was the roughest weather he’d ever encountered as well. Guiding her down the wave, holding her stern to the back of the sets to curb the amount of times we took on waves in the cockpit.
I was filling a water bottle up for Jason when we were hit by another large wave, sending us sideways for a few moments. The best way I’ve heard it described, being hit by a wave, is that it’s like a car crash and you expect to go upstairs to see whose T-boned you. With the crashing sound though came our second power outage. I immediately grabbed a torch this time, feeling more prepared to deal with the darkness after having accepted it as a possibility. Once again though, the lights flickered back on. Relief.
That same wave had also broken the thin stainless railing that lines Kuna’s sides for safety, and the bathroom (called a ‘head’ in yachts) door was swinging around on one hinge – I tied it off with a bit of string. Downstairs looked like a tornado had hit with everything from life jackets to chopping boards strewn across the cabin.
Copping waves in the cockpit became the norm after a while, too. These weren’t just sprays of water. The waves would turn the cockpit roof into a waterfall and the cockpit well into a river until the water quickly made its way out of through-holes in the deck, designed specifically for that purpose. At one stage a wave swept the 20m of rope connected to the boom into the water, and I quickly grappled over the side between the broken railing to collect it before it tangled around the rudder or prop and hindered steering. Often the winches next to me would disappear completely as water gushed across the decks. Still, though, Kuna felt as safe as anything.
Halfway through the night, 25nm from the Gold Coast Seaway, it was time to tack. In sailing, a tack is when you change the side of the boat that your sail is on, thereby changing the direction of the boat in relation to the wind – a kind of zig-zag formation across the wind. We had to tack back in towards land. Our concern was that the tack would send us even more side on to the swell, but we had no choice.
“We’ll have to just do this quickly”, Jason warned.
During a tack, we divide the duties as follows:
- Jason is responsible for the line that pulls the sail in (the most physically demanding job)
- Nicola is responsible for turning the boat in the new direction
- I’m responsible for loosening off the rope tensioning the sail, while Jason pulls it in, and then moving across to the opposite side of the cockpit to pull the sail out that side, before using the winch to tighten
“TACK”, Jason yelled once we’d assumed our positions.
At that very moment an explosion of white covered the stern (back) of the boat as we copped yet another wave. It was too late to stop; the steps were in motion. I loosened the sail as fast as Jason instructed me to and jumped across the cockpit to pull it out the opposite side.
We seemed to do well, but Jason told us he’d had the rope ripped from his hands in the strong gusts of wind before he could pull the sail in. So instead of being pulled in from one side, and let out on the other, the sail had just swung around on itself. The effect – a mess of ropes on the starboard side, dragging in the water and so tangled that there was no way we would be able to undo them in this weather. Luckily, that turned out to be our last tack for the night, or I’m not sure what we would have done!
This all went on for 7.5 hours after the sun set – all hands on deck, Jason wrestling the tiller against the violent seas, howling winds, walloping sails, flapping ropes, creaking winches under strain, moaning mast, banging of the windvane, crashing of the waves and the occasional cockpit bath.
We were cold and exhausted as we closed in on the bar at 1am. It was almost low tide, which isn’t ideal for any bar crossing. But, after all the stress and worry, crossing the Gold Coast Seaway bar was by far the easiest part of the night. Jason had done an amazing job, once again.
At 2.30am we were anchored in Marine Stadium with an alarm set for 3.30am – a mere nap before we tackled the final hurdle of the trip, but one that now seemed far less daunting after what we’d just done. We would be taking the yacht from Gold Coast to Brisbane via the maze of channels inside North and South Stradbroke Island. Thankfully, I got some help from an experienced sailor I know, Ben Davis, in the form of tracks to follow the whole way through – life saver!
Now that it’s over, and we’re all safe, I can look back and be thankful for the experience and that I got a chance to see Kuna handle that. One day I’ll probably look back at my thoughts on this and laugh, as I’m sure there’s plenty of nights like this ahead of me with what I’ve dreamed up!
Some dot points of what I have taken away from the experience:
- BOM weather can be wrong
- Know your limits and stick well within them
- Don’t sail to a schedule. If you’ve got somewhere to be, drive or fly. Don’t use the ocean.
- Have enough safety harnesses for all crew to be tethered to the deck
- On that note, practice man overboard drills
- Have experienced crew, or at least only go in situations that the whole crew can handle the foreseeable issues. Jason performed impeccably over those 7.5 hours, but who knows how we would have done if something happened to him, or he needed to go below to investigate an electronics issue etc.
- Practice reefing sails
- Know the steps to operating an EPIRB. If it was dark and I needed to set it off, I’m not sure I would have known how to!
- Have a backup chart plotter that doesn’t require your boat batteries – an iPad or iPhone with a Lifeproof case and Navionics is ideal
“Everybody dies in the end, but not everybody lives” seems like a fitting quote for the experience!