The regatta reminded me of the poem, “The man from Snowy River” as all the cracks or in this case, forty or so wooden boats had gathered for the fray. With the winter solstice only a week or so away, it was as if the wood nymphs that live in our wooden boats were drawn to meet in the morning chill of a Brisbane winter which to a southerner is like a summer. It was a chilly 10⁰C for Brisbane, on Saturday morning as I threw my sailing bag on the deck of my boat, Wee Barkie, lying in what is affectionately known as the “pig pen” at QCYC, Shorncliffe, where itinerant boats can pull up instead of taking up a mooring. It was high tide in Cabbage Tree Creek, with its tall mangroves on the southern bank, the Boondall Wetlands Park beyond, and red and blue steel-hulled trawlers just up stream from the club. It is a pretty place; one of the loveliest creeks I know although a devil to get out of a mooring in unfavourable wind and the wrong tide although these minor adversities make for a better sailor. I think most of us there did not come to win. I certainly didn’t. We were more like a pack of dogs let off the leash in a playground, bounded not by wire netting but of an imaginary triangle described on Bramble Bay and fenced in by time, tide and wind and a few buoys shouldering the ebbing tide.
The first race was scheduled for noon on Saturday, 13th June but as usual, it seemed that the starting boat dithered and the number one flag (red circle on a white pennant) went up what seemed to be late, confusing some, until after an eternity the Blue Peter fell and the starting hooter sounded in the still air which made the start a mere formality. We crossed the starting line and headed for the fist leg, south-west to windward. The forecast was 10-15 knots SW but as often happens on Moreton Bay in winter, the sea was like glass and my Red Ensign hung sulking from my jackstaff. It took us about half an hour to get over the line and I think we should have got line honours for spending so much time on it as I think we drifted back over it again while the starting boat seemed to be our constant companion. However, everyone was in the same boat so to speak and for most of the afternoon, only the sleek greyhounds in the fleet of forty boats were able to harness the faintest breeze. It is an ill-wind that blows nobody any good and as result we boiled the kettle on my gimballed spirit stove and had lunch of salami, biscuits and Brie as the winter sun in the clear blue sky made us remove our jumpers, and although it as it was forecast 21 degrees, it felt hotter in the still air and later noticed Peter Kerr sailing pastwithout a shirt in a “plastic” Folk Boat. It was strange to see this familiar figure of the sun-tanned, long-haired shipwright from Cabbage Tree Creek go over to the dark side as his elegant wooden yacht, Pagan was temporarily hors de combat.
The wind picked up a little as the afternoon progressed but the course was shortened to two laps rather than three as the bigger boats on the larger triangle of the course, billowed forth with the odd disobedient spinnaker failing to fill on the run to the line and finishing boat. The relatively short course of about a mile or so on each leg made for a great spectacle as all the boats were kept in close proximity although it was somewhat daunting to be lapped by the bigger boats who crept up behind with their surging bows and billowing kites. There were the gracious lines of the more classical yachts replete with dazzling varnish and generous overhangs at the stern. There were some double-enders like my Colin Archer and a beauty called Four Winds and the elegant old schooner, Blue Nose on which the father of my crew mate, Ken Fraser had died from a heart attack many years ago. One of the few with tan sails was a Bolger cat-rigged ketch, and there was a small version of Joshua Slocomb’s Spray called “Rosinante” after Don Quixote’s steed and the name of one of the boats of L. Francis Herreshoff in his charming book, “The Complete Cruiser”. A sleek beauty called Archinar II slipped by above us to later win the Best Presented Vintage Yacht. No boats bared their bottoms that day as the wind was slight but the spectators lining the cliffs at the headland just south of the creek were treated to lovely scene. As usual for the end of the race, the tide was dead low as the boats headed back in down the channel to the creek while on both sides, wide sand banks at low tide etched innumerable parallel waving lines which is at its best from those landmark cliffs which date back to the late Jurassic. We were in no hurry to come in and as result were the last boat in and revelled in the stiffer breeze which had sprung up late. When we reached “The Basin”, a widening in the creek near the Sandgate VMR, we passed a yacht struggling like a beached whale embarrassed at the indignity of being aground. We offered a tow but she was free before we could throw a line.
There were the usual yarns around the bar, lubricated with lashings of Pusser’s rum dispensed in handsome enamel mugs with Pusser’s naval traditions around them. It seemed somewhat odd to be sipping rum and coke with ice cubes out of a mug which summed up the day’s proceedings; conviviality with a lashings of charm and nostalgia. The rich honey colour of the varnished moored wooden yachts were reflected in the mirrored surface of the creek, tinged by the soft pink glow of the setting sun, contrasted with the purple of lengthening shadows as swallows swooped after insects above the darkening water. There is something special about wooden boats that fibreglass can never replicate regardless of their teak decks and chipboard interiors.
For those who did not eat aboard their boats, there was a BBQ dinner in the chill night air and later a band called the Baby Boomers played but despite the appeal of the name of my generation I did not stay. There was a certain paradox in the day with the mainly male participants varying from the very wealthy who just had a passion for wood to those who were equally passionate if not more so but who were of humble means, in boats with less gloss, some open to the elements or without a touch of varnish. The common denominator was wood and sail, and not speed or money. Somehow the latter didn’t matter although the speed of a boat is governed by that eternal truth about 1.4 times the square root of the waterline length and as length costs money, speed does too. The slower the boat as is the case with mine, the more time spent on the water and not in the bar, a bit like a golfer with a bad handicap.
The following day saw a sullen sky and the promise of a rising southerly which was just what my boat likes. My first mate, Ken rang to say he was sick so I was lucky to have my other crewmate, Kevin bring a friend, Steve who had once sailed in 18 foot skiffs. Our mean age was about 55 but somehow it didn’t matter. We set out at 1000 in preparation for the race at 1100. We had two head sails (a jib and a Yankee) as well as the main which I did not reef as they had forecast 15-20 knots and I thought we’d be fine even with a new crew. I lent them a spray jacket each and suggested they put them on as I could see it was going to get cold with the wind picking up. I wore my Tasmanian hand-knitted sailing jumper, cabled and heavy and my woollen Breton cap and put on my foul-weather gear before too much longer.
We had a good start on a starboard tack and found it exhilarating to be up with rest of the fleet rather than being well behind. The twin headsails were well suited to the gustier conditions and we were at one time neck and neck with a boat called Carouse who hull seemed only a short distance away as we fought it out for the second marker on a starboard tack again. We rounded the mark ahead of her and soon we were on a run down to the starting line only hampered by not setting the spinnaker as I was with an untried crew and dare not do it. The two laps of the course went quickly quite unlike the day before. We then had about half an hour before the next race and rather than sail around aimlessly, we hove to; back winding the Yankee, with the main out and the tiller to the lee. She balanced beautifully in the choppy sea and the despite the freshening wind, we sat there doing less than one knot to leeward while we were able to eat and drink in relative calm. We told another boat that came too close we had hove to but the skipper didn’t seem to understand. Only a well balance boat can do this and at times I undid the lashed tiller and saw the boat still hove to regardless.
The second race of the day was much the same only with a poorer start, which was mainly due to the confusion about the 15 minute start as we didn’t hear the siren when it went up. The wind was still quite fresh and favoured the heavier boats like us but we were at a disadvantage down wind with the larger boats with kites up, passing us on the home leg.
When the finishing flag fell and the hooter sounded our finale, we were much relieved and then headed, not south-west back to the club, but north to the Scarborough Marina in Deception Bay where the Wee Barkie has taken up a new mooring. It was 1410 when we headed north expecting it to take us at least three to four hours and to be there after dark. However the wind was on our starboard quarter and the sea which was up to a metre in height, was rolling in from the south east at about 25 knots pushing us at six knots and sometimes over seven down a wave. We were at our maximum speed most of the way and with not too much weather helm despite the main being full and with two head sails. When not far from North Rock Light at the top of Redcliffe, with the seas even rougher we took in the furling gib and sailed with the Yankee and main. We gibed suddenly on a wind shift but survived unscathed and were then on a port tack going around the corner on the home leg to Scarborough with the tide at dead low and the wind rising and only a metre or less under the hull. We dropped the main outside the outer leads and had motored in and soon dropped the Yankee as we were nose to the wind. It was just after 1600 hrs and we had done this in record time for us.
Inside the marina the wind dropped and we wondered what all the fuss had been about. Ten minutes before the darkening sea had looked sullen and threatening but now we were home safely thanks to Colin Archer and the Wee Barkie. When we had moored and tidied up, we drove back to QYCY about 30 minutes to the south, just in time for the presentation of prizes. I smiled to myself as we had sailed further than anyone that afternoon and in record speed and in conditions ideally suited for a North Sea double-ender. We didn’t win a prize; not the fastest, the one with most varnish or the best dressed crew. Two of my crew didn’t even have wet weather gear and one had never sailed on my boat before and Kevin had only sailed once before on her and had never been on a boat heeling forty degrees with water coming up through the scuppers. These are the sailors who should get a prize, not just those with acres of varnish, a pea –jacket and white commodore’s cap. We had only raced a few times before and never with this crew. The names of the winners are now a blur, at least to me. What mattered to me, and I am sure to most, was not the speeches and the mugs, but just being there.
Overall we came 8th in the three races of Division 3 and in Race 2 we did out best by coming fourth out of seventeen boats. In a way, it doesn’t matter but what did was the spirit of adventure, the comradeship of fellow sailors, the exhilaration of wrestling with the sea in the company of other boats and wooden boats at that, made from once living things re-incarnated in carvel or clinker, fashioned by craftsmen and maintained with love. Winning is ephemeral but the experience of sailing a wooden boat is a form of respectful contemplation on the Cosmos. You learn to go with it, not against it. Fight against it, and you die.
That night as I snuggled up to my wife in bed, I reflected on those rolling, sullen seas at North Rocks Light and how easy it would be to succumb to the sea by making a wrong move, an unwise decision or a miscalculation in navigation. It reminded me of scenes from The Riddle of the Sands, with the shoaling seas and shifting banks of the Frisian Coast. It is this challenge which makes it so exciting, even in a relatively slow boat like mine which was designed not for speed but to bring you home to a safe harbour and a warm bed.
By Roger K.A. Allen, Skipper of Wee Barkie