I sail a wooden double-ender, Colin Archer inspired, built in 1977 in Bundaberg, Qld. She is 26 feet long with about a nine foot beam and with an Oregan bowsprit, cutter rig, carvel, made of crow’s ash planks and spotted gum frames. I belong to the QCYC at Shorncliffe, Brisbane, the home of the Brisbane to Gladstone yacht race which starts every Good Friday. My boat will be one of those marking the beginning of the race.
The boat called the Wee Barkie (Scottish builder) has sailed from Adelaide, in South Australia, with the Roaring Forties, as far north as tropical Lizard Island, near Cape York, or about five thousand miles in all.
The builder, Bruce Mackay, is in his eighties and built it for himself, sailing it with compass only, no radio and no other aids except good seamanship and charts. He is currently building a wooden boat with a steam engine. Crow’s ash is Flindersiae australis after Matthew Flinders, the famous cartographer imprisoned by the French at Mauritius on his way home during the Napoleonic Wars. It was there that he wrote, “My love must wait”. He is second only to Cook as a navigator. Bligh comes close. Much of our coast line’s fine detail was charted by Flinders. Crow’s ash is very dense, easily bent with steam and very durable. Spotted gum is the same and many of our wooden trawlers are made of this. Crow’s ash is hard to come by now.
I enjoy mooching around in Moreton Bay with my mate, Ken who has a 28 foot trailer-sailor (an RL 28). We go out when everyone is back at the clubhouse because it is too rough and windy. We recently went for a sail when there was a race on, in over 40 knots. One old skipper said it was the windiest day since 1974. Boats were racing under gib only and many were knocked down several times during the race. We had our normal furling gib and the main with two reefs and were not perturbed, with a 20 degree list, well balanced without much weather helm and doing up to seven knots. The boat has a full keel with lead on the bottom, and the rudder hung from the stern of the hull as per double enders. She weighs four ton and four hundred weight. I carry a storm gib and a trysail always. The bay is very changeable and shallow with a short chop. I always wear an inflatable life jacket, and carry a sharp knife, torch and Leatherman at all times.
I sail for pleasure, not for a destination or a race, but that is how I try to live my life. I would like to sail the Witsundays and perhaps, one day, the Aegean.
Sunday 22nd March 2009
I went sailing today. It was a strong SE’er and the tide was going out. We had to throw a light line on a fender from a mooring opposite mine but the tide wouldn’t carry it across as the line was a little to heavy. I swam out to retrieve it and then I tied a strong nylon rope to the string line and made it fast on the stern cleat. My friend, Ken then pulled all four tons of the boat over to his side of the mooring, against tide and wind and stepped on the stern as I pulled ropes clear of the prop and off we went. We often leave under warps (ropes) as our creek has a fast tide and the wind is often unfavourable which makes it hard to reverse out. Many have said if you can sail here, you can sail anywhere. I am always aware of bullsharks in the creek too as they are the most common and the most dangerous.
There was a race on, so all the racing boys had headed out by the time we left. They are another breed. Speed is everything and as soon as it is over they are back at the QCYC with a jug of beer and a bottle of raconteur. I feel a sense of great freedom as we head out along the channel, with our friends, the red port and green starboard beacons, to guide us through. Mobile phones and humanity are in our wake. Each time it is different. It is a bit like good sex with someone you really love. The tide was half out and pelicans and sea gulls sat nonchalantly on the fast-drying sandbank on our starboard as we passed, while fisherman stood silent with their rods on our port side. Some gave us a wave and a few girls on sea kayaks who gave us a kindly wave. The boat looked well dressed with the red enseign fluttering from the stern jackstaff and the QCYC club burgee, a triangle of yellow and blue and a blue maltese cross, the symbol of Queensland, at the masthead.
Sometimes in summer, leaving the creek and its channel can be very rough as the north easterly trade wind is often in your face and the waves break over the bow. Today was not so bad as the wind was on our starboard quarter. Ominous clouds banked up behind us but it came to nought.
We sail for fun, not to beat the clock or some rival, or to carry a spinnaker when only a fool would do. We had one reef in the sail as the wind was rising as we tacked into a lumpy sea with waves crashing over the bow and with the bowsprit nosing under. I put my storm gear top on. My thin cotton long trousers were already wet but I had bought them as they are cool and dry quickly in the sun. At least my top was warm and dry. We pound into the wind, pointing about 35% to it on each tack. After a few hours we lay off a bit on a shy reach for something to eat. I had bought a baguette and a small Brie, which I cut in big chunks and pass them up to Ken, who is on the tiller and with his other hand on the main sheet. We wash it down with a bottle of brewed local ginger beer. We often eat ginger too as a snack. I never get sea sick but ginger is easy on the stomach and helps mal de mer (sea-sickness).
We see the distant sails of some of the faster boats at about 1400hrs returning on the home leg of the race. Not one has a reefed mainsail, – the fools, they are now on a run with the wind behind them, skating past at 18 knots, nearly planing. We are coming straight at them on a slow beat to windward. We have finished our bread and are now close hauled. The bay is mostly shallow with about four or five metres under the keel and the waves are short and steep at about 2 metres today with the odd summation wave which is bigger and can catch you by surprise. The wind gusts higher at times as wind does. I warn Ken, “Big one”. We duck as our backs get a dousing.
We eventually go about and head on a shy run with the wind on our port quarter. The boat behaves well and is reaching its maximum speed which is dictated by the length and nature of the hull. We are hitting over 7 knots and more down a wave. I don’t look behind as the waves look bigger. It is like life. I feel the weather-helm on the tiller. It is still manageable and the main is right out, with the boom’s aft end nearly in the water.
We drop the main outside the main channel, and sail in under gib with the motor in neutral. The main in a gust makes the boat round up and as the channel is narrow I don’t want to run aground on a day like today. I watch the depth sounder constantly and line up the leads;’ two white triangles, one inverted in the distance. The tide is coming in so we don’t have the usual waves breaking both sides of the channel like some days. Sometimes it can be unnerving like you’re running the gauntlet with a breaking surf and perdition on both sides.
My face is caked with salt and my sunglasses too, slightly impairing fine detail. There is no time to clean them. I underdo my life jacket harness and unzip my red jacket but leave it on. More than one trawler has sunk in this channel on such a day with all hands lost. The wind is now 30 knots and gusting more. The afternoon sun is burning my right cheek despite the pink sunburn cream.
Ken, goes through the usual routine of tying fenders in position and gathering up the thick black nylon bow and stern mooring lines. I watch the channel and dodge a crab-pot float some fool has left mid-channel. There is no one else out. Only the racing boys. It has been too windy. The forecast was some rain but they were wrong. It is still quite hot but the breeze is cooling.
We both feel a little tense at this point. The gib is furled up as I motor on low speed towards our mooring. It is a tight turn between two fingers but luckily the tide will be on the nose as we come in and the wind on our starboard beam. I am watching the tide and the turning circle of the boat which needs speed to have steerage. Lose speed and you can’t turn, go too fast and you run the risk of ploughing into the concrete and steel of a floating mooring or worse, the yacht on my port side. It is like landing a plane on an aircraft carrier sometimes. Ken, steps off, as I quickly put the engine astern for a second and then off. I jump off too and grab a line. We are always careful not to let a line drag overboard. We have learnt that lesson and I know what it can do to a prop shaft and cutlass bearings.
There is a silent ritual that we both go through. It is the same before leaving only in reverse. We open portholes, put away the red enseign, the U-shaped life buoys with Wee Barkie on them, stow the gaff and the danbuoy at the stern, turn off the engine, check fuel lines are off, close engine intake, log off on the radio, turn off the electrical system, check the bilges and bilge pumps, open air vents, remove the rubbish bag, take off bags, wet clothes, put away winches, make sure the mooring lines are all secure, put away the autotiller, the winch bags, cover the winches, zip up the main sail bag, put the wash boards in the main companionway hatch. It’s always the same.
We lug our stuff up to our cars, go to the bar and finish our bread and cheese. I have a Coke and Ken has a double sars as usual. We feel the cobwebs have been cleaned from our brains. My trousers are still wet and my face gravelly with salt.
I drive home to find my wife lying on the sofa reading, my son doing some homework and my daughter on the computer. I try to tell them how windy it was and how we were going as fast as ever I have been in the boat and with one reef in the main to boot. My wife looks up, “Was it windy? I didn’t notice it here. There’s been hardly a breeze all day”.
I have a shower and soap off the salt, sunburn cream, and adventure.
Men, and perhaps women (I can speak only as a man) need adventures. It’s what being a bloke is all about. We think differently. Men also need men to talk to. My friend, Ken doesn’t take offence if I don’t notice he has had a hair cut or is wearing a new pair of boat shoes. I can understand how Achilles felt when his friend, Patroklos was killed in battle.
I like to feel I have wrestled with the wind and sea and come out, not triumphant, but competent and alive. There are so many ways you can err in sailing and it can kill you and your fellow sailors and you can lose your boat. I think many people would be happier and more content if they had such challenges to contend with but I realise each to his own. My great grandfather was a Norwegian seaman and I have a Norwegian designed boat. I believe in atavistic memory which now has substance with the discoveries in this new area of human genetics.
I am reminded of Odysseus. Homer starts off thus,
“Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story
of that man skilled in all ways of contending,
the wanderer, harried for years on end,
after he plundered the stronghold
on the proud height of Troy.”
(trans. by Robert Fitzgerald).