Jumping through the weather window

Tuesday 5 March 2019

Wild night at sea – between Port Davey and Macquarie Harbour

The “weather window” opened just briefly, enabling us to make our way up the coast with the wind more behind than in front; always a good way to go

There is a thing in the sailing world called … “the weather window”.  I’ve mentioned it before.  Well, it opened ever so briefly for about 24-36 hours and we decided to jump through

It’s only possible to jump with confidence as a result of reliable weather forecasting, which it mostly is these days, but when you decide to commit you just hope there isn’t a subsequent update or revision from the Met. Bureau that you miss.

In our case the wind had been blowing from the north west for some time.  The product of a High-Pressure system moving across to the east, sending warm winds down from the deserts on the mainland. 

This High was being closely followed by a Low-Pressure system which was also sending wind from the North West as it approached, with the gap between the two systems somehow creating winds from the  West and South West for just a short period of time. 

Given we had around 100 miles to travel in a roughly northerly direction, from Port Davey to Macquarie Harbour, we felt this was an opportunity we had to grab.

So it was that we made our way out of Schooner Cove – our wonderful anchorage for the night – and into Port Davey proper where we anchored in Bond Bay for lunch; but not before dropping into the very tight Lourah Island anchorage – just to tick it off our list.    

Our tacking course out of Port Davey awaiting the wind change from the southwest – finally when the change came through we could set our course to the northwest. Note the areas marked as “UNSURVEYED”. No sailor wants a rock named after them, so it’s wise to keep a good lookout

As we crossed the bay we were radioed by the catamaran K’Gari, who could see us on the chart plotter (and in the distance) saying good-bye as they were grabbing the remains of the brisk North Westerly to shoot DOWN the coast and eventually back to Hobart.

Once at Bond Bay, for us, it was a waiting game.  We stowed the big dinghy back on deck, lashed everything down that could move, and Isabel and Jacqui even prepared the evening’s meal in advance so it could easily be dished out.

Our dolphin escort out of Port Davey – there was more than one

The forecast talked about the wind change coming through in the late afternoon so we left it until 4:00pm to head away from our anchorage, the west to northwest wind pushing us quickly down Paine Bay and into Port Davey.  From here we tightened up for the northwest course, rounding Point St Vincent and North Head, making sure to stay well clear of Sharksjaw Reef.

By now the full strength of the southwest swell could be felt, with a northeast swell and a breaking sea thrown in for good measure.  The wind change had clearly not come through and so in full confidence we made the best course we could.  Not even west, but something like southwest.  This was certainly NOT going to get us to Macquarie Harbour.   After a couple of miles of this we “went about”, in a manoeuvre known as “Tacking”, onto a new course in a northeastly direction – back to the coast again but slightly further north of our starting point.

It’s a tedious process and why cruising sailors choose NOT to tack if they can possibly help it.  The rocky coastline was fast approaching on the bow and so naturally we dropped in another tack, back in a southwesterly direction, looking closely for signs of being able to steer a course closer to where we wanted to go – North-ish

To their credit, all on board remained positive and upbeat.  And there were no signs of cracking, as the seas sent white-water over the deck and the night began to descend making things feel even colder and more alone 

It was around this point, after tacking for a third time that I asked John to check the distance back to Spain Bay … less than 10 miles and still time to make a graceful retreat and await the (by now) mythical wind change.     

Thinking, thinking, thinking … all the while looking to the wind gauge at the top of the mast and the red wool attached to the stays on both sides for any sign of the wind shifting more OFF the bow … onto our beam … or even onto the stern quarter. 

Then it happened.  The arrow suddenly pointed at right angles to the boat, off to the left.

“Bring her up 10 degrees John … now try another 10.  She’s holding. Up another 10 degrees”. 

And with each slight course change we found Chimere could hold her own – with no flapping sails – as the wind moved further and further around; to the south west. 

Soon enough, we were onto our north westerly course.  The wind was where it should be and the swells and waves, instead of pounding the bow, were now mostly coming onto our stern quarter.  I say “mostly”, because the north easterly swell, meeting the south westerly swell created a confused sea of a corkscrew nature that would send us one way and then another, with the occasional wave slapping the side sending spray up and over.

Are we having fun yet …?
Sitting on the low side takes advantage of gravity and the forces of nature … you also get a good view of the breaking seas down the lee side

Inside our sheltered cockpit all was dry and relatively comfy, but funny… there was no interest in dinner as we began taking it in shifts to sleep, knowing it would be a long night and we would need to remain alert.

For much of the night we carried a single-reefed mainsail and just a small jib, maybe 40% of its normal size.  This was enough to give us around 6-7 knots of speed, although there were times when we’d keep the engine ticking over, its regular thrust helping to combat the competing forces of the waves and swell.

John and I led the shifts through the night with Isabel and Ray offering great support – monitoring the course, the speed, set of the sails and the horizon for any sign of lights or other vessels.  Not that you could see much outside.  At one point I remember the sky was clear and briefly revealed the stars, but the regular rain squalls and the noise it made on the canopy was the norm.  “The rain helps flatten the seas” … I volunteered at one point, no doubt trying to put a positive spin on things.  Not sure I got a response to that one?!

A long night at sea, with sleep the only casualty
This Mutton bird landed on the deck in the middle of the night and just waddled into the cockpit. We released him upon arrival at Macquarie Harbour

At one point I’d been in my bunk about 30 minutes and whilst exhaustion finally puts you into a type of sleep, the noises and movement of the boat are constantly being processed somewhere deep within.  The act of actually staying in my bunk finally had me wide awake – the heal to starboard becoming just TOO great.  My mistake had been taking off my wet weather gear, so after finally kitting up again, I made it into the cockpit to read Chimere’s “vital signs”.

Speed – 9 knots, heal – too much,  course – good, sails – no change …

“I think we need to reduce sail, we’re going a bit fast” I suggested to John and Isabel.  “Let’s ease out the main and spill some wind…”  … Still we got faster … 10 knots … touching 11 knots … “we need to reduce the jib” … I said while unzipping the starboard side of the cockpit cover to cop a face full of rain and spray … “The jib is FULLY OUT” … I said with a tinge of surprise … “I can’t have fastened it tight enough in the cleat, and it all ran out”

“That would explain the noise a short time back bro, when it let go” said John

No harm done, but we now know Chimere can crank up some serious speeds if you choose to pile on the sail … which we try not to do where possible.

It must have been around 2:00am, when things are generally at their lowest on rough overnight jaunts, when an object came running into the cockpit, under the flap of the starboard cover, stopping right there on the floor.  “It’s a Mutton Bird”, I said to Ray … “I wonder if Isabel has any recipes for Mutton Bird??!!” 

“Oh the poor thing, it must have been attracted by our light and hit the sail perhaps?”, continued Ray.

“Maybe we could put it in a box till morning, then let it go?”

Baby it’s cold outside …,
I suppose I should have nicked outside to get a better shot, but there are times when there are other things on your mind

This is kind of what we did … into a big bucket with a blanket on top … but not before discovering something that I probably already knew. That Mutton Birds have sharp claws and beaks!  Doesn’t it know we are trying to help?!

So the night continued … cold and lumpy but made far LESS miserable by catching a wind that was going our way.  In the end the biggest casualty being sleep.

More rain squalls, at least now we can see them as dawn breaks over our destination – Macquarie Harbour

Smooth seas, fair winds and jumping through the weather window

Rob Latimer

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