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Tuesday 1st November 2011

We left Port Vila in Vanuatu around lunch time yesterday and have been sailing on a nice beam reach in light conditions. The seas are calm and although the winds are light we're moving along at around 5knots which is fine by us. This passage in particular has the potential to be a very bad crossing, especially for those who leave the sailing until November which is the beginning of cyclone season! We're not complaining about the weather and light winds.

Thursday 3rd November 2011

Ok, I'm complaining about the winds now. We sailed for the first day and a half and since then have been motoring in 2-3 knots of wind. We knew we were heading off in light conditions, but had hoped that there would be at least 7-12 knots of wind for the journey – would that have been too much to ask for? We'd anticipated the 580NM hop to Chesterfield reef would have taken no more than 4-5 days but after 3 days at sea we've still got 300NM to go! Maybe this is our subconscious way of extending our trip?

Last night was a highlight though. Just as the sun was setting, we saw a bit of a disturbance in the water and birds diving which is a sure sign that there's a feeding happening . As we approached the excitement, we saw dozens of large fish, something like yellow fin tuna, jumping out of the water then in the middle of all the excitement we say a small whale! It was an amazing sight seeing these animals swimming and jumping as they raced to eat whatever they were eating, or to get away from whatever was eating them, but then in the middle of it all to see a small whale. That was spectacular.

I know I keep harping on about the weather, and perhaps I'm being a little paranoid, but this leg does have quite a reputation. Nearly every story I've read about people who've circumnavigated and who have been hit by bad storms have had it happen in this stretch of water at this time of year. Just so you don't think I'm over-reacting, here's an exert from the “Chronicles of Northern Magic”, a fantastic book that was the inspirational story of a family of five from Otawa, Canada, who sailed around the world in their yacht “Northern Magic”.



The weather map showed only a few mild lows in sight. Since these lows tended to come across about once a week, we guessed that these mild lows might be the quota for that week. Another cruiser went over to the meteorological office and the experts there confirmed what we had concluded. Today was the day. We wasted no time in heading out, and by lunchtime were on our way. 900 nautical miles separated us from Australia. We felt a little nervous, but we were relieved to finally be getting this passage over with. We sailed with sunset on the South Pacific almost no wind for the first day, and all night the lights of New Caledonia remained in sight. By morning we had made only 20 or 30 miles and our new position on that big Pacific Ocean chart was not even worth noting.

By the second day, and still no wind, we began to get itchy. We didn’t want to make this passage last any longer than necessary, not with the prospect of a cyclone haunting us every day. Although (after receiving a shocking report on the state of our bank account) we had vowed not to use our motor more than necessary, we did eventually turn it on and finally begin to make some progress. We paid for each mile heavily, though, and not just in dollars; our autopilot was broken and there was not enough wind for the windvane, so as long as we were motoring, we had to hand steer once again. With one of us chained to the steering wheel day and night, we began to sag under the fatigue that invariably accompanied that tedious chore.

On the third day something ominous began to show up on the weather charts and in e- mail messages from my dad, who, as usual, served as our personal weather forecaster. Those mild lows floating around south of us had done something we hadn’t predicted, coalescing into one massive low-pressure system. The barometer began rapidly falling. The weather forecast began talking about a “significan depression”. Soon we had not too little wind, but too much. It was coming directly from the west, where we had to go. At this point, about two hundred miles west of New Caledonia, we had a choice to make. It was impossible to head into the westerly gale that was building, so we were forced to abandon our route and run either south or north. Normally we would have gone south, since Brisbane lay to the southwest, but instead we chose north. Even if it meant taking longer to reach Australia, going north would take us away from the centre of the system. The next days would show that we had made the right – perhaps even the life-saving – choice.

By nightfall the winds grew even stronger. As the system to our south turned from a gale into a full-fledged storm, the winds where we were strengthened to 45 knots, creating steep, high waves and an increasing swell. The violence of our beating into these waves brought on the

worst attack of seasickness I had on the whole Pacific Ocean. Even Herbert succumbed, being laid flat by this malady for the first time in his life. Only the kids, tucked safely into their beds, were immune. How they ever slept I don’t know, because I could no more sleep in our boat than I could have while riding a roller coaster.

After a whole miserable day of battling the storm, I plotted our position and was shocked to discover how far north we had been pushed. Because of the way New Caledonia tilts to the west, as we headed north we found ourselves drawing closer and closer to its northern tip. At the same time, we were considerably farther away from Brisbane than we had been two days earlier. To say this w as discouraging would be an understatement. By now the depression was spewing off storm force winds within 500 miles of its revolving centre. At the beginning we had been only 200 miles away from the vortex, but since it was moving southeast at the same time as we ran northwest, we were now only on the outer edge of its cyclonic fury.

As despondent as we were over our lack of progress, we knew we had made the right move in heading away. We received a message that another sailboat just 200 miles to the southwest had been dismasted and abandoned. We spent many pensive hours wondering just what had happened to our brethren on board that unfortunate boat – and whether, had we gone south instead of north, the same might have happened to us. At the time, it was just as well that we didn’t find out.

Our northerly route was, however, putting us on a collision course with a set of mid- ocean reefs. We simply couldn’t continue on this path. Just before it got dark, we braved the howling winds and tacked the boat around, heading south and back towards the centre of the storm. Several times it crossed our minds to simply turn around and head back to Noumea. But somehow we couldn’t bring ourselves to admit that we had gone through all this for nothing.

Although the winds had toned down now to only about 35 knots, the waves were still sickeningly steep. And now we had something new to contend with. All around us dark thunderheads roamed, sometimes directly overhead, sometimes to one side or another. We tried to dodge these squalls as best as we could, but when one hit, the winds would suddenly pick up by 10 knots or more and we would be viciously pelted by rain.

To complicate things further, at the height of the storm our engine had begun overheating. The cause of this wasn’t obvious, so we became unable to use the motor to charge our batteries. Herbert, who was prostrate with vomiting, dizzy and weaker than he had ever been before, was faced with the prospect of working head down in the stinking engine room while the boat slammed and rolled in the waves. That’s a sure-fire recipe for nausea at the best of times, and in these conditions almost unthinkable. So we waited for two days, fighting the storm, our batteries slowly draining and our fridge slowly warming, until things had quieted down enough for him to attempt a repair.

Squalls and evil, dark clouds with black horizontal lines were still all around us 48 hours later as Herbert finally summoned up the resolve to face the broken engine. We were down to a bare minimum of battery power, unable to even use our lights at night. He opened up a hatch in the floor of our salon to expose the engine room and got to work. I hovered around, ready to hand him tools. Finally, his face flushed and sweaty, he asked me to turn on the motor from the cockpit and rev it up a bit to see if it was cooling. As I clambered into the cockpit, I was shocked to see a particularly fast moving black border low in the sky just ahead. As I watched, I saw it was a racing line of wind and rain. In the next instant it hit. The wind from this squall line was like nothing I had ever felt before. It was like a line of charging stallions trampling us down. Instantly we were blown right over at an obscene angle, with the wind screaming in my ears and rain driven almost horizontally. We had both our jib and our reefed mainsail up, and with the windvane still trying to hold our course, our mast was pressed right down towards the seething, roiling surface of the water. Water roared up over our gunwales and to my horror continued rushing up until it was actually on top of our lower cabin roof. All the windows on the starboard side of the boat were under half a metre of water. If any of them had been open, the ocean would now have been flowing freely into the boat.

My red-hot priority was the wide open hatch through which I had just come. The tumult of water was boiling and licking right at its lip. One more degree of tilt, and hundreds upon hundreds of litres of water would rush unimpeded into that gaping mouth. In that instant, for the first time on this trip, a sudden vision – of us being forced to take to our life raft – leapt, unbidden and unwelcome, into my mind.

Banishing that thought, I yelled at the top of my lungs to Herbert, not sure whether or not he could hear me over the louder screaming of the wind. I didn’t know it, but the sudden lurch to starboard had slammed the heavy engine compartment hatch down on his back as he was standing under it. He certainly knew, even without my screaming, that something was very wrong. Tearing my eyes away from the gaping maw of the open hatch, I quickly disengaged the windvane to take manual control of the steering. My first thought was to steer the boat so the wind was behind us. That would stop us from heeling over and also reduce the wind’s apparent speed, since we would be going with it instead of against it. But no matter how hard I pulled on the steering wheel, I was not strong enough to counteract the force of the wind. Twenty tons of steel boat wanted to point into the wind. I tried for five or ten seconds, but when it was clear this was a contest I was going to lose, there seemed nothing to do but to head into the teeth of the wind instead.

By now Herbert had clambered into the cockpit. Michael was peering out of the hatch with big eyes, wondering what was going on. We yelled for him to close both hatches and make sure all the inside windows were shut, which he did. There was a look of pure terror on his face as he saw the water boiling up on the deck right under his nose. He slammed the hatch shut, and as he continued inside, checking the crazily tilted starboard side windows, he could see that they were all under water. Michael, alone of the children, appreciated the nature of the crisis upon us. This was the first time I knew for sure on this trip that he was afraid. As soon as he was done checking windows, he lay, quaking, in his bed. He said nothing to his brothers about the fact that all he had seen through all our starboard side windows was endless green water.

At the same time as I began trying to steer us into the wind, Herbert released the jib sheet. These two actions had the effect of both turning and righting us immediately. The danger of flooding was over as quickly as it had come. However our jib began flogging violently, slamming around and bashing into the stays. Only a few minutes of this and it would be shredded to bits. Herbert manned the winch and struggled to furl in the jib, all the while praying it would hold together until he was done. That accomplished, he had to somehow drop the mainsail, a much more precarious manoeuvre, since it meant leaving the relative safety of the cockpit. Herbert snapped on a safety harness, and attaching himself to a steel line that went around the bow of the boat, began making his way to the sail. But the harness attachment on the starboard side somehow disengaged itself as he scrambled forward and he was forced to return to the cockpit. Re-attaching himself to the port side jackline, he did manage to lurch his way along. But from the port side he didn’t have as good a position to take down the mainsail and found it impossible to wrestle it completely down. While he was at work, my job was to try to hold the boat on a steady course into the wind – but not so much that the boat would tack and send the main boom swinging over to where Herbert was working. It took all my power to hold her on course. The squall was still blasting us at full intensity. By now the rain was really pelting down, shooting into our bodies like steel needles, sharp and cold. We were both dressed only in T-shirts and shorts, and in seconds we were drenched and freezing. Between the cold, the exertion and the adrenalin coursing through my body, my arms and legs began to tremble until they were shaking so badly I could hardly hold the wheel. My right leg, which took most of the force of bracing my body against the downward side of the cockpit, was tapping so furiously I had trouble supporting myself on it.

How much time passed in that cockpit that way? Five minutes? Ten? Fifteen? Somehow it is all now just a blur. All I know is that at some point Herbert managed to get the sail down and we found ourselves braced there in the cold, penetrating rain, shaking and huddling together in the cockpit in a mixture of terror and relief. Somehow we realized that between this squall and the storm of the previous two days we were passing perhaps our first real test as sailors. Within minutes after returning inside, however, there was a new problem to cope with. The alternator was malfunctioning and its wires were, unbeknownst to us, getting red hot. We had no idea anything was wrong, until Herbert opened the engine compartment for the routine turning off of a valve, and happened to notice a very bright light inside. The light he was seeing was created by the red-hot alternator wires. They could have burst into an engine fire at any moment. Once again Herbert was forced into the engine room, as sick and as exhausted as he was, to replace the alternator. It was our spare alternator that had given out, so he re-installed the higher capacity alternator that he had just finished fixing.

Throughout the rest of that troubled passage we had problems with that high capacity alternator chewing through fan belts, and making a screaming sound every time we used a lot of power. It seemed our troubles, our endless hours of fear and misery, just wouldn’t end. By the end of Day Five the storm was still not willing to relinquish its fierce grip. We were again heading north and once more nearing those reefs. We turned the boat south a scant 20 miles west of where we had tacked back the day before. It was sickening to think of how difficult the past 24 hours had been, and yet all we had gained for all our suffering was a pathetic 20 miles. Through the early hours of Day Six we virtually retraced our path of the day before. But the cause of all our troubles was now moving well to the southeast of us. By the middle of the day the winds finally dropped below gale force and soon we were able to finally resume a southwest track. We had been at sea six days, three of them in a storm, and in that time had barely made 200 miles of progress towards Australia. We were closer to New Caledonia than we had been before the storm started.

One day later the wind spitefully disappeared altogether, leaving us wallowing in a dead calm in six-metre swells left over from the storm. Our exhausted bodies found themselves back in the cockpit, hand steering while we motored. By Day Eight, about the time we had originally expected to be making a joyous landfall in Australia, we were instead carefully creeping through a set of banks and reefs only half way to our destination. As we threaded our way through, nervous about the danger of running into the half hidden mid-ocean Kelso Reef, we both felt full of unaccountable tension. We had hardly eaten or slept since the storm began five days earlier. Many a time we wished we could just let our little ship drift so we could get some rest. But that was impossible. We still had many days to go before we were safe, with the probability of encountering another storm increasing with each passing day. Herbert remarked, as we puddled our slow way through, that he felt just like the unfortunate bosun birds of Palmerston Island. Sitting helplessly on the ground as they are picked up, thrown into bags and carried off to their doom, all they can do is scream.

Days passed. We were tired, dog-tired, unable to recover from the trauma of the storm because we were stuck in the cockpit hand-steering day and night. There wasn’t enough wind to sail, so our windvane was useless. We were still two days away from Australia, on Day Ten of our final, stormy passage of the South Pacific, when we received our first inkling that more trouble lay ahead.

Word that another storm awaited us first came in the form of an Australian small craft warning passed on to us by my father. Dad always watched the weather carefully on the internet while we were on passage, and he had first e-mailed us that we could expect to get a wet and rolly ride the next day. Then, thinking that he had better not let us be deceived by the flippant tone of that message, a few hours later he sent a more strongly worded warning that another storm was on its way. It was perhaps a mercy that we didn’t know at the time that this second storm would be even worse than the first one.

There was a depression just 100 miles west of us, directly on our path to the Queensland coast. This time there was no escape; we would be right in the centre of the storm. We felt fragile and nervous. The last storm had cost us three days of nausea and misery and had blown us badly off course. Afterwards we had been forced to hand steer for days while our motor carried us in a direction our sails could not. We were physically and mentally tired and desperately anxious for our ordeal to end. Still 200 miles, and now another trial, separated us from safety.

There was no hope of outrunning this one, or manoeuvring around it. Plus it was likely to bring us near the coast during darkness the following night. We never approached a strange harbour during the night, and entering at night and during a storm was totally out of the question. We made the painful but necessary decision to heave to, or stop the boat, so that we could time our arrival for early morning two days later, our 12th day at sea. We had no hope of outrunning the storm, so we would just have to face it at sea. Although we wanted nothing more than to arrive as soon as possible, instead we bobbed in place like a sitting duck, waiting, not knowing what sort of misery the next day might bring. It was a calm night, a beautiful night. It was hard to believe bad weather was on its way. While we admired the beautiful orange sunset in the cockpit, we picked up Australian newscasts on our radio. They spoke of a huge storm, of the cancellation of professional athletic contests, of warnings for people to stay home, of chaos. We grabbed our snatches of sleep off watch having no idea what the next dreaded day would bring. Next morning those spectacular orange heavens had been replaced by a sky that was ugly, ominous and grey. In order to cook some fried eggs for Christopher’s breakfast I turned the wheel over to Michael, but I could see that I didn’t have much time, for there was an all-too-familiar black line hanging low on the horizon.

That line looked like grim, pursed black lips. Those lips promised only evil; they spoke words of danger, and death. We had to sail into them. It wasn’t ten minutes after I returned to the cockpit that the first squall hit. Our jib and small mizzen sail were both raised and hauled in tight. It was important that we not be knocked over by a blast of wind as we had been before. As soon as I could feel the wind jump in force, I turned Northern Magic north, so that we were propelled along with the squall. Although conditions in the cockpit were miserable, with the pelting rain and whipping wind, the strategy was successful and we were able to weather that first squall safely.

The sky all around us had now turned into a witches’ cauldron. “Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble” popped into my head. Shakespeare himself never imagined a more sinister sky, nor evoked a greater sense of foreboding than I felt, looking helplessly at the maelstrom surrounding our small floating home, all alone in a dark and violent sea. Even if our weather reports hadn’t said that the storm was spawning directly over us, we would have known this from the furious activity happening overhead. Low dark clouds with black borders swept from south to north; solid grey sheets of rain reached down to the water; huge thunderheads sprouted, blossomed and towered ominously, looking like mushroom clouds from a nuclear bomb. Black cloud formations rose and reached out over us like giant hands ready to crush us in their grasp. Even the sun hid, as if in fear of these evil storm lords clashing in their heavenly battleground. Standing exposed in the open cockpit of a tiny boat, this clash of titans was an awesome and fearful sight. We looked and felt very small.

Now squall after squall came racing across the water. The wind had picked up to 35 knots, and each time a squall rampaged by, it increased to 45 knots, which is a shrieking hard blast. I continued steering around and through the squalls as best as I could, minimizing the strain on the boat and the sails. The squalls would come fiercely and last half an hour or so, during which time we would be pelted with slanting rain. The waves would rise in height from three or four metres to five metres or more. Once I really got in the rhythm of steering with them I actually felt a sense of power and exhilaration, a keen sense of being truly alive. Everything depended upon my concentration to my duties. Often it took all my physical power to keep the boat on course, leaning my entire body onto the wheel. I stayed that way most of the day, and in this way we withstood perhaps 10 squalls. Then, as we sailed through the dark curtain of the final squall, to my amazement, the sky behind it was blue. The rain stopped. The wind calmed down. I was able to take my hands off the wheel for the first time in five hours. My right shoulder ached and I had no sensation at all in my right thumb, which had been gripping the wheel for hours – for days, for weeks – with all its might. I stepped into the navigation station down below where Herbert was resting on Michael’s bunk. Although exhausted, I felt proud and happy. I had brought us through the worst, and Australia was only 60 miles away.

Herbert, who again, for only the second time both in his life and on this trip, had been laid flat by seasickness, sat up looking flushed and feverish. His head was hot, yet his limbs were shivering under a thick blanket. For half an hour I rested beside him. Then I felt a strange change in the rhythm of the waves. I stuck my head out of the hatch, and couldn’t believe my eyes. Outside, that pleasant blue sky had been swallowed by a hideous black and grey tumult of clouds, a maelstrom of unbelievable proportions. In front of my eyes, a solid white wall materialized and began galloping across the frothing surface of the water. It was heading directly towards us. It was a squall line of intensity unequalled by any we had had before. As I turned the boat to run with it we were belted by its first blast. Rain smashed horizontally onto my body. Foam from the wave tops blew sideways as quickly as it formed and covered the water with a white froth. My wrap-around sunglasses were blown right off my face from under the snug hood of my foul weather suit.

Those long ago nightmares of storms at sea, encountered in the safety and warmth of my waterbed at home, did not do justice to the reality of the fury that now enveloped us. Everything we had gone through before had been just a trial run. Now the real storm started.

Surfing at eight knots along with the wind, our wind indicator registered close to 50 knots, which meant we were experiencing about 58 knots, or sustained wind of 105 kilometres per hour. During gusts, it went even higher. This was almost hurricane strength, a Force Ten storm. Within minutes the waves rose to seven metres, more than twenty feet high. Huge whitecaps roared on the tops of the waves, breaking and often crashing down all around us, onto our decks and into the cockpit. I steered with a steely gaze on the compass and forced myself not to look at the chaos around me. I asked God for strength and He gave it to me. Sometimes out of the corner of my eye I could see broad sheets of electrical flash, lightning that was hidden behind the clouds or beyond the horizon.

At first I was hoping that this was simply another squall. But when it showed no signs of abating – if anything, it was becoming worse – I yelled for Herbert to come into the cockpit and take down our sails. I knew I really should have done this much sooner, but foolishly I had been trying to protect him from having to leave his sickbed. Herbert cast his sickness aside and furled in most of the jib and put a deep reef in the mizzen sail. Later, we took down the mizzen sail altogether and ran with the storm under bare poles. Attached to the boat by our harnesses, we sat there together in the cockpit taking turns steering. Hour after hour it went on, the dark day slowly giving way to an even darker night. But still the storm continued, and the waves grew even taller. Down below the children had been left to their own devices, but they had naturally put themselves into the safety of their bunks. As darkness enveloped us I staggered down below to make sure their leecloths were all in place. The Inmarsat receiver was loudly beeping.

I turned on the computer and downloaded the first urgent safety message we had ever received: there was a violent storm warning for our area and we were right in the thick of it. Our only hope was that the storm was moving southeast, and since we were racing northwest, sooner or later conditions had to improve. Night came and now we were speeding along in total darkness, being tossed by nightmarish waves that had grown to at least ten metres high. When we were down in the trough of a wave, it would tower over us, more than half way up our mast, as high as our spreaders. Now that it was dark everything looked even more ominous. We could see very little in the black night other than the painfully bright flourescence of the breaking crests of the waves and the periodic sheets of lightning. As we sailed through the deep trough between two waves, all we could see was a frothing mass of foam looming high up over the boat, advancing threateningly, looking as if it would surely crash down right on top of us. Then, just as it looked as if we were going to be engulfed, the wave would begin to lift us up until the foam was no longer above us, but beside us, washing onto our decks or roaring into the cockpit. It was as if the wave was a muscular titan, a Goliath of the sea lifting us onto his huge shoulders, intent upon our destruction. For a moment we would perch there, mixed up in the giant’s tangled, shining hair, while Northern Magic rose bravely up, decks awash with foam. Then the giant would rush on past us, letting us slide down his back, his wild white mane streaming out behind him as he continued on his malevolent path. A few seconds later, the next wave would arrive. Up we would be hoisted again. These monstrous Titans never tired of rushing at us, toying with us and then throwing us down again with a deafening roar. I found I couldn’t even bear to look at them, but simply kept my eye fixed on the compass so I wouldn’t be distracted from my work. Focussing in this way kept me from thinking about my fear. Herbert stood beside me watching the waves rush at us from behind, directing me how to steer so that we would slide diagonally down their sides, warning me about particularly big ones. If we went directly sideways to the waves, there was a danger of us rolling over and capsizing under a breaking crest. If we went straight down, we might trip on our bow and pitchpole, flipping end over end. A hundred times I was grateful for our strong, slow, stable steel boat. Northern Magic seemed to know what to do, as we ran with the storm under bare poles at a speed of about four and a half knots.

By now it was near midnight and we were only 35 miles away from the coast. We’d been hand steering for 15 hours. Our biggest worry now was that we would get too near land during the storm and crash into a reef. We decided our only option was to lie ahull, which means to take down all the sails, close up and simply let the boat take care of itself. Herbert wrestled down the remainder of the mizzen sail and furled in the jib. Since we’d never needed to lie ahull before, we tried it cautiously, staying ready to re- establish control in case it made us less stable. We released the wheel and locked it in place with the windvane. Then we sat back, our hearts in our mouths, wondering what would happen next.

Nothing happened next. Even without our guidance, Northern Magic still knew what to do. Amazingly, she continued on her former path, meeting each wave at an angle on her stern, rising and falling just as before. We sat there for half an hour, reassuring ourselves that we were safe in her hands before we finally went below in relief, to rest Inside the cabin, everything was actually quite comfortable. Without being assaulted by the wind and rain or being forced to watch those terrible marching waves, everything felt much less dramatic. We achieved some measure of rest. If we had realized how much better this felt, we would have done it much earlier. After all our desperate fear and furious steering, the sense of foreboding and desperation we had felt outside was much reduced inside the warm homey cabin. We had a strong sense that Northern Magic was taking care of us, of doing what she was meant to do.

We each rested in turn while the other kept watch, sticking out a head every few minutes to make sure we weren’t being run over by another vessel. Herbert dozed, but I couldn’t. The nearer we came to the coast, the greater was the chance of us meeting another ship. In fact only half an hour later, the running lights of a large freighter lay directly ahead. The radar showed the ship to be more than four miles away, but we didn’t want to rely on it, and kept nervously squinting through the slamming rain as best we could every few minutes to be sure we weren’t on the verge of colliding. After a time the radar showed a second ship about eight miles away, and then a third. For the rest of the night all four of us stayed within a few miles of each other. Obviously the storm was bad enough that even big ships had given up trying to fight it, and were just riding it out the same way we were. There was little we could do except keep a good watch and hope the storm would end soon.

We were nervous the storm would prevent us from entering the harbour in the morning. With winds and seas this high, we simply could not afford to try to enter the narrow channel. Losing control of our boat and being driven onto rocks would be the most dangerous kind of disaster. If the storm continued, we would either have to head back out to sea or continue on north to the next harbour, about 200 miles away. Either way, it would mean several more days at sea. The very thought of this filled us with despair. Around midnight the Inmarsat alarm went off and I jumped to it, hoping for news. I could have kissed the machine when I read that the storm was moving away from us and the winds would begin dropping within six hours. The knowledge that an end was in sight made the small hours of that dreadful morning immeasurably easier to bear. It looked like our nightmare passage would soon be over after all. I tried to rest while Herbert took over his watch, but sleep was impossible. The best I could manage was a fitful doze.

Around 3:00 a.m. I was jerked out of bed by the Inmarsat again; now only three hours remained before our deliverance. How I loved those faithful Australian forecasters working late at night to send us those much-needed words of hope! By five in the morning the winds and waves were distinctly calmer, dropping consistently below 40 knots for the first time in almost 24 hours. We were now fewer than 20 miles from land.

At six thirty we raised Brisbane on VHF radio and asked what the conditions were for entering the harbour. “No worries,” answered the harbourmaster in his Queensland drawl, “It’s a great day here. We’ve got 15 knots of wind and you’ll have no problem at all.”

Herbert and I were almost numb with exhaustion as Michael woke up from his makeshift bed in the salon and said brightly, “Well, that wasn’t so bad!”

All we could do is look at him in stunned silence, then head back up to the cockpit to raise our sails and at last turn our battered boat for shore. Morning’s light found us only 15 miles from the Australian coast we had struggled so long to reach. Our planned seven-day passage from New Caledonia had, by now, taken twelve days and had brought us across the paths of not one but two severe storms.

Herbert and I had not eaten or slept in the previous 24 hours. In fact we had been running on adrenalin for most of the 12-day passage. My body ached from the exertion of steering through multiple squalls the day before. Practically every muscle, from my thighs to my shoulders, was stiff and sore. My right arm, which had taken the brunt of the steering during the storms and for months before, still felt numb to the wrist. My right thumb was so useless I couldn’t even hold a pen. That arm continued to be numb for another whole month, making it impossible for me to even drive a car.

Inside, the cabin was a mess. Two-day-old dishes mouldered in the sink and a mountain of granola bar and cookie wrappers engulfed the salon. With both Herbert and me fully occupied in handling the boat, the kids had been left to forage for food as best they could.

Although I hadn’t been seasick during the worst of it – protected by adrenalin, perhaps – that morning, in calmer weather, I found myself wracked and bent over the toilet repeatedly with the dry heaves. The storm had now passed on and was now wreaking havoc to the southeast of us, but we still had a very windy morning with sloppy, uncomfortable waves. But we could at last see the tawny flanks of this brand new continent to our north. Michael saw the outline of Moreton Island and, in his excitement, mistook it for Tasmania. We predicted to our eager kids that Australia was now only three hours away.

After we arrived we were still locked up behind a quarantine gate, but we jumped to the dock to stretch our legs and look for a suitable spot to kiss the ground. A sandy-haired man with a big moustache sauntered over and spoke to us through the fence.

“Welcome to Australia,” he said with a broad smile and that unmistakable Aussie accent. “You’ve made it.”

“We are very happy to be here,” we answered, shaking our heads with a rueful smile.

“You have no idea what we have been through.”

“Oh yes I do,” he answered, his grin suddenly replaced by a grave expression that chilled my heart. “You’ve been through some real bad storms. You can congratulate yourselves that you made it. Lots of boats didn’t. There have been four boats lost, and at least four people are dead.”

Those words hit us like a shot. Until that moment the enormity of our escape hadn’t really penetrated through our fog of fatigue. I staggered back as questions crowded into my mind. Who had died? Did we know them? What happened to their boats? Had we, ourselves, really been that close to the ultimate disaster?

Reproduced from “The Chronicles of Northern Magic”





 

Friday 4th November 2011

The wind filled in this morning and we were able to turn off our engine and start sailing. The wind's on the beam and has been sitting between 8 – 12 knots, light for us, but in these calm conditions, good for a spinnaker run. We certainly can't complain about our sea conditions so far. “Connect4” has been bounding along under full main and spinnaker and has been averaging between 6 and 7 knots.

To top things off, we caught a fish. A nice skip jack Tuna which made a wonderful dinner. Our food supply is dwindling as we try to run all our stocks down, so fresh fish was a fantastic treat.

We were a bit nervous about running the spinnaker overnight, so made the call to douse it and run with the main and head sail alone. We'd been hoping to make it into Chesterfield Reef tomorrow sometime, but with 165NM to go in 18 hours and such light winds, we basically abandoned hope and resigned ourselves to arriving Sunday morning. Sad but safe.



 

Saturday 5th November 2011

The wind was still on the beam, but was picking up a little, so Nick and I ran up the spinnaker and enjoyed the feeling of “Connect4” accelerating before the wind as the spinnaker gave her a new lease of life.

Throughout the morning the wind picked up and soon “Connect4” was dashing along at between 7 and 8 knots in the beautiful conditions. As the day progressed the wind remained at 90 degrees, but filled in some more and at times was verging on 18 knots apparent. Normally we douse the spinnaker when the wind reaches 15 knots, but with such nice conditions and with “Connect4” racing along so sweetly we had a chance at making Chesterfield Reef by sunset, so didn't want to slow down. It was an exhilarating sail in the calm seas as “Connect4” maintained speeds of between 8.5 and 9.5 knots and the white wake of our boat left a trail in the water behind us. What a beautiful day, what perfect sailing conditions, what a magnificent privilege to be alive and experiencing our amazing world!


 

Sunday 6th November 2011

Well the good news is that we made it into Chesterfield Reef last night after a truly spectacular sail. We arrived

at our entrance waypoint just as the sun was setting, and came into the anchorage where “Discovery”, “What ya Gonna Do” and “Ceilydh” were anchored an hour later. Normally we'd not risk entering a new anchorage at night, however our friends were aware that we were coming in, had checked the entrance and the route in and even selected a good anchorage for us.

It feels funny to be anchored in the middle of the Pacific. The average depth in this area is 4500m, except for this little atoll where we're anchored in 10m. We look around us and with the exception of one or two little slithers of sandy shore we're surrounded by open water. It looks like we've anchored in the middle of the ocean!


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Chesterfield Reef is an amazing place! Words can't do justice to describing it well enough. Imagine being the first person to discover an island totally untouched by humans, a place that nobody else has ever been to. A paradise where birds rule the island and green sea turtles come to nest at night, laying their eggs so the next generation of turtles can hatch and survive. Imagine a place where thousands of Boobie birds nest and raise their young in a world without predators - where humans can walk right up to the birds and they look at you without fear.



 

The beaches are pristine and white and the reefs fringing the little motus glisten in the sun, their colours reflecting through the crystal clear waters of the Pacific. Above the tiny motu, the blue sky merges with the azure Pacific Ocean and the Frigate birds wheel and dive, their calls making a melody against the backdrop of the orchestra of waves breaking on the windward shore.

We walked along the shore and counted almost a dozen turtle tracks making their way from the water's edge to the soft sand where the nesting turtles had come ashore to dig a hole in which to bury their precious eggs only a night or two before. The beach was breathtaking and immaculate, surely this is the way it would have looked the day it was created. The water was crystal clear and inviting.

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As we walked we saw white tipped reef sharks, fish, turtles and even an eel swimming in the shallows. As we walked to the far end of the island we saw a colony of Terns, thousands of them filling the sky, making it dark.

The children wanted to sleep ashore, so we let them take some blankets, pillows and a tarp ashore. Chelsea, Nick, Maia and Harrison braved the wild and spent the night on the beach and loved every minute of it. Nick and Harrison made a tee-pee by lashing some poles together and putting their tarp over the top while the girls simply spread their blankets over the ground sheet and slept under the stars. They had a fantastic sleep over, despite more than a few of them getting bombed by avian “missiles” in the night. When the morning came the boys had collected driftwood and timber and had lashed a canoe together so they could go out fishing. They'd made a hook out of a piece of coral and were using crab meat for bait. Sadly, the timber got waterlogged and the craft nearly sank however the adventure was worth its weight in gold.



 

Tuesday 8th November 2011

We went out SCUBA diving on the big bommie that's a couple of hundred metres to the right of “Connect4” and

it was spectacular. “Ceilydh”, “Discovery” and ourselves dinghied over to the bommie and jumped into the crystal clear waters of Chesterfield Reef. The colours on the reef and the aquatic life here are breathtaking. The vertical sided reef comes to within a couple of meters of the surface, and then has steep coral studded sides that go down to about 25m depth. The water here is so clear that I could see two black tipped reef sharks lying lazily on the bottom of the sea bed, 20m below me.

After SCUBA diving around the reef for a little while, enjoying the brilliant colours of the reef, the fish and the amazing clams, I couldn't resist the thrill of a fast descent over the edge of the bommie. I swam out over the edge, deflated my BCD and turned myself head down. I started to sink fast. As I picked up momentum I watched the coral edges of the reef whiz past me as I raced down towards the bottom of the ocean some 20m below me. I was controlling my position by moving my hands, which although were by my sides, acted like tiny fins. The feeling was exhilarating, I felt like I was flying! I WAS flying!!

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Cheryl had borrowed Dianne's SCUBA equipment and had a fantastic time exploring the reef while I took turns taking Nick and Chelsea for a dive as they buddied up with me and used my backup regulator. The colours and the most interesting parts of the reef were all within 5m of the surface, so we had a great opportunity to stay down for a good length of time exploring this amazingly beautiful place.

Thursday 10th November 2011

We went ashore with a few boats for a pot luck dinner. All of us have been running out of food provisions lately, so we've been constantly swapping provisions and what little we have left. Australia is pretty strict on what they'll let into the country, so as a general rule the best you can do is rock up with nothing.

We were only planning an overnight stop here in Chesterfield, so staying longer has been a bit of a squeeze on the food supplies but we're not the only boat. We've swapped rice, butter, fish, pasta and just about everything else we have just so we can all cook something. Today we swapped “Ceilydh” some toilet paper for some writing books for Chelsea and Nick as they filled their last school books and we had no more for their journal.

The pot luck ashore was fantastic. The variety and the tastes were enhanced by the beautiful sunset and the

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Sunday 13th November 2011

Things I'm looking forward to when I get home, aka things I will never again take for granted:

Pizza from our local take away shop

A tub of ice cream in the freezer

A shower with hot water on tap

A dish washer

The ability to step outside and walk in my garden

A bed that doesn't rock at night … well maybe not

We've got just under 140NM to go to Bundaberg, Australia, and we've all been thinking about how our lives will change and what they'll look like when we get back to Australia. There's things I'm looking forward to - I keep reminding myself, hoping somehow I'll believe it. You see, right now we're trying to accept the inevitable, so we're trying to convince ourselves that the things we're looking forward to will somehow balance out the things we know we're going to lose once we resume our normal lives. But how can ice cream, or hot showers, or the ability to walk outside when you want to ever compete with the quality of life we have right now? How can anything that I might possibly gain ever compete with the life we've lived over these last two years? Cheryl summed it up this morning when she said that although she's looking forward to life on land, so she doesn't have to live with the myriad of annoying sacrifices that go with living aboard “Connect4”, she'd gladly give it all up in an instant to be able to continue this lifestyle, this freedom that we have right now.

Two years of sailing, dozens of different countries, hundreds of different cultures and environments, thousands of different people and millions of memories. How do we ever be satisfied with an ordinary life again? I don't know the answer, but I hope that as I integrate back into the “normal” life, the experiences and adventures I've had over the last two years will come back to me and will make me a better person. I hope that all four of us are different people, better people for the experiences we've lived. I hope that we never forget the family we are and the life we had, because we chose to go off the beaten path and do something different.

This is our last night at sea on a proper passage. I'm going to miss my night watches. I'm going to miss the faint orange glow of the VHF, the red numbers that flash on the auto-pilot and the colours of the chartplotter. I'm going to miss the sound of the ocean under our hulls and the gentle motion of “Connect4” as she makes her way across the oceans of our precious world. How are we ever going to fit back into a “normal” life after all we've experienced and lived? How will we ever be satisfied with normality?

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Opa” had promised the children that the first one to spot Australia would earn themselves $5.00. The competition was fierce, with both children keeping an eager eye out for land, but in the end Chelsea was in her room reading and Nick spotted Australia and earned himself $5.00.



 

Monday 14th November 2011

We've done it!!! “Connect4” and her crew are in Australia!!! We sailed into Bundaberg, Queensland around 2:00pm today after a comfortable 3 day passage from Chesterfield Reef. We've done it!!! Right now as I write, we're anchored in Australian sand, sitting at the quarantine ball waiting for our turn to come into the quarantine dock to get processed by customs and immigration.

As we sailed in, we had a string of courtesy flags from all the countries we've visited, flying from our mast. Onshore, my Mum and Dad were waiting, waving as we came in. It felt amazing. We are home, our family, “Connect4”, we've all made it. We've sailed 17,509NM since we left Turkey and had an amazing adventure.

How does it feel? Strangely numb. It's a mix of all emotions. I've achieved a dream that took 10 years to satisfy. We've sailed more than 2/3 of the way around the world and seen more than a lifetime's worth of people and places. Now we've reached the climatic end of our journey. We're home, back on Aussie soil. We've done it … we've achieved it as a family. There was more than once when I wondered if we'd bitten off more than we could chew, when I wondered if we would ever make it, ever succeed. Now as I sit here, typing, I know we've made it. It's a relief, but also the real realisation hasn't hit me. It feels like any of the other 100 or so ports we've sailed into. It doesn't feel like the end. It doesn't feel like … well I'm not sure, what's it meant to feel like? I wonder what tomorrow will feel like?

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Tuesday 15th November 2011

So what happened yesterday. We came in with our yellow Q flag flying, then joined the long wait for customs. It felt like an eternity as we waited in the Q-zone, waving and calling to my parents on shore, but not being able to hug them. There seemed to be a rather large queue to get processed as “Ceilydh” and “Discovery”, who came in early in the morning, were still waiting for Customs and AQIS (Australian Quarantine) to process them.

We were finally directed to a berth in the marina to wait for the officials. Mum and Dad were allowed onto the dock but couldn't touch us or “Connect4”, so we stood opposite each other chatting but not getting too close. Finally customs arrived and contrary to what we'd heard and read about Australian officials, they were friendly, helpful and very accommodating. They apologised for the delay and explained that over the weekend they had caught a yacht “Friday Freedom” who had 300kg of cocaine and a couple of million dollars in cash onboard.

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The sting operation had kept them very busy and hence why they were behind. This drug bust was the fifth largest in Australian history, so it was quite a haul. “Friday Freedom” had come in with the Port2Port rally we were participating in, but we'd never met them. There were various quips going around about “Friday Freedom … Saturday Jail” but the best one came from our customs guy who said “Bundaberg used to be known for their Rum … Now we'll be known for our Rum and Coke!”.

We lost our two cans of capsicum spray, but we expected that. Quarantine came next and searched “Connect4” for foods and items that were prohibited. We lost our fresh fruit and vegetables, sprouting seeds, barley, eggs and coleslaw dressing but they let us keep quite a few other items we thought we might have lost. Nick had a necklace of shells, but it turned out that in between the shells were seeds, that although they resembled shells in their look, they were actually seeds of a very noxious weed called “Job's tears”. We thought we'd lose the necklace, but the AQIS guy told Nick that if he got a pair of pliers and pulled the seeds off he'd let him keep the necklace.

All in all, we found the officials very helpful, fair and friendly and wouldn't hesitate to recommend anyone who is considering coming to Australia, but getting put off by all the negative stories, to ignore them and come.

It was great to have Mum and Dad finally aboard “Connect4”. We showed them around then celebrated our achievement with a bottle of champagne they brought up with them. It was great to see them again after nearly two years away. We walked them through our “home” and the children excitedly showed them all their “treasures” and told them stories of their adventures around the world.

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Thursday 17th November 2011

Today is Cheryl's birthday and along with my Mum and Dad, “Ceilydh”, “WhatYaGonnaDo”, “Discovery”, and “Pappilon” we went out to a local hotel for dinner. We all had a great night out. The food was good and the company was excellent. It's been two years since I've had a chicken parmigana and it was devine. We sang happy birthday to Cheryl and then were introduced to the chorus of “Skip around the room … skip aroud the room .. we won't shut up until you skip around the room!” And they wouldn't !!! It must be a northern hemisphere thing, but they kept going and going until Cheryl did just that.



 

Tuesday 22nd November 2011

Connect4” has finally been cleared and she's fully fledged Australian. We finished with the customs, importation, termite inspection and paid all our importation duties and taxes and now we've finally been given permission to leave the river system. Thursday we'll head off down the inside channel, between the Queensland coast and Fraser Island.



 

Saturday 26th November 2011

We're anchored at the southern end of Fraser Island, having traversed the Great Sandy Straight over the last couple of days and tomorrow we move out from the shelter of Fraser Island and make the run proper down the coast to Mooloolaba. Yesterday we went for a walk on Fraser Island and I loved it. It's strange to say it, but it felt like “Australia”. The Eucalypt trees, the sparse brush, the dingoes and most of all the smell of summer; that smell of burnt dirt mixed with a little dust and complimented with the smell of the Australian bush. Yes, it's beginning to feel like we're home.

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Before we left Adelaide, I contracted to a company specialising in oil & gas engineering projects. About the time I left, they were opening up a branch in Brisbane. I rang a month or so ago and spoke to my old project manager and now have a job waiting for me when I arrive in Brisbane. I never really worried about getting another job when I got back home, but it's nice all the same to have something waiting for me. Basically our plan is that we'll stop in Brisbane and work while we sell “Connect4”, then we'll all head back down to Adelaide sometime early in January ready for Chelsea and Nick to start school around mid January. That's the plan anyway. We're hoping and praying for a quick sale and we have three different parties interested in viewing her once we get to Brisbane, so I guess we'll know the interest level in another week.

Monday 28th November 2011

We're now in Mooloolaba, the place that none of our friends can pronounce. We get “Mooloolooaba” and “Mooluba” and many other variations, all of which are highly entertaining at the expense of our overseas cruising friends.

It's slowly dawning on me that I'm nearing the end though. Today we went out shopping with Evan, Maia and Dianne of “Ceilydh”. Shopping normally is pretty cool and novel, except that this time I was shopping for work shirts, ties and trousers …. AAARRRGGGHHHH! We went to a large shopping complex and I felt totally overwhelmed. There was so much choice, so many bright signs, so many people and so much noise. Everywhere you looked there advertising, lights and promotional material. Most of the places we've been to over the last two years have had one of what you may not want and never a selection. Here I had choice. Way too much choice!

Shopping for work clothes felt strange. I haven't worn a white shirt in nearly two years. I put it on and it felt so clean, so new, so … so strange. The trousers felt unusual. I've rarely worn jeans in the last two years, but to wear trousers, that felt so unreal. I put on my trousers and shirt and came out bare footed, unshaven and feeling out of place. I looked like another person. I looked like someone I used to know … just more tanned and toned and relaxed. I'm wearing the clothes, but deep inside I know it's only a façade.


Now although I'm doing it tough with this readjustment period and this clothing situation, Evan's been doing it tougher. He's got a job interview Friday and on top of his needing to get shirts, ties and trousers he also had to get a hair cut! His once proud shock of hair that would make the young maidens croon, sadly is no more. He's been shorn and his life will never be the same again. He walked out of the hair dresser and could have walked straight past us unrecognised by his friends and family had it not been for his familiar clothes. He looks so different, so refined, so business like. He made me want to get back on “Connect4” and sail back to the nearest deserted island and hide. Do I really want to be a part of this society? I don't want to get dressed up again, I don't want to wear suits and ties and polished shoes. I'm happy in my daggy shorts with the stains on them. I like being able to get wet by the ocean and not worry about it wrecking my clothes. I love wearing little and feeling the sun on my skin.



 

Tuesday 29th November 2011

Today was Dianne's birthday and we celebrated in style. Along with “WhatYaGonnaDo” and “Ceilydh” we went to Australia Zoo for the day. It was an amazing experience, especially for our friends who hadn't ever seen kangaroos and our wildlife up close and personal before.

Australia Zoo has done a really great job of showing the animals in their natural habitat and with a bit of Steve Irwin flair and humour. The croc show in the “Crocoseum” was very educational and interesting and we had fun in the kangaroo enclosure where everyone got to pat and feed the grey kangaroos, but for me personally, the highlight was the tiger enclosure where I got to see the handlers playing “throw the fender” with the tigers. These huge animals moved so fast, leaping into the water after the fender, much like the way a dog chases a stick at the beach. These massively huge creatures were mesmerising as they played tug-o-war with their keepers to wrestle the fender away from each other.

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In the evening we all went to “Catacaos” to celebrate Dianne's birthday in style. Lorraine put on a beautiful spread and we all enjoyed the evening, the company and the bitter sweet thoughts that this could soon all change and we'll not have the close relationships with fellow cruisers like we enjoy now. We played the silly game of “Pick up the tetra brick in your mouth without touching the ground” game and try as I might, Graham bested me again. It was all ok until the brick got put in the step well of the cockpit and was lower than feet height. That's where it all came unstuck. Besides the lewd calls regarding my cute posterior, the constant prodding and poking from the opposition proved too much and stretched to my limit, I slipped and ended up upside down in the well, ontop of the tetra brick I was supposed to be picking up.

I'm going to miss this life and my friends!

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Wednesday 30th November 2011

There's a front coming through Thursday so we decided we needed to get down to Brisbane. We left early in the morning and after an uneventful and unspectacular day of sailing, we arrived at the mouth of the Brisbane River, where we anchored for the night.