After waiting for five days for the weather to change, we
were anxious to continue south and to leave Yamba. When the forecast on Saturday showed
northeast winds, we made sure we were ready and we pulled up the anchor before
the sun rose. As we steamed out the
channel, the waves piled high, each one threatening to break on top of us but
we avoided any mishaps and soon we were out to sea again, heading for Port
Stephens. Our calculations had us
arriving just before sunset on Sunday and we were pleased when the wind filled
in, giving us some of the fastest sailing we had ever done.
The wind didn’t last and sometime after midnight we put the
engine on, motoring for several hours before the wind picked back up
again. As we sailed into Port Stephens,
we called the Port Stephens Volunteer Marine Rescue on the radio, letting them
know we’d made it safely (and four hours ahead of schedule). While I had them, I asked if they could
recommend an anchorage as the Australian Bureau of Meteorology had issued a
High Wind Warning for the area. The man
I was speaking with suggested Fame
Bay, a small bay about 12
miles from the entrance and well protected from every direction except
southwest. As the winds were forecast to
come from the southeast, this sounded perfect.
As it turned out, Fame
Bay reminded us of places we had been
to in Canada
with trees coming right to its rocky shore.
It was small – not much room for more than 10 or so boats but it seemed
peaceful and isolated. We dropped our
hook and backed down on it hard, which is our usual procedure, simulating
forces on our anchor that we might experience in 40+ knots of wind.
I was anticipating that it would be an early evening for me
as I had hardly slept the night before – usually I don’t sleep well on the first
night of a passage (the truth is, that as a professional insomniac, I rarely
ever sleep well) but I surprised myself and easily stayed up until almost
It was about an hour later that the wind filled in except
instead of being from the southeast as forecast, it was from the southwest, the
only direction that our anchorage was vulnerable. With a resigned sigh, I got out of bed as I
knew that sleep would not be forthcoming.
I sat in the cockpit and kept an eye on our location using our position
relative to other boat’s anchor lights and our chartplotter. By 0300, the wind was up to 30+ knots and the
wind waves were running between 2 and 3 feet.
My heart fell as I saw our position on the chartplotter change, a sure
sign that we were dragging our anchor. I
fired up the engine and in seconds Ruthie appeared in the companionway. “What’s up?” she asked. “We’re dragging,” I said, “Let’s get out of
It was no easy feat to raise the anchor as the foredeck was
pitching wildly. Under normal circumstances
when I’m raising the anchor, Ruthie and I communicate by hand signals but in
the pitch blackness it was impossible and the roar of the wind made shouting
useless. Finally, with the anchor in its
chock, we made our way out of Fame
Bay and swung around to
the north to a bay called North Arm.
Between the chartplotter and the radar we maneuvered through the narrow
entrance but as we got deeper into the bay it began to shallow and the waves
were just as big as they were in Fame
Bay. “This isn’t going to work, either,” I said to
Ruthie so we turned around to leave.
With Rutea’s engine running at about three-quarters throttle, we could
only make about 3 knots of headway into the wind.
We were just about to clear the entrance when all of a
sudden the radar screen went blank.
“Unable to receive information” was what the display said. Our hearts sank. We had the chartplotter still but that
doesn’t show us other boats that might be moored or anchored. The radar is like having eyes at night - without it, we feel blind. Our hearts sank further still when seconds later the engine
sputtered and died.
It was almost too unreal.
Surely this had to be a nightmare from which I’d awake, shaking my head,
saying, “You’ll never guess what I dreamed last night . . . “ but no, this was
the real thing and seconds counted. The odds of having two major failures simultaneously was stratospheric. I
tried to restart the engine but it wouldn’t start. Without too much hesitation, I ran forward
and kicked over the anchor, letting out as much chain as I could, as quickly as
We were in a bad spot.
The fetch was almost four miles long and the bay was whipped into a
fury. Just off our starboard beam was
the buoy marking the entrance to North Arm and less than 150’ behind us was the
steep shore where the heavy waves were breaking. After I got the anchor bridle rigged, I went
aft to talk with Ruthie. In typical Ruthie
fashion, there was no panic and she was making one of her famous lists of the
things we should be doing, although doing it mentally. The good news was that the boat was stopped
even if it was jumping around like a badly-behaved terrier at the end of a
leash. And, after rebooting the radar,
it came back to life. The bad news was
we only had 10 feet of water under the keel and with the seas as there were, it
I tried some quick troubleshooting techniques to see if I
could find why the engine wouldn’t start but I could quickly tell that the
problem was going to be elusive to find.
I called the Port Stephens VMR and told them our situation and they
asked me if I wanted them to dispatch a rescue vessel to help us. After thinking about it for about two
seconds, I said, “Yes.” They advised me
that it could take some time for them to reach me and asked that I stay close
to the radio.
Things were getting worse.
It appeared that our 30-kilo Bruce anchor was still dragging as now we
only had 4 feet of water under our keel.
I went forward again and deployed our second anchor, a 20-kilo Bruce
attached to 50’ of ⅜” chain and
100’ of 1” megabraid rope. The wind
lightened slightly. I activated our
masthead strobe light.
I went back to work on the engine. It was clearly a fuel delivery problem and it
appeared to me that the mechanical fuel pump must have gone out. Fortunately, we had a spare – if only I could
find it. It took me longer to find the
spare fuel pump than it did to install it!
Alas, even with the new fuel pump, the engine would start and run for a
few seconds before sputtering and dying again.
At 0430, the Rescue Vessel Danial Thain, a 58-foot, 35-ton
all-weather ship sporting two 460-hp engines arrived. I was still trying to get the engine running
and asked them to stand by for just a couple of more minutes but in the end I
had to ask them to tow us away. But
first, I had to weigh the second Bruce anchor that I had deployed and with the
first Bruce anchor occupying the windlass, it meant I had to do it by
hand. Hand over hand I strained to pull
up the anchor, the bow of Rutea plunging and rising, sometimes helping and
sometimes working against me. As I
pulled the anchor in, Ruthie flaked the rope and chain into the anchor well. The worse part was the mud. It was everywhere. The chain was covered with a thick layer of
slippery, sticky mud and since it was so heavy, I couldn’t hold it away from
Once the second Bruce was on board and stowed, the Danial
Thain slowly approached and threw a heaving line to which a tow rope was
attached. I unhooked the bridle from our
anchor chain and put the bridle through the eye on the end of the tow
rope. Gently, the Danial Thain pulled
away, taking the load off the anchor and allowing our windlass to do its job.
The first light of morning was beginning to appear as we
were being towed away. We were in
constant radio contact with the Danial Thain and they suggested an anchorage
for us with good protection and we agreed.
At 0530, the Danial Thain slowed as it entered Salamander Bay and I released their tow line from
our bridle. We drifted to a stop and
dropped our anchor once again, this time into good sand. The Danial Thain circle and approached,
giving us a folded pieced of paper before they pulled away. The paper said that they had spent two hours
retrieving us and even though there was no charge for the service, it would
have cost us about AU$200 to have it done and they would appreciate a donation. We thanked them profusely.
Rutea was a mess. Her
foredeck was covered with mud. We had
mud everywhere. It was in my hair. It was on our cockpit cushions. It was in our galley. It was on our Cruising Guide to New South
Wales. My clothes looked like they
were camouflaged. But, other than that,
there was no damage and no one got hurt.
We had been very lucky.
The problem with the engine turned out to be a kink in a
fuel supply hose. Of course, I had
changed the mechanical fuel pump and a couple of fuel filters before I found
the problem but the engine now purrs like it always has and I still have a
tremendous amount of confidence in it.