Monday, December 17, 2012

Port Stephens, New South Wales

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 midnight.

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 here.”

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 I could.

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 wasn’t enough.

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 ” 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 me.

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.

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