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“At the BAR” – a tale of Lady J’s New Zealand attempt

Wednesday, 15th April 2020

Where are my glasses?   “Has anyone seen my glasses?”  It was 3 am in the morning with 50 knots howling through the rigging and 4 m waves smashing on the nose of “Lady J” a Jeanneau 53.  I was crawling around, appearing to mop the floor with my open hand in a desperate last attempt to find my glasses.  No luck! 

We had been at sea for six days. Attempting to travel from Melbourne hugging the coast north to Batemans Bay then sail across to New Zealand in early January right at the peak of the bush fires in Australia when at 160nm offshore an approaching weather bomb forced us to turnaround.

We had decided to try and make Wilsons Promenade and a sheltered bay called Refuge Cove.  It was impossible!! 

We had been travelling at 2 kts over ground for 16 hours.   I made the decision to turn around and make a run for a little town on the Victorian Coast.  Only a week prior it had been evacuated because of the massive bush fires burning ferociously down the coast destroying indiscriminately everything in its path. Now here we were, making haste to the same little town called Lakes Entrance for refuge. 

 I had a very high temperature which had been with me for the past 5 days and the crew had been putting cold towels on my forehead to help try and bring the temp down between my watches.  I missed my last watch as I was semi delirious and the crew let me sleep, so I was in a weakened state both physically and mentally.

We had 70nm to run down to “the Bar” which was the entrance to the harbour.  The sun had come up.  I had found one lens of my glasses but was forced to use a pair of bi focal sunglasses to read the charts and chartplotter.    The sky was very dark and resembled the late afternoon in the middle of a storm in winter, so sunglasses were not a good option to be able to see anything.

Just to add a bit of a twist, the engine had started cutting out repeatedly.  I checked the fuel and one tank was empty and the other was on emergency reserve?   How could that be? I checked them only 4 hours before and we had ½ tank?  So now we were only running under headsail, but we were very comfortable running with the 35knt breeze and 4-5 m waves.

We phoned the harbourmaster, to discuss when was slack water and how best to approach the crossing.  It was still blowing at 25-35 knots with large breaking waves.  We were doing 10 knots with 3 reefs in the head sail.

We had just installed a brand new electric furling unit on the bow and this came with a nice remote control unit which was on a rope and tied off on the steering pedestal.  This had now stopped working!!!! There was a hard wired remote but that was in the bow sail locker.   I crawled forward and pulled it out and shut the hatch, at the same time I pulled out the windlass remote for the anchor from the anchor locker another few feet forward as we may need the anchor if it all turned pear shaped crossing the BAR.

The harbour master was called “Bob” locally known as “Trees”.  He talked me through using the wave height meter, tidal graphs all of which was on the internet.  Then discussing the optimal time to make a crossing.

The resulting discussion summary was: 

“Do not attempt to cross the bar if the wave height meter exceeds 2 m.”

“Optimal time will be 9 pm tonight but you need light to navigate the harbour.  So cross at 8.30 pm”

“Make your approach at 8 pm from about 1.2 nm out”.

“Trees” thought I was an incompetent idiot.  I had all the knowledge and experience but due to my weakened physical state combined with mental exhaustion. I just could not mentally work anything out with confidence.   I just accepted his many direct derogatory comments as I had 4 other lives, I was responsible for.

We arrived near the entrance to the Bar at 5.30 pm, 7 miles out.  We spent the next 3 hours by working our way tacking back and forth, getting closer and closer to the entrance.  Identifying the leading lights, watching the boat speed at the various angles of sail and practicing time verse distance coverage.

We had crew member “Mike” on the bow. He was strapped down spread eagle across the foredeck.  Resembling a chicken waiting for the skewer to be inserted and put on a rotisserie. Mike had the furling remote in one hand and the windlass remote in the other. “For gods sake, do not mix them up”, I thought quietly to myself.  God knows what Mike was thinking?

Bruce was on the gib sheet, Rod was on the stopwatch and Crawford acting as coordinator.

At 7.58 pm we started the run.  I stopped looking at the wave height meter as it was over 3.75m and had been sitting solidly at 4m (only went to a max of 4m) for the past 50 mins prior to the run.

We had approx. 10-12 knots of boat speed running down to the Bar under head sail when a huge wave picked us up and tossed us like a dart.  I kept the boat nailed inline with the bright blue lights which made the transit line. 200 m out from the Bar I pushed the engine starter motor button.

It worked!!!  “furl in the head sail” I yelled.  My delight was instantly annulled, as the engine then died.  I yelled “unfurl the headsail” and Crawford ran down below.  Switching the fuel tank to the other tank in hope that the tank had more concentred vapours residing in it somehow. 

I was steering, transfixed on the blue lights, the guys had the headsail flying and trimmed to perfection. We must have been doing 15 knots by this stage.

At the entrance there are two very large bluestone groins which go out and these where being pounded by waves smashing against them in a fury of white spray.  When the waves abated the stone, pillars were left resembling waterfalls guarding the entrance.  The seas were angry and coming across the bar from the rear quarter in a fury of white water and foam.

We were about 25 m from making love to the starboard pillar of stone.  When I pulled down on the wheel and a we did a sharp turn to port and we entered the centre of the harbour channel.

I had one hand on the wheel and a finger of the other hand on the started motor button.  It fired up!!  The throttle was already on full so as soon as the engine engaged it gave a burst of power and we skated across into the clam entrance like a surfboard.

We motored into the channel furling the headsail and did the sharp right turn to take us into the fishing harbour.  At this stage I was shaking and the relief of what we had just done overwhelmed me.  We motored at 3 knots in strongly fading light down the narrow channel and about 800 m into the fishing harbour we gently grounded ourselves on a sand bar.  The anchor was dropped, and we switched on the anchor lights as the engine also decided it had had enough excitement and stopped working.

Within 5 mins of gathering our thoughts and finally breathing at a normal tempo, a very large 55ft power boat came out of nowhere and offered to tow us to the fuel depo and tie us up.  Rodney was the owner of a local fishing company and had been watching with great interest our movement for the past 3 hours.  Rodney was kind enough to pay for our tanks to be filled and said, “stay there until the morning.”  He also said “we had been the best entertainment the town had seen in 10 days.”  Apparently, half of the town was on the hill overlooking the bar watching our efforts sitting in deck chairs with beers in their hands.  This was later confirmed by another local “Harry” who helped us the next morning.

This is a true story and while it has been condensed and summarized.  We also had a man overboard, HF radio failure and iridium go satellite failure.  There was a cyclone which was predicted to travel down the West Coast of New Zealand and we knew there was a low coming up from below Tasmanian.

We turned around about 160nm off the coast of Batemans Bay in NSW and we had a good run from there to Gabo Island. About 50 nm off Gabo towards Wilsons Prom is where the Tasmanian depression started to hit and this story picks up.

We could not go to Mallacoota, we could not have turned to run to any other port north due to the massive bush fires burning including Eden.

A special thanks goes out to my crew who kept calm in all the situations we faced and worked as a team through it all.

When “Murphys law” hits you, it does so with all of its might.




Andrew Lowe