Chesterfield, or not?
Iridescent blue patches sparkle across the waves and schools of flying fish burst from the water, the gossamer wings opaque as they glide just above the sea. Floating across the tops of the waves for hundreds of metres they disappear with tiny splashes.
Seabirds wheeling and plunging headfirst into the water as they chase baitfish, or maybe flying fish, tells us that we are closing in on Chesterfield Reef. A small dark bird wings its way past the stern, dipping its breast into the water periodically. It doubles back several times to check out the boat for a potential resting spot, but changes its mind and flies on.
The forecast: 25 knot to 30 knot winds and four metre swells in coastal offshore waters around Bundaberg within the next three days, has sat heavy on my mind overnight. An easting wind has forced us to push our course further south into a reach to maintain speed, so our current heading will miss the lead waypoints into Chesterfield. If we are going to Chesterfield, we want to arrive before dark.
Right now, we are on track to arrive around 2pm, but we have not yet decided if we will stop and wait, or try to outrun the weather.
A broken restrainer
The morning schedule call with Gulf Harbour radio completed, Paul brews coffee while Nik catches up on some sleep. It is quiet onboard, conditions are nice: a steady 15kn with 1.5m swell.
The calm is shattered by a loud noise, like something under high tension letting go suddenly. Springing out to the aft deck, Paul and I begin searching for the source of the noise. We find it quickly. The boom restraint block has given way on one side, it is barely hanging on.
We turn further into the reach, disconnecting the restrainer and centering the boom.
Taking the broken block below, Paul reappears a few moments later with a replacement block. I watch on in amazement as he quickly removes the old block and replaces it with the new one.
Less than 20 minutes later we are operational again, resetting our course.
Our arrival time at Chesterfield creeps towards late afternoon as fluctuating wind makes it hard to maintain a constant speed. We really do not want to negotiate the entry through the reef and the several miles through the lagoon to the south-eastern anchorage in the dark.
Mid-afternoon an e-mail arrives. EasyTiger, a catamaran that left Vanuatu a few hours ahead of us, has snapped its prodder. Without the large multi-purpose sail in the easing winds they cannot maintain the needed boat speed to beat the weather system. They advise they are diverting to Chesterfield to wait it out.
Bossanova, another large catamaran, plus Class 7, a smaller monohull, both a few hours ahead of us, decide to keep pushing. Bossanova has calculated they will need to maintain a n 8kt minimum for the next three days to beat the developing system. They have full sails and motors assisting.
We look over the weather data again and redo our calculations. Based on the forecast, there is no way we can maintain the boat speed needed to beat the weather. We make the decision to stop at Chesterfield and wait it out.
Our arrival time has slipped out to 5pm.
A broken main block
Anxious about arrival time, we push into the reach to maintain best speed. When another loud bang is heard, it sounds ominously familiar.
This time it is the boom vang block. Forty-eight hours of 25kt to 30kt, along with a couple of hundred sea miles, has taken its toll.
The block is holding on, but only just. With everyone already on deck we fly into action, rounding up into the wind for the second time today as we secure sails. We are losing precious time and we do not have it to spare.
Boom secured, we run out the headsail, kick over the motors and turn downwind. We have pushed south to maintain speed, so this slide north is needed to line us up with the reef entrance anyway. Now seems like a good time to do that. We hold 6kt as we track north.
Without a replacement double block available, Paul improvises, creating a jury rig using part of the broken block and a series of D shackles to get the sail operational again.
Resetting our course yet again, our ETA is now 6.30pm. It will be dark.
Chesterfield at last
I am chewing my fingernails at the helm. A lift in the breeze through the afternoon has our estimated arrival time now between 5.30pm to 6pm, it is going to be close.
We confirm the waypoint accuracy with EasyTiger’s skipper, Steve. Anchorage is in around 8m of water off the north-west tip of the island. He mentions a few isolated bommies.
At 5pm we can see the breaking waves to our port as we enter the lagoon, turn south into the calm waters along the inside of the reef edge. As we follow the waypoints on the navigation system, scanning the water for any hint of coral bommies, the sun eases towards the horizon behind us. We can see Easy Tiger and two other boats at anchor in the distance.
Finally, as the sun sinks below the horizon, we find a clear patch of sand in 10m of water and drop anchor.
We are anchored behind a series of small sandy islands with low vegetation. The following morning we observe another island in the distance to the south and, behind us, a series of white sand cays that disappear on high tide. Chesterfield Reef lagoon covers some 2000nm² and we are keen to explore.
Heading south first, we drop anchor in 4m of crystal clear water over white sand and head inshore.
A few hours later, after exploring the island and surrounding reef, we are preparing to up anchor. As we hit the anchor winch to pull the anchor up, we discover a new problem. The winch is turning under the deck.
Inspecting the winch and locating the issue, it quickly becomes clear that expert assistance will be required to fix it. The only way the anchor is coming up today is by hand.
I pull on my gloves and get to work, thankful for years of sport and gym sessions. Working as a team, Paul throttles forward as I haul in the chain and Nik coils it into the anchor locker.
We head directly back to the more protected eastern anchorage and search hard for a clear spot in 4m to 5m of water, to minimise the amount of chain required. The winch issue will put an end to our exploring but we do manage to pick up a medium-sized barracuda on the way.
When can we leave
The wind steadily increases and squalls bring grey skies and rain. It is reasonably calm in the anchorage. The weather forecast shows 3m to 4m swells outside and the waves are overtopping the eastern reef edge on high tide. But the low islands between us and the reef edge form a wave break.
No one is keen to get into the dinghy for visiting, so the VHF crackles with conversation between the waiting vessels. There is no certainty of when we might be able to leave. The weather system sits stubbornly off the Queensland coast producing the predicted 4m swells and 35kt winds from Mooloolaba to north of 1770.
Finally, on the sixth day, a weather window appears in the forecast. We will leave in the morning. The forecast shows it will still be pretty unpleasant, but should drop out rapidly.
With clear sky above as the sun rises over the islands, we haul the anchor in by hand and turn west. It has been ten days since we left Vanuatu.
We head out through the small gap in the western side of the reef passing by Long Island, the largest of the islands within the reef system. Years ago it housed a whaling station.
As we clear the edge of the reef a solid 3m to 4m swell finds our beam as the wind barrels through at 20kn to 25kn. Rainbows dance around the boat as early morning sun refracts through the spray from the occasional wave breaking against the side of Skellum. Easy Tiger is slightly ahead of us on a tighter reach, they are heading directly for Brisbane.
Some banter floats across the radio waves and there is a sense of solidarity and comraderie having spent a week isolated together in such a remote and beautiful place.
As Long Island quickly falls away behind us, I spy the largest loggerhead turtle I have ever seen in the water beside us. His wide green back below the surface looks like a tiny isolated coral bommie. His head pops up inquisitively to watch us pass, maybe bidding us farewell.
It is a quick start to the final leg as we skip along the big swells. By 6pm, 12 hours in, we have covered 120nm.
By the time I take the helm for my watch at 3am, the wind has eased. There is no moon but there is bioluminescence glow in our wake.
I have been away for a total of 15 days now. I am missing home.
By 9am we are bobbing in the still big swell making 2kn to 3kn. Paul starts the outboards and we manage five knots with the headsail still pulling occasionally. The wind dies completely. We grind away at 3kn to 4kn on motors as the miles crawl by.
Suddenly late in the afternoon, I feel it against my cheek. Wind!
We throw up the main as the wind strengthens, blowing in from the NE for the first time in this trip. Main up, headsail out, we hit the head spinning high speed of 7.5kn.
Then, just as suddenly, it is gone again. By 5pm we have restarted the outboards and sunk back down to four knots.
A pre-dawn drama
My alarm wrenches me awake at 2am and we have wind.
Paul is at the computer, wet weather gear on. We are on a tight reach and it is pelting down. He has one reef in. As the squall blows through we settle out to around 7kn. He heads below for some sleep.
Two boats appear on the AIS. One, a fishing trawler, stopping and starting, sometimes with bright lights blazing, sometimes dark about 6nm north of us.
The other a ship, steaming south across our track about 10nm ahead of us.
Suddenly Skellum surges, picking up speed and we surf at 9kn to 10kn. A squall is blowing in. The wind increases and we touch twelve knots. I stick my head out and flick a torch over the sails.
Stepping back in under the aft deck cover, a loud noise above me has me ducking for cover as the bottom of the mainsail balloons out over my head. There is sail cloth and lines spilling down from the cabin roof. I cannot immediately see what has given way. I dive down the companionway to wake Paul.
He follows me up, still half asleep. I am trying to work out what has happened. I realise the reefing line has given way and the bulging sail has brought the lazy jacks down.
We start engines, rouse Nik, turn up into the squall and try to drop sail.
Without the lazy jacks to hold up the sail bag, the mainsail comes down across the cabin roof. Paul cannot secure it in the wind alone.
Nik throws me a bundle of rope and takes the helm. Clipping onto the safety lines along the pitching cabin roof in the howling wind and rain I quickly climb up to help. On our knees on the wet roof we cling to the boom as we work to bundle the sail and wrap the rope around it.
It is after 6.30am and the squall has passed by the time we are secured. The darkness has turned to a dreary grey.
Up the mast and out of water
The broken ends of the lazy jack ropes have pulled up to the blocks above the spreaders on the mast. We need to bring those lines back down and fix them before we put the main back up.
Swinging downwind, I hold the boat steady and watch as Nik winches his brother up the swinging mast. Wearing shin high gumboots to protect his skin, Paul clings to the wet mast with his legs as he inches upwards. Successfully retrieving the ends, he loops a rope through and we bring him and the lines back down.
By 7.30am we are back in action. It has been 2.5hrs since the reef line let go.
Nik heads down to make some breakfast and is almost immediately back on deck. We are out of water.
Given we filled the water tanks at Chesterfield with desalinated water, this does not feel right. We pop the floorboards on the portside. Around 100 litres of fresh water sloshes back at us. Skellum has soft bladders to hold her fresh water supply. The port side has clearly sprung a leak.
With less than 24hrs to Bundaberg, it is a small issue. The starboard tank is fine. We switch over and clean up the spillage.
What else will break?
By lunchtime we have cut the engines again and are doing seven knots under full sail. There are more squalls on the horizon but the wind occasionally drops out, leaving us bobbing at four knots between gusts.
Paul is working on repairing the reefing line as the next squall closes in. Within a few minutes we come up to 9kn, then 10kn. As he puts the boom end back together, we hit eleven knots.
I am tense waiting for something else to break, but Paul is relaxed, this is sailing he tells me. We are making good time towards home. He finishes up and goes below for a rest, leaving me at the helm.
Nik appears back on deck. He notes the speed and wonders out loud what I have been anxiously thinking, "ten knots? I wonder what will break this time?"
We laugh and the tension eases.
On current speed we will reach the edge of Breaksea spit by 6.30pm.
I am on watch as we eat our final evening meal of the crossing. One eye on the navigation system and depth sounder, the other on the ocean. I am on alert for anything suggesting shallow water or breaking waves as we near the edge of the shelf.
Our line has us coming in on the southern side of the Breaksea beacon, and I am still feeling anxious.
The chart shows plenty of water across the banks. As the sky darkens the light from the lighthouse on the tip of Fraser Island comes into view, far to port. I feel a comforting sense of familiarity as we cross over into this known territory of coastal Australian waters.
As evening draws in, the Breaksea spit behind us, Paul heads below for much needed sleep and Nik takes the helm.
It is clear above us, the stars bright. I stay up with him for a while watching a stormhead visible, far to the south-west of us. Lightning crackles within it.
We are just hours away now, running with full main and headsail, keen to be in port. The crossing has taken twelve days.
A wild storm
I have the distinct feeling we are not in the clear yet, but the storm looks a way off and seems to be slow moving. I head below to get some sleep myself.
It hits just before 2am. Roaring into us. A lesser pre-squall running just a few minutes ahead of the main storm has already seen Nik and Paul furl sails and drop an engine.
The wind hits us head-on, so fierce the boat almost immediately begins to stall. Losing steerage quickly, the 46 foot aluminium boat acts like a sail as it begins to slide backwards, before spinning to face back out to sea, propelled by winds upwards of 40 knots.
Paul drops the second engine and increases the revs as Nik gets her turned around again. The ocean is being whipped into white frosting around us; the wind howling as the storm unleashes with crashing thunder and daylight-bright lightning revealing horizontal rain.
Then suddenly, it is gone. A gentle drizzle settles in its wake. Nik heads below to find dry clothes and some rest. Paul and I settle in for the final few hours.
We have been in touch with border security in Australia and advised them of our anchor winch issue.
Normally vessels arriving from overseas to Bundaberg are required to anchor off, notify customs and immigration and wait to be called. However, with no working anchor winch they have approved us to come directly into the quarantine wharf.
We enter the long line of leads. Like a familiar watery runway, the red and green lights direct us to our final destination. A brief search for the right pontoon in the dark and, by 4am, we are tied up to the quarantine wharf.
Later we will be visited by customs and immigration staff and have the boat inspected for quarantine, but for now we pour a celebratory drink and toast to homecomings and bluewater crossings.
Six days and nights of sailing and seven days and nights waiting out the weather at Chesterfield Reef. It is been an experience I will never forget.
So am I a bluewater sailor?
I sit up on deck and watch the grey sky lighten. Steve, my partner will drive up from Mooloolaba later this morning to collect me.
I had never really appreciated why it was called 'bluewater sailing’; I mean, the water around the coast is blue too is it not? But it was as I sat on deck in the sunshine, in the middle of that deep ocean, staring into its depth trying to identify just the right shade of blue to describe it: cobalt blue, indigo, navy, royal; then I realised.
It is deepwater blue so, when someone asks "are you a bluewater sailor”, what they are really asking is: "have you seen the colour of an ocean four kilometres deep? Have you seen the way it sparkles and changes? How it morphs to silver black under a cloud? How it sparkles iridescent blue across the wave tops from behind your sunglasses?"
I am no longer a bluewater virgin, I did it.
I am a bluewater sailor and I am already dreaming of the next time I can look into the depths of that deep water blue. ≈