Take an open boat adventure down the Hawkesbury

It is not everyone’s dream to sail an open boat down the Hawkesbury River in mid-winter but it was Rosco’s.

Ross Pollard is a sailor, a carpenter and a lover of wooden boats. After reading Captain Cook’s journals he liked the description and line drawings of the smaller of the Endeavour’s three ship’s boats known as The Yawl. He drew up plans and raided his shed to build a 15 foot marine ply clinker hull with cedar, rosewood, N.Z. kauri pine interior.

Rosco is a purist so the gaff rig has no adjustments, no boom vang, no jam cleats and no motor. Auxiliary power is strictly rowing using long sculls counter balanced at the handholds with lead weights.

A simple plan

Ross grew up on the Hawkesbury and as he laboured in his Dorrigo workshop he dreamed of sailing his little boat from Windsor to Brooklyn and camping along the way. Decent westerly winds were needed in order to sail, so winter became the obvious time with the added bonus of fewer ski boats and other river traffic to contend with.

Rosco and I have sailed together many times and it was time for me to pay back some crewing he had done on my yacht deliveries. An added bonus was my yacht Adrift is moored at Brooklyn, so it was a good finish point.

Under way

On Tuesday 29th July The Yawl was trailered to Windsor after leaving the backup vehicle in Brooklyn and launched at 3pm at South Creek ramp.

It was loaded up with our camping gear, clothing, cooking stove and food and water. We started rowing but soon after picked up a following breeze to make good progress until 4.30.

A basic and vacant ski park presented itself, so we pulled into a little beach and set up camp after checking with two young local lads who were amusing themselves by driving golf balls into the river. Ross lit a fire for warmth and we cooked our first meal as the sun went down to a cold, windy night. I woke up early with the cold, zipped up my bag and waited for dawn. The sound of vehicles starting on the Sackville Road, dogs barking, a rooster crowing and then the small birds heralded the dawn.

Old man crow in the tree above my tent got me up with cries of “aahh aahh aawl”.

It was after 8:30am before we had breakfast, cleaned up the site and repacked the boat, this process got quicker in the days ahead. We had quite a bit of rowing this morning until the Ebenezer Uniting Church was reached.

Steeped in early history

This is Australia’s oldest church established in 1809 and in very good condition after renovations for its 200th anniversary.

Over Devonshire tea in the adjoining schoolmaster’s cottage the local volunteer, one of 15 regulars in the congregation, told us about the church and how it was used as a school house so it was built with larger windows. Apparently Malcolm Turnbull was very generous with the 200th anniversary works as his family were early supporters.

Maybe it was our extra donation but the wind had swung around by the time we left so we had a good sail down Swallow Rock Reach. Unfortunately all reaches end with a bend and they inevitably have no wind or exactly contrary wind direction. Out came the oars for most of the afternoon. At least the river was flowing and there is little tidal influence upstream allowing farmers to pump fresh water from the river.

The Portland Reach was hard sailing, tacking into a headwind and an incoming tide. It was scenic and passing under one side of sandstone cliff we were rewarded with seeing many swallows’ nests in a high cave.

Ross had learnt to waterski at Windsor with his family after his father, Jack Pollard, had won a ski boat outfit in a competition. Jack was a fireman who decided to use his downtime filling in multiple competition entries with considerable success. He fine-tuned this craft by getting the kids to deliver bundles of his entries on the day of the draw and using particular sized envelopes more likely to be selected. After winning a Renault car from the same radio station he was warned off from entering its competitions again!

We got to Sackville Ski Park at 4pm and for $25 the promise of a hot shower and riverside camp spot seemed good value. Another dinner of curry and rice balls washed down with tea laced with rum.

Sackville to Wiseman’s

The night’s camp was noisier than expected because the Sackville ferry punt clanked and whirred throughout the night on request.

Another cold night and an early getaway, planned to take advantage of an outgoing tide at 7.30am, required us to start packing up in the dark before dawn.

The wind had a warm northerly slant to it that did not bode well for the day ahead. We rowed past the punt corner then some tacking against the wind up Cumberland Reach.

At 10am we pulled over to a park next to Bundarra Ski Gardens for tea and an omelet.

The Yawl is not a close-winded craft so the next Cambridge and Gloucester Reaches were hard going into a strong breeze and tide. We joked that we were better equipped than most to deal with the challenges after our time on the Bellinger River at Urunga and at least we were not running aground on sandbanks.

Past the Colo River entrance we got a following wind for a short time and were planing on the edge of control. With gear towards the front and a rudder cut down for Moreton Bay sailing, we needed to be right aft to keep the boat balanced.

Round Paradise Point it was very hard going and we realised that a warm bed in Wisemans Ferry Pub was out of the question. Soon after that a sunny river bank and ski park appeared and we pulled in at 3pm.

There were probably 50 camp sites with caravans and annexes fully equipped for the owners but it was completely deserted. The toilets were open and the showers hot so I showered and washed clothes that were dry within an hour or so in the sun and strong wind.

Rosco went exploring to an old house that turned out to be the Newall brothers’ workshop. They make ski boats and do up engines and rent out the ski park sites.

Apparently their father saw the writing on the wall for his citrus orchard so they were one of the first ski parks developed which shows in the furnishings of the individual sites. We used one of the kitchen annexes for our dinner and the last of the rum store.

The forecast was good news, the wind was to go south tomorrow.

Better breezes downstream

Another early start at 7.25am and started rowing with an outgoing tide. After we started sailing it got better and better with the wind behind and only rowing the corners. We fine-tuned our technique leaving oars out and dragging so they were easy to access in the lulls.

By now we had discovered ‘row sailing’, where the forward projection creates apparent wind.

Past Webbs Creek punt we pulled in and walked up to Wisemans Ferry town to have an early lunch and buy some wine at the pub. Pity we could not stay there but we had some favourable wind to use.

Apart from rowing around the corner it was almost all downwind sailing and The Yawl really kicked up her heels. Ideal combination was the skipper to windward and crew back and to leeward playing the jib to set it goose-winged with the little boat flying along.

We arrived at Gentleman Halt opposite Spencer at 4pm our longest distance covered in one day. It was as if the day before we had paid our dues and today was the reward.

The national park campsite was outstanding, Rosco could exercise his pyromaniac tendencies with the biggest fire. There is a drop dunny and no water but the bush is very nice. We camped under ironbarks and listened to the wind whistling though the ridge trees as the meal was prepared and wine consumed.

Next day was the attempt to get to Brooklyn and we were wary of the coastal forecast being southerly up to 30 knots. The tide was also ebbing from early morning.

After another cold and windy night, where we both got up to check the fire hadn’t spread, we had the last of the muesli and yoghurt for breakfast. It was a 7.30am start after bailing The Yawl from the previous night’s wind waves.

We started rowing until picking up wind about Big Jims Point. Every time the wind dropped one of us would hit the oars and keep going forward into the incoming tide.

We took a shortcut through Milson Passage because of the tide issue. We row-sailed the lulls and with a stiff westerly I greatly enjoyed steering her through the Mooney bridges at a great rate of knots. After all the concern about the forecast it was like an anticlimax and we raced past Long Island and under the railway bridge.

There was even wind around into Brooklyn and only a short row into Parsley Bay pontoon at 11am.

The gods had been smiling and we were elated at the sail.

Going forth

We had discussed the option of going on to Lion Island but decided we had enough bruises and good sail memories so this would do.

Once again The Yawl drew lots of onlookers and admirers as we unpacked and after brunch of omelet with the last of the salami we drove the Windsor Shuttle for the trailer and load up.

On our return Adrift was welcoming and provided hot showers, spaghetti bolognese and wines.

We decided to stay Sunday and took the ferry over to Dangar Island for breakfast. The café had not opened so we took a walk around to the south beach and talked to one bloke about rowing and paddling. This chap does the kayak marathon from Windsor to Mooney overnight in 13 hours which puts our four days to shame.

After breakfast we visited two friends of Ross’s who have lived on the island for many years, there was lots of talk of families, work, life, sailing and rowing.

They took us down to their jetty and we had a chance to try their Dangar rowing dory and look over their beloved wooden yacht.

The mutual boat admiration continued after they took us back to Adrift and then into the car park to peruse The Yawl.

While we were there the maker of the Dangar Dory arrived with his boat. John Murray is an expert rower so our one person at a time procedure was evaluated and pronounced ideal.

Later we walked up the Great North walk track to a sandstone ridge that had ancient aboriginal carvings.

We followed the plateau and found carvings of fish, a whale and several strange humans without heads. All these carvings used to be recarved in the yearly tribal migration but no longer.

Looking back

Looking out at Milson Island, the passage and the wreck of the Parramatta below Cascade Gully we had a late lunch and consumed the last of the bread and pecorino cheese that we had started with.

We thought about the special river moments and I would not be surprised if our dreams see us returning to this river again.

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