Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Meanderings in Australia and an unplanned trip to New Zealand


Iron Bark and I arrived in Western Australia from Newfoundland on 31 March 2016 after a slow and not always easy passage of 171 days.  I spent three months in Fremantle catching up with family and friends while refitting Iron Bark and in late June sailed northward for the Kimberley coast of Western Australia. The Kimberley has an area of 430,000 sq km, which is a bit bigger than Germany, with 40,000 people, 100,000 saltwater crocodiles (no one counts the smaller Johnstone River crocodiles) and 40,000 humpbacked whales. I like places with more wildlife than people. Most of it is rugged country with no roads; transport is by sea or helicopter. As it is 1500 miles to windward of any city, the number of yachts is trivial though there are a few charter boats and small tour ships. The tidal range is up to 12m, the largest in Australia, with tidal streams to match. Large areas of the coast are unsurveyed and the turbid water makes pilotage by eye challenging. Altogether it is a fascinating place.

The passage northward from Fremantle was straightforward with generally fair winds, as one would expect given the latitude and time of year.  Unusually, I had a crew for the first 230nm (nautical miles). John Clarke, an old friend, came along as far as Geraldton, which took two and a half days. When servicing the Aries wind vane in Fremantle I had reassembled it incorrectly so we had to hand steer most of the way to Geraldton. That was no great hardship with two of us and once at anchor it did not take long to fix the Aries.
I continued north from Geraldton with a fair wind that held for 12 days. Then, having got within 150 miles of my destination, Yampi Sound, the wind backed and strengthened to E7 (east force 7, 30-35 knots). This was a dead noser and I spent two and half uncomfortable days bashing into it, making minimal progress; I should have hove-to and waited it out. Eventually the wind eased, allowing me to beat into Yampi Sound and come to anchor in Myridi Creek on 16 July, 18 days from Fremantle. It was a pleasant, uneventful passage whose details would soon blur without reference to the logbook.
Myridi Creek

Yampi Sound is about 18nm by 4nm and separated from the Timor Sea by a fringe of islands. The spring tidal range is 9m. By the standards of the Kimberley coast, Yampi Sound is a busy place. There are abandoned iron mines on two islands, a barge selling fuel is moored in of its creeks and there is a permanently occupied camp in another creek. I soon met Scottie, the occupant of this camp in Silver Gull Creek, and we got on well. The camp has a tank fed by an artesian spring that is the most reliable water source for many miles and provides a swimming pool/bath heated to 32°C. This brings a trickle of tourists from charter yachts and Scottie sells them mother of pearl trinkets to pay for his provisions.
After a week of pottering around Yampi Sound, I sailed around for King Sound to have a look at an unsurveyed bay irresistibly named ‘The Graveyard’. The tidal streams in King Sound are strong and at times Barky was doing 10 knots over the ground in winds so light that she barely had steerage way. ‘The Graveyard’ is so named because an island near its entrance was used by the pearlers to bury their dead, mostly divers killed by the bends before the need to decompress was understood. Inside ‘The Graveyard’ I found a good anchorage where I spent four weeks grinding and repainting Iron Bark’s decks, exploring and charting ‘the Graveyard’ and scrambling over the islands and mainland hills. The country surrounding ‘The Graveyard’ is harsh and inhospitable, even by Australian standards, and I saw no evidence of past aboriginal occupation; no rock paintings, no discarded spearheads, no fire blackening of the roof of rock shelters. The monsoon rains had failed for the past three years and ‘the Graveyard’, like the rest of the Kimberley, was drought-stricken. The steep hills are composed of blocky siliceous sandstone covered with spinifex and half-dead scrub. Spinifex is a spiky, tussocky grass with sharp, siliceous tips that penetrate the skin then break off and become infected. I have spent a lot of time working in spinifex country and still find it unpleasant. I also found the clouds of voracious sandflies and the unremitting heat discouraging, so my hiking was limited.

I sailed back to Yampi Sound late in August and stopped at Silver Gull Creek to visit Scottie and top up with water. Yarning with Scottie, it emerged that he had not been out of his camp for a year and wanted to visit his family as well as do some shopping for luxuries like a VHF radio and a pair of boots. He needed someone to look after the camp while he was away. Would I do it?
It was too good an opportunity to refuse. Camping at Silver Gull Creek for a month would let me get to know the area in a way that I never could on short trips ashore. I need time to get to know the landscape and its animals in order to appreciate an area. That is why in the past I have chosen to spend a winter in one place in the high Arctic or Antarctica rather than attempting to cover the maximum amount of territory in the time available. Admittedly, the sea being frozen for 7 or 8 months during the winter had a lot to do with not moving on in those cases.
Scottie arranged a ride to town on the fuel barge that was anchored a few miles away in Dog Leg Creek when it made its next trip to Derby. That was due in two weeks; I promised to be back before then and set off to look at Camden Sound in the interim. It took me a couple of days to sail the 100 or so miles there, anchoring along the way at Deception Bay and Samson Inlet and arrived in Camden Harbour on 3 September.  
Ruins of the Government Camp at Camden Harbour
In 1864 this was the site of the first attempt at colonial settlement of the Kimberley district, by farmers from eastern Australia. The country is rugged, rocky, covered by spinifex, has no permanent water and little topsoil. The settlement failed with considerable loss of life and the survivors retreated south leaving a few ruined drystone chimneys and graves to mark their efforts. It is a testament to the harshness of the country that the area remains uninhabited.

The lonely grave of Mary Pascoe, who died during the failed attempt to settle in Camden Harbour.

I spent ten days there exploring the shores and sounding the harbour for a sketch chart. The numerous shoals and muddy water made it difficult use Iron Bark for much of the survey, so I did most of it from the dinghy using a hand-held echo sounder, and rowed 20 or 30 miles in the process. The area was charted at a reconnaissance scale in 1970, but since then two islands have disappeared and the harbour has shoaled considerably. My sketch chart should help if visiting the area, but go warily as I undoubtedly missed some shoals. There is a large resident crocodile to watch out for when landing from a dinghy.
Low tide in Silver Gull Creek
High tide. The dark shape on the raft is the resident crocodile.
I returned to Silver Gull Creek on 10 September and Scottie departed to sample the joys of civilization for the first time in a year. The nearest float hole for Iron Bark was 2 miles down the creek and out of sight of the camp, so I brought Barky up the creek and moored her opposite the camp and let her dry out on each tide.

Nigel the barking owl
Scottie’s camp is quite sophisticated, with a waterproof tin roof, solar panels to run a fridge and even an intermittent internet connection (satellites, sunspots and cloud cover permitting). The camp has a dirt floor and there are no walls so the local wildlife wanders through, uninhibited. Resident in the kitchen area was a small group of dunnarts (marsupial mice) and three Kimberley rock monitors. 

Kimberley Rock Monitor resident in the kitchen
These lizards are about 700 or 800mm long but very thin (a big one might weight 500gm) and are quite shy. Intermittent visitors to the kitchen included golden tailed tree rats (endangered so tolerated though they make a dreadful noise running back and forth on the roof at night) and greater bowerbirds. The bowerbirds are bold and thievish, with a particular liking for blue kitchen wipes that they use to decorate their bowers. There were a lot of other birds around the camp including a barking owl living in a tree overhanging the kitchen. The wallabies in the surrounding scrub seldom came into the camp. Various reptiles including large skinks and a variety of snakes were occasional visitors. Most of the snakes were fairly harmless (a python, a whip snake and the like), but I did see a taipan, which is of the world’s more venomous snakes. I threw rocks at it from a safe distance. There was inevitably a resident crocodile in the creek below the camp. It was a wee timid thing just over 2m long and I never managed to get within 150m of her. In contrast, her neighbour in the next creek (saltwater crocodiles are territorial) was a big, aggressive bastard who chased dinghies. Apart from the wildlife, there was a steady trickle of visitors, and it was rare to go three days without seeing someone.
Silver Gull Creek

Scottie got back to Silver Gull on 13 October by flying across Australia to Derby then hitching a ride for the final 150 miles with a fisherman. I took Iron Bark down the creek on the next tide and two days later sailed for Fremantle. The North West Monsoon had set in so the first part of the passage, from Yampi Sound to North West Cape, was to windward. That took two weeks with long tacks to seaward, during which I sailed 1200nm to make good 650nm. By the time I got to North West Cape, the prevailing summer southerly winds had set in along the west coast so the remaining 1000 miles to Fremantle was also to windward. That took another two weeks. I was getting tired of life on a heel with the hatches dogged by the time I arrived in Fremantle on 12 November, having taken 28 days and sailed 2579nm to make good 1600nm, but it was an easy enough passage.
After sorting out a backlog of personal matters and reprovisioning, I set out from Fremantle on 20 December 2016, hoping to get around Cape Horn to the Falklands before winter set in, with the option of diverting to Tasmania or New Zealand if delayed. The voyage would be largely in the Westerlies of the Southern Ocean and likely to be rough. I expected to have to beat south from Fremantle to reach the Westerlies. I thought this might take five or six days, but it took 18 days. For that time there was nothing but strong headwinds frustratingly interspersed with calms and I was 900 nautical miles southeast of Albany, in 45°24’S, 131°11’E, before I found fair west winds.
As expected, the Westerlies were boisterous and almost immediately rose to gale force. That first gale briefly reached SW9 (south west 45-50 knots) the eased to W7 and I ran off under bare poles with the Jordan series drogue astern. I streamed the drogue as much for comfort as for safety. The gale only lasted 12 hours but the next depression was on us within 24 hours. The wind quickly built to violent storm force, NNW11, so I streamed the drogue again. Iron Bark ran steadily before it with no sign of broaching and shipping very little water while I cowered below. The seas were huge, majestic, terrifying and worthy of all that has been written about the greybeards of the Roaring Forties. I have done quite a few miles in the Southern Ocean and the seas there never cease to overawe me. They are far bigger than anything I have ever seen in the North Atlantic. Some were so big that Iron Bark almost becalmed in the troughs. When that happened the tension came off the drogue, and on three occasions there was enough slack for one leg of the drogue’s bridle to take a turn around the Aries servo paddle. Twice I managed to free it; the third time I was not quick enough and the whole lower leg of the Aries was torn off.  The shear coupling in the Aries paddle proved to be stronger than the shaft it was meant to protect.
 I have a fairly full set of spares for the Aries gear but not enough to fix this, so was henceforth without any self-steering. In the short term this was not a problem as while running with the drogue astern the tiller is lashed and self-steering disengaged. In a vessel of Iron Bark’s size there is little option to running off once the wind reaches force 10 (45 knots), at least in the sort of seas found in the Southern Ocean. To remain hove-to in those conditions is just too dangerous; the strain on the rig and sails is enormous and a great weight of water breaks aboard. In the Atlantic, where the seas do not have the same weight and size, the upper limit for Iron Bark to remain hove-to is probably slightly higher, perhaps near the top of  force 10.  Lying ahull in force 10 or above seems to me an invitation to a rig-destroying knock down and I now regard a drogue as essential equipment for Southern Ocean voyages. From my limited experience a Jordan series drogue is by far the best option, despite some problems with damage to the cones after prolonged deployment.
Iron Bark running with the jib backed for self steering
Having lost the self-steering, I now had to decide what to do next. Although she does not have an electronic autopilot, Iron Bark can of course be sailed without a self-steering gear, either by hand steering or with the sails trimmed sails for balance so she will steer herself. The first option was unattractive; I had no desire to be tied to the tiller for 16 or 18 hours per day for a month or more. Trimming the sails to achieve self-steering rather than for maximum speed is not difficult but slows Iron Bark down by about a knot when running before a fair wind. My timetable to get around Cape Horn was tight when the self-steering was functioning. Now, with the loss of 25 miles per day, it would be early winter before I was past that draughty corner. I decided to give up on Cape Horn and head north to refit.
The nearest land was Tasmania, about 650 miles off, but I did not want to close that lee shore in the conditions prevailing; besides, New Zealand seemed a more interesting option. For the next two weeks I continued east, keeping south of 45°S to give Tasmania a wide berth. Running off with drogues in heavy weather is an excellent tactic, but it requires sea room. Almost immediately after deciding to head for New Zealand another force 10 storm hit, which I rode out by running off under bare poles towing the Jordan drogue. There were two more gales of force 8-9 before I had made enough easting to start edging north up the Tasman Sea toward better weather and warmer water. Again, I ran before both these gales under bare poles with the drogue deployed. By this time the drogue was looking pretty battered, with many of its cones frayed and some burst, testimony to a very rough passage.
On 23 January, in a fair weather interval between gales, I found the bobstay detached from the bowsprit and trailing from the cutwater. The inboard end of Iron Bark’s bowsprit sits in a fitting on the stem head and the bowsprit is merely a strut in compression without the long section on the foredeck between the bitts and gammoning that stiffens a traditional bowsprit. To my considerable surprise, despite the loss of the bobstay the bowsprit was barely quivering. I lost no time rolling the jib up to get the strain off the bowsprit then crawled very carefully down that now dubiously supported spar to re-attach the bobstay to the cranse iron by rigging a tackle in place of the missing rigging screw. The loss of the bobstay did not endanger the mast, as Iron Bark is a cutter and the inner forestay gives the mast its forward support. However losing the bowsprit and thus ability to set sail from its end would have made it difficult to get her to steer herself, at least until I could rig a jury bowsprit. I believe the bobstay detached when the shackle attaching its rigging screw to the cranse iron lost its mousing and worked loose.
Sunrise in the Variables
Becalmed off the north of New Zealand
On 29 January 2017, 39 days out from Fremantle, we crossed 40°S and left the Southern Ocean behind. The rest of the passage to New Zealand was straightforward but slow. Being in the Variables, the wind was seldom steady in direction or strength.  Daily runs varied from 20 to120 nautical miles, ending with an extended calm near the North Cape of New Zealand. After three days of creeping around the north of New Zealand on little more than the flap of the sails I finally got within motoring range of the Bay of Islands. Having no electronic autopilot, motoring in a calm required steering by hand and I spend 38 tedious hours at the helm in the next two days motoring the final 150 miles to Opua. Prior to this I had spent less than an hour at the helm in the 27 days since losing the self-steering gear; my preference for sailing over motoring is practical as well as aesthetic. I secured alongside the quarantine dock at Opua at dusk on 7 February, 49 days out from Fremantle.
I spent a couple of weeks in the Bay of Islands, enjoying fresh food and the company of some interesting voyaging sailors and doing a few odd jobs on Iron Bark, then sailed 45nm down to Whangarei to haul out and build a new self-steering gear. The upper section of the Aries was undamaged so I used its vane and bevel gears to drive a trim tab gear on the rudder. Unfortunately a tiller attached to the stub of the Aries shaft turned the trim tab in the opposite direction to that required. The method I used to reverse the action is effective but not elegant. After testing the new self-steering I returned to Parua Bay at the entrance to Whangarei Harbour for some final modifications and to visit my cousin Russell Smith and his wife Rosalie. I took the bits to be modified to their house and converted their garage to a welding shop while using their laundry and being wined and dined most hospitably.
Parua Bay is open to the SE and the next night it blew hard from that direction. Some squalls were well over 50 knots and during one the anchor dragged about 100 metres. By pure luck we did not hit anything, but we were uncomfortably close to a reef when the anchor finally held. I started the motor, retrieved the anchor with difficulty, then, with full throttle giving me bare steerage way, crept 400m offshore where I laid a 75lb fisherman anchor in addition to the 60lb Manson Supreme that had dragged, and never budged. It goes without saying that all this was in horizontal rain and complete darkness without a single shore lights to give me a reference point.
     With the urgent work on Iron Bark done, I declared a holiday and spent the next four months wandering up and down the coast from the Bay of Island to the Bay of Plenty, catching up with old friends and making new, and visiting favourite anchorages. The Bay of Islands is a celebrated sailing ground, but there are scores of other pleasant bays and harbours along the shores of Northland and the Hauraki Gulf. Good anchorages are close together and the only place I used a marina was Tauranga. Except in the immediate vicinity of Auckland, the anchorages are seldom crowded and most of the time Iron Bark had them to herself. 
Getting under way.  Photo by Helena Willes
    It was a pleasant, unhurried time. While anchored in Oneroa Bay on Waiheke Island, I met Helena, the owner of a handsome wooden launch called Margaret Ann that she (Helena) was in the process of restoring. We got on well so went for a sail together, spending a month pottering between the Hauraki Gulf and the Bay of Island. With the approach of winter most of the anchorages were empty of yachts but the weather was generally fine. The area is well charted and safe anchorages are not far apart, which makes for pleasant, undemanding, sailing. The weather forecasts are good so there was no reason to be caught out by bad weather; we rode out a gale anchored snugly in Kiwiriki Bay on Great Barrier Island and another at Te Kouma on the Coromandel Peninsula. The evenings were cool but Iron Bark’s home-built stove will burn almost anything and keeps the boat warm and dry. In this part of New Zealand there are plenty of pinecones to be scavenged and that was our normal fuel, augmented by coal when in a built up areas where foraging is difficult.

Great Barrier Island looking down towards Port Fitzroy

I particularly like Great Barrier Island, which has a good harbour, few people or roads and some fine walks. It is about 55nm from Auckland, which is too far for most yachts to go for a weekend and so generally uncrowded except in mid-summer. The island was extensively logged early in the twentieth century but is now largely re-forested and the beds of the tramways that criss-crossed the island to get the timber out now make excellent walking tracks.
The old tramways make fine walking tracks
The fishing is good, too, and there is a very useful facility at Smokehouse Bay in Port Fitzroy. The Smokehouse Bay amenities can only be accessed is by sea: there is a bathhouse with a view of the anchorage (hot water from a wood-fired boiler, find your own wood, axe provided), a fish-smoking house, laundry troughs and an excellent set of piles to dry out against for a bottom scrub, all with running water from a spring-fed tank on the hillside. It is on privately owned land, covenanted for public use and has no caretaker. It is maintained by voluntary work by the landowners, the crews of passing yachts and a little financial help from the Auckland yacht clubs.
Smokehouse Bay

On the 7 June we returned to Waiheke Island for Helena to start a new job. Waiheke Island has a population of about 6000 so is rather busier than I generally choose, but I spent a pleasant couple of months there while I did some work on Margaret Ann before retreating to the quiet of Great Barrier Island. Back on Great Barrier, I dried Iron Bark on the piles in Smokehouse Bay to scrape the barnacles off her bottom before moving on to Kiwiriki Bay. There I spent several weeks in bush-surrounded seclusion, tramping the hills, catching up on maintenance, contemplating last year’s voyage and planning next year’s. 

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

A long haul - Newfoundland to Western Australia

          Early in October 2015 Iron Bark was in St Johns, Newfoundland, provisioned and ready for sea, waiting for suitable weather to sail for Western Australia. I wanted to be on the Kimberley coast of Western Australia for the next dry season, May to November; the only route that would get me there in time was down the Atlantic, around the Cape of Good Hope and across the Indian Ocean sector of the Southern Ocean, preferably non-stop. The alternative, via the Panama Canal and tropical Pacific is not much further but considerably slower. Fortunately I was sailing alone and did not have to convince anyone else of the attractions of a voyage that would include a long leg in the Southern Ocean.
          Hurricane Joachim roared up the American coast and across the Grand Banks of Newfoundland in the first week of October and a few days later a severe gale brought 60 knots of wind. Winter looked to like starting early. I decided I preferred the slight risk a late hurricane to the certainty of another bad winter storm, and sailed on 12 October. The wind was fair when I left St Johns but soon veered ahead and I was close-hauled for most of the four days it took to cross the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. The cold Labrador Current gave Iron Bark a useful lift south, but also brought thick fog that kept me busy dodging ships and fishing boats and I got little sleep. I hove-to for 16 hours while a cold front passed but, by using the motor whenever the speed dropped below two knots, got to the Tail of the Bank in four days and sailed into the Gulf Stream. There the water temperature jumped 7°C, the fog cleared and I discarded my long johns.
On the Tail of the Bank the wind was variable in direction and strength with everything from SE2 to W8 and a lumpy sea kicked up by the current. That night I was passing between a ship and a seismic survey vessel towing an 8km streamer when a short-lived but vicious squall drove me towards the streamer. The sea state was such that neither the ship nor the survey vessel could make me out on radar nor could I see them through the spray and rain. The much-blessed AIS let me sort out what was happening and I called the ship on VHF to ask it to alter course to give me room to tack to clear the seismic vessel’s gear.
I resisted the temptation to ride the Gulf Stream eastwards although this would have ensured the Trades were a fair wind when I met them. Instead I sailed south towards better weather, hoping to reduce the odds of meeting a northeast gale blowing against the Stream and the dangerous sea that produces. For five days I plodded southeast across the Stream, generally close-hauled, using the motor when the wind was light. On 21 October in 40°32’N, 47°29’W, I reached the southern edge of the main body of the Gulf Stream and sailed into a detached eddy. In the main part of the Gulf Stream the current set east at one or two knots, but in the eddy the set was north at over five knots. I could neither sail nor motor against a current of this strength so altered course to put the current abeam in order to get out of it as quickly as possible. I wanted to go southeast but was steering east and making good a course of northeast and annoyingly wasting a fair wind. It was a day and a half before the current eased enough for me to resume course.
Once out of the Gulf Stream the peaked cross-seas subsided and I used the quiet conditions to transfer 80 litres of diesel from cans high in the lazarette down into the keel tank. With this Iron Bark reverted to being a sailing vessel, the remaining fuel being reserved for battery charging. I try to limit my electricity usage to the amount that I can easily generate and avoid power-hungry gadgets (fridge, radar, electronic autopilot, water maker and the like) but seem to need more electricity every year. Iron Bark’s electrical system once ran on a few dry cell batteries but since I fitted the AIS, which requires the GPS to be on, my electricity requirements have increased considerably, acerbated by using a computer for writing and electric lights to cosset my eyes when reading. I now have to run the engine every few days to charge the batteries when it is too cloudy for the solar panel to cope.
An all too rare fair wind in the North Altlantic Variables

          After leaving the Gulf Stream behind I pushed south and east through the Variables. Crossing the Variables took 16 days mostly close-hauled, with a day hove-to in a nasty little gale. There were a couple of days of fair winds with good runs including one of 144 nautical miles, but many more when the run was under 50 miles and one of only 24 miles. With a waterline length of 32ft, Iron Bark is too short to punch effectively into a head sea, nor does being gaff-rigged help. The shape of the top of the mainsail is irrelevant but the short mast means the headsail luffs are not long enough to drive her efficiently to windward. Another drag is the propeller, a massively built thing, excellent for withstanding the impact of ice but like towing a bucket under sail.
I had hoped reach the Northeast Trades as far east as 30°W to allow me to stand south through them with a free wind, but headwinds in the Variables meant I met the Trades about 200 miles west of there. To make matters worse the Trades blew from the east rather than the northeast and the North Equatorial Current was setting strongly west so for the first six days in the Trades I crashed along close-hauled with all the discomfort that comes of living with the hatches dogged and everything on a heel. On 14 November, close to the Cap Verdes, the wind backed to northeast, the current and I eased the sheets. Dust, presumably from the Sahara, reduced visibility to such an extent that although I passed within 18 miles of Brava, the southwestern island of the Cap Verde Archipelago, I did not sight land. A nightjar and many butterflies landed aboard Iron Bark while she was briefly becalmed under the lee of Brava and dust plastered the sails and rigging.
African hitchhiker - a nightjar

Where to cross the Doldrums is debatable. They are narrowest on the South American side of the Atlantic but the Equatorial Current runs hard there and may sweep a sailing vessel so far northwest that it cannot weather the bulge of Brazil. If this happens there is little choice but to stand north into the Variables then east cross the Atlantic and try again, wasting several weeks in the process. Close to the African coast the Equatorial Current is weaker but the belt of calms is wider, which can also delay a sailing vessel for weeks. Ocean Passages recommends entering the Doldrums well over towards the African shore, and that is what I did.
On 19 November, 38 days out in 07°19’N, 020°28’W, the Trades died, marking the beginning of the Doldrums. For four days I chased every breath of wind, making hard-won runs of 76, 50, 16 and 30 miles.  I hoped to top off the water tanks in the squalls that are a feature of the Doldrums but it took so long to wash the sails and deck clean of encrusted salt and dust that I only got a few litres of water into the tanks before, on the fifth day, a light southerly breeze set in. Iron Bark rode this breeze southwest and on 27 November she slipped quietly across the Equator in longitude 21°55’W and into the Southeast Trades. The relatively painless crossing of the Doldrums had a price. The water tanks were not full but I lacked the moral courage to turn back in the hope of collecting more rain. I had enough water to get to Australia, but with little reserve for emergencies. In the southern summer there is little prospect of rain in the Southeast Trades and there is generally has too much spray mixed with the rain in the Southern Ocean for it to be potable. My best chance of catching water was in the South Atlantic Variables with diverting to Cape Town for water a last, unattractive option.
Waiting on wind in the doldrums

Iron Bark does not have refrigeration and the mainstays of my diet are pulses (chiefly chick peas and kidney beans), rice, rolled oats and flour with a little salted meat (beef, bacon, salami or whatever is locally available) to flavour the stews. Except for bread, which I make with undiluted seawater, all need fresh water to prepare. I try to avoid tinned food although it comes with water included, regarding it as an inefficient and expensive way to carry water and the resulting diet to be bland and not particularly healthy. With care but without rationing my usual water usage is two litres per day. To reduce the chance of having to divert to Cape Town, I decreased my daily water allowance to one and a half litres, which is an adequate but uncomfortable ration. On days when the run was over 100 miles I had an extra pot of coffee, but light airs and headwinds meant I had few extra coffees.
The Southeast Trades were disappointing. I hoped for fresh, free winds that would push me across the Trades in perhaps 12 days, but it took 21 days. The best day’s run was an unspectacular 118 miles and the worst only 8 miles. The poor showing was party due to the fitful wind but also because Iron Bark’s hull was becoming foul with gooseneck barnacles. Whenever it was calm I went over the side to scrape them off.
Rolling and slatting in light airs is hard on the gear and in many ways worse than a gale. Steadying the booms with preventers and guys does much to stop chafe, but quietening the gaff down is more difficult. A gaff vang led aft keeps the gaff off the shrouds and saves the topsail from being nipped, but a gaff fore guy is difficult to arrange on a cutter. Fortunately the topsail steadies the gaff in light airs, especially if the peak halyard is eased so that the topsail sheet takes some of the weight of the gaff. The topsail, being a light sail set high, keeps drawing when everything else is slatting. Its benefit is amplified because it steadies the whole rig, helping the other sails hold their wind. The gaff vang is useful at the opposite end of the wind scale. When dousing the mainsail while running before a gale the wind often catches the bunt of the sail and blows the gaff skyward. I use the gaff vang to pull the gaff down to the boom and hold it there until I can get a gasket around gaff and boom.
The topsail steadies the whole rig in light airs

           On 14 December, 63 days out from St Johns, I crossed the Tropic of Capricorn in longitude 25°W and left the Southeast Trades behind. In preparation for the Southern Ocean I overhauled the running rigging, splicing a new section into the throat halyard and replacing a jib sheet and the reef pennants, then went up the mast to check the standing and running gear at the masthead and replaced the strop on a peak halyard block. Next I dropped the mainsail to replace some frayed gaff robands and reef points and put a few stitches in a seam. Finally I changed the old, worn, fair-weather headsails that I had been using in the low latitudes for newer, stronger sails in preparation for heavy weather in the Southern Ocean.
Light airs and poor progress in the South Atlantic Variables

I need not have hurried. The South Atlantic Variables were even less kind than the Southeast Trades and it took ten days of light airs and headwinds to work south to 31°44’S, 021°30’W, where a fair breeze carried us towards Tristan da Cunha (37°05’S, 012°15’W) and the long awaited Westerlies. Each day there were more birds, a joy after the desolate Trades: white-chinned and Atlantic petrels, white bellied and Wilson’s storm petrels, greater shearwaters, yellow-nosed, grey-headed, shy and wandering albatross.
The weather was becoming cooler and I dug out long-forgotten clothes (29°S), then a blanket (35°S) and finally long johns (39°S). Although there was some rain it was always mixed with too much spray to let it into the tanks. At night I lay in my bunk comparing water usage to the ever-decreasing daily runs then went on to mentally design seawater distillation systems. Christmas and New Year passed uneventfully and, with water short, uncelebrated.
The sea was becoming too cold and rough for me to dive to clean the hull and I was reduced to using a scraper on a long pole from deck. This could not reach around the turn of the bilge and soon the bottom was so foul that Iron Bark would not come head to wind and I had to wear her around to change tack. With such a foul bottom, a day’s run of 100 miles became a rarity. The failure of the antifouling was the most complete that I have ever experienced, but it failed in an odd manner. Nothing grew on the hull except gooseneck barnacles: no weed, no cone-shaped barnacles, nothing but closely packed gooseneck barnacles 10cm long and apparently unaffected by the antifouling.
On 7 January 2016, 87 days out and about 1000 miles west-southwest of the Cape of Good Hope, I crossed 40°S in longitude 002°32’W and sailed into the Southern Ocean. The wind was fair for most of the first week in the Southern Ocean, but her foul bottom meant Iron Bark made good only 706 miles of easting in that time. The next week brought headwinds, light airs, fog and little progress. One hundred days out we were still 159 miles short of the longitude of the Cape of Good Hope; I had hoped to be two thousand miles past the Cape by then.
Running before a fresh, fair wind in sunny weather - unfortunately a rare occurrence

For a few days I was close enough to Cape Town to hear the news on medium wave radio. This was the only news I heard on this voyage until close to Fremantle. Short wave radio has been largely replaced by digital satellite transmissions that unfortunately target land areas only, leaving those of us who lack access to internet at sea ignorant of the wider world.
Ocean Passages recommends making the passage from the Cape of Good Hope to Fremantle between 39°S and 40°S but this year the west winds were unreliable in those latitudes. I pushed further south hoping to find better wind and was 400 miles south of Cape Agulhas in latitude 41°27’S when I crossed its meridian, still without a steady breeze. By keeping well south of the Cape of Good Hope I hoped not only for fair winds but also to avoid the rough seas on the Agulhas Bank caused by the Agulhas Current flowing against the prevailing winds. However the strong currents extended much further south than the routeing chart indicated and about 435 miles south-southeast of Cape Agulhas, in 41°S, 024°E, I encountered a current setting northwest at between three and four knots. This was directly against the wind and produced a lumpy, unpleasant sea. This was merely slow and uncomfortable while the wind was moderate, but the barometer was falling.
The promised gale arrived just after dark on 24 January. In 20 minutes the wind increased from S6 (25-30 knots) to W10 (45-50 knots) and it was a scramble to strip all sail and run off downwind. Iron Bark has run before many gales under bare poles without a problem, but now, for the first time ever, the Aries wind vane could not cope. The foul hull and unresponsive steering meant the Aries was unable to prevent Iron Bark from broaching in the steep, breaking, wind against current seas. The wind eased to W8-9 but she was still broaching frequently unless I hand steered, so I streamed my new and previously unused Jordan series drogue. It is 95m of braided nylon rope with 124 small cloth cones attached at half metre intervals, towed astern on a bridle. The effect was dramatic; Iron Bark's speed through the water slowed from three knots running under bare poles to a little over a knot with the drogue out. More importantly she ran steadily downwind with the rudder lashed amidships and despite hard knocks from the cross-seas, there was no sign of broaching. There was nothing more for me to do so I went to bed; I should have had this drogue years ago. Overnight the current set Iron Bark 27 miles to the west, although we were running eastwards at over a knot, so the current was at least 3 knots against the wind. By mid-morning the wind eased to W6-7 and I spent three hours retrieving the drogue then made sail.
Retrieving the Jordan drogue. The small cloth cones are half a metre apart.

On 3 February in 41°S, 063°W, 114 days out, there was two hours of steady rain with a moderate sea and no spray. Rain unmixed with spray is rare south of 40°S, so I hove-to and caught enough to nearly fill the tanks. Now I had enough water to cope with almost any eventuality with enough over for an extra coffee whenever I wanted one. The rain ended with an abrupt wind shift to the southeast, a dead noser, and the wind stayed between east and south-southeast for the next ten days. Initially I sailed on whichever tack gave the most easting, but then decided to tack south to look for west winds although that meant losing some easting. In a week I sailed 589 miles but only reduced the distance to Fremantle by 100 miles and ended up 5° south of the recommended route, still without steady west winds.
        Having full water tanks made it easier to be philosophical about the lack of progress but it was getting tedious. Iron Bark has five metres of well-filled bookshelves but by this time I had read everything aboard at least three times, including the labels on the jam jars. Fresh vegetables were a distant memory and rum was getting low. My waterproofs now leaked copiously and to preserve a set of dry clothes for wearing below deck I changed into wet clothes whenever I needed to work outside. My self-discipline was barely up to pulling on cold, clammy clothes when I tumbled from my warm bunk to reef on a wet, windy night. I was getting stale and wanted to be done with this passage, but at the current speed land was still six or eight weeks away.
The easterlies finally relented and late February and early March brought generally fair winds with two short-lived gales in which I deployed the Jordan drogue. Normally I would have run before these gales with a storm staysail or bare poles as the wind was fair, but the foul hull meant the Aries could not keep Iron Bark running without broaching. The drogue solved that problem at the cost of losing a day’s run each time. With a strong fair wind Iron Bark can make 140 or 150 miles per day but the foul bottom meant the best she could do now was barely 100 miles and I reckoned any week’s run over 500 miles to be a good one.
About this time I got food poisoning from some poorly preserved salami. This left me weak and made deck work difficult for a few days. Then I had to undertake bit of do-it-yourself dentistry and extract a tooth; the tooth was loose so this was not difficult but it was a bloody business. I had no other health or injury problems on this voyage except the usual minor cuts, sprains and torn fingernails. Fisting in Iron Bark’s mainsail is hard on fingernails and, although I keep mine trimmed short, months without fresh vegetables made them fragile. Vitamin tablets are better than nothing, but are a poor substitute for fresh food.
Early in March I started to slant northward towards Fremantle, but by keeping south of the great circle course stayed in the Westerlies and in the first half of March there were only three days of headwinds. The hull was now so foul that the rudder was almost ineffective and I was steering largely by trimming the sails. This is fairly easy as Iron Bark’s rig spreads well beyond the hull, but trimming the sails for balance rather than drive further slowed her down. The foul hull made gybing difficult. For a while I could get the rudder to push the stern through the wind provided I scandalized the main, but eventually the hull was so foul that I had to strike the mainsail completely to gybe. It had of course been impossible to tack for months.
Gooseneck barnacles - Iron Bark's bottom after arrival in Fremantle. It is obvious how far I could reach around the turn of the bilge with a long scraper.

            On 19 March, 160 days out and 700 miles from Fremantle, the jib’s roller furling gear failed. The lower bearing had been jamming intermittently for some time so it was no surprise when it seized. The gear was 16 years old and had done over 100,000 miles so the failure was hardly premature, but it meant I now had to set the jib flying.
Man unto woman born has but a short time to live,
He goes up like a jack yard topsail and comes down like a flying jib.
Many years ago I took heed of the first bit of that doggerel and abolished the topsail yards by lengthening the gaff and fitting a standing topmast. Now, having reverted to setting the jib flying, the truth of the second part came home. A flying jib can be a difficult sail to retrieve from the end of the bowsprit and it is vital that it does not take charge, as it will if given any chance.
The roller furling jib is one of the few concessions to mechanical complexity in Iron Bark’s rig and one I made knowing it to be a potential source of trouble. However I decided that was preferable to having to muzzle a jib at the end of the bowsprit in heavy weather. The rest of Iron Bark’s gear is simple, robust and easy to repair at sea. The mast is short, stout and well stayed and her running gear is largely worked with tackles that are reliable and provide all the power needed at the cost of a bit of pulley-hauley work. All halyards and control lines are external and can be inspected for chafe then slipped and cut to renew the nip or replaced as necessary. The long, low rig makes it easy to trim the sails to keep the course with minimal input from the Aries wind vane or, in the present situation, the rudder. Iron Bark’s spread out ballast gives her a lovely, easy motion and she will carry a great weight of stores and gear without worrying too much about trim. Unfortunately these virtues have a price. The combination of the windage of the maze of running rigging, the lack of lift from short-luffed headsails inevitable with a low-aspect rig and the large wetted surface from the long keel means her windward performance is unspectacular. This can be irritating in coastal sailing but seldom matters in deep water.
Approaching Fremantle

             The last 700 miles into Fremantle took 11 days and were easy enough despite the lack of the roller-furling jib. A cold front on 20/21 March briefly brought SW7 with squalls to F8, but this was fair wind and gave a run of 77 miles. It would have been 140 miles with a clean bottom. The front marked the end of the Westerlies and the rest of the passage was made in moderate east to southeast winds. By this time the course was northeast so I could generally lay Fremantle close-hauled, averaging 60 miles a day.

         Late in the afternoon of 30 March the Rottnest Island lighthouse broke the horizon. At midnight I hove-to to wait on daylight then let draw at dawn to sail through the shipping anchored in Gage Roads. I used the motor to come alongside the small craft quarantine dock in Fremantle at 0915 on 31 March, 171 days out from Newfoundland, having sailed a little over 15,000 miles to make good about 12,500 miles. It had been a long haul.