Training Wheels Off
Outside the window the rain poured down in a typical tropical downpour. Not good for sailing. In my minds eye, Lowana was sitting on her mooring, half veiled in the heavy rain, the surface of the water boiling as if being struck by myriads of ball bearings. I was chafing. It was now December and only halfway through the Wet Season, but I was already fed up with the rain.Just a few months ago I’d bought Lowana in Mackay, which lies on the Queensland coast of Australia at the southern end of the massive Great Barrier Reef system. Since I lacked enough experience in sailing or sailboats, the responsibility of getting her back home to Darwin in the Northern Territory had been given to an experienced skipper. A good friend and I worked as crew on the 1600-mile voyage up through the Great Barrier Reef, across the open waters of the Gulf of Carpentaria and the Arafura Sea
That was my introduction to cruising sailboats and by the time we got back home, I thought I had a reasonably good idea of how to maintain the boat and sail it. But deep down, I knew I still had a lot to learn if I was going to skipper my own boat. My apprenticeship had really only just begun.
Invariably the Wet Season storms are at night or late afternoon, and gaps of clear weather allowed small day trips. My first ventures into the harbour were tentative affairs. At first I sailed with an experienced friend, since the thought of going out there completely by alone didn’t bear thinking about. With one or two other people on board, I participated in some of the regular Wet Season cruising yacht races out in Darwin Harbour conducted by the Dinah Beach Cruising Yacht Club. Going racing, even at a sociable level is an invaluable way to learn. Under advice and in the School of Hard Knocks I learned to make my own decisions, dealing with gusty squalls, strong tides, contrary winds and other less than ideal sailing conditions.
When Lowana wasn’t being sailed she spend her days tied to the fore-and-aft moorings up Sadgroves Creek. These are located not far from the main shipping wharf and consist of three rows of thick braided ropes, buoyed at regular intervals by large yellow-painted tyres.
After arriving home I became like a mother hen, launching the dinghy and going out there once or twice a week to make sure she was all right. I frequently spent nights at home during thundering storms agonising about her. While the lightning flashed and the wind howled outside all sorts of dire situations flashed through my imagination as I lay in the darkness. Often after a heavy storm I’d make my way up the creek in my dinghy, half expecting to find only her masts sticking up above the water. However she would usually be resting comfortably with nothing but leaves and twigs scattered over her decks.
There was good cause for concern though. On one occasion I was startled to find her out of her usual position. She was facing upstream instead of downstream and lying against an adjacent mooring rope. On inspection, I found the chain securing the large shackle on the mooring buoy was completely rusted through. The thick primary rope had detached from the buoy, leaving the yacht to swing around loose at the mercy of the tide, like a tip on the end of a whip. I mentally winced as I thought about what eight tonnes of steel boat might have done to a smaller fibreglass vessel moored nearby. Thankfully there had been no other boats close enough to collide with.
To fix this, an additional sturdy rope was fitted between the fore and aft mooring buoys. This one was longer than the primary rope and designed to be a floating line that could be picked up by a boat hook. It could then be attached to fore and aft bollards on deck. Three white floats attached to the line proved easy to find under a spotlight when coming into the mooring by night. The system proved itself some time later when a securing shackle was stolen from the mooring buoy. The primary rope had drifted free but Lowana stayed in her proper place.
Watching the rain it occurred to me that although December was usually one of the wettest months, this year wasn’t quite so bad. There’d been occasional breaks lasting several days, time in which a quick excursion could be made. I hadn’t done an overnight trip yet and I thought I was ready for it. Then and there I resolved to take her somewhere the moment the weather cleared up enough.
The next question was where to go? I pulled out the marine charts and start scanning. To the west is Bynoe Harbour, a beautiful stretch of water with pristine foreshores and magnificent fishing. Been there plenty of times. No, I’d like to go somewhere else. When Lowana was first coming to Darwin, we passed right by Port Essington on the Cobourg Peninsula, northeast of Darwin. It’s an historic place. An attempt at a settlement was made by the British last century, but it had failed. Today, the peninsula is known as Gurig National Park. I had thought at the time that this place would be worth a visit. That’s the place to go.
First Time Skipper
I spent the next couple of days checking into the trip, looking at weather forecasts, tides and rostered days off work. I worked out several suitable dates and approached my good friend Martin, who readily agreed to help crew the boat. He was a commercial pilot who often flew his own light plane into the park. He was also a long time friend of the lady who ran the store and a tourist camp at the ranger station.
In due course we set off into blustery headwinds, which set the standard for the rest of the journey. They were so constant that Martin became used to lashing the tiller against the pressure of the wind for short periods, while he did some other task. The trip was uneventful and it was early the next afternoon when we entered Port Essington and anchored off Black Point, just below the ranger station.
Above: Punching into head seas in the Van Dieman Gulf north of Darwin heading towards Port Essington.
We went ashore and visited a close friend of Martin who managed a basic bush-camp resort for tourists, and spent the night socialising into the late hours. The moon was down and it was pitch black outside, but luckily I had lit a kerosene lamp out on the boat beforehand to help us find our way back again
In the morning we visited the local museum, which contains some excellent displays of the early settlement, including clothes of the period and an excellent scale model of its layout. We re-stocked with some ice bought from the park store, before going back to the boat.
As we headed off towards home, I looked at threatening thunderclouds looming ahead. We might be in for a rough squall or two on the way. I’d need to watch it carefully to see which way it went before we committed to going around Cape Don into the Van Dieman Gulf, where there are extensive reef systems.
Martin was on the tiller when we cleared Port Essington and turned west, bringing the wind dead aft. The wind was strengthening and the seas, at first choppy, were now getting quite lumpy. I went forward to goosewing the sails and while engaged in setting it up, Martin noticed a loose sheet (a rope connected to the headsail) trailing in the water. He had been warned about this since there was always the possibility of such things becoming wrapped around the propeller. Seeking to do the right thing he lashed the tiller as he was accustomed to do, and then collected the boat hook with the intention of getting the errant sheet back inboard.
Unfortunately for Martin the wind was now blowing from astern and there was no side pressure on the sails, so consequently there was no longer any strain on the tiller. Unnoticed by him, the tiller started wobbling from side to side while the boat corkscrewed its way forward as the following seas overtook us.
The first thing to alert me something was amiss was a loud krang noise. I looked around to see Martin wedged between the wheelhouse and the steel life rails, staggering to remain on his feet but losing the fight as he slowly sank to his knees. The boat had twisted over a wave just enough that the wind had gotten behind the mainsail. The mainsail boom had cracked across the boat and smacked Martin solidly on the forehead sending him almost unconscious.
As I rushed to him we were suddenly in a predicament. We were on a lee shore with blustery following winds and being driven towards it. The waves stood at three metres being pushed up by the winds from the open waters of the Arafura Sea onto the relatively shallow coastal waters, before thundering onto the reefs ahead.
On the other hand I had an injured crewmember on my hands. I looked quickly at him and apart from a swelling on his forehead, there was no blood coming from a small wound, his ears or his eyes. I asked him his name and he mumbled something. I didn’t have time to fiddle about, so dragged him into the cockpit and propped him on one of the seats, with his back against the wheelhouse. As I did this, to my relief, he started gaining consciousness, telling me briefly what he’d been trying to do. I was now free for the moment to get the boat back under control.
Thank God he didn’t go over the side. I’d have had an awful job of trying to find him again in the conditions. In his semi-conscious state he would have been unlikely to find the dan-buoy or life-ring thrown in after him and most likely would have drowned. I grabbed the loose sheet, secured it and turned the motor on. I then dropped the sails and turned back out to sea to give me some relatively calmer water, before heading back towards Black Point. With the wind now coming from ahead I was able to lash the tiller for a moment while I quickly checked on Martin again. He was now aware of his surroundings but in a lot of pain. All I could do for now was to give him some painkiller tablets and put some ice packs on his forehead.
I asked Martin if he thought he could go on. He was agreeable but even as he was saying “yes”, I noticed him shaking his head ever so slightly. It looked to me that he’d lost all heart with this trip and I couldn’t say I blamed him. I thought I’d better get some medical advice, so a call on the short range VHF radio to the ranger station soon raised the resident Nurse. We discussed Martins condition and she told me to keep bringing him back for the time being while she checked with Royal Darwin Hospital. Not too long later she came back and said for me to get him to Black Point as soon as possible. With this I raised all the sails again and pushed the throttle up on the motor as far as I dared.
As Black Point came in sight an aluminium boat of around six or seven metres came out to greet us. There were three men aboard it. I put the motor in neutral and dropped the sails while they came up and threw a securing line. By this time Martin was fully cognisant of everything but still holding his head. They took him off the yacht and scuttled back towards the shore, leaving me completely alone for the very first time to either bring Lowana home by myself, or take her back to Black Point.
I looked around at the looming black clouds to the west. I’d have to go back through them by myself. I hadn’t even sailed Lowana in Darwin Harbour by myself, let alone in open water on an overnight trip. The last thing I needed was to be caught in a storm among the reefs in there. And I didn’t have a working autopilot anymore to help with the tedium of steering for endless hours. The solution was already made but I just had to see it. If I’d had more sailing experience and perhaps a better knowledge of the area I might have attempted it but as it was, it wouldn’t be sensible for me to try and get back home on my own.
Although unpalatable, the decision was easy enough so I returned to Black Point and anchored up. On going ashore I went to the Medical Clinic and found Martin sitting up on the bed looking reasonably cheerful under the circumstances. He’d been advised not to attempt to sail home at least for another 24 hours, which left me with a little problem.
Both of us had to be back at work in Darwin in two days. As it happened a truckload of empty 200 litre fuel drums had to be taken back to Darwin the next day. Martin could go on that but I had to make a decision. If the weather fined up should I attempt to sail Lowana back by myself? Or should I leave her here at anchor in a relatively exposed location and come back later with another crew?
If I chose the latter it would have to be soon given that this was the cyclone season and even localised storms could be severe. If I left it too long I’d be likely to come back and find the boat on the beach, if I was lucky enough to find her at all. Who could I get at short notice? How would I get back here to Black Point?
I again thought about trying to get Lowana home on my own, but in the end my confidence simply didn’t stretch far enough. And even if I did attempt it I’d have to anchor up somewhere overnight to rest, making me a day late back at my place of work anyway. Martin solved part of the problem by promising to arrange a flight back to Black Point, and he thought he knew someone who might help me bring her back. With some misgivings I climbed onto the truck with the empty fuel drums the next day, and together with Martin we made the long drive back to Darwin.
|Above: Park Ranger Station at left, jetty at centre, landing access beach behind.||Above: Black Point Museum. The Ranger Station office is inside here.|
The trip back was uneventful. We didn’t encounter any storms or even heavy winds. In fact we motor-sailed some of the way overnight due to the lack of wind. The next morning saw us still motor sailing in a light breeze within sight of Darwin Harbour. I’d just woken up and came on deck to relieve Paul on the tiller, so that he could catch a few winks. The early morning sun streamed down, the heat of the day was not yet upon us, and the available breeze was delightfully cool. The Royal Darwin Hospital jutting up above the horizon to the east was to be a prophetic omen.
|Above: Inside Lowana’s wheelhouse. She was also fitted with an external tiller out in the cockpit.||Above: Looking down from the companionway looking forward. Fridge/freezer at bottom left. Dinette table above that. To the right is the galley|
|Above: Looking forward from the galley. At left is the head (toilet). V-Berth at front.||Above: Looking aft. The galley is on the starboard side. Companionway leading up to the wheelhouse at right.|
When I took over the tiller, Paul said he’d join me in a hot cuppa before going to bed, and then went below to make some coffee. Soon after I heard a strangled cry come from the galley and looking down the companionway, I could see Paul standing there. I could not see his head because of the low ceiling, but the rest of his body was shaking and his hands were rigid, like claws held at about waist level.
I felt a thud in my chest and I called out but there was no response. He just stood there shaking. I wondered briefly if he was having a seizure of some kind. I quickly shoved the throttle to neutral, lashed the tiller, and ran below. Paul stood with his eyes shut and even as I watched, I saw the skin of his face blistering and peeling. He stood there seemingly incapable of speech as he struggled with the pain. A glance at the galley sink revealed the still steaming kettle sitting there. He’d been scalded somehow.
Suddenly Paul found his voice. “Get me some water, quick – as much as you can!” I led him outside into the cockpit where there was a cool breeze blowing, then grabbed two of the 20 litre water containers and upended them over his head. I then bolted downstairs again and got a soft towel and a bag of ice out of the refrigerator.
Back in the cockpit I made up an icepack and gave it to Paul to hold against his burns, then got another 20-litre drum of water ready. It was essential to get the heat out to prevent the burns getting worse. Paul couldn’t open his eyes. Even his eyelids were peeled. I was concerned about his eyes and hoped against hope that he hadn’t scalded the pupils and been blinded.
By now Paul could tell me what happened. He’d put the kettle on the stove with a whistle on the funnel to alert him when the kettle boiled. The whistle device had malfunctioned and effectively become a plug so that when Paul removed it, the steam exploded out of the kettle directly into his face. Oh, how I hoped he’d managed to close his eyes in time.
With my patient under control for the time being, I set about making a radiotelephone call through the local coastal radio station using the short range VHF radio. I called the Police and requested the Water Police be despatched with a paramedic on board to urgently evacuate Paul to the hospital. I gave them my current co-ordinates, plus my heading and estimated speed.
The boat was now sitting idly in the water with the sails flapping uselessly. I put the boat into gear and turned back towards our original course. The sails billowed once again and I pushed the throttle to maximum, before re-adjusting the trim of the sails to improve our speed. Before long we were charging along as fast as we could towards Darwin Harbour. It took about an hour before the Water Police vessel came in sight heading directly towards us. When they came near enough I put the motor into neutral and while we glided to a stop, dropped all the sails to the deck without bothering to gather them up.
When the 12-metre police vessel came alongside they threw a rope and I quickly tied us together with a temporary hitch. With a minimum of fuss two ambulance officers came aboard, collected Paul and guided him over to the other boat. Standing in the background was a photographer from the local paper taking photographs. Most likely he’d been monitoring the Police radio channels and hitched a ride out for the story. Without further ado, the police boat took off towards Darwin, leaving me once more alone on Lowana. I looked after them for a while as they disappeared into the distance, the boats bow-wave spraying high into the air. They certainly weren’t wasting any time.
Now I had time to reflect on things. I felt sorry for Paul and hoped he would be all right. I thought about Martin who probably still carried a lump on his forehead. Many sailors think that bad luck comes in threes and I tried not to think about what would come next. I was alone on the boat for only the second time, but this time I had a greater challenge. I had further to travel and I still needed to get the boat safely onto its mooring.
This was something I’d never had to do before by myself, and it filled me with apprehension. However when I approached the mooring rope, I managed to juggle the throttle against the strongly running tide correctly and picked up the floating line on the first pass before the tide took control. Lowana was secured without any problems. Bringing the boat in and getting onto the moorings without any crew done a lot for my confidence in handling the boat.
I learned later the ambulance officers inserted a drip and applied more ice packs to Paul’s burns. He was taken to Royal Darwin Hospital, where he was treated by doctors in the emergency ward and later released the same day. Thankfully, he had closed his eyes before the scalding water hit his face and his eyesight was saved. Over the next few weeks his face healed with barely a sign of any damage.
As painful as it was for Martin and Paul, the two incidents on the Cobourg trip created an appreciation for safety issues that have lasted ever since. Safety briefings became the norm every time people came on board. Occasionally someone would sit with a resigned look on his or her face, but I made sure they understood where the safety equipment was, how to use it and what to do if someone went overboard. And I took particular care to caution them about the mainsail boom – and handling hot kettles in the galley!