A story about sailing to Broughton Island, outside Port Stephens, New South Wales, Australia.

This story titled "Strangers in a Longboat" was published in "Cruising Helmsman" magazine in September 1995.


Strangers in a Longboat

How does a sensible person, with years of sailing experience find himself in an open boat, in the open sea, manning the pumps with a strong wind warning current?

Lots of people bring boats to Port Stephens. Larger boats sail through the heads and stay a while, enjoying the beauty and safety that the area has to offer. Others trail their boats in for a holiday. On one particular trailer was a Drascombe 21' longboat.

For me at least, this boat had instant appeal. I badly wanted a sail. The owner turned out to be Michael, a name easy to remember as it is the same as mine. In the conversation that followed he mentioned Broughton Island and not being one to miss an opportunity I proposed that we sail there, camp overnight and sail back the next day. He was to bring the boat and I would bring the safety gear.

I let him have 2 days to buy some tucker, ready the boat and consider pulling out. This Drascombe was a timber open boat 21' 6" long and had a 6hp outboard auxiliary. Sixteen square metres of sail is spread over two masts and a jib.

This stranger really did turn up on the morning of departure. We had 10 miles to sail to a windswept, treeless island off the N.S.W. coast. The weather forecast had a strong wind warning current 20-25 knots from the southeast, seas and swell 2 metres. Around here small boats do not put to sea in these conditions. We decided to start the journey and see how bad conditions really were out there.

We stowed the camping gear in lockers. Safety gear was in a waterproof drum lashed down in the cockpit. We started with the mizzen furled, one reef in the main and the jib fully out.

Motor sailing out the heads the tide was ebbing strongly against the swell causing short, steep, waves. The outboard was surging out of the water on the crest of every swell, sucking air and over-revving. The boat heeled quite a lot as our course pointed close to the wind. Swells were coming from all directions as they bent around islands and bounced off cliff faces.

Half a mile off shore it was time to decide. I suggested we turn back, as much because it was the obvious thing to do and gave the captain someone else to blame for calling the trip off. Michael is keen and not easily put off. I wonder if those were the qualities needed on a trip like this, or the ones to be avoided. He obviously has a lot of faith in the boat. We agree to go on a little further, at least as far as Boondelbah Island and reconsider there.

Green water comes aboard the windward side from the crests of any particularly steep waves. The boat scoops more water as the lee gunwale goes under. I look at this water sloshing around the bottom of the boat, above the floorboards. It has a big impact on me. No matter what I try to think about or where I look my eyes always return to the water we have shipped. We still have a two hour journey ahead of us and if we keep taking water at this rate we may be under before we get there. I go forward and pump the bilges. It works. The floor boards are uncovered again.

Boondelbah Island is little more than a lightly vegetated rocky outcrop, but it does have a lee side. We come close to the rocks on the north west corner and find relative calm. Out of a waterproof army ammo box comes the hand-held 27 Mhz radio. I call the Coastal Patrol and inform them we have decided to continue to Broughton. I can just guess what they are thinking, sitting on comfortable chairs in the radio room watching us put out to sea. We are logged on.

I suggest another reef in the main, instead we make adjustments, don lifejackets, kill the long suffering engine and change course for Broughton Island. This is a serious piece of water. It is too deep to stand up in and this stretch of water doesn't suffer fools gladly.

Our new course puts the wind and the swell on the beam. We at last have sea-room and the sailing is much easier now. Michael, the captain, takes the helm by way of a tiller extension in one hand and the mainsheet in the other. The Drascombe is just a big dinghy and we are sailing it in difficult conditions. We each have about 20 years of sailing experience and either of us could take the helm and make a good fist of the job. For now we are totally reliant on Michael's skills. The boat heels, we lean out, a sheet is loosened, wind spills from the main. Any gear failure or jam cleats that won't release and we will be over.

There are things you do that are only acceptable if you are prepared to die. I have accepted this and can put it out of my mind. It is not that life is miserable or that you want to die. It is the opposite. Life is great, and this is one of the best ways of revelling in it. We will do everything necessary for the job. For the next hour we live life in the fast lane. The steeper waves still smack green water over the windward side. The pump copes easily and there is even time to enjoy the wild and crazy world around us. We surf down some of the waves, turn into others to climb. All the time the main is being sheeted hard and let out. The centreboard sings and rattles in its' case. Wet weather gear is buttoned up tight. Water trickles down the neck. There is the taste of salt water in my mouth. Waves storm at us from the beam. Spray is constant. Gannets and Muttonbirds soar across the waves. It looks like we are going to make it.

Looking Glass Isle looms up. We have taken an hour to make 6.6 nautical miles. Michael has a lot of faith in the boat but now must have faith in me. I have the local knowledge. We can see individual rocks and bushes now. We are on a lee shore and heading for a yet unseen haven, Esmeralda Cove. There seems to be nothing but wild swells pounding on volcanic rock. To enter we steer towards Fishermans Passage and turn sharply to port when the first hut is sighted. This is to miss a deadly bombora that works in this weather at the mouth of Esmeralda Cove.

In the Cove the seas and swell calm down and we head for a beach lined with seven huts. A few boats are tied to the moorings and ten men stand and watch as we sail in. Sails dropped we anchor off the beach and the captain rows the Drascombe backwards on to the sand. Did I tell you Michael was British.

Face crusted with salt, wet weather dripping, I step ashore. The fishermen are sheltering from the southerly and know what we have pulled off. They are a hard bunch to crack. You earn respect from them slowly or not all. They would like to dismiss us as crazy but we give them no cause.

The northernmost hut has a radio attached to the wall and we let the Coastal Patrol know we are safe. Formalities over we motor to the next beach, pitch two tents, make a cup of tea and go fishing.

As there are no trees on the island and little driftwood we are denied a campfire that night. The island is home to hundreds of muttonbirds. They fly to their burrows after dark. Each year they return to the island after flying 20 000 km around the world. Arriving about October they find their old burrow and their mate from previous years and start a new generation.

As light falls on this island getaway I watch the sinister entrance bommie forming and reforming. Seas build up on it like a monolith growing from the ocean. The top foams white, eventually engulfing the whole and reducing it to sea level to start again.

As predicted the wind reverses overnight. Esmeralda Cove is calm, the bommie is gone. We put to sea in ten knots of wind from the north-west. This is Drascombe weather. It is so totally different from the day before. Today the ocean is just a big, happy pond. All sails are up and there is even a Smith's jig trolling over the back. We take three hours to return, a distance of 10.2 miles.

Michael Smith at the helm, Broughton Island in the background.

Cabbage Tree Island is just offshore from Port Stephens and we change course to sail close by. This Island is the only nesting place in the Southern Hemisphere for the Gould's Petrel. Should even one rat or cat get ashore then the population would be finished. Some professional fishermen are anchored off the island fussing with their nets. They look up at this magnificent boat we are sailing and call out that they would like to own one.

After crossing the bar I call the Coastal Patrol to log off. They have been watching us, and the radio operator tells us he wants a Drascombe too.

Sails are dropped as we approach the boat ramp, Michael sculls the last dozen metres with a single oar over the transom. Did I tell you that he was a red-haired pommie?

As soon as the boat is back on it's trailer a man on holidays approaches and wants to know all about the boat and where he can get one. Drascombe owners must get a lot of this.


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