You can get to Nelson Bay by boat. Here is a story of one such trip from Port Hacking to Port Stephens, New South Wales, Australia.

When I moved to Nelson Bay in 1984 I sailed my Nordic 17 from south of Sydney to Port Stephens. The following story, titled "Setting out Solo" was published in Cruising Helmsman magazine.


The alarm shrieked its terror at the pre arranged time of 4.15 in the morning. I grabbed the noisy nuisance and checked the time. This was it, I was on the edge of an adventure. I'd spent the night wedged between the hull and brassiere - like lee cloths, trying to stay put whilst the boat danced to pipes of a cranky sea.

Some sleep was enough. I filled the pre-dawn hour with forced activities of eating, washing and stowing. I added the sound of my diesel to the purr and buzz of the runabout fisherman blasting out of Port Hacking to hopes of a different sort.

Off came the eye splice from the bollard at the front of my boat, instead of chucking it overboard as usual, I pulled it up till the oversize chain and shackle broke the surface and cut the rope. Four hundred dollars of mooring clanged to the sea bed. Nobody wanted it so I took this trophy, a rope and float. The symbolism of cutting the umbilicus did not escape me. I was cutting my links with the area, casting off my security, and venturing into real cruising. We've all got to start somewhere. One hundred and seventeen miles in three days if I'm lucky. That may not seem significant to the armchair sailor but I hadn't done it before and I didn't want to make a goat of myself.

I motored out of the now too familiar entrance of Port Hacking and set my Autohelm to miss Cape Baily. I scribbled the time 5.16 in my log book and settled to watch for boats to miss, and day breaks not to miss.

Ever since I saw my first sunrise I've never failed to be disappointed by the spectacle. They have an air of expectancy and hope. The sun just comes up. Its time to put on a hat and sunscreen.

Crossing Bate Bay I look at the sandhills of Cronulla and Wanda. Of course the unsolved double murder is all I associate with the area. It's a wild place full of nuddies, trail bikes and territorial surfers, and surrounded by oil refineries and wasteland. I put my back to it and look forward to the more typical sheer cliffs of the southern approaches to Botany Bay. The water here is driven white by more fisherman streaming out to sea to catch the last fish that Sydney has to offer. Flashy, almost sporty tugs are dashing out to meet oil tankers. I'll give them all the room they want so long as they don't hit me. All the time I'm filled with nostalgia. I keep thinking that this will be the last time I'll see all this. I'm moving on to live up north and at six knots I'm not likely to come back to look at this again. The city of my birth is passing to port. Prince Henry Hospital overlooking the rocks at Little Bay hold memories of courting, fishing and exploring.

I'm trolling a spinner, but now approaching the sewer outfall at Malabar I pull it in to avoid snagging plastic bags - if I'm lucky and just about anything else if I'm not. The water here is very dark, a muddy colour, and the swells and waves are lower. Its oily, I think of my hull being desecrated.

I figure the Coastal Patrol must be out of bed by now, so after a glance around I duck into the cabin and say "hello". These blokes are great. They seem to take a little more interest in me when I tell them I am alone in a 17 foot boat hoping to get 37 miles up the coast. After I give my E.T.A. and the other usual information they engage me in a conversation about sea conditions. I know they really want to know, but I get the feeling they are analysing my mental state, to see if they ought to send the police boat out now. I promise to keep in touch.

Having been on the water for two hours now it's time to check for current. According to the chart I could be drifting south by as much as 4 knots. I plot my position on the map and compare the distance actually covered over the seabed with the distance on the sumlog. Mercifully I'm only loosing a third of a knot. I have plenty of time to indulge myself with the binoculars. The beaches I have surfed and jogged along as a youth are just over there. The weather is great and the sea is kind. It is great to be alive.

As I pass The Gap I can see the Sydney Harbour Bridge through the break in the cliffs. For a moment it seems just possible that all those years ago the 'Dunbar' could have made that deadly mistake and charged into the cliffs thinking it was the entrance to Port Jackson.

It is 9 o'clock now and the lazy fisherman are coming out into lumpy seas and an increasing nor-easter. With the wind on the nose I don wet weather gear, let the auto pilot have its head and settle down to some serious observing. It's new territory from now on.

The Manly Beach pines are still visible. I can almost small the Dagwood Dogs and feel the warmth of those bags of chips.

My trailing spinner finally tempts a bonito. I drop the revs and haul him aboard. In true tuna fashion he spews up fish, thrashes his tail with flamenco fury and dies with utter rage, changing colour and spraying blood a metre in all directions. He is soon followed by another. When the drama ends I mop up the blood and get ready to round Barrenjoey Head into Broken Bay. Entering Pittwater I cross a yacht race with lots of swish looking boats with KA sails. No need to think of collision rules here. I am under power so its give way, give way. I drop the pick off a beach in the aptly named Coasters Retreat. I am early, it is only 1.30. I eat one of the tuna. It is edible enough but at 3 kilos I never want to see another again. Lots of cruisers and general lazeabouts here. Comes dark most of them go home to their mortgage. I make a gift of the other tuna to a bloke buzzing about in a tender. He returns to his cruiser and a short time later has a most noisy and hurtful argument with his wife. He too goes home. I sit out the happy hour watching the light dissolve and the water grow still.

The alarm again shatters my fitful sleep. I am filled with both dread and excitement at the prospect of crossing more unknown water today. With the stars still visible in the pre dawn dark I don a leather glove and kneel down on the dew covered floor. I crank the starting handle on the 10 year old diesel. It starts - God bless it. Just in case, I pop a Marzine sea sickness pill and put on the wrist bands. Then the folding knife goes into my shirt pocket on a lanyard. I carry it to cut myself free if I am threatened by the ropes. Next on is the safety harness. This ties me to the boat -essential for the solo sailor on Autohelm. Snapping the gearshift into forward I log my time of departure. It is 5.10 a.m. so at ten minutes past every hour from now on I book the sumlog distance and compare it with the actual distance travelled on the chart. The difference is the current. That way just by knowing the time I can say exactly where I am and what my E.T.A. will be. At the end of each day I work out how many litres of fuel an hour I am using.

Keeping my navigation honest I hope to avoid the embarrassment of being photographed peering out of the window of the rescue helicopter. Motor sailing I am averaging 4.4 knots made good for 900 ml of diesel per hour.

Watching the chart and the coastline I try to memorise the names of these new headlands. The sea is alive with tuna. In all directions the water bubbles and thrashes with their excitement. Without deviating to get closer to them I hook into one after another. I am surprised to see most of the fishermen at anchor fishing the bottom with such a banquet of easy pickings all about. For the first time in my life I could have filled the boat.

A strong southerly springs up so I hoist the gaff sail and pole out the gib. Under sail I am doing 5 knots. Not satisfied I keep the engine idling at 1500 revs and do 6 knots. There are white caps all around. I put a reef in the main to balance the rig. I surf down the waves at seven plus knots and the autohelm is coping well.

Just off Bird Island the trolling line goes tight. The pull is strong so I put the engine in neutral and don the leather glove. The boat is still doing 4 1/2 knots as I tug-o-war an unknown fish. Whatever it is I am sure the 70 kg line won't break. I pray it is not a shark. The boats' motion will tire it but also make it heavier to haul. It is a ten kilo tuna. I swing it aboard and let it pound the floor.

The day is young so I let Swansea and its bar crossing pass by. Three hours to Nobbys. The sun is hot, so I wrap my unfortunate friend in wet towels. The cockpit floor, a light grey, is hot to stand on. I don a pair of socks to insulate me and stand on the cabin roof to watch this new world pass by. The satisfaction of building your own boat and sailing it in blue water is immense. I stand there smiling with my face and my heart. The boat a Nordic 17 arrived in my yard as 300 litres of resin and a few rolls of glass. I built everything myself including the sails, so if it sinks under me there is no one to blame.

Plenty of wind, plenty of searoom and plenty of time. Nobbys looms obvious so I calculate if its possible to make Port Stephens before dark. Not quite. So it's Newcastle tonight. I motor between the breakwalls. The water is dark brown and full of debris. Alan Lucas in "Cruising the New South Wales Coast" recommends the Water Police Depot for an overnight stay. I have a pleasant chat with the officers after tying up. They'll know who to look for if they have to come and rescue me. I put the fish on ice and walk around this grimy part of town. The railway line and the main shopping centre are only a few hundred metres away.

I retire early. An evil looking foreigner is fishing next to my boat. He sneak contemptuous glances at me curled up the cabin. Hours later he is still there. Every time a tug boat passes, Avior is pounded against the wharf and I am thrown out of bed. Next time I will go up the river and swing on an anchor.

5.00 a.m. Monday sees me leave this sooty place. My finders are covered with oil and black mud.

The weather man predicts a fine day with the wind on the nose. I have to cross Newcastle Bight. The chart has a warning "in bad weather rollers extend a long distance from shore". Wrecks are visible on the beach.

The next headland Morna Point is out of sight so I set a course of 55° Magnetic to miss it. It seems I am heading too far out to sea but I trust my navigation. The seas are calm and the only dangers are the numerous anchored boats waiting to be filled with coal.

Stockton Beach is enormous. It takes me four hours to pass it's twenty mile length. I see huts, four wheel drives, motor cycles and fishermen. Half way across I fail to contact the Coastal Patrol. I am on my own. Two more tuna arrive to join the ice box. Yesterdays average speed was 5 knots. This last days run is short, only 35 miles. Off Anna Bay I see what at first registers as a snake swimming on the surface. It is the fin of a shark. Float boat float.

Soon after clearing Point Stephens I swing to port. My sails fill properly for the first time that day. With all my canvas I sail triumphantly through the headlands of Tomaree and Yacaaba. No one is about but for me bands are playing. I am bringing an old friend home.


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