Its hard to pinpoint the exact time everything changed. With every passing hour, the abstract became real. What at first seemed distant, was now at our door step. Then the borders began closing, and travel restrictions imposed. We realised our dreams of four years, were no longer open to us.
Once the decision was made, we had to act quickly.
Here’s our story.
It’s 3 am, Monday 23rd March. We slip Selah’s buoy and pick our way through the mooring field. We are leaving our home of the last four months. Leaving without saying farewell to friends we have made at Devonport, and our mates at the Mersey Yacht Club, who have welcomed us so warmly.
Our car is still in the Yacht Club compound. Tomorrow Debbie will return to collect it, then drive to Port Sorell, where she will say goodbye to her parents, Rob & Mary, who have housed us for the past four years. It going to be an emotional farewell. They are now in full lock-down in their new home, Rubicon Grove aged care. For the past five weeks, before all the craziness, Deb & her sister Chrys, have been working solidly, packing down the house, and making arrangements for their move, and selling the house. It’s been a challenging, and emotional time. Rob and Mary have been married for sixty three years. How do you pack a lifetime into two small rooms? We are not even sure Deb will be allowed to see them. What does full lock-down mean?
So much uncertainty.
We motor out of the Mersey at 4 knots, past the Spirit of Tasmania ferry, through the leads and out into the darkness of Bass Strait. I’m a little concerned for Deb. Its the first time she has been at sea in the dark. It takes a little getting used to. She’s sitting outside on the turret roof, where we can chat through the helm station hatch. “Not the way we planned to leave is it?” I said. “Nope … ” she replied, gazing out into the darkness.
We are reeling at the pace of change. Up until a week ago, we were still stocking up on food and purchasing safety equipment for the Bass Strait crossing.
Now it’s all complicated, and everything has changed.
Past the leads, we swing to the east. I’m following the course I plotted the night before. There are three hazards I must avoid in the dark. Wright & Egg Islands, Point Sorell & Hebe Reef. I increase revs and bring her up to 5.9 knots. I need to average 5 knots to meet the tides. We want to be at the marina in Launceston at 12:45, slack tide, a 10-hour passage. We double-check the outboards are pumping cooling water and the breathers are open on the fuel tanks. I select a star to steer by and settle in for the first leg of the passage. 20 nautical miles along the coast to Low Head. We are rugged up in thermals. Its flat calm and 7 degrees. I’m not expecting any wind. But even if there was, I’d still be motoring. This is a delivery trip. We are on a mission. We have a lot to do in the next two days before we fly back to Alice Springs. Our instincts are to be with our family. Our daughters want us home, and we are ready to go. We are disappointed, but not heartbroken. We have been away for four years and our place is with them, during this crisis. Our cruising plans are on hold …for now.
I wish the auto-pilot was functioning. It’s installed, but I haven’t had a chance to commission it yet. Never mind. I’m enjoying helming her for a while. It will be months before I get another chance. We hope. Deb hands me my water canister. There is not much for her to do, so she settles down on the settee with a blanket and her phone.
By 5 am we are off Port Sorell. I call for Deb to look at the lights of the town we have come to know so well. We gaze in silence, lost in our own thoughts. I think of the little house we lived in for four years, now empty of furniture and life, as it waits for its new owner to take possession. So much has changed since we launched in November.
Still two hours to dawn. I scan the darkness ahead for signs of shipping or other small craft. Nothing, except the sweeping light from the Low Head lighthouse, at the mouth of the Tamar River. A 10 knot SE land breeze picks up. I briefly consider rolling out the genoa, but dismiss it when I see Deb is napping. It’s a bit shy, I don’t think it would fill anyway. After half an hour the breeze drops, and we motor on.
I’m reassured by the glow of our navigation lights, pleased I got the 20-mile ones. Its the first time they have been used. I smile to myself, remembering the happy three days my brother Paul gave us, completing a myriad of electrical catch-up jobs. Getting the nav lights up and running was one of them.
A soft glow on the eastern horizon is announcing the imminent arrival of dawn. I love this time of day, remembering overnight road trips in the desert, and the welcome arrival of dawn. I hum one of one of my favourite songs, based on Psalm 30 “…there may be pain in the night, but joy comes in the morning.”
Soon I see a smaller blinking light with a 4 second interval, dead ahead. I identify it as Hebe reef, a rocky outcrop that guards the entrance to the river. The light looks close, and I’m surprised to see by the chartplotter that we are still six miles off, an hour away. Distances are difficult to judge in the dark.
By 7 am we are nearing Low Head, and I begin our approach to the channel markers. Thankfully it is light now. Last time we were here, we had to share the channel with a large ship. I scan the horizon and am relieved that we are alone.
Deb emerges with a hot chocolate, and we celebrate the arrival of the new day together. She grabs her phone and makes a video to share with the family. The river is turning it on for us in the early morning light, with mist creeping between the moored boats. It would have been nice to stop for some breakfast, but we have no time to lose. Launceston is still 70 kilometers upstream, and I do not want to miss slack tide. The marina is tight. I’m determined our tie-up will be drama free. We’ve had four months experience moving Selah in the strong tidal flows of the Mersey River. I am no longer intimidated by currents, but that experience has taught me that the best time to be manouvering our big cat in close-quarters, is still-water.
Now that we are the protected waters of the Tamar, I can relax a little. It’s a beautiful day. We couldn’t have asked for better weather. Ironically, it’s the exact weather window I had been looking for our crossing. Gentle 10 to 15 knot South Easterlies, for three days, all the way to Lakes Entrance, Victoria. It would have been a dream run and the perfect beginning to our voyaging. Just a week ago, I was on the phone to friends in Bairnsdale, making plans to meet up with them. They were planning to relocate to America in June. I guess that’s another life-plan on hold.
We continued, past George Town and Beauty Point. Here the river widens at Bell Bay, the commercial basin of the river. This morning there are four large ships in port. Thankfully none are moving, and I wonder what I would do if one was swinging around to leave its berth. They would obstruct much of the river. I checked my radio was on channel 16 just in case, but it remained silent. Past the wood chip berth, the river makes a 90 degree turn to starboard and narrows. We cruise past some truly magnificent waterfront properties at Kayena, a protected part of the river. One, in particular, has a floating pontoon, directly attached to their back deck, with a long walkway. I wonder how they got planning approval. Very rare in Australia, where 90 metres from the high tide mark is public property.
We are now approaching Whirlpool Reach, the narrowest part of the upper river. Presumably, the reason the Batman Bridge was built here. It’s the only crossing on the Tamar until Launceston. The current picks up speed. I hand the helm over to Deb so I can make some phone calls. As we go under the bridge, I notice the speed over the ground is 13 knots. Selah starts to weave left to right, reacting to the overfalls and whirlpools this stretch is named after. We laugh, as Deb spins the wheel, trying to keep her on track, not at all concerned. We are beginning to understand our ship, and how she tracks.
I check my watch, 9:15am. Down to business. I place a call to Steve Wright, a local sailmaker. Now that we have decided to lay Selah up for the next nine months, I want to enclose the cockpit. After four months aboard, we have learned where rainwater sits. I discuss my ideas with Steve. He’s happy to do the job with absentee owners. I promise to send him notes, photos, and sketches, once we are in quarantine in Alice. A few other calls to MYC friends and staff, apologising for our unannounced departure. They are understanding and reassure me we are making the right decision. Can’t shake a nagging doubt though. Are we over-reacting?
Calls made, I relieve Deb from the helm, so she can make the final arrangements for the marina. It’s costing us $92 a week for a birth, very reasonable by mainland standards, but payment is upfront. We deposit $2400 for the first six months. A big chunk of our cruising kitty. I hope I can find some work back home.
The next few hours pass quickly. I focus on navigating the shortest route possible between the markers. I cut a few corners where it’s safe, one of the advantages of a cat with such a shallow draft. Deb heads below and starts organising, packing bags, trying to stay within airline weight restrictions. So much to do. Watching her, unable to rest or enjoy the trip, my heart breaks. It’s all she has done for the past 5 weeks. On top of packing down her parents’ home, our plans have changed three times in quick succession. We were in the final stages of preparing the boat for our trip. What to leave in storage? What to take with us? Then the virus hit and the decision to head home. At first, we planned to drive. We booked tickets on the Spirit, and Deb began preparing for a road trip. Then within three days, the South Australian borders closed. Can we still transit through on our way to the NT? Very little information was available. Should we risk it? No, said our daughters, just fly home. We don’t know how long flights will continue for Alice. So the ferry trip was canceled. Thank you TT lines for the instant refund, no questions asked. A sign of the times. Our daughter Kirsty helped us book tickets using her frequent flyer points. Now Deb is down below, trying to pack what we need for an unknown length of time, into three suitcases. Fatigue and the stress of recent days take their toll and for a little while, I am overwhelmed. I quietly weep. She has sacrificed so much without complaint. We have worked so hard. This was not the plan.
But hope is a powerful thing, and it is a glorious day on the river. I call her up to enjoy the last of our trip. The Tamar River is an underrated gem, the longest navigatable river in the country. In parts, it’s breathtakingly beautiful, reminiscent of a European waterway. Compared to other continents, Australia has very few rivers that can be navigated for any distance. The love affair with the car has cut off many of our rivers to vessels with masts, due to low bridges.
We are approaching Launceston. The river is now very narrow, and shallow. Treacherous for deep keel yachts, but not us. Even so, we approach cautiously. There is a lot of activity. Tourist ferries, with just a few passengers. The last paying customers, before everything closes down. The Premier has told them all to go home. A river barge turns in front of us to tie up to the commercial jetty. We slow to allow her to swing around in the narrow river. A group of kayaks, cut in front as we approach the Esk river. Locals taking advantage of the beautiful weather. It’s surreal, considering the circumstances.
Deb is back at the helm. I’m up on deck, preparing the lines and fenders. I set up for a starboard tie-up. I call Harry, the marina manager, who promises to meet us in ten minutes, to help take our lines. I tie a line onto a mooring stick, as a backup. It’s a trick I learned from the MYC boys. Attach a looped dock line to a long pole. Boat decks are high, and floating pontoons are typically low to the water. It’s dangerous and difficult for a crew member to jump off to get a line ashore. With the pole, they can reach a bollard from the deck. In a current, all you need is one line to the pontoon, and you can pivot the boat with the engines.
It’s 12:45, we’ve timed it well. The water is slack, and there is no wind. Perfect. I take the wheel and head her straight into our berth, using the twin engines to tickle her in. Harry takes our line, and we use ropes to swing her around, stern first into our pen.
“She looks more finished than the last time I saw her!” Harry says with a smile, before handing me the marina key and heading back to his office. That was four months ago when the mast was laying on her deck, and our arrival, in a strong wind and full current was somewhat more dramatic.
Deb & I exchange a high five. We have successfully and safely completed another passage. Not a major one, but for us a significant one.
Later I meet up with Josh. I have arranged for him to look after Selah in our absence. He’s in the pen behind us, aboard his beautiful Alden schooner. He sailed over from New Zealand to Sydney, before making his way to Launceston, to attend the Maritime College. He will spin the engines and keep an eye on her dock-lines. There is a small community of live-aboards in the marina. They are all in for the duration, now. No one is moving. The marina is tucked into a small backwater of the Esk River, a tributary of the Tamar. It is very well protected and is engineered to handle floods. It came through the 2016 floods unscathed, a one in a hundred-year event.
Selah is as safe as we can make her, for the long winter ahead.