Sailing South Australia

Growing up in Adelaide, I learned to sail off Adelaide’s beaches, and also down around Goolwa, mostly in the 14′ dinghy Dad built in the backyard.

Reading Swallows & Amazons books also made Goolwa a perfect real-life backdrop for my imagination.

In recent years I’ve returned to Adelaide to be with my Dad around Anzac Day. This year, he didn’t make it, because he was crook with another serious bout of cancer, this time in his throat. So over Easter (which coincided with Anzac Day this year), we took our Hartley 18, Woody, with us to Adelaide and even though Dad was too crook to come out with us, I hoped for a few sailing adventures that I could then record for prosperity, and also for my son Max’s future memories.

And it was perfect in so many ways. The water had returned to The Coorong, and for the first time in my life, I sailed through the barrage and down the Coorong.

Max was asleep down below, but the only sounds were the chuckling of waves under the bow of Woody, the occasional rush of the wind over the water and through the rigging of the boat coming off the dunes and the sea, and calls and cries flocks of different sea birds arcing out to us from the sky and sandbanks and reeds.

Later, sailing off Adelaide’s West Beach, wallowing downwind over a Gulf St Vincent swell, we sailed over the dark green and azure blue sea occasionally in company with a pod of dolphins.

I hope you enjoy the home movie.


Friday night fish & chips


Roughly 40 years ago, as a kid growing up in Adelaide, Friday night was fish and chips night. Always from the same fish and chippery on Unley Road. And Dad would get ‘two suitably chilled Southwark Bitter’ from the Cremorne Hotel on the way home with the fish and chips.

Now, 40 years later, I’m getting fish and chips on a Friday night from the same shop. I’ve just got off the train from Melbourne, unloaded my Xtracycle from the luggage van, and ridden over to Unley Road. Phone orders were taken from my elder siblings who have returned to the family home to look after my 94 year old Dad, who is seriously crook with cancer.

This time, there’s no Southwark Bitter for Dad, and no fish and chips either. All his nutrition is taken in prescribed liquid form, straight into his stomach, via a parental feeding tube.
The fish and chips kinda tasted all right, but it wasn’t the same really.

Such is life.

>Winter sailing days: cool & invigorating


Living as we do in Melbourne with water restrictions courtesy of a 10+ year drought, this year’s winter, as have many over the past decades, has been cold, but essentially dry. Of course there has been some occasional rain. It isn’t good for living with ongoing water restrictions, but the plus side has been there’s no reason to stop sailing.

In fact, some of the best sailing I’ve experienced in recent months, has been on the coldest, calmest days. On lakes, such as Lysterfield Lake in the Dandenongs, and on Melbourne’s Port Phillip Bay.

There’s something invigorating about rugging up for a day of cold winds. Finding zephyrs of breeze is so much easier when the air temperature on land is many degrees lower on water. Only streaming eyes and a snotty nose complicates detecting changes in wind direction and intensity on your cheeks and ears.

Our most recent winter sailing day had Max and I on a friend’s Hartley 18 on Port Phillip. The wind and waves were calm; we were occasionally becalmed. We occasionally took a break from staring out over the sun glinting on the water through the winter haze to thaw out with drinks of hot chocolate and a slab or two of fruit cake.

No divesting of layers of warm clothing. There was no effort involved in sailing with a 10 to 15 knot breeze. While keeping the boat balanced, we had to take turns getting out from under the mainsail’s shade to thaw out under the weak sun. We returned to the boat ramp at the end of the day with as many layers on as when we left.

All in all, with the calm and cool weather, Max has continued to enjoy a series of nautical excursions. Turning 4 soon, his growing interest and innate ability for nautical sojourns, and sailing in particular, warms my heart.

Here’s my Flickr page of photos from the Port Phillip sailing day.

>I’ll catch you at Rye: off the beach sailing is the best


Take a quiet bayside suburb in Melbourne that has an expanse of sandy beach, a boat ramp, and a fish and chippery on the foreshore, add a bevy of trailerable, home-built wooden craft propelled by either sail, oar, or single-cylinder engines, and their enthusiastic multi-aged from-all-walks-of-life captains and crew, gathered together on a sunny and breezy Sunday in late February…and you have the menu for a perfect day.

The Wooden Boat Association of Victoria had its annual day at Rye on the last day in February. The mid-morning sun broke through leaden clouds, and the breeze was up. The wind was onshore, and gusty. Most of the sailors prudently put in at least one reef on the main. One of our skippers – who shall remain nameless – didn’t bother with reefing his main, but didn’t set sail at all, and was last seen punting his dory-skiff around the channel markers with the throttle of his trusty Seagull outboard opened right up.

After a break for a light lunch, the M-boy and I arrived with Begonia in tow, but very little prospect of launching her, as she’s quite a craft to handle solo. Lyndsay Symons, the club’s Oughtred ‘Puffin’ boat, was free for a little while, so we took her out under oars alone. The M-boy sat between my legs and helped with the rowing. He’s getting a taste for this boat thing, as every time we go out now he either wants to row or steer. We didn’t stray too far from shore, as with the wind on my back, and even though Lyndsay slides through the water effortlessly, I was providing a bit of windage, and I didn’t want to knacker myself trying to get back to shore.

A quick and dirty race around the channel markers was being organised as we beached. We hitched a ride on one of the larger putt-putts that took line honours. While we were beetling up and back between the channel markers/race buoys we had a perfect waterside seat to see Penny & Jim’s Ness boat Talisman battle it out with Lyndsay: and what a beautiful sight it was too.

To top off a perfect day Penny & Jim offered to take the M-boy and me out in Talisman. Lounging in the bottom of the boat, with the chuckle of water coming from beneath, I asked the M-boy if he like sailing better than boats with engines, to which he replied: “I like sailing.”

Correct answer…and a good end to a perfect day.

More photos of the day here on my Flickr page

>Crewing on a tall ship: 5 handy tips


In 1802, Matthew Flinders explored and charted the coastline of Terra Australis in the leaking and rotten-timbered sailing ship the Investigator.

In March of that year, when Flinders and the French explorer Nicholas Baudin almost literally bumped into each other in Encounter Bay, South Australia.

Flinders and Baudin’s chance meeting in early 1802 gave the name to a historical re-enactment and program of festivities in that very bay exactly 200 years later, aptly named Encounter 2002.

Early in 2002, as a volunteer crew on Melbourne’s tall ship Enterprize, I was an active participant in the re-enactment of Flinders’ exploration of the coast of South Australia. This was my first foray into crewing on a tall ship for fourteen continuous days, at times out of sight of land, as we planned to follow faithfully in Flinders’ footsteps.

On the 16th March 2002, I joined the rest of the crew in Wallaroo, a quiet seaside town, nestled half way down the west coast of Yorke Peninsula. Wallaroo did not figure significantly in Flinders’ explorations on 1802. Two hundred years later it remained quietly, yet pleasantly unimportant.

On this first day of our journey we were stretching our legs from the two-hour train-trip from Adelaide, anxious to be off on our epic adventure. Slinging our bags over our shoulders, we took a left turn out of the train station and headed down towards the sea.

Tip number 1: join a tall ship as crew and you will become a vital member of a very special team: and you will work hard, maybe harder than you have ever worked in your life.

The hot southern sun glowered down from an eye-achingly blue sky. We trudged silently down the main street, towards the place that would be our nautical home from home.

The smells of the sea wafted up the street towards us in waves of sharp saltiness, stronger than the smell of bakeries, stock feed depots and petrol stations that we passed on the way. We knew we were going to leave those sights and smells behind for an altogether simpler olfactory menu of canvas, oiled wood, wholesome food, and occasionally, diesel.

Finally stepping from the land out onto the pier, getting closer to the Enterprize, we all took in the squat bulk of her from her topmast down. We welcomed the sight of her great broad counter stern, and getting closer still, the three-metre tiller hewn from a single piece of redgum, so thick a human hand could not encircle the narrowest part of it.

Tip Number 2: Tall ships, no matter if it’s a ‘small’ coastal trading vessel, or a four-masted barquentine, are big, and heavy, and they will crush you if you make a mistake. A block swinging across on an out of control spar can break bones if anyone is in the way.

Enterprize is a faithful copy of the ship purported to have been instrumental in the settling of Melbourne. The original sailed from Tasmania in 1835, bringing settlers, goods and supplies, to settle the new Victorian colony on the southern bank of the Yarra River, near the intersection of present-day William and Flinders Streets.

Made entirely of recycled Australian timber, the ‘modern’ Enterprize has sails of flax, and lines and rigging of hemp protected with stockholm tar. Under a hot sun, stockholm tar slowly melts, coating the hands of the crew. We knew we had two weeks ahead of us, vainly fighting the tar filling the cracks in our weathered hands, smudging our forearms and jeans, and occasionally getting in the corners of eyes as we wiped sweat from our brows.

Standing next to her, the pier under our feet was the last finger of land we would set foot on for a while. Slowly bobbing up and down to an incoming swell, her mooring lines were taught and creaking. The rubber air-filled fenders that protected her woodwork from the cement piers, and protected the piers from her 65 ton bulk, were as big as beer barrels, quietly huuuumphing and whooomphing as the ship’s bulk squeezed them against the pier, setting up a sotto voce conversation between her and us.

The massive booms of the main and mizzen, each at least seven metres long and as thick as a grown man’s waist gently rocked in their rope cradles to the barely perceptible swell coming into the bay.

Tip number 3: You will learn to ‘hand, reef, and steer’: that is, to lay aloft and safely and competently handle a very large sail, to reef the sail, and to steer the vessel.

The next morning, after taking on a hundred litres of fresh water, the call came out from the Bosun:

“Cast off all lines! Make ready to get underway!”

Half an hour later we had cut all ties to the land, the diesel auxiliary was silent, and we were quietly mooching along under full sail 10 nautical miles from Wallaroo. The massive girth of Enterprize was healing ever so gently to the push of 15 knots of breeze, with a bubbling and chuckling bow wave that was clearly audible, even through the 3-inch thick timber of her hull.

After a restorative two-hour sleep in the early afternoon, unfolding myself from my cot, I came on deck to look out and see that we were passing Wardang Island, off Port Victoria.

“Stand by to change course sou’ sou’east!”

With that, we slowly turned for Port Victoria. Ghosting along to the massive Port Victoria pier, at the last minute all sail was doused, the auxiliary diesel roared to life, and the impish and excitable first mate fired the brass cannon.

Long past it’s between the war-years heyday, when four-masted barquentines from around the world would anchor in the bay to take on phosphate or wheat, the wharf at Port Victoria still had a weighty and substantial presence.

Towering over the water, a thick patina of nitro phosphate fertiliser dust covered every surface and light pole to the height of a man’s head.

The next day we sailed out and headed south for Port Turton, which was nestled on the top of the boot of Yorke Peninsula. The wind had picked up to 20 knots, the waves were choppy and bouncy, and a growing swell lifted us along. The sea gets occasionally confused off this part of the coast of Yorke Peninsula. The ocean is deeper, as the continental shelf drops precipitously away. The sea is an ominously deep and dark shade of blues and greens. It is a shipwreck coast.

Tip number 4: you will learn to face some new fears, and to take calculated risks.

The prevailing swell that tumbles up from the Southern Ocean bends around this protuberance of the peninsula, like a giant hand from a giant arm, sweeping under sailing vessels bobbing like apocryphal corks on water.

Flinders made this observation as he passed through:

At sunset, the land was seen…and the wind favouring us a little we made a stretch for it. A fire upon the shore served as a mark to steer by; and on approaching it at 10 o’clock, the anchor was let go in 6 fathoms, upon a bottom of course sand and small stones; the weather being fine and moderate off the land.

After three days at sea, we were hardening up. Replete with the previous night’s feast of crabs and beer and not much else, the next morning the tabernacle in the bow slowly raised the anchor, and we were under way once more.

A new course was set 295° west-nor’-west to take us out of the bay, to sling us around, out and down, towards Investigator Strait, the deceptively hazardous channel of deep water between the mainland and Kangaroo Island to the south.

Drawing a tangential line from the bottom tip of the cape in the west to the eastern tip of Kangaroo Island, our first heading set us on a south-easterly course to graze past the Althorpe Island sector light.

The last smells of the day dissipated. The warm odour of the wooden deck and the pungency of the sticky stockholm tar, enlivened by the sun’s heat, slowly faded into the air of the night. The chicken stew that was brought up from below in a single baking dish that we all took turns dipping into, passing a few spoons around to save on washing up, sat forlornly on the coach house roof.

Two hours after nightfall we were rolling along under full sail, the prevailing westerlies coming across our stern quarter. We were on an easting course, 100° on the compass card, heading for American River on the west coast of Kangaroo Island.

The dark of the night came on, and on we sailed, all sails set. Filled with wind, the sails pulled on the lines, setting up a pattern of creaking and cracking and clancking in the blocks and tackles.

Another crewmember and I had been allocated the midnight to 2 AM watch. While the rest of the crew slept we kept her alive and boiling along, the westerly swell lifting her up from the stern, gently rocking her as it passed metronomically underneath. It was soporific, but neither my crewmate, nor I, nor the Enterprize, was going to sleep just yet.

Apart from a white masthead light, and the red and green of the port and starboard navigation lights, the only light in the dark was the green glow of the compass card, gyroscopically wallowing in its binnacle, just in front of the massive redgum tiller. The inky black sea tumbled past.

We looked out to the night, and the Milky Way seemed close enough to touch. We were silently awed by the spectacle of simply so many stars so close in the night sky. Three shooting stars punctuated the hours and minutes of the watch. The single square topsail was set above us, a large black rhomboid, stretched taut in each corner under the strain of the following wind, as the ship rocked and rolled to the swell.

Tip number 5: If you are a crewman on a tall ship, there is absolutely no doubt you will be richer for the experience. Life will definitely never be the same.

We passed in the night the very coast that Flinders gazed out upon in the day. He wrote in his log:

Neither smokes, nor other marks of inhabitants had as yet been perceived upon the southern land, although we had passed along seventy miles of its coast. It was too late to go on shore this evening; but every glass on the ship was pointed there, to see what could be discovered.

The next morning, after a short sleep, I was back on deck as the sun rose in the overcast gloom of the east. Numb with sleep deprivation I showered, and was given time off to sit on the cover of the hold and read a book in the warming sun.

We anchored in the mouth of American River, so named for the number of trading visitors from that land who tried to make a fortune in the sealing industry.

Flinders had this to say about his visit two centuries ago:

The whole ship’s company was employed this afternoon, in skinning and cleaning the…(many)…kangaroos…(shot earlier that day); and a delightful regale they afforded, after four months privation from almost any fresh provisions. In gratitude for so seasonable a supply, I named this southern land Kangaroo Island.

Matthew Flinders’ quotes taken from: A Voyage to Terra Australis

Enterprize will be at the inaugural Melbourne Wooden Boat Festival, 19-21 February 2010.