Jumping across ‘The Ditch’

Half a dozen eggs flew through the air and landed unbroken next to me. They were immediately followed by a flying clove of garlic, tub of quinoa and pot of cayenne pepper. Was Baggy ordering a fancy breakfast?

It was day two of our sailing passage across the Tasman Sea (aka ‘The Ditch’) then the Coral Sea to Mackay, Queensland, Australia. We’d hit a squall gusting over 35 knots.

An enormous wave had just turned Baggy onto her side and flooded the cockpit for the first time since leaving the UK.

A complex weather trough, with embedded lows, was crossing our path giving the most violent conditions we had experienced to-date. We had three reefs in the main, quickly reduced the headsail to no more than a pocket handkerchief and steered downwind.

But … the rogue wave had made its way inside the boat. As well as opening a galley cupboard it had soaked the nav table, log book, bookshelves, step and galley floorboards.

The Tasman Sea has a weather reputation and the passing of this trough had been forecast. Wave size was building and we were braced for a tough few hours.

To catch up …

How long do you wait for the right weather window?

A Tasman Sea crossing at this time of year was going to be a challenge, but if we’d waited for the perfect opportunity we would still be in New Zealand in July.

We agreed a challenging passage was acceptable and a dangerous passage wasn’t. Our chosen window showed three likely periods of strong winds, some motoring in no wind and an additional distance of some 300 miles or so due to headwinds. Not ideal by any means …. but it wasn’t dangerous.

Tattered and torn: a sign our time in New Zealand was running out

Our window to reach South Africa before the next cyclone season was shrinking with every passing day and our NZ courtesy flag was in tatters after flying for 18 months.

And so, after a damp week of torrential rain, 120mm recorded on one day alone, the weather gods looked kindly on our escape.

We slipped our lines from Riverside Drive Marina, New Zealand early Friday 11 June, to a wonderful send off from our marina sailing buddies.

It felt as emotional and poignant as our departure from Portsmouth Harbour back in July 2018. It was a wrench to leave this beautiful country. It also signalled the start of sailing half way round the world all over again, with all the nerves and excitement that entails, plus the added frisson of border uncertainties on the way.

Stocking up: three months supply should do it

Our passage to Australia was also hot news amongst our close knit New Zealand boating community. It seemed we were the only sailors to be granted permission to enter Australia by yacht (apart from Australians). With this in mind we were keen to get going before any officials changed their minds!

Hatea Bridge: our gateway out of New Zealand

In the morning sun we motored down to Marsden Cove to meet Bruce from customs to clear us out of the country – the same guy who cleared us in 18 months ago.

Bruce reminded us, if we went more than 12 miles offshore we couldn’t get back into the country.

So, we spent a nervous procrastinating hour drinking coffee, and fiddling with stuff causing Bruce (who was checking our location on AIS) to call us to check we were actually leaving!

That was it, we HAD to go. We stopped faffing around and headed out to sea safe in the knowledge we had a challenging – but not dangerous – passage ahead of us!?!

The Passage

We had arranged for regular weather updates to be sent to our sat phone (thanks a million Paddy and Sorin) and professional routing advice from weather guru Bob McDavitt. It was good to know what was coming, because the passage delivered a crazy mixed bag of weather.

What we experienced was pretty much as forecast, but the reality of consecutive days beating into 20 knot headwinds is tougher than imagined sat in the bar.

Two days out we encountered the forecast ‘complex trough with embedded lows’ which gave hours of violent squalls to 35 knots and very confused sea conditions.

Later, a deep low pressure system crossing the Tasman further south gave strong headwinds from the north west and we spent days reefed right down, balancing boat speed and wind angle to make life on board bearable rather than jumping off waves at seven knots.

The final few days saw strong tailwinds to 30 knots with Baggy surfing down waves at nine knots, despite three reefs and just a clew patch of genoa.

We operated a three hour night watch system between us. And during the day we sailed the boat, cat napped, ate simple food and kept ourselves entertained with books, podcasts and scrabble.

Then, on Day 12, 1033 nautical miles into the passage something magical happened.

We left the Tasman Sea and crossed into the Coral Sea. It was like passing through a portal – the sky was clearer, the sea was bluer and the air was warmer. Woolly hats were swapped for sun hats, hoodies for t-shirts, trousers for shorts and socks for bare feet.

We were back in the tropics 🌞 But the euphoria was short lived. Tail winds gusting 30 knots and three metre seas hurtled us towards Mackay over the last 48 hours.

As we surfed past the Mackay breakwater into the flat water beyond, the question of whether we chose our weather window wisely came to mind. Yes – but only just.

Best bits …

🐳 Humpback whales breaching on the approach to Australia

☀️ Stunning sunsets and sunrises

🐬 Bottlenose dolphin whistles and clicks through the hull and ‘welcome committee’ pod as we approached Mackay

🌊 Phosphorescent waves and glowing orange jelly fish at night

⭐️ A perfectly clear Milky Way, with no moon or light pollution. So bright the stars and planets reflected off the sea and shot beams across the water towards us.

🌚 A full moon and flying fish.

🌈 Giant rainbows

🚢 Complete solitude. No other yachts, just cargo ships nearer land.

Worst bits …

💨 Headwinds and Tailwinds Imagine a fast rollercoaster with no safety strap, tipping dramatically to one side. Now imagine that rollercoaster is inside an aeroplane experiencing turbulence and big ocean waves crashing over it.

NB. Paul likened it to being in a tumble drier rather than an aeroplane, but you get the gist.

Anyway, add to this the need to clamber out onto the wing of the aeroplane, day or night, to make adjustments.

The best we could do (if not on deck) was brace ourselves into a corner on the downhill side and hold on tight.

🎧 Noise Roaring wind, raging sea, strained rigging, creaking wood, high pitched propellor whine, bashing boat contents, sloshing water tank. Our ears are still ringing several days after arriving.

👀 Hallucinations A Scottish guy who kept shouting out hello; a chanting aboriginal tribe; a distant radio chat show; someone whistling for their dog and a classical orchestra in the engine!

🤡 Extreme balancing We’re considering joining the circus with our new found ninja skills. Going to the loo required acrobatic moves and precision timing. And preparing food honed our knife juggling and flame avoiding prowess. Quite frankly, it’s a miracle we survived without a single breakage, spill or injury … just lots of leg bruises and smashed toes.

Day 5: New life appeared on Paul’s ‘long life’ bread

Passage Stats

Distance sailed: 2133 nautical miles, 300 miles further than planned due to headwinds.

Time at sea: 18 days 1 hour. Our second longest non-stop passage to-date.

Engine time: 34 hours

Strongest wind: Gusting 35 knots

Average speed: 4.9 knots

Fastest speed: Over 10 knots SOG (speed over the ground), surfing down waves

Other yachts seen:0

Wildlife: Humpback whales, bottlenose dolphins, a booby on the guardrail, albatross, gannets, flying fish

Books: 8

Crossword puzzles: 40

Podcasts: 20

Land ho … but no landing

11.30am, Tuesday 29 June – Baggy made her grand arrival into Mackay Marina, Queensland, Australia.

The last few days and nights of the voyage had been a daze of wind, waves, sail changes, whales, discomfort and delirium.

First sighting of Australia: not pretty, but solid land … lettuce, fresh bread and beer!

Exhausted, but overjoyed, emotional and adrenalised, we secured to a fuel berth, with very wobbly legs, and waited for Australian Border Force (ABF).

A masked, heavily uniformed man eventually appeared with bad news.

The ABF team were arriving later and we had to stay on the boat till biosecurity could visit us tomorrow. …. TOMORROW?! Like a popped balloon our heavenly visions of walking again, hot showers, a restaurant dinner and cold beers evaporated. Broken and despondent we set to cleaning up the boat until four ABF officials and two dogs arrived late afternoon.

Speciality – sniffing: The dog with a job

The dogs boarded first and excitedly sniffed Baggy’s hidden nooks and crannies. Next up two masked and gloved ABF officials spent a good hour inspecting all our cupboards, questioning our lives and reading our log book.

Welcome to Australia: a much needed kiss and cuddle from a gorgeous Border Force official

Apparently we were the first and only yacht to visit Australia from New Zealand THIS YEAR!!!!!

Eventually reassured we weren’t drug smugglers or human traffickers, we apologised for being boring and they praised us for being true adventurers!!

We ran the engine for enough hot water to wash, cobbled together a dinner with no fresh food, drank two gins and passed out.

We had arrived in Australia 🇦🇺

Necking a cold one: well earned … and for the record I’m never doing that again!

A short video of our passage can be seen on You Tube Jumping ‘The Ditch’ – Sailing from New Zealand to Australia

One thought on “Jumping across ‘The Ditch’

  1. Wesuffered one of those Busters during the 13 Tall ships race from Sydney to Auckland. They are fierce but very localised. Next time we will send Dean out, then you won’t have to wait so long for Border force. Hope you don’t get held up in the Aussie lockdowns now. Good luck and fairinds

    Liked by 1 person

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