Sailing is a constantly changing recreation and new experiences are a never ending source of challenge and inspiration. Some experiences are etched indelibly in the brain as high points either long anticipated or totally unexpected. Some we choose to build upon, others we endeavour never to repeat. For me, the treasured memories include the first time, at the age offourteen, I sailed (in a Sabot), the first boat we owned (an ancient Vee Jay), the first time I experienced the thrill of planing in a dinghy (in a Heron), bringing our first keel boat, a Bluebird, from St Kilda to her mooring at Williamstown and the search which led to the purchase of our H28, HARBINGER. To these I have recently had the good fortune to add passage through the Rip.
Like all who sail on Port Phillip, I had long been fascinated by stories of the gateway to Bass Strait, the tales of fierce currents, hidden rocks, the kelp, unexpected sets, whirlpools and standing waves. A couple of years ago, Terry and I went on an ORCV tour of the Rip, on a perfect day, which introduced us to the marks and leads. Not so long after that, in company with two more experienced friends, and two other yachts, I set out for Westernport in HARBINGER. That trip was called off on the Sunday morning at Queenscliff, following discussion with the Lonsdale Light over sea conditions outside.
The 35-40 knot south easterly saw us back at Hobson's Bay four and a half hours later. That trip itself was memorable, because the strong winds were coupled with brilliant sunshine - champagne sailing, with rainbows in the spray. Sails set for that leg were the mizzen and No 2, an easily handled combination which Terry and I use quite often. More recently, a trip to Devonport and back on the Spirit of Tasmania gave us another view of the leads in good weather both by day and at night.
A couple of weeks prior to Easter, an old friend asked me if l would accompany him on the first leg of a delivery trip which was from Brighton to Hastings. He was on his way to Bruny Island and, while the 30 foot yacht had been carefully prepared, the Hastings trip was to be the shake down cruise. I jumped at the opportunity. In accordance with Sod's law, the radios did not work when we checked them at Brighton. The loose wires were jammed back into place (too many wires in too small a hole) and with a light north-westerly and under threat of a SW front, we motor-sailed to Queenscliff. As we approached the Send of the West channel, the Heads disappeared from view in black cloud and Lonsdale Light on channel 16 announced the arrival of the front with 50 knot gusts.
We had the sails down as the front hit, then bounced around for a half hour or so till conditions moderated and we could enter the Cut at Queenscliff. We berthed three abreast in the second basin, alongside a large yacht, AGGRO, andALBATROSS, the Parks Victoria work boat. The next morning, the south-westerly showed no sign of moderating. Slack water flood (start of the ebb) was listed in the Tide Tables for 9:30 AM (see NB).
We sought expert advice. The coxswain of a returning Pilot boat told us that seas in the Rip were 3-4 metres but that conditions were not dangerous for small craft. Point Lonsdale Light advised that because of the duration of the south westerly, slack water would be delayed about 45 minutes. The skipper of AGGRO pointed out that the responsibility was ours, but the boat looked alright - "and lash down that fisherman anchor". We sealed up the boat, checked safety harnesses and life jackets, then went out for a look.
The wind instruments indicated a steady 30 knots with occasional gusts as high as 40 knots, but the seas did not look too bad. Of course we were still inside the Heads. We chose the Western leads route rather than 'four fingers west' as giving a greater margin if anything went wrong. However, this meant we would be in Rip conditions for longer. We tied in a third reef, furled the roller headsail and at 10: 15 we were heading out on the Western leads, almost directly into the wind at about 5 knots. Dave sheltered under the dodger, watching the alignment of High Light and the Hume Tower while I was on the wheel.
As we emerged from the shelter of the Heads, the seas became larger. Although I attempted to keep below the dodger, as each wave broke over the bow, it hurled bucketfuls of water into my face, making it difficult to see. It is hard to estimate wave height, but the Pilot cox's estimate looked about right. There was a noticeable set to the east across the Rip, requiring constant correction. Dave said to expect that conditions would become most severe about half a mile out to sea from the Heads, but we did not see too much change. There were a few cross seas and a couple of waves without backs from which we fell with a thump. I guess we must have passed through at just the right state of tide.
We headed out about 3 miles before we bore away for Cape Schanck, our course parallel to the seas. Their size required regular luffing up, so, although we unrolled about a quarter of the headsail, we continued to motor-sail to both maintain speed and assist in control. The sun appeared at intervals, there were thousands of shearwaters around, several dolphins and seals came up for a look, supported by chorus lines of penguins, and life off-shore under sail was pretty beautiful. We passed Cape Schanck about 2:30 PM (where we cut the engine), the Westeruport fairway buoy about 4.30 PM and tied up at Hastings at dusk.
An experience long anticipated can often be disappointing, but this was not the case for me. The seas and the winds were so different to anything I had sailed in before on Port Phillip. The size and spacing of the swells were such that the relatively small yacht had time to respond, to ride up, over and down, an opportunity which is often not there in the smaller but steeper waves found in heavy weather on the Bay. I was also relieved that I was not sea-sick - again I had been told to expect to be.
As a shake down cruise, the trip was valuable. Items receiving further attention before the Tasmanian leg were the aforementioned fisherman anchor, which chafed through leather padding in the chocks despite the lashings, the radios, the bilge pumps, water ingress through the dorade plenum, a leaking fuel tank vent and the buckets. Yes, buckets - all those on board shattered as a result of either Dave or myself falling on them. Where do you get good plastic buckets?
The week after Easter, Dave took the yacht on down to Bruny Island. He tells me they had little wind, flat seas and motored nearly all the way for a three and a half day trip.
Thanks, Dave, for a marvellous experience. I hope to explore the same route with HARBINGER before too long.
NB: There is a contradiction in the way that the Victorian Tide Tables and the ORCV Guide and Richard Hawkins excellent book 'Ports and Harbours of Port Phillip' refer to slack water. The latter two guides refer to slack water flood as the start of the flood. Be warned!