Ballina Bar Crossing.
(From an article published in Cruising Helmsman in 1984. The sea's moods haven't changed since then, nor have the line's of the Spray. This story could have been written yesterday.)
Gale warning – Double Island Point to Coolangatta. Strong wind warning south to Coffs Harbour. The forecast had kept us in Ballina for nearly a week, and the Richmond River was in flood. Several boats had been damaged at the wharf, with fenders and barge boards finding it difficult to cope with the pounding. It was not much better out on an anchor, with logs and debris coming downstream. One fellow yachtsman remarked gloomily, as we sat in the RSL Club and watched the mad cavortings of the boats, that last time he had been in Ballina, he had been weathered in for 17 days!
There hadn’t been much talk on the 27 meg radio – no one was going anywhere in the trying conditions, but unexpectedly a yacht was heard calling Ballina Coastguard for information on the bar.
Surely no one could be mad enough to attempt it under these conditions! We had had a strong wind warning for three days and there wasn’t any improvement in sight.
Listening to the conversation, we gathered that the boat, Derwent Endeavour had been waiting out the storm for two days and had had enough. They wanted to attempt the entrance in the hope of getting some relief from the awful conditions outside.
The Coastguard advised them against making the attempt, but when they insisted they would like to give it a try, he gave them all the help he could. They sounded reasonably confident they could make it, with a long keel and 80hp engine in a 12.5m boat. Appalled we headed for the breakwater to see if we could see the yacht, and to check on the conditions on the bar. We had been down in the morning, and the bar was no better – line after line of breaking waves smashing against the breakwaters and boiling around the rocks.
In driving rain and with waves breaking over the breakwaters, we could just see a pair of masts out at sea. They were swinging wildly as they came into sight between the troughs.
I think every house in Ballina must have a 27 meg radio, or word had spread quickly. Cars from all directions began converging on the scene. In a town that relies a lot on fishing, the locals are very aware of the bar and its dangers and no doubt this wasn’t the first potentially dangerous situation they had seen. I admit that in the past I had always looked sourly on people lining breakwaters watching yachts and fishing boats come in over bars, as vultures waiting for an accident, but everyone there was anxious for the safety of the boat and crew.
As the boat came closer to the bar, she began to be picked up by the breakers, and would be thrust forward, her bows cleaving the water before sliding off the back of the waves. By this time we could see she was a Roberts Spray, with the characteristic bluff bow.
As the seas got steeper, we expected her to broach, but her long keel kept her heading in the right direction. With the flat transom the waves were lifting her well and she would surf forward a short way.
Right at the start of the breakwater, an exceptionally large wave picked her up. At that moment the helmsman gave her full throttle. The boat took off like a surfboat, disappearing in a sea of foam, surfing in at an estimated 15 knots for about 100 metres.
It is difficult to estimate speed and distance, and I can hear the expressions of disbelief, but that was the agreed estimate on consultation with others watching.
During the ride her fibreglass dinghy, which was in davits on the stern, filled with water, tearing its stern out, but the boat suffered no damage. A spontaneous cheer and applause broke from the waters, and we all laughed with relief.
We were lucky enough to get some photos – poor quality due to driving rain, spray and bad light.
Anyone who watched the Derwent Endeavour can have no doubt as to her seaworthiness and the skill of her captain. Her bluff bow would not allow her to bury her nose, and the stern lifted exceptionally well in the following sea. My mind balks at the thought of what would have happened to a fine fin keeler. The enthusiasm of one fellow watcher knew no bounds – he had recently launched his own Spray in Sydney, and boy, wouldn’t he have something to tell the knockers back home.
AND ON BOARD IT WAS LIKE THIS...
After four and a half years of part-time work and then six months of continuous hard "yakka" I finally completed my 12.15m Roberts Spray at Boyer, close to the beautiful Derwent river in southern Tasmania. She was formed with "C" flex and hand laid up with glass.
The original idea was that when I retired my wife and I would do charter work in Queensland, so I was building under survey. I recall the number of times I cursed (under my breath) when skin fittings had to be changed and extra glass had to be laid up here and there. I thought the original specifications made her an extremely sound vessel and here was this official making a nuisance of himself; at a later date I had cause to bless his thoroughness.
In May 1984 we sailed from Hobart bound for Port Macquarie and nine days later, after an uneventful trip, we tied up at the Marina in Port Macquarie. The craft behaved well, even when we were surprised by some very strong gusts of wind north of Newcastle.
We made Port Macquarie our homeport for some time and I found that when crossing the bar, if I opened up the motor I could surf in. I realise I should have reversed the engine and cleared the broken water as quickly as possible, but the Spray seemed to delight in this, no doubt due to the hull design, the long straight keel and 80hp diesel.
The craft had still not proved herself, but on the second trip to Lord Howe she showed herself in her true colours. My son Chris, two friends and myself left Port Macquarie with a reasonable weather forecast, about 60 miles out the wind veered and increased in force, the seas built up into a confused pattern and we were in the middle of a storm.
This was with us for most of the five days it took us to reach Lord Howe. The only wind gauge I had was a hand –held instrument and totally useless, but the Met office on the island, told us the wind reached 60 knots.
As can be imagined conditions on board were pretty hectic but the boat behaved beautifully, the only damage was a torn main sail.
Port Macquarie to Southport – a piece of cake I thought. Chris and I decided we would get the two members who had crewed to Lord Howe but due to business commitments they were unavailable. Two aquaintences were "signed on" – one was a young male hairdresser with no sea experience at all, the other was an older man who owned a runabout and had operated offshore for a number of years.
It was June 1983 and as we sailed over a turbulent bar at Port Macquarie, the weather report was not really favourable, but as my son and the hairdresser had limited time we intended a quick non-stop trip to Southport.
With all sails up, the motor ticking- over and an easterly wind of about 20 knots we were making good time, although the sky looked threatening. However, Chris who was tidying up some rope foreward found that a seam on the jib sail had started to come apart. The sail was dropped and we continued at reduced speed. It was decided to go into Coffs Harbour to get the sail repaired. Gengraft gave us excellent service, but we did not get under way until about 1.30pm the following day. The sky was overcast and the weather forecast was for rain and northeast winds of 15 to 20 knots.
As soon as we had slipped our mooring the sky opened up and the rain poured down. About an hour outside the protection of the harbour the seas started to build up and the wind backed to northerly and freshened. Under jib, main and mizzen we tacked easterly, fortunately the rain had stopped and under auto pilot the boat was handling the conditions well.
At about 4pm I awoke, the craft was being thrown around, I put my head through the hatch and the young hairdresser, who had been on watch said "she has been going off the clock" and promptly put his head over the side to be sick.
The log read up to 12 knots, the sea was menacing, I remember thinking "I hope it doesn’t get worse". Black storm clouds had darkened the skies and the wind was gusting fiercely. Although a lot of spray was coming over the cockpit, little to no sea was coming on board. Dressed in oil skins and attached to the boat with safety lines the crew reduced the sails to a double reef in the main and the mizzen; we all took it in turns to be sick.
Conditions began to deteriorate rapidly. The main was dropped and the mizzen pulled in tight to keep the craft facing the weather. A check with the Satnav showed that we had plenty of sea room, so everything was battened down and we took to our bunks to avoid being thrown around the cabin and to ease the sea sickness; even under these conditions the "new chum" always managed to find one of the heads or sink.
Outside it was pitch black, the wind shrieked, the waves appeared to be massive and the seas pounded and tossed the hull around, some time later, I was in the stern cabin wedged into my bunk when I heard a foreign noise and looking through the transparent hatch in the roof of the cabin I saw the mizzen sail flapping free, I thought the sheets had broken.
With an effort I got out of the bunk, but Chris was already up putting his safety line on and shouting above the noise of the gale to the two others in the foreward cabin to put on their lines and help on deck, the hairdresser was past it, but the other man was game.
On deck it could be seen the sheets had not broken, but two metres of one inch pipe which had been welded between the davits and attached to the sheets had been ripped out and was waving around on the end of the boom.
I started the engine and held her into the wind while Chris and his mate tried to stand on the cabin top and lower the sail. Suddenly Chris lost his balance and ended up against the stern rails, only the safety line and strong nails saved him. Fortunately he was not over seriously injured and the sail and pipe was secured.
I decided to let the craft find her own position and hove-to under bare poles. The boat instead lay beam-on to the sea and as I laid in my bunk I could see through the hatch the waves breaking over the cabin top. The noise of the storm was even louder and above the shrieking wind, it sounded as though someone was hitting the hull with a sledge hammer.
Next, the fridge started to come adrift and we had to wedge it in position with the table turned upside down against the door of the fridge and the end of a bunk.
The next morning after a sleepless night, conditions had improved considerably. There was still a high sea rolling in from the east which was only breaking occasionally, a check with the Satnav showed we were 30 miles due east of Ballina. It was decided to make for Ballina to get some rest and food. A check had shown that the tide would be favourable and with the wind and the sea behind us we reached Ballina in short time. But what a shocking sight greeted us. Due to the volume of rain which had fallen and was still falling, the river was running out at a great rate and breakers were rolling through the entrance. By radio we tried to get permission to go in but there appeared to be some mix up, so after circling round for half an hour, we decided to risk it. We had every confidence in the boat, Chris and I shut the other two below and I tried to wear a life jacket but it was too bulky to wear in the cockpit. I lined up the markers and headed in.
The first one caught us just outside the entrance – I could hear it coming. It lifted the boat, drove us forward and with a rush of white water was past, the second one caught us just past the entrance. Then Chris yelled there was a big one; I could hear it roaring and as it reached us I opened the motor and surfed in with it for about 100 metres and reached clear water. About this time I became aware of the crowd of spectators on the north breakwater, they were applauding.
John Clode of the yacht Caliph who took a series of shots told us that from the breakwater, there were times when he could not see the tops of our masts (14.5m from water level).
We learned later that we had been in a mini cyclone.