Travel – Sailing

On 28 July, 2002 I arrived at Canarvon in the Northwest of Western Australia to wait for the yacht Jezebel, owned by my brother-in-law and sister, Bill and Lesley Haddleton. Bill and Lesley had been sailors for decades and I was keen to sail with them. Two years ago they had sailed around Australia and when they were sailing up the Broadwater just south of my home in Brisbane I had joined the yacht then and had a taste of life on board. I wanted more. \n\n ‘,’Whales astern! Pic 1 this one – pic 2 closer – pic 3 panic ‘hard to port!\n \n The trip had been mooted at Christmas 2001 when my wife and I were in Albany Western Australia visiting my mother and sisters. The trip was on invitation of Bill and Lesley and authorized by my wife. All go! So on 25 Jul 2002, my 32nd wedding anniversary, I flew from Brisbane to Perth and booked in overnight at a motel in Perth. I phoned Geoff Murray who had been in my section in Vietnam in 1970 and we arranged to have a beer the next night at the City of Perth RSL Club. We had a good night catching up with 30 odd years of family etc and then next day I caught a regional airline plane to Canarvon, some 1600 km up the coast. Canarvon had been mentioned as a pick up point and as the yacht and crew had been out of contact for some time I had to take a chance. I booked into a motel and phoned the coast guard and they confirmed that the yacht Jezebel with three crew were due in port that afternoon. Great planning or good luck, whatever, we were all about to get together That evening I walked down to the yacht club and found Lesley and Bill and an 84 year old crewman on what may turn out to be his last great sail. We had dinner and a couple of drinks and agreed that I would come on board the next morning when the old salt intended to catch a bus back to Bunbury. First settled in 1876 Carnvarvon has had a colourful history not to mention a traumatic beginning with several destructive floods caused by the Gascoyne river breaking its banks prior to bulwarks being erected along the perimeter of the foreshore in the early nineteen hundreds. The Gascoyne river and surrounding fertile course red sand are now the lifeblood of the towns thriving agricultural industry. Drawing water from the aquifer of the river basin the many plantations grow a host of delicacies. Bananas, mangoes, papaya, carambola melons and grapes together with a wide range of vegetables are usually available for tourists to enjoy, while with a vibrant seafood industry their is no shortage of fresh fish, prawns and scallops available in season to throw on the barbecue. The next morning we stock up at the local grocery store and I meet Bonny the sea dog, a Jack Russell and Kelpie cross, a delightful small dog that will entertain us for the next twenty-one days. It is now the 29th of July and seas are dead calm – no sailing today. Bill and I arrange to go out to a banana farm and labour for the day in return for some fruit. The farm is owned by Romeo, a friend of Bill from a previous trip and the day proved interesting. We harvest the bunches with a machete, dropping the load onto our shoulders and then onto a long trailer. The bunches are placed on the trailer vertically and contained by racks. Stories of snakes and spiders living in the shade of the plantation only serve to ensure we keep our eyes open. The trailer, when full, is driven back to the shed and all the hands of bananas are cut from the bunch, dipped in ripening fluid and then placed on a three level carousel. Romeo, being the only one who knows what he is doing, then grades the bunches and places them on the corresponding level. From there the bunches are packed and the carton marked with the grade. We cut, unloaded and packed three trailers which is most probably small change to banana farmers but we felt we had done something to help and gladly took the bunch of green bananas and some avocado as payment. Romeo most probably lost on the deal as we also sat an drank about 6 stubbies each before we made our way back to Jezebel. The mast of Jezebel is lying at a crazy angle puts a damper on the day as she is obviously aground. It’s not a major problem and the only thing damaged is Bill’s ego but it makes sense not to go on board until about midnight when the tide will right the yacht. We sit on board another yacht, ‘Sundancer from Bunbury’ and the good company, food and wine help to fill in the hours before we can find our bunks, almost horizontal, but by then I didn’t care. As we wait, a multi-million dollar yacht slowly moves into the channel and anchors. Bill described it as a ‘Flash Harry’ yacht that was owned by a millionaire and skippered by a major player in West Australian yachting. The owner is not on board which is just as well as next morning we watch her drag her moorings and settle on the rocks near the town. The crew were in town relaxing and a group of yachties, all from less flash yachts, fought to save her from damage. She was secured and all went about their business slightly smug that the ‘major player’ had got it wrong. A good south-easterly and friendly skies welcome us at dawn on the 30th and we set sail at 0730 for Cape Couvier, a deep natural port 70 km north from Canarvon. My first time ever at sea on a small yacht started well with 10 knot south-easterly winds and the excitement of leaving port, following beacons and dodging fishing boats. Within two hours we encounter whales to starboard and then later more to port. Even from the distance we saw them they were still magnificent creatures. I take the helm and start the process of getting a feel for the yacht and the seas. I do it badly, over compensating for following seas under the port quarter and by the end of the day feel useless. Port Couvier rises out of the sea and as we draw nearer I see no people, no town, no houses, just a deep water port and a huge, high jetty where ships load salt beneath a 60 metre cliff. At the same level of the cliff is a huge mountain of raw salt with a tonka toy sized D10 bulldozer on top. When the ships come in, tugs and crew come up from Carnarvon and load the salt mined from Lake McLeod. The company, Dampier Salt supplies 30 percent of the worlds requirements from Cape Couvier. We don’t anchor, we tie onto a rope of sorts and settle for the night. I say ‘rope of sorts’ because it is the thickest rope I’ve ever seen or heard of. With the 7 tonne weight of Jezebel and an outgoing tide, the rope doesn’t even straighten. It just sits there looking like something that kept old sailors ashore, a veritable yellow sea serpent rising from the depths. The wreck of the Korean Star\n \n Closer to the cliffs lies a shipwreck. On 20 May, 1988 the ship “Korean Star” had discharged its ballast and was riding high at anchor, ready to be loaded with salt at the Jetty. In the early hours of the 21st, tropical cyclone “Herbie” struck with very little warning and in high seas and gale force winds the ship was swept up against the rugged coastline. The Korean Star was soon broken into two sections by the continued action of the sea, settling to its final position after having holes blown in the hull some weeks later by a team of army engineers. \ I sat and looked at the wreckage and contemplate the vagaries of the ocean, to me an unknown quantity. Before going to bed Bill tells me a story about the early sailors exploring the Pacific in the 14 and 15 century. He told me of the natives finding drowned sailors, all with pants down around their ankles. They thought a homosexual God had taken residence in the Pacific but in fact the sailors had gone to conduct their toilet with their pants on, had dropped them down to their ankles, done their business and then stood up and used both hands to pull up their pants. A freak wave spelt their doom as they had no hands left to hang onto the ship. The lesson, strip completely in the cockpit, go over the stern and do your thing with one hand ready to steady yourself. Good story, point made. I take to my bunk with a curious Bonney the sea dog nuzzling my hand and sleep with thoughts of an undignified demise rattling around my head. The seas come in at an uncomfortable angle and Jezebel rocks and rolls all night. The rocking and rolling gets worse through the night and at dawn we face 25 knot winds south-easterlies and swells to three and four metres. The seas are lumpy but Jezebel flies. Later in the afternoon she touches eight and a half knots surfing down the face of a good wave. It got so exciting that we reefed twice to slow her down. We are heading to Maude’s Landing near the Ningaloo reef and optimistically hope to find anchorage before dark. The seas stay up, the suns goes down and we are all tired and cranky as we thread our way through the reef to safe anchorage. Hot food and a drink restore spirits and my mobile phone finds a tower, my wife finds me and the feeling of adventure and remoteness is dashed. My wife has good news though. We had a house on the market, for once the market had moved my way and we had a contract to be signed. The next morning Bill, Bonny the sea dog and I walk the three kilometres to Coral Beach in search of a fax machine. Bill and I walk, Bonney runs circles around us all the way to town. Figures of eight marked by small paw prints are testament to her love of land after the restriction of life at sea. Business conducted, fax received, signed and resent, showers enjoyed and a pie and coffee milk add to the civilization of the moment. We walk back and ready ourselves for a 1400 departure. Maude’s Landing to Exmouth is to represent my first night at sea – out of sight of land. The crow would fly 72 nautical miles but I’m sure we do much more. We eat and non-watch people hit the bunks. I lie in the bunk and roll from side to side as this being my first rough night at sea I have much to learn. Lesley shows me how to set up a buffer made of material that will stop me rolling onto the deck. I tighten that up and lie in a coffin shaped bunk (don’t think about it!) with the hull being one side and the material the other. I lie on my side and eventually work out that if I draw up one leg it acts as a support and slows movement down. I rest uneasy and most probably sleep a bit. My hand hangs over the edge and a wet dog tongue nuzzles me. Bonney is nervous as well and us two non-sailor types share the concern. Dawn! Approaching the Antennae farm at Exmouth At midnight I’m called on watch. “We are a bit further from land than I had hoped so head in 45 degrees for an hour or two” Bill disappears below deck as I try and make sense of the moment. Now I’m fully awake and out in the elements I can see the seas all around like a cauldron of black and white terror. The GPS says 10 nm off shore and the depth sounder ranges from 700 metres to blank as it becomes to deep to read the echoes. I idly wonder how long I would last if I went overboard as my hair is exactly the same colour as the white water and I knew no-one would ever find me. My grip tightens on the helm and I try valiantly to follow the compass. I steer 45 degrees but the rough swell coming under the port quarter rolls the yacht ten degrees one way and then when it passes, Jezebel rolls ten degrees the other way. I start by over compensating and then eventually get the feel. I try looking out at the seas for a quick glance and in that second lose my course. In panic I pull the tiller instead of pushing and the yacht goes further off course. I’m very aware that yachts can roll if caught abeam and with all my considerable weight and strength correct the course. On-the job training had never taken such grim meaning before. My size saves the day as I eventually work out that if I row, pushing and pulling the helm in synch with the waves, I can counter the action. When I dare to sneak a quick look beyond the cockpit I can see a clear sky with millions of stars, their illumination unhindered by city lights. Venus reflects across the water like the moon but in circumstances that are a million thoughts away from her namesake, the goddess of love. I stay on watch until the horizon lightens. Far ahead I see superstructures that I mistake for yacht masts. As we draw nearer and I remember Exmouth is the port for the Harold E. Holt Naval Communication Station I realize that yachts with three hundred foot masts are few and far between. I’m just glad I didn’t say ” Look at those yachts!” We rounded the cape and stopped at Bondagi and took on water. This small place (you can’t call it a town) serves as a jetty for the townsfolk from Exmouth. This small jetty lies between the town of Exmouth and the Navy jetty that served the Antennae station. There is quiet a few people and boats at Bondagi but we sail \n\nTo be continued (as I get time) \n\n The modern settlement of Exmouth can be dated from May 1963 when the Australian and United States governments agreed to establish the $66 million Communication Station at North West Cape. This single event created the town. The area’s strategic importance had been recognised during World War II when Exmouth Gulf became an important submarine base for Australian and US submarines. The base, nicknamed ‘Potshot’ by the Americans, operated between 1942-45. In 1945 most of the facilities were destroyed by a cyclone. It was during the war that the Learmonth airstrip, named after Wing Commander Charles C. Learmonth, was opened. The establishment of Exmouth was the culmination of Federal Government plans which had begun in 1962, and which, by 1963 had already seen the Western Australian Town Planning Department choose three sites on the northerly tip of the peninsula (Vlamingh Head and areas to the north and south of the present town) where it was planned to use 121 hectares to build a town which could house 702 people. From its earliest days it was always a military town. The town was gazetted in 1963 and its first two Civil Commissioners were Colonel K. Murdoch and Air Commodore T. Walters. In 1964 there were only four permanent houses in the town. Most of the population lived in the Burtenshaw Caravan Park. The town and the Naval Communication Station were both opened on 16 September 1967. The population of the town peaked at around 4300 in the late 1960s. Today there are less than 3000 people in the town of whom about 25 per cent are American service personnel and their families.