Sydney!

Iconic View from the cockpit

Saturday 16th December 2017

It had felt like an impossible dream, the chance to sail into Sydney Harbour. About a thousand miles south of the traditional Around the World route it had looked too far out of our way. However by spending an extra winter in the Pacific Islands we have another cyclone season to fill south of the tropics, so here we are. Tuesday afternoon we droped our anchor just metres from the opera house, the harbour bridge looming in the background.

An hour earlier we had excitedly turned into Port Jackson the entrance to Sydney Harbour and were met by a scene of frenetic activity. As we tried to concentrate on finding the channel, distractions were everywhere. Two beautiful 90ft racing boats came past, impossibly heeled over, well trained crew sitting on the rail, an international regatta of a hundred or so sailing dinghies filled the waters to our left, power boats, sailing boats, fishing launches came from behind and towards us and powering through it all, keeping determinedly to their course, were numerous large and fast ferries. We cautiously made our way through the chaos, camera poised ready to capture the first view of the city centre.

First glimpse of the centre of Sydney

We motored into Farm Cove right next to the Opera House, dropped the anchor and drank a very special “got here beer”. Unfortunately unprotected from the busy harbour it was far too bouncy to stay for long, so after taking the compulsory Opera House and Bridge shots we moved under the bridge and into Balls Bay further upstream.

Celebratory “got here beer”

Balls Bay was protected from the worst of the harbour chop but had no obvious place to leave the dingy. Determined to enjoy our first night out on the town, with our friends from Moonshadow we tied the dingy to a steep ladder on the waterfront. We climbed with difficulty on to the wharf only to find ourselves in a gated apartment complex. With no clear way out it took us a while but eventually we found the road and took a taxi to Darling Harbour for dinner. On our return, with a falling tide, the ladder was even more precarious and the now revealed bottom rungs encrusted with razor sharp Oyster shells, not exactly an ideal place for a rubber dingy. This was not going to be the place to restock.

Fantastic as it is to be in the middle of such a great city, Sydney turns out to be rather difficult for cruising yachts. The marinas are expensive and, at least until the Sydney to Hobart racing boats leave Boxing Day, all are completely full. Anchorages are few and far between and getting ashore for groceries and to enjoy the sights is proving difficult. To complicate things further the water upstream of the bridge is full of diesel from the ferries and too dirty for our watermaker.

After much googling we found a marina where for $30 we could tie up to the shopping pontoon for a few hours and visit the grocery store. We made the best of our time, I managed to get to the hairdressers, Rick took a taxi to the Chandlers and we stocked up with food but there was no fresh water. With the water tanks almost empty we motored back under the bridge and out to Rose Bay. It wasn’t the most comfortable of anchorages, Raya being rocked continuously by the harbour traffic but it had a nice beach for stretching our legs, a dock for the dingy and clean water. However with the weather deteriorating we decided a wet and bouncy trip ashore could wait and instead were entertained by a stream of motor yachts that anchored close by full to bursting with Christmas revellers. We watched as the storm approached and the sky darkened, a fleet of yachts appeared around the headland, undeterred by the lightening they raced around a mark just a few hundred metres behind us. We sat in the cockpit enjoying the action and the peculiarly atmospheric light.

Turneresque scene as the storm closes in

We have now returned to the inner harbour and are currently anchored in Blackwattle Bay right in the centre of town, there are no less than two dingy docks, shops and sights are close by and it is calm. It does have a few downsides, it sits next to a noisy flyover, it is rather shallow for us, at low tide we have just a metre to spare under our keel and the water is too contaminated for the watermaker. But with our water tanks full from our trip to Rose Bay we can at last take some time to enjoy the city.

Up the Creek

Sunday 10th December 2017

We are cocooned far up the aptly named Smiths Creek. It is very, very still, the mirror like water reflecting the trees and slabs of rock that cover the almost vertical sides of this waterway. The sun, yet to be high enough to appear above the steep hills, highlights their tops in a magical yellow glow, bird song and the incessant high pitched drone of the cicadas fills the air. I love this early morning tranquility, despite and possibly because of its fleeting nature.

A large passenger jet crosses the sky, it’s noisy engines breaking the spell and reminding me that regardless of the appearance of being deep inside the bush, we are in fact only twenty or so miles from one of the Worlds major cities and just around the corner from busy Pittwater.

We left the RMYC marina Wednesday morning and headed out of Pittwater back into Broken Bay and then down into Cowan Creek, a seven mile narrow tidal creek with a dozen or so bays and inlets joining it. Our first stop was Jerusalem Bay, where near it’s deserted head we dropped the anchor and took in the scenery. The water was deep and dark, flourishing but spindly trees appeared to grow straight from bare stone, dramatic striated outcrops of limestone rock and vertical cliff faces line the shore.

Raya anchored in Jerusalem Bay

A white breasted sea eagle, sits on nearby branches, king of all he surveys but we see few other birds. The odd splash and the success of a group of local boys with their rod, suggests the presence of fish but in the rather murky water all we see are large plump jelly fish. A few boats come and go, the attraction is a rope that hangs down the cliff face on the opposite bank, once climbed the youngsters jump the 30ft from a rocky overhang back into the water. We guess this means the jelly fish are harmless but the green water doesn’t tempt us in.

Sea Eagle takes flight

Frday morning the still water, overcast skies and light wind, instead,were perfect conditions for a trip up the mast to check the fittings, do some cleaning and a get great picture of Raya.

Raya from the top of the mast

At dusk as the angle of the sun lengthens and the light changes we appear worryingly close to the stone walls that surround us and with the dragging of our anchor a few weeks ago, even a small amount of wind keeps us nervously fixated on the anchor alarm. Our canyon like setting funnels the breeze along its length, but luckily it’s protected location amongst the complex of waterways that make up this area means that even as an infamous East Coast Low came in the winds were never too high. Our two position tracks have had us holding steady at both anchorages.

The low did however disrupt lunch with our friends from Moonshadow. Luckily we had opted not to have a BBQ, but just a few mouthfuls into our meal we were scuttling quickly below with our plates and glasses as what proved to be torrential rain started to encroached into the cockpit. Soon the downpour was accompanied by thunder and then, for a time, by marble sized hail.

Stormy weather

With the sunshine back and the weekend in full flow the hordes have arrived, Smiths Creek appears to be a popular spot. The local boats definitely prefer to tie up to moorings, with the few available buoys snapped up early, all around us boats jostle for a space with shallow enough water for there rarely used anchors and shortish chains. Hopefully things will quieten down by nightfall. Then for us it’s on to Sydney.

Jelly Fish the size of basket balls

Pittwater

Monday 4th December 2017

Early morning tea – Leaving Port Stephens

At first light last Tuesday morning we upped the anchor and left Fingal Bay for the 70nm trip to Pittwater. The decks were still soaked from the previous afternoons storm but the humid air of the past couple of days had gone and the sky was clear and bright. The wind hardly rose into double figures so yet again we were motoring, still the sea was calm and the temperature pleasant. As with the last trip we saw plenty of dolphins, many of whom joined us for the ride.

Dolphins riding our bow wave

We were a little anxious about our arrival in Pittwater as we had been warned that the bays were stuffed with boats on moorings and that finding a spot to anchor might be difficult. Pittwater is one of four waterways that radiate from Broken Bay, the deep protected estuary of the Hawskbury River. Just 25miles north from the centre of Sydney it is an extremely popular spot. I don’t think we have ever seen so many boats in one place, sailing yachts, motor yachts, work boats, racing dinghies, jet skis, kayaks, every sort of watercraft imaginable, all jostling for space.

A forest of masts fills our view south

Knowing we couldn’t be choosy, we picked what seemed like a clear spot behind the large mooring field in Careel Bay and dropped the anchor. Surrounding us were steep wooded slopes full of upmarket houses, the properties fronting the water all boasted extensive views, numerous balconies and private jetties. Instead of wildlife spotting, our dingy safari took us real estate viewing, a very picturesque place to live but we suspect most were just holiday homes, besides the gardeners and maintenance men there were little signs of life. Surprisingly, there was a bit of an English West Country seaside feel to it, the tangy seaweed aroma, the call of the seagulls, the enclosing high hills, we couldn’t quite put our finger on it.

Foreshore in Careel Bay, Pittwater

With permission we tied the dingy to the sea plane dock, crossed the small beach and made our way through the houses. This was the first time we had set foot ashore since we left Southport, it felt good to stretch our legs, we found a small cafe and sat down for a coffee. However this was a residential area and there was nothing else but houses, not a shop in sight, with supplies getting low and a forecast for more storms we took out the phone and found ourselves a marina berth a few miles further into the Pittwater inlet.

For the past four days we have been tied up to the outer dock of the friendly Royal Motor Yacht Club, the fridge is now full but the weather is still very changeable. Today we are sitting out a second band of wet and windy weather, a chilly south wind blowing in through the hatches, with not much improvement expected tomorrow we have extended our stay for another couple of days.

Yesterday, on the other hand, it was lovely and taking advantage of the convenient yacht club curtesy bus, we went to the local beach. The sunshine had bought out the Sunday crowds, surfers shared the waves with a small pod of dolphins, groups of youngsters practiced their lifesaving skills and families picnicked on the orange coloured sand. As we walked down the beach, the hot surface burning our feet, taking in the happy scene in front of us we wished we’d thought to bring our swimmers. Until that was, we dipped our toes into the sea – it was freezing!

Besides the warm tropical waters, something we are beginning to miss from our Pacific island life is that nobody cared or even noticed what you are wearing. Everyone was far more interested in your journey so far, your best tips for snorkelling spots, what type of watermaker you have……. Now, however, back in the real world of shopping centres, restaurants and swish yacht clubs, the island cruiser look of crumpled clothes, home cut, sun bleached hair, bare feet and grazed shins has began to feel rather scruffy. Having arrived in Pittwater, there is a distinct possibility, that we will be shamed into breaking out the iron.

Faraday Cages in Faraway Places

Monday 27th November 2017

‘Hang on, I’ll just get the phone out of the oven’ is not a phase one uses every day, nor luckily is ‘Rick come quick we are dragging’. Port Stephens has not been one of our best stops.

The sail down from Southport was really enjoyable, we could have done with a bit more wind but the days were warm and sunny and the nights starlit. Dolphins, birds and the beaches and mountains of the New South Wales coast provided distraction. Also keeping us on our toes, whisking us southwards at occasionally over 4kts, was the Australian East Coast current. Unfortunately, this was not part of the passage plan, we were aiming to get to the entrance to Port Stephens on slack tide at first light on Saturday. We needed to slow down but still had to keep just enough boat speed through the water to give us steerage, so sails were reefed within an inch of their lives and when motoring the revs were kept as low as the engine would run. Our efforts were not in vain, after two days of fine tuning we arrived exactly as planned at 8am but we were left with the worrying thought of the more difficult job we will have when trying to get back North in the spring.

Four knots of current as we sailed south down the Australian East Coast.

Friday afternoon the sky had been streaked with high clouds, these horse tails may be beautiful but are a sure sign that the bright, calm weather, brought by a large high pressure system lingering over the Tasman sea, would soon be coming to an end.

And indeed the next day the wind began to increase as did the cloud. The combination of strong north easterly winds and shallow water made Port Stephens, with its predominantly north facing anchorages, difficult for our deep drafted boat. We had been told of a small secluded bay, that looked as if it would be protected, unfortunately it too was a bit shallow for us to anchor in very close and we remained in the outer bay exposed to the winds. However it was nice enough and we settled down for the day. We took the dingy around the wooded shore and spotted reef herons, a cormorant and oyster catchers, we ate a nice lunch and then went below to read. I couldn’t quite explain it but I began to feel something was wrong and went to investigate, shocked I realised we were dragging our anchor, slowly drifting out of the bay. Why our anchor, which has not let us down even once right across the Pacific, would suddenly after five hours holding us steady in the 20kt winds, start to drag is a mystery. Suspecting weed or a soft muddy bottom we inched into the bay as far as we dared and re-anchored putting out an absurd amount of chain, set the anchor alarm and enjoyed sundowners with our friends on Moonshadow.

As is our habit before going to bed we checked the stern light to see what it might have attracted. Sunday night we were delighted to find a large pelican lurking around our stern. With his ludicrously long beak, the fish, star struck by the light, were easy pickings.

Pelican fishing around the back of the boat

This morning the change in the weather continued, the sky was overcast and the air humid, we took Raya to look at a couple of other anchorages. We motored laboriously through the shallow channels that run between the sand banks that fill Port Stephens, but didn’t really feel happy in any of the targeted spots. Once the north winds on the back edge of the high pressure pass by, southerly winds will arrive, trapping us inside the Port for possibly a week, we decided to move on while we still could.

We lifted the dingy and in pouring rain, with thunder and lightening threatening in the distance, moved out of Port Stephens to Fingal Bay. Fingal Bay lies just outside the entrance, deep and protected it will give us a fast get away in the morning for the seventy mile trip down to our next stop Pittwater. As the storm moved off, we rescued the small electronics from the oven, where they had been put, in the hope that the oven, working as a Faraday Cage, would save them if lightening did hit and were treated to a fabulous sunset. It was a stunning spot and it was a real treat to have such a bright end to a rather dull day.

Moonshadow bathed in the amazing light of the setting sun

Glitz and Glamour

Wednesday 22nd November 2017

Sun setting behind the tower blocks

It is especially nice when you go somewhere and it spectacularly exceeds your expectations.

Sunday morning our friends on Moonshadow sailed into the marina and to catch up we decided to go for dinner at an Italian restaurant that had been recommended to us. In the shadow of the brightly lit Sundale bridge and dwarfed by a forest of high rise towers it nestled by the river. We had been told that the owner of the De Vito Waterfront Restaurant is an ex opera singer and occasionally sings to the diners. As it turns out he and his wife are also the chefs and in their cooking gear both came out to entertain us. Their voices were amazing and they sang on and off throughout the evening as the customers orders allowed. The atmosphere inside the room was relaxed and happy, enhanced by a wedding party celebrating in the corner, everyone enjoying the impromptu show, certainly an evening to remember.

Singing chefs

Unfortunately for our waistlines we have done rather a lot of overeating this week, it’s difficult to resist the culinary delights on offer. About a ten minute walk from De Vitos is Tedder Ave, a road lined with restaurants and upmarket shops. Friday was my birthday and we wandered over for breakfast. As with everywhere around here the streets, houses and gardens we’re all impeccably manicured, not a leaf dared fall or a chip of paint appear.

Manicured Streets behind Mainbeach

The ladies selling the $300 t-shirts in the posh boutiques had hair coifed to within an inch of its life and wore more make up than I actually own, Ferraris and Bentleys cruised importantly by, while the mostly septuagenarian residents promenaded slowly past. The food lived up to its surroundings – breakfast was rather bigger than expected, plates full of delicious poached eggs, bacon, roast pumpkin, feta cheese, spinach……….

My birthday lunch, put off a day, was just as tasty if rather more casual, Rick cooked me one of my favourites, local prawns fried in garlic, chilli and ginger.

Silent chef

Saturday morning we were kindly taken out to see the sights a bit further afield, Phil our friend, last seen in Bahrain 26 years ago, now lives on the Gold Coast and he gave us a bit of a road tour. The rain couldn’t take away from the display of more opulence, on show this time on Sovereign Island. Huge multimillion pound houses sit cheek by jowl on the river frontage. We gawped in amazement at what people will spend their money on. Some were definitely in better taste than others, the six foot high gold lions guarding one gated entrance were probably a step to far.

A few miles further on we visited the impressive marine services at Coomera, including the large expanse of covered and uncovered hard standing at Boat Works. Surrounded by work shops, large chandlers and engineering companies, it is a tempting place to bring Raya for a week or two, if it wasn’t for the equally large daily rates.

Threading through these places and spread from Coolangatta in the south to Brisbane in the north, the finishing touches to the venues for next years Commonwealth Games are being put in place. The bright multicoloured competitors village is almost complete, the impressive aquatic complex just needs more seating erected and the route of the marathon that will run down the coast past Surfers Paradise is being prepared.

View towards Surfers Paradise

Tomorrow we say goodbye to the Gold Coast and start making our way towards Sydney. After two weeks of glitz and glamour we will be in search of a quieter spot for a few days.

Perfectly Preened Gold Coast

Thursday 16th November 2017

View from the cockpit

The mornings start crisp and early here with a 4.45am sunrise. However by six the warmth of the sun is coming through and feels good on my back, the traffic is just beginning to pick up as the first commuters make their way to work. For company I have a striated heron, he is using next doors lines as a convenient perch to fish from. He is a regular on the pontoon and has been nicknamed ‘grumpy’, with his stern expression, hunched shoulders and beady eyes, he appears to be permanently cross.

Tight rope walking

In fact there are lots of birds around and they are all very different than any we have seen before. It’s not just short legged herons, there are the Australian pelicans which are white with a pink beak instead of the dark feathers and dark beak we are use to, the pigeons have prominent crests on their heads and huge ibis wander through the parks and preen themselves in the shopping centre.

Ibis in the park

There is plenty of greenery to encourage them, narrow strips of park run between the inner Broadwater and the road and fill the area running north behind the Beach and ocean. Everywhere is just so, walkways for pedestrians and cyclists wind through the neatly cropped grass, water fountains are perfectly placed to fill bottles and wash sandy feet, the town planners appear to have considered every direction to enhance the views. Manicured gardens fill the grounds of the huge apartment blocks and public spaces, perfectly pruned flowering shrubs line the roads and tall structural pines soften the harsh edges of the towering buildings. A little too perfect? Maybe, but we have to admit to enjoying it all so far.

A neat and tidy five minute walk from the marina is Main Beach and the open ocean. A continuous stretch of sand runs for ten miles from the Southport Seaway, through Surfers Paradise all the way to Burliegh Head. As we stood staring out to sea, it felt very familiar, all our lives we have enjoyed watching the surf come in, the wind in our hair, but peculiarly, from the beach, this water feels like it has nothing to do with the ocean we sail in.

Back in the marina the locals are making us feel at home, the boat a couple of berths up invited us to join them for pizza, bizarrely we have hooked up with a friend we haven’t seen for 26 years who now lives on the Gold Coast and a lone yachtsman we first met in Grenada has just sailed in and is joining us for a G&T tonight.

In between walking, shopping and eating we have been working very hard, the front cabin is now clean and dry. Rick has taken advantage of our berth having a pontoon both sides to clean out and reseal between the capping rail and the hull, he has reseated the forward fairleads, rewired the reading lights and resealed all the screw holes and anything else that looked like it might let water in.

Only the test of a big sea will tell us if we have succeeded and hopefully we won’t be in one of those again for a few weeks.

Windy Welcome to Oz

Thursday 9th November 2017

A family, on an early morning walk, have just passed by on the opposite bank from our berth in the Southport Yacht Club Marina. It was a bit of a shock to hear them speak English, I haven’t quite got my head around the fact that we have actually arrived in Australia. In the marina it’s life as usual but when we leave through the gate we are back in the real world and it’s a bit disorientating. There are proper shops, good pavements and decent comms!

Tied up at the custom dock

The passage from New Caledonia continued to be smooth and fast, a Tuesday evening arrival was on the cards. We read that to cross an unknown bar was safest four hours after low tide, to ensure that all outgoing flow from the inland water and rivers was complete, we set a target for between 8-10pm. Early Monday morning the log clicked onto 20,000nm, we congratulated each other but in reality we were more concerned with the dwindling wind, by daylight we were motor sailing to keep a Tuesday arrival in our sights.

Early Monday morning the log registered 20,000nm sailed

We had been sailing parallel to another yacht since Saturday, a lone sailor in a small but fast catamaran, he turned south intent on reaching Coffs Harbour, via VHF we wished each other well and soon the AIS screen was empty again. Early on in the trip we had seen a hundred strong pod of dolphins but now there wasn’t even a bird to watch. We read, snoozed and looked out into the vast expanses of sea, however things were about to get lively.

Pulled away from our books, we found ourselves scouring the sea for bubbles, a fishing boat had come on the radio to inform us that they had been laying long lines in our path and to watch out for bubbles. Bubbles? We thought it unlikely that, with a choppy sea and the setting sun in our eyes, we would see bubbles but we searched anyway. Then just off our port side we saw a buoy, then another and another, some just metres away, bubbles we realised translated from Australian to English as buoys. The buoys were marking the hooks and lines that they had set across miles of ocean. The ‘line caught’ label on cans of tuna conjures a vision of a lone fisherman battling the elements with a rod, this experience made the cheapness of these cans make much more sense.

Then a few hours later, on my watch, which ran from 11pm until 2am, the full moon that had been lighting our way each night disappeared behind a bank of cloud, in the distance sheet lightening lit up the horizon. The barometer started to drop, the low pressure trough was arriving a day early. The winds were still light and we had a knot or two of current against us, back on came the engine.

As Tuesday dawned the barometer slowly started to rise again bringing with it increased winds, much increased winds and the sea began to build. The comment in the log for midday Tuesday, about 60nm out from Southport, reads : Bloody horrible. At 1pm : Still bloody horrible. By 3pm we were in full wet weather gear and we were sailing through 50kt gusts and 4m waves. The local marine forecast came on the VHF informing us that the current weather was wind SE15-20kts, swell 11/2-2m, we wondered which bit of ocean they were looking at, certainly not our bit.

Finally an hour later as we approached land things did begin to improve and we radioed Seaway Tower who monitor the bar and entrance to Broadwater the inner seaway that leads down to Southport. It was with some relief that he reported the entrance calm and it was safe to proceed.

Now all we had to do in our rather soggy and tired state was to navigate in the dark through a narrow channel, find the marina and berth the boat in a 2kt current. A slightly tense half hour but by 9.30pm, we were tucked up in bed. Phew!

We have now checked in with customs, had the boat pulled apart by quarantine officers in search of mini beasts and had great fun at the supermarket stocking back up with food. Most of the boat is beginning to look clean and tidy again, except unfortunately for the front cabin. All the water that came over the bows at the end to our passage has proved the small leak we thought we may have solved is still there. The cleaning, drying and fixing of that will have to wait until another day.

Whoops, I may have been a little over enthusiastic as I wiped down one of the water triggered life jackets.

Go, Stay, Gone

.

Saturday 4th November 2017

Friday morning we left New Caledonia in a bit of a rush having just the day before decided that we would have to postpone our passage for another week – the weather forecasts have been tricky.

So far so good, we have calmish seas and a SE wind blowing us along at between 7 and 8kts. The passage plan has us arriving early Wednesday morning for the incoming tide across the bar. Bars are new to us and like passes have fearsome reputations and many of the harbours on the East coast of Australia have them. An area of shallow water lays across the entrance and when combined with the almost permanent large swell that arrives on the shore, can, on an ebbing tide, cause large breaking waves, not something you want to encounter on a sailing yacht.

We had been expecting the light winds we have at present but they are in a perfect direction and with the just a 1m swell we are storming along and can possibly make the earlier tide and possibly give ourselves a better land fall weatherwise if we can keep it up. Time will tell.

Full moon rise 250 miles out at sea

Our last day, ever, anchored in a pretty bay in the Pacific Islands turned out appropriately enough to be Ricks birthday. It was a lovely day, we swam and read, dugongs and turtles joined us and the winds were gentle. Since being on the boat we have pretty much given up on presents, so with our one precious pack of bacon I cooked him a fry up for breakfast and we BBQ lamb chops for supper with a beautiful sunset as a back drop.

Sunset in Baie Papaye

Then it was back to reality. A one hour motor and Sunday found us anchored again in Port Moselle. The day promised to be sunny and calm and the locals were taking advantage of the conditions, it was like being at sea. The whole fleet of motor boats from Noumea was going out to enjoy a day off in the islands leaving rocky water in their wake. We went ashore and did a bit of  essential shopping and had lunch, returning just in time to take another battering from the boats as they all returned to their marina berths.

That evening while enjoying the company of our friends from Atla we noticed the racing catamaran anchored in front of us was getting gradually closer, her anchor must have been dislodged by the turbulent waters, with no one onboard there was little we could do but put out some fenders and hope the anchor would re catch. After a rather sleepless night of continuous checking she luckily kept her distance but we were glad to move and get tied up in the marina to start our preparations to leave.

We shopped, cooked, checked the boat over and obsessed over the weather forecasts. On Monday, Friday was looking good for departure to Coffs Harbour on the Australian east coast. By Wednesday however there was the threat of a small but lively low forming in the Tasman sea.

Rick checking the steering quadrant

Thursday what had looked like a perfect passage now looked horrible for our arrival with not only the low hovering but a front forming. Frustrated, we abandoned our morning plans to visit the three offices required to check out of New Caledonia, had a delightful lunch at the Art Cafe and started considering going back out into the islands for a few days.

Then would you believe it, when Friday dawned the forecast low had fizzled and gone south and if we kept a bit north and entered the country at Southport instead of Coffs, we might miss the worst of the front. Our departure was back on and by midday we had cast off.

Fingers crossed we have made the right decision.

Snake Island

Friday 27th October 2017

Brown Noddy’s on Signal Island

A close encounter with an osprey, an island full of snakes, an abundance of birds and calm deserted anchorages have all been on the agenda this week. New Caledonia may be difficult in lots of ways from a yachting point of view but you can’t argue against its beauty or its plethora of wild life.

Monday morning we left Prony Bay and headed back to Noumea. The town anchorage was full to bursting and yachts were spilling out of the allotted anchoring area into the channel. Despite having three marinas Noumea isn’t particularly easy for visiting yachts. Full with local boats, berths, mornings and anchoring space is limited, we slotted in where we could. We needed to restock with food, having missed the morning market we walked the 20 minutes to the supermarket trying to remember we had to walk back and not to overfill the bags.

Back onboard it was busier than ever, dingies whizzed been the yachts and town, small local boats weaved back to the wharf and more and more yachts anchored around us. Three naval launches passed close by, full of young, nervous, wetsuited, recruits off on excercise and ferries sped to and fro setting everyone rocking. Then when it seemed like the harbour could take no more, what should arrive but one of the huge cruise liners that some how squeezed its way in. Just a few hours later it slowly made its way back out, like a small city passing by, it’s lights blazing and the sound track of a movie clearly audible from an open air cinema on the top deck it set off to its next destination..

With the promise of a calm day, Tuesday we headed out into the early morning mist to visit a few of the small islands that are scattered throughout the Lagoon. Ilot Mbe Kouen is just a tiny patch of sand with a bit of struggling undergrowth on top. We thought it would be fun to have an island of our own for a few hours so we dropped the anchor and went ashore.

An island of our own

The island was full of birds, great crested and black naped terns gathered on the beach, a reef heron agitated by our presence flew back and forth from one side of the trees to the other, a pair of sandpipers hid amongst the few bushes of the interior and an osprey perched proudly on top of a small tree. A magnificent beast we slowly approached, Rick snapping pictures, it squawked its displeasure but let us get within twenty feet before he flew off, did a circuit of the island and landed on the one other tree on the island with branches thick enough to bare his weight.

Osprey takes flight

After a few more shots not wanting to disturb their peace, we moved on to Signal island. A slightly larger island this was where we had been expecting to see the ospreys, the interior is a nesting sanctuary. As it turned out we dare not raise our eyes to the trees, it is also a place where venomous sea kraits come ashore. Half land snake and half sea snake they have a paddle shaped tail for swimming but must come ashore to digest their prey and lay their eggs. Like sea snakes they are not aggressive but their venom is highly poisonous and they were every where. As we followed the track around the island half a dozen crossed our path, slithering through the grass.

Snake crossing our path

We had been planning to use the island as a stop to clean the hull, but with the thought of all the snakes potentially coming out for a swim and the rather large shark we spotted as we walked up the pier onto the island we contented ourselves with turtle watching from the deck.

As dusk approached a flock of shearwaters flew past approaching the island, then more and more birds arrived, it was a bit like a scene from the Hitchcock movie The Birds as they surrounded us for at least a half hour. There must have been a thousand birds roosting on the island by night fall.

Anchored off Signal Island

As we slept the wind increased and a swell creepy around the reef, the small island gave us little protection and it became increasingly uncomfortable. At first light we upped anchor and headed back to the mainland where we have stayed for the last few days enjoying the calm of a couple of empty protected bays just up the coast from Noumea. We have remora under the boat, have spotted turtles and a dugong, incongruously a herd of cows graze on the hills and we have put on our wetsuits and cleaned the hull.

Colourful Caledonia

Sunday 22nd October 2017

We are finding the colours here in New Caledonia astonishing. The red soil in the hills, the bright turquoise water and the dark green pines, combine to give startlingly beautiful vistas.

Feeling almost recovered from our colds, Thursday, we walked over to Kanumera Beach and the Gite Oure for lunch. The beach was protected from the easterlies that continued to blow, it felt great to be off the boat for a bit and to be out of the continual bashing of the wind. The sun shone in a cloudless sky, turning the sea a truly amazing colour and providing a sublime back drop to the restaurant on the beach.

No colour editing, it really was that incredible turquoise.

Friday with the winds forecast to ease, we set off early to return to the mainland and the large protected Baie de Prony. We were expecting the sea, after days of blustery weather, to still be rough but not the 3m swell that hit us as soon as we cleared the reef systems around the Ile des Pins. Not only were the waves large but the period between them was very short, luckily after the first hour our route took us NW and put the waves on our stern making life a little more comfortable. However it was with some relief we arrived at our destination, the small island of Casy that sits in the centre of the bay. The whole island and its surrounding waters are a National Park, mooring buoys have been put in to protect the sea grass and coral from anchors. It has been a while since we have picked up a mooring but with calm conditions and despite a bit of a tangle with the lines we completed the procedure without too much embarrassment.

As we relaxed with a well deserved ‘got here beer’ we took in our surroundings. This was yet another picturesque spot, the bay itself is about 4 miles square and surrounded with steep hills, the green of the covering vegetation highlighted by the bright red soil. The island was mostly wooded with the tall dark pines towering above the rest of the trees that line the shore. Rocky outcrops of large boulders tumbled out at intervals onto the pretty beaches but made circumnavigation along the beach impossible.

Beach on Ile de Casy

Helpfully the authorities have laid down trails slightly inland, so Saturday morning we set out to explore. The island being only a kilometre in diameter, with its highest point only 45m above sea level this was our kind of hike and it proved despite its shortness to be varied and interesting. We strolled through a forest of pines with their notched straight trunks, an area of a rare variety of tree fern and scattered between, old gnarly trunks of species unknown.

The path led through a deserted derelict resort, winding around the trees and their large root systems, past a one hundred year old cemetery from the days when the island had been farmed, along a beach and gently towards the summit. Suddenly we came out into the open, the sunlight harsh after the dark of the forest, underfoot the ground became dust and rumble and red, we were in an open cast mine. Not worked for at least half a century the land still lays stark and barren but the views were superb.

View from the top of Ile de Casy

The next morning as the sun rose above the island, surrounded by calm seas and rust coloured hills, everything took on an amazing orange glow. We decided, despite the fridge being almost bare, to stay another day.

Early morning view from the cockpit