Friday 23 October 2015

Sailing at Night - North Keppel to Hexham Island.

12 October - 2015

The alarm buzzing beside your head telling you to get out of your nice cosy bunk at 11.00pm after just a very brief sleep is not the most welcome sound in the world but it was signalling time to get underway from North Keppel Island on our first night passage on Our Dreamtime. We have done quite a bit of night sailing on other boats and in good weather we both quite enjoy the experience of gliding through dark seas under a starlit sky.

First things first, the kettle went on the stove top. We are procaffeinators and can’t do a thing until we’ve had our coffee. A cup each was ingested and the thermos filled for later doses. Karen then went about securing below decks for sea which involves making sure EVERYTHING is safely put away in its proper place where it won’t leap off its temporary home at anchor on a bench top or wherever and fly across the boat down the first large swell we hit. Meanwhile Rob unzipped sail bags, attached halliards, set the running backstay, preventers and did all the usual  tasks on deck to prepare for raising sail.

We both donned our PFDs (Personal Flotation Device or Lifejacket) before raising the anchor. We have a policy of always wearing a PFD on night passages regardless of weather. These are top of the line, offshore models with personal EPIRBS and AIS locator beacons attached. We also use our tethers to harness ourselves to the boat even when snug in the cockpit. Rob clipped his tether onto the jackstay line that runs to the bow and brought up the anchor while Karen helmed. Safety is paramount  and going overboard is a sure way to spoil your sail, particularly at night.

We had originally planned to day hop up the coast and spend a few days in Port Clinton and Island Head Creek on our way north to the Percy Islands. Unfortunately both are inside the Shoalwater Bay Military Exercise area and the Defence Force boys and girls decided to close the whole area for war games from October 8 to November 26 so they could play games with live ammunition.  As a result we now had to sail well away from the mainland and cover either eighty nautical miles to an anchorage on Hexham Island or just over a hundred (180klm) to Middle Percy Island. Hence the need for the dark o’clock departure to ensure an arrival in good daylight to see any reefs or other hazards when coming to anchor.

North Keppel Island at bottom and our plans A and B destination options a long way north.
We motored a safe distance from the shore of the island before turning into the wind and raising the main and mizzen sails. Although the wind was only blowing around the 15 knot mark at this point, we stuck with another of our safety rules for short-handed night passages and went with reduced sail at the first reef mark on both.  It may be a little slower at times but if a squall suddenly appears out of the darkness from nowhere, as they do, the single person on watch will definitely find the boat a lot easier to handle.

We then came off the wind to settle the boat on course to our first way point almost ten nautical miles (18klm) offshore. With the sails trimmed to the east north easterly breeze we were pointed to close to the wind to make way on sails alone and set the boat to motor sail to the first mark. Here we would turn to port and hopefully have a more workable wind angle. Despite the metre and a half to two metre swell the boat was riding reasonably comfortably and Karen was able to return to the bunk while Rob stood the watch.

Unfortunately it was a totally moonless night so it was very difficult to see into the distance. It made us all the more thankful for the AIS (Automatic Identification System) we had recently fitted to the boat. Any AIS equipped boat or ship approaching shows up on our chart plotter while we likewise appear on theirs. All commercial vessels are now required to be equipped with AIS which is great however not all recreational boats carry the system. At this time of year many cruising yachts are returning south so all through the night Rob’s eyes were peeled for the sight of navigation lights ahead. 

People often ask us how we stay awake let alone alert through the night staring into darkness. A thermos of coffee helps but each sailor seems to have their own method. Karen finds bopping along to lively music keeps her going while conversely music tends to acts as a lullaby for Rob and rocks him to sleep. Instead he downloads “Conversations with Richard Fidler” from ABC Radio and finds these one hour long interviews with people from all walks of life with interesting stories to tell keeps him upright and eyes open. We know of other cruisers who prefer audio books but regardless, it’s essential you just use one ear piece so the other is able to hear any noises that may alert you to a problem with the boat or hazard ahead. It’s worth sacrificing stereo sound for safety.

The other concern sailing the Queensland coast at this time of the year is migrating whales. Although a rare occurrence, without the sound of an approaching motor to warn them, it’s been known for yachts under sail to literally run into whales taking a nap on the surface. With only starlight to aid vision, avoiding any such mishap would be purely up to chance. When we altered course at our first waypoint the wind angle improved as expected providing more drive for the sails so they could take over the hard work from the motor however the swell came from closer to beam on rolling the boat more. Rob found a few engine rpms smoothened the ride and with the off chance of running into Moby Dick in mind, elected to keep the motor ticking over until the horizon began to lighten in the pre-dawn which would greatly improving forward vision.

Normally we would work to a three hours on watch, three hours off rotation but as the passage involved less than a full night, Rob has elected to go through to dawn and let Karen sleep. As it was, the dark hours passed uneventfully with Flat and Peak Islands successfully avoided along with the Navy, Army and Air-force. In fact not another vessel of any kind was sighted.

Dawn is always a very welcome event for the watch keeper when sailing a night passage.
Once Karen and the sun was up, the reefs were shaken out of the main and mizzen sails to catch more wind although we now found we needed to pole the genoa out to keep it filled in the rollie downwind conditions as the wind swung to the southeast.
It was very annoying sailing straight past places such as Port Clinton and Island Head Creek on the mainland that we had been keen on visiting but were now out of bounds for a military exercise.

Our Dreamtime sails quite well dead down wind with the genoa poled out. Those solar panels make lots of power for us too.

As we approached the northern limits of the military exclusion zone we needed to decide whether we would turn more to the northeast and make Hexham Island our landfall or push onto Middle Percy Island another four hours further in the distance. Hexham and the thought of an earlier post passage beer won the day so we were soon sailing dead downwind with the main and mizzen held out on the starboard side and the genoa poled to port. This set up proved quite good with a favourable tidal current running boat speed sitting constantly over the six knot mark.
Sailing past Steep Island we could see the after effects of Cyclone Marcia which passed through this area in January. All the trees are still very bare of leaves with the ground littered with fallen trunks and broken branches.

We sailed through acres and acres of this disgusting sludge disgorged by bulk carriers pumping out there ballast tanks before they load up with coal.
Unfortunately the tide turned when we about an hour out from our destination and despite the wind strengthening a little into the high teens, forward progress fell below four knots. Sticking with sail alone would see that last hour stretch to two or more and with the taste of that post passage beer beckoning we fired up the engine and motor-sailed the last bit of the way.

The tidal run through the passage between Hexham to the west and Alnwick and Shield Islands to the west was running at a good two and a half knots against us and the wind which saw the waves stand up quite strikingly giving us a spirited finale to our overnight passage but we soon turned the corner. We dropped all sail in the lee of Hexham and entered a lovely calm bay on the northern side occupied by only a sole catamaran.

North Keppel Island to Hexham Island 14 Hours 35 Minutes - 78.9 Nautical Miles
Average 5.44 knots – High Speed 7.40 knots

The anchorage was quite comfortable in the moderate south easterly conditions
The only other occupant of Hexham Island when we arrived.
We dropped anchor onto sand in seven metres of clear water making provision for the almost four metres the tide still had left to drop. After making sure the anchor was well buried and set in the sand we tidied all the lines up on deck, got the sail covers on main and mizzen, cleaned up the cockpit and cracked that cold post passage beer.
The beach looked inviting but would have to wait until the following day.
We both had a fantastic, refreshing shower in the sunshine on the stern and feeling re-invigorated enjoyed another beer, OK two, alright it may have been three, as we watched another five boats arrive from the north through the remainder of the afternoon progressively filling up the anchorage.

Using the deck hose to shower in the sunshine on the stern is a great pleasure after a long passage.
Rest assured, we were curled up in bed fast asleep very shortly after mother nature turned on a nice sunset for us to end our long day.

We’ve said from the beginning that this was to be our shakedown cruise and we would report the good bad and ugly of it all so here’s the how we fared on our first night passage.

What worked.

Our passage plan with two alternative anchorages as option A& B.

What didn’t work.

Even with the instruments set on the lowest illumination setting the light inside the cockpit made it impossible to see through our glass windows on the moonless night so it was necessary hang your head out the side of the enclosed cockpit to keep watch ahead. With any sort of exterior light available we think this may not be as bad.

What we did right.

Elected to anchor in the nearer anchorage as adverse currents would have made it difficult to get to the Percy’s in daylight.

How we screwed up.

We should have gone to bed straight after sunset to get more sleep before setting off. Rob was a pretty tired lad by the time we anchored.

Good night from Hexham Island!

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