Sailing Yarns

Why do sailors tell yarns? Well, cruising is slow travel, often not much faster than jogging, so you need to fill in the time somehow. And then there are those evenings in harbours and anchorages, when you meet up with the people from the next yacht and tell stories.

The best stories of course, are not about the calm days with good breezes when your passage-making went according to plan. They are about the bad weather that you survived, the accidents, mishaps and mistakes from which you recovered, the hardships overcome, like the sagas of old. Our sailing coach and mentor, David D Mattiske, has a wealth of such stories, so many that we nicknamed him Death and Destruction Mattiske (DDM).

So if you think after reading some of these yarns, that sailing is all bad news, it isn't. It's just that the good bits are boring!

The Gods live in Tasmania

In November 2004,when the captain was in Launceston enjoying himself antifouling, and receiving glowing reports about Nahani from the insurance surveyor, the mate was in Melbourne, with everything going wrong for her. She first decided that the gods were not on her side that week, then perhaps that they'd moved to Tasmania, since everything had been going well down there. In December 2004 when we returned together, it became obvious this was the case.

First there was Rob Cassidy who, although he'd never met us, volunteered to buy 200 hundred litres of diesel on our behalf, and store it in jerrycans until we arrived. Not only that, he even lent us his trolley to move the cans progressively to the boat for the fuelling process.

Then there were Quentin and Dave, who ran Sailability in Launceston. After watching them spend an afternoon helping disabled sailors, we invited them aboard for a cuppa and an Anzac biscuit. Later that day, Quentin returned with his wife, in evening dress on the way to a Christmas party. They stopped by to say hello and give us a little box of four home-made mince pies, with instructions not to eat them until we reached the Freycinet Peninsula.

Bryn, of Tamar Sea Rescue, with his lovely welsh accent, stayed on the radio late into the evening as we headed from Launceston toward Banks Strait until we could tell him we were safely anchored in Foster Inlet.

Our experience in Triabunna topped all that. On the fifth day of our trip from Launceston to Hobart, we reached Prosser Bay. Here we had a minor crisis. Helen had catered on the assumption that we would sail through the night and only stop at an anchorage a couple of times en route to Hobart. She also assumed that we wouldn’t drink and sail. On that basis, four bottles of red and half a dozen beers seemed a reasonable supply. But by Prosser we’d had four nights at anchor, and were almost out of grog. We left David in charge of the boat, the cat and the last can of beer, and rowed the dinghy ashore, assuming that there would be a pub or a general store within walking distance.

When we reached the road, there were houses in both directions, so we knocked at one to get directions. A very nice woman immediately invited us in, deducing that we were off a yacht from the fact that we were still wearing our full wet weather gear and seaboots. We removed the latter and came inside where we met her son Tony and grandson James. At the door, we’d described our needs as “supplies” as we didn’t want to look like alcoholics. Fran offered bread, milk and so on until we finally had to confess that what we were after was beer. “My husband makes homebrew,” she said enthusiastically, but when he was consulted he suggested it might not travel well in the dinghy. So we again requested directions to the nearest pub, only to find it was about 45 minutes walk away. Fran promptly offered to drive us, but then Tony pointed out that his car was blocking hers, so he and James drove us into Triabunna.

The bottle shop was closed so we went into the bar, providing huge amusement to the fishermen drinking there, who looked at our gear and shouted “Dive, dive, dive!” The publican didn’t want to spend too long away from the bar while we chose wine, so we grabbed four bottles quickly and asked for a dozen beers. He told us it a slab was cheaper, and loaded us up with one despite our protests that we had to carry it. But our kind drivers took us all the way to the beach, telling us en route about the James’ sister, who’d just got a place as a first violin in the AYO. We offered them some of the slab as a thankyou, but they felt they had enough with Dad’s homebrew. We only had to load up the dinghy and row back to David, who was naturally wondering if we would ever return.

The ultimate "The Gods live in Tasmania" story happened in Safety Cove on the same voyage, but warrants a yarn all of its own (see below). But that wasn't the end of it. On New Year's Eve we were in Barnes Bay, wondering how we could leave Nahani in Kettering for the night so we could attend the Blichfeldts' traditional dinner party. Right on cue, another yacht came close by for a look at us and a chat, during which we mentioned our plans. No problem! Just go across and ask for John and Dee's berth, they told us. And so we had a safe spot for the night while they were out enjoying Barnes.

So the gods live in Tasmania all right. Pretty smart, those gods - it's a beautiful place and we've come to love it. [Top]

Directions to Dog Bark Lane, or Richard Briggs to the rescue

Saturday before Christmas, 2004. We have been owners of Nahani for almost two months, and have sailed her from Devonport to Launceston, and then down the East Coast of Tasmania. As you may have read in Devonport to Hobart, end 2004, our pride in our acquisition has been somewhat dented when the engine overheated as we sailed south from Prosser Bay, but with the aid of David Mattiske we have demonstrated sufficient seamanship to sail into Port Arthur inlet in the dark and anchor in the aptly named Safety Cove in the early hours of the morning. But now what? David needs to get to Hobart to catch a flight back to Melbourne. Peter and Helen need to get the engine repaired before tackling entry to Hobart. And all we can see ashore is a beach, littoral scrub giving way to farmland and one or two farmhouses. Telegraph poles suggest a road, but there is no sign of any commercial activity.

David arranges for his Hobart-domiciled son Andrew to drive down to collect him. This solves one problem, but Andrew has nothing to offer when we enquire about diesel repair. Next we try Nahani’s builder Steve, who provides the number of a pal with the unlikely name of Dewey Buttonshaw. Dewey has two significant drawbacks. First, he lives in the Huon Valley, which is a long way hence. Second, he is out diving for abalone, and won’t be contactable until evening. Helen then rings her cousin Claire in Hobart, mostly to tell her not to expect to see Nahani sailing up the Derwent until the engine problem gets solved. Half an hour later, Claire rings back. “I think I’ve got some good news for you. Have you got a pencil? Then write this down…

”You are in Safety Cove? Right. Row your dinghy ashore, walk through the scrub and look for Dog Bark Lane. Walk along the road until you see something that looks like a junk yard. This is the home of Richard Briggs.” At this point, the note Helen is writing has “bit eccentric”. Claire goes on to say that a friend of hers recommends him, that he is the local RACT agent and possibly the best diesel mechanic in Tasmania.

We duly row ashore as directed. Sure enough, just as Helen looks right to the finger post saying “Dog Bark Lane”, the boys see signs of bulk farm machinery to the left. David heads right to await Andrew, Peter and Helen head the other way. As we walk up a drive passing about 40 old cars and twice as many old tractors, a young black dog barks itself into a frenzy, with a voice calling “Diesel! Come here. DIESEL!" We reach the house, ask for Richard, and meet a man in beanie, beard and boiler suit, all looking suitably oil-stained. We explain our plight. “Well, you’re not going far until we fix it,” he says, calmly. “I’ll just have my lunch, get my tools and come down to the beach and give you a hoy.” We return to the boat, and just have time to get our own lunch before Richard appears.

In the interim, we have guessed that Richard will be replacing the head gasket, that this could take more than a day’s work, and that we will need to have about $600 in cash to pay him. David’s son Andrew has arrived, so Helen goes with them into Port Arthur. By way of the ATM at the pub and cash out at the supermarket, she returns with requisite dozen $50 notes. Richard, meanwhile, has settled in to the laborious job of removing all the heat exchangers and cooling stuff in order to get at the head. Between 2pm and 10pm he works solidly to replace the head gasket and reassemble the engine, accepting only three cups of tea, declining even a biscuit to go with them. Peter also observes with astonishment that he doesn't have a pee in all that time. Shortly after 10pm he and Peter start testing the engine, and by 11pm everything is back to normal, and apparently in working order. We fall over ourselves expressing our gratitude, and provide presents to mollify his wife, who is presumably still trying to keep his dinner warm. Then comes the issue of payment – how much do we owe? This seems to present him with a very difficult problem. Helen reminds him that he’s worked for 9 hours, assuming that he can then multiply this by some hourly rate. But instead he replies, “Would $80 do?” Gobsmacked, we say no it won’t, and Helen peels the top four notes off the roll. But after Peter has rowed him ashore, we still feel that it isn’t right to pay someone only $200 for all that work. So in the morning Peter goes ashore with another $200, which he manages to persuade Richard’s wife to accept. He then seeks out Richard in his shed, to thank him again, and give him a lecture on charging properly for his expertise. Richard gently resists, saying he doesn’t need money. He has his property, and his hobby of collecting tractors, which he exhibits at field days. And his wife is a collector too, he informs Peter. “Oh? What does she collect?” Peter asks. “Dolls,” Richard replies. “She’s got 1000 dolls.” “Oh, yes,” says Peter, but Richard goes on: “And chainsaws. She’s got 600 chainsaws.” With images of micro-chainsaw massacres and headless dolls reeling through his mind, Peter is for once lost for words. (And just in case you think we made all this up... Google "Richard Briggs").

Postscript: Richard had no torque wrench with him and tightened the head bolts by "feel". Weeks later, when Peter checked with a wrench, only one needed very minor adjustment. And the engine hasn't overheated since. [Top]

Bewildered in Banks Strait

During our Hobart to Melbourne voyage with the Mattiskes in March 2006, we learn the importance of knowing what the tide is doing. It happens like this. We're motoring through Banks Strait en route from Wineglass Bay to Lady Barron on Flinders Island. We've made such good time up the coast with a strong following SE wind that we're planning to head into a bay on the south of Clarke Island to anchor and rest until daylight (we don't want to be trying to go through Franklin Sound to Lady Barron in the dark).

David and Helen have been on watch since about 2300, motoring through typically lumpy seas with the wind directly behind us. At about 0200, very dark as the moon has not yet risen, Renate and Peter come up on deck. Peter and David check all the charts and decide we've reached the point at which we planned to turn toward Clarke Island. The captain gives the order "Steer Starboard" to the mate, still on the helm. A few seconds pass, and he repeats the order: "Steer starboard!" "I did," the mate replies. "Well steer starboard some more." The mate, watching the compass, does so. The captain, watching the GPS, repeats the order again. The mate decides she's too tired to argue, so turns the ship through another 90 degrees. But on the fourth repetition, the mate points out rather crossly that if she turns again the ship will have come full circle. "No you won't - you haven't turned," says the captain, exasperated. "Then how come Clarke Island is now behind us?" comes the equally exasperated reply.

At this point, the captain finally looks up and finds that Clarke Island is indeed behind us, despite the fact that the GPS is telling him that the ship hasn't turned. General confusion: something isn't working, but what? We cut the motor while we try to think, not easy as half the crew is due for a rest and the other half has just woken. The boys go back below to re-check the position, Renate takes the helm, and Helen moves to the GPS to read out the lat and long. She observes that even though the motor is in idle, the GPS numbers are changing, and changing quite rapidly. This makes her very uneasy as she knows there are rocks not far away. Watching the GPS, she puts the engine back into gear and adjusts the revs while giving steering directions to Renate. By the time Peter and David come back on deck she announces triumphantly that at least the ship is no longer moving. "That's no help," says the captain, "we can't stay here all night." "Got any better ideas?" she asks.

At last we realise what has been happening. We not only have the wind behind us, but the tidal flow through the Strait is also pushing us NW, so strongly that the boat keeps travelling NW no matter which way it is pointing. So the GPS says the bearing is NW, while the compass gives the direction the boat is pointing, both perfectly correct. Only by turning to point SE into wind and tide and increasing the speed have we managed to get the boat to hold its position. And thus we stay, hove to under motor, for the next couple of hours (Renate heroically steering the boat nowhere), until we are close enough to dawn to start heading onwards to Franklin Sound. [Top]