One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest - Bird Island Race

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Bird Island was the first of the Blue Water races and it took us the better part of 15 hours due to a distinct lack of wind. It probably took us about 6 hours longer than we figured and we were wet,  tired, hungry and out of beer by the time we crossed the line just after 1am Sunday morning. Given I owed you guys an update, it got me to thinking rather than a blow by blow of the race, you might be more interested in the race from a different perspective ….like why would we do it?

 

 

It’s a valid question and there are times during the day when we are wondering the same thing! In fact there are time during the day where the crew look like they are ready to mutiny and you literally ask yourself, should I just turn the engine on and motor home?  So with the rest of this post although a little bit about the race and how we did, I hope to also try and convey the stuff that makes Ocean Racing so fun ;)

So to firstly understand the feeling of accomplishment and reward you need to rewind back to the beginning. Really the race starts a couple of months before with Safety audits, minor boat modifications, rating measurements, Safety courses, Radio Licenses, First aid Certification and filling up Medical kits, buying wet weather gear and discussing on the What’s App group the gear we have who is coming and all that stuff.

Then you hit the start of the season and start the inshore races, but everyone knows this year it’s all just practice for the Bluewater, so the anticipation and excitement builds a little. Then the Short Ocean races start, and you get to test out the stuff you have bought for the boat (and yourself), start to get a gauge of how close you can stick to a particular boat, practicing your angles downwind and rotating the jobs on board, like steering, and trimming the sails and  working out who can cope best underneath the deck for periods of time in the waves.   You see you are going to need to sleep at some stage (if you can call it that….really it’s more a semi pass-out) While you sleep you want to be sure that the boat is still moving the right direction, people are getting fed and we know where in the ocean we are.

Race one is now a week away and like Christmas shopping all of a sudden you realise “shit” there are only a few days to get everything done…and you start watch the weather….on every app you can find, morning and night and start calculating how long is this actually going to take in this weather, with these waves.

Then the day before is here and you think….Have I dotted all the I’s and crossed all the t’s? Will everyone be safe? I better check the weather, and the tides, and the warm water current. Have we got everything on board we are going to need? How much beer should we bring? How much food, what’s easiest to prepare and eat? I know some of the other guys are thinking, jeez I hope I don’t get seasick. How much Travacalm am I going to need? The night before you don’t drink too much because sailing and hangovers don’t mix. Most of all though, the day before you are thinking – Finally! tomorrow I get to leave it all behind and just go sailing.

Morning Deewhy

It’s the day of the race and everything changes.  What’s App fires up early, with photo’s of what a beautiful day it is to go Sailing, in Dee Why, North Ryde, Manly, Haberfield, or McCarrs Creek as everyone starts their trip down to get on the boat. We finish off packing a bag each, say goodbye to the dogs and grab our dingy to make the trek to the mooring. The trip from the mooring to the club is dead calm, not much breeze (better check the weather again).

Morning

Stepping on the boat at the yacht club is different for everyone on the big races. The old hands are quite blasé with a little excitement and a healthy respect for where they are going. Others show a hint of nervous anticipation in slightly furrowed expressions, some are just plain excited to be getting way out there again. Although it’s really just another race, everyone knows it’s a little bit more special than that. It’s the beginning of something we have been working toward for 2 years now, building experience and confidence as a crew, getting the boat in shape and sticking to a plan to go Offshore racing.

Once everyone is on board and the gear is stashed, the beer is put away and the boat looks like it is ready to go. It’s time for the safety briefing – and infamous skipper pep talk. We go through any new safety gear, med kit items, and assign the jobs for the day. There is usually a bit of a balance to the pep talk to ensure the excited people remember it’s dangerous and the importance of safety, and the nervous people feel confident that they actually are safe. Part two of the pep talk is ensuring everyone understands what the plan is for the race, are we going to stick to the coast or go offshore. Where will there be more wind (in theory), which way will the tide give us more speed? Then it’s question time, and it’s time to go.   

wave1

So our plan on the day was to try and get a decent start and stick with the faster boats as long as possible by heading north over the line and using the tide to drag us out to sea. Getting lifts in the bay from the headlands. Solid plan. 

On the way to the start line, the talk turns yet again to the weather, and the crew want to know how long the race will take so they can plan the rest of the weekend and what food and drink we all have, you don’t know it yet but it’s likely to become communal food and drink when the race goes long.  Also routine just kicks in, nerves disappear, discussion starts around which sails should go up and which end of the start line is better, what are the other boats doing?

The gun goes and you are off to Bird Island ….. slowly ….. v e r y  s l o w l y.

boat2

You see the forecast wind has not arrived, 4 different forecast websites, grib files examined and super computer modelling checked, none of it is even close. The only thing moving us is the very odd little puff and the tide. So it is time to adjust the carefully laid plan on the fly….well… on the crawl.  The biggest obstacle at this point is the waves coming in and the other boats. We have managed a pretty good start at the Pin end of the line behind Kerazy and Enigma. Lots of boats all bobbing around, trying to keep their steering by getting a little bit of water flowing over the rudder.  At the same time as trying to go forward and get somewhere there is more wind – likely flowing around the headlands to each side of the estuary where the tide is running fastest. 

There were some close calls as one boat would get some wind and get close to the boat in front, which would get pushed backward by the waves. We had the 44 footer XS moment breathing down our neck for quite a while until we managed to get a puff and start heading north. We didn’t know it at the time but the next 2 hours would almost be the most exciting time for most of the race.

Start1   

We creep along trying to find any breath of wind to get us closer to the 2 boats in front of us. Looking around at the fleet they seem to be having a worse time of it than us early on, it looks like we have chosen the best side of the bay and are getting some gusts and going ok.  By our reckoning we are third on the water and importantly we are feeling clever as we are over with some of the boats that have some experienced guys on board…”Kerazy”, “Enigma” and “Occasional Course Language”. A couple of Seals were baking in the sun and gave us a wave on the way past.

marcus   seal1

As Enigma and Kerazy decided to head right into the headland they looked to be having some trouble, we elected to stay outside Maitland reef.  This worked out well for us and OCL as we picked up a bit of southerly wind and started actually sailing instead of drifting. So now we are sitting behind Occasional Course language and looking like second on the water although it was apparent that the boats that had gone to the other side of the bay were now also in some breeze and had decided to head much further out to sea.

Unfortunately sailing is not like a car race, it is not immediately clear just by looking at the other boats who is winning. It’s easy if the boat is close to you and in the same weather and going in the same direction, but in these long races  the ones winning are the ones closest to the best weather that will take them in the right direction the fastest – In this case it became quickly apparent  we were not closest to the best weather.  As our burst of wind died out and the wind started to change direction we became quite becalmed. The boats out to sea and behind us could see we had quite clearly sailed into a whopping great hole and stopped dead. “Occasional Course Language” was just in front of us and suffered the same fate as we both did everything we could to keep moving to no avail.  No longer were we feeling very clever.

So the boom flaps from side to side and little puffs of wind swirl around us, we go backwards and lose steering and tempers start to fray. Mine was the first to go. Now I know as well as anyone that sailing is every bit as much of a mental game as anything else. It just gave me the shits watching the entire fleet sail around us while we sat still and couldn’t even steer! Most frustrating was that some of these boats were passing us, at speed, as close as a couple of hundred meters away. You are thinking….the wind is obviously right there, XS Moment, and LeBillet just went a little further out to sea and left us in their wake - I could read the logo’s on the sides of their boats they were that close….

The downside to me getting frustrated it is spread like a cancer to the rest of the crew. So I apologise for being shitty but the damage was done.

And so we sat in silence….. Boats around us started to pull out. Talk amongst the crew turned to pointing out how close to home we still were and how long the race was going to be.

And so we called for a beer break and we sat. Tension on board reduced a little more, but privately, I think we were all wondering …how long are just going to sit here?

And we sat, and an hour went by, and then the most amazing thing happened, lifted our spirits, and we remembered why a frustrating day on the Sea is better than ….well…. pretty much everything short of being with family and friends. 

Dani called out “Whale”.

It’s amazing thing to see close up the size of humpback whale, dwarfing the length of the boat. Cruising along with the confidence of an animal with very few natural predators,  the power and grace with which they appear to lazily make their way through the sea. You can see and hear the enormous puff of air as they surface and the massive splash when they breach or slap their tail.

Today was our lucky day as Mother and Calf set themselves on an intercept course for the front of the boat, all thoughts of going home were forgotten as the crew rushed the front of the boat for a birds eye view. I must admit to some nerves that they were coming so close, I was a bit worried about what would happen if we hit them. I figured the boat would come off second best, but also you don’t want to be that guy on A Current Affair with the headline “Man kills whale with sailing boat”” either.

As the Mother dove for the depths not far from the side of the boat, I breathed a sigh of relief and we got a great view of the size of her. Meanwhile the Calf appeared content to cruise along the surface right alongside us, perhaps curious, or playful, the two joined back up maybe 50 metres away and continued their migration down the coast. Cameras were called for and the timing was just right to get the very cool shots you see below.

whale1   Whale2

As talk of the whales, and how cool they were, and how lucky we were to see them so close, continued we were still not really moving. We did start to get a little bit of wind but not really enough to help us and we resumed  our frustrating slog of trying to float to the wind.  We could see it had built considerably out to sea but couldn’t quite get there. It was very nice of “Reverie” to join us for a little while in our misery, although they did not stay long as they were just a little further out and managed to pick up the southerly a little earlier.

After around 2 hours of sitting pretty much still, with a beer break and the whales we finally got far enough out to sea to start picking up the breeze and started moving again.  We were not setting any records but we were moving! To help us celebrate, every sailors friend, the dolphins arrived to renew everyone’s enthusiasm all over again. Unlike the seals that were being a bit lazy and the Whales which were mainly just doing their thing– The dolphins were there to play, surfing the bow wave, darting in and out under the boat and willing us to go faster so they could play some more.  You are just not right if seeing a dolphin doesn’t lift your spirits, they are amazing to watch and Vini captured the video below to give you an idea of what it’s like to stand on the front of the boat and  watch them in the water. 

There were quite a few in the pod and were all around us for quite a while, giving everyone a chance to check them out before they took off to continue whatever it was they were doing before they popped over to say hello. Smiles all around we settled into our routine and continued our inch up the coast toward Lake Macquarie and Bird Island.

dolphin3   dolphin1

The rest of the trip up we saw more whales off in the distance but was pretty uneventful. Spinnaker up now we were making around 6- 8 knots. We rotated through positions as people passed over their job and took a seat on the rail or the foredeck for a rest or popped downstairs for a nap. At Norah Head Lighthouse we broke out Vini’s Brazilian wraps, Gareth’s pasta, and a few beers for dinner. Good job on the extra food boys! We had expected to be approaching the finish line at this stage and instead we were approaching halfway.

crew1

As we turned around the island the apparent wind picked up and the weather set in but we were finally sailing on an angle of heel which reduces the bobbing around and got up some speed. We saw 7 knots quite a few times as we kept the big headsail up and sailed back out to sea in the twilight to find the wind. Day turns to night and the fatigue of being in the sun starts to set in, dinner and the couple of beers make you a bit sleepy and it’s nice when someone calls and say do you want a break.  It’s time to rug up a bit more as the last warmth leaves the breeze and you get a chance to take a seat on the rail and reflect on the race and talk to the people you are racing with.

marcus and morgs

The preparation has paid off, the wet weather gear you bought is keeping you dry(ish) and warm and games are played to keep you alert. At some point quite early the beer runs out and the last bag of chips is shared as a late dinner. The weather turns again around 7pm and the clouds close in and the wind starts to build. 10, 12, 14, 20 knots.  We are in danger of being overpowered, the skipper calls a sail change and people jump into action. Its pitch black, the boat is banging into the small waves as the foredeck crew get the big sail on the deck and the smaller one up. The boat stabilises as the smaller headsail reduces our heel angle. The weather is checked again and places are resumed.

weather1

We tack out at sea and start heading back toward land again, the wind has died off again to 12 knots and the beer ran out long ago. Vini has bought along French champagne for his going away party which was supposed to be after the race,  a vote is taken and it is agreed that after the race the pub could be closed. We decide Vini’s going away party will have to be on the boat on the way home. We crank up triple J House party and drink bubbly from the bottle to toast our good friend Vini.  A big smile and never say die attitude Vin has been a great member of the High Anxiety crew and we will be sad to see him go, although I am sure his family will be happy to have him back in Brazil. We tell stories of Vini’s exploits from his travels with us over the last couple of years, laugh and polish off the last of the champagne.

marcus vini

The clouds part again and the rain stops and you are miles offshore.  The lights from the city are far away and you look up and realise the stars are amazing. The person next to you notices and before long half the crew are staring up at the heavens feeling very, very small. You wonder about the early sailors, no satellite GPS or charts as you try and pick out familiar constellations. You look back to shore and try to see if you can pick the lighthouse but it’s pointless.

A little while later the wind starts to build and Dave gets a break from the wheel we get much closer to land, we try and throw a tack in but something is wrong the boat turns but goes straight back again, refusing to build speed on the new tack.  Runners are checked as the boat tacks back on its own. This is not good, something is wrong. People check everything a twice, everything looks ok. We try and tack back, same problem the boat tacks back by itself. Bugger -  we have run over something.

The wind is back over 20 knots – it never rains it pours, we get speed back up and attempt another tack. We are not about to hit land but we are on a lee shore (the wind is blowing toward shore) so we want to make some distance to try and work out what’s going wrong. The tack works but the boat is slow , we make some distance out to sea and ease everything, and check the rudder and lean over the side of the boat to check the keel. We cannot see anything but the boat is sluggish. We are not risking someone going overboard in the middle of the night when we do not have that far to go so we soldier on. After another tack we think it’s dropped  off as things start to improve. The wind drops again and you are changing back up to the bigger sail, this time the skipper was on the rail so he is up helping the foredeck crew. 

night

From this point on the race is hard, you have done the maths, you know it’s going to be midnight easy, maybe 1am before you see Barrenjoey lighthouse close up again. You start to look at the light in the distance and imagine it’s closer than it is. You throw a tack in because you are convinced you can make it into Pittwater at that angle then after you go around you watch the light from the lighthouse swing backwards to be almost straight in front of you  but more to the left than you can get the boat to point which means it is further away than you thought. Tacking out to sea again to avoid Maitland Reef, you see the shoulders around you sink a little as everyone come to the same conclusion – Were are not there yet.  

The “What the hell am I doing out here?” question pops into your mind, but unlike early in the race home is still far away and everyone knows the fastest way back is to sail. As it starts to rain and it’s pitch black, we share why we do this to ourselves. Some like the challenge – Man vs Sea, adventure junkies like it when the wind starts to blow and the boat crashes through the waves. Somebody mentions achieving something that other people cannot even conceive of doing. Another suggests teamwork and camaraderie that naturally occurs when you help each other through something hard. Everybody loves the marine life and the feeling of freedom you get when you are sailing along with the dolphins, all thoughts of the office or traffic left far behind.

For me I think it’s a combination of all those things but the challenge is probably the driving force. From getting the boat on the line ready to race, to crossing the finish line in the middle of the night and getting everyone home safe. It takes a lot of planning and mental energy. It gives me something to do and promotes a healthy sense of self.

To finish the story…. we crossed the line at 1:12am Sunday morning, a total race time of 15 hours 12 minutes. The motor back to the club and pack up took until around 2.30am and we bid farewell to a bunch of weary campers. We did not set the race on fire but it’s another step forward and I am really proud of our guys and girls. Whatever their own reasons for being there and putting themselves through it, we couldn’t do it without them.   

Personally I can’t wait to do it all again for Cabbage Tree Island in a few weeks.   After reading that all back I thought jeez you didn’t make a really strong argument, maybe we are just crazy? Either way you really should try offshore racing, we bet you'll love it too!

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