DAVID SMALE, his crewman and the yacht DIATOM found themselves in a jam on a lee shore in Hervey Bay headed for Bundaberg. Thanks to Francis L. Herreshoff for the superb sea qualities of his H28, and to doing some of the right things at the right time, DIATOM and complement survived to tell what best to do in shallow water on a lee shore in winds gusting to 45 knots.
How did our brush with possible disaster happen? — just as simply as most happenings at sea.
On Friday, Decembers, we cleared customs at Gladstone, destination New Zealand via Lord Howe Island, with one crewman, Neil. Weather predictions were for a mild southerly change of short duration, and the synoptic situation gave no cause for concern. However, we completed a full preparation of our ship, including shutters fitted to windows, extra lashings on dinghy, etc, and a motor tyre lugged laboriously across town on the day of departure.
Adverse wind slowed progress that night and it was midday before we finally tacked at Round Hill for Lady Musgrave Island, which we reached at 1700 hrs after motor sailing hard on the wind. Here I made the dangerous mistake of feeling familiar with the island and reef, having entered the reef and landed on the island en route for Gladstone from Noumea six months before.
We had thought of entering the reef that afternoon, but our arrival was too late. I steered in at what I thought was safe distance, guided also by boats anchored within the reef. Fortunately Neil was doing a conscientious job of navigating. To his early question of distance off, I gave an easy assurance of plenty, but altered course a few degrees away from the island.
Neil still at the chart table had his doubts and switched on the depth finder. Suddenly it gave a reading which implied reef very near — we crossed the one shallow shown on the chart), so on his warning shout I did a sharp right turn!
Just in time it was, too, for as we motored away it was possible to detect a faint ripple line, which obviously indicated reef, a few feet only below and not many feet behind.
Subsequently we learned that the Lady Musgrave reef has claimed many more victims than any other on the Coral coast. Having previously exercised extreme care on other coral reefs up the coast, that episode illustrated the danger of assumed familiarity and the degree of carelessness that can arise from a long and tedious day of sailing.
With wind still a light easterly we had to tack in a nor’east direction to avoid danger areas to the south, in anticipation of being well out into the Cora) Sea when the predicted sou’east change arrived.
By night Lady Elliot was giving her distant loom and about midnight we altered course in that direction. The wind was light and by morning, which was a very grey one. Lady Elliott was not in sight — in fact there was not even a sun sight to be had.
The morning forecast was worse than we had earlier been led to anticipate, so we decided to makeourway south via Bundaberg, heading blindly on past Lady Elliott into Hervey Bay.
Around midday we got a brief land sight and Neil was able to snatch a rather poor sun sight. These indicated slow progress towards Bundaberg, made slower by wind already around to the south accompanied by some potentially nasty squalls. About that time we were overtaken by a large ketch plunging without sail, obviously for Bundaberg. We followed until she was out of sight.
By 1500hrs we were confident of our direction, but had no positive fix to check our distance from Bundaberg.
By then it was obvious that a gale was imminent, with short breaking seas becoming rapidly higher. By 1600hrs it was a gale and time to heave to.
Fortunately the sun broke through, the wind was not cold and the foredeck, under plunging conditions, was nowhere near as alarming as imagined or as viewed from the cockpit. Accordingly there was no need for undue haste, which gave good time to think through the best method of tackling the situation.
Maybe DIATOM is the only New Zealand-built Compass H28 cutter rigged, but right then the staysail was to prove its value as a storm Jib, easy to set and haul a-back to the hove-to postion. The mainsail was already roller reefed to the second batten.
NZ offshore regulations demanded one set of reefing eyelets for storm conditions, so with the reefing line already prepared in Gladstone we reduced the sail even further. That certainly reduced the main to stormsail proportions and no way was I tempted to hoist the storm trysail.
By now DIATOM was riding comfortably, but our log was still showing forward progress of between 1 and 1 1/2 knots. Obviously this called for the Gladstone motor tyre, which I dropped off the windward quarter on about 50ft of rope. It did not appear to offer much drag, but it did stabilise our angle to the waves.
Darkness was approaching and we did our best to establish an area of probability based only upon the scant information from one land sight and a sun sight, coupled with our estimate of course and distance.
We had a hand held RDF on board which gave us the approximate direction of the Bundaberg aircraft beacon. During my watch I could see no lighthouse although I had seen a loom intermittently which I thought might have been an aircraft beacon at Bundaberg, but it was insufficient to take a bearing on.
Neil took over at midnight and during his three hour watch he was then able to get two approximate fixes on the light (Bustard Head, towards which we were drifting) and a radio bearing on Bundaberg.
Obviously it was a bit futile keeping watch in the cockpit as our main watch was on the depth finder, which was giving us the best possible picture of where we were, based upon our detailed chart of Hervey Bay.
Our original area of probability was in 20-24 metres and in my original estimate of drift we would have passed over a 16-17m line about two miles wide, then a 10-12m line three miles wide, before meeting the coastal shallows of 5-9 metres. All that added up to a good margin of safety within which to make a decision, so I had bedded down after midnight confident in that assumption.
During the evening I had been busy on the radiotelephone. Fortunately we had no difficulty contacting Brisbane Radio. We explained our situation and assured them that we were in no immediate emergency and the yacht was weathering the increasing gale very well.
Having just reported that, it was no surprise to have the portside slammed by great buckets of water blown off a wave top. On the first few occasions I anxiously flashed the torch from the cockpit, but our fibreglass dinghy on the cabintop, sails, etc. were all unaffected.
Very little water was being shipped into the cockpit and the dodger was standing up admirably, completely sheltering the companionway.
Incidentally, wave slams were few and generally far between, DIATOM riding like a storm petrel, listing steadily 15-20 degrees, but rising and falling to the waves without violent movement.
Brisbane Radio VIB arranged contact with Bundaberg Coastguard VN4BF, but we had difficulty communicating on 2182kc. However, Bundaberg was able to record our estimated position and assured us that they would boon watch until midnight, and thereafter on call via Brisbane.
They also checked our general situation and enquired our ability to motor, which I advised would be very difficult under prevailing conditions, but we would certainly do so if the depth finder indicated approaching shoreline.
On resuming my watch at 0300 I called Brisbane to assure them that we were holding our own well and still in approximately 20 metres.
At that time I was pretty dozey and Neil was more than ready to collapse into the bunk. The depth finder looked good, so we had few words during our exchange and I started watch on the assumption that our drift was roughly as estimated 10 hours before.
I failed to register the fact that Neil had taken two very approximate fixes based upon the Bustard Head light and the Bundaberg radio beacon. These indicated a much more rapid drift downwind in the direction of Round Hill Head — in fact, more accurately towards Wreck Rocks, so aptly named. Unaware of this, I kept watch on the depth finder. When it dropped to 18 metres I was in no hurry to take a look outside.
At 0400 daylight was appearing, and about 0430 I climbed into the cockpit for a look around. Nothing but heaving seas under a grey dawn, but on looking over the dodger I could clearly see a yellow sand beach with low hills behind, less than half a mile over the bow.
No time to bring in the sails, haul in the motor tyre sea anchor, or anything else! I hit the starter, our Bukh 10hp responded immediately and we hauled away without great difficulty, the wind now being on the starboard beam. Fortunately the sea at that point was less rough, but as we headed out the mountains increased and it was obvious that it was not the day for proceeding to Bundaberg.
Round Hill Head almost straight downwind was the obvious choice, so off we shot on a wild high ride under motor with maximum reefed mainsail and a tight staysail which might have stabilised us a bit. _
DIATOM handled the conditions superbly, sometimes careering down waves at 9 or 10 knots.
As we approached Round Hill Head I realised that there was probably a good anchorage just around the corner. Sure enough, there it was in Alan Lucas’book which gave us the details that enabled us to approach with confidence at half tide.
What a perfect and beautiful anchorage it was and we dropped anchor at 0800. I called Brisbane Radio to advise safe arrival and to ask them to inform Bundaberg Coastguard. Subsequently we made direct contact, but again with difficulty.
This entire incident, minor in retrospect, made me think deeply about how quickly and easily the circumstances of disaster can creep up.
I must firstly express my thanks to:
Our ship, her designer and builder — not a sign of stress or leakage, or any sign that she could not have taken much more than she got. She is obviously a lot tougher than her crew!
Brisbane Radio, who answered our calls promptly and efficiently, as well as contacting Coastguard Bundaberg and the SOLAS organisation in Canberra.
Coastguard Bundaberg, whose volunteers maintained watch until midnight and gave us advice and reassurance — and a telephone number for Brisbane to call after midnight if necessary.
Lessons I learned and will never forget were:
1. Never trust you r visual judgement when you are anywhere near coral islands and reefs.
2. Estimate drift on a worst possible basis. We met the coast north of Wreck Rocks and probably just south of Red Rocks where the sea bottom contours are closest — 22 metres being 0.8 mile from shore with 18, 13 and 5 jammed between! No estimated position on that coast could have been worse from the depth finder point of view, which I had been depending upon until dawn.
3. Know your boat’s drift characteristics. Being a long keel, 4ft draught and full bilge, it is not surprising that we rode so well and so fast before the waves. Our total drift in 12 hours was about 25 miles. Each of the foregoing points is contained in every good book of seamanship, but the lesson is really rammed home only from experience.
In our case, we had good luck. Obviously the truism is very true — we would have been very much safer very much more out to sea. We’ll be there next time!
Others in the vicinity were not so lucky. The fishing boat MOOLOOLABELLE foundered with the loss of one life, a crewman being rescued by helicopter from the sea 19 hours later.
Cruising Helmsman magazine