So, what do you think Felicity? Eden or Hobart?
It was our second conversation about retirement in the past 24 hours, but the situation on board Supernova was not improving.
We were nearing Bermagui but had come too close to land and were out of the current. Our one remaining deck instrument had let us down. It was still blowing 20 – 25 kts from the south, but as we passed Montague Island, we realised that the unlit magnetic compass on the bulkhead would get stuck in its bubble whenever the boated heeled past about 30 degrees. Instead of us following the compass, the compass was following the boat. When I realised that we hadn’t been steering 180 all day – more like 200 plus – my heart sank further.
All that bloody time and all that bloody effort getting ready for the race, and it was going pear shaped before we’d even gotten past Eden. I was feeling very down.
However, a sticky compass was not the biggest issue on our minds.
Felicity Nelson and I had purchased the Sydney 36 Supernova back in February after 3 years campaigning the Jones 40 Arch Rival in the CYCA’s blue water series which includes the race to Hobart. We’d had a lot of fun on Arch Rival, but had been keeping an eye out for a boat of our own that satisfied criteria such as being under 40′ (for the cost and ease of handling), with a competitive handicap (because you want to feel like you’re in with a chance on a good day), and finally, we wanted a bomb proof design that would finish an offshore race regardless of the conditions.
Supernova ticked the boxes and although being 15 years old, she had not been campaigned offshore meaning that although we had a bit of work to do to get to Category 1, we hoped the structure of the boat was strong.
Felicity was up for her 25th race, and I was looking forward to my 18th. A number of those races were completed with Greg Zyner on the MYC entries Morna and Copernicus. We’d decided that our goals for the first year owning the yacht were firstly to get to the start line, and secondly to get to the finish line. Anything after that would be a bonus and as I had never retired from a Hobart race, I was determined that this would not be the first time.
The forecast for the race was a good one for a smaller boat. A picturesque start under spinnaker in a moderate southerly, with a proper southerly due later on the first day. The forecast from Clouds Badham advised S/10-15 then SSE/15-18 in the morning and SSE/20-25 with gusts 30 kts and peak gusts 35 kts when offshore in the afternoon and evening.
After dealing with the southerly on the NSW coast, the next feature of the race was to be a high-pressure system detaching itself from Tasmania and drifting slowly across the Tasman as we were due to enter Bass Strait. On the east side of the High would be light South Easterlies, and on the west side would be light Easterlies and North Easterlies. In between would be nothing.
As the high moved away, the NE’er would build for those close to Flinders Island and we were due for a great ride down the coast of Tassie.
The forecast for the tail end of the race was too far away to worry about at that point, but our strategy was locked in. We’d get a spank on the NSW coast and take a long board out on starboard to get into the current. Then we’d flop onto port tack when the wind shifted east on the second day and get as far west as possible in Bass Strait to get on the right side of the High before riding NE’ers down the Tassie coast.
The old adage that the first bit of Tasmania you should see is Tasman Island kept popping up among the competing ideas in my head, but not to worry, we’d have plenty of time to refine our approach to Tasman Island as we headed south. After all, the sayings of salty ol’ seadogs were born of a different age. In those times you left Sydney with a hard copy of the weather prognosis cut out of the newspaper and listened into weather forecasts on the HF Radio for coastal waters areas along the way. Such a quaint idea now that we have a satellite dish on the taff rail delivering weather information at broadband speeds.
The first 24 hours of the race was rough, but not extreme. The weather was playing along with the forecast and the boat was handling it well. We came out of The Heads with a #2 and a reef and were changing through the gears as the pressure increased. A second reef went in, then a change to the #3 and back to one reef. As dusk approached the wind was in the mid 20’s and the second reef went in again.
If I’ve learnt anything over 20 years of offshore sailing it is the importance of being able to reef in a hurry, so we’d put a bit of thought into the process on Supernova as well as practicing at every opportunity. With the mainsail on slides instead of a bolt rope, a main halyard marked at the correct heights, and twin cunninghams on the mast, the watch on deck could pop a reef in or out in well under a minute without calling up the off watch.
Despite all that, we were still caught out just after dark when a squall came though the fleet. Although we had the second reef in, we had not moused the lazy reef line through the leech cringle of the 3rd reef, so when the wind increased from mid 20’s to mid 30’s without warning, we were stuck with the wrong headsail up and could not shorten the mainsail. We were way overpowered with the #3, but at least it would survive the squall without detonating, so we focused on the Main instead. All hands were on deck to drop the sail entirely, run the third reef line, and re-hoist. As soon as this was done the #3 was replaced with the #4 and we were back on the wind, steering into the sort of rain and spray that stung the eyes unbearably whenever you dared to peep above the wheel for a quick update from the instruments.
It was during this period overnight when we got an inkling that a list of issues was starting to grow. Someone mentioned the freshwater tap in the galley didn’t seem to be working, then crew came on watch saying they’d had no sleep because there was water pouring through the throttle control panel, or that the head was full of water. They were all little things that did not ring any alarm bells at the time, because banging into a southerly was never dry or comfortable.
Then at 5 am the next morning as we started the engine to charge the batteries for the 0635 Position Report, the instruments literally disappeared in a puff of smoke. Later analysis showed that a widget in the switchboard had shaken loose and fallen across the copper bars that supply power to the whole board, but at the time all we knew was that the instruments were blacked out and the cabin was filling with wisps of acrid smoke and the smell of burning plastic.
We shut down the engine immediately and started tearing the boat apart to find the source of the smoke. My concerns centred around the alternator which had been running hot and was undersized for the bank of lithium batteries installed earlier in the year. If you’d asked me in November to swap out an alternator I would have looked bemused, but I’d become a dab hand after the flooding of the ignition panel during the Cabbage Tree Island race started a chain of events which resulted in an electrician and a mechanic spending the days leading up to Christmas Day swapping out all the bits and pieces relating to the ignition, tachometer and alternator, trying to get a combination to work together and get us to the start line.
They’d done the best they could considering suppliers were closed, spare parts were unobtainable, and families were getting cranky about Christmas plans being delayed. Still, as we motored out of the marina on Boxing Day morning, the most likely cause of our retirement was going to be the engine, alternator or batteries failing before we got to the all-important Green Cape Declaration where we had to swear all that hardware was operating at 100%.
After digging through gear bags, rudely woken bodies and soggy bunk cushions the batteries and associated wiring appeared OK. Shining a torch into the engine compartment gave the impression there was less smoke in there than was floating around the rest of the cabin. At this point attention moved to the switch board which may have copped a bit of spray overnight. The “Instrument” switch was off and would trip back to the off position when you tried to flick it on. So, the panic was over. There was a short circuit in the panel, the instruments were out of action, but the engine was working, and the alternator was charging.
While we were charging the batteries for the morning’s position report there was also the opportunity to tidy up a bit, and what we found was lots and lots of water. The head was full of it, as were cupboards, shelves, sinks and sumps. Bunks were wet through, and the headsails on the cabin sole were soaked. After a number of buckets were passed up to be emptied, the next thing to appear were rolls of toilet paper, sodden to the core and being jettisoned overboard. I couldn’t believe this quantity of water had come down the hatch, or through the throttle lever, even if it was pouring through like a tap each time a wave filled the cockpit.
When troubleshooting the lack of fresh water at the tap, we discovered that 50 odd litres of the water sloshing around the bilge had come from the starboard water bladder which had let go and emptied at some stage overnight. It had flooded the electric freshwater pump and the motor for the fridge before it spread throughout the rest of the boat. The fridge was no big loss, but half the fresh water was gone and a method for retrieving the remaining water was going to be a problem.
While listening to the sched we’d been surprised at the number of retirements less than 24 hours into the race. It seemed like every 2nd or 3rd boat on the sched sheet was heading north or already in port. On the one hand we agreed the weather had been rough, but not that rough, but on the other hand we too were discussing retirement. We had no instruments or chart plotter, the laptop was flat, and its charger was dead, we’d lost half the drinking water and we were barely a quarter of the way through the race.
Felicity and I threw the pros and cons between us. The nav lights were working, but how would we go without instruments, particularly at night. How could we be competitive without weather updates, routing or AIS. Would 40 or 50 litres of water last 8 crew another 3 or 4 days. Could we survive with only 2 rolls of dunny paper! These doomy and gloomy thoughts passed between us and we wondered if it was worth continuing. We were close to a call on the race but thought we should do the right thing and discuss our concerns with the crew. It was at that point we noticed something odd… everyone seemed to be smiling and having a good time. The boat was powered up and moving nicely through the swell as the on-watch guessed at the wind speed and discussed when the next sail change would be on the cards. I heard someone call back the compass heading while the steerer and mainsheet hand discussed height and boat speed despite the dead eyes of the instrument displays glaring back at them from the mast.
The skippers had another quick chat and decided maybe things weren’t as bad as they’d first thought.
We were now about 24 hours into the race and the wind seemed to be playing along with the forecast and shifting to the south east as the cloud cover thinned and lifted higher into the sky. The mood on the boat was positive and the crew were coping well without instruments, sailing to the tell tales and the feel of the boat under their feet. We could check our position on various smartphones hidden in dry bags around the boat but keeping a loose eye on the compass fitted to the bulkhead indicated we’d lifted and were making a good course.
This feeling of cautious optimism didn’t last long. At 1335 we had been required to standby the satellite phone for a possible call from the Race Committee. Over the last few years, the CYCA has been tentatively navigating a transition between using HF radio as the primary means of communication with the fleet and using more modern satellite communications technology. This year both systems were compulsory, and we had 2 position reports on the HF each day as well as a communications check in the middle of the day in which a random selection of boats would be called via the sat phone. However, our satellite gear was on the blink. Another victim of last night’s weather, the system was powered on but a message on the screen said the antenna could not be found. I glared at the big white dome on the pushpit that seemed so oversized on a 36-foot boat and switched off the circuit breaker for the satellite comms gear for the rest of the race.
Later in the afternoon of the 27th we were well south of Batemans Bay and had started the engine for another battery charge before the evening position sched. The ignition panel was only a few months old, but it had been flooded in the Cabbage Tree Island race a few weeks earlier. The tachometer died during that race, but a new one had turned up at the last minute and was installed just before this race. We’d been advised the panel’s days were numbered, but it would hopefully get us to Hobart and back before corrosion in any number of places inevitably took its toll. Consequently, it was not a total surprise when the engine alarm began blaring with that incessant monotone that makes you wince, and heads appeared out of bunks asking what the problem was.
The problem was that the panel and tacho were wet again and full of short circuits. The tacho needle was jerking around the dial, the displays were fading in and out and the various alarm lights were flashing off and on randomly, all while the alarm continued screaming for everyone’s undivided attention. Something we’d learnt during the recent dramas was that a working tacho was required to make the alternator charge the batteries… who would have guessed? Apparently, it’s not enough just to spin the alternator around using the engine. In this system, a signal from the tacho is required to wake up the alternator and direct charge to the batteries. So, no tacho = no batteries and now we could be in real trouble.
For the moment the engine was running, and the batteries were charging, but we could not leave the engine on for the rest of the race and if the tacho was dead, would the alternator kick in again next time we tried to fire up the donk?
All on board breathed a sigh of relief as we pulled the plug on the alarm, but what were we to do now?
We were abeam of Montague Island for the evening position sched and had only just come to grips with the fact that the magnetic compass on the bulkhead, such an intrinsically reliable piece of navigational equipment, had let us down. We had been on port tack for most of the day in winds that still had the power to force us up occasionally. Each time the boat heeled over and the bow fought the helm to port, the compass would stick at that more southerly heading, and only slowly return to its correct heading once the boat had borne away. We had fooled ourselves into believing the wind had backed and lifted us onto course, so instead of being off the continental shelf sailing a southerly course with the East Australian Current pushing us along, we were inside the current and closing the coast.
I felt like an idiot. If I’d had a good look at the chart on my phone, I would have realised we were coming in and that something didn’t add up, but I never doubted the magnetic compass. The sea, the sky, the wind and the compass had reinforced a hopeful interpretation of the forecast for winds easing and backing into the south east. It was obvious now that we’d screwed up and tacked in too early.
The position sched on the evening of the 27th reinforced our fears. Yachts in our division, and those of a similar size, who had stayed offshore smashed us between the morning and afternoon scheds. Love and War, Disko Trooper, Crux and the mighty Azzurro had pulled 20, 30 or 40 miles ahead in only 12 hours. While we were wallowing in the shallows, they were sitting in 2 or 3 knots of current which translates as pure VMG down the racetrack.
After broadcasting our position we shut down the engine not knowing if would start again, and as the sun sank into the horizon it sank in for us that not only were we short of nav, comms, and instruments, we were out the back door on the results page as well.
So, what do you think Felicity? Eden or Hobart?
The next morning we’d be off Twofold Bay and would have to make the decision. If the engine didn’t start, or if the alternator didn’t kick in then we were definitely out. It would not be permissible to pass Green Cape without those components operational, but even if they did work, we still had 400 nm of the race to go with limited water and not much to steer by except a dickie compass and the chook at the top of the mast.
Felicity’s opinion was carry-on and try the engine in the morning. She observed that the weather was improving, and we had just gone to Lord Howe Island with less gadgets than we had on board right now.
I think that was that comment that swayed me. We’d recently done the Lord Howe Island BBQ Cruise on the Farr 1020 Sequel which had nothing more advanced on deck than a chook and a compass. Other than that, all we’d required was a GPS, a pleasant weather window and a crew who had nothing they’d rather do than sail 400 nm across the Tasman Sea.
As the sun rose on the morning of the 28th we weighed up the arguments for and against. No light, sound or movement appeared from the engine start panel, but the buttons functioned so the engine started and stopped, and the alternator charged the batteries. We listened to the coastal waters forecast and decided that the pros were getting stronger and the cons were getting weaker.
The sky was clearing, the wind had eased, and our course was taking us east of Green Cape and Gabo Island. The crew were still smiling and had steered overnight without skipping a beat. Fresh water might still be an issue, but we reckoned there was at least 1.5 Lt per head per day in the remaining tank, and almost a litre of UHT milk per person once that ran out. It might be a dry trip up the Derwent, but we’d be unlikely to perish before the customary carton of beer was delivered at the dock in Hobart.
We had all the ingredients we needed for a lovely trip to Hobart. Structurally the boat was solid and undamaged, the crew was keen and cheerful, and we had a beautiful weather window ahead of us.
It would be madness not to continue.
Around midday on the 28th, Supernova reached close by Gabo Island with a clear sky, a full main, jib top and genoa staysail set. So, there I was as we entered Bass Strait, sitting in a puddle in the bilge drawing circles and arrows onto a hard copy of the BOM’s 4 Day Chart from the day we left Sydney. The HF Radio weather report for Tasmanian coastal waters areas was carefully transcribed onto the back of a soggy sched sheet next to me. I’ll make a salty ol’ seadog yet.
… and that was the end of The Hard Part.
Supernova made it to the Start Line and would go on to make the Finish Line early on the 31st of December. Felicity completed her 25th Sydney to Hobart and was recognised as the highest place female skipper achieving a 4th in Division and 13th overall – what a bonus!