Our course was set to Coff’s Harbour and a berth awaited Ellie at the international marina. It was 1.30pm when we crossed the Richmond River sand bar. We had lost valuable time. Ellie cruises at 8 knots and we had many hours ahead of us. I had planned to reach Coff’s Harbour around midnight. The entrance to Coff’s Harbour is not as hazardous as crossing a sand bar so a night arrival would be safe.
The weather helped us for the first 4 hrs. Our effort in crossing the Richmond River sand bar was rewarded by a north easterly swell pushing us South. Our average speed was a nice 10 knots as Ellie surfed the swell. Our next challenge was awaiting us however.
VHF Radio Problem
I had been using the VHF radio to maintain contact with maritime rescue services. I found I could transmit messages but could not receive them. Marine rescue were no doubt concerned. Fortunately, as a back up I had logged our passage and essential vessel details with Marine Rescue NSW via their ‘App’, they could track Ellie. But a broken radio is not fun.
The weather was turning and the wind from the South picked up making for a tricky situation of wind against waves. As darkness fell it became increasingly difficult to maintain ease and flow of steering with Ellie being pushed and pulled by the conditions. We were 6 hours North of Coff’s harbor. It was dark and the conditions worsening. I made a captains call and told the crew we were going to move to my plan B. Sailors always have a plan B. Mine was Yamba. Problem was the entrance to Yamba’s safe harbor required crossing another sand bar. A prospect that brought anxiousness. A night time crossing in overcast low light with worsening sea conditions from the South was not ideal. This leg of the journey was no high tea cruise on Sydney harbour.
The crew were quick to agree about heading to the mighty Clarence River entrance and Yamba. They saw the sense in that. I consulted the chart and entrances to the Clarence River which leads to Yamba. I needed to know what lights to look for that would ‘lead’ me over the sand bar and into the narrow 100 metre entrance to the harbor. The Clarence River spills out silt and sand that forms a horseshoe shaped sand bar to the middle and South of the groins. I saw Ellie needed to approach from the north east keeping the sand bar to her port side (left) whilst lining up two lights that were deeper in the throat of the channel
I steadied Ellie and lined her up. Her crew keenly peering into the dark to pick up the lead lights, they had to be perfectly lined up one over the other to ensure Ellie was on the right path to safe entry. Well before the sand bar was on our left I saw the lights and positioned Ellie for the harbor entrance.
I heard the surf breaking over the sand bar before I saw it. There was silence in the wheel house, life jackets on. I patted the dashboard of the wheel house and asked Ellie to take us to safety. Due to the low light I couldn’t see waves or from where they were coming from, I focused on keeping Ellie lined up with the lead lights ready to ease the throttle as waves impacted us. I felt the first wave lift up Ellie’s stern, her nose dipped as she started to surf down the face of the wave. I instinctively backed off the power, balancing throttle I needed Ellie to stay ahead of the wave the wave without finding the back of the wave in front. There is a real danger for Ellie as a stern driven vessel in white water of breaking waves making the rudder ineffective and she could be turned side on and rolled over. Over the next 20 seconds I balanced power and helm as Ellie surfed over the sand bar. It felt like poetry in motion but it was tense. Ellie had caught the perfect wave for us, in the dark and in the wind. Directly ahead of us was the entrance groins to the Clarence River. We entered the channel the breaking waves reduced to swell and Ellie slipped gracefully deeper into the channel. The torches of the fishermen welcomed her in. It was a little surreal, this calm water seconds after a little madness.
Safe Harbour at night
I welcomed the smooth water of the river channel as Ellie followed the blinking runway lights of the channel markers. We dropped anchor and cracked open the beer. I felt our crew needed a distraction. The passage to Yamba had left the crew and Ellie’s skipper emotionally drained. We had a broken radio that required repair and we had a crew that needed to rest. Safely at anchor we watched a game of AFL and enjoyed a hot meal from Ellie’s generous galley.
As Captain I just didn’t know if we should keep going. We were exhausted, the crew was not 100% well and the weather was against us in the coming days. We needed to regroup. My wife was worried at home. I needed a new plan.