Australia, Destinations, Oceania, Sailing

Avalon Spirit’s First Passage

Avalon Spirit finally splashed (was put back in the water) exactly a week ago, on Tuesday September 6th. We had really, really hoped that it would be much, much sooner than this, but, as I’ve already said, that was not to be. Instead, we had a month of the purchase process and weeks on the hard, but that fateful Tuesday they got the new rudders on, lifted her up, and carefully lowered her into the water with Kane, myself, and a lovely man named Brett Hodder on board. See, when we offered on August 3rd, we thought we’d have lots of time to get comfortable maneuvering Avalon in the marina before having to do something as nerve wracking as backing her slowly away from the barnacle encrusted pylons of the haul out facility. However, due to a bit of luck and the kindness of the sailing world, Brett, a very experienced yachtsman, was at the helm as he talked us through what was happening and guided Avalon to her first safe berth under our ownership. I cannot understate how grateful I am for Brett’s help. He taught us so much and made a stressful process manageable and safe.

Splashing Avalon

So how did we get so lucky? Well, a few weeks before I had asked the Women Who Sail Australia Facebook group if anyone had suggestions for captains in the Mackay/Airlie area who would be able to do some training with us on Avalon and Brett’s name came up multiple times. We got in touch with him and he was happy to do some training with us, but as we didn’t have possession of Avalon at the time he offered to show us his boat, another Seawind 1160, to give us tips on how to set up the boat. Before that evening we were strangers, but despite that, he gave us two hours of his time and insight free of charge, honestly I think simply because he loves Seawinds so much and wants others to love them too. That night, riding back to shore in the semi-deflated charter dinghy he borrowed to get out to his, immaculate, personal boat, I was convinced, this man was our guardian boat angel.

After the slightly disconcerting process of dangling a 10.5 ton fibreglass object above concrete, Brett helped us tie Avalon up safely in the Coral Sea Marina, a beautiful, but expensive marina in Airlie Beach. At this point it was around noon and we needed to get as many things sorted as possible onboard for Brett to come back that afternoon to help us do some sorely needed docking practise. This was just the beginning of the mad rush of packing, unpacking, cleaning, sorting, fixing and way too frequent purchasing of things that was our first week as sailboat owners, but we kept going and had the boat ship shape enough for when Brett came strolling down the dock that afternoon.

Avalon Spirit in the travel lift ready to go back in the water.

For all the non-sailors out there, docking and maneuvering your way too expensive fibreglass asset in a crowded marina is one of the single most terrifying parts of sailing for beginners. Most people assume that the danger is out at sea, and yes, if you’re really going to stuff something up and die, maybe that is more likely out at sea, but those risks are actually quite small and mitigatable if you are good at your navigation (way easier now than in the pre-GPS era), know you collision regulations (hereafter referred to as col regs because I’ve become infected with the Aussie desire to shorten everything), heed the weather (forecasting is also much better these days), and make sensible, conservative sailing decisions. These are also all the things you get to practise a lot when sailing on other people’s boats (as we did in Greece and around Australia) and during the sailing courses that we took. However, no matter how many sailing courses you do, it seems like the minute fibreglass meets concrete, most owners want to be at the helm; which makes a lot of sense as this is where expensive damage is likely to occur. Due to this tendency for captains to takeover in marinas, this was our biggest gap in both knowledge and comfort with the whole sailing thing – how to get Avalon safely out of and back into a berth without causing pricey damage to either her or the other million dollar plus boats next door.

Thank God for Brett Hodder.

The hours he spent teaching us how to safely approach the dock, how to lasso the cleats instead of having to jump on the dock, and how to bail if the approach went bad made me so much more confident. Kane was at the helm and I was at the lines (we’ll swap in time, but right now we both just want to really solidify our learning in these areas) and Avalon was not harmed. Phew. That first night onboard in the marina I slept like a rock. I was bone tired from all the go-go-go of getting Avalon ready and now, thanks to Brett, I could breath a little easier when approaching a dock.

Learning the Lines

The next morning (Wednesday September 7th) we were up early again, though Kane was up even earlier as the poor man had to get up at 4 am to drive our car to Mackay and bus back so that when we left that evening for Mackay (that we would reach in two days of sailing) we would arrive to our car waiting for us. This vehicle leap frog was a symptom of the crunch point in our plan, Kane’s impending knee surgery on Tuesday September 13th. We needed to be back on the Sunshine Coast no later than Saturday September 10th for Kane to have enough time to get ready for surgery which, due to the aforementioned delays, meant we could only get Avalon as far south as Mackay – 75 nautical miles south of Airlie Beach where we took possession. That meant we had only three nights to actually sail our boat for the first time, due to the delays with the rudders we forwent a sea trial in favour of $10,000 off the purchase price, and leave on our first solo passage ever. To say I was nervous is an understatement. The day before we were frantically driving around buying accumulator pumps, replacing bad lines (this is nautical speak for ropes), sealing leaks, cleaning, cleaning, cleaning, and so much more that I’ve honestly forgotten what we actually did, it’s one big blur of work. I actually got so tired and overwhelmed that I broke down in tears in the car outside of the marine supply store.

“I can’t do this. This wasn’t the plan. This wasn’t the dream,” I sobbed as I clutched our new accumulator pump. “We don’t have enough time,” I cried to Kane before, embarrassingly, calling him a slave driver for trying to keep to the original plan of sailing Avalon to Mackay ourselves. This original plan involved leaving her in the Mackay marina for a week while Kane got surgery then, once he was safely 24 hours out of surgery, I’d fly back up to Mackay and sail Avalon all the way down to the Sunshine Coast with an experienced delivery captain that we were put onto by Brett.

I was scared we were moving too fast, that we weren’t being conservative, and I was sad, so sad, that due to the fact that it took more than ten months to buy a boat, that we would have to leave her for a few months nearly as soon as we bought her as we needed to go work for a bit to refill the sailing kitty. It was not my finest moment, but I think it bears a mention here to show the reality of doing something like this, of how it is not all sundowners and sunsets, there are tears and stress and shit literally pouring down the side of your beautiful new boat…but we’ll get to that later. Kane and I are adaptable and resilient and I am so proud of how we’ve been able to roll with the punches and take the opportunities that arise, but I would be lying if I said there wasn’t a cost to this life of uncertainty and sometimes, that cost is stress and tears. So, after I stopped blaming Kane (this is my personal growth area), we came up with a plan. I would post on Women Who Sail Australia to consult the brain trust of experienced women sailors on the site to see what they thought and to see if what we were trying to do was just scary because it was new to us or if it was scary because it was stupid and dangerous.

Turns out more than 85% of the women on there were extremely supportive and encouraging. The other 15% said we were idiots for sailing to a schedule (not the plan or our choice) and that it was a recipe for disaster, but that’s to be expected when you ask questions online. The majority of women had such helpful insights into good anchorages, the weather forecast (which was superb and the main reason we chose to go ahead with the passage), and how to do what we needed to do safely that I was blown away. The support of strangers online, combined with the support of the sailing community in person, and my unflappable, rock of a husband, helped me realise that we could do this, that I could do this. I wasn’t worried about the sailing, that was the part we’d practised a lot, and if the wind didn’t fill in or if I got worried we could just motor. It was that final comment from someone that cemented it for me, that we’d owned motor boats before so we were comfortable motoring if need be and that Avalon’s extra size out at sea would be an asset, unlike the liability it felt like in a marina. So, after a whole day of sailing with Brett and his partner making sure everything on Avalon was in working order, we dropped them off at the public dock, waved good bye, thanked them profusely (and gave them thank you beer), and motored out to the anchorage off Airlie for our first night on the hook (more nautical terms – this one means being at anchor).

I slept a little less soundly that night, but that was to be expected as it was our first night at anchor. We’d upgraded Avalon’s anchor to a extremely reliable and popular Sarca Excel 5 and her chain was replaced only a few months before by the previous owners so our ground tackle (the anchoring equipment) was good, but we were the weak links in this equation and I was worried we’d mess something up so we set two anchor alarms despite the calm winds and tried to sleep. Every hour or so, I woke up, checked the alarm to make sure we hadn’t dragged, and occasionally walked around the deck taking bearings of the boat’s around us to extra confirm our holding. By the time the sun rose I was less than rested, but feeling more and more confident in our ground tackle and in our skills to anchor successfully, yay! Though, we did not have much time to celebrate as it was now Thursday September 8th and we needed to be in Mackay by the 10th so after a quick breakfast it was time to weigh anchor (pull up the anchor) and head out to sea.

Anchoring is nerve wracking at first, even if it’s somewhere as beautiful as Brampton Island.

Airlie Beach to Brampton Island

A Smelly Situation

This was our longest leg of the passage as we wanted to make as much southing (nautical way to say distance covered in a southerly direction) as possible while the winds were easterly (winds coming from the east) enough to actually sail. We left Airlie just after 7:30 am and got into Brampton Island at about 4:30 pm for about 9 hours at sea. We sailed for a few of those hours, but soon the wind dropped and shifted southerly so we were forced to motor to make the distance we needed to. “This is a delivery” I had to remind myself as we dropped the sails and resorted to the engine, sailing the whole way would come later, with practise and time. The day passed in a blur of whale sightings, charter boats cutting across our bow (aka not following the rules of right of way), and shit.

What do I mean about shit? Well, long story short sailboats have toilets on board (called heads in sailor speak) that are connected to holding tanks so there aren’t an unsightly floaters in pretty anchorages and crowded marinas. Avalon has holding tanks so we thought it was fine to use the toilets. We were wrong. See, the previous evening as we were happily calling friends to tell them about the anchorage I complained to Kane, “What is that smell? It smells like shit in here.” Kane dutifully sniffed, walked outside, and said, “No it mustn’t be us, because it smells out here too.” Happy with that assessment of the situation, that the smell was not coming from our boat, we went back to our phone call and put the smelly situation out of our minds. However, things would escalate the next day when, as I used the starboard (right side of the boat) head while underway, Kane saw brown water shoot out the side of the breather hole for that tank .

Discussing the matter, Kane decided that the previous owners must have somehow rerouted that head from the black water tanks to directly overboard. We resolved to not use that head until we could sort it out in Mackay then Kane headed forward armed with a broom and a hose to de-shit-ify our poor Avalon, who had been unglamorously wearing shit smears across her starboard bow since last night. Oh god, I thought in horror as Kane scrubbed to poop off Avalon, we were the smelly neighbours in the anchorage. Not exactly the look I’d wanted for our first night on the hook, but hey, shit happens.

Once Avalon was all cleaned up we kept going, keeping watch, adjusting sails, and playing with the AIS to see who was around us (short for Automatic Identification System, a cool bit of technology that allows us to see the name, length, speed, and course over ground of the vessels around us equipped with AIS). Then Kane had a thought.

“Hey babe, what if the tanks are full and the head is still connected to the tank, it’s just overflowing?”

“No, it couldn’t be, they wouldn’t leave us their literal shit…would they?”

“I don’t know, I’d hope not, but it’s either that or the toilet isn’t connected to the tanks and that’s not brilliant either.”

So down Kane went to release the tanks (after googling to figure out how far off shore one must be to release black water tanks legally and respectfully in the Whitsundays). He started with the portside (left side) head and asked me to watch for anything coming out.

“I couldn’t really see anything,” I yelled to him while peering into our decidedly normal, sea water coloured wake.

“Okay, go to starboard, I’ll try that one.”

Mere moments after he said that a torrent of brown sludge emerged from our starboard holding tank and continued for a disturbingly long time. It look like a blue whale had shit behind our boat.

“Holy shit!” I yelled as the muck streamed passed. “They left us week’s old shit!” At this Kane hurried up to observe the damning evidence.

“Oh god, they did.” He shook his head in horror and disappointment, “That’s messed up.”

We could do nothing, but laugh in disbelief, shake our heads, and get back to sailing. Could our purchase experience get any weirder?

The celebration of our first sail by ourselves, wine at anchor off of Brampton Island.

A Glimpse of Paradise

Luckily, the beauty of Brampton Island more than made up for the shit on the way there. The next morning, after another successful night at anchor, we lowered the dinghy, started the outboard, and went to shore for a quick explore before we had to head off again to make Mackay. It wasn’t far to Mackay, only 20 nautical miles, and there wasn’t a breath of wind so we knew we’d be motoring anyway, thus it didn’t really matter than we got off a little later.

Once we stepped on shore, the sun shining on the serene turquoise of the bay, I breathed out all the stress that had built up from the weeks of offering, getting ready, buying, and learning. My shoulders relaxed as we walked hand in hand down the yellow sand beach, admiring the mangroves, and spotting baby black tip reef sharks hunting little fish in the shallows – this was the dream, this was what I was waiting for. Alas, we were only to have a glimpse of paradise as we needed to get into Mackay well before dark to give Kane and I lots of time to safely dock Avalon for the first time completely by ourselves. So, with one last look and a promise to return next season, we weighed anchor again, turned on the motors, and headed out across a glassy sea to our final destination in Mackay.

The beauty of Brampton Island definitely reminded us why we are doing this, this is the dream.

Brampton Island to Mackay

A Busy Port

This final day of the passage was a short 3 hour motor that had me on watch the whole time while Kane had his head stuck in the engine bay trying to figure out why the water maker wasn’t working (spoiler alert – they had turned it off at the breaker). It was a gloriously glassy day of easy motoring spent spotting more whales and occasionally entertaining myself by dancing around like an idiot in the cockpit. The most eventful part of the middle passage was navigating the small shoals that dotted the route from Brampton to Mackay, but as it was glassy and our draft was well shallower than any of the areas we passed over (we draw 1.1 metres) I wasn’t worried – though it would have been a lot hairier going over those shoals if there was any real sea state going on, even on our glassy no wind, no swell day, there were still rolling, wave like ripples where the deep water met the shallower water.

That all changed when we approached the entrance to Mackay Marina.

Things started getting stressful again when I noticed some ships sitting around the entrance to the marina on AIS. I’d read that it was mainly a commercial port that simply tolerated recreational vessels so I expected some shipping traffic. Upon further investigation the vessel sitting outside the marina was Alam Seri, a tanker waiting for tugs and a pilot boat to take her into port. Alam Seri was moving at 5.5 knots…exactly the same speed we were going, expect that it was our motoring speed and her trying to not move speed (tankers can get up to 25 knots, which is bloody fast and given they are massive, you just stay out of their way). I noted her position and kept an eye on the situation. We were still about 45 minutes away from the entrance to the port, but I was getting a little worried as I had no desire to get up close and personal with a tanker on our first entrance to an unknown port.

Five minutes later we were still on a collision course, confirmed by AIS and visual sights so I called Kane up to the helm.

“We need to divert around her stern,” I said, showing him our distance to Alam Seri.

“Hmm, we’re still a ways out, let’s hold course for now and check again in 10 minutes.”

I may or may not have grumbled and lost a wee bit of my cool when ten minutes later we were still on a collision course. “We need to take action, she’s still moving at 5.5 knots and we’re headed to the same place.”

“Okay, let’s drop speed and wait until she enters the harbour.”

I sighed with relief as Kane dropped the throttles down to bring us to a bobbing around 1-2 knots while we watched the tugs tie up to Alam Seri and guide her into the port.

In hindsight, Kane’s decision to wait to assess the slowly unfolding situation was the right one, but I’ll be honest, it did nothing for my nerves; though it did probably save us the additional hour it would have taken to divert around Alam Seri’s stern (back of the boat), which would prove important in allowing us time to dock and check in at the marina before they closed at 4:30 pm.

Our Docking Nightmare

After Alam Seri was safely into the port, I tied our fenders and mooring lines on, donned our Bluetooth headsets that cruisers call marriage savers for their ability to let you calmly communicate with your partner from any part of the boat without having to raise you voice, and Kane slowly motored Avalon into the Mackay marina.

We’d called ahead multiple times to try to get an answer on where we’d be tying up, so we could prepare as much as possible, but they kept putting us off. “Don’t book,” they said, “it’ll be fine,” they said…well when we finally got ahold of them while heading in they told us to dock alongside the wharf at the cyclone damaged section. Not knowing any better this didn’t ring the alarm bells it should have. The lady on the phone told Kane he’d have to drive between the pylons as the normal arms of docks were lost in a cyclone last year. He told her that we had a catamaran with 6.5 metre beam (the width of the boat) and that we were new and nervous. She assured us this would be an easy berth.

She was wrong.

When we got to the section she spoke about it became very obvious that either she had no idea how wide catamarans actually are despite us telling her or she thought we had Brett’s skills in docking. To dock Avalon where we were allocated I needed to swap the fenders and lines as it was a starboard side tie up rather than portside as I’d set up and Kane would need to thread our brand new to us boat through more barnacle covered pylons with menacing steal bits protruding from where the cyclone ripped off the marina arms. Then once in he’d need to immediately turn Avalon on a dime to drive forward and tie off alongside. There was a monohull sailboat in front of where we were to go and a big, flashy fishing yacht behind the spot. There was no room for error.

Thanks to our marriage saver headsets we were able to communicate calmly through all of this, assess the situation, discuss comfort levels, and make a plan. We decided that it was not a safe spot for our experience level and Kane held Avalon in place with the engines while he called the marina to ask for another berth. A different lady answered and said, “Oh of course, there’s a much better spot available in W41.” Both of our shoulders sagged with relief at hearing this and we continued on to W41, a blessedly normal marina berth in a back in, starboard tie up position.

At this point we were both very ready to have Avalon safely tied up, but we still had to actually get her into the berth first. We both took deep breaths, I spoke words of encouragement to Kane through the headsets, and we were headed in when a nice man from a boat down the dock saw us, probably noted the tension on our faces, and offered to grab our lines for us. I said, “oh please yes, thank you so much!” and this kind stranger, Phil was his name, gave Kane tips about which engine to use when to back Avalon into the berth with no damage to any fibreglass or pride.

We Did It!

It wasn’t pretty, but by God we did it. Once the dock lines were made fast (secured to the cleats on the dock), we cheered, hugged, and congratulated each other on a successful and safe first passage. Yes, we’d motored more than sailed and yes, another kind stranger had helped us into the dock, but still we’d made it, we navigated Avalon Spirit 75 nautical miles, anchored over night twice, and docked her without damage. I was so, so proud of us then. I was proud of myself for conquering my fear and tackling the passage, I was proud of Kane for keeping calm while the docking nightmare unfolded, and I was proud of us for communicating well through all of it and acting like a team. Yes, there’s room for improvement (we did have a little squabble about Alam Seri), but when there wasn’t time to do otherwise (like when the docking situation was unfolding) we worked together to get Avalon safely into port and that, more than anything else, gives me confidence, because if we can rely on each other at these critical times, then we will be able to manage any situation that arises so much better.

Sitting here waiting for Kane to get out of surgery I can’t help but think how lucky I am to be having this adventure with him, my logical, steadfast, kind, wonderful husband. He has dove head first into boat life (literally in the case of the engine bay) and I know I can count on him to be my problem solving partner throughout everything that we will face on the water. Sailing with your significant other isn’t easy, there are many stresses and squabbles, but I can’t imagine doing it with anyone other than him.

7 thoughts on “Avalon Spirit’s First Passage

    1. Thanks for the comment and the validation of our choice to bail, coming from an experienced cruiser like yourself it means a lot. And I really can’t overstate how awesome those headsets were!

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