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Lexcen 40 - We Get Our Own Boat
1999 was also the year Alan sold Carillion, which led to me jumping ship, and the start of a big step up in my yacht racing experience. I had sailed on Seaduction once before when Alan ‘sold’ me for the day. The owner of Seaduction was in his eighties, with a plastic hip and a walking stick, but had two exceptionally good sailors amongst his crew. Both of them were named Bob. I immediately christened them the ‘Two Bobs’. Any Australians who were around before we had decimal currency will get this. A two-shilling coin was colloquially called “Two Bob”, and there were joking connotations made about the usefulness of anything that cost so little. Even amongst themselves, the Two Bobs were B1 and B2 from Bananas in Pyjamas.
This particular day neither was available and old Bill was telling Alan about it. Alan offered me to help out. To this day I still don’t understand why I was required. The crew number aboard was adequate for a Wednesday afternoon fun race, and enough of them knew the boat. Anyway Bill must have thought I had some uses as he asked me to join on a regular basis when Carillion was sold.
Trevett Wakeham (Bill) Cutts was an amazing man. Trained in law in Victoria before the depression, he joined a law firm that could not afford to keep him during those times. He then had his own business until WW11. He was sent to Malaya with the rank of Lieutenant in the Australian Army. He ended up in Singapore where he penned a letter to his mother. “I am in Singapore. The place is a shambles. There is no chain of command. No one knows what is happening. But don’t worry mother. This place is impregnable.”
As the Japanese were overrunning Singapore Bill did the only thing any self respecting Australian Army Officer would do. He joined the Malayan Navy. Not only did they allow him to keep his rank of Lieutenant, they gave him a boat. Hence Bill made his way back to Australia.
He then joined the Australian Foreign Diplomatic Service and held several overseas positions including Australian Ambassador to Indonesia. He was also in Canada and South Africa. He has photos of his children sitting on the knees of Nikita Khrushchev while in Russia, and he was also in Pakistan. When he was in Pakistan he went away on holiday for a week, and when he came back there was East and West Pakistan. Oops. Didn’t see that coming.
After owning his own law firm again he retired to the Sunshine Coast and became more involved in boating, particularly yachting. He regularly cruised the Queensland coast, and was still competing in Brisbane to Gladstone yacht races until the year before I met him.
It was the Two Bobs who taught me more about sailing than anyone had to date. Fine tuning sail trim, race start strategies, race strategies, best use of boat equipment, and general seamanship. As well as fun sails we did longer day and night races. Then I was brought along to sail in Hog’s Breath Race Week. This was a regatta held in the Whitsundays in August each year. We did ok, but nothing brilliant. After race week, one Bob and I took Bill for his annual cruise to Port Douglas. I then found out this special treatment for me was because One Bob was going cruising in his own boat, and Other Bob was joining the crew of a specialist race yacht. I was being groomed to take over as sailing master of Seaduction. Seaduction was a Northshore 38. A production cruiser/racer built in Australia. Although the Two Bobs had ‘souped her up’ with some modifications that would have raised the eyebrows of her original designers.
The cruise north to Port Douglas opened my eyes and my heart to the cruising lifestyle. On land there are so many things to be ever mindful of. Rules, regulations, timetables, other people. Out there the only thing to worry about is staying safe. Not too hard with a little care and forethought. I was shown many delightful anchorages, and learned a lot more general seamanship and care for the ocean environment. I also learned a lot more about the habits of old Bill. Because he had spent so many years in countries where he ate lots of curries and other hot spices, he could not taste anything unless it was laced with chilli. Like most elderly people he also did not eat huge meals. When we ate out at yacht clubs etc. I would go to the counter and order my meal, and a child’s meal laced with chilli sauce for Bill. When he cooked on the boat his mashed potato looked like mashed pumpkin.
I stayed aboard Seaduction for about a year until old age and infirmity got the better of old Bill. He sold Seaduction and bought a forty foot power boat. The cockpit and companionway of the sail boat had too many obstructions for Bill to cope with any more. The Ocean 40 named Moose, had two open flat decks with only an easily manageable stairway between the two for Bill to negotiate. Moose also had an interesting past. She was originally owned by Rex Mossop, who played Rugby League for Australia, and later became a leading commentator.
I was without a sail boat again. This was eased when I joined the crew of a thirty-foot Sparkman & Stevens designed Defiance owned by Arthur Hodge, who is still my sailing mentor to this day. Arthur and Val were the second and sixth owners of Crackajack. From Melbourne they competed in her until they sold her, retired, and moved to Queensland. They cruised the coast in other boats for some years, and then settled down in Mooloolaba. Crackajack with her fifth owners came to Mooloolaba. When these owners decided to sell her Arthur bought her back. Arthur has a wealth of knowledge for sailing. He has competed in fifteen Sydney to Hobart races, and is often called upon still to join the crew of boats competing in offshore races, usually as navigator. His skills as Principal Race Officer are called upon every year for Hamilton Island Race Week, and most of the championship Etchells races at Mooloolaba. This very serious class of boats claims such competitors as John Bertrand and Denis Connor of America’s Cup fame. Last year Arthur was presented with the Services to Yachting award in Melbourne.
After having got used to the Two Bobs on Seaduction, there are three Johns on Crackajack, and a Ray. The five of us compete so regularly that in a series of races decided on consistency, we habitually win. Because of lawyers and insurances, club sanctioned fun races are not started in any wind warning by the Met Bureau. Warnings start at 25 knots. We usually go out anyway by ourselves, or in the company of other boats to ‘cruise in company’. How else do you learn to cope with adverse conditions that may occur while you are out on a passage?
After having two boats sold out from under me I discussed with Eileen the possibility of buying our own. Eileen only likes to race with a cup of tea and a scone at hand, but she loves the cruising life. With the only pretext from her being that anything less than forty foot was a dinghy, we started looking. The first step is usually to go through the ‘Book of Dreams’, otherwise known as Trade-A-Boat magazine. We did this, and contacted several yacht brokers. After many months of looking we had not found any vessel in our price range that we both liked enough to buy, so we booked another charter in the Whitsundays.
My crew this charter consisted of only Eileen and Ryan. Ryan’s girlfriend Vickie had suffered tremendous family misfortune through several tragic deaths. She was very depressed and confused about life in general, and Ryan and her had separated. When we arrived at Shute Harbour it was raining. The boat we had booked was a forty foot monohull. It was tied up to a pontoon that had the wind and rain sweeping crossways across the deck and cockpit. The cockpit awning was obviously inadequate. Eileen looked forlorn. I approached the office staff and asked if there were any other boats that we might upgrade to. They showed us a 34 foot catamaran that was on a swing mooring. Because of this she was laying to the breeze with the huge indoor/outdoor patio completely sheltered. We took her.
The next morning we tried to sail her south-east to Shaw Island. The wind was coming from the south-east at about twenty knots. Even with both 10HP outboard engines running, it took most of the day to get there. I knew from watching catamarans at Mooloolaba that they could not point as high up into the wind as monohulls, but this was ridiculous. We were forced to tack so many times at angles greater than 100 degrees that we covered more distance sideways than forwards. During the rest of the week we noticed that with the wind coming from across the beam she was quite adequate. With the wind directly behind us she was hopeless again. I decided I could not put up with this in a boat of my own, and so scratched catamaran off my list of possible purchases. This will probably bring howls of protests from catamaran owners so I will be fair and say that there are catamarans of different designs that are far more sailor friendly. This was just not one of them. I have catamarans back on my list again today if we ever sell the monohull we now have. Other than having a huge open living space, the advantages of catamarans is that while they have a ‘different’ motion at sea, they do not lean as much as monohulls, they can get into much shallower anchorages than keelboats (indeed it is accepted policy to beach them, especially if caught during a cyclone), and on a beam reach (the sailor’s favourite; gentlemen sailors don’t go to windward) they are generally quicker between yacht clubs.
|Mieke as I first saw her|
Not long after our return home I noticed an advertisement to sell a Lexcen 40 moored at Pittwater in Sydney. Ben Lexcen was the designer of the America’s Cup winning Australia 11, with its famous winged keel. As a matter of interest, that winged keel probably had very little to do with her winning. There were other features of her design that made her the superior boat. It just took a few races before John Bertrand and crew worked out how to sail her best.
I flew down to Sydney to inspect Mieke. She was certainly beamy, forty foot long, but fourteen foot wide. It was like having a catamaran anyway. The shipwright inspection showed she had a few small defects that needed righting by the present owner, but I decided that otherwise she was well worth buying. For a boat originally launched in 1987, the new 50HP Yanmar diesel had only done 300 hours, the rig was new three years ago, and the shipwright was muttering and making notes about extra strong hull, bulkheads and flooring. I figured anything else was incidental, and could be fixed if and when it failed. How little did I realise how soon that might be.
A purchase price was struck and Mieke was ours. We have never liked the name, but have never gotten around to going through the name changing ceremony required to prevent bad luck befalling her and all those who sail in her. Mieke is a Dutch girl’s name, and the previous owner told me she was named after his wife. Interesting. On the registration papers she was transferred from a lady named Anna.
Despite not upsetting King Neptune we had a bit of bad luck on our way down to collect her. For crew I had Other Bob, Ryan, and a friend of Bob’s, Marie-Louise. Eileen was too busy with work, and didn’t feel like such a long, probably non-stop delivery anyway. I hired a Toyota Tarago van to take the four of us and all our sailing gear to Sydney. In central New South Wales, at about one o’clock in the morning, we hit one of the biggest kangaroos I had ever seen. It took twelve hours before they brought us another van on a truck and took our first one away.
Just before dusk, from the marina at Royal Prince Alfred Yacht Club, we motored down Pittwater before we hoisted the sails and set out past Barrenjoey Head into the Pacific Ocean. Let me give some advice to anyone buying a boat. I unfortunately was not aware of this principle beforehand, but it will certainly figure in my calculations of the price I am prepared to pay for any future vessel we purchase. By all means use a valuer’s estimation for the hull and rig, but any and all electro-mechanical items should be depreciated since the time of their installation by 10% per year of their current replacement price. The difference between their depreciated values and their current replacement prices should be added up, and the total should be taken from the purchase price of the boat. Read that again if you wish, because as sure as night follows day, these electro-mechanical items will fail and have to be replaced proportionally to their age. In other words, if they are more than ten years old, consider them not there. I may even increase the 10% depreciation figure. Today’s equipment may have more features, but they seem less reliable.
The first thing to fail was the auto-pilot. Unless you are racing, helming is fun for only about the first ten minutes. After that you kick in the auto-pilot, and kick back in the cockpit. I found out later from the Australian distributor that the particular model we had was designed for a 6 tonne boat in partially smooth waters. Mieke weighed 10 tonnes, and although the weather was fine at the time, the auto-pilot was obviously the victim of old age burn-out. I have since installed an autopilot that was designed for a 20 tonne boat anywhere. During the delivery and over the next few months I also discovered that the following items had to be replaced. The electric bilge pump and its float switch, the electric wind speed and direction instruments, the HF radio, and the electric windlass for winding up the anchor chain. B.O.A.T. stands for Bring Out Another Thousand, and yes these items are expensive. Thankfully the rest of the boat only required the regular maintenance every boat needs.
During the second night the weather turned unfriendly. This was May, which normally produces westerly winds that would be wonderful for us. The winds we got swung around to the north-west, which meant they were on our nose, the slowest and most unpleasant point of sail. We had to beat to windward, the curse of the gentleman sailor. To further hinder us there is an ocean current that travels south at about two to four knots just off the coast. If we tacked too far out to sea to avoid the worst of the breeze we were in the strongest part of the current. If we tacked too far inshore we hit the shore. The wind piped up to 25 knots, and even with the 50HP diesel ticking over in gear, Marie-Louise calculated that in 9 hours we covered 11 nautical miles. It was also freezing. We heard later that it snowed in Sydney.
As dawn broke we were cold, tired and sick of it all. We had split into watches of two persons for three-hour watches. Bob, the most experienced, was with Ryan, the least experienced. I was with Marie-Louise. We had been hot-bunking in the two aft cabins when off watch. It was too difficult to stay in bed, much less sleep in the owner’s forward cabin, because of the action of the two and a half metre waves we were bouncing into. Hot-bunking is when as one person gets out of a bunk to commence watch, the relieved crewmember crawls into the still warm bunk. Also the two aft cabins were either side of the engine bay, which provided additional warmth for the crew person sleeping in each.
We were just abeam of a fishing harbour called Crowdy Head. We decided to go in until the weather turned more clement. The prevailing winds along the eastern seaboard of Australia are south-easterlies, the trade winds. Therefore most man made harbours allow for this. Crowdy Head’s rock wall entrance was facing north-west. Luckily the northern beach was not far away so there was very little fetch to the waves that were coming in the entrance. We made it safely and looked for somewhere to tie up. All the best spots were taken. The only place we had available was at the north-western end of the jetty, which put us closest to the swells coming in the entrance. The jetty was a fixture for tough timber fishing trawlers with strong rubbing strakes along the sides of the boat. This allowed them to ride with the swells and tide up against the jetty pylons. Most yachts, especially GRP (Glass Re-enforced Plastic……Fibreglass) ones, tie up to marinas with floating pontoons so rubbing strakes are not necessary. We had to make do. While Marie-Louise and I manoeuvred our fenders with the swell action to keep the boat away from the jetty, Bob and Ryan went looking for something that would do for a fender board. They brought back a railway line sleeper. That would certainly be strong enough. Two fenders were slung over the side of the boat at the mid-section. The sleeper was slung over the outside of them. This allowed it to ride against the jetty pylon. By tying our fore and aft lines judiciously, we kept the boat lying parallel to the jetty. Now that everything was secure we all just slept.
Next day the wind had swung back further to the west and reduced in strength. Taking our railway line sleeper with us just in case it might be needed again, we set sail north for Coffs Harbour. We didn’t need the sleeper here. Coffs Harbour has an excellent marina with many convenient shops and facilities within an easy walk. We then heard the weather forecast saying there was a gale warning issued. A gale forecast is for expected winds between 33 and 40 knots. Not friendly.
At this time of year along the NSW coast, weather patterns called East Coast Lows, or East Coast Bombs, can form quickly. It was something similar which hit the 1998 Sydney to Hobart race fleet with those tragic losses. There are several places to shelter along this part of the coast, but unfortunately they are all rivers with bar crossings that are extremely dangerous when the sea is raging. You have to be inside before the weather turns nasty. We decided to stay snug as a bug in a marina.
Next day the low had not eventuated, which is not unusual, and the warning was dropped. We set sail north again. Two glorious days and nights later we were abeam the Southport Seaway, a man made entrance to the Southport Broadwater. This is also a bar crossing, and it was low tide. The best time to cross any bar is the last two hours of a rising tide, but the seas were calm so we motored between the rock walls into the sheltered broadwater, and on through the channels to Moreton Bay.
I can still say truthfully to this day that I have never run aground by accident! I have always known it was likely to happen! Mieke has an advanced warning system in that the depth sounder sounds an alarm if it registers less than one metre of water beneath the keel. I also keep a good check on the charts.
If you are ever boating in shallow waters, make sure you do not run aground at high tide. You can be there for a very long time. In fact at an astronomical high tide when the sun, moon, and all the planets and other space junk line up, you could be there for 64 years before another one. We started motoring along the shallow channels at low tide just after the start of the rise. Perfect. Yes we touched a few times, and twice we got stuck, but with a rising tide you grab a beer and wait a few minutes and drift off again.
As the sun was setting we exited the channels and sailed across Moreton Bay towards Mieke’s new home at Moreton Bay Boat Club’s marina in the Scarborough basin on Redcliffe Peninsula. With a reaching breeze Ryan held the honours of top speed of 8.6 knots before we tied up in our pen. We chose to keep Mieke at Scarborough because it is closer to where we live than Mooloolaba. It is also closer to the local islands whereby we can be anchored off Tangalooma Resort in a few hours, or easily spend a few days in the southern part of the bay.
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