The Good, the Bad and the Downright Ugly
Just after Christmas 2009 our family decided to go sailing once again after being land-locked in Darwin for 18 years. We had made a decision that we needed a boat and that we needed to become a sailing family and have some fun as work gave us all (me) rectal pains. I think I already had it in my mind that we would sail extensively but I had no idea what could happen, and what could eventuate with Chaotic Harmony and our family.
Within weeks of returning from a charter in Airlie Beach the gods of decision making lent a hand when we had narrowed our search to just three vessels with the first option being Chaotic Harmony, a Catana 42S performance cruiser berthed at Cairns. Plans were made to get there to have an inspection but were thwarted by a rampaging tropical cyclone creating mayhem just offshore so we cooled our heels till February of 2010. Luckily, she was still for sale and after a two day visit looking, sailing, talking and discussing all things multihull we ended up purchasing Chaotic Harmony and became quite good friends with her previous owners, the LeSueur family who had sailed her extensively throughout the Pacific.
We never did get around to even assessing the other two contenders as Chaotic Harmony was everything we wanted. She was fast, she was suitable for a family, and she was safe. We never felt threatened, a bit scared when she sped up to and over 20kts but never threatened. Most importantly she was very seaworthy and stable and had everything that beeped and flashed aboard that we would require in our ventures and most importantly, she had been a family boat for her previous two owners.
Chaotic Harmony had all the modern conveniences including two Volvo engines and sail-drives, three VHF radios, one MF/HF radio, radar, a brace of helm mounted chart-plotters and several GPSs. There was also a 120lph watermaker and a dual hot water system, fridges and freezers, liferafts and everything else that you could find in a list of must haves including a 640amp house battery bank. One of the best things we liked about Chaotic Harmony was her name, which describes family life exceptionally well so by popular vote the name stayed. Everywhere we sailed and everyone we met loved and understood the name and its implications and as a bonus we could all spell it phonetically; most of us anyway.
Chaotic Harmony at Morris Island and Gill taking a kayak before the storm.
When we first saw her alongside in Cairns, we had doubts that we could handle her; but she proved to be a forgiving lady of the oceans and also one that was fun and exhilarating to sail. She was light with a fractional rig and could pick up her skirts and chase the waves when and if required. Thankfully she put up with us and our novice multihull ways as she was a forgiving mistress and one that we could trust to keep us safe if the weather happened to head south which it always did whenever we decided to sail anywhere. We had never sailed big catamarans before and Chaotic Harmony was not exactly small so for the first few days we tried to learn all her intricacies, quirks and systems as we provisioned and prepared to leave Cairns for Darwin during the late wet season which was still very, very active.
While we were still alongside in a North Queensland wet season it continued to bucket down at every opportunity and was still pouring when we eventually left on what was to be a series of wet season adventure day sails until we were confident to tackle the Gulf of Carpentaria. The Pilot Charts had described a lessening of the northerlies and the weather bureau agreed so we waited a few days for the sun to appear to no avail but allowing us a breather to re-study the weather for a few more days and when feeling more comfortable about our voyage we set sail for the Low islets on March 30 heading out of the channel into a bevy of thunderstorms and 25kts of wind from the ENE. I guess we just refused to let the wet season dampen our spirits as we understand the weather reasonably well having studied it for decades and our passage plan now showed many alternates and options should the Coral Sea spew up a tropical storm or two. We also relished the idea of having a lot of anchorages to ourselves as we travelled north towards Cape York for the 1500nm delivery to Darwin. Most importantly it was probably the best way to understand our new purchase by putting her through our storm sailing tactics. Luckily Jo and I had plenty of heavy weather sailing experience, so it did not dampen our enthusiasm as we can react quickly to changing conditions and always kept a weather eye open. Our first sail was not about the weather; it was trying to come to grips with the hobby horse motion of a large cat in stormy seas in the shallow, confused seaway as we sailed underpowered untill we could control her easily.
Having decided to day-sail the Queensland coast in the atrocious weather that the wet season tossed our way we started our exercise routine of hauling up sails and then reefing them every half hour or so knowing that we would have these conditions all the way to Darwin. By early afternoon we were securely anchored within the lagoon at Low Islands feeling quite proud of ourselves at having made our first voyage on a large catamaran as a family, although I must admit to not sleeping that first night from the sheer excitement and exhilaration of the weather conditions and of once again sailing and with the knowledge that we were out there and doing it all again.
Getting ready for yet another storm.
The next day was another short sail complete with some beach-combing for left footed thongs on Hope Island before heading off into the GBR to Lizard Island for a few days relaxing as the sun began to shine with gentle trades developing. This was a warning to us as the upper level cirrus clouds were beginning to curve and scurry quickly towards the coast further north. This should not have been happening this late in the season and the only explanation was a tropical low forming to the north in the NE Coral Sea but when 24 hours later the wind increased with a bit more easterly we realised that the disturbance was not moving south but rather east towards the coast (Buys Ballot Law). So, with a sailors discretion we decided to wait it out at Lizard for another couple of days and saw no need to bolt south as it was moving quite quickly and when the winds went NE the following day that we were well away from its centre and quickly set sail for Morris Island with a good reach driving us along at 15kts but only after the Easter Bunny had laid his chocolates throughout Chaotic Harmony’s cabins. It was wet and windy once again but good sailing among the chocolate wrappers.
We sailed to the conditions as usual and tried to keep a course while working the sea in and around the channels and the wind to adjust our sail plan for greater comfort. Chaotic Harmony slaps a lot under the bridge deck in seas greater than 1m with a short period and at first it made us wonder if we had the right vessel. This slapping forces the whole boat to groan and complain which was scary at first but we eventually got used to the noise and the loose screws it entailed as the furniture on Chaotic Harmony is all screwed together and would loosen in wild weather while she flexed so it became the norm to inspect and tighten everything every few days at sea during daily rounds of checks and services as well as picking up and replacing the screws that had worked their way entirely out.
We dual anchored at Morris Island as we had done many times before, but this time in dismal wet season conditions with thunderstorms close by but we dinked ashore anyway before realising that we had not closed all the hatches. In true form the thunderstorms picked up speed and beat us back to the boat so we quickly learned how to dry our gear and bunks in a hurry with sheets and towels strung out on every lifeline between squalls. From Morris we continued north, stopping at Shellbourne Bay before changing our Passage Plan to make Gove the next stop as we had decided that with the weather still very unstable a second revolving storm was likely in the Coral Sea and we did not want to be around if and when it began to form. We sailed through Portland Roads in an electrical storm and rounded Cape York in driving rain with bugger all visibility before heading WSW, direct for Gove to arrive there a few days later on the 12th after a rather speedy crossing of the Gulf in half decent conditions.
The fun of the storm, we hit 25kts.
It is normally pleasant and easy to round Cape York but due to the currents, storms and lack of visibility we had to complete the exercise using blind pilotage techniques with the sonar and radar giving us fixes and the GPS giving us a position to plot to check our fix. In these situations the chart-plotter and GPS interface do not cut the mustard so between the lot of us, a set of tide tables and keen eyes on the radar and sonar we sailed past Escape River to transit Albany passage and then leaving Cape York to port before continuing down through Endeavor Strait where we briefly glimpsed the Yelubi Islands during some large lightning hits. This was our first sight of land since the entrance to Albany passage. Once clear of all obstacles we left the shallows with their currents, tides, reefs and sandbanks astern setting a course for Gove. This type of navigation is relatively easy if you are prepared. We could have just trusted the GPS plotter but this can be fraught with danger especially in such a current strewn area with potentially a lot of craft around. The method we used was to mark a series of ‘safe’ bearing arcs onto our chart from prominent objects that would be visible on the radar and then assigned Gill to ensure we never left the safe arcs. Knowing the tidal flow, Jo was on the sounder monitoring the depths while Adam, our mate and visiting crew plotted our position on the chart-plotter and compared it with the depths and safe bearing arcs to assess the current allowing us to make near instant course corrections. Gill also monitored the radar for other vessels that we had not noted on the AIS. All in all, it was a good exercise on team work and pre planning so we made the passage easily to burst into sunshine a few hours later as we cleared the straits.
It was pleasant to see Gove again and be back in the Northern Territory with an uneventful, quick crossing of the Gulf in light easterly breezes of around 12-15kts with sunshine, loads of humidity and the occasional afternoon storm. We had both lived and worked here while sailing through in Kajan in 1990 but it had changed far too much to have any appeal to us anymore even though some of the old crowd were back at anchor there after 20 years. A day and a good sleep later we made ready to haul the anchor and depart for the Wessel Islands when we had our first little problem.
Both engines were started and warmed, the anchor was raised, starboard engine engaged forward and port engaged in reverse when all hell broke loose with a large vibration from the port hull. The anchor was redeployed in a hurry and we realised there was an issue with the port propeller on the sail drive as all else looked to be okay. Diving to see what issue we had suffered was difficult as Gove is well known for large hungry saltwater crocodiles and bronze whaler sharks which constantly patrol the harbour looking for a quick feed. When we lived here 20 years previously on Kajan, dogs were taken and eaten on the beach so no-one ventured into the water here for very long (at least not without a dog).
Things could only get worse in 20 years with everything with big teeth now protected but we had no option and a very quick swim confirmed our fears that we had dropped a blade from the propeller hub on the port sail-drive. We had a pre-loved spare blade but we did not have the spare shaft that holds it in or the retaining grub screw but a quick phone call to Volvo in Brisbane saw it all resolved with DHL again gaining funds from us. The details and part numbers and even Volvo’s phone number were all found in Gavin’s maintenance logs and manuals along with all manner of written tips which we expanded over the years to include service details and part numbers as well as installation notes on every item aboard. We also modified our start-up routine checks to included testing the sail drives before raising the anchor.
Once the parts arrived it was time to dive again. We had considered running up onto the beach but it would have been difficult in the conditions with Chaotic Harmony having no keels to sit on and we had never beached before (on purpose). Visibility in the water was less than 1m and the propeller hub about 1.3m under the boat and to make matters worse we did not have any dive gear aboard and the job would take longer than I could hold my breath. I could have done it in stages but that would have risked dropping the parts into the mud a few metres below and the constant swimming would have created interest from our hungry marine companions so we dinked around and asked if we could borrow some dive gear. Bob and Colleen aboard Miss Behavin were accommodating but before tackling the job we practiced and practised making the repair in the cockpit with closed eyes assembling it all together in as small amount of time as possible. Once satisfied that it could be done quickly we rigged the hookah gear, tied a rope around my foot so Jo would have something to inter if it all went pear shaped and made an entry in the log in a shaky hand to remind me to order hooker gear as soon as possible. It all luckily went without a hitch leaving us with only a minor vibration from the port hub as the blades were slightly unbalanced but it was enough to get to Darwin and I did not feel like taking the whole hub off and trying to get the blades an even shape and weight.]
Getting ready for a dive at Lizard Island with a few mates.
At 0700 on the 16th we were able to raise anchor and zig zag our way past the wrecks of vessels littering the harbour which had been caught out at anchor or mooring in a cyclone the previous wet season. Once clear we made all sail towards the Wessel Islands passing through the gaps in the English Company islands with an intended destination of Gugari Rip or ‘Hole in the Wall’. This leg of the voyage was our best sail to date with CH reaching up the coast at 22kts with the starboard hull slightly lifted out of the water in a moderate easterly breeze of 18kts. Lots of fun in a small beach cat but scary in a large cruising cat so we lowered the hull by easing the main traveller to port allowing us to keep the speed in the smooth water on both hulls. Gugari Rip is a very narrow and at times shallow passage between Raragala and Guluwuru Islands and is best transited at slack tide if you like to maintain control of your existence.
Not wanting to spoil a good sail we arrived to early so continued north to pass Cape Wessel to port before changing course to the west. There is a beautiful bay on the west side of Gulgari Rip where we had anchored many times in Kajan and we were thinking of sailing back for a stop there but work was getting anxious with several “Where the bloody hell are you” emails and school was due for the kids. We did think about it though and reluctantly decided to continue on towards Darwin for what we thought would be a very speedy trip. The wet season had other ideas and the monsoonal trough began forming again with the wind dropping to light north westerlies. We drifted and motor-sailed when the conditions allowed across the Top End of Australia to Cape Hotham and passed through the Dundas Straits to enter Van Diemen’s Gulf. This little patch of water is not a great place to be in the wet season or in any season for that matter, but better than an extra several more days sailing right around Melville and Goulburn Island.
Van Diemen’s Gulf is a notorious piece of water with strong unpredictable currents, shallow water that is littered with reef systems that seem to pop up everywhere ready to snare the unwary and unworthy. The shallow waters and choppy seas gave Chaotic Harmony a bad motion as she yawed and hobby horsed around so Gill placed a mattress on the cockpit floor for a better sleep. This was something he had been doing since we rounded Cape Wessel with no issues until the gods of shitty weather decided otherwise. Around 0300 we arrived at a point about 10nm east of the entrance to the channel between the Vernon Islands preparing to alter course and reset our sails in the light breeze. There was no indication of any inclement weather when a rather large, sudden and previously quiet thunderstorm popped overhead with 40kt gusts catching us with a full set of only slightly reefed sails and delaying our transit.
The seas became very confused, very quickly as we were drawn into the cell with seas breaking over the stern as well as the bow and on both sides while we lowered the main to her third reef, and furled the genoa to attempt to regain control. It was akin to being in a washing machine and during a lightning strike to port we noticed Gill, still sound asleep and floating around the cockpit on his mattress oblivious to all the fuss. The cockpit was well drained but we were taking in a fair bit of water as he floated and bounced from port to starboard and back again. We managed to turn into the seas where we lost our windshield and canopy to the wind and waves before the storm dissipated as quickly as it had come leaving us to clean up the mess while we walked around Gill who was still fast asleep.
The remainder of the trip was thankfully uneventful and we anchored the next morning outside of Cullen Bay marina before taking her through the lock gates into our berth to find notification that our new hub had arrived as well as the 12V hookah gear we had ordered in Gove. There are reportedly crocodiles in the marina waters but I thought they would be pretty well fed with the amount of fish in the marina but it still felt a bit dodgy as we fully replaced the old hub and all anodes in what was a record time under water again.
Chaotic Harmony moored at Cairns ready for departure.
I went back to work, the kids went back to school and the voyage began to fade into memory as we worked to get Chaotic Harmony ready for weekend sailing adventures. Updating equipment and manuals, checking, rechecking, servicing and pulling stuff apart so I knew how to service it and fix it if it broke as well as lowering the waterline with several cases of amber nectar for emergencies. At least I had the lists and got back into the habit of keeping several diaries and logs, with maintenance tasks, lists of items to get, items used and ordered and jobs to complete that are all dated and compiled. This was a habit I kept and is one that I will always keep.
Logs give handy historical memories and one day in the marina as I was reading the log of the last venture I realised the port engine had suffered several ‘no-starts’ over the last few weeks and that these were becoming more prevalent. I imagine it was a bad connection in a relay somewhere, but everything that could be bolted onto this engine had begun to fail and needed replacement. The purchase and delivery of spare parts for Volvo’s requires an armoured car to take you to the workshop due to their prohibitive expense so our search for new engines began. I could do most of the work but a repower would need a fair bit of assistance as the old engines would have to be completely disassembled and the new ones built from the mounting block and sump up. My research led me to purchase two new Yanmars 30hp diesels from a supplier in Singapore and we arranged a yard with labour in Phuket, Thailand to assist in the task.
As the next west season kicked in we checked out of the country in November for the last time enroute to Singapore via Ashmore Reef with a plan to continue onto Phuket in the New Year and their dry season. Once again we were sailing into the cyclone season but this time with armed pirates, and that is another story.