Going Solo to Southern Port Phillip

I’ve always liked to go places on boats. Like a lot of sailors I enjoy racing round the can’s or sharing a leisurely random return sail with family or friends out into the bay as time and weather allows. However, for me there’s something added to the experience if there is a destination involved, other than the one from which you left. Perhaps this started way back as a kid, reading the book Swallows and Amazons (Auth: Arthur Ransome), about a group of kids who sail their dinghies to an island in the middle of a lake where they make camp and all sorts of adventures ensue. Or maybe it was just hours of sailing up and back along the shores of Raymond Island when learning to sail in the Gippsland lakes, whilst longing to go to the opposite shore to just “check it out” (to which our Mum made us swear not to do, due to lack of rescue boat should things go awry).

  

So, when some extended leave from work and a visit for our three young kids to the grandparents coincided in January this year, what else was there to do but go somewhere in the boat. With my wife and most other friends back at work however, I would be doing this on my own. Our Nova 28, ‘Nova Seas’ (R648), is very manageable single handed and so having read many accounts of intrepid solo sailors over the years, I actually looked forward to seeing how I would find it solo, so this proved a great opportunity.

Nova Seas has taken our family of five, on some great adventures over the past year, albeit very close to home (think Docklands, St Kilda, Portarlington etc.) as well as providing some winter fun via the Brass Monkeys. So having some time to explore further afield was extra enticing.

I set my sights on exploring the southern end of the bay where, having spent time in Sorrento where my mother lives, I’ve witnessed the sparkling azure blue water and Mediterranean like climate (o.k. on a nice day). How could you not want to take your boat there? It looked like I would get a four day window for the trip which, weather pending, seemed enough to hop around to a few southern bay destinations such as Sorrento and Queenscliff.

The weather forecast for the period looked reasonable, a scorcher and light northerly to start with, followed by a day of two of southerlies, with things predicted to get more boisterous late in the week with a stronger front approaching. As such, I decided to head to Sorrento first, with the aid of the northerly and then hop across to Queenscliff and back to Willy via Portarlington with the southerlies.

 

Having topped up fuel, water and provisioned, I set off under power from a rapidly heating up Melbourne in little to no wind. I was pretty excited to be finally getting away for my first real solo sailing adventure.

However, it was not long before I Already had company. To my surprise, I found an amateur Drone was shadowing me for a period off Pt Gellibrand. It followed at a short distance emitting a faint, but annoying buzz. This wasn’t my idea of sailing solitude, so short of a better idea and seeing it seemed to have a camera honed on me, I pulled out my camera and aimed it back. This resulted (coincidently perhaps) with it aborting its mission to ruin my peace and quiet, as it buzzed back shoreward to its invisible pilot. Regardless, decided to take credit for scaring off the would-be voyeur.

It would be another couple of hours before the breeze rose to a point where sails were effective. With the aid of the autohelm, this allowed me to tidy up down below, do a quick radio-check with coast guard Melbourne (5x5!) and get the kettle on for a cuppa.

A breeze eventually filled in from the south east and I was able to raise both headsail and main. By this time I’d also come to a point where I needed to decide which route to take through the shallow waters at the southern end of the bay. Having made good time I opted for the West Channel, so I could check out Pope’s Eye (a man made, horsehsore shaped feature remaining from an early fortification of the bay) enroute, I’d read about but never visited. The breeze reached 10 knots at best, but on flat water and with an assisting current, the sail down the channel was magnificent. On approaching Pope’s Eye, it pretty quickly became apparent that the same calm weather that limited my sailing time so far, had drawn a healthy crowd of snorkelers and divers to Pope’s Eye to enjoy the popular underwater attractions. So I limited my visit to a low speed “drive by” under power, which was enough to see the attraction with a very protected small lagoon for power boats and crystal clear water. There was however a healthy current passing through so, leaving a boat unattended for a quick dip was out of the question for me.

So Setting a more easterly course I made for Sorrento. I had previously read that up to 8 Parks Victoria moorings are now available just east of the Sorrento Ferry pier, with some differentiation for the size of the vessel. On arrival I was pleasantly surprised to find that I had my pick from three that were vacant. These were located on the seaward side of the mooring area, so were subject to some current and whilst still reasonably sheltered from the W through S, the fetch to shore could make it a longish row (or wet ride if using outboard) to get to shore. It was great to arrive after long but enjoyable day, taking about 7 hours to cover the ~35 NM.

Keen to stretch my legs onshore, I inflated the 2.4 m Zodiac in the cockpit and launched it over the lifelines by hand. Manageable, but will use a halyard next time to save my back! Any casual observer would have thought I’d had a long liquid lunch by the track of my rowing to shore, however I’m assured by others more experienced than me, that any flat bottomed inflatable is a fickle beast to row and so experienced cruiser, would judge me for my snaking path to the beach that afternoon.

With the help of Google, I was easily able to communicate my mooring location (see Pic) to my Mum and Step Father, who greeted my on the beach with a cold beer (I could get used to this!). These guys are experienced cruisers themselves having completed a circumnavigation of Australia in 2008-9 in their Seawind 1000, Amazing Grace. The evening was picture perfect, with families enjoying the late afternoon glow in the protected clear waters. So we joined them with fish & chips, our discussion ranging from family goings-on, cruising, boats and their pending decision on whether to sell their cruising cat for more land based activities or to set off for one last adventure to Tassie. I suspected I knew the answer. Two months later and as I write this, they are cruising south, just past St Helen’s.

After a relatively restful night and getting through large chunks of a book I’d had on the go for too long, I headed back to shore to pick up the paper and a morning coffee along with a few groceries to jazz up my meals for the next couple of days. My “muscle” had also been requested during dinner last night, to help lift out a fuel tank that needed replacing on Amazing Grace. So after a relatively straight line return to Nova Seas in the zodiac, thanks to a nice a nice tail wind, I headed round to Sullivan’s Cove and rafted up alongside Amazing Grace, sitting on her permanent mooring just west of the Blairgowrie Yacht Squadron and the new Blairgowrie Marina.

To digress quickly, I almost fell overboard yesterday when I called the Marina to enquire about the potential for a berth for the night and was told the fee would be >$100/night (closer to $140 from memory). Yikes! Even use of the clubs jetty for an overnight stay was going to cost the same. This was obviously so called “Peak” pricing but, alas, the marina certainly didn’t look full from a distance and no wonder given the charges.

After the quick chore of lifting out the corroded aluminum tanks and a post job cuppa, I said my good byes and cast off. Next stop, Queenscliff. Being single-handed and having no experience in these waters, I wanted to keep things as manageable as possible. So I had checked the tides and consulted with the very helpful staff at Queenscliff Harbour to arrive at the Queenscliff cut in benign conditions around slack water. I enjoyed a relatively quick sail across, reaching under headsail only. In fact I had to slow down as we made short work of the 6 NM passage, (an unusual desire for me) to time my arrival between two ferries, an important consideration for arrival or departure at the cut. Having not visited Queenscliff before by sea, I opted for the certainty of and advanced berth booking within the Queenscliff Harbour versus the other two good options of visiting the Queenscliff Cruising Yacht Club or using one of two Parks Victoria public moorings. I’d been e-mailed my allocated birth in the Harbour earlier, which I found easily and following a couple of attempts at a stern in approach, the current in the harbour and Nova Seas’ lack of steerage in reverse, I settled on nose in and would walk her round later to make departure trouble free. Destination number two successfully achieved!

After checking in at the Harbour office, and re-positioning the boat, I set off to explore Queenscliff on foot. I basically did a walking circumnavigation of town, taking in the Queenscliff Pier, Pilot Station, Fort and the great Lookout through the Rip back along the shores of Swan bay, and past the QCYC. During this I found the numerous informational signs and boards a great way to learn about the history of Queenscliff. This was also a unique experience, having the time to stop and read such things, as they’re not usually of interest to the rest of my family when travelling!

During the walk my phone rang and it wasa n old work colleague calling from Abu Dhabi, where he lives with his family. They are Iraqi’s and given the situation with ISIS in the Middle East, have finally given up their dream of re-settling in Iraq, which they left during the first Gulf war. It highlighted what a small world it is given the ease of this communication, but also how fortunate we are to live in in a place of such peace and freedom. I’m glad I was out there making the most of it!

Back at Queenscliff Harbour, I took advantage of the great bathroom facilities with a nice hot shower before preparing my evening meal aboard of beef rending and glass of red (or two!). A peaceful nights sleep followed in the protected harbor, despite the strengthening southerly.

The breeze abated overnight and so the only factor influencing my departure time was the flow rate out of The Cut. Preferring to do this at a time when it wasn’t “running” too quickly, dictated a mid day departure based on the tides. So I had plenty of time for a leisurely breakfast and more exploring. This included going up the “viewing tower” adjacent to the ferry terminal which provided a commanding view of the Harbour, The Cut and Port Phillip heads. It seems an extravagant construction, however given the free entry and views, who’s complaining!

   

My aim for the day was to head round to Portarlington via Coles channel, which is about 16 NM. Having consulted both my paper and electronic (Navionics on Ipad) charts and “Creeks and Harbours of Port Phillip” book, I was happy that Nova Seas relatively shallow draft (1.4m) would be fine through here and staying closer to the coastline would provide more interesting scenery. It turned into a fantastic sail up the channel under full poled-out headsail and main, with a 10-15knot following breeze on a flat turquoise sea. I kept a close eye on the depth sounder and the shallowest section experience was ~3.6m across St George’s bank at approximately low tide. There was a southerly running current for most of the trip up the channel of between 1-2 knots at times, but despite reducing out SOG, didn’t cause any other issues. As we passed by, I noted that given the depths, St Leonard’s could be a possible short term stop-over point in the future for us. There was one yacht at the pier as we passed.

On arrival at Portarlington, I was interested to check-out the progress being made on the new “Safe Habour” project. If possible, I planned to berth in the habour or if not, anchor off the beach to the west of the harbor as we had done previously. So on arrival and entering the habour slowly under power, I noted that the primary break waters of the habour looked near complete however the main new arm (I believe intended for commercial use initially) was still under construction and cordoned off from vessels. As in the past there is still a section of the old internal arm available for short term public berthing (barge boards needed). I had plenty of daylight left and wanted to take advantage of the clear water to give my hull a quick scrub, so headed back out and anchored off the beach. The bottom scrub was well over-due so was a more exhausting effort that anticipated, however meant I felt I’d well and truly earnt my sun-downer.

Having alerted some of my Geelong based family of my plans for the day, my sister, brother-in-law, niece and nephew were fortunately able to join me for a pleasant evening meal and fun conversation out on the boat. In fact, my sister had joined us after having stepped straight off the Ferry from The Docklands, which she used that evening to commute home from work. It sounds like a great alternate commuting option for those on the Peninsula, particularly when the seas are smooth as they were this day. As the dusk ebbed into early evening, the time for my visitors to depart had come, but rather than multiple return dinghy trips to shore (my rowing hadn’t improved that much!) we up anchored and I dropped my guests back on the pier. It was one of those magic evenings on the water and I can’t think of many better ways to spend an evening.

In the mean time, I was aware that a cold front had been slowing crossing the west of the state and with it, significant wind and rain were predicted for the following day. After a quick tidy up after dinner, I was able to check the situation more closely. It appeared that the front was due to arrive in the early hours of the morning with a prediction of strong west to southwesterly winds. This wasn’t great for my beach anchorage and getting a peaceful nights sleep and the prospect of a wet and cold sail home the following day wasn’t appealing. So I opted to head-off to Williamstown that night, which by now meant around a 10pm departure. However evening was mild, with little breeze and a clear sky, so I enjoyed some star gazing until cloud cover began to spoil the party. It is about a 4hr trip for us under power (~19 NM). The first couple of hours were on a relatively flat sea. It unfortunately became very rolly thereafter, as we approached the top end of the bay, due to a residual southerly sea on our starboard quarter. I unfurled the headsail for a time to reduce the roll, but the light easterly breeze was not really strong enough to provide much benefit. It was otherwise a quiet night on the bay in terms of other vessels with limited shipping traffic to observe to the east and having only passing one commercial fishing boat. So, plenty of time for a red and some reading between watch keeping.

Just before 2am, about a mile out from the Point Gellibrand light, the front eventually caught us, with heavy rain and a blustery west to south westerly wind. Having seen it coming on the radar, my wet weathers were on and hatches closed. My main concern was entering our berth at the RYCV, single handed, with the new wind strength and direction. Our berth currently only has a single stern pile which makes arrival with a strong south westerly tricky on your own….If you don’t get that stern line on first go, the chances of kissing the pier are high! Waiting for things to abate or picking up the Parks Vic mooring near the river mouth were alternate options, but I thought I’d go in and check things out first, fenders deployed, but be prepared to abort if I wasn’t comfortable. In the end, I berthed uneventfully with just a bit more muscle and speed of action required than normal to avoid adjacent boats and dock. I was however, soaked to the bone by this time, my wet weathers finally reaching their use-by date!

After securing mooring lines and a quick tidy up, I fell into my berth, tired but excited to have completed a wonderful few days of exploring our great bay. The wind strength held for much of the night and following morning, as did the rain. So I was glad to have returned when I did, missing most of it.

Over the past few days, I got a taste of what the Bay has to offer those of us fortunate enough to have a vessel on which to enjoy it (big or small). Doing this solo (albeit no Jessie Martin like achievement) and also into an area I was not familiar with, meant I was busier than normal (ie. less reading and fishing than planned) with route planning, weather/tide checking, keeping watch etc. despite the auto helm doing a lot of work. However this added to the satisfaction and meant there wasn’t much time to get lonely.

As I started with, it was particularly satisfying having visited some great new destinations (for me) by sea on this trip. Meeting and sharing the experience with loved ones at a couple of these places along the way was the icing on the cake and all together convincing me that the next trip must not be too far away!

 

by Tim Hart - “Nova Seas” R648