Sometimes a journey is not about the destination but about the decisions along the way.
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The tangy smell of the salt laden breeze combined with the late afternoon muting of colours surrounded the sparkling cockpit, housing bedraggled crew. Singular faceted thoughts bounced between the new paint and virginal winches. Our Skipper’s attitude and conversation contained sprinkles of sarcasm and heavily laced wit. Did this cover his fear that had every right to grow to mythical proportions? When he spoke, we listened, his voice betraying the awkward combination of conviction and caution.
“I think we’ll abort the trip to the Wooden Boat Festival in Hobart.”
Jock Muir, unknowingly, is responsible for this cocktail of sailing sensations. Mr Muir’s first boat “West Wind” was now the proud owner of Chris Dicker, truck driver, yachtsman and boat builder extraordinaire. Built in Battery Point (1935-1937), West Wind is a large bite out of Tasmania’s history. A 36’ Huon Pine, double ender. Originally a ketch, and now a sleek (and practical) cutter rigged sloop.
The year West Wind claimed Chris’s heart was 1999. Against his cognitive brain urging “keep away” his heart fell, hook, line and sinker for this abandoned piece of history. “The decks sagged beneath me the first time I stepped on board.” Chris remembers with the self-depreciating smile that has been somewhat earned. “The vents and windows had been shut for years, so I was greeted with the acrid stench of fungus and decay. Clearly some one had disappeared up to their armpits through the cockpit sole at some point.” He laughs now, shaking his head (what was he thinking?!). He goes on to explain how the furniture was pure pulp having been under water for sometime and could be scooped away by hand.
Myopic goal amongst goals
The Hobart Wooden Boat Festival was galloping nearer. Chris and his courageous wife, Gilli (non-sailor) had their hearts set on taking West Wind home where she was launched in 1936 at Constitution dock. Moreover, they buoyed hopes of meeting folk that may remember and share West Wind’s beginnings.
Have boat will work
On January 2nd 2007, after eight years of restoration they launched West Wind at Kurnell in Botany Bay. Just a few weeks before, blessed with good weather, they had only just finished re-caulking the entire hull, applying the putty, coat of primer and anti-foul. As the gleaming hull slid back into briny the dried timber planks gratefully swelled culling all leaks bar one tiny drip, within just 48 hours.
Two weeks before heading south to the notorious Bass Strait, the thought of a shake down cruise before this renowned piece of water was cast, some would say foolishly, aside. However, let us not judge this Skipper, not yet. Within those weeks, the furler, boom, anchor chain and locker were fitted and internal ballast added (1 tonne). These were just some of the multitude of jobs; the ‘to do’ list never loosing its legendary length. Chris cemented the lead in under the mast step, which meant mixing cement ashore then carrying it in the dinghy to the boat via buckets. The solar panel frames went back and forth on an extended cruise trip via dinghy, until perfection. “It’s stupid doing your lolly” said Chris as I raised my eyebrows with his vivid descriptions of getting the job done, “you just look at what needs to be done and get on with it.” Gilli smiles and adds, in her charming Teutonic tones “don’t forget, we also fitted the waste tank, all the plumbing, the gas, stove and water tanks.”
Gilli adds further insight to the mountainous work to be completed in little time. “Chris and Noel Parry (helper/crew/friend) were talking everyday on the phone until Noel offered to come and help.” She explains, “Chris was so positive, I didn’t think he was talking about the same boat when talking to Noel, I even thought of ringing Noel secretly to make him aware of the actual situation!”
Gilli admits that she is new to sailing and the boat just looked a mess and the never-ending path of weird words was completely daunting. But Chris’s fortitude, positive thinking, and motivation must have been injected from syringes the size of bicycle pumps. His love of a neglected beauty was admirable, – tick tock, the clock moved on. The window to reach Hobart and the Festival was slowly closing.
Eating late each night, Gilli supported Chris and his dreams. Painting, sowing lee-cloths, shopping, washing, cooking, but maybe more importantly being a staunch ally, keeping humour and simply being a good mate.
“It was terrible” the West Wind team say almost in unison. But they look at each other and smile, it’s funny how those moments can make you or break you. On West Wind – it made them . . . . . The night was dark and stormy, 25-knot winds curled around their ankles and ruffled their paint-dappled hair. The first mooring allocated was too shallow for their two-metre draft. While water seeped into the dry timbers, the tide lowered and their brand new boat leaned precariously to one side. “I thought we are going to sink from the top!” said Gilli. At 21:30, at high tide, as the mud realised them, they dropped the mooring. On a vessel that had never been under their command, inviting ignorance and intrigue, they made their way to another mooring. “The howling winds and tightly packed boats meant I had to ensure that we had somewhere to “fall off” should we miss the mooring,” remembers Chris. Which, indeed they did. The boat hook finally gave up leaving Gilli to hang over the side of the cockpit with only the toe rail to grab, to try to reach the mooring. The mooring grabbed Gilli and in she went. Chris was alone, within the pitch black. With super human strength that people find in adverse conditions, Chris reached down to the water and hauled Gilli back on deck as if he was plucking a rose.
Gilli too, without need of dramatics, simply found herself sitting, dripping on deck “How did you do that?” she asked, before picking herself up. Accompanied by bruises, she reached down again and collected up the mooring. Tomorrow the sharp realisation of injuries would arrive. Chris shakes his head and peers out to the horizon, “it was a comedy of errors, but to think how serious that could’ve been . . . .”
Just fourteen sleeps until the festival starts. Noel spends a week helping the preparation. Running back stays chain plates, tennis balls on solar panels (head softening devices), life ring mounts, winch for reefing line, fixing leaks in hatches (rain tested), port hole gaskets, lee-clothes fitted, sheet winches mounted, all reefing gear on sail, spinnaker pole mounting on mast, spinnaker pole cut to length, running blocks for sheets and on it went.
The day before leaving, friends arrived in droves and crawled over and around each other while fixing navigation lights, the compass, the compass light and VHF. To aid the frantic activity, their beautiful teak tiller, yet to be pinned, had wriggled loose, disappearing over the side, creating a rather important, additional job.
The DAY they LEFT – the cupboard doors were fixed, catches in place (no time for all catches, Gilli still uses the drill for the ones that are screwed shut!), turning blocks for reefing lines, all running rigging and the tiller was painted(!) The very first time the sails were hauled was as they left Botany Bay. Bound south to pick up their next crewmember, aware of the harsh reality of inevitable slow shrinking of diminishing time.
As if there was not enough chaos, West Wind’s (and Gilli’s) maiden sail was from dusk till dawn. Neptune’s heart went out to the tenacious team and a fifteen-knot north easterly breeze stroked the brand new sails, propelling the fine hull, slicing the water as a butcher’s knife. The (new) tiller’s paint was still tacky and without autopilot, when you were on the helm you were stuck there, so to speak.
First port of call
Crookhaven welcomed them in with a calm dawn and flood tide. Their next crewmember joined in the fray of celebration. Void of beer, the party consisted of mounting the autopilot, fabricating a makeshift dodger and another coat of paint on the finger-smeared tiller.
Paces, pleasure and ease
Now with four on board bound for Eden, we could put West Wind through her paces. And like a pure thoroughbred she extended her proud head and streaked through the waves as if they were mere ripples. As the GPS flashed eight then nine knots, Chris could not rein in his prideful smile. Wherever Jock Muir roams, he must have felt the same pleasure rush through his veins. The Wooden Boat Festival was in sight.
A southerly change predicted our stop in Eden and our battle with time, testing, and troughs was on. The engine over-heating alarm burst into the peaceful putter of a happy engine. With a quick recce resulting in shrugged shoulders, this was solved by disconnecting the critter. The small leak was expunged by the automatic bilge pump, but the hourly kick-in was down to seven minutes. That was pumping seven litres, every seven minutes. Not to be deterred the team set off in a southerly, hoping the northerly change would be speedy. West Wind stretched her fine legs and we tacked down to just 18 miles from Cape Howe Point. Disaster Bay on our right was starting to seep into our thoughts. West Wind heeled over at 45 degrees, and the sailing became hard. Chris became quiet. “I had to think of everyone” he said, about his crew. “As well as West Wind.” The small problems were culminating into a bigger one. With speed made good at 2 knots, it meant Bass Straits would play host to West Wind for a week.
The decision was with the Skipper, the crew could just offer support. With a jolt of disappointment, we turned back for Eden. Other wooden boats carried on in their tried and trusted boats; familiar with their vessel and knowing its capabilities. Their engines were in full demand, at least for the start of the trip. West Wind’s 18 HP Bukh was not made to handle hours of hard work, beside a fault needed investigating. Returning to Eden the weather was watched, felt, breathed and snorted, it was analysed to within an inch of its life. As if adding salt to the wounds southerlies were predicted for the whole week leading up to the start of the Festival. The team were disappointed, but all tinged with relief. Bass Strait is not a stretch of water to tango with.
The return trip from Eden to Ulladulla was fraught with black squalls against the coal night. The seas were lifted wholesale, straight out of the “perfect storm”. Going to the loo, leaning at 45 degrees, meant that the muscles clenched bought a certain dimension of challenge to anything else you planned to do there. The spinnaker pole fitting started to pull lose and the mast track was bending.
Let us judge
So now, perhaps we can judge. ‘Turning back’ are two words that as a sailor do not bother me. But I have come across a startling number of sailors who would not consider this an option. To me, (and the crew of West Wind), the decision to turn back was the brave decision. It is a success, not a failure to understand the strength of the oceans and unpredictability of such places as Bass Strait, say nothing of self, crew and boat preservation.
Cancel all adrenaline driven timetables. Chris and Gilli (now seasoned Sailor) could replay the bad luck and become bedevilled by disappointments, but their Aussie stoicism has no room for breast beating and wailing. Sailing is a fate cast in a game of chance, there was just too many knowns, unknowns and too little time.
As the mist of the vanishing evening extends in both time and space, swallowed by the horizon into the timeless grey of dusk, I ask Chris what’s next. Again, he stares out as if searching the future for the answer, “just time to enjoy my boat.”