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My Double Trans-Tasman Solo Challenge

On the 13th March 2018 I departed Hobart, in Tasmania, Australia on my Beneteau 44.5; Ocean Gem and sailed her solo across the Tasman to New Plymouth in New Zealand arriving on the 21st March. On April I departed New Plymouth with 5 other competitors in the 4-yearly 1,380nm Solo-Tasman Race to Mooloolaba, Queensland, Australia arriving on the 10 April finishing 3rd across the line and 1st on IRC (Handicap).

Check out the highlights, lowlights and lessons learned in my 2018 Solo Tasman Yacht Race Challenge on my Beneteau 445 called Ocean Gem. The 1,502nm race took me 10 days and 55 minutes to complete.

Run every 4 years since 1970, the Solo Tasman Race is the second oldest solo race on the planet. It’s across a piece of water that can be nasty to cross on a bad week.

The annual SYC race to Julian Rocks, Byron Bay March 2016

Yesterday saw Ocean Gem compete in Southport Yacht Club's Annual Julian Rocks Race. This race starts of Main Beach, near Southport on the Gold Coast in Queensland, Australia and heads 42nm south to Julian Rocks, a landmark off Byron Byron in New South Wales, which we leave to starboard, before returning the 42nm north to the finish line.

The race starts off Main Beach (Southport) in the North and heads 42nm south and around Julian Rocks off  Byron Bay (red marker) then home to the finish off Main Beach.

The race starts off Main Beach (Southport) in the North and heads 42nm south and around Julian Rocks off  Byron Bay (red marker) then home to the finish off Main Beach.

In 2014 and 2015 when we competed in the winds were N-NE, resulting in a fast and enjoyable 6-7 hour downwind sail to Julian Rocks and then a long 12-13 hour uphill sail against both wind, swell and prevailing 1-1.5 knot southerly current.

Upwind sailing with our old dacron cruising sails (including a furling genoa) had always been our weakness. We could not point well upwind and performed even poorer in 15+ knots as soon as we had to start reefing our main and partially furl the genoa. In 2014 our elapsed time was 19.5 hours and in 2015 we completed the Julian Rocks race in 18 hours in 10-15 NE winds and no swell, versus the 20 knot northerlies and 2-3m seas the year prior. This year with new carbon racing sails, we were excited about our potential to perform much better than previous years.

This year the forecast was for SE 14 knots for our race start at 0700, easing progressively to ESE 8-10 knots later in the day. Research on, (which I rate really highly) forecasted that the change to ESE would have already happened 10nm offshore by the time the race started. Our east coast Australian current flows from north to south at 0.7-1.3 knots inshore and steadily increases as you head further offshore. The most I have experienced is a 3-3.5 knot current 30-35 nm offshore, which adds a hell of a lot to your boat speed if you are heading south with the current.

Yachts headed out through the seaway to the start line about 6:30am. Fourlove and Race Control in foreground

Our initial heading to the first waypoint would be 150 degrees, off the start line to Point Danger at Tweed heads, before altering course to 167 degrees the rest of the way to Julian Rocks, off Byron Bay. The gamble we decided to take off the start line was to head east on a heading of 090-100 degrees and head at least 10nm offshore until we found the ESE breeze (left hand shift), so we could tack onto the lifting breeze before the rest of the fleet and head directly to Byron Bay in stronger current. We had a good start, off the pin end of the line and headed east on a starboard tack. The fleet of 12 competitors followed us off the start line, but one by one over the next hour, most tacked back onto a course of 190-200 on a more direct course to the next waypoint and by heading back inshore toward the coast. 

The fleet heads off the start line to windward of Ocean Gem. Leeway was our target to beat on left.

When you make a decision to go in the opposite direction to most of the fleet, it takes courage to stick with your convictions (or stupidity) in the face of mounting evidence that you have made the wrong call. As we headed due east for the first 90 minutes, sailing into the SE breeze as it veered progressively to ESE, our course heading dialled down from 090-100 to 060-070 as we started heading ENE and away from our southerly target (sailing 45 degrees off the true wind direction). We were only 10 minutes into this increasingly big 'knock', when we decided to tack onto port on a heading toward the next waypoint. Initially our heading was 160-170 degrees and it felt good, but within 10 minutes we had been knocked and our heading had changed to 190-200 degrees.

What we realised was that we had sailed into the edge of the new wind and back out of it again, without biting into it far enough. We discussed our options as a crew and decided we were committed to the strategy and tacked back onto starboard and sailed for the next 30 minutes on a heading of 100 degrees and watched it dial back down to 060-065 on a heading better suited for Fiji! 

A picture of Ocean Gem heading offshore to the east, taken from a crew member on a competing yacht

A picture of Ocean Gem heading offshore to the east, taken from a crew member on a competing yacht

By the time we were 2 hours into the race, we were 13nm offshore and the most eastern boat in the fleet by a long way. It was now time to tack onto port and start heading for Julian Rocks. It felt a little strange to be 2 hours into a race with no VMG (velocity made good) towards the next mark. Part of my gamble was also that being further offshore would put us into stronger tail current, than those tacking their way down the shoreline in shallower water.

Three yachts in the fleet of 12 were rated faster than Ocean Gem on our club PHS handicap;

  • Leeway; a Sydney 38 who won the IRC Passage title at Airlie Beach Race Week in 2015. 
  • Cyclone; a Frers 50 that was originally commissioned by Max Ryan from Sydney in 1990 and rumour has it; was the first $1 million 50 footer in Australia. Cyclone went to the Admirals Cup in 1991 where Australia came dead last. Max hated the "slow moving depression" name tag, so he bailed out of it not to long after that, where it came to Queensland as part of some business swap and then was on-sold locally. 
  • Slyfox; a 42ft, light displacement, water ballasted yacht with twin rudders and retractable fin with a bulb. She was designed and built entirely by Mike Sabin over 4 years and launched in 1996 before setting of with his wife on a 7 year circumnavigation. 

Slyfox; light, skinny and fast upwind

We finally tack onto port on a heading of 170, only 3 degrees above our waypoint (still 42nm away) at Julian Rocks. As we sailed south, the fleet were specs on the horizon with all of them well south and inshore of our current position. We focused on rotating hourly between 3 helmsman (myself, Rick and Karl) as we sailed south under full mainsail and number 2 genoa. Our focus was on steering to maintain a steady 7.5-7.8 knots boat speed, by steering to the genoa telltales rather than watching instruments. By the time a further 2 hours had passed, we had made good ground, heading directly for our mark, while those further inshore and ahead of us, had to tack repeatedly offshore to clear the coast as they zig zagged south.


The first heartening sign was seeing Leeway two miles inshore of us and headed toward us on a starboard tack. From the distance it was touch and go, trying to determine who was going to cross in front. As we sailed within half a nautical mile of Leeway, we looked like we were comfortably in front, but they tacked back onto port and headed back inshore, denying us the opportunity to cross in front of their path.

We sailed on and could see Sly Fox hard against the coastline and at least 2nm further south of us and Cyclone about 1nm south and headed east on a tack that would have us cross each other. Cyclone is much faster upwind and should have been comfortably ahead of us by now, so we watched with interest as she crossed about four boat lengths in front of us, four hours into the race, before tacking back onto the same southerly heading as us, on a port tack.

Rolling over the top of Cyclone after they lee-bow us. A rare feat.

Rolling over the top of Cyclone after they lee-bow us. A rare feat.

At this point we realised our strategy had paid off and we had definitely gained an advantage wth only two yachts ahead of us. As we trailed Cyclone, we realised we need to tack away or sail lower and faster to overtake below her and get out of the disturbed air she was throwing at us. We were on a lifting tack, so taking away was not attractive. Watching Cyclone ahead of us, we could see they were pointing as high as possible, causing us to choke our sails and lose boat speed. We adjusted our heading, 10 degrees, eased our sails and Cyclone watch as we sailed past below them, overtaking them upwind, something we had not done before.

We sailed on, they tacked away and we started to get sail into a deepening knock as the wind swung right, affected by the land. We tacked back out to the east and saw Cyclone on an opposing tack about 1nm away on what appeared to be a collision course. We were on starboard with right of way and as we got closer I could see they could not successfully cross in front of us. I wanted to carry on on this tack and did not want them doing a lee-bow tack in front of us as it would force us to tack away to get clear air. I motioned their skipper to sail on and cross in front of us and started to dip my bow below their stern. Whether he did not see my gesture or he suddenly realised he would be at fault if there was a collision and reacted suddenly, I am not sure, be he threw his helm over and suddenly tacked in front of us into our path.

I had to react quickly and point the bow up to avoid a collision, but now my sails were stalling. There was silence on both boats and no one said a word as they beared away slightly, given us the ability to point of bow lower, fill our sails, gather speed and roll quietly over the top of them. Its rare that a 45 foot Beneteau gets to do that to a 50 foot racer like Cyclone.

A picture of our crew shot from another boat

Buoyed by our turn of speed, we sailed on towards Julian Rocks as we saw Leeway come back into view and tack onto our line about half a nautical mile astern. We did a couple more tacks into and back off the coast before settling on the lay-line to Julian Rocks. Inshore we had watched Slyfox continue to zigzag down the coast, closely inshore in what appeared to be different and lighter breeze. We simply sailed around her with amazement, as we realised we had come from about 2nm astern and were now well ahead and also at least 1nm to windward and on the lay-line to the half way point in the race, Julian Rocks off Byron Bay.

What happened next caught us by surprise, Sly Fox finally decided to head east and get away from the shoreline, sailed past our stern at least 1.5nm behind us and instead of tacking onto our lay-line, carried on for at least another 1-1.5nm. We then watched Cyclone cross our stern and also head at least 1nm above our lay-line, before tacking back onto the course to Julian Rocks. We were only about 5nm from the mark now and figured that unless we suffered a big knock (20-30 degrees), that we were perfectly positioned to lead the fleet round the mark, as we realised the two fastest yachts in the fleet had seriously overlaid it and cost themselves several minutes in lost time in the process.

Leading the fleet around Julian Rocks with Cyclone approaching in 2nd place in the right of the picture

We hit Julian Rocks, rounding at least 200 metres off the rocks as required by race rules and had our Code 0 ready to pop open. As we squared up on our heading to Point Danger on a course of about 330 degrees I realised I have worked out our down wind angles incorrectly and at 150 degrees TWD, we should have out the spinnaker up instead. We had not choice but to drop the Code 0, run bareheaded at half speed for about 3 minutes while the crew did a faultless change over.

With the spinnaker set, our speed jumped from 4 knots to 8 knots+ as we watched Cyclones big spinnaker looming up on the horizon about 1nm astern. We sailed on for the next 4 hours watching Cyclone creeping closer, but somehow they did just not have enough to get past us. Anytime the winds is 150-180 degrees we seem to be able to hold faster boats at bay, who really perform better when sailing their 120-140 degree angles. 

Cyclone lurking behind us like a tiger for more than 4 hours, just waiting for the chance to pounce.

Meanwhile, Slyfox had no choice but to sail the downwind angles and after leaving Julian Rocks they were headed off to the NE on a course 30 degrees wider than our direct line to the next way point. It must be tough knowing you have to sail at least 30% faster than your competitor, to make up for the fact you are sailing 30% further, due to the wider downwind angles.

As we hit Point Danger, we had to bear away another 15-20 degrees and be sailing almost dead downwind for the final 2.5-3 hours to the finish line off the sand pumping jetty at Main Beach, Gold Coast, Queensland. We we still in front and had a real chance now of taking line honours. Leeway was at least 4nm astern, Slyfox was astern and well to the east sailing her angles and now Cyclone was forced to sail a higher course than us and were unable to sail our direct downwind angles.

We saw Cyclone put up a jib and drop their asymmetrical spinnaker as we figured they were due to through up their big symmetrical kite. Then a strange thing happened, they appeared to have problems on the foredeck and shortly afterwards they had taken down all head/downwind sails and now they we sailing under mainsail only. A short while later they retired from the race with halyard problems, a sad outcome for them after 10+ hours of racing. As much as its satisfying to beat a competitor in the water, its never great to see a crew forced to retire early from a race with gear problems.

Rick and Sean

We started to think that a line honours win was now a possibility and it seemed a far cry from the previous 2 years, when we had finished last across the line 2 years ago and 6th last year. Leeway was not going to catch us and all that left with a shot was was Slyfox, that we could just make out on the horizon, with their big chocolate brown asymmetrical spinnaker up, 3nm east of us as darkness fell. We had 70nm in the bag now and just 12nm to go, surely it was just a matter of finishing. Our ETA was looking like 7:30pm Saturday, which was remarkable given we had finished after 1am Sunday in the 2 previous years. 

Then it turned to custard!

Karl was on the helm and I was trimming the spinnaker as darkness set in. The wind was shifting around a little and Karl was getting use to balancing the compass heading, steering to a 150-160 degree true wind direction and managing the slight sea state, which wanted to pick up the stern and shift it 30 degrees sideways every so often. We had a couple of near misses with pointing too high and the spinnaker luffing before starting to wrap around the forestay.

Sun setting over Tweed Heads

Fortunately a quick bear away fixed it as the big 1,000 square foot sail unwrapped and filled again. Forth time unlucky. This time it was different as the bow came up to far and the spinnaker deflated and started to wrap and wrap and warp around the forestay. As it wound round and round ten or more times, you hope it will simply unwind, but deep down you know, this could be one hell of a problem.

The genoa had been dropped onto the deck and tied down, after we hoisted the spinnaker and the halyard had been left attached to it. What that meant was the spinnaker had become snagged up high between the forestay and the halyard and that was enough to stop it unwrapping after wrapping initially. If the genoa halyard and been tied off back at the mast, it probably would have prevented the mess we now had.

Nothing we did would unravel it, the top third was still filling, but the bottom half was wound tightly around the forestay so hard that it had turned the genoa foil like a corkscrew and twisted the flat 60 foot line piece of high strength plastic through at least 360 degrees. If that cracked and broke as well under the load, this could really get expensive. The only solution was to send someone to the top of the mast, to unravel the mess from the top down, but on a moving boat, in the dark with a 1 metre swell, there was no way it would be safe to do that. 

Our boat speed under mainsail only had dropped to barely 5 knots from the 8-9 we had been doing and now instead of being 30 minutes from the finish, it was closer to 50. When you are racing and something goes wrong, its easy for the whole team to be distracted by it, leaving no one focusing on sailing the boat. I had jumped on the helm when the problem unfolded and a quick glance down showed our speed at 4.4 knots. It was completely dark now and somewhere out there was Slyfox, sailing her angles and probably doing 10-11 knots. Suddenly our healthy lead did not seem that large. If we sailed another hour, going 4 knots slower than we had been, it was like giving 4nm back to all of the boats behind us. We had gone from thinking we had line honours in the bag and a shot at winning on handicap, to realising we might finish 2nd or even 3rd over the line now and well down the PHS standings.

Cook Island off Tweed Heads

Our finish line was an imaginary line from the sand-pumping jetty off Main Beach out as far as 800 metres to the east in a straight line. With its 'runway lights' and our chart-plotter it was relatively easy to know when you sailed past the end of it, even in the dark. We had been on a course directly to the end of the jetty on a course of 160 degrees doing about 5 knots. I found that if we pointed higher to a point 800m off the end of the jetty, the extra distance offshore reduce our true wind angle to 140 degrees and increased our speed to 6 knots and then 6.5 knots. All we could do now was sail as fast as we could on main sail only, with our spinnaker wrapped around our forestay and flapping noisily in the 16-18 knot breeze as our eyes searched the darkness for Slyfox's navigation lights.

Rod and Sean

Rod and Sean

"There they are" one of the crew called out. "Where?" I asked. "About 7 o'clock" said someone else, followed by Peter who said "6:45" to be precise. If you imagine where out bow is pointing (our direction) is 12 o'clock, then using clock time, easily communicates the direction of another vessel. This is important when up close and needing to act to avoid a collision. If you know the general direction of a vessel, especially if hidden behind sails, it makes a big difference in finding them quickly when helming. 8 o'clock meant they we on our left hand side and slightly behind us.

Karl up mast untangling the spinnaker once we are back on our marina berth

Our hearts sank as we watched their silhouette eating up the distance between us as quickly as they appeared to be going twice as fast. All we could do was wish down the distance to the finish line and hope we could hold them out. We were were down to 500 metres to go and still they kept coming, then 200m, then 100m and no they were at 8 o'clock. I watch the chart plotter eagerly for the line up with the sand jetty and our bowman Rob stood on the bow ready to give the the call as the lights lined up. We were more than 2-4 lengths in front as we crossed the finish, in the dark and with the angles it was hard to judge, but we knew it was just enough as we clocked our finish time of 7:45:40pm, 20 seconds ahead of Slyfox in the final results and enough to take out a well earned line honours win, our first ever in an ocean passage race.

We nursed the yacht back to the marina with the spinnaker flapping crazily as we motored 30 minutes to the sanctuary of our berth so we could tidy up our problems. Karl boldly offered to be hoisted up the mast in the bosun's chair, so he could be lowered down the forestay to untangle the mess and save the spinnaker from complete destruction. 45 minutes later our genoa halyard had to be cut free, but the spinnaker was saved and we were able to get it successfully back down onto the foredeck and bag in its bag.

We ended up finishing 4th on PHS, 28 minutes behind 1st place on corrected time. It was the 'one that got away' but winning on elapsed time by 20 seconds after 12 hours 45 minutes of racing was a great result for our team. PHS Results. All's well that ends well.

Madison, Rob, Karl and Alex

Race crew: Madison Hows, Rod Routh, Rob Westmoreland, Rick Durhan, Karl Schroder, Peter Chapman, Alex Lomakin, Sean Hanrahan and David Hows




The Nina goes missing

‘He’s living my dream’ I thought, after briefly meeting David Dyche, owner of Nina shortly after we had motored 10nm, from a coastal marina, all the way up the river and into the Whangarei Town Centre for lunch in January 2012, with friends.

I got talking with David and he explained he was sailing around the world with his wife and three sons and they had just won the annual Bay of Islands Regatta the week before. Nina was 85 years old and had been designed by an Americas Cup winning designer in 1928. She entered and won a New York to Spain race followed by winning the Fastnet Race a month later. In 2012 she was clearly still fast for her age.

David Dyche, owner and skipper of ‘Nina’ doing some maintenance, while berthed at the Whangarei Town Centre in Northland in January 2012

Nina was 70 foot long and I could tell from talking to David Dyche that he was an experienced sea captain. We headed off down the river after lunch and I did not think much more about the Nina until reading the headlines in the New Zealand Herald 18 months later when the Nina was several days overdue from a trip from New Zealand across the Tasman to Newcastle, Australia. I followed the story for the next few weeks, hoping that a miracle would occur and they would be found safely somewhere in the Tasman Sea.

The disappearance of the Nina launched New Zealand’s biggest maritime search ever, with no success. The crew of the Nina had departed the Bay of Islands at the end of May 2013 and headed out into the Tasman Sea at the worst time of the year. Its wet, windy and cold and storms roll up the Tasman, one after another from June to August each year.

An old, heavy 70 foot long wooden schooner is a handful at the best of times. Add cold, wet, fatigued crew, eight metre swells and winds gusting 65 knots to the mix and its a recipe for disaster. Sadly they disappeared after a final text message said “storm sails shredded last night, now bare poles”.

Some months later I read an article claiming the Nina had not been out of water for three years and was showing signs of deterioration while berthed in New Zealand. David Dyche had originally planned to leave in February 2013, but was delayed until May with engine issues. Eventually they departed for Australia three months later than planned and headed straight into a bad storm.

By October 2013, hope for the Nina’s safety re-emerged after a USA based search group claimed to have seen a satellite image of a vessel the shape of the Nina drifting west of Norfolk Island. I contacted the search group and explained we might head close to the search location on our pending Trans-Tasman trip and they asked me to keep a lookout on radar and visually for the Nina and to send a copy of our latitude and longitude daily logs after arrival in Australia, to confirm the area we had sailed through.

It was a long shot and given the horizon that we could see was only 4-5 nm away and we went six days in a row without seeing a single boat. When you consider the Tasman is 1,100 nm wide, its easy to sail right on past a distressed yacht thats sitting just over the horizon out of sight. Its still hard to believe they were a happy cruising family one day and gone without a trace the next.

Nina tied up at the wharf in the Whangarei Town Basin

This was all happening in the media in the 2-4 months before I was due to head to Auckland to complete final preparations for Ocean Gem’s voyage across the Tasman Sea. As the weeks passed and there was no good news, I became increasing anxious about what might go wrong crossing the Tasman and would lay in bed at night for hours visualising different disaster scenarios and what I would do to overcome them.

What if we lost someone overboard at night in big seas? What if we hit a submerged log or container and started sinking? What if the mast came down and then punched a hole in the side of the hull before we could cut it free? What if the keel broke off and we rolled upside down at night in the dark and I was in my bunk? What if I had a lifejacket on in an upside down hull and I could not get out in the dark? How would we get the liferaft out? What if the seas were six metres and wind 50 knots? What if, what if what if!

What hope did we really have of getting the crew out of an upside down hull, in the dark, in a big sea and launching a liferaft without the wind blowing it away, and all climbing into it before we drift off into the night in different directions, only to die from hypothermia before a ship could steam for two days in our direction to rescue us.

For about a month I had grave fears that something bad would happen to us and I contemplated just paying a delivery skipper to do the job for me. But I was committed to the voyage, it was the adventure of a lifetime for my Dad. Chris Evans (a crew member) was excited too and we would talk endlessly about preparation plans and there was just no turning back. I realised that if I could not brave this trip, I would probably never have the courage to sail across open oceans and I might as well kiss goodbye to my dreams of sailing around the world.

So I doubled my efforts to prepare for every possible scenario. I planned for repairing holes, broken windows, the capacity to pump hundreds of litres of seawater out of a sinking hull, finding crew overboard in the dark and the ability to ride out a powerful storm and even a cyclone. I spent hours reading research on storm survival and discovered an endless list of failed attempts by yachts in storms to deploy parasail anchors and drogues.

The graduation from sails to storm sails to bare poles to sea anchors and drogues as the weather deteriorates is a science that is not exactly perfect. If you screw it up, you lose equipment, injure crew and may watch your storm survival device shred or disappear overboard if you deploy it incorrectly.

Ocean Gem berthed at Whangarei Town Basin in January 2012, just along from where the Nina was tied up

The more I read and researched parasails and drogues, the more I eliminated every device on the market. Traditionally designed drogues have a single rope a couple of hundred metres long, that stretches initially, until the drogue bites in, with the sudden drag causing the drogue (hand brake) to leap out of the water, with the end result being an out of control yacht racing at pace, down the face of the large wave before hitting the trough and pitch poling (cartwheeling) or, broaching and then rolling 180-360 degrees and snapping off the mast on the way through.

I read one story after another of yachts whose best laid storm plans left to catastrophic failure, loss of yachts and loss of lives. The research led me to the Jordan Series Drogue. It was designed and tested using engineering data from the fatal 1979 Fastnet Race. Rather than a long rope trailed behind the yacht with a large drogue (sea brake) on the end, the Jordan Series Drogue has 150 individual small parachute like cups spread along the 150+ metre rope, acting as a sea brake and reducing a yachts speed when running before a storm by up to 75%.

I read of more than 119 yachts that had all used the drogue successfully in storms across the globe with only three yachts lost and no loss of lives. Once I understood why traditional drogues fail and how the Jordan Series Drogue worked differently, I realised this would give me the confidence that was missing should I end up in a bad storm.

The drogue costs about US$2,400 and is custom made in the USA to match each yachts specifications. It also requires very strong cleats and winches (able to carry 70% of the yachts total weight).

Its so successful at slowing the yacht in a storm that it places massive loading on the attachment points on the stern of the yacht. When I ordered my Jordan Series Drogue, I contacted the boat builder in Auckland that was working on Ocean Gem and sent him the specs that needed checking, so that my stern cleats could handle the load of the drogue.

I was quite surprised by their casual response; “she’ll be right”, “we have never heard of the Jordan Series drogue”, “you will never need it anyway” and “don’t know anyone who has ever used a drogue”.

I thought, yep easy for you when you are safely tucked in your bed while I am in the ocean in the middle of a storm. If The Nina had had a Jordan Series drogue onboard and deployed it, I am in no doubt they would have had a lot more options, more control of their yacht and may have been alive today as well. As I don’t really know what happened to them other than ending up bare-poled in a storm, I can’t say for sure they would have survived, but its all about stacking more odds in your favour rather than against you.

The Nina captured on camera under full sail in Bermuda in 1957

Reading the story of the Nina made me prepare for the absolute worst. I realised that when you are hundreds of miles from the nearest coast, no one can easily save you. You are out of helicopter range, ships can be days away and even if they are nearby, there is huge risk of getting injured or killed climbing up the side of a commercial ship in big seas.

The fatal 1998 Sydney to Hobart race reinforced why getting into a liferaft is an absolute last resort. They can tear, get holes, come apart, flip upside down and eventually if you are out there long enough, will attract sharks.

The goal of any sailor is to keep the hull intact and right way up. No matter what happens, its always the best option to stay with the boat as long as its afloat. Our ability to manage Ocean Gem through a severe storm that could last days was critical to our survival. We could not afford to under prepare and my list and budget just kept growing.

This illustrates how a yacht using a Jordan Series Drogue runs before the sea under control, doing 1-3 knots boat speed while the swell and breaking seas pass underneath at 10-12 knots. Its easier on the yacht and the crew can rest until the storm passes. A yacht running with bare poles before a following sea, will accelerate and surf down the face of the wave, at high risk of losing control and cart wheeling, or broaching and rolling 180-360 degrees in the trough with devastating consequences. A drogue that is not designed to do the job will cause the same outcome.

This content is from my iBook – Sailing The Tasman Sea by David Hows, available in the iTunes store for $5.99.  It includes; 206 Pages, 46,055 words, 232 photos and 11 videos.

Getting to the Trans-Tasman startline

On the 19th of October 2013 I pulled up at the boat builders yard at 7am after just four hours sleep. I had to meet the safety inspector on site and I was excited about seeing Ocean Gem for the first time in five months and more importantly, all the upgrade work that had been completed to prepare for my voyage.

Four weeks prior to this, Greg Lewis who was managing the project and was going to complete the Trans-Tasman trip with us, decided he had to pull out of the voyage. He was really busy in his new job and had also been managing a long list of upgrades and maintenance work that I wanted to complete for the trip in his spare time.

Greg was overloaded personally so it was the right call to make, but it left me suddenly worried about the lack of offshore experience in the remaining crew. Greg also had the ability to fix any mechanical or electrical system issues along the way, something that is really important on a long voyage.

Greg recommended a friend of his called Bruce McMillan who had completed 39,000nm in offshore delivery trips and after a career in boat building, had spent the previous 13 years as a professional skipper. Bruce was 57 years old, a straight shooter and an attitude for doing the job right, something that proved to be a big asset in our preparation and completion of a safe crossing.

Bruce was already on the job at 7am along with the boat builders and Martin Robertson the safety inspector. Martin was required to do a 100+ point safety check of the boat, equipment and crew and unless you passed the rigorous test and obtained that precious certificate, NZ Customs would not allow you to depart New Zealand waters. The theory goes that its expensive to come rescue you in the middle of the Tasman Sea if you get yourself in trouble.

The engine partway through a full remount and upgrade. It was stripped, checked and rebuilt with a number of items tidied up and replaced. 

Within minutes Martin was on a ladder poking and scraping with his pocket knife up inside the skin fittings that go through the hull. The skin fittings are connected to pipes that carry fresh water or sea water to and from toilets, sinks, engines, speedos, refrigeration and water makers. A 21 year old boat like Ocean Gem still had its original bronze fittings, which are screwed onto stainless steel adaptors and then joined to plastic hoses and metal seacocks (safety shut off valves) in case of emergency.

Essentially the skin fittings (holes) through the hull, gave us 18 other ways things could go wrong leading to water pouring into the boat and in a worst case scenario – sinking. I could tell by Martins head shaking the inspection was not off to a great start. He proceeded to look inside the cabin only to be greeted by a chaos with tools, spare parts, rolls of cable and rubbish everywhere.

There was shit in every direction, bedding was pushed aside, there was dust all over the place and I had the sudden realisation that the project was not as on track as Greg had promised. Today was Saturday and Ocean Gem was due back in the water on Tuesday. Martin opened a couple of cupboards, did some more poking around with his pocket knife and then said “all your bronze skin fittings and stainless steel seacocks will have to be replaced”.

As each day grew longer, the ladder grew taller

One of the boat builders named Stu who had been reasonably quiet up until now said “thats a bit of a major, we won’t be out of here by Tuesday then” and Bruce chimed in after sizing up the state of the boat with “we’ll be lucky to be going anywhere for 3-4 weeks”.

I remember thinking, “hang on a minute, the rest of the crew are arriving in three days, we are racing to the Bay of Islands in six days time, I have a business to get back to; like hell its going to take 3-4 weeks, I don’t have 3-4 weeks”.

This was the point at which I really started to learn about preparing for the Tasman Sea. Bruce simply said, “we can’t go unless we are prepared properly, once you are out there, you’re alone and all of your equipment needs to be 100%. I have been on leaking boats and on boats that have caught fire. I have spent time inside a liferaft and I know from that experience that I prefer to stay on a yacht. Preparation is everything, if we are not ready, we won’t go”.

This was the start of a very big mountain we would have to climb, to leave New Zealand safely, in fact to be able to leave at all. I did not have 3-4 weeks and the crew certainly didn’t. I either had to roll up my sleeves and make this happen in the next seven days or the trip would be off. If we didn’t cross the Tasman by mid November, the following May would be the next safe weather window.

My sorry looking freshly painted hull after 18 bronze skin fittings (21 years old) had been ground off in preparation for high strength silicon replacements. There were holes everywhere and it made me realise that the hull was not as thick as it looked

I turned to Stu and asked “whats involved in replacing the skin fittings?” Stu explained that we would need to grind off the rim on the top of each fitting where it exited the hull, as 21 years of corrosion meant it was impossible to unscrew the original fittings. Following that; stainless steel seacocks and plastic pipes and joiners of all shapes and sizes had to be pulled apart from inside the hull (in places almost impossible to get to), so that the seacocks and skin fittings could all be replaced. Its kind of like trying to redo all the plumbing in an existing house without removing walls or cupboards.

By 8am Martin was finished his initial inspection and apart from some other minor items, this was the biggie and here is where my admiration and respect for both Bruce and the team of boatbuilders began. They just got to work and this extra job alone (without the other 30 outstanding items) took 40 man hours to complete. The great thing now is all of these new parts are high strength silicon, so all of the corrosion issues of old are now permanently avoided in the future. The real wake up call that reinforced what safety inspection is all about occurred when two of the 18 seacocks broke off in Bruce’s hands when he was trying to remove them for replacement. Anode issues cause the less noble metal to cathode away causing the actual fitting to break like candy.

These floor boards had rotted from water spilling out of a leaking water tank. The repaired boards now look just like new

The force of the sea water being pushed into this fitting most certainly would have sheared it off completely as we crossed the Tasman and would have resulted in hundreds of litres of seawater pouring into Ocean Gem before we could find and block the hole. Given the two periods of rough weather we had on the trip were both at night, it could have been a terrifying situation.

I spent the next four hours that morning unloading gear, sails, bedding, cushions, squabs, rubbish and anything else from inside Ocean Gem that was in the way. I figured the best way to get the job finished was to remove all the clutter so the guys (up to nine of us eventually) could work efficiently inside and on top of the boat.

A new control box in the forward sail locker for anchor windlass and new bow thruster.

The old anchor windlass control box was no longer waterproof

I must have gone up and down the ladder 50 times and moved gear to storeroom, elsewhere in the boat shed, my rental car and Greg’s Toyota Hilux. By lunch time it was looking a lot better and at least we could move inside. I looked around, it was Saturday and everyone was working flat out, giving up their weekend for me, to help me with my project.

This was the start of six days straight and 15-19 hour days as we worked ourselves to a standstill each day to get Ocean Gem ready. I quickly fell into the routine of 6-7am starts, morning tea, lunch and afternoon tea in the smoko room with the boat builders (four in all) and working flat out each day doing what ever I could to move stuff, clean up stuff and basically pitch in where I could with all sorts of building, assembly, electrical and other work. From Monday Greg was back at his day job, so would join us at 5pm and then work through until 12-1am before heading off again to his day job with blood shot eyes, while getting progressively tireder.

By Tuesday evening Chris and Bryce arrived from Australia expecting to step on board for a test sail the following morning. When I picked them up, I explained that things were a little off track but was still hopeful to get back in the water Thursday in time for the Coastal Classic race on Friday before heading off across the Tasman. To their credit, they came with a ‘can do’ attitude and rolled up their sleeves and got stuck in.

So much of our success relies on a good keel that stays attached to the hull

Despite their increasing fatigue and tiredness over the next few days, there was not a single complaint. There was no negativity, no cynicism and nothing was too much to ask. I was now surrounded by my three crew (Bruce, Bryce and Chris) plus Greg and 4 boat builders (Denis, Stu, Craig and Rick) and they were working flat out, around the clock to keep my dream alive.

I put a couple of boxes of Heineken Beer in the lunchroom fridge by day two and I think that made a difference. I think the respect went both ways, nothing was too much to ask of me, I was happy to do anything to keep the project moving. Every time we hit a new obstacle the guys said “no problem, we can deal with that” and I had just never seen such a committed bunch of people.

It really made me appreciate how resourceful and willing Kiwi’s are to get behind a challenge, especially if you roll your sleeves up too. They said I was the first boat owner they had ever dealt with who literally moved onsite for six days. I was letting them out at 7pm and then carrying on working until after midnight each night before locking up and getting progressively tireder and wondering if we would ever get back in the water and head for the open sea.

As I got to know the boat builders, I was amazed at the experience I was surrounded by. They had worked on multiple Americas Cup campaigns as shore crew and boat builders right up until the 2013 campaign. Stu had competed as a sailor as well and had been part of a Volvo Ocean Race winning crew.

These guys knew what making the impossible happen was all about and they just would not take short cuts. When Stu gave advice on a problem he spoke as if he was doing the Trans Tasman with me. The quality of the craftsmanship was just outstanding. It was just so inspiring to see how they approached my project with such passion and diligence, it really was a humbling experience.

Greg and Craig fitting new anchor windlass

The original anchor windlass prior to upgrade

By Wednesday night, five days (and 90 hours in the boat yard) later I could start to see that the end was in sight. It was not going to be 3-4 weeks, but given the hours nine of us had put in, we probably did three weeks work in the space of six days.

We were not going to get back in the water by Thursday, so I called and withdrew our Coastal Classic Race entry as we had no chance of departing with the fleet by 10am Friday. The race organiser said “You may as well come and pick up your tee-shirts anyway as you have paid for them”, but I had little hope of getting into the city with our work load. I politely asked if he could courier them to the Bay of Islands to which he replied “no problem”.

The crew had been looking forward to departing Auckland on the first leg of our journey with 160 other yachts and I knew they would be disappointed that we had to withdraw from the race. I figured we still had to do our own private coastal classic anyway, albeit three days after the fleet, so I figured an official presentation of their Coastal Classic Race shirts when we got to the Bay of Islands, would be a nice touch.

Back in the boat shed, Bryce and Chris had become Greg’s apprentice electricians. They were pulling out hundreds of metres of old wiring, running new wiring painstakingly slowly through the bilge of the boat and helping Greg fit all sorts of new equipment. Talk about refitting Ocean Gem from the bottom up.

The irony of this process is we got to know every inch of Ocean Gem very well; every tap, fuse, pump and cable. With the boat builders chipping in regularly about how good the upgrades and new equipment were, it really started to install a sense of pride in the team, that we were going to head to sea in a very solid, safe well equipped boat. My job was to keep thinking ahead with food, drinks, sleep planning, odd jobs and anything else I could do to keep everyone on the job and moving. This was the toughest week of my life physically, mentally and financially, with bills and to-do list just kept growing.

The new anchor windlass fitted to a base twice as thick as the previous one

Dennis (Stu’s Dad) who owned the yard was a fascinating guy. He had sailed his own 47 foot yacht across the Tasman and then all the way round the top of Australia and down to Perth to do charter work during the 1987 Americas cup. These guys were real sailors and I Iooked forward to each smoko break, as I learned more and more of of their racing and open ocean tales.

Dennis would swear like a trooper when he was working by himself and I would walk up behind him with yet another question or request and was almost afraid to interrupt the four letter worded conversation he was having with himself. He would always drop what he was doing and was so obliging and helpful towards me.

The refit and upgrade list for Ocean Gem started off modestly but just kept growing. Every book I read, every course I did, the boat shows I went to, all added to my perplexing question; ‘how safe is safe enough?’. When you try to plan for every possibility you end up with big trade offs between how heavy your boat gets, finding the space to store all the gear you take and of course your budget.

I had started to suffer unreliability/wear issues after 12 weeks cruising on Ocean Gem over the previous two years with my anchor windlass, batteries, toilet, chart-plotter, bilge pump, engine, mainsail, water pumps and a list of other items. 

Fitting extra battery upfront to power the windlass and new bow thruster

It only takes a couple key break-downs to ruin your day, holiday or worse; a Trans-Tasman trip. I was determined to check every single part of Ocean Gem and leave nothing unchecked and nothing to chance.

I felt the weight of my responsibility to take the crew safely across the Tasman and I knew short cuts or a ‘she’ll be right attitude’ could cost lives. Bruce was a big asset when it came to safety preparation. Having done 39,000nm offshore and having faced fires and storms he instinctively knew not just what we needed, but the standard required to do the job and save your life if the worst came to the worst.

My attitude moved from having the required safety gear so we could ‘tick the box’ to understanding why we needed it and more importantly making sure it was set up to do the job if required. From storm boards to cover broken windows, to an extra bilge pump that would pump out 100 litres per minute to extra sheets and halyards to ‘mode the boat’ to handle high winds and storms, having Bruce was like having my own personal offshore sailing coach. Chris and Bryce gained confidence and knowledge from listening to Bruce and he was my barometer for keeping the boat builders and Greg on task in regard to workmanship standards.

The 100 litre per/min manual bilge pump complete with Bruce’s long handled modification and special case to enhance usage

I was quickly realising that having Bruce instead of Greg complete the crossing with us was a fortunate turn of events. He had the experience I didn’t and without saying it, we knew all knew deep down that we were in such safer hands having Bruce on the team.

This content is from my iBook – Sailing The Tasman Sea by David Hows, available in the iTunes store for $5.99.  It includes; 206 Pages, 46,055 words, 232 photos and 11 videos.

Planning a Trans-Tasman July 2013

There’s a saying in business, that “if you are the smartest guy on the team, the teams got a problem”.

After reading as many books as I could find on sailing disasters, sinkings, storms, tales of survival and the sailors that have perished at sea, I decided that if I was to sail the Tasman Sea from New Zealand to Australia, I did not want my survival in an emergency to rely on someone else’s knowledge and experience.

In business I have seen lots of job applicants exaggerate wildly about their skills and experience; in fact its more common that not. When you are sailing across 1,200nm of ocean and things go wrong, you need capable people who know what to do. If my yacht ends up dismasted in a violent storm or upside down with no keel in the middle of the night, seconds are the difference between surviving or disappearing 3000m down into the murky depths and its no good blaming someone else if it all turns to custard.

When it came to training I researched the things the round the world sailors do to prepare themselves for weeks of isolation at sea and preparation for all of the things that can go wrong. I found a company called Southern Cross Yachting that ran courses under license from RYA (Royal Yachting Association) in the UK.

‘Oceans’ the Sydney 41 owned by Southern Cross Yachting that I completed my 630NM offshore training course on from Airlie Beach to Brisbane

From the lessons learned in the fatal 1979 Fastnet and 1998 Sydney to Hobart races, the standard of training and preparation of sailors for offshore passages and adventures has improved significantly.

I researched all of the recommended courses for offshore sailing and decided to complete all of them from July to October 2013. They included;

  • A 6-day 630NM offshore sailing course.
  • Advanced first aid.
  • Radar operations.
  • Sea safety and survival.
  • Diesel engine maintenance.
  • Marine radio operation VHF/HF.

The 12 days of practical and classroom training and exams was a real brain drain. When you have a clear goal in mind, thats just weeks from commencement, its easy to stay focused on the task at hand.

Sailing down the Queensland coast on Oceans. Instructor Steve in the blue shirt

The offshore sailing trip from Airlie Beach to Brisbane was a long one. Although we completed it in six days, Oceans was an out and out racing boat. There was no bimini or dodger to protect us from sun or rain and no chart plotter or auto pilot. Oceans required sailing 24/7 and constant navigation to ensure we knew where we were so as to avoid running aground or into reefs. There are plenty of places on the Queensland coast to get yourself into trouble.

By day two of the trip down the coast, I was dehydrated, tired and had a headache behind the eyeballs. I quickly figured that if I sat in 30 degree heat with no shade all day, did not drink enough water and then spent 3 hours on watch and 3 hours in bed at night, that I was getting fatigued really fast.

First aid training required the use of chicken breasts to practice injecting morphine and stitching up an open wound. It also covered burns, poisons, broken bones and CPR.

My crew bunk was only just big enough to wriggle into

This was great training for the Trans-Tasman, where we would have four crew working around the clock in far more challenging conditions. Managing the health, sleep and wellbeing of my crew would be critical to a safe passage and for avoiding injuries.

The Southern Cross Yachting instructor Steve, was a real character and he told many colourful tales of his life at sea including his time in the merchant navy. Steve was a walking encyclopedia of nautical terms and maritime law and I suspected he had done the 630NM trip one too many times. He was very casual and constantly reminded us that “gentlemen I want VMG” (optimal speed towards destination).

That meant doing everything we could to keep Oceans moving fast including motoring when the breeze dropped away. Again this would resonate with me on the Trans-Tasman, where I was determined to average 7 knots to get us safely across the ditch in a timely manner, even if that meant motor-sailing to keep up our boat speed. When storms roll through the Tasman every few days, completing the trip in eight days instead of ten can make all the difference between hitting one storm or hitting two.

When I first met Steve on the diesel engine maintenance course, I thought he was Scottish. I soon found out he was a Kiwi from Glen Eden of all places (I have lived there) and had lived in Australia for most of his adult life. He had a well rehearsed Billy Connelly accent and he lightened many of our moments aboard with his comedy.

Leaving the marina at Yeppoon as we head south toward Brisbane

Toward the end of the trip we were tied up at the wharf at Bribie Island late evening and relaxing in the cockpit when he pulled out his iPad and starting playing some Split Enz music. Next minute he’s telling us a tale about playing in a band in a New Zealand pub in the 1970‘s and a guy walks up to him and says “we are on next, can I borrow your guitar as mine is broken?”. Steve says “of course mate”. He realised later the guy was Neil Finn of the new group Split Enz.

While sailing down the Australian Coast was spectacular in many ways, the hundred or more commercial ships we passed by day and night was a chilling reminder of how much traffic there is using shipping lanes and how tiny a 40 something foot yacht really is, if it was to collide with one of these monsters.

After spending the past two years reading stories of yachts that have disappeared without a trace and those that collided with ships and sunk in a matter of seconds, killing most of the occupants, it really made me think long and hard about the steps we could take to avoid coming into close contact with what is probably the biggest risk at sea. You can set your sails and configure your yacht for almost all conditions, but nothing will save you if you collide with a big ship, especially if it happens at night.

Oceans was also the sister boat to ‘Midnight Special’, famous for losing a large section of its cabin top in the fatal 1998 Sydney to Hobart race after having a large wave break on top of the boat. With a one metre long hole in the top of the cabin, the crew did their best to block it with sails and sleeping bags before succumbing to hypothermia and being winched to safety by helicopter.

Despite abandoning Midnight Special in the middle of the storm, it was eventually found still floating a few days later when the storm had passed and was salvaged and restored and is still racing today. Its a real lesson in the age old advice of not abandoning a damaged yacht for a life raft if its not in danger of sinking. These early lessons would serve me well, I would prepare marine ply, pre-cut patches for the windows and hatches in case of damage from breaking seas before departing Auckland. I set up a tool kit that included drills, saws, bolts, glues and other items that would enable me to chop up bed boards and attach them to the hull or cabin top to effect temporary repairs. If you can stay afloat and keep all water out, then regardless of any damage to mast, sails, rudder or super structure, you have a high chance of survival.

The instructor on my sea safety and survival course was a salty old sea dog called Gerald (Gerry) Geraldson. Gerry was an excellent instructor, having sailed most of the worlds oceans including sailing to the poles on vessels of all shapes and sizes. Gerry had advised the police and navy on various special projects and had been on a 60 foot yacht during the 1998 Sydney to Hobart Race. Early in the race they had received weather advice from their weather advisor Roger Badham, that the ‘mother of all storms’ was about to hit Bass Strait and that the media weather forecasters had under estimated the full force that lie ahead. Roger advised them to withdraw from the race immediately and head for safety, or they would risk passing the point of no return and lose the option to turn back to safe port.

Life aboard Oceans, the 41 foot offshore training yacht was reasonably hot and cramped for 7 guys

Gerry said it was a tough decision for the crew, given the build up and desire they had for completing the race. As a crew they voted and agreed to withdraw and headed safely to Newcastle, where they sat stunned in the local pub and watched the loss of lives and yachts unfold on TV in front of their eyes.

Chilling tales of near disaster just kept reinforcing to me the importance of managing the yacht and the weather and getting the crew safely across the Tasman Sea. These lessons would serve me well with the trip planning and the extra patience we needed in the final days before departure, to wait until the weather window was right.

One of the big lessons of the sea safety and survival course was spending three hours fully clothed in an olympic sized swimming pool. The first few minutes in the water was spent without a lifejacket on. What a shock, to suddenly weigh 20kg more due to the weight of my wet clothes and realise after three minutes of treading water I was going to drown without assistance.

We saw more than one hundred ships as we sailed down the coast

So much for sailing on nice fine days with the family, in one metre swells and not wearing life jackets. Whats the chance of sailing downwind with a gennaker up and taking more than three minutes to get the sails down and find my way back to the spot where I lost someone overboard? Quite high I imagine. Its changed my attitude to when crew should don life jackets, I am a lot more cautious now.

Back ups for backups

From August to early October 2013, I was busy doing training courses, sitting exams and in between times, adding to my growing list of things to do, things to buy, training to complete and all sorts of other preparation and planning. Every time I read another handbook or tale of the high seas, I found new ways my trip could end in disaster and new spare parts, tools or equipment I could purchase to add to my many contingency plans.

The cost of preparation just kept rising and Ocean Gem was going to sit steadily lower in the water as I added more and more weight. By the time the 18th October 2013 rolled around, it was time at last to head to Auckland. I had finished work the day before with no fanfare. It did not seem that sailing the Tasman was anything significant and most of my employees treated it like I was going on just another 2 week holiday.

I figured that maybe its just one of those awkward times when people assume you are going to succeed, but are well aware of the dangers of perishing along the way and they just want to avoid the “hope you make it” type comments.

I had purchased a lot of tools and equipment from Australia and online from overseas and had figured it was easier to pay the extra for baggage and have all I needed with me than try and ship it to Auckland to be stored in various friends garages beforehand.

So I packed my bags and boxes and loaded a total 92kg of gear into my car for the drive to Brisbane airport. This was one of those moments in your life you dread, its just not easy saying goodbye to your family when you know there is a small chance that its the last time you will see each other.

Curbside airport drop offs really help keep it short and sweet. The long goodbyes inside airports can make it a lot harder for everyone. I got to the Virgin check in counter and the checkin lady was looking around for my traveling companion, due in part to my two trolleys of luggage. When she asked about the contents, I proudly explained the luggage was all mine and I was going to sail my yacht back across the Tasman. I was really going to do it, four years after planning to buy a cruising yacht and two years since I had started planning the trip, it was finally happening and there was no turning back.

My luggage at the check in counter at Brisbane Airport. Every item was packed to the 23kg limit exactly

Little did I know about the unforeseen challenges that lay ahead over the next two weeks as I relaxed in the Koru Club lounge with a glass of champagne, to toast my sailing adventure.

I landed in Auckland around midnight and got to my nearby motor lodge by 1:30am. I had to be at the boat builders yard at 7am on the Saturday morning to meet the safety certificate inspector. I decided the risk of leaving my gear in the rental car in full view was too great, so I carried it one item at a time up two flights of stairs to my unit before collapsing into bed for a brief four hours sleep.

This content is from my iBook – Sailing The Tasman Sea by David Hows, available in the iTunes store for $5.99.  It includes; 206 Pages, 46,055 words, 232 photos and 11 videos.

It’s hard finding the perfect boat

My love affair with cruising began in the summer of 1986/87. My friends dad owned a Lidgard 42 called Renown and I was invited to spend an endless 5 weeks of summer with his family, cruising the Marlborough Sounds, Tasman Bay and Golden Bay at the top of New Zealand’s South Island.

As a 16 year old, this introduction to sailing gave me an incredible taste of the endless possibilities for fun and adventure when you had your own yacht. I dreamed from that day forwards of one day buying my own yacht, to go cruising with my family, and continue the adventure, I had tasted only briefly that summer of 1986/87.

It was the summer of 1986/87 that I spent on ‘Renown’ that Michael Fay also became a household name, when he funded New Zealand’s first challenge for the America’s Cup in Fremantle, Perth, Australia.

It’s funny how life is full of paths that cross by chance and the one-in-a-million coincidences that occur. It was the 1st of January 2012 and we were on our first summer cruising holiday on our yacht Ocean Gem 25 years later. We were anchoring at Port Fitzroy, Great Barrier Island, when I looked across the water and saw a yacht named ‘Renown’ tied up at the fuel dock.

Renown anchored at Port Fitzroy, Great Barrier Island

Surely this could not be the same yacht that led to my cruising obsession some 25 years earlier and more than 400nm south of where we now were. I approached the crew of the boat and shared my “Renown” teenage, 5-week summer cruising story and it was indeed the same yacht. The current owners had restored her to her former glory, rescuing Renown from seven years of neglect, on a mooring on Auckland Harbour. They said they had spent a lot of time and money on her restoration. I helped them fill in some of the gaps from Renown’s earlier life, as I knew she was built for the Fong family in Blenheim thatI had sailed with in 1986/87.

It was one of those days, when you take a chance and meet someone interesting. I assumed it to be a lucky sign that symbolised many safe and happy years of sailing ahead for me and my family on Ocean Gem, as we were starting our journey together on the water, 25 years after my first cruising experience.

Before we purchased our 1992 Beneteau 44.5 in March 2011, I had read every possible book on how to find the perfect yacht. With so many choices and so many things to consider, what helped me most was reading the tales of round the world cruisers and visiting several boat shows.

I had narrowed my choice down to a ‘40 something’ foot Beneteau, given it’s popularity with cruisers and its history as the number one production boat competing in the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC) and the Sydney to Hobart races each year. Its a yacht thats easy to sail short handed, its forgiving for novice families, roomy and easier to maintain than a wooden yacht.

Ocean Gem was the only yacht for sale that we actually looked at. It had spent its first seven years from new as a charter boat in the Bay of Islands before the current owners John and Kerry Peterson had bought and sailed her for the next 12 years. They had cruised coastal New Zealand, before doing some upgrade work in 2007 and then spending 6 months cruising the Pacific Islands.

Anchored in Mansion House Bay, Kawau Island, Hauraki Gulf on our first weekend away on Ocean Gem.

John was an Air New Zealand 747 captain. I learned within an hour of meeting John, that the quality of the yacht is a direct reflection of its owner. John went to great lengths to talk about his spare parts and maintenance programme. His knowledge of his yacht was passionate and detailed and as I started making pages of notes, I realised owning a yacht requires you to be a capable plumber, electrician, builder and all-round fix it guy – most of which I was not.

Ocean Gem was in great condition for 19 years old and priced at 60% less than the cost of buying new. I figured that if the engine, hull, rig, sails and systems were in good shape, she had to be value for money, so we purchased Ocean Gem in April 2011 and my love affair began.

A comfy saloon when anchored in wet weather

A spacious galley makes cruising enjoyable

My first introduction to anti-fouling in March 2013

This content is from my iBook – Sailing The Tasman Sea by David Hows, available in the iTunes store for $5.99.  It includes; 206 Pages, 46,055 words, 232 photos and 11 videos.

New Zealand Cruising

We purchased Ocean Gem while living in New Zealand temporarily for seven months, before returning to our home in Australia in July 2011. My dream of sailing Ocean Gem across the Tasman in late 2011, took a further two years of planning, training and funding to become a reality.

With Ocean Gem berthed at Gulf Harbour, we had the perfect excuse to escape the Gold Coast in Queensland and head to New Zealand for sailing weekends and holidays throughout 2011-2013. The big highlights were our ability to spend 10 weeks during two summers cruising and exploring to the top half of New Zealand’s North Island.

Our first summer took us from Gulf Harbour, Whangaparaoa to Coromandel, Great Mercury Island, Slipper Island, and Tauranga before heading to Great Barrier Island, Tutukaka, the Bay of Islands, Whangarei, Kawau Island, Tiritiri Island and home.

Anchored at Te Kouma Harbour, Coromandel

My wife and three daughters went from first time sailors to capable crew members who could confidently help manage sailing, anchoring, berthing and a multitude of other nautical tasks.

As a family we enjoyed days of exploring new islands, bays and harbours, reading, swimming and in the evenings, playing cards and drinking hot chocolate.

This was my baptism of fire with repairs and maintenance. I had problems with an anchor windlass that would stop when the anchor was part way up or down. Its amazing how exposed you feel 50 miles offshore at an island, when you can’t anchor a ten ton yacht.

Exploring Great Mercury Island

We also had an alternator that blew a fuse and stopped charging all the house batteries, a bilge pump failure just as one of our three water tanks leaked 260 litres into the bilge and a chart plotter that randomly blacked out a couple times for up to five hours. We had shower pump blockages, water pumps with air in the pipes and lots of strange noises in the night to get used to.

We also managed to run aground on an un-marked seaweed covered reef as we left an anchorage at Great Mercury Island and after five minutes of terrifying my family, managed to reverse off with no damage done.

Sunset in Parapara Bay, Great Mercury Island

The mechanical challenges (despite the frustration caused), taught me about the importance of knowing every part of the yacht, having all the tools needed on board along with plenty of spare parts and fuses for every scenario. Summer 2012/13 we spent eight weeks on holiday in New Zealand during December and January. We flew into Queenstown from Brisbane and then made our way by rental car to Auckland in time for Christmas with friends.

This summer of sailing was to be different to the last, as all three daughters had the chance to take turns bringing friends along for part of the 5 week trip. We had a mixture of friends, boyfriends and friends parents spend time with us and did some great cruising to Rangitoto, Waiheke Island, Devonport, Coromandel, Kawau Island, Mahurangi Harbour, Omaha Cove, Marsden Cove and our favourite from the year prior; Tutukaka, where the marina cafe makes amazing pizzas and banoffee pie. By far the best time we spent this summer was at Waiheke Island where you have the option to anchor on any side of the island, depending on the weather forecast.

Roberton Island, Bay of Islands where the snorkelling in three large rock pools is amazing

Waiheke Island has a population of 8,000 that swells to 30,000 over summer. The cafes, wineries and restaurants give you many civilised choices for eating and enjoying great coffee and its a magic combination when you can return to the sea at the end of a fantastic day ashore.

Our first 2011/12 summer adventure on Ocean Gem was over too fast and we could have carried on cruising for many weeks more if school and work were not beckoning. A second fantastic summer on Ocean Gem made it even harder to tie her up at the marina berth in Gulf Harbour and head back to Australia.

I told myself, next summer will be in Australia and I was determined to sail her across the Tasman in 2013 and relocate her to the Gold Coast in Queensland where I live and operate my business.

A 75 foot high archway at the Poor Knights Islands.

Anchored at a bay in Te Kouma Harbour, Coromandel. The water was crystal clear and very fresh.

One of my favourite places in New Zealand, Oneroa Bay, Waiheke Island

This content is from my iBook – Sailing The Tasman Sea by David Hows, available in the iTunes store for $5.99.  It includes; 206 Pages, 46,055 words, 232 photos and 11 videos.

Introduction – Sailing the Tasman Sea

In 2011 I met John Peterson. He was selling his 1992 Beneteau 44.5 after 12 years of ownership. I had spent the previous two years researching cruising yachts and had decided on a Beneteau, around the 45 foot mark. ‘Baami’ was Johns boat and he had her berthed at Gulf Harbour in Auckland, New Zealand and had been trying to sell her for 18 months.

John and his wife Kerry were headed to the Mediterranean the following month to take possession of their new 55 foot yacht, Lurata to commence what could turn into five years of northern hemisphere cruising.

I stepped aboard Baami and immediately fell in love. This 19 year old yacht had been well maintained and was in excellent condition and I sensed from John’s detailed description of each system and how it was operated and maintained, that John had been a loving and fastidious owner. Choosing a quality second hand boat is as much about the boat, as it is about the quality of owner you are purchasing it off. A poorly maintained yacht is a liability with a hundred problems waiting to unfold.

I decided to look no further and made the decision to purchase Baami immediately. I asked John where the name “Baami” was from. He said he thought it was French, but did not know what its meaning was. I Googled ‘Baami’ but found it did not appear to translate into anything meaningful.

Well before I discovered Baami, I had decided on a name for my first cruising yacht. I love the Ocean and my daughters names are Gabrielle, Eugenie and Madison, soOcean Gem was what Baami was renamed shortly after we purchased her. I believe ‘the good sailors get the good luck’, so did not get hung up on superstitions such as avoiding renaming a boat, not taking bananas on board and not leaving port for a long voyage on a Friday. So far so good.

This is my story about falling in love with cruising New Zealand waters on Ocean Gem, before planning, preparing and sailing across the Tasman Sea to the Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia where I live today. This blog is a step by step story of my extensive preparation, plans and checklists that will help any blue water sailor safely prepare and cross any large and dangerous ocean.

The following chapters are all from my iBook – Sailing The Tasman Sea by David Hows, available in the iTunes store for $5.99.  It includes; 206 Pages, 46,055 words, 232 photos and 11 videos.

This content is from my iBook – Sailing The Tasman Sea by David Hows, available in the iTunes store for $5.99.  It includes; 206 Pages, 46,055 words, 232 photos and 11 videos.

Surf to City Race January 2016

The race starts at Southport, heads north around the top of Moreton Island and finishes at Sandgate (North of Brisbane)

Surf2City was probably the first race we have done that was not just about boat speed from start to finish. It was a race of many races and it restarted for us a number of times as the fleet separated and came back together or as the wind died completely and we drifted south for up to an hour at 2-knots, waiting for it to kick in again.

2 things really stood out for me that made a big the difference;

LESSON 1. Never give up and any set backs are only temporary:

From the moment we started, when it took more than 5 minutes just to drift across the start line in WNW 5 knots, we were on the back foot. We went offshore initially and the better breeze offset the head current and we found ourselves up with faster boats (that should have been further ahead) when we came back inshore after a few hours.

Unfortunately we persisted in going offshore again without realising that the head current increases from 1.5 knots to 2.5 knots once you get north of South Stradbroke Island. To put this in context; after 8 hours we were only 0.9nm behind Painkiller OP (our target competitor). After 9 hours, we were 3.5nm behind Painkiller OP and ended up in the last 2 or 3 boats from the back of the fleet, 9 hours after we had started - thats how quickly you get burned with head current if you make the wrong call.

We discussed the situation at about 5pm and agreed there was still at least 90nm of sailing left (going up wind) in this race and we had only covered 21nm so far, so lets not give up yet, lets just take our medicine and pick off one boat at a time and work our way back up through the fleet. We went up the coast tacking inshore at the 20m deep contour line to 9m deep line (100m off the breaker line) before tacking out again and zig zagged our way up the coast faster in the light offshore breeze and less current.

Painkiller OP was now 4.15nm ahead of us, but not pulling away from us anymore. Just before sunset the wind backed from NNW to S at 3-6 knots and knowing a southerly change was due about 11pm, our outstanding foredeck team did not hesitate to throw up the spinnaker. Suddenly we were creeping forwards at 1-2 knots SOG and on AIS we could see Painkiller OP drifting south towards us at 1-2 knots in no breeze.

Either Painkiller had no breeze at all or they did not take the opportunity. Within 30 minutes our deficit was cut to 1.8nm (from 4.15nm) and the breeze died again and down came the kite. We continued to creep up the coast as the wind returned to WNW, tacking regularly in and out of the surf line until we hit the top of North Stradbroke Island. As we attempted to round the point, we hit the carpark that held several yachts including Painkiller OP (just 800m away) that had sailed into no wind at all and a current pushing them south at 2.5nm SOG. While we were happy to be back in the main fleet, but we were now pointing east trying to get boat any speed we could, but being swept south as well in the strong current.

After about 45 minutes and drifting about 2 miles south, our break came after several attempts to get the boat moving again, when we managed to squeeze 2-3 knots of boat speed out of 5 knots of WNW breeze, creep up around the point where North Stradbroke meets Moreton Island, get into fresh breeze under the Code 0 and suddenly off we went again doing 5-6 knots for another 30 minutes until the breeze died at area where the sea spills out (on the outgoing tide) between the North Stradbroke and Moreton Island. At best we are drifting east with breeze/current combined and at worst heading south toward the rocks we had just sailed through (I like short cuts!) for another 30 - 45 minutes.

Again the breeze died from the WNW and we started to get small puffs from the SE. We quickly checked the Seabreeze Weather App and found out that it was blowing from the S-SE at 5-15 knots at the Seaway and at Coolangatta. We now knew it was less than an hour before the promised SE change came up the coast and hit us. We quickly put up the Spinnaker and sat there in no breeze as the boat rolled from side to side in the swell, while we slid southwards with Eli and Karl doing their best to stop the lifeless spinnaker wrapping around the forestay. For half an hour we sat there waiting for signs of life from the South - and then it came; first at SE 3 knots, then 6, then 10, then 15-17 and then a solid 20 knots as we sailed a cloud line and watched a localised storm front rolling across to the north of us on a Logan to Moreton Island track

Lightening was striking regularly well north of where we were and the wind built to a solid 25-26 knots as we sailed on into the early hours of Sunday morning, with our biggest spinnaker flying, doing 8-10 knots (5-7 knots SOG) and ticking off the 32 miles from the bottom to the top of Moreton Island. To our delight, Painkiller OP sat in the doldrums for a further hour and we were suddenly 5 nm in front, then 7, then 9 and eventually 10nm in front of them, as they rounded the top of Moreton Island early Sunday morning behind us.

LESSON 2. Be willing to make sail changes and experiment, but don't persist if you get it wrong and make the problem worse.

Our team of 6, especially those on the foredeck (Eli, Karl and often Sean) were exceptional in willingness to make one sail change after another in search of speed and break throughs. This is what set us apart and as darkness fell, we pushed even harder when other boats would have taken it easier. We pushed hard through the night under spinnaker in conditions others would have been more conservative with and never gave up being creative and trying to get the boat moving forward, whenever the breeze died, even when we were getting tired (Danielle's excellent catering kept the energy flowing!).

This willingness by the crew kept finding breakthroughs and lifting our game as the wind kept changing and dying.

I have never been in a race where you can go from nothing to 4nm behind and then 10nm back in front in less than 5 hours. It's a great example of some of the challenges that lie ahead with the ocean races we have planned this year. When other boats are sitting still, you can make big gains if you can get around them or by being the first yacht to start moving forwards again.

By the time we finished the 23.5 hour race, we were 1 hour 25 minutes ahead of Painkiller OP and more than 2.5 hours ahead on corrected IRC time. On reflection, from the 39 keel boats that started, 11 beat us across the finish line, 18 retired and 10 finished behind us.

The best result for me was 5th in the IRC division out of 19 starters and performing competitively against some serious carbon racing machines. We now know we can compete with the seriously good racing boats on IRC if we do our best on the day (and the weather goes our way).

Great work Eli, Karl, Argot, Peter and Sean. A big race for a crew of 6 and a real pleasure to have sailed it with you. We pulled back into SYC at 10:40pm Sunday night after a 9 hour trip back from Sandgate and 36 hours on the water, with Peter helming the majority of the way.

Share my Ocean Gem Adventures

This is my adventure blog about sailing and racing on my beloved yacht Ocean Gem. She is a Beneteau 445 built in 1992 and currently berthed at Southport Yacht Club, Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia. This blog has been created to share the adventures, memories, photo’s and videos with all who sail and race on her.


Whale Watching, Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia

Going whale watching off the Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia is a great way to see whales in full flight, on their journey from Antarctica to Queensland’s Hervey Bay, where the whales head each year to give birth in warmer waters. Whales hug the coast as they head north each year from June to August and going whale watching is as simple as getting out on the water.

We have found that heading due east, 5-6 nautical miles offshore, takes us out to where the ocean is somewhere between 45-50 metres deep. By going out this far we hit a steady stream of whales heading north, mostly in pairs. If you are really luck, they’ll stop and play, by rolling onto their sides and slapping the water with their flippers or breaching by propelling their bodies vertically clear of the water before crashing down and creating an amazing splash.

One of the most enjoyable things to do is to follow a pair of whales for 30-60 minutes in their northerly direction. This takes a bit of skill as they will often disappear for 2-3 minutes at a time. I have found that they move at 4-5 knots and are usually headed for the next headland, which can be several miles away. They seem to have the ability to head up the coast and aim for the right point in the distance to ensure they don’t head into a bay or into shallow areas.

The rules for following whales are very strict and you should be careful not to get to close or venture across their path. I have watch other boats cross their path, less than 100m ahead of them and this often causes them to change direction instinctively and suddenly head further inshore or offshore, clearly disturbed by the vessels that have got too close.

By following them from behind, you get used to their speed and direction, which remains remarkably consistent if no other vessels cross in front of their course.

Whale watching is incredible. Seeing these huge amazing mammals of the deep happily swimming up the coast, covering 180+ kilometres a day is hard to explain. Their size is hard to comprehend until you see them beside you. Watching them launch tonnes of body weight clear of the ocean completely is as good as it gets.

Humpback whales normally swim 5-14 kph, but can go up to 26 kph in bursts when in danger. Feeding speeds are slower, about 2-5 kph.  Humpback whales can dive for up to 30 minutes, but usually last only 15 minutes. They can dive to depths of 150-210m.

Humpbacks are very acrobatic, often breaching high out of the water and then slapping the water as they come back down. Sometimes they twirl around while breaching. Breaching may be purely for play or may be used to loosen skin parasites or have some social meaning.

Spyhopping is another activity in which the whale pokes its head out of the water for up to 30 seconds to take a look around. Humpbacks also stick their tail out of the water into the air, swing it around, and then slap it on the water’s surface; this is called lobtailing. It makes a very loud sound.

The meaning or purpose of lobtailing is unknown, but may be done as a warning to the rest of the pod. Humpbacks lobtail more when the seas are rough and stormy. Slapping a fin against the surface of the water is another unexplained humpback activity.

Always assume they don’t know you are there. Wear lifejackets – you never know what the impact would be if they were to come up underneath your boat and tip it off balance.