Tasmania: Gem of Australia

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Tasmania is one of the crown jewels of the Southern Ocean circuit and had been on our radar for quite some time as we approached the Australian leg of our round-the-world voyage aboard Egret.

We departed Nelson, on New Zealand’s South Island, in December 2009, bound for Tasmania with our Kiwi friend Dick Anderson as crew.We got killed for seven of nine days during the crossing, but that’s another story. After purposely slowing during the night before landfall, we made a dawn approach of the Tamar River in north-central Tasmania. There was little wind, the sun was rising, and the lighthouse at the entrance heads was still winking at the new arrival.

We had been in daily contact with Australian customs via email, and they had advised us to dock at Inspection Heads, a few miles up the Tamar. Customs and immigration procedures were professional and painless. Officials told us we would be only the second boat in 10 years to clear in at Launceston, a town 35nm up the Tamar River. Most boats clear in on the mainland or go directly to Hobart, on the southeast corner of “Tassie,” as Tasmania is called. Our Dutch sailboat friends in Nelson had told us how much they had enjoyed visiting Launceston, so we made it a point to stop here.

After a big breakfast in blissfully calm waters, Egret, our Nordhavn 46, rode the flood tide up the Tamar River to Launceston. Even far upriver, the Tamar has 10-plus-foot tides and up to 8 knots of current, and it is quite shallow. The saving grace for mis-navigation is that the bottom is soupy mud. It was a beautiful ride past waterfront homes and vineyards. Launceston is the second largest city in Tasmania and one of the oldest in all of Australia—but it is a vibrant town, with a downtown of wonderfully restored sandstone buildings from the early 1800s.

Legendary solo circumnavigator Joshua Slocum visited Launceston in January 1897. In Sailing Alone Around the World, Slocum wrote: “[I] rested my bones, for the coming voyage, on the moss-covered rocks at the gorge hard by”—the same gorge where Mary and I saw our first wallaby. Of his boat Spray’s time in Launceston, Slocum wrote, “She lay there hard and fast, with not enough water around her at any time after to wet one’s feet till she was ready to sail; then, to float her, the ground was dug from under her keel.” All of us voyagers are simply passing through, just as Slocum was 113 years earlier.

Callum Macaskill, the dockmaster in Launceston, met Egret at the marina and directed us to one of the very few berths that doesn’t sit in mud at low tide. (Yes, there is exposed mud on moon low tides!) Deforestation for farming and raising livestock upriver has caused the once-clear Tamar to slowly be filled by silt. In the “small world” department, Callum had read about Egret in the pages of PMM, and he gave our crew extra special treatment. He and his wife even loaned us a car for a week during the holidays.

In addition to spending our days in town, the three of us traveled across the top of Tassie to the island’s northwest coast, taking the upper tourist route (our favorite), and then halfway down the east coast to iconic Honeymoon Bay. Honeymoon Bay appears in every tourist brochure, and it is easy to see why. Located in a national park, there is a walkway high up a hill to the north where you can look down on the crescent-shaped bay and its white sand beaches. Unfortunately, when we passed Honeymoon Bay offshore, the weather didn’t allow an overnight anchorage.

TASSIE IN BLOOM

While taking the tourist route through rural northern Tasmania, we stopped in the small farming town of Sheffield for a bite at the Highlander Restaurant & Scottish Scone Shoppe. Sheffield is one of numerous towns in the region with a Scottish heritage, bearing names like Merseylea, Kimberly, and Burnie. At the Highlander, we ordered meat pies and watched the happenings. All types of Scottish knickknacks decorated the walls, and there were even a couple of eccentric Scotsmen on hand. On the way in, we had seen a Scotsman in a kilt and tam, complete with a long feather, walking around with a pet alpaca that was trimmed like a poodle. Inside was Mathew Simms, another Scot who ties his hair braids under his chin like a collar. Mathew played his homemade bagpipes softly for the lunch crowd, and then sat for a bit. One group of diners made a request and sang in accompaniment as he played. Mathew lives simply in a tent outside town with his dog and seven sheep, which he shears by hand, spinning his own wool and making his own clothing. He rides his bicycle back and forth to the restaurant, where he works for tips.

We were so fortunate to be in Tasmania at the beginning of summer. Everything was in bloom; even inland was as green as it could be. Unfortunately, while we were in central Tassie, there were numerous fires. During an early-morning drive through a small central town, we saw numerous fire-fighting crews from surrounding towns preparing to head out for a hot day’s work. On the return trip, we watched as a fire-fighting helicopter, its water bucket streaming below, made one last run before a smoky sunset.

One special spring event is the flowering of lavender plants on the island. During this three-week phenomenon, lavender’s purple flowers are harvested and pressed for oil. We arrived at a large lavender farm just as it was closing for the day and were asked to return when the farm reopened. We told the couple at the gate that we were photographers and asked what time we could come back. By 9 a.m., when they reopened, the light would be too bright for good photos. In the end, the couple—who turned out to be the “gentleman farmer” owners—opened the gate. We spent the evening telling them boat stories and getting a private tour as the sun dropped and the light softened. Mary’s photos were outstanding.

Bjorn and Anika, Swedish sailboat friends we had met in Patagonia and on numerous other stops over the previous four years, were in Hobart, so we drove two and a half hours south and returned with the couple to stay aboard Egret for a few days. While touring the sights with them, we stopped at a poppy field to snap a few pictures. I hopped the fence into the poppies to use a wide-angle lens and a tripod. A fellow came by in a giant farm machine of some sort and gave me the business. Woops—turns out it is a serious offense in Tassie to get near the poppies, which are grown for medicinal purposes and are tightly controlled and guarded. Mary, Bjorn, and Anika were a bit nervous, but no harm was done. We would see our Swedish friends, aboard Lindisfarn, again in Hobart. Later, they would sail on to New Zealand, headed for Japan, the Aleutians, and Alaska. I’m sure somewhere along the way we will meet again.

BOISTEROUS BREEZES

After three delicious weeks in Launceston, we took advantage of a good weather window to negotiate Banks Strait and turn Tassie’s northeast corner to the east coast. We made several stops as we cruised south, day-hopping and hiking on the way to Hobart, and we were introduced to Tassie’s boisterous afternoon sea breezes along the east coast. One afternoon, the winds reached just over 50 knots, forcing us to change direction and take the long way to the anchorage, using the lee of an offshore island. In one anchorage we were caught at night in a wind reversal, and Egret pitched all night as if she were in head seas. We were happy to move in the morning.

In another small cove, Dick, Mary, and I helped a couple get their sailboat off the rocks after their main anchor had turned loose. In his panic after starting the engine, the skipper had put the engine in gear and sucked the stern chain-and-rope anchor rode into the prop, setting the boat adrift. We secured the couple’s boat with a long shore line from Egret’s bow to their bow. The owner was in no shape to dive under the boat, so Dick, a New Zealand navy diver in his youth, quietly removed his jacket, shirt, and shoes and entered the freezing water. He unwrapped the stern anchor chain and then cut the rope from the sailboat’s prop and shaft. Mary went out in the dinghy while Dick was diving and stripped piles of weed from their main anchor.

Mission accomplished, Dick was very happy to be out of the water, and he took a long, hot shower. We invited the couple over for tea after they had reset their anchor; both were still shaking as if they had been in the water. Of course, Dick’s tea had a well-deserved kicker.

Our favorite anchorage on Tasmania’s east coast was Port Arthur, site of the ruins of the infamous penal colony that was home to 12,500 convicts between 1830 and 1877. Things were so bad in England at the time that some actually committed a minor offense so they would be sent to Port Arthur. While there, some who behaved and worked hard were given land to farm, supporting the penal colony and arriving immigrants. For those who weren’t released, it was brutal work, but at least they received three meals a day and a place to live. For years, many Australians hid any family connection to the penal colony; these days, some consider it “in” to have a convict in their family’s past.

Leaving Port Arthur before daybreak, we were lucky enough to have beautiful weather as we passed between Cape Pillar and Tasman Island, on the southeast coast of the Tasman Peninsula. Lit by the morning sun, the basalt rock formations along the coast were spectacular. After stopping in the small village of Nubeena for a weekend festival complete with boat races, Egret berthed at the Royal Yacht Club of Tasmania, a 20-minute walk from downtown Hobart. Hobart is the second oldest town in Australia, capital of the Australian state of Tasmania, and the nicest harbor city Egret has visited. The hillside homes surrounding Hobart look down on the River Derwent and on Storm Bay. The Sydney-to-Hobart race fleet had just arrived and were flying their banners at Constitution Docks in downtown Hobart. This international fleet was quite impressive, not only because of the number of entries, but because of the caliber of the race boats.

Our Kiwi friend Dick departed in Hobart after Aussie friends of his, Graham and Margarita, owners of the Nordhavn 43 Barquita, came and visited Egret overnight. As is the norm, Egret was a people magnet at the yacht club, because long-distance powerboats are relatively rare here. Hobart seems as though it was custom-made for sailing, with its large, deep bay and dependable afternoon sea breeze. The Tassies are great sailors—these folks leave the dock for their evening or weekend races in weather that would make most folks run and hide. Good on ’em, as they say here.

Mary and I spent three fantastic weeks in Hobart, taking near-daily treks to town, and stopping at our new favorite coffee shop and bakery along the way. Nearly all of the small, neat homes lining the road from the yacht club at Sandy Bay to Battery Point and on to town had rose gardens in full bloom out front. Mary loved the roses and struck up conversations with many of the locals about their gardens. One older gent grew large, reddish-pink blooms called Lincoln roses, a hybrid variety of tea rose.

During our stay in Hobart, there was a summer festival going on, with daily events. We managed to catch a few, including a weekend event for children that featured skydivers. Another favorite was the Salamanca Market along the waterfront. Old 1830s whaling-era warehouses, once in disrepair, have been restored and converted into bistros and artsy stores. Out front on Saturdays, the entire area is a sea of vendors’ tents, selling everything from fresh produce, cheese, and wine to clothes, hats, and beautiful lathe-turned wood bowls. Around the periphery buskers perform, their hats or instrument cases open for donations. We spent our Saturdays at the market, eating lunch and snacking at the vendor tents.

Another treat while we were in Hobart: fellow Chile-cruising veterans Dick and Gail Barnes arrived at the yacht club aboard their Nordhavn 57, Ice Dancer II. Together, we toured inland by rental car for two days and spent the evenings socializing and taking turns hosting dinner. After their stay, Ice Dancer II departed for South Island, New Zealand.

BIRDS OF A FEATHER

During our time in Tasmania, we talked to local cray (spiny lobster) and abalone fishermen, looking for weather advice. We loved the cray fishing boats. Typically, these boats are made of nearly indestructible Huon pine, which grows in a small region of southwest Tasmania. Huon pines are now protected, but fallen trees are still found in river beds and are milled like new. Cray boats usually are 40–50 feet long with a single engine and a low profile, and they have a house aft and wet wells midship to hold the catch. As we traveled the Tasmanian coast, we saw former cray boats that had been converted to private cruisers, a result of fishermen retiring and larger fishing boats buying up smaller boats’ transferable fishing quotas. In New Zealand, we had met a young schoolteacher couple taking a multiyear sabbatical who had bought a cray boat and enlarged the house, adding a bunk and small galley, then rebuilt the single Gardner diesel and gearbox. For stability they retained the wet well and the short ketch rig (fore and aft sailboat masts); the sails also served as get-home propulsion. The couple’s cruising plans included the western Pacific islands, Alaska, and Chile.

Next for us would be the crossing from southwest Tasmania north to mainland Australia, and then west below the Great Australian Bight to Fremantle/Perth on Australia’s west coast. This is a 2,000nm journey, usually with westerly or southwesterly winds, sometimes severe. For a good portion of the trip, there is no shelter, so weather timing is critical. Late February and March is the time to ride the easterlies across the Bight, as the highs move farther south during the summer. (Highs rotate counterclockwise in the Southern Hemisphere.) Bottom line: Egret’s time in Tasmania was limited by weather routing, certainly not by choice.

With a time crunch, we sadly left Hobart for D’Entrecasteaux Channel, weaving between North Bruny Island and South Bruny Island and then on to Dover. Locals insisted we stop in Dover and try the scallop pies at a local eatery, so we did. The pies were just as advertised, and the eatery was very small-town, with one very stressed lady doing the cooking, waiting on her six tables, and taking care of the take-away business. The dining was slow going, but that didn’t matter. We loved it—the pies and the experience.

From Dover, it was a short hop to the staging harbor of Recherche Bay, named after a French research vessel called La Recherche whose complement of astronomers, botanists, and scientists explored Australia in the late 18th century. After a couple days waiting on weather, Egret left the anchorage well before daylight, using radar and accurate electronic charting for the 65nm day trip to the crown jewel of Tasmanian cruising: Port Davey, a wild inland estuary on the southwest coast that is accessible only by boat or air.

We left early because we wanted to ensure a daylight entrance into the rocky shallows of Port Davey, and we wanted to miss as much of the afternoon sea breeze as possible. This is a notorious stretch of water passing below the two southernmost capes in Australia, South East Cape and South West Cape. Fortunately, the weather was exactly as forecast, with less than 20 knots of wind and a relatively small swell of 6-plus feet from the southwest. Albatrosses, including the giant wandering albatross, along with mutton birds (shearwaters), were out in force. We loved the tiny Wilson’s storm petrels, as well, daintily dancing upwind over the waves on their webbed feet.

By midafternoon, we haddropped anchor in Spain Bay, at the entrance to Port Davey. During our stay in Port Davey, we found that anchoring was marginal in places, with poor holding. We had to reset several times and once use two stern lines ashore in addition to the anchor. When winds blew over 30 knots, we stayed aboard and stood anchor watch.

On the afternoon of our arrival, we went beach exploring, and the next day wemoved into one of Port Davey’s numerous interior anchorages. Our routine was to hike into the hills or along the beaches when weather allowed, and to putz aboard when weathered in by rain or standing anchor watch because of the wind. One day we gave up and hiked in the rain, wanting to visit as many of Port Davey’s anchorages as our schedule would allow. We saw harsh scenery, beautiful woods, white sand beaches, abandoned farmsteads, fishing shacks, whale bones, birds, and seals. At times, Port Davey reminded us of the upper part of the Chilean archipelago (we called it “Chile light”).

Not many local cruisers visit Port Davey, but the ones we did meet were nice folks who had been coming here for years. Unstable weather keeps many folks away. One local cruiser said that one year he and his family spent their entire vacation in Recherche Bay, waiting to cross to Port Davey. They never made it because of the weather.

After two short months in this very special place called Tasmania, we departedPort Davey at daybreak and turned north for the Australian mainland—the next story in ourpersonal voyage of discovery aboard Egret.

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