ship's log

Tuesday 18 July - Monday 31 July - New Caledonia and passage to Australia


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Tuesday 18 July – Monday 24 July

Nina, Nigel and Emma (Bean) Lightfoot arrived on time in the early afternoon, from Newcastle, via Singapore and Sydney. I hired a car to pick them up from Tontouta, the island's international airport, which is about 45 mins North of Noumea. Last time we saw them, they were waving us off on the Pontoon in Msida Creek, in Malta on the day we left. What a lot has happened since then!

They are in fine form despite the long journey. They spend the first night at a hotel ashore, to sleep off the jet lag without the disturbance of tiny feet and other Duck noises.

We spend the next few days exploring inland New Caledonia. There is much to see, and the scenery is spectacular.

After a lazy day settling in on Wednesday, on Thursday we visit the Noumea aquarium and the Jean Marie Tjibau cultural centre. The aquarium is one of the best in the South Pacific, and has some lovely fish to see, living in seawater pumped up from the bay. There is a particularly exquisite display of all the diverse corals you can see out on the reef. This is in a darkened room, and is lit by Ultra Violet light, which brings out the brilliance of the colours. The Cultural centre is named after the Kanak (indigenous New Caledonian) leader who was murdered in 1989 in a dispute with a rival independence political party. The centre re-creates the traditional houses of the different local tribes very effectively. And there is some lovely quirky art on display.

On Friday we load up in our hired minibus and head for the hills. The Monts Koghis are the nearest mountains overlooking Noumea. They go up to 1000 metres, and have some lovely trails to walk along up. We park up at the base and start walking up, following the roughly marked signs. It is heavy going at times, especially for the girls but they cope really well as we slowly ascend through the rain forest. There is a rope bridge to cross at one point. As we work our way upwards, we are teased by glimpse of the view outside the canopy over the Western side of New Caledonia. After a three of hours of walking uphill, we emerge at the top of a bare peak for our reward. The top of Mont Malaoui has a truly magnificent view of Noumea, the Boulari pass through the reef, and the whole of the South West corner of the island. We bask in the sunshine and enjoy a really good picnic lunch at the top. A great day out, and we all sleep well that night.

On Saturday we set off with a guide, Olivier, to the Parc Riveira Bleu, which is about one hour away. We spend the day walking around this beautiful park, enjoying the peace and lushness of the place. We spend an hour kayaking down the Riviera Bleu itself, which provides a different perspective. In the middle of the day, we have a barbecue in a clearing, prepared by Olivier's girlfriend and niece. Another good day out.

On Sunday we revert back to being yachties and take off for a day anchored at the Amedee lighthouse, which marks the main pass into the reef. The weather is good, and we have a long snorkel on the coral reef. The air and water temperature is definitely noticeably colder here, being almost at the latitude of the Tropic of Capricorn, and midwinter. But its nice and sunny so we don’t mind. That evening we did some singing – the girls wanted to do a Birthday concert for Bean. The Lightfeet are all musical, so they joined in, providing some lovely new harmonies to old favourites.

Monday 24 July

There is a flurry of activity in the morning, as I have decided to head off on our last leg to Australia today. I have been watching the weatherfaxes for the right opportunity. There have has been a rather nasty Low pressure hanging around North of the Tasman for the last week, which has created dreadful weather on our route. At least three boats we know of had checked out and set off for Australia, only to return, beaten back, telling tales of huge seas, wind on the nose etc. etc. But now the Low has tracked South and a High pressure, bringing following winds, has replaced it. It has come just at the right time. We have had a good week exploring New Caledonia. If we set off now, we should be able to cover the 1000 miles in a week. This will allow us to have a week or so cruising in the Whitsunday islands before handing the Duck over on August 8th. I have heard wonderful things about the cruising there. So it would be good to have the opportunity to explore them briefly.

I do the rounds of all the clearance offices – customs, immigration, and the Port Captain. Caroline do as a final stock up and the rest of the crew get the boat ship-shape for departure. We set off by 1100 and are through the Pass and into the Pacific by lunchtime. We have really enjoyed New Caledonia. There is good cruising here, and we did not even scratch the surface in the time we had. Next time I would like to spend a couple of weeks in the Isle of Pines to the South. And we did not visit the Loyalty islands to the West, which are reputedly stunning. Next time........

There is a steady South Easterly wind, as advertised, which gives us a broad reach. There is a reasonable swell. We spend the evening settling back into the routine of passage making.

Tuesday 25 July

We settle into a watch system which will see us through to Australia. Everyone pulls their weight in their own way, and we start to enjoy the passage.

Then in the early afternoon, we have a spectacular treat. Mark and Nigel were just chatting on watch when a whale surfaced and blew just a few metres away from the cockpit. Soon it was joined by another. They call out and we are soon all on deck. For the next forty minutes we were treated to the most incredible display. The two whales play around the boat like dolphins. They come straight towards us at alarming speeds, then, just as I am sure we are going to collide, they dive down and glide underneath us, or barrel-roll away silently. They move with unbelievable ease and grace. It is really hard to believe they weigh over thirty tons. We all watch spellbound. Just before they take off, one of them comes in right close alongside us on the starboard side and just surfs along keeping pace with us, its huge head coming up a couple of times to blow. Quite breathtaking. It is a humpback, and has a similar enigmatic smile to the dolphin. Its eye follows our progress, as it times our speed perfectly, and keeps just the right distance away to be safe. I wonder what it thinks we are. Then, as suddenly as they arrived, they are gone. What a privilege.

I managed to get the video up and working, so should have some footage of the visit this time. Those of you who have been following the log will know that we have seen whales before. But previous sightings were at more of a distance, and for a much shorter time. Nothing like what we have just seen.

After the excitement of the afternoon, everyone calms down and we have a restful evening. The weather continues to be good, with South-Easterly winds pushing us along at over 7 knots.

Wednesday 26 July

The wind backs round to the North East, so we flick onto a beam reach on Starboard tack. We are making good progress, and are now 400 miles off Swains reef, at the Southern tip of the Great Barrier reef. Our course takes us West towards Swains, then up on a North Westerly course towards Mackay. We plan to check in and clear customs in Mackay, then head up to the Whitsunday's from there. If all goes well, we should be in by next Monday 31st, and then out to the islands by Tuesday. We will send our next log, which will probably be our last of the trip, from Australia next week.

Thursday 27 July

We have been having such a pleasant sail so far. I had been wondering whether we could keep this following wind all the way in to the Great Barrier Reef. The morning weather fax suggests that we will not, however. The Wicked Witch of the Weather has one final trick to play on us. This is confirmed when I speak to Des Renner of Russell Radio in New Zealand. There is a cold front on its way, and it is right in our path. It will bend the wind round to the North, then West, before settling in the South, and bring some rain and thunderstorms. Time to reef down, batten down the hatches and hold on tight.

My immediate concern is whether we will be able to make it round Swains Reef, at the Southern tip of the Great Barrier reef. We need to be able to make this point, which is 100 miles to the West of us, before we can turn to point North West towards Mackay, our destination and check-in port in Queensland. The impending change in wind direction will make this difficult. By early afternoon the grey clouds have moved in and there is rain about. The wind is in the North or North West initially, but still only 15 knots.

Suddenly at about 2000 hours, the front hits us hard. The wind comes round to the South and starts to really blow. The seas build up. Soon we have 4 metres waves, the motion becomes very confused, and the rain starts to drive. The confused sea is exacerbated by the current that flows South along the outside of the Great Barrier Reef, directly opposing the wind waves. We reef right down and pound our way Westward on a close reach.

It becomes a bit of casino down below. Unfortunately the Ducks’ waterproofing, so brilliant up to now, lets us down. The main culprit is the forehatch. The seals are too old and tired. We are taking big waves over the deck, and water comes in, dousing the girls beds. We move them back to the saloon, and everyone does their best to get some sleep on a turbulent night.

Friday 28 July

The next 24 hours stay fairly uncomfortable. It is in conditions like this that the real character of a crew comes out. And everyone copes in fine style. Nigel takes over feeding everyone and does a brilliant job, as Caroline needs to stand watches on the helm. Bean and Nina help to look after the girls. Nina copes particularly well, as she is quite seasick, but remains stoic. Mark and I concentrate on reefing and trimming the sails. Lots of adjustments needed as the wind strength goes up and down, and the wind angle changes. We plod on through the night and the following day, working our way Westwards mile by mile.

Saturday 29 July

At 0430 on Saturday morning we have finally worked our way to a point inside the reef, and it is safe to ease sheets a little and point North West. In the meantime the wind has come round to the South East, which helps as well. What a relief for everyone! The sun comes out in the morning, and it is clear that the worst of the cold front has gone past us.

We are now storming along at 8 knots on a broad reach. We catch our first glimpse of and Australia, in the form of High Peak Island, just off the Queensland coast.

A glorious day's sailing.

Sunday 30 July

Still steaming along at high speed. Nigel displays his culinary talent by cooking a really delicious breakfast of bacon and eggs with all the trimmings. Much appreciated by all.

By mid-afternoon we have our target destination in Australia in our sights. Scawfell Island is one of the Southern Whitsundays. As we will be arriving after dark and in quite strong winds, we are allowed to drop anchor there and sit out the night, before heading in to Mackay for our customs and quarantine clearance first thing in the morning.

We arrive at dusk. The anchor splashes down at about 6 pm, and we switch off the engine. It is wonderfully quiet and peaceful in the lee. The island is deserted, and we are sharing the anchorage with two other yachts and two trawlers. Everyone is in a really buoyant mood. There is something really very special about the moment of landfall after a long journey.

And for Caroline and I, Sarah and Hannah this is the end of a bigger voyage. Since leaving Malta on August 1st 1999, we have travelled over seventeen thousand miles on the Duck. A special moment indeed. I have two strong feelings. Relief at having made it safely. Whilst I have become much more confident as time has gone on and the miles have been conquered, my respect and fear of the sea and its power is undiminished. And real satisfaction at the way everyone in our family has handled the adventure, making the most of everything it had to offer.

Monday 31 July

We are up early with the cacophony of birds singing in the bay. Mackay is about three hour sail away on a beam reach.

We make it by 11 am. I have been in touch with the customs officers on the phone and they are waiting for us, along with the quarantine officer. Mackay is not the most attractive of Ports, being set up as a working port for transporting sugar rather than looking good for visiting yachts. We moor up rather precariously on some piles, and the officers come on board. We know what to expect. There are endless forms to be filled in for customs purposes. But the quarantine process is the most brutal. Every single item of food, whether fresh or tinned, is inspected. If it does not originate from Australia or New Zealand, it is confiscated to be taken away and incinerated. This is to protect Australia from imported diseases and crop pests. It is a tough process, but it works for them, by and large, and we were prepared for it. Caroline had made sure that we were down to our last few tins of emergency food.

By lunchtime we have been processed and certified bug-free, fit for entry to the promised land. We motor round the corner to the shiny new marina. We had been put in touch with the marina manager, Michael Davison, by our friends Ray and Eve on ‘Fontana 2’ - a Swan 44, who we met in New Caledonia. He puts us into their berth, as they are away cruising.

We spend the afternoon buzzing around town doing chores. Nina tackles the laundry mountain, Caroline does the provisioning, and the rest of us do banks, travel, cruising permits etc etc.

By the evening, thanks to a big effort from everyone, we have sorted the boat out completely. We are ready to turn around and head North for a week’s cruising in the Whitsundays.

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