Our Only Real Scare During an Entire Circumnavigation

26 Jan

Back in 2005, during our sail around the world, everything was new to us, including river bars. They seemed harmless enough, especially after that first one in Australia that was smooth as glass. Well, the second one caught us. The Clarence River Bar. i'll never forget that one. It very nearly ended our trip and has given Ali an unconditional fear of following seas. If I have to hear one more time how the six-foot following seas are "huge!" I'm going to do something drastic, like have her hypnotized and her Clarence River memory permanently erased. If hypnosis doesn't work a lobotomy is next.

june 19 2005 : coast new south wales
The weather has been awful the last couple of weeks. Like I said previously the trade winds this time of year are supposed to be from the southeast which is the most perfect angle of wind we could have for sailing north up the coast. Unfortunately we haven't had those winds. Instead we have had nothing but winds from the north or the west, forcing us to sit tight on the northerlies and run for the next stop on the westerlies. The forecast the other day showed a one day window with winds from the west sandwiched between a bunch of days from the north, so we decided to leave Coff's Harbor at one a.m. yesterday for the sixty mile trip up to the Clarence River.

We woke up at one and found that the wind had shifted like it was supposed to and was only blowing about five knots, which was fine with us because we wanted nice calm seas for leaving Coff's Harbor in the middle of the night. Luckily there was enough light from the harbor itself to make getting through the narrow entrance pretty easy. For the rest of the night we motorsailed and by morning the wind had picked up to ten knots and we were moving at a nice clip. We made it up to the Clarence River entrance by two and prepared for our second river bar entrance.

Here is where our family members and anybody who is trying to talk their wife into sailing around the world should stop reading. No seriously.

First off I'll explain what a river bar entrance is like for those of you who don't know. It is where an inland river runs into the ocean, but to make it navigable they have to make a few changes. Generally here in Australia what they do is build two giant retaining walls a 100 yards apart and these run out to sea about 200 yards or so essentially making a big runway. Now the trick with these is the tides. During a flood tide the water from the ocean floods into the river creating a current that runs upriver, and during an ebb tide the water from the river flows out of the river and creates a current running down river. So during a flood tide you generally have a flat sea at the entrance because all the water is flowing up the river. But during an ebb tide you have the water flowing out of the river and running into the swell of the ocean which is still coming towards the river creating big waves where the two meet.

About a week ago we entered our first bar entrance at Lake Macquarie. The day was similar to yesterday with light winds of five to ten knots, and a very small ocean swell. When we got to the entrance, despite it being an ebb tide, the water was like glass and we were able to continue right in.

Yesterday, at the Clarence River entrance, I expected to have similar conditions. Again, there hadn't been much wind for the last couple of days and what little wind there was, came from the west which seemed to be mellowing out the ocean swell. So despite it being near the end of the ebb tide I figured that we would see similar conditions to Lake Macquarie.

The cruising guide told us there were breaking waves about a quarter mile out from the entrance and that to avoid these we should sneak in close to the end of the breakwall before entering "the runway." The runway is an area about a hundred yards long that runs between two long breakwalls directing the river out in to the ocean.

As we approached the entrance we didn't notice anything out of the ordinary. There were a few waves breaking against the north wall, but that made sense since there was a small south swell. Then just as we entered the runway we saw a huge wave about 75 yards in front of us that seemed to be moving in slow motion as it rolled straight up the river. Looking back now it would have been at this point that we probably had five seconds to make the decision to stop and get ourselves out of there. But we didn't, we hesitated, and then it was too late.

Suddenly there were huge breaking waves roaring up behind us. Ali scrambled to close the cockpit doors while I tried to get us in a straight line up the river. The waves were on us in seconds. The first one picked the boat up what felt like a hundred feet in the air, but somehow passed safely underneath us. We weren't so lucky on the next one.

The wave took control as it grabbed hold of the boat. Up to this point I had been using the autopilot; I quickly realized that wasn't going to react fast enough, so I hit the standby button and grabbed hold of the wheel. I cannot imagine how fast the boat was moving at this point. For the moment we were pointed straight ahead and I still had hope that this wave too, would slide beneath us.

Then suddenly the boat veered to the right. We were in the face of a huge wave, sideways at a 45 degree angle, and moving at incredible speeds. We could see the wave beginning to break and we were completely under its control. It seemed at that moment there was no possibility of a good outcome. The boat, with us on it, was about to be flipped over and destroyed against the shallow river bottom. The wave continued to break from one end to the other, until the top of the curling green monster above us finally turned white, and crashed over the top of our heads.

Ali was knocked off her feet and slammed to the cockpit floor by the wall of water, while I somehow managed to hang on to the wheel. It was in the split second as the wave broke over us that we both truly thought that it might be all over for us. We had zero control and were completely at the mercy of the wave. It passed both over and through us, yet miraculously the boat didn't flip. Then despite the fact that we were still moving sideways at an unbelievable speed I was able to crank the wheel and feel the boat slowly come back around.

There were more waves gathering up right behind us though. I yelled to Ali to stay in the cockpit, hammered the throttles and kept going, trying desperately to keep the boat running perpendicular to the oncoming waves. The cockpit was full of water as the drains couldn't keep up, and the doors had popped open a crack when the wave hit, so there was tons of water in the boat as well, but so far no serious damage. We held our breath as a couple more waves lifted us up, passing harmlessly underneath before breaking violently upriver. And then, just like that, we were out of it.

The whole thing happened so fast that we could hardly believe it had happened at all. We motored into calm water, both shaking, not sure if it was because we were wet and cold or our nerves were fried. I suppose it had more to do with the adrenaline coursing through our bodies. We both stripped out of our soaked clothes and Ali brought up some dry ones to put on. Ali kept asking over and over again, Are you alright? as I just sat there quietly. Ali went inside to make sure the bilge pumps were doing their job and that everything else was okay. Somehow the computer was still sitting on the nav station table charting our progress as if nothing had happened. A half hour later we were tied up to a mooring where we spent the rest of the day cleaning the boat, in silence.

Aside from learning a lesson on how severe these river bars could be, we also learned just how seaworthy our boat was. There is a lot of criticism directed towards catamarans by monohull owners, but I have no doubt this same situation would have ended very differently if we'd not been on a cat. Another thing boat related is something I often kid Ali about. She keeps the boat spotless. She doesn't like anything on her counters or basically out in the open at all. Everything on our boat is always put away. The women who come on our boat always comment on how clean and organized it is. Seems like a minor thing, but after the boat is tossed that violently and we come inside and there isn't one thing on the floor or out of place it sure feels worth it. Same goes for the outside of the boat. We don't store anything on deck. No jerry jugs, no fenders or extra lines, nothing. If that stuff had been tied up outside it would have been ripped off the boat for sure. Lastly, I found that by keeping our heads we can make it through pretty much anything. Neither one of us panicked, which enabled us to get things under control and get out of there in one piece.

Anyway, that was that. We talked briefly about not including this on our website, knowing that it would scare our families and would provide fodder for the know-it-alls. But we've been honest about everything this long so we couldn't stop now. And we hope that it doesn't sound flippant or come across like we are trying to be heroic or something. We know that we are the ones who put ourselves in that position and it could have been the biggest mistake we ever made. Fortunately it wasn't. Live and learn.



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