Only two weeks after arriving back in Sydney after seven months of travelling - four months cycling from Sydney to Cairns, one month touring Cape York and the Gulf and two months working at Lawn Hill National Park - Karen and I were off again, on a sailing trip to Lord Howe Island. Lord Howe is an idyllic South Sea island paradise about four hundred and twenty nautical miles (seven hundred kilometres) north-east of Sydney. Karen and I flew to Lord Howe Island in 1990 for our honeymoon, and promised each other then that one day we would return. In late 1994, when the offer was made to join a yacht crew for a three week sailing trip to the island a year later, we jumped at the chance.
Neither of us had much sailing experience. Whenever I had been sailing, it had always been strictly as ballast. I had never been off-shore, except for about half an hour at the mouth of the Broken Bay estuary, which means precisely nothing. Compared to me, Karen was Captain Cook. She had spent many hours sailing a tiny catamaran around the landlocked waters of St. George's Basin, and had occasionally been on larger yachts. She wind-surfs fairly well too. Karen also had another skill which might hold her in good stead on the voyage, her swimming ability. Karen can swim forever. If our sailing boat sunk, Karen could swim from Sydney to Lord Howe if she had to. I would be lucky if I could swim to the lifeboat.
The rest of the crew, however, was very experienced. Peter, the captain, a friend Karen and I had first met while working for Roche, had sailed to Lord Howe Island seven times previously, through all manner of weather and with a variety of crews. He spends many of his weekends working for the Royal Volunteer Coastal Patrol at one of their Sydney Harbour bases at the Spit, and is a good, solid, reliable bloke. Bruce, who would be our navigator, is Peter's brother-in-law, and has accompanied Peter on his voyages on three or four occasions. Despite being fairly new to sailing, he has more than made up for his relative lack of experience with his knowledge and understanding of all things nautical. Bruce also has another wonderful sailing attribute. He never gets seasick, a valuable asset when all around you are incapacitated. The third member of the crew was Ron, who owns his own boat and works with Peter at the coastal patrol. He was always cheerful and unflappable, even when the captain was on his back all the time. His pet name for Peter was Captain Bligh.
The boat was a forty five foot ketch named Ferros - due to its construction from ferros-cement. To a novice like myself, it seemed crazy to be attempting an off-shore adventure in a boat made out of concrete, but I had been assured Ferros was extremely sea-worthy, never took in any water, and because of its extra weight, was extremely stable compared to the lighter weight wood and fibreglass racing yachts. The actual term Peter used to describe this last feature, was that the boat was as solid as a rock. I was hoping it did not float like a rock as well.
There were two good sleeping berths in the main cabin, and two bench seats which could be converted into beds too. The forward cabin also had a large sleeping area, but was also the part of the boat that moved up and down the most. The original plan was to have a rotating three hour watch system, with those not on watch occupying whichever berth was available, but Captain Bligh threw a spanner in the works by claiming one of the good berths as his own and telling us that anyone could sleep there, but when he came off his watch, they would have to be prepared to move. As a result, Peter's bunk was used solely by Peter, which forced the rest of us to go back to the same bunk we had left three hours earlier. My bunk, one of the bench seats, was diabolical. I would not get any sleep for the entire voyage!
Final preparations for the trip were being made right up until the moment we sailed. A 9am Saturday start time eventually became 2pm, after a difficult to diagnose electrical problem was found and fixed. After lunch, we motored out to the Sydney heads in a rain storm and hoisted sail. Karen was given the first watch, until 6pm. Almost immediately, the wind began to die, and we bobbed around on a smooth sea for an hour or two, even completing a full three hundred and sixty degree turn as the wind disappeared completely. We dedicated the turn to the wind gods, and were immediately rewarded with a good twelve knot southerly.
Sydney and North Head disappearing behind us
Ferros weighs about twenty two tonnes. Similarly sized racing yachts weigh about seven tonnes. This gives Ferros a lot of stability, but also makes her very slow. With a full jib and main she moves pretty well, but the extra speed provided by more sail is not worth the effort. A spinnaker would probably add less than a knot to her speed and make her a lot more difficult to handle, so the basic rig is not changed too much.
Once the wind picked up, we began to make good time. A port tack had us pointed straight at the island, so there was not much to do while on watch except hold onto the wheel and check the compass bearing every now and then. Conditions remained the same throughout the first night, a good steady wind and good sailing. Karen threw up at nine that night, and remained sea-sick for the next few days. I felt fine on deck, and laying in my bunk, but moving around the cabin or sitting up would make me feel pretty bad. I had my first watch ever from midnight to 3am, thrown in at the deep end. My instructions were simple - if anything changes or I don't know what to do, call someone. I was steering to a compass bearing, and the conditions did not change for the entire watch so I handled it okay. We were averaging somewhere between five and six knots, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself.
Karen did the 6am to 9am shift the next morning, feeling better on deck than below. Coming from factory and office backgrounds, Karen and I found it difficult to adapt to the nautical terms like watch and galley and head. So we had a shift at the wheel, not a watch, and always used the kitchen and the toilet.
We passed one hundred nautical miles after twenty four hours, slow for a racing yacht, but flying for Ferros. I was spending as much time as I could in the cockpit, avoiding the queasiness brought on by being below. Still determined to fulfil all the duties of a normal crew member, after my Sunday afternoon shift, I volunteered to cook dinner that evening. I would live to regret it. Just.
There was actually very little cooking to do. We had pre-cooked all of our meals, and frozen them. Preparing dinner consisted of finding a big pot, getting a meal out of the freezer, lighting the stove, thawing and heating the meal, and serving it up. I tried to do things one at a time. Go below, find the saucepan, come back up on deck for a breather. Fresh air, and a minute or two looking at the horizon, and I was ready for another foray into the cabin. Open the freezer, find a meal, put it on the sink, then back on deck again. Into the galley of death once more, to open the tupperware container and dump its contents into the pan, then up into the cabin again for more deep breathing exercises. Next on the agenda was lighting the stove, an operation which must have been designed by a psychopath.
The stove was fuelled by kerosene. On Ferros, every available watt of electricity was saved for safety features like the navigational lights and the radio, and anything spare went to the freezer, so there was no way an electric stove could be supported. Gas stoves are supposedly risky, with any escaping gas tending to collect in the bottom of the boat where an errant spark could cause a major explosion. Gas bottles therefore tend to be stored externally, where they are subject to the vagaries of weather, salt and sea. Kerosene is regarded as the safest cooking method of them all, but it has one very big disadvantage, one which will keep it off any boat I ever own - it must be primed with methylated spirits and the whole process stinks!
To light the stove, first connect a standard bicycle pump to the appropriate valve on the stove and pump until the pressure gauge shows a reading of about six. Disconnect the pump, then place a large squirt of methylated spirits in the tray under the burner. Light this with a long match. The heat from the methylated spirits will heat the kerosene in the burner, converting it from a liquid into a gas. Immediately prior to the disappearance of the flame from the almost exhausted metho, turn on the kerosene burner. Do not be alarmed by the tongues of fire which blaze into the air and threaten to incinerate your entire upper body. This mass of flame is simply the remaining liquid kerosene in the burner, adding its heat to the process. Eventually, assuming body and boat are still intact, the kerosene will be fully gasified, and the heat it produces will make the process self-supporting. If the control knob of the stove is so lousy that every time you try to make an adjustment the flame goes out, repeat the entire process over and over again.
This was the scenario I faced when I went below to light the stove. I eventually had the stove lit and running well - and then the kerosene ran out! So did I, up into the cockpit to throw up on the deck. The smell of burning metho and kerosene had been the final straw. It would probably have made me throw up on dry land, let alone in the close confines of the galley of a boat bobbing up and down on the ocean.
Ron took over for the next section of the meal preparation. He had dinner thawed, fully heated and almost ready for serving before he succumbed to the smell and followed my example. It was left to good old never-gets-seasick Bruce to place dinner onto plates and bring it up on deck for every one to attempt to eat. Perhaps "bring it up on deck" is an unfortunate choice of words, because even Bruce was looking a bit pale by the time he had completed this task.
An approaching storm
Karen was still sick, and could not stand her watch late on Sunday night. The experienced crew members took over from her. At around midnight, the wind increased dramatically and the decision was made to reef the main. This basically means that the mainsail is lowered slightly, and the bottom part of the sail is wrapped and tied around the boom, effectively reducing the area of sail, easing the pressure on the mast and rigging, and hopefully preventing potentially disastrous breakages. The seas were high and the night was dark, the moon invisible behind heavy cloud. Rain squalls lashed the boat almost constantly. Peter and Bruce donned their harnesses and life jackets, and clipped onto the safety lines which ran the length of the deck. Ron was steering the boat, and I was called into the cockpit and handed two torches, to provide the light by which Peter and Bruce could work.
They climbed out onto the deck and struggled their way carefully forward to the mast. The two torches reduced the entire world to a five metre sphere of light containing a heaving deck, horizontal rain and flapping sails. For a landlubber like me, this was frightening stuff. Was this normal? Were midnight mainsail reefs by torchlight a standard practice? Were we in danger? I did not know. I just concentrated on keeping the two separate beams of light pointed in the right directions, to enable the two guys on deck to do their job. I would not have wanted to be in their shoes for anything. A quick peripheral glance into the surging water beside the boat made me think about what would happen if a man went overboard. It would be difficult enough to turn the boat around in these conditions. It would be almost impossible to return to exactly the same spot where the incident occurred. And given the magnitude of the seas, there would be no way we would ever see anyone in the water. A comforting thought.
Peter and Bruce took about fifteen minutes to put two reefs in the mainsail. Then Peter returned to the relative safety of the cockpit where he removed his safety harness and threw up. He had told me he got seasick on occasions, but I had seen no evidence of it up until this moment. It is a brave man who goes back to sea repeatedly when he knows he will get sick. To get up on deck in those conditions and do the job he just did when he was not well, was phenomenal. I have nothing but admiration for both Peter and Bruce. With the boat a lot more stable, and with all crew members safely ensconced in the cockpit or cabin, I took the opportunity to throw up too. I don't know whether it was because of the concentration involved in directing two separate beams of light while the boat was rocking and rolling, whether it was due to the adrenalin rush brought on by the wild conditions, or whether it was brought on by pure unadulterated fear. I do know that I felt a whole lot better afterwards.
Rotating three hour shifts on a five man roster means your next shift starts twelve hours after your last shift finishes. My three to six shift on Sunday afternoon meant my next shift would be at six on Monday morning. That shift would finish at nine, so my next would be from nine to midnight on Monday night. Ron, Peter and Bruce had the worst of it over Sunday night. When I took over at dawn, the conditions had eased slightly, and daylight made our situation a lot easier to handle. Peter and Ron again did long shifts during the day to cover for Karen who was still incapacitated.
In the middle of Monday afternoon, a shout went up from the crew in the cockpit. Dolphins. I struggled out of my stupor and climbed up on deck for a look. About fifty dolphins were playing in the waves on both sides of the boat, jumping out of the water in formations of three or four. There were so many of them that for about a five minute period, there was never a moment when there was not a dolphin flying through the air. I called out to Karen to come up and have a look, but she remained in her bunk. Dolphins are Karen's favourite animal. If she did not want to look at them, she must have been feeling really, really bad.
Bruce took the helm for a long watch from dusk on Monday until one on Tuesday morning. Again the wind rose after dark. When I had clambered up into the cockpit at nine to take my watch, both Peter and Bruce were there, in full wet weather gear, clipped onto safety lines. They told me to go back to sleep. I wished I could.
An occasional wave washed over the deck, driving water into the air vents above the bunks below. After getting splashed in the face a couple of times, I forced myself to get up to close the vent above my bunk, quickly returning to a horizontal position before I succumbed to sea-sickness. Then water came in from the vent above Karen, and I had to do it all again. Karen was still not much use for anything. Ron was called up to steer the boat while Peter and Bruce performed another late night mainsail reef. There was no need for torchlight this night. We were surrounded by storms and thunder-heads, and lightning strobed across the sky, providing almost constant illumination. Down in the cabin, Karen and I had a brief discussion.
"How are you going, kid?" I asked.
"I'm worried. This is a nightmare!"
"I guess it is not everyone's idea of what a typical South Seas sailing trip is all about."
"What's it look like up on deck?"
"Pretty freaky. Lots of lightning. Big waves. Wind. Storms. How do you feel?"
"Not good. I wish I wasn't here."
"Me too. Hang in there, kid."
"If I ever suggest we go sailing like this again, talk me out of it, will you?"
"You don't have to worry about that!"
Peter officially took the watch from one in the morning until just before dawn on Tuesday, when the wind dropped to almost nothing. The boom banged noisily as the boat rocked in the heavy swell, and the decision was made to drop the mainsail. Running on the jib only, in the five hours up to 10am, the log (the speed and distance indicator) showed we covered only one nautical mile. We had been merely drifting, but the breeze improved late in the morning and we eventually began to make some headway again. To give Bruce, Peter and Ron as much rest as possible, Karen and I steered the boat for two double shifts during Tuesday, me from dawn until midday and Karen from midday to dusk.
At the end of Karen's watch, with night falling and the stars beginning to appear, Bruce and Peter got out their sextants and attempted some sightings. Although we had the latest satellite navigational technology, it never hurts to practice the traditional techniques. If ever the GPS (Global Positioning Satellites) system gave up the ghost, sextants would be the only means of finding out where we were. And if you do not know where you are, you have no idea in which direction to sail, or whether there is any land out there to bump into. Bruce and Peter took quite a few sightings, getting one of us to write down the exact times they were taken. They then consulted the tables, made some simple calculations and came up with our position - somewhere in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean! Actually, their calculations corresponded fairly closely to those of the GPS, which was a comfort.
The calmer conditions during the day helped Karen to recover from the worst of her seasickness. She would be fine for the remainder of the voyage. Ron had the evening shift until 9pm when the wind slackened off completely. We took all the sails down and bobbed around on a lumpy sea.
Sleep was impossible. The boat rocked from side to side, and everything that moved made a noise. Pots in the cupboard moved back and forth, cans and jars banged into each other. Lines and ropes in the rigging swung wildly, noisily striking anything within reach. Imagine a score of five year olds let loose in the percussion section of an orchestra, and that is what it sounded like. The bunk I lived in was angled slightly to stop me rolling off, but the boat was rocking through about ninety degrees and threatened to throw me off with every movement. I was constantly tensing and holding on. In hindsight, I needed some meshing, like in a hammock, to hold me onto the bunk. If that had been installed, I am sure I would have been fairly comfortable. Without it, I was constantly awake.
Although Karen and I had difficulty remembering to say watches, the term is very apt. Even with no sails up, and going nowhere, a boat needs someone on watch almost constantly. Huge cargo ships, travelling on autopilot, and relying on a radar system that could fail to detect a small boat, can travel from horizon to impact in around twenty minutes. One of the main rules of the sea is that motor must give way to sail, but its not much good being in the right if you are dead. Even if its radar did register your presence, by the time a big ship has taken evasive action, your yacht would be sitting in pieces on the bottom of the ocean.
Shortly after midnight, when I came up on deck to relieve Bruce who had been keeping watch, the wind picked up. The sails were raised again, with the reefs in the main left in, just in case conditions became heavier. Nobody wanted to do another midnight sail reef! I was alone in the cockpit until 3am, and it was fantastic! The moon rose above the horizon directly in front of me. For an hour I was sailing along a beautiful silver highway, then as the moon moved north of the correct track, I pointed the boat at Regulus, the principal star of the zodiacal constellation of Leo. When it too moved too far north, I found myself headed towards Spica in Virgo, my star sign. The bow wave was an incredible royal blue, the result of microscopic plankton fluorescing into bio-luminescence. Every few minutes, accompanied by a whooshing sound, a ray of blue would flash through the water towards the hull, as dolphins gambolled in the small waves. I had never experienced anything like it, and I could see what drives some men and women to make the ocean their home.
Peter relieved me at 3am on the Wednesday morning. He was happy when I told him how much fun my watch had been, as he had not wanted my first ocean voyage to be memorable only because of sickness and terror. Karen took over from dawn until 9am when the reefs in the main were removed for Ron's watch until noon and Bruce's watch until mid afternoon. Near the change of watch, the dolphin cry went up again, but this time there was only one, approaching on a collision course from just off the starboard beam.
"That's a bloody big dolphin," someone said.
"Looks too dark to be a dolphin," said someone else.
"The head's the wrong shape. It's gotta be a whale!"
"It's either the biggest dolphin I've ever seen, or the smallest whale!"
"Where'd it go?"
Whatever it was, it had dived and disappeared. A minute later it surfaced, about two hundred metres behind us and headed further away. About a month would go by before a news item would catch our attention one night, telling of whale strandings on a beach in central New South Wales. The shape and colour of the whales was identical to the creature we had seen. It has the unfortunate but distinctive name of the Melonhead Whale. It was the only whale we would see on the voyage.
High altitude cirrus earlier in the day had signalled the approach of a front, and it arrived from the south-west shortly after I took the helm for the late afternoon shift. Because of the increased intensity of the wind, and the approach of night, it was decided to reef the main halfway through the next tack. We had been on a port tack, but the wind-shift had us heading too far north of our track. Bruce suggested the timing for the reef, having read of a technique that stabilises the boat and allows mainsail changes to be made in comfort. As the boat turns into the wind during the tack, the jib flips from one side to the other. When this happens, the helmsman spins the wheel the other way until it is fully locked. Pointed directly into the wind, with the jib trying to force it one way and the rudder trying to force it the other, the boat is extremely stable and the mainsail completely slack. Reefs or sail changes can be made at leisure. With the wheel locked off, even the helmsman can go up on deck to help.
Theory was put into practice, and it worked beautifully. The reefs were in, and we were headed almost directly north-east, with a huge, following south-westerly swell which had been forced up by the front. We suddenly found ourselves surfing down the face of each wave, then falling off the back of it as it passed underneath the boat. If the swell hit us at a slight angle, the boat was pushed sideways across the face of the wave. If there had been any lip or whitewater at the top of the swell, the boat would have been in danger of rolling over. As the boat fell down the back of the swell, it lost a lot of speed and manoeuvrability, which made it difficulty to straighten before the next swell hit. Steering was a constant struggle with the wheel. The mainsail had been let out almost at right angles to the boat as we ran before the wind, the jib in its wind shadow and almost useless, flapping from side to side.
We were running at about eight knots down the face of each wave, when Peter announced that he was about to increase the speed of the boat by at least two knots, by going to the toilet. We had absolutely no idea what he was talking about, but our befuddled minds imagined a wide variety of possible meanings. Was Peter saying that by going to the toilet, he was about to lighten the load of the boat by so much that it would go a lot faster? Or did he mean that when he flushed the toilet, the extra rush of water out the back of the boat would give us an extra two nautical miles per hour? Karen was having a go at steering the boat when Peter made his announcement, and midway down the next swell, shortly after Peter disappeared into the toilet, Ron, Karen and myself gazed at the log in disbelief as it surged from six to eight to ten knots, and then beyond. When Peter returned from the toilet, we asked him how he had done it.
Peter explained. The electrical problem we had experienced prior to the start of the trip had been associated with some strange wiring connections. He had discovered that when the light in the toilet was turned on, the log showed an extra two knots. Readings actually indicated that the speed reading was more accurate when the light was on. In our weakened emotional state, this light-hearted moment reduced us to a state of helpless mirth.
Ron took over at six. Shortly after, Peter decided to drop the jib and run on the main only, but half an hour later the angle of the wind to the swell changed slightly and we faced the possibility of an uncontrolled jibe, where the mainsail swings from one side of the boat to the other, bringing with it the likelihood of a split boom or a busted mast every time this happens. We had soon jibed a couple of times, with Ron struggling to regain control of the boat. At one point we were still sideways when the next swell hit, with the sail on the wrong side of the boat, and I really thought the boat was going to roll. Bruce, who had been below, had been awakened by the banging boom and the extreme attitude of the boat, and popped his head up to ask what was happening. He suggested to Peter that we would be better off with the mainsail down, running on the jib only. Bruce and Peter again went forward in their harnesses and the jib was soon flying again.
To bring the mainsail down, we again tacked into the wind and stabilised the boat. The mainsail was lowered and lashed to the boom, then once again we resumed our north-easterly heading, the jib keeping the boat pointed in the right direction despite the slewing effects of the swell.
Peter took over at nine o'clock and we ran on the jib until midnight, when the full brunt of the front finally caught up with us. By 3am on Thursday morning, Peter and Bruce had lowered the jib as well. The seas were pretty big by this time, and getting bigger. Satellite readings had given our position as within about thirty nautical miles of Lord Howe. The guys estimated the wind speed at this time as somewhere around sixty knots! Even with only the jib flying, the boat ran the risk of running into the island before daybreak, so all the sails had been removed. We played bob until dawn.
The Ferros turns side-on to the swell when it has no sails up. If the boat was rocking away from the swell at the top of a wave, as it fell down the back it would remain vertical, and the descent would be as smooth as silk. If this happened a few times in a row, the boat was so calm I almost went to sleep. But when the boat was rocking the other way at the top of a wave, it would fall on its side from a great height and hit the bottom with a mighty whack, which would immediately snap me wide awake again, if I was still in my bunk at the time!
At first light I went up on deck to relieve Bruce, who had been checking the horizon every ten minutes and retiring to his navigation desk to read in between. The seas were huge. When Ferros was at the bottom of a trough, the top of the next swell was at least three storeys higher. As the wave approached, it seemed certain that the Ferros was about to be swamped and rolled, but at the last minute the boat would rise up the face of the swell, pause momentarily on top, then fall ten metres down the other side again. An occasional wave had a few feet of white water on top, which crashed into the side of the boat, and sometimes over the deck and into the cockpit as well. Bruce joined me on deck and pointed towards the sunrise. Silhouetted in the orange glow were the unmistakable shapes of Gower and Lidgbird, the two mountains which dominate the southern end of Lord Howe Island. I had not realised we were so close. Bruce calculated their distance at twenty seven nautical miles.
Because of the size and shape of the waves, the decision was made to get to the safety of the island as soon as possible. We started the motor and Ron steered us in an easterly direction, slightly across the swell. Even when running at four to five knots, the Ferros was still difficult to handle, trying to broach across each swell and taking an eternity to straighten again. I was given the task of manning the hatch for the diesel motor's shaft directly behind the cockpit. This hatch, closed when sailing, is usually tied open when the engine is running, but with the possibility of a following wave breaking over the rear deck and swamping the motor, it was my job to hold it open manually and close it when a wave threatened. All the waves looked pretty threatening to me.
I was watching the tilt meter near the log which displayed how far over the Ferros was leaning. To a non-yachty like myself, even the slightest lean seems exaggerated. A thirty degree lean seems almost vertical. The Ferros was tilting past forty five degrees regularly. One time we actually hit sixty degrees. Soon after this, our captain appeared on deck. I had thought the waves were really big, but as nobody else seemed too concerned about them, I figured they were nothing out of the ordinary. When Peter saw the swell he said "Far out" and disappeared below. He reappeared about twenty seconds later with his video camera, and began taking shots of the waves. When I asked him what he was doing, he said that he had never seen the swell as big as this before. And this was his eighth crossing!
Nearing Lord Howe Island
Lord Howe Island had disappeared behind cloud and mist soon after dawn. We maintained our bearing for a couple of hours before the island made its reappearance. Peter radioed Clive, the Lord Howe Island harbourmaster, and was told that conditions would make entry into the lagoon on the west side of the island via North Passage impossible and that we were to proceed to the leeward side of the island to anchor off Middle Beach. After rounding the top of the island, we motored into wonderfully calm waters for the first time since the afternoon we left Sydney.
Peter asked me to go below to retrieve the anchor which was safely stowed in the engine room. I found it tied to the hull of the boat, quickly untied it and hurried back up on deck, where it was fitted to the anchor chain. We dropped anchor shortly after midday, in about eighty feet of water about five hundred metres off the eastern side of the island. The entire voyage had taken us two hours short of five days, a record for Ferros. Later in the trip we spoke to a couple whose racing yacht had completed the same distance in only two days. They said we must have had really calm conditions to have taken such a long time! I wish!
After lunch, Karen, Peter and I swam the half kilometre to shore and found a public telephone to call our families back in Sydney. We did a quick walk around the four roads which make up the Lord Howe Island built-up area, and Karen and I found that it had changed very little in the six years since we had been here last. Then it was back out to the boat for an afternoon of rest and recreation.
Conditions were still not good enough to allow entry to the lagoon next day. Peter and Karen swam into shore again, with a waterproof barrel, and bought some bread from a local shop. In the evening Peter tried his hand at fishing. He hooked a small reef shark, gaffed it up onto the deck and filleted it in preparation for a barbecue we would have on the beach after we finally made it into the lagoon.
On Saturday morning we received the call from Clive that conditions had calmed down sufficiently us to attempt North Passage. High tide would be at nine, so we quickly upped anchor and motored around the north of the island again. The swell had dropped considerably, but had by no means disappeared. There are a few entrances into the Lord Howe Island lagoon through the reef which fringes the west side of the island, North Passage being the widest and deepest. Despite this, it is only about fifteen metres wide and a couple of metres deep. When we lined up with the two channel markers on the shore, the swell was directly astern of us, and still big enough to push us around. I was stationed on the right hand side of the boat, watching the water depth and ready to warn the captain if we were about to run aground. Bruce was doing the same thing on the left. At the critical point - where the ocean floor rises abruptly up to the reef from a depth of about forty metres - we were hit from behind by the swell. It took all of Peter's skill and strength as he struggled with the wheel to stop us from broaching and running into the side of the channel.
Suddenly we were in, and everything was relatively calm again. That's the worst of it over, I thought. I was wrong. Peter had left an aluminium dinghy on the island on one of his previous visits, and it needed to be retrieved, to be used as a means of getting from ship to shore. Peter had the delicate task of sidling Ferros up to the wharf so we could drop off the outboard motor, its fuel, Ron and myself, then backing away and motoring over to our mooring near Rabbit Island, the only island in the lagoon. At high tide the swell is able to cross the reef and it was causing a fair degree of movement in the usually quiet waters inside. Despite the rough conditions, Peter had managed the unloading perfectly, but as the boat was pushed away from the wharf, he found it impossible to get the motor into reverse. The swell pushed the rear of Ferros back towards the wharf again. The crew on board managed to absorb most of the momentum through the use of buffers and brute strength, but not before the stainless steel barbecue attached to the back railing was demolished. Peter finally got the boat into reverse and motored away from the danger and over to the mooring we would use for the next few weeks.
The Ferros had been lucky. A larger swell, or a worse approach angle, might have caused a lot more damage, and possibly even sunk her. It was not until a few days later we discovered the person responsible for the problem. It was me!
When I had untied the anchor, I had not noticed that the same line was also securing another container. The movement of the boat in the swell had caused this container to shift against the motor where it had partially jammed under the gear change lever. When Peter had tried to engage reverse gear, the container prevented it from happening. Luckily, the movement of the lever caused the container to move and reverse gear was finally able to be selected. My single moment of inattention and carelessness in the darkness of the engine room had almost sunk the boat!