Friday, July 22, 2011

Sailing North: A Midnight Crossing

19th July

“Sailing on a Midnight Boat,
There were no questions asked
The water’s so green and the air is so clean,
He just stuck right to his task”
Havana Daydreaming
Jimmy Buffett

Courtesy of the war games we have to travel about 100 nms in one leg to The Percy Islands. (In one leg, not on one leg!)This stops us pulling into Port Clinton, Pearl Bay, Island Head, Thirsty Sound and all those traditional stops cruisers use to break up the quite hazardous prospect of trying to stay awake for a considerable amount of time. It would be foolhardy to enter an anchorage in the dark so it has to be an overnighter, timing ones arrival to be in daylight hours. Even then there are plenty of Islands and solitary rocks to avoid along the way. And we haven’t included the Military Exclusion Zone which also has to be avoided. And which, by my calculations adds another 30 nms to the trip.

We planned to leave at 3.00pm. The radio waves were abuzz with conversations between yachties about leaving at midnight and sailing via New Zealand or something but we decided to run our own race. Conscious that our last overnighter was miscalculated so that we arrived at Keppel at 4.00am I checked the figures again, and then again. 3.00pm it is.

We left Keppel Bay at 07.30 in a beautiful southerly. We had decided that since we were going to spend the day waiting to leave, we should wait where there is internet coverage and that would be back at Rosslyn Bay Marina. We scudded across the bay in glorious sailing weather, secured a berth for a few hours and did whatever we now need to do and didn’t need to do before internet.

Midday came and the wind was holding. This would be a fast trip! At 2.45 pm  we motored into the bay and, well I’m sure if you are a regular reader you know what happens next. The forecast 15-20 knts South East dropped to less than 3 knts and we motored North on a glassy flat sea.

It was beautiful, and we chugged along as the light faded and we neared the Military Exclusion Zone. It was dark by the time we got there and I contemplated the 30 miles extra we would have to go to miss it. 30 miles doesn’t sound much if you are driving a car, but it’s 6 hours on a boat. Perhaps we could pretend we haven’t heard the warning? The chart showed that this was a dangerous area during exercises and that live rounds were being used. What it didn’t say was that their night practice target would carry the same light configurations as a sailing yacht, be white and curiously yacht shaped in the dark. Eventually I altered course and we made our way towards some curious lights out to sea.

It was difficult to find the edge of the Military Exclusion Zone. For a start, one bit of ocean looks much like another at the best of times. Secondly it was dark so if they had erected any signs we certainly didn’t see them. The Oracle kept telling me that the ETA* of 18 hours I originally had to get to Middle Percy was now 27. That if I kept to this course it would be 35, carry on another hour and it’s 62. When I got to a whopping 87 I thought “Stuff National Security” as I considered my own and realised that there was likely to be a crew mutiny if she saw the display again and that number hadn’t fallen.

The mysterious lights were still to our starboard as we turned to sneak across the corner of the zone. Well, where is the harm? And besides, who would know? There is the combined forces of the American and Australian military, each playing “Mine is Bigger than Yours” but I’ll bet they are too busy looking at the machines that go ping to actually wonder what that particular little ping in the South East corner was.

We slid quietly through the night. The lights we had seen kept changing sequence. Two white, one green. Then the green disappeared. Then it came back. Were they signalling someone? Would at any moment Lisa McClure, blonde hair cutely escaping from under her foraging cap, wearing the uniform that was issued one size to small, suddenly come racing out of the darkness in a Navy RIB and through her loud hailer demand “Australian Navy, Heave two, I am going to board you”. However the pitch darkness offered us nothing.

I was peering towards shore looking for whales, which are presumably excluded from the exclusion zone exclusions, tell tale wakes from passing warships, or worse tell tale tracers from passing shells when Rona screamed “What is that!” I quickly looked to starboard to see an ominous red, fire like object lifting out of the ocean into the jet back night.

What have we unleashed? War of the Worlds? Will this thing rise up on tripod legs and turn its heat ray onto Dreamagic, piercing her deck and melting her valiant heart? Have I listened to Richard Burton narrate Thunderchild^ once to many times in my hazy youth?

I girded my loins. (I have always wanted an excuse to do that in public) and feeling a lot like Capt’n Jack Sparrow about to take on the Kraken one handed readied myself for business. (You remember, Pirates III, I think. Kraken turns up to swallow the ship. Elizabeth Swan snogs Jack and thinking he’s on a winner he doesn’t realise she has handcuffed him to the mast. She then says good luck and gets in the life boat. Bloody Women!)

Hold on!  I have actually seen this before. Three times actually. Not the movie, (OK, as well as the movie), this scene. It’s a tropical moon rise! We’re saved! We watched this optical illusion as the moon, appearing to cling to the ocean like a parting lover, embraces the sea and lifts it up with her until finally she can’t hold on, lets go and rises into the heavens. It is one of the most moving experiences I have ever witnessed.

We motored for a while longer and finally the wind filled enough to get some sail up. The mysterious lights vanished from our starboard only to appear two hours later to our port. Same sequence. Two white and one green, then the void between them was filled in with a Navy Warship which glided past. No Lisa, they obviously didn’t think we were a threat. Or good looking enough.

The wind, having been absent without leave decided to make up for it and blew at 25 knots. However the sea had been so slight it didn’t have time to pick up and we surfed down waves regularly clocking 10 knts on headsail only.

Percy Island turned up on cue at 06.00, the dawn put on a show until 07.00, and Middle Percy made an appearance at 07.45. Perfect!

*ETA. Estimated Time of Arrival for everyone who ran out and joined the AAA after my tirade yesterday.
^Thunderchild. From the album War of Worlds Jeff Wayne

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