My vessel of the early 1970s was a copy of an American catboat, but only vaguely so because she was steel-built in hard-chine with bilge keels that offered very little lateral resistance on a moderate draft of 1.4 metres. Under square and raffee sails she skated off the wind beautifully but to windward she was a dog: indeed, were she any better at sailing upwind she would have been mediocre.
Nevertheless, during 1972-3, I managed to coax her to the Torres Strait surveying for the second edition of my book, Cruising the Coral Coast then down to Sydney where recollections of her virtues softened the negatives. Distinct among them was her willingness to self-steer when running free thanks to her other quality of not easily broaching. This cowardly characteristic of falling off the wind rather than rounding up to challenge it suited me fine because I have always obeyed the same instincts.
Reluctance to broach on breaking waves made her a perfect bar-boat, a fact that inspired me to head off in 1974 to survey for the first edition of Cruising the NSW Coast.
To be thorough, I committed myself to crossing river bars that had been long closed to displacement vessels, an interesting response happening in Nambucca when the local press reported her as being the first displacement vessel to cross the bar in 42 years.
The following day the head of the area’s tourist information centre paid a call to beg me to exclude Nambucca from my book because, “We don’t want our reputation tarnished by wrecked yachts strewn across our bar.”
I assured him that it was not my intention to be irresponsible and to this day Nambucca remains a no-go area for those without the combination of local knowledge and shallow draft.
Another port with a similarly shallow bar, Urunga, on the Bellinger River, elicited a very different response, one so packed with bar room expletives that only a few filler-words, such as ‘idiot’, ‘dopey fool’ and ‘must be stupid’, are noted here.
They all referred to me after I rounded up in front of the pub where I intentionally went aground (for I had no gearbox and she sat upright on her bilge keels) then went ashore for a drink to become an unrecognised fly-on-the-wall listening to comments about my bar crossing. None were in the least flattering but one sympathetic fellow, who suspected I was their target, leaned over and said, “Except for runabouts, your boat’s the first one to visit Urunga this century.” Whether he was correct or not I cannot say but he at least tempered my sense of mass community rejection.
Terminating at the Gold Coast, a mate joined me for the sail south. He had recently given up smoking and was keen to reward himself with a splash of life at sea. He was about to get far more than he bargained for.
South of Tweed Heads we grabbed perfect survey conditions to enter and sound Cudgen Creek, Kingscliff, a notoriously shallow and troubled barred harbour developed exclusively for runabouts. Crossing the bar at high tide presented no drama and the absence of an all-tide anchorage in the creek was easily solved – once again – by ramming her onto a sandbank after which we enjoyed the attention of local folk walking around her at low tide assuring us that no yachts had ever entered this creek before. I also noted kids walking across the creek’s entrance in ankle deep water!
During a windless night the Tasman swell changed from whispers to booming cannons and rose to such a degree that by dawn it was over-topping the eastern breakwater and dumping heavily into Cudgen’s entrance channel. I prepared to get under way just before high tide when my friend, pointing shakily towards the turbulence, said, “You’re not serious about going through that, are you?”, to which I responded in the affirmative.
“Then,” he said, “I need to pop ashore for a minute!”
He returned with a packet of cigarettes.
Our exit from Cudgen Creek was as spectacular as his fags were wet. Steaming cautiously between the breakwaters, with just inches under the keels, a particularly large swell rolled over the eastern wall and engulfed the cockpit, momentarily pinning the catboat to the channel’s sandy bottom before self-draining back to buoyancy at which time the faithful International D239 diesel regained traction and took us safely to sea.
Considering its lack of useful depths, Cudgen Creek was definitely not recommended in my subsequent book, but its visit nevertheless proved the catboat’s adaptability to this type of work. Her natural resistance to broaching in the worst of surfs and her brick-dunny-like strength allowed her to survive being hammered to the bottom by tons of water then shake if off and carry on like nothing had happened. Her quarter-inch steel bottom plates were very much part of her secret.
My friend tossed his soggy cigarettes overboard and abandoned ship in the next port.
I surveyed every navigable – and semi navigable – bar on the New South Wales coast, noticing that tidal stream cessation did not match predicted tide-heights at any entrance, a phenomenon produced by the need for ocean and river levels to equalise, which usually happens around mid-tide. For want of a better term I called it the ‘over-run’, which simply means that the direction of both ebb and flood tidal streams change a few hours after their vertical movement.
I also noticed that so-called ‘rogue waves’ over a bar are far more likely to happen when the swell shifts east of southeast, even on the Clarence River entrance where depths are capable of admitting ships up to 5,000 tons.
Such were the conditions on the Clarence bar when local sign writer Cameron Woodrow went for a walk along the southern breakwater – fortuitously carrying his camera. He happened to be snapping away when a trawler copped a serious wave that flooded her engine room (without killing the engine) forcing her to turn on the next relatively untroubled wave and limp back into the river. The skipper was an experienced man who was simply heading to sea to trawl, as others had done before him that day, but the bar went pear-shaped at the wrong time and almost king-hit him.
Dramatic events of this nature tend to obfuscate the fact that bars up and down the coast of New South Wales are crossed dozens of times daily by everything from runabouts to large displacement vessels, and are driven by everyone from first-timers to professionals with hundreds of crossing under their belt.
The trick with a bar is to approach it as you would a potential adversary and cross it only when you feel it is safe to do so. Avoid floodwater, ebb tides and easterly swell and you’ll pretty well master it every time.