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Sailing to Lord Howe Is

Sailing to Lord Howe Island

© David Kerr 2001-2004

The Goal:

To safely sail to Lord Howe Island, Balls Pyramid and return. Estimated distance 877 Nautical miles (1,626Km) including day trips & Balls Pyramid. One week holiday at the Island.

The Crew:

Outbound [7], Dave Kerr (skipper), Dr. Peter Carter (2IC), Ruth Carter, Bernadette Kerr, Therese Kerr, Paul Kerr, William Kerr (12). Return [5], Dave Kerr (skipper), Dr. Peter Carter (2IC), Ruth Carter, Paul Kerr, William Kerr (12). On the boat at Lord Howe: David, Penny, Bernadette, Therese, Paul & William Kerr. Peter & Ruth in a cottage on the Island.

The Ship:

Pastime. Fast and nimble fibreglass 11.1 metre (36.5') sloop- 15 years young.


Approximately 2 years adding redundancy, safety equipment, strengthening items, testing, practice and experimenting. Ruth made up 28 dinners for the outward journey; they could be eaten cold or heated in the oven. As it was, we heated nearly all of them, even in rough conditions. This was surprising as we discovered (on the trip) that the stove was at the wrong angle when operated on its gimbals- amazingly I had never checked it; fortunately the meals were in rectangular aluminium containers that kept the contents from spilling, though they travelled around the inside of the oven like dodgem cars at a fun fair. Penny had packed extra vegetables as these were very difficult to find on Lord Howe. Indeed, the restaurants sometimes closed when they ran out of food or served meals with almost no vegetables! Penny provisioned for the other parts of the trip, including the time spent in the lagoon. It was just as well we had so much food because the prices on Lord Howe were extremely high. Overall, the food was excellent and we certainly were not deprived. We had food left over at the end and didn't drink enough of those bottles of wine. We would probably have eaten some strange mixtures if the trip had extended a couple more days.


A fair amount of Coastal and inland sailing experience but none of us had attempted such a distance into an ocean. We would have 5Km of ocean under the keel at some points and would be a long way from land. At Lord Howe, we would be 630Km from the nearest point on the mainland (Port Macquarie). Peter and Ruth (plus 2yr old son) set out around the world with a friend 23 years ago from Brisbane; they reached Papua New Guinea where unfortunately their friend ran his concrete ketch onto a reef and that was the end of the voyage.

The Voyage:

We performed the formalities with the Rescue Coordination Centre in Canberra- they would be updating our position twice daily via PentaComstat and initiating search and rescue if something went wrong. We set out on schedule, departing Newport at 1730 on Easter Thursday. We were only 30 minutes behind schedule after packing and crew assembly. With a full station wagon plus 2 other car loads of gear & people assembled at the marina, it seemed impossible that we could squeeze everything into what was starting to look like a very small boat! We had food for 2 weeks plus snorkelling gear, clothes, folded rubber ducky, outboard, ocean sailing suits, tools and lots of other bulky items. Well, we finally got it all packed into the various nooks and crannies and even had a small amount of space left over. The time came for departure and we were cheered off by a few staff from the local charter company where we are moored (Church Point Charter).

We had obtained private weather forecasting services from the famous Dr. Roger Badham. He had confirmed that we would have good winds much of the way but would need to be prepared for a couple of cold fronts that were sweeping across from the West. He also thought we would have South Westerlies on arrival which could prejudice entry to the lagoon (he was correct).

Into the ocean:

The sea was relatively calm as we passed into the ocean from Pittwater. Roger and the Weather Bureau proved to be wrong with the initial winds which were in exactly the opposite direction from the predictions (North instead of South). We watched the moon rise- it was one day past full and when it started rising we did not know what it was for a while as it looked like a boat on fire- it was an absolutely stunning sight. We had a full moon each night of sailing and it was really beautiful, as were the fantastic sunsets into the ocean. We had an uneventful night Thursday, seeing one container ship as we headed away from land. It would turn out to be the last sign of civilisation that we would see until we arrived at Lord Howe Island. No planes, no ships, no traffic congestion. Despite the light winds of about 10Kts, we put away 77 nautical miles by sunrise the next morning. William was seasick a couple of times but was fine by morning and for the remainder of the trip. Paul had an upset stomach for several days before the trip and had 24hrs in his cabin before recovering well.


During the day, the wind moved more from the West and dropped down to 5-9Kts so we hoisted the spinnaker. We had it about 50% hoisted when we noted a long 2 metre tear. We hastily dropped it and then spent the next hour with it draped (it is about 800 square feet of light fabric) all over the cockpit as we performed the repair on the cockpit table. We hoisted the spinnaker again and cranked the speed back to 6 knots. We ran uneventfully for hours until an ugly looking squall appeared with menacing clouds and horrifyingly, a tornado- just like in "Twister"! The whole thing seemed to be heading right for us, so we dropped the spinnaker and put two reefs into the mainsail. We also headed more North than our planned track to try and avoid the worst conditions. The most worrying item was the tornado or huge waterspout. Dave had previously discovered through reading Weather Bureau literature that the Southern Hemisphere has the same number of Tornados as the Northern Hemisphere but that they rarely come near humans. Well, this one seemed to be closer than we wanted. Every now and then, the funnel would disconnect and we thought it was abating- then it would grow again and connect from the clouds down to the water. Eventually, after about 3 hours, the funnel dissipated somewhat and the worst of the weather passed to our South. After 24 hours, we had logged 137.3 Nautical Miles and were happy with progress.

Friday night & Saturday.

We had full sail up again and were making good speed in 15-20 Kts of wind. During Peter's watch, we gybed badly due to a combination of swell, wind and autopilot and the "preventer" sheared off part of the cast aluminium fitting on the end of the boom and there was minor bending of a stanchion as the preventer caught on it. Ruth and Bernadette were on watch at 0130 Saturday morning when the worse of the two fronts predicted by Roger Badham hit us (fairly literally). The adjustable stop plus the end-stop ripped right out of the end of the traveller at some stage when we gybed again. It was "all hands on deck" to drop the sails and this was achieved uneventfully. Peter had decided some time earlier that he was the man who would work the mast- it was a challenging place to be when the wind was up and swells were rushing up behind us. Ruth competently steered us through the squall and also achieved our top speed of 12.7 knots. Some of the gusts were hitting 46 Knots (85 Kilometres per hour) and the seas were building. Peter and Dave prepared the Jordan Series drogue ready for a quick deployment if required and we also had chains shackled onto the shrouds to drop into the sea as lightning conductors as there was thunderstorm activity around. With NO sails up (ie "bare poles") the boat was doing 6.5 Knots- in the direction we wanted. After a while, we put up a smidgin of Genoa and found that it worked well. We became more daring and let out enough to keep us at 7 Knots. We sailed like this until the next evening with the winds sitting constantly between 30 and 38Kts average with almost no gusts at all. The autopilot continued to steer the boat masterfully on course. During our second 24hrs, we had logged 150 nautical miles, though some of this was not in the desired direction.

The East Coast current was not a big problem for us, though we were sometimes losing up to 10% of our speed. The water temperature reached its maximum of 24.9deg Celsius on Friday afternoon and this was when we had the maximum adverse current due to the warm water flowing South.

Saturday night:

The wind dropped to 15-20Kts with a fairly big swell running (about 4+ metres). We got ourselves into a bit of a muddle trying to get the mainsail back up & ended up with the main halyard wrapped around the steaming light. Attempts by Peter and Dave to release it failed and at one stage we also had it wrapped around one of the radar reflectors. What a pain, because now we looked like arriving at Lord Howe in the early hours of Sunday night. We had always planned on arriving Monday morning, but for some time the strong winds had meant that Sunday was possible. We did not want to sail around in circles for a whole night! There was some discussion about climbing the mast, but even hanging onto the base of the mast and trying to free the halyard was a risky proposition as we "rocked and rolled". The spinnaker halyard had looked like a means of freeing the main halyard, but even that had slipped out and now appeared to be in a less useful position. We had resigned ourselves to not making Lord Howe by sunset, when suddenly we noticed that the halyard was free! Hallelujah! The water temperature also dropped to 23.2deg signifying a switch in the East Coast Current, which was now helping us by about 5%. (On the trip, we figured out the current by comparing distance covered by log versus GPS. The log had been calibrated by a long two-way sail in an area without tide or currents).

Bernadette and Dave had a strange experience in the early hours of Sunday morning when they independently smelled on the wind a strong odour of what seemed like geraniums. As we were then over 160Km from Lord Howe and 600Km from Australia we can only speculate that maybe there was a mass of some strange seaweed or mammals around. The smell persisted for about an hour.


We hoisted all sail, even though we still had a constant 20 to 30Kts of wind and probably should have had at least one reef in the mainsail. We turned off the autopilot and had the boat cranked up to a constant 8-9 knots. We were surfing along and it was great! At about 75Km from Lord Howe, Mount Gower and Balls Pyramid emerged from the clouds and mists on the horizon and our excitement increased. We finally made radio contact with the Harbour Master's wife (Beth) who said that we needed to arrive in daylight. We knew this was still a challenge with sunset at 1651 that day, but we made it! There was disappointment however when we arrived and then were informed that entering the lagoon was impossible as surf was breaking across it and no-one was coming in or out. We had reached Lord Howe in a little less than 3 days (71hrs) and also logged 156.7 Nm for the final 23 hours. We were directed to make all speed to the East side of the island, which we did. After a delay while the Harbour Master (Clive) completed a tourist day-trek, plus a "domestic" between him and his wife (Beth, the Assistant Harbour Master) on the radio, he sat on the top of a cliff and directed us by radio to the precise spot to drop anchor. This was quite a way from the beach and a lot more exposed than we would have liked, we think to protect the world heritage coral closer to shore. We opened the whisky and red wine and indulged in a celebratory dinner. Everyone slept well that night despite a fair bit of rocking and rolling (though much more was yet to come).


We were treated to the sight of several giant sea turtles cruising past the boat; they seemed mildly interested in us.

Penny was flying in that afternoon and Clive had kindly promised to pick her up from the airstrip after informing us that we would not be getting into the lagoon that day as the waves and wind were still extremely unfavourable. We spent the day tidying up and snorkelling, which was excellent some 50-75 metres out from Middle Beach. William caught a shark and small reef fish, both of which were released. The shark was a challenge with Peter holding its jaws shut in a net while Dave carefully extracted the hook from the side of its mouth. William also caught two other fish which got away by biting clean through the steel traces. Perhaps we really did not want to catch such sharp-toothed fish! They could have been big Barracuda. Some of the kids also went for walks. We were very pleased that we had 2 portable VHF radios plus the fixed unit on the boat. This meant that we were in contact with Clive, Peter & Ruth, plus those of our party while away from the boat. We later found out that many of the residents have radios and this is the grapevine of the community- a little like Party Line telephones of yester year. It seemed like everywhere we went, people knew we were "the people from the boat."

Peter and Ruth went in search of their rented cottage. They climbed a cliff, laden with their bags of gear and it was several kilometres of walking until they found civilisation. They abandoned their bags by the side of a track for later collection. You can do this sort of thing on Lord Howe with little fear of theft. It was also at this time that we resolved to rent some bicycles for the week of our stay. The bicycles come from the Harbour Master's son (Campbell).

The wind was still very strong. At one stage, we saw a couple of tourists standing on the cliff top looking out to our boat, when a large gust took off their hats and deposited them halfway down the cliff. They were fortunate because Paul turned up from a walk and climbed down the cliff to retrieve the hats. I would have left them, however Paul is an experienced abseiler, hiker, climber and likes a challenge. I was relieved to see him reappear safely.

Monday night was very rough for Penny who had come from stable land to a bucking bronco of a boat. The rest of us had acclimatised on the voyage, but Penny became extremely seasick and spent a fair amount of the night sitting on deck in front of the mast in 30Kts of wind and rain squalls. The children were so concerned for her safety that they tied her to the mast so that she would not fall overboard.


Clive called and advised that we still could not get into the lagoon. By now, conditions had become exceedingly unpleasant with winds of 30knots and big Pacific Rollers coming in at right angles to the wind. The boat was rolling 100 degrees (eg plus and minus 50 degrees) and bucking wildly with the rudder coming partly out of the water and the bow dipping deep. We were very concerned about our ground tackle (anchors etc) and bent the boat's strong bow rollers. Things got worse when the anchor winch started to bend and a substantial pawl (ratchet mechanism) bent like a banana. Then, disaster as the winch and a cleat exploded out of the deck, fortunately only causing minor abrasions to Peter and David who were on the spot. Paul, Peter and Dave rigged up a jury-rigged system to 2 aft sheet winches and cleats and Tuesday night was very scary as things groaned, clunked and moaned under huge stress. We decided that Penny should spend the night with Peter & Ruth who kindly put her up in their cottage. Onboard was even worse than the night before, but those with their "sea legs" endured it okay, even managing to read books. David stayed up all night, ready to spring into action if we lost the anchor, as we were now almost on a lee shore. We did not want to lose the boat on rocks if the anchor or its rode gave way.


We survived the night and Clive called up with the great news that we were going to the lagoon that lunchtime. He also organised a diver and his own boat to retrieve our 2 anchors. The main anchor had gone under a rock ledge and a substantial length of chain had dropped down a crack in the rock and got jammed. This was the main cause of our problems and a substantial insurance claim to come. We went to wait for high tide on the North part of the island in a delightful bay under the 600 metre sheer Malabar Cliffs. When we suggested to one of the authorities that this would have been much better shelter from any of the winds we had experienced, the laconic response was "Too late now."

Clive directed us by radio through a narrow passage in the surf thundering on the reef. Our boat draws 2.1 metres and when the depth sounder reached 2.3 metres, we reported this in some alarm to Clive who responded: "It will get shallower than that.......increase engine revs..." We also got everyone up at the stern and hanging over the side of the boat from the boom to tilt the boat and reduce the draft. Despite that, we "bounced" off the bottom three times before finally reaching a mooring in about 3 metres of water. This was to be the boat's home until our departure on Sunday.

The rest of the week was devoted to sightseeing, mountain climbing, exploring, sampling the local restaurants and discovering the local politics. Lord Howe is an extremely beautiful place with much to see and do. The Islanders have done quite a good job of preserving the environment and minimising visual "pollution" of this World Heritage area. We were able to capture many of its "moods" due to the rapid changes in weather- warm and sunny one moment, rain showers and low cloud the next. The 832metre Mt. Gower and adjoining Mt. Lydgbird are particularly stunning. It did not ever get cold and the rain never lasted long. We were surprised to learn that the highest recorded temperature in over a century was only 32deg Celsius! Similarly, it never gets very cold and the East Coast Current ensures enough warm water from up North to keep the coral (the most Southerly in the world) alive.

There were only two other yachts in the lagoon and soon this reduced to one. One of the yachts was on its way to New Zealand and we think they left at the wrong time because there were gale warnings current when they would have been half way to NZ. The two women on board spent a lot of time rowing their wooden dinghy to and fro with jerry cans of water and washing. Hard work, even though they were closer to the facilities than we were. We were much better off with our inflatable boat, outboard plus bicycles on the sand dunes where we came ashore. Unfortunately, we forgot to get photographs of us tottering down the road on bicycles with 22Kg Jerry cans strapped to the handlebars!

Sunday departure:

The time had come to leave. We were both sad that the holiday was drawing to an end but excited to be heading for home. Peter was starting to worry about a paper he had committed for the Royal College of Surgeons. He said he could "start to feel the work stress clamping around his heart." Penny was flying out Sunday afternoon, with Bernadette and Therese flying in the morning. They both had important University exams that week. Penny and the girls stayed in the Carter's cottage Saturday night while Ruth and Peter slept on board to ensure a prompt getaway at high tide and avoid staying up much of the night ferrying passengers hither and thither.

We had been very concerned about the weather with a tropical low coming down from the North, another big low moving in from the Gulf and a big high sitting in the middle of Bass Straight. A radiotelephone call to Roger allayed our fears- he said "okay to leave" and we did. He faxed (via the Carter's "hotel") pages of weather maps and predictions. For the whole trip back, there were gale warnings on the radio for North of us, South of us and to the East near NZ and Fiji, but we were in the "middle" and the weather was balmy and nice. We had a lot of faith in Roger who has a great track record (including prediction of the East Coast Low that devastated the 1998 Sydney to Hobart fleet).

Gower Wilson, Clive's brother, was to be our pilot. The Island Trader was also scheduled to come in at the same time and we thought we would be given #2 priority, but it was not to be- we were first with a 6.15am start. We exited the lagoon without mishap but had to hand over $160 for the anchor retrieval before being finally allowed out of the lagoon! Clive likes to direct traffic by radio from hilltops whereas Gower leads you out using his boat. Penny and the girls were still on land and Penny watched the Island Trader nestle up to the wharf and then "sit" on the bottom of the lagoon when the tide started to drop! Fortunately, it is designed for this! The skipper was very anxious to get unloaded and start for Port Macquarie on that evening's high tide because the Tropical Depression was likely to give his shallow draft boat a bit of a pounding if it continued on course.

Balls Head:

We headed SSE past Mt Gower towards Balls Pyramid, which is a remarkable rock pyramid that rises about 600 metres above the sea surface. The wind to leeward of the Mountains was extremely variable, sometimes swinging 360deg in a few seconds and going from 0 to 30knots at times. We used the engine and genoa, having noted the cheerful warning on our chart about "yachts are likely to be dismasted within 2 NM of the island if they leave their sails up" on this side. We went to within about 1.5-2 miles of Balls Pyramid as it was quite rough with us heading into both the sea and wind. Green waves were frequently breaking over the side and keeping us nice and wet. William was a little sick, but after that was fine for the remainder of the trip home. We took our photographs and then turned the bows towards home with only the Genoa up and making 6-7 Kts in the 25+Kt winds.

We had the wind directly behind us on the way home. We decided to be prudent and tack downwind rather than risk gybes and have the sails "slatting" a lot. Dave also wanted the mainsail off the spreaders most of the trip to prevent wear and damage. This greatly heightened the risk of dangerous gybes when close to running before the wind.

We logged an uneventful 132 Nm the first 24 hours. We didn't need to be so conservative, but it did mean that everyone was reading books, having hot showers, eating hot meals etc much as one might do on land. The nights were again fantastic, though this time there was only a small moon towards the beginning of each morning. With the pitch black of night at sea, we had wonderful displays of stars each night.


Argh! 158Nm from Lord Howe, the autopilot hiccupped for the first time and would not keep course. It looked like a damaged drive belt. Fortunately, we had a spare on board but (having unscrewed the autopilot mountings) found we could not get the wheel off, despite judicious hits with a hammer (shudder). This meant that we would have over 300Nm of manual steering ahead of us and we modified the watches to 2 people each rather than our normal procedure of one per 2.5hrs. We were still tacking 30 degrees back and forth towards Sydney with the wind obstinately refusing to do what Roger predicted (ie move to the SE/SW).


Things continued uneventfully and we rattled off a better 145.5Nm in the second 24hr period. We had a painful moment when we unintentionally gybed, having come off a swell after an intentional gybe. The mainsheet blocks ripped off the car which runs along the traveller. We immediately dropped the mainsail and set about repairs. We found that 2 stainless rivets had sheared off and we were able to file them off and replace with stronger bolts and nuts. The rivets had finally had enough after several years of strain before finally breaking. We needed a vyse, files, drill, nuts, bolts & spanners to fix them and it took about 35 minutes. Engrossed in this activity, we failed to notice a large passenger ship which passed a mile or so to our South. Thanks William for spotting it and they presumably had us on their radar. It was a salutary reminder about keeping eyes open even in such a sparsely populated area. We had been keeping good watches until we were all focussed on repairing the traveller car. It showed us that we needed to be alert 100% of the time.

That evening, we had a wonderful display from a pod of dolphins which kept us company for a couple of hours. William sat up on the bow of the boat in the pulpit talking to them and taking photos as they surfed, jumped, cut across and under and performed all those great tricks that dolphins do. They were also doing synchronised swimming in pairs and triples.

We belted along very well in the night with winds up to about 35Kts. We were frequently surfing and maintaining 8-9Kts before the wind dropped next morning to a mediocre 8-10 knots.


We had logged 151.5Nm in our third 24hr period. Up went the spinnaker again and we were now able to head directly down wind; we wanted to get into port Wednesday afternoon/evening and the spinnaker made that possible. We could have been a little less conservative the day before and used the spinnaker, however the swells were moderately big and it could have been troublesome.

We were about 10Nm NE of Barrenjoey when we spotted a large blue launch heading towards us at high speed. At first we thought it could be Customs, however it turned out to be a Police boat. They came up close behind and we thought they were preparing to board us, particularly with the crew moving up on deck! They called out that they were looking for a vessel reported to be on fire. We told them where we had come from and that we had seen nothing. Peter went up to the pulpit with binoculars to keep a sharp lookout. Some time later, Paul picked up an all-ships call and responded with our position. There were two people in a life raft 5Nm East of Barrenjoey. We were 7.2Nm NE of Barrenjoey and soon Paul was talking with the rescue helicopter pilot who assured us that the police had it under control and we were not needed. We could have reached the position in 20 minutes. As it turned out, the police got a boat there just over half an hour later and rescued the people. Perhaps they didn't want a bunch of amateurs spoiling the action.

The End:

We ceremoniously entered Pittwater at 1700 and celebrated with whisky, gin and tonics plus Pepsi. We wanted to enter under full sail, which we did, however once we passed Barrenjoey lighthouse and the wind dropped, we turned on the engine and motored the final 6 miles to Sirsi Marina where we unpacked the boat and gave it a clean. One daughter from each family arrived with cars at precisely the right moment; again, it took 3 cars to transport away the people and our belongings. We had a great time, but now, after fantastic teamwork, the adventure was over. What did we learn? We have replaced our small snubbers with 3 very large ones, have increased chain & rope rode lengths and have added new big cleats plus a better scotsman for the nylon part of the anchor rode. Anchor winches are designed to retrieve chain and NOT to take the strain of anchor rodes in harsh conditions. Club Marine were FANTASTIC to deal with on the insurance. Everything else happened pretty much as planned, except for the length of the lagoon closure and faster than expected trip. NEXT time, we will anchor off the Malabar cliffs in the North if conditions are similar. Incidentally, the lagoon closure was very appropriate as breaking waves rushed across the lagoon at high tide and it was sufficiently rough that the crews of the two yachts moored there were marooned for a couple of days.


Nautical Miles logged: 957.1

Nautical Miles travelled in a straight line: 877

Engine hours (mainly for freezer) 23hrs (approx 10 of these used for propulsion as well)

Litres of diesel used: 44. Litres remaining 97. Estimated remaining range under engine 290Nm.

Average nautical miles logged per day 145.5.

Average speed logged for whole trip, including entering/leaving lagoon 6 Knots.

Wind turbine provided all electricity to and at Lord Howe but stopped for about 48hrs on the return trip (due to wind direction).

Several people who have been in the Pittwater to Lord Howe race said it would take us 4.5+ days to get there. They were wrong & we even had the East Coast current against us some of the way.

Water used 440litres; remaining at the end 100litres (this 100litres was lovingly carried by jerry can, bicycle and rubber ducky but not used).

Final damage bill for the anchor winch, bow rollers etc was about $4,500 and all but the $1,000 excess was covered by our excellent insurance company, Club Marine.

We spent a further $1,500 on the new anchoring system which is now capable of withstanding much more stress than we experienced at Lord Howe and allows bettering anchoring techniques with long snubbers, decent cleating, anchor floats etc. One thing we had obviously never tested was the stove gimballing (now rectified).

****** THE END ******

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