Slices from Life

Dismasted in Bass Strait

A real-life sailing adventure with photographs by Meredith Stephens

After an arduous day of upwind sailing from Bittangabee Bay on the east coast of Australia to Nadgee Beach we crept into our cabin beds at 9 pm. A few minutes after midnight, crew member Katie suddenly roused to a bright light and looked out of the window. She observed a boat moving towards her, first coloured lights and then a white light. Katie jumped out of bed screaming “He’s gonna hit us!” Then she heard the sound of the crunching of metal against our hull. Skipper Alex got up and blasted his air horn. The neighbouring skipper moved his boat around so he could talk to us. Crew member Verity screamed in terror “Go away!”

Alex called out across the water to the other skipper.

“I can’t see how much damage there is now. What’s your phone number?”

The skipper called his number across from his boat and set off on his midnight voyage. We were not due to sail out until 3 am when the conditions were predicted to become favourable, but we were so shocked at having been hit by another vessel that we could no longer rest. We decided to set out immediately. We headed to an anchorage at the uninhabited Gabo Island, dropped anchor, and slept from 3 am until 6 am. Then Alex roused himself and dutifully took himself to the helm, turned on the motor, raised the anchor and started the anticipated fourteen-hour voyage to Lakes Entrance. Ninety-nine nautical miles later, at 9.50 pm, we arrived at a free public dock, and were greeted by pelicans. Katie alighted onto the dock and secured the lines to cleats and returned to the boat. All crew members slipped into a grateful rest despite the harsh lights of the dock penetrating through the hatches.

After a day ashore to rest and reprovision, we set off the following day at seven am. We had an uneventful sail until 10.30 pm when the halyard[1] to the gennaker[2] snapped. The gennaker trailed in the water between the hulls and Alex retrieved it, replacing it with the jib[3]. I trusted Alex with sails and halyards, and I could hardly keep my eyes open, so I retreated to my cabin and tried to sleep. Not for long though because I could hear Alex and Katie shouting to each other on the deck. My body was craving sleep, but I dared not succumb when there was obviously some sort of trouble. I had never heard Alex and Katie shout at each other. The only reason they were shouting must be in order to be heard over the wind on the deck. I forced myself out of the cabin bed and dropped from its formidable height which had been designed for much taller people. I made my way to the outside door, summoning the strength to venture outside and try and make myself useful, but the darkness, the wind and cold were intimidating. As I deliberated, I heard a crash. The front window had smashed into tiny pieces, which landed on the sofa and were scattered all over the floor. Alex was shouting from the deck, “The mast is down!” I glanced outside and noticed that the mast had landed on the portside deck, and several metres of its tip were trailing submerged behind the boat.

Meanwhile, the steering had been disrupted and the autopilot was no longer functioning. Alex tried to manually manoeuvre the boat to the right, but it would not respond, and he had to turn in circles to the left to attain the right direction. The mast dangling from our port stern was acting like a giant unwanted rudder. I glanced outside and noticed a fishing trawler about five hundred metres away on our portside. I alerted Alex and he was concerned that without steering we would inadvertently hit the trawler. He grabbed the VHF[4] radio and put out a warning on Channel 16 to alert them. No response. He tried again. Still no response. He gave up and returned to the deck in order to save the sails which were trailing us in the water. I remained inside and continued to try to make contact with the trawler, to no avail.

Then Alex realised that the VHF antenna was not working because it was at the end of the mast, which was now trailing in the water. He retrieved his hand-held VHF radio and tried to make contact again. This time the skipper of the trawler responded. They decided to stay close to us and then follow us, ready in case our situation deteriorated. We maintained radio contact with the other skipper until Alex managed to hoist some of the mast out of the water and regain autopilot control. At 3 am, we were confident that we could manage on our own, so we advised the other skipper and he took his leave. A stranger had obeyed the ancient maritime code to assist those in distress at sea, and we didn’t even know his name.

Alex headed for the aptly named Refuge Cove, but another vessel was sheltering there. He wanted a wide berth, so he was reluctant to stay near another boat in case we inadvertently swung into them. He took us on to Waterloo Bay, three nautical miles further. We moved deep into the bay over the next hour and arrived at a sufficiently sheltered spot to drop anchor at 10 am.

For the first time, Alex was able to carefully inspect the damage and was shocked to discover that the cross-beam[5] was broken in half and dangling precariously. This made it too risky to use the main anchor. Alex used a spare anchor instead. By this time, he had been awake for twenty-eight hours, so, we urged him to sleep.

“I think I’ll just tidy up the sails a bit before I sleep,” he insisted.

I also ventured onto the deck to help Alex and noticed the crashed mast, and the cross-beam which looked dented but had in fact snapped in half. Alex and Katie bound up the sails with ropes so as to keep them from falling into the water for the next leg of our trip. My hair was blown into knots around my face and the fierce Australian sunshine was forcing its way into my eyes. I briefly retreated inside to restrain my hair with a scarf and returned to the deck to see Alex and Katie persisting in the cold wind. I was barefoot as this was the best way to grip to the surface of the gently rocking vessel. As I gingerly walked towards Alex and Katie, I noticed shards of glass in front of me. Katie called out in warning, and I retreated. She pointed out the safe way to climb towards them and I trod in that direction, mindful not to fall. Next Alex took the dinghy to the tip of the mast to remove dangling lines and the still-attached jib.

I glanced up and noticed pristine white sands, turquoise waters, craggy mountains and even a few bathers who had obviously hiked here. There were no roads leading to this beach deep within a national park.

We spent the next day tidying up both the topside and the inside of the boat, in particular picking the scattered glass shards. Alex needed a block of wood to secure the mast, so we headed to shore to find one. If we were on holiday this beach would have been ideal. No-one was here, but there were deep footprints in the coarsely grained sand. We walked to the end of this idyllic beach, and I collected shells. Meanwhile, Alex found the perfect sized piece of wood.

We returned to the boat for a few hours of relaxation before setting off for the night sail at 11 pm. Alex had chosen this time because the sea was predicted to be at its calmest over the next twenty-four hours. Before departing, Alex placed the block of wood under the mast to create a pivot point and winched the mast up to ensure it was completely clear of the water and would not drag. I was standing in the saloon as Alex adjusted one of the winches securing the mast, and suddenly heard a cracking noise. A third window shattered. We searched for duct tape to secure the window, but our stores had been depleted. Instead, we used electrical tape, and Katie, who happened to be an artist, taped across the windows until they had the criss-cross design of Tudor windows.

I was nervous about sailing off again into the dark ocean. Would the vessel be seaworthy? Would we be stuck in the dark waters distant from help? I had to rely on Alex’ judgment. I retreated to bed and noticed a bright light through the hatch in front of me.

“Is that a vessel ahead?” I urgently asked.

“No, that’s the moon!”

I peered myopically ahead and worked out that the large shining light ahead was the comforting moon and was shedding a kind light to guide us on the waters ahead.

Alex and Katie took charge of the vessel in the night to continue west along Bass Strait to Yaringa, the nearest marina that could host us. I could hear them calling out instructions to one another. The seas were not yet as calm as we had hoped, and Katie was worried. I didn’t know what to do and retreated to the security of my bed. Then I heard another shattering of glass. A fourth window cracked, and this time Alex was the one to use what little tape we had to secure it in a criss-cross pattern.

Alex and Katie took turns overnight to keep watch. I woke to daylight and the sea was calm. The vessel gently rocked as we cruised along Bass Strait, now powered by motor rather than sail. Finally we entered the channel east of Phillip Island.

“The tide is in our favour. We are going to arrive early!” proclaimed Alex. “Shall I make a booking for dinner at the marina cafe?” he asked.

A resounding “Yay!” followed.

We followed the channel markers, passing small fishing vessels and a cruise ship. By 5.30 pm we arrived at Yaringa, and manoeuvred the vessel into the berth, all the while trying to prevent the mast, which was extending well beyond the boat, from hitting anything.

We had survived a fallen mast, four smashed windows, a broken cross beam and a disabled anchor, to arrive at the tranquility of a little-known marina at Yaringa, nestled in the mangroves on the outskirts of Melbourne. We gratefully stepped onto the pontoon, then walked ashore, savouring the sensation of terra firma. Even so, we were so used to the motion of the sea that we continued to sense the land itself rocking back and forth.

That night we enjoyed one of the best restaurant meals we have ever had, perhaps enhanced by our feelings of relief and gratitude.

We were in a quiet berth overlooking undisturbed mangroves. The boat was now motionless. There were no harsh overhead lights shining into our windows and the only ambient noise was birdsong. Alex had already contacted a shipwright and rigger who would attend to the damaged parts of the boat over the next months. We no longer needed to persevere sailing in darkness in a damaged vessel. In the relief of having reached safety, we fell into a well-deserved and deep sleep.

[1] A halyard is a rope that holds up a sail.

[2] A gennaker is a large sail attached to the bow used for sailing at right angles to the wind.

[3] The jib is a small sail set before the mast.

[4] Very High Frequency

[5] The cross-beam connects the two bows of a catamaran.

Meredith Stephens is an applied linguist from South Australia. Her work has appeared in Transnational Literature, The Muse, The Font – A Literary Journal for Language Teachers, The Journal of Literature in Language Teaching, The Writers’ and Readers’ Magazine, Reading in a Foreign Language, and in chapters in anthologies published by Demeter Press, Canada.


Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles

One reply on “Dismasted in Bass Strait”

Yes I remember the night that all this happened. I couldn’t sleep very well that night and I remember thinking that I hadn’t heard from you for a while. Then I got your text about the collision and started praying. God was certainly watching over you all and the situation. The story revisits this event with great detail!

Liked by 1 person

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