Photographs & Narrative by Meredith Stephens
It was June, and we were sailing north along the coast of New South Wales. We arrived at Hacking Bay to weigh anchor at sunset, and later fell asleep to the gently rocking motion of the boat. The following day, Alex made an early start up the coast before I roused. In anticipation of rough waters, he brought me an anti-seasickness pill and a glass of water. After lying there in my cabin for half an hour, I heard Alex uncharacteristically utter an expletive. I knew I couldn’t stay in bed any longer.
“There’s a tear in my mainsail!”
“We can’t get to Pittwater today. We have to find a sailmaker as soon as we can.”
Alex rang his sailor friend Luke who put him on to a competent sailmaker. We had just passed Botany Bay near where the sailmaker worked, so had to turn around in rough waters and motor upwind back to the bay.
Soon after entering the bay into the St George Estuary we spotted the Captain Cook Bridge looming ahead of us. Would the mast clear the underside of the bridge? We gently and carefully started moving under the bridge. As we passed under it, we noticed the VHF antenna on top of the mast bending while scraping the underside of the bridge, so we reversed as quickly as we could and decided to wait nearby until low tide. After finding out the precise time of low tide we tentatively approached the bridge again, Alex all the while craning his head upwards and to the side of the helm to find the high point of the bridge. The VHF barely tickled the bridge, and we made it to the other side.
Then we navigated the boats dotted around the harbour while we made our way to the wharf. Shipwrights working there approached the berth and greeted us warmly. We threw them the docking lines and they expertly tied them to the cleats. The sailmaker arrived soon after to take the sail away for repair. We entreated him to have it ready before low tide the following day so we could pass back under the bridge and avoid being trapped another day.
We had twenty-four hours to pass in the Sans Souci neighbourhood and spent most of our time strolling along the pedestrian path by Botany Bay. Upon our return to the boatyard, the gates were locked, and we could not access the boat. Alex spied a metal ladder lying in the boat yard. He pulled it under a gap in the base of the fence and laid it against it. We climbed up and stepped onto one of the boats on the other side, and then lowered ourselves onto the ground. I ruefully thought that this was something only teenagers would do, but here we were in our sixties, using a ladder to enter a locked property.
The next morning the sailmaker arrived in good time and we heaved the sail back onto the boat. Alex raised the sail and looked pleased with the neat patch.
We waited until low tide, and then wove our way once more through the moored boats, even passing a sunken boat with its mast protruding through the surface of the water.
We precisely timed our passing under the bridge to low tide. As before, Alex proceeded under the highest point of the bridge.
We were exhilarated to have timed the low tide accurately and to have passed under the bridge with only the tip of the VHF antenna having gently grazed its underbelly. We exited the bay in relief and headed back to the Tasman Sea, turning back north to resume our trip up the coast.
Over the next few days, we enjoyed fair conditions for winter sailing. Sailing downwind was like floating in space. The boat cantered across the surface of the water but we had the sensation of being gently propelled through the air.
“This wind is a bit whimsical,” complained Alex, as he moved to the helm to turn on the engine.
“We are approaching Ballina so I have to keep an eye out for…”
“Whales?” I interrupted.
“No, craypots. There might be whales too, though.”
Alex scrutinized the horizon, shivering in his wet weather gear, searching for unforeseen objects.
The name of the town, Ballina, reminded me of the word for ‘whale’ in French: une baleine. In fact, the name has nothing to do with whales. Rather it was probably named after the Irish town of the same name.
Whale sightings were the highlight of our voyage as we sailed north up the coast of New South Wales. They had migrated from the Antarctica for calving These were my reward when it was my stint at the helm. Sitting still and observing did not come easily to me. Usually, I liked to busy myself with errands, reading, writing or socialising. I gradually became used to sitting at the helm for hours at a time trying to remain vigilant to spot obstacles to our path. One such day I was sitting there, sensing the swell of the ocean gently rocking beneath me as I held my posture erect, listening to the swishing of the water against the hull, when I was suddenly shocked out of my trance by a spout of water erupting from the ocean surface. Waves do not erupt horizontally so it held my attention. Then I saw a whale throw herself into the air to somersault, and then reveal her fluke as she dived back in again.
“Alex!” I screamed, uncharacteristically, surprising even myself.
It was like being transported to a film set. Alex sensed my excitement and came out with his phone camera, moving to the bow to get as close as he could.
“They’re only a hundred metres away,” he observed.
They performed another flip for us, and flashed their flukes as they dived down. We kept scanning the patch of ocean where they had given their performance, but they did not reappear. I retreated to the helm and then turned around as I heard another splash behind me. The boat had moved on, and the whales were making a reappearance in their original spot.
The trials of seasickness, straining to keep alert while on duty, and sail damage were more than compensated for in the unanticipated sight of a whale breaching before my eyes. All the hardships dimmed in those moments of awe.
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.
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