One of the most frightening things I have ever done was to sail on our family yacht Explorer in a 75-knot storm from the southern end of Bruny Island to Oyster Cove at the Northern end of the D'Entrecasteaux Channel which separates Bruny Island from the mainland of Tasmania.
It began when we awoke to leaden grey skies and strengthening winds on the last day of our Christmas holiday of 1972/73. We were anchored in Tinpot Bay behind the reef and after breakfast we began to ready the boat for the passage to North Bruny. We checked the dinghy, which had a snug place for our dog under the bow deck, and then stowed, everything carefully in both Explorer and the dinghy.
The wind was rising and the sky grew darker by the minute. The unfortunate thing about the trip ahead of us was that on the way down from Hobart on Boxing Day we had hit a submerged heavy object at the mouth of the Channel and sheared off both blades of our propeller. This left us, effectively, without an engine. This was not a worry while the weather was fine, as it was for most of the trip. We could use the sails and Explorer was a fully equipped ocean racing yacht, 42 feet of sturdy steel hull, strong enough for anything 40 degrees South could dish up, but with the approaching storm it was quite frightening. My husband, Jack, was undaunted as usual. The others on board were my 10-year old daughter, Jane, and my 17-year old son, Sam.
Sam hauled in the anchor and we were away in a 45-knot southwesterly. As we headed up the Channel with the reefed mainsail and No. 3 jib hoisted we picked up speed quickly. I began to feel quite afraid and I could see that Jane was feeling the same way. I got that familiar feeling of heavy doubt mixed with fear in my stomach and wished I could be on dry land, anywhere but on the boat. Jack was at the helm and my son was in the cockpit, adjusting the sails to the wind shifts as necessary, every time we changed course, which was frequently because of the narrow Channel and our unusually fast speed. I was below with Jane, reading to her about a little horse, ironically, called "Stormy".
The action of the boat became more violent and every time we changed course Jane and I grabbed for support as the 45-degree angle of the floor was suddenly tilted to the reverse angle. The floor was the only place to sit in safety.
One thing that consoled me was that the boat was very strong and safe, designed and built by experienced Tasmanian shipbuilders and fitted out by my equally capable husband. Right now though, I was too aware of the storm to take much comfort in that and so I continued to read to my daughter in an effort to keep us both calm.
Just then Jack shouted, "Helen, for God's sake look behind us" I looked, and what I saw made me feel ten times worse. At the Southern end of the Channel there was a huge pillar of purplish cloud, looking like a 200 ft. tornado such as I had viewed on TV. Behind that cloud the sky had a greenish tinge and fear struck deep inside me.
With the increased probability of the storm becoming more intense, and the winds becoming even stronger, Jack decided to take down the mainsail and sent Sam forward on the wet slippery deck to roll the sail down using our wonderful roller reefing gear, but the wind was so strong the equipment was damaged as soon as it was put to use. My son was strong and big for his age but the task was too much for him. Jack then called me to take the helm.
" I can't," I said.
"You'll have to" he replied. "Sam can't hold onto that sail any longer"
So with my heart in my mouth, I left Jane and went on deck to do my best.
The wind was screaming now, and the world around me was white, the sea and the air almost indistinguishable from each other, so visibility was very poor. Needles of spray were hitting my face in painful thousands, but that was the least of my worries. While the menfolk wrestled with the sail I tried hard to keep Explorer under control. Every time I changed tack, I over-corrected the helm and the boat went veering off at an acute angle. I don't know how long they took to get the sail off, but it seemed like ages.
It was probably about 20-30 minutes and by that time I was controlling the boat fairly well and in a perverse way, taking some pride in that. The speedometer showed us doing IO knots with only the No. 3 jib to drive us, that was really amazing. Jack took over the helm again and I gratefully went below to my daughter. I just sat on the floor and cuddled her. Wind gusts were hitting the hull with audible thumps, like a huge fist, and the whole ship vibrated from stem to stern.
As we progressed north the police boat Vigilant was under full power beside us, and as we watched she was blown around in a 360-degree turn. Amazing!
We struggled on for what seemed an eternity for me, although Jack seemed unperturbed as usual. Incredibly, as we got to a narrower part of the Channel, the storm suddenly disappeared and we were becalmed. This gave us an opportunity to pull our dinghy alongside and see if our faithful dog and gear were still with us. They were all okay, what a relief. We heaved the dog aboard and dried her off, she was quite happy and seemed unaware of our ordeal.
We finally drifted into Oyster Cove where the small village of Kettering nestles on green hills and fields running down to the waters edge. We were able to pick up a mooring, which was a blessing, and here we spent a relatively peaceful night. Though it blew 45 knots during the night, this was not a problem compared to our incredible ride from South Bruny Island.
The next day we sailed home comfortably to the embracing arms and tranquillity of Kangaroo Bay. Sam got to work on time, that being the reason why we set sail in a storm. We rang the weather bureau and were told the winds in the Channel area had been recorded at 75 knots on that day.