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NSW IV Let's Go Sailing

New South Wales Part IV
         Sydney is a sailors' harbor.
         On almost any Saturday, mainsails are hoisted, jibs winched in and sailors jockey for position at the starting line. At times it can appear quite chaotic: there is a fleet of small lasers with only one person on board racing in one direction; in back of them there could be a dozen thirty-foot racing yachts heading for a different mark. In the same part of the harbor even larger yachts fight for position as they head for a mark further down the harbor. Add to this mayhem the ferries, power boats and cruise ships. We loved it and got to see it close-up several times.
         When we lived in Kirribilli (looking out on the harbor), we used to walk down to the Sydney Flying Squadron, which was very close to our apartment, to take the "betting boat" to watch the 18-foot skiffs scream across the harbor. On board the betting boat, old timers would be betting on the races while listening to the horse races on the radio at the same time. We kept our money in our pockets. We just loved being on the water and watching the races.
         We eagerly repeated the experience on this trip, only without the betting. (We don't know why, but betting is now limited to the last race of the season).
         After a lunch of fish and chips at the "Squaddy," Kathy and I climbed to the top deck of the Regal II, possibly the same boat from 1991/92. This time, we would be watching wooden replicas of famous 18-foot skiffs that sailed between 1900 and 1950. The boats had names such as Scot, Britannia, Aberdare, Alruth and Australia IV.
         The crews were a mixture of old timers and younger tars. All would get "wet behind the ears" on these boats. In fact, one crewmember seemed to be assigned the task of continuously bailing, since the lee-cloths were only partly successful at keeping water out of the boat. (We watched one crew tread water after they capsized. Later a crewmember said the capsize was a combination of a lee-cloth failing and a wave hitting the boat at the wrong time. The boat was towed to a beach where it was refloated and sailed back to the Squaddy by a very wet crew.)
         When we returned to the club, we had a drink and watched the crews dismantle the boats for the next week's racing.
          We were out on the harbor that next weekend with a very different perspective.
         Our friends Kate and Matthew McCann invited us out on their 50-foot X Yacht, Carabella, a sleek greyhound tied up at a marina.
         The four of us, plus Matt's sister Daria, left on Saturday when a blustery front was forecast. Before the system arrived we unfurled sails and tacked up the harbor past expensive homes in Balmain and historic Cockatoo Island, where the English once sent convicts. Australia later built warships on the island. Today, ferries take tourists to view the island.
         Off to our starboard was an ugly gray cloud. Was this the beginning of the front?
         Matthew decided to come about to head down the harbor away from the cloud. The wind was picking up, and Matt furled the jib. The wind kept rising. We were making about eight knots under the main sail alone. We sailed down the harbor past the Opera House, Kirribilli and Mosman Bay. We ducked behind the headland at Port Jackson, furled the main and raised the dodger. The wind was now gusting to about thirty knots and was blowing the spray ten feet across the bow. We could see the wooden skiffs from the Squaddy flying through the waves. I'm sure the crews were bailing as fast as they could.
         Matt decided to motor across the harbor to look at Aquijo, the 87 meter (287 feet) ketch (49.6 feet beam!) that was anchored off Rose Bay.  A sloop that was just barely under control sailed past us on the starboard. A small J-boat suddenly tacked right at us. The skipper must have never seen us. Matt yelled and they tacked back and he grabbed the wheel from Ron to avoid a collision. Does this sound like chaos?
         In front of us a small wooden boat lost its mast. Its five crewmembers were in the water. Kate tried to reach the maritime authorities to get help to them. She was put on hold and told to call back later. Fortunately, a rescue boat arrived. Maybe we didn't need to spend much more time looking at the giant yacht, which Ron and Kathy had seen when it initially motored into the harbor.
         We started back to the slip under power. The wind was a steady thirty-four knots gusting to forty as we went under the Sydney Harbor Bridge. Carabella was hard-pressed to make 5-6 knots directly into the wind. But the marina was nearby and Matthew expertly backed Carabella into its slip.
         There is nothing more relaxing than a quiet sail... We actually did wind down with pizzas and wine.
         The next morning Matthew picked us up in Mosman Bay with his 21-foot RIB (rigid inflatable boat). With a powerful outboard on the stern it didn't take long to get to the Middle Harbor Yacht Club, where Kate was rigging the Melges 20 on which she would be the mainsail trimmer.  Kate and three other women were competing in the Manly Yacht Club's Helly Hansen Women's Challenge. The course was a series of three windward and down wind legs between Manly and Balmoral.
         While the women sailed to the starting line, we motored across the harbor to pick up Sarah McCann, their oldest daughter. The four of us then headed out in the choppy seas. Ferries sped through the water leaving wakes that had to be dealt with.
         The wind had moderated from the prior day but still had plenty of 20-30 knot gusts in its system. The powerful winds made it difficult for the lightweight Melges to stay upright. Twice the boat suffered a knockdown, that is, it was overpowered by the wind and ended up on its side.  On one of the gusts, Kate reached out and pulled the owner and skipper Michelle back into the boat. Michelle laughingly referred to it as being rescued by the "hand of God".
         Matt, a competitive racer himself, provided play-by-play commentary. "Get your weight back," he would mutter. "Oh no, don't tack in front of the ferry." "Tighten the main."
         Of course the women couldn't hear him. And, they won their class. Go girls!

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