Sailing Saskia


At the end of every boat building process the dedicated boat builder has to leave the confines of his shed and become a sailor, actually putting the boat in the water and hoisting the sails to harness the power of the wind.

Epoxy and saw dust is replaced with sails, ropes and the trials and tribulations of sailing.

I live in Melbourne Australia. This is south eastern Australia and it is a windy area with quite changeable weather , especially around September to November (Spring).

Melbourne sits at the northern end of a vast enclosed bay called Port Phillip Bay.

This is the story of short trip I made in my boat.

Saskia enters the mouth of the Werribee river on a less windier day.

The Bureau of Meteorology gives a strong wind warning when winds are likely to reach 30 knots. When such a warning is current I think it highly unlikely that I'd ever go out in my 17'6'' gaffer "Saskia". When one sails purely for pleasure all one really wants is a 10 to 15 knot sea breeze on a nice sunny day. This provides enough speed to move at a satisfying pace and yet not so much that one has to work hard all the time - comfortable I think is the word. But there is always the odd occasion when the wind may pick up unexpectedly to 20 knots. At this wind speed a good sailor and a good boat should be able to reef and cope with the expected one and a half metre waves.

The only way to be sure that you are able to cope is to go out and sail in these conditions on purpose. So when I read the weather forecast for last Sunday's trip to Werribee South trip would be winds to 25 knots, waves to one and a half metres I thought it's time that I experienced these conditions and put the boat to the test.

Obviously I was confident the boat would do it. Where I did lack confidence was in my own skills as a sailor. But last Sunday I was to have the company of Andrew Bikkerdike who is a more experienced sailor than myself - a reliance on his ability was to prove well placed. I must admit to some apprehension during the night before, but the next morning Andrew turned up as organised and didn't seem too perturbed so off we went.

Usually the mornings are quite still but this morning the wind was already approaching a steady 10 knots. Getting under way was as efficient as much practice has made it except that I had to dismantle a seagull's nest ( For which I feel ornithologically guilty). We motored out of Hobson's Bay while hoisting the sails. Just beyond Point Gellibrand the sea was already a bit choppy. The frequent white caps indicating the breeze was in fact already 15 knots. I decided to motor out a good distance to get a better run south of Point Cook, which was just a few points off the wind. However the sails began to flog disturbingly or the boat healed to such a degree that the motor was lifted from the water with the propeller screaming wildly. So we turned off the engine and found the best point of sail we could.

The sea was very lumpy and our attempt to have a comforting cup of tea was a bit difficult. We sailed briskly to Point Cook but had to then motor out further to avoid the reef which extends beyond the point there. So close were we that we nearly hit the marker which defines the position of the reef.

I was quite amazed to see some small fishing boats out in these very choppy conditions. Fishermen are certainly intrepid, sitting in their little open boats buffeted by the waves, calmly fishing away. They must get used to it, or perhaps even enjoy it, but it does seem terribly uncomfortable, not to mention dangerous. A yacht such as mine has an enclosed deck, self-draining cockpit and a steadying set of sails which offer a lot more protection compared to the open, low freeboard dinghies the fisherman bob up and down in. Any way seeing them gave me more assurance in that I felt safer in my boat than they looked in theirs. Then again there are regular drownings of fishermen such as these.

After four hours of sailing we finally came to the mouth of the Werribee River and in sight of the leading marks which guide one through the narrow channel across the sand bar. This sand bar is regularly dredged to make it possible for boats to enter the river. So regularly in fact, sitting right in the middle of the channel was the dredge itself, looking somewhat like a half sunken wreck. Suddenly I couldn't work out what to do, which way to go. I knew from experience that the channel was very narrow, with barely enough room for two small boats t o pass each other. The waves were breaking around us, showing quite clearly that hereabouts was shallow water. Fortunately Andrew pointed out that the extraction tube blocked the starboard side of the dredge, giving us only one route to take - end of confusion.

Sailing through a narrow channel is certainly hair raising as you would gather from reading "Riddle of the Sands", but once in the river the water instantly calms down, a reward for the risk taken. I managed not to stuff up our entrance too much for I knew that there would be many eyes watching our arrival, photographing it even, because today was the day of the Wooden Boat Association's annual picnic and launch of recently completed projects - the blokes who build boats.

The journey had been rough, during which we couldn't eat, we couldn't even piss over the side of the boat, so we very quickly set about putting the steak on the barbecue and made a trip to the nearby toilet block. The unfortunate thing about the Werribee South voyage is that it takes a good four hours each way, so if you expect to return before dark you cannot stay too long picnicking. So after a bit of a chat and some food and soup we returned to the boat.

As we were leaving we witnessed that proudest of moments in any boat builder's experience, a launching of a newly completed project. Only the builder of a boat can understand the poignancy of the moment when all that wood and epoxy is first allowed to float. When that thing in the shed becomes a vessel and its sail fills and it moves. You again experience the pride somewhat later whenever the boat slams into a metre high wave with a crash, and then you thank god you built her well.

For the voyage back we expected the wind to have picked up somewhat closer to the forecast 25 knots, so we put a reef in the main and again managed to depart without embarrassment. The exit from the channel was less stressful given that we now knew what was what with the dredging. We motored out from shore enough to clear the point, crashing through waves which had enlarged in height to over a metre high.

The course back to Melbourne put the waves on our stern quarter and it soon became apparent to Andrew that perhaps we may need to put a second reef in the main, as the wind had indeed picked up as forecast. We talked about it for some time without making a decision. I was then reminded of that old dictum, "If you think about reefing, do it because it is better to do it sooner than later" So Andrew put the motor on to keep the boat into the wind and I quickly put in the second reef. This proved to be the correct thing to do.

The course we made back was more direct and certainly a lot faster. The windier conditions may make the sea rougher but it makes up for it by making the boat move faster, which is more satisfying, especially on a return journey. With Andrew at the helm for most of the time Saskia proved to be a well behaved and an easy boat to manage in these conditions. The occasional large breaking wave only knocked her over a little, pushing her stern around, safely pointing her into windward. Without the staysail set and the double reef she proved to be easy on the helm and kept us remarkably dry. I told Andrew that if things got too scary we could always put on the life jackets, we were only about 500 metres or so off shore, but it never really got to that point.

Once we rounded point Gellibrand, Hobson's Bay was a millpond by comparison and we had a much more relaxed last leg to the mooring. We sailed up to the mooring and didn't so much miss it but rather sailed over it. We eventually had the boat secure on her swing mooring and set about packing up, which I learnt to do with care and consideration for when next we go sailing. This approach avoids a lot of delays. We then sat and drank some beer in the slightly warm afternoon sunshine. The late afternoon sun shines on the boats moored at Williamstown with a definite golden glow.