My first instinct is to laugh. After all he isn’t supposed to be aboard this former Sydney to Hobart yacht. He’s just swapped seats with me in the cockpit and is walloped by a full sheet of salt water. His clothes are soaked, he can’t see for dripping sunscreen and salt, his borrowed hat is sideways- but all I can see is utter joy.
Just 48 hours before I’d surprised Dad with an overnight sail aboard 62 feet of luxurious Helsal IV, departing from Hobart to greet Sydney to Hobart yachts as they round Cape Raoul off the Tasman Peninsula. Dad’s always loved the sea but it’s been some years between his navy days and today. A friendly towel off by Marsha can’t wipe his grin. Nothing like an ocean baptism to make you feel alive.
Owners Mark and Marsha Stranger did mention wet weather gear and I’d relayed this to Dad punctuated with promises of a 29 degree forecast. But when you’re hugging a coastline where the next stop in Antarctica, it’s handy to be prepared. As we venture round the Iron Pot, the grand Southern Ocean reveals itself and seven new friends become cosy in their new surrounds.
As luck would have it, cruising beyond the Pot leads us into Storm Bay. Undeterred by the name, rather than head below deck, Dad agrees to take the helm. With gusts up to 35 knots and a soggy hat I guess he doesn’t see why not. After all, the photographer has secured his precious SLR in a makeshift shopping bag casing; this sea spray has become the flavour of adventure.
Despite the dramatic picture I’m painting- as if my father is Abel Tasman, the first European to cross Storm Bay back in 1642 – I feel entirely relaxed in the well-worn hands of our crew. There are folk who have spent their lives on the water; skipper Jamie who was practically born at sea and never left, owner Mark who helms like the yacht is an innate extension of his arms, Jimmy who navigates the deck like a panther with SLR in tow and Marsha who works a swinging stove like everyone makes plum jam in a sloping galley kitchen. She’s also bloody handy at towelling off surprised fathers.
Geoff, the travelling school bus owner who’s on a voyage around Australia completes the crew. Our destination is guided by the wind gods. With Bruny to our right and the Tasman Peninsula growing closer ahead, chatter about south easterlies and changing fronts fall on my naïve ears, but steer us into Curio Bay for lunch.
It’s cosy and protected from the wind, and as Marsha whips up hearty toasties, to our surprise Mark sails past on a wire and bombs into the water. As my father stares blankly down at the white water left by our captain, I decide it looks such fun I’ll follow suit. In my spontaneous bathing suit I hit the water with a chilly splash - my first gasp of air demanding a towel be delivered to the back ladder.
The toastie tastes all the better for it, wet clothes are pegged out to dry and minor repairs are tended to following a crossing that convinced Geoff and Dad they were Sydney to Hobart yachtsmen. It’s the next leg though, that really stirs my imagination. We are bound for Cape Raoul on the hunt for leader, Wild Oats, who we are tracking with anticipation. Updates range from midnight to 6pm as weather conditions fiercely alter her course. It’s time to pull up anchor and get ourselves out there.
Wind fills our sails and as if on cue, a pod of baby dolphins appear alongside, guiding us to the cape. Mark rushes over and tells me to head up front where, “they’ll be surfing our bow wave.” Sure enough the little funsters are riding those waves like they each got surfboards for Christmas.
Some 566 photo attempts later I lift my gaze and there it is. A coastline like no other on the planet; towering sea cliffs some 300 metres high, impending Shipsterns Bluff that lures surfers the world over and classic dolerite spires of Cape Raoul in the distance. It’s raw, it’s rugged and typically on show only for the Southern Ocean and the eyes of weary fishermen. Out here is the type of silence where only the wind and heaving swells do the talking.
We’ve been on board about six hours since departing an over-excited Hobart dock when we catch first glimpse of a hazy yacht through binoculars. It’s soon after that the rumble of helicopters fill the air and quick exchanges between the skipper and crew ensure we are in a commanding position to view her. Dad’s so thrilled by this stage he’s cleaning the salt spray off his sunnies.
The boat is just visible off the south eastern tip of the peninsula, near Tasman Island. It’s little wonder this desolate windswept island sent many light keepers mad, likened to the American prison island of Alcatraz it is the very definition of isolation.
With helicopters swarming in, and Wild Oats charging toward we joke about blocking her path but for Mark, this is serious business. We needn’t enjoy international headlines for being carved in two by the Sydney to Hobart race leader. So we stay on course, give her a wide berth and sit back in awe as Wild Oats thunders through with Cape Raoul as her Jurassic backdrop. I’d noticed a treasure chest below deck, and this moment is a ‘father-daughter keeper’ to be stowed away forever.
Just as soon as the flurry of helicopters had come, swooping down so close we could see the mighty lenses hanging out open doors, they are gone. And so is Wild Oats. Silence returns. It seems the perfect time to sail into Shipsterns Bluff to anchor for afternoon tea.
The mighty headland offers a sheltered bay far removed from the days where pounding swell put Shippies up among the top three surf breaks worldwide. It is unlikely Mr. Slater comes here for Christmas cake and a cup of tea, but for us the smoothly calm inlet is a flawless dining table.
I think I’ve seen my father cook enough times to count on my left hand, but Marsha’s eyes light up when he requests the recipe for her splendid cake. Following the excitement, we all tuck in, anchored close to cliffs whose rainbow of layers shares a story thousands of years in the making. Enormous boulders have toppled, frozen in time at awkward angles by the shore. Only the ocean could whisper the day they broke free.
As we motor back out to the elements, we realise just how distant the fellow competitors must be. We catch a glimpse of Perpetual Loyal as the sun sinks, shaping a beautiful silhouette on the horizon, but no others appear. We head for the shelter of Nubeena and over dinner a big screen reveals the moments Jimmy has captured through the day. A good old fashioned slide show presented by a photographer come deckhand come chef whose photography is equalled only by his Syrian chicken with freshly chopped coriander.
We later hit the deck ourselves and as I snuggle into my bunk I’m whisked back to my childhood when we’d rock to sleep in quiet Tasmanian coves aboard our family yacht. There was nothing quite like a birthday when your new cabbage patch was hoisted to the top of the mast to mark the occasion. As the memories came spilling back, I drifted peacefully off.
First I hear come sunrise is Marsha tinkering about preparing breakfast. We are spoilt with eggs and crispy bacon topped with haloumi (Dad may have asked for this recipe too) as the crew dress head-to-toe in wet weather gear, silently indicating what might be in store.
No one seems fussed, but when a wave crashes over the deck and the windows below become submerged I understand why we’re told to stay put in the cockpit. Even the wall hanging takes on a new sideways design. Secretly, I love a little wild weather and can’t help but giggle at Dad as he bears the brunt of several more salty showers.
The coastal seascape is equally special on return- rock platforms, off-shore islands, sea caves and towering columns that seemingly plunge into the sea form the ever-changing landscape to our right and staring long enough on portside could convince you of ice-berg sightings.
Our fast run across Storm Bay rewards us with a leisurely afternoon tea anchored beside craypots off Betsey Island. Jamie has a quick dip, failing to return with a stolen catch, so we happily settle for that famous cake once more and a warming coffee.
It’s with a hint of sadness that familiar Mount Wellington comes into view as we cruise up the River Derwent. Smoked salmon topped with caviar eases our return to city life, and although tempting to cross the finish line we take a wide berth as Tasmanian brews are raised high at our own achievements. We may not have taken line honours, but the smiles on windswept faces could easily have indicated otherwise.
Mark and his crew took us on a journey that gave a glimpse of what the Sydney to Hobart is all about; feeling the ocean’s power as a gust pulls hard on the wheel beneath white knuckles, grounding your feet to brace what nature throws and smiling in the face of salty sheets of water.
There’s something whimsical about the life of a sailor. Is it the invigorating sense of unknown that bonds all on board? Or that every voyage carves a path never travelled - far removed from our well-worn highways? Or the urgency to react to conditions coupled with a strange sense that out there, time stands still? Or does it simply fulfil our innate desire for freedom and exploration? Whatever it is, life at sea will forever draw sailors to the open ocean. Even if it’s just for a great piece of Christmas cake.
Sail with Hobart Yachts
Join Hobart Yachts for a few hours racing on the Derwent or for a multi-day trip to the far south west of Tasmania. Mark and his crew will take you to places inaccessible by car or foot, well off the well-trodden path. Wherever you go on Helsal IV, you’ll leave with a good sailor’s yarn.
Where: departs Sullivans Cove, Hobart
How much: trips start at $95
Call: 0438 399477
Words & images: Alice Hansen (additional images below)
Your launch pad for exploring Tasmania like a local.