Best and Worst

Tours 2-4

Best Journey by Boat
Lowest Point
Southern-most Point

Sailing aboard Yoko
Hobart, Tasmania to Melbourne, Australia

I timed my visit to Tasmania to coincide with the finish of the Sydney to Hobart yacht race.  I wanted to see the impressive 18m (60ft.) boats sailing up the Derwent River on the final leg of their long ocean crossing.  Here's the winning boat, Alpha Romeo, as it sails toward the finish line.

Knowing that most of the boats participating in the race would be returning to Sydney soon after New Year's Day, I was hoping to secure a place as crewmember on one for the return voyage.  My original plan was to return to Melbourne, since I had not stayed long enough to do any sightseeing on my way down to Tasmania the day after Christmas – and, in fact, I had already booked a flight back.  But if I was lucky enough to get on one of the boats going to Sydney, I would skip Melbourne for the time being and return to see it at a later date.

What I didn't realize until the day I strolled around Hobart harbor admiring all the varied boats docked there, is that there was also a Melbourne to Hobart race – so there would be boats returning to Melbourne as well.  On New Year's Day, I walked down the pier where all the Melbourne boats were clustered, stopping at each one to ask the skippers if they were in need of an additional crewmember for the return trip.  The third skipper I spoke to said he did and invited me to come along.

The voyage would take us east from Hobart, then north along the western coast of Tasmania and across Bass Strait to Port Phillip Bay, the harbor for Melbourne – a distance of 500 nautical miles (almost 1000km).  The boat was a 17m (52ft) sloop named Yoko – the aboriginal word for "big canoe" (in Japanese it means "child of the sea").  For the race, it had carried a crew of eleven, and the crossing only took three days.  The return trip was to be much more relaxed – taking from seven to thirteen days (depending on the weather and where we stopped along the way).  Most of the original crew couldn't take so much time off work and had to fly directly back to Melbourne from Hobart.

We departed on the 3rd of January under beautiful clear blue skies.  On board was Robin (the skipper) and his wife, Val; John, Tricia, and Amanda (part of the original crew); and myself and two other invited guests, Dayman and Ian (both Australians from Queensland).  After an uneventful afternoon of sailing, we dropped anchor in Recherche Bay just before dark.  During the first of many wonderful meals, the crew engaged in lively conversation – getting to know each other better.

Recherche Bay

We stayed all the next day, went ashore in the dinghy for some exploring, and enjoyed another delicious dinner.  Based on weather reports from maritime services, Robin predicted the winds were going to turn in our favor in the early morning hours.  So, after an all-too-short sleep period, we raised anchor and departed at 3:30am.  Notice I didn't mention anything about having breakfast before we departed.  Breakfast consisted of quick bites of toast and jam (or, for just about everyone but me, toast and vegemite – yuck!) as we went about the tasks for getting underway.

As the skies started to lighten a bit, we saw only threatening clouds ahead of us.  And, as we rounded the bend coming out of the bay, we were met with 35 to 40 knot winds and heavy seas.  Our skipper calculated the time it would take us to beat upwind to our next safe harbor and decided to return to Recherche Bay to wait for more favorable weather.

Recherche Bay (again)

After spending another day relaxing on the boat, we departed just before dusk for a night passage.  For me, it was a magical night.  We were on four-hour watches (four on, four off) – my first being from 10pm until 2am.  Just after coming on duty, Amanda asked if I wanted to take the helm.  So suddenly I found myself in control of a 17-ton boat sailing the open ocean at night under a beautiful star-filled sky.

Beginning of the Magical Night

After the moon went down, the waves became a glowing light-show as the phosphorescent algae showed itself.  The wake of the boat was also aglow in a shimmering blue-green light.  A bit later in my watch, I noticed a soft glow off to the south and asked John what it was.  He said it was the Southern Lights – or more accurately, the Aurora Australis.  And if that wasn't enough for one night, I happened to be looking at the right part of the sky to see a very bright shooting star.  It was a night I'll never forget.

We arrived in Port Davey in late afternoon.  Contrary to its name, it isn't really a port as such, but a secluded series of natural harbors connected by a river.  The next day we went ashore again and did some hiking in the hills along the river.  The rest of our time there was spent relaxing on the boat (and eating), chatting (and eating), reading books (and eating) and oh, by the way, did I mention eating!?!

As an experienced sailor (with over 300,000 sea miles logged), Robin was naturally keeping a close eye on the weather, trying to decide when we could safely depart and whether we could make other stops along the way.  Due to time constraints of some of the crew and other factors (most notably the problems Robin was having with his teeth), he decided we would depart that evening and sail straight back to Melbourne with no additional stops.

The crew again adopted a four-on/four-off schedule and quickly settled into a routine onboard Yoko.  At times we had a bit of cold, rainy weather with winds of up to forty knots pushing heavy seas with swells of 3-4 meters (10-13 ft).  But other times it wasn't so bad – with clear skies at night filled with stars, and sunshine during the day.  Here you can see a video showing what it's like to sail in winds of only (did I really say only?) 25-30 knots.  And remember, Yoko is quite a large boat weighing 17-tons.

alt : Watch video.

It took another two-and-a-half days of steady sailing to get back to Melbourne.  As we passed through the headwaters of Port Phillip Bay, it was another six hours across the bay to Melbourne and Yoko's home port.  And for one final magical moment, a group of five dolphin greeted us in the bay and escorted us for about 20 minutes – frolicking in the bow-wave of the boat, turning on their sides to look at us as they swam effortlessly along.  It was the perfect ending to a perfect voyage.

alt : Watch video.

Here's a final shot of the crew as we toast
another safe crossing aboard Yoko...