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Captain Adventure sets sail (again)

by John Curnow, Global Editor, 23 Feb 2023 17:00 UTC
Nick Jaffe aboard Huia at the 2023 Australian Wooden Boat Festival © John Curnow

Nick Jaffe has a history of taking it on. No doubt about it. There's also a scoreboard, if you like, but that's definitely not of his doing, or his style for that matter. My curiosity was piqued when I heard that he had taken an open 26-footer from Geelong (near Melbourne) to Hobart. Solo, mind you, and the boat was wooden, not in the greatest state ever, but totally seaworthy, and gaff rigged, to boot. Think of it as a bit of a Rat Rod, a term which Nick himself has become very much endeared to. All working fine, just a genuine patina to it, like a badge of honour.

Slow and wet came to mind, instantly. Had it not been one of the famed Couta boats of the bottom of Port Phillip, I may have just written it all off as some weird aberration. Add in that she is older than a lot of people get to live on this planet (built in 1936), and her new custodian is under 40 years of age, and you have the makings of a tale. You only have to start with, why? (As in, on earth, or in God's name would you do that.)

Now believe it or not, this particular story actually begins in South Africa, when Nick was trying to drive his old ex-Army Land Rover from the bottom of Tasmania, around the top of Australia to Perth, and thence on to the most Northern road in the world in Norway. Decent old chunk of the planet right there... Without context, you may be thinking to yourself, no way, yet Nick had already done solo across both the Atlantic and Pacific by this stage, as well as two-handed across the Pacific with a friend after buying a boat in the USA. There is definitely previous form here.

In short, Covid arrived, and as the world closed down swiftly, Nick was en route to Mozambique and made the prudent decision to return home pronto, sans Landy, which had only just got prepared for the rigours of Africa after its arrival by ship. Doh. By chance it was his birthday, and he had splashed out for a real bed for the night to celebrate. The room came with Internet, which brought the news, so he hightailed it back to Cape Town, and caught the second last flight out to Melbourne.

Once back home in Tassie it was evident that he was not going back to Africa and the Landy in a hurry, which not only had the burden of plan fallen asunder, but also the realisation of the cash that had been sunk into it all. Nick used the word 'depressed', but I think that is still with a smile on it all. This clearly hurt. "I got into reading about James Kelly's voyage in an open whale boat, and thought that is what I would like to do. Super local, and I will sail around Tassie", said Jaffe.

Another fork in the road saw Jaffe meet his soon to be wife, and they had a boy as well, so going around Tassie was not on the cards anymore. Instead, they opted to sail to the Great Barrier Reef as a family. A 42-foot Adams expedition style pilothouse was purchased, which is a motor sailer not one of Joe's famous racing 12s, their home was rented out, and the journey began.

The next round of Covid dramas erupted, and they could not go into Sydney. They made it to Yamba in the Northern Rivers to affect some repairs, and subsequently missed getting over the border in Queensland by five days. "We were like, well, this is where we live now, and did so for six months."

"I hired a little workshop at the marina, and started building an expedition rowing boat, which was inspired a bit by the whale boat, and was going to row up the beautiful Clarence River. It was then that my partner got pregnant, and we did not think living on a boat with our three-year-old daughter, and a pregnant wife (with our soon-to-be-born son) would be that much fun, and it was getting really hot. We were cooking in our steel boat. Additionally, I have always bought boats to do things with them, not just own them or use them as a house."

"The Great Barrier Reef was out, so too surfing in Indonesia, my dreams were diminishing rapidly, so we sold the boat there incredibly quickly, and now we did not have a boat, a home, or an adventure! Just a Toyota Corolla and an occupied house some 2500km away. Whilst we waited to get back in, I started to think of James Kelly once more."

An Internet search, and Huia the Rat Rod, which he now owns, was secured. "I can remember saying, that's the boat for me, and she's just in Sorrento, but I live in Tasmania, so obviously I'm going to sail a home. That's the adventure I want before my son is born.

"I spent a few weeks on the boat, met Tim Phillips, hung out at the Wooden Boat Shop, learn a ton of stuff about Couta boats, and spend time with his family, which was awesome. His son Sam helped a lot on the boat. They even loaned me a little Ute to get things done, whilst waiting for a weather window. It just never arrived, however. The Sou'easterlies just keep on persisting."

This was always going to be an East Coast trip, for Jaffe wanted to go through the islands of Bass Strait, and photograph them. Flinders Island was especially on his list, for when his father arrived from New York back in the day, he built an A-Frame house there, and drove to Wilsons Promontory in a Boston Whaler to get supplies.

At any rate, no weather window, a son getting closer to being born and living on an open boat loses its attraction pretty swiftly. He left Blairgowrie and headed to Geelong where he had a friend to stay with. Still no joy, so he headed home. A birth and the Winter season passes and he returns in October, only to do more waiting, and eventually capitulates and returns home once more. "Is this ever going to happen?"

"Maybe I should sell the boat. You know, this is kind of getting ridiculous. December comes around, the Wooden Boat Festival is approaching, and I'm like, all right, I've got to get this boat. I'm building a house at the same time. I thought, okay, there's this double high-pressure system, and everything's glassing off. I'm just going to motor out of here and get out of the Heads, make for the Prom, which in turn will give me a better position to get across."

"The boat was already prepped. I had food on there from six months ago, a hundred litres of biodiesel, and I grabbed another couple of jerry cans as well, as Huia burns about three litres an hour. The three cylinder, 30hp Yanmar is quite efficient, and it was rebuilt at the Wooden Boat Shop, but with a two-bladed prop she is missing out on reaching her potential, so five knots is about where it's at. We did Geelong to San Remo, then the next leg was San Remo to Refuge Cove."

A lot of these places have huge tidal flow, assorted bricks to look out for, and are not what you might refer to as paradise at sea when it is cold, dark, wet and miserable. So benign conditions are to be appreciated and used whenever possible.

Jaffe reflected on this, "You know I'd been looking at the charts through winter. I was anxious, often waking up at three in the morning worrying about Huia, and this stupid voyage I'd committed to. Things had changed for me, with kids and all. I started to not want to do the voyage, you know, and the anxiety built up over winter, as I sat there worrying about stuff."

So he had left San Remo at 0430hrs and arrived at the Prom at 2100hrs, so still light at that time of year. He dropped the pick, and spent a couple of days there, as it really is rather idyllic. He blew up his pack raft, went ashore, and climbed up the hill to get a signal, in order to download some GRIB files, ahead of the crossing to Deal Island.

Inspiration had returned, and not just for this trip, but his whole reason for getting into sailing in the first place. "My parents were not sailors, but once when I was hiking there I met this old boy on a rusty old steel ketch with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. He rowed to the shore, and I went and talked to him and he told me, 'Oh, I just sail around Australia.' I was 19, and I was like, you did what? I couldn't really grasp that. You could get an old piece of crap like that and sail around Australia. That was really like eye-opening thing for me."

"So sailing into the Prom on Huia was awesome, and I remembered that this is where it had all originated from; solo hiking, and I had done a lot of it." No doubt it ran in his veins from his parents. "Dad would tell stories of hiking up in the Appalachians, living off berries because he read a book on the indigenous Americans and what they did and ate. He'd go up there for six weeks, dig stuff out of the ground and have all these transcendental experiences."

"So sailing for me is not so much the sailing as it is the adventure. Going places, and problem solving like fixing the Diesel, figuring out how to do this or that."

At any rate, the much needed weather window had arrived, and at 0200hrs, it was time to go. "It was beautiful, with a full moon, so I was very much blessed with that. The wind was going to be picking up all day, and be hellish in the end.

"I had to get in before 1400hrs, which I did. I came across the top of Deal Island, with full rag up and was aiming for Murray Passage. Sailing a Couta boat with full canvas is quite a bit to handle. The main did have a huge reef in it that we had done at the Wooden Boat Shop, but sail management in a blow on your own is difficult. There's a fair old load."

"Anyway, it was continuing to pick up, Deal's right there, and I'm like I'll just have to leave it up. We were screaming in, doing 7.5-8 knots, sustained. Finally we make the lee. Wonderful, but I had to get the sails down ASAP. So I dumped the main, but left the jib up. That wind was now funnelling through the passage, as I made my way to Winter Cove, and even managed to knock me flat, so thank God I did not have the main up or it would have been an actual disaster."

"I got round to Winter Cove, and it struck me how turquoise it is. You could think you're in the Caribbean or something, and it was very flat. As I go in, the gusts start coming. They're like these willywaws or something, coming straight through the hills and completely unexpected. I was stressed at this point. I drop the hook, but we drag anchor immediately."

"This is a nightmare, because I can't go back out. No, I'm in here. There's no one else here, either. There's no one to help me. It felt very desolate at that point. I'm sitting there at Winter Cove, I'm really alone now. Here is my adventure. This is what I signed up for."

"At any rate, I had this big FX 23 anchor that a friend had lent me. So I set everything up again, came right in, super shallow, dropped that hook, let everything out, doubled up my rode, but those gusts would come and Huia would just go from one side to the other. Then it'd just stop and be gentle again", explained Jaffe.

"This went on for two days, just two days of misery, sitting in the cockpit thinking this is horrible. In the afternoon of the second day, it started to abate, but I couldn't get off the boat because if I tried to get on my pack craft, I would've most definitely been blown away.

"So I just had to sit on the boat, and I couldn't leave it alone anyway. Anyway, then this octopus fisherman turns up on a big trawler. 'He's like, oh mate, we saw you out there. We're like, what the hell is that little boat doing out there? He'd been somewhere else, hiding out for the last couple of weeks, but came around to check on me, which was wonderful."

"He said, 'We'll launch the tender, and my nephew can take you out for a little expedition around the island', and we also met the caretakers. What a great relief it all was. Yes. Meanwhile the skipper had cooked a full roast, and baked a cake, too. The wind died off as well, and it was back to postcard weather again. It was gorgeous."

"He gave me another weather update, and the next day I was off, but those last two days had really kicked up the sea state. So that trip across from Deal down to the top of Flinders was pretty miserable. Very wet indeed, and to get into Flinders Island was a great relief. Honestly, it was such a horrible day of sailing. Absolutely ghastly, but I didn't use the engine at all. We were fully powered up getting across mind you, and the bilge pump certainly got a workout!"

We'll leave Nick and Huia there to have a well-earned break, and come back to Captain Adventure very soon. In the meantime, drop the pick, set a heap of chain, and make a roast if you can. Time to ride it out....

These links will show more about Nick and his adventures:
His Book
Website and Work
His Documentary

John Curnow
Global Editor,

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