Excalibur, purveyor of Sandy Bottom Tours- HCW 2010 War Story

Excalibur’s skipper goes for a midnight swim. - HCW 2010 War stories
HCW Media
Lake Macquarie's annual Heaven Can Wait charity yacht race -- which is on again in mext weekend, on the October Long Weekend (October 1-2) -- is as much about having fun sailing on a fantastic body of water as it is about raising funds for men's cancer research and support programs.

Relive last year's Heaven Can Wait and read what a great time some participants had, in this Heaven Can Wait 2010 'War Story' by the crew from Excalibur. There's more to come over the next few days.

The 2010 Heaven Can Wait race was the first time the skipper, crew and boat Excalibur had competed in this race on Lake Macquarie; it provided the skipper and some hardy crew members with a unique opportunity to explore the bottom of the lake in darkness.

The intention to enter started a number of years earlier and finally, in 2009, while anchored off Pulbah Island at night watching the fleet sail past, we decided, 'We gotta do that race next year.'

So the planning commenced, and over the next 12 months the crew and yacht were organised.

The yacht, Excalibur, with four-day-old antifouling at the start of the race, is an Adams 13 owned by Alex Barnett which races regularly out of Croudace Bay Sailing Club, Valentine.

The crew, consisting of Lloyd, Libby, Brad, Sid, Brett, Greg and Ben (your scribe), threw their hands up to compete.

The experience on board largely varied from oceangoing to social sailing on Lake Macquarie.

I have to say that while we are competitive and were anxious for a good result, the emphasis before and during the race was on having a good, fun social sail.

The fridge was heavily stocked with the necessary amber ale and good food to get us through the 24 hours.

The briefing over, we set off into Toronto Bay in preparation for the start. 

What a start! Some 70 boats, skiffs, moths and yachts up to 50 feet jostling and screaming towards the line with a good wind.

A memorable point was watching Nathan Outteridge perform a 360 at the start line, washing speed off his moth and drop down to pick up his cap which had fallen off, while scores of large boats were bearing down on him.

It was the largest fleet start that most of us on board had been involved in and will be remembered for a long time to come.

With the promise of good winds during the race, we all headed off on the designated course.

Within the first 30 minutes, we saw two boats dismasted and wondered what might be in store for us.

At this stage, I must point out that the skipper and most of the crew are born and bred around Lake Macquarie and have spent countless years sailing on the lake, mainly towards the top end. 

The steering duties changed quite regularly as the day went on without incident.

Excalibur on Sydney Harbour. - HCW 2010 War stories
HCW Media
As sunset approached, the skipper/owner, Alex, was heard to say, 'I feel sorry for the boats not from the lake when it gets dark. At least we know the lake and what to keep clear of.'

Was he going to regret that comment?

It should be noted that Excalibur is fitted with a large and expensive chart plotter with installed maps.

This chart plotter was extensively updated by Greg on the first day time leg with all the rounding markers and areas to keep clear of come night time.

Night fell and despite the predictions, the wind dropped and shifted all over the shop. 

At one point we took about two hours to travel about 50m near a rounding mark.

Our nearest competitor, nicknamed 'The Enemy' (only because we didn't know the boat's name), was not far behind.

Eleven hours of sailing had already expired and some of the crew had ventured downstairs to get some rest.

It is important to note at this point the skipper had hold of the wheel and was negotiating the narrow stretch of water off Wangi Point, heading towards the Belmont marker.

The winds were light and at times shifted some 120 degrees.

The skipper, with his local knowledge, navigated Excalibur on a tack towards the eastern shore.

Some of the crew said at this point that it might be more prudent to tack and head towards the eastern danger marker off Wangi Point.

Alex replied, 'No, we are in plenty of water, we'll go a bit further, then tack.'

We travelled further and further and then, as the skipper called 'Ready to go', he watched the depth gauge go from 15 feet to three and the yacht become stuck on the sandy bottom.

Excalibur is a lift keel and the keel was driven up the keel box. The entire bottom of the boat became stuck rigid on the bottom of the lake.

Those who were asleep came on deck to find out what had happened.

With the aid of torches, it became apparent that we were sitting in about three feet of water on a sandy bottom.

Now the fun stuff started. The first attempts included shifting all the crew weight to one side, including sitting on the boom over the side of the boat and pushing off the bottom with boat hooks.

Not an inch of movement resulted, ending with blank looks from the crew as to what might work.

Meanwhile, navigation lights could be seen on yachts as they overtook us successfully to the east, some of them, I am sure, boats with no local knowledge.

Then an idea came to the skipper. If we swim the anchor out from the boat, we can use it to pull us off the bottom.

Not a bad idea, we thought, but who is the one going for the swim? 

We all looked at the skipper. Alex stripped to his undies, entered the water and walked chest deep to the front of the boat.

The anchor in his hands, he set off forwards.

As the weight of the anchor and chain increased, we watched our skipper disappear underwater with only about 20 feet of distance gained.

Then came the next idea. If we attach some fenders to the anchor and chain, that will reduce the weight and we will be able to swim it out further.

Sid stripped down to his undies and entered the water to help.

Meanwhile, Libby, with encouragement from the crew, produced her camera to document the events unfolding.

Laughter could be heard on occasions at this point, coming from the deck.

The anchor (CQR) was floated out on a number of occasions, where it lodged in the sand.

Each attempt failed to secure the anchor in the sand bed enough to drag the boat off the bar.

Each time, we just winched the anchor back to the boat.

Frustration was starting to set in and it could be seen at this point that both Alex and Sid were starting to shiver in the cold water.

Roughly 40 to 50 minutes had expired since the skipper had run us aground.

Things were starting to become desperate and thought was given to the possibility of requesting assistance from a rescue agency.

We had personal knowledge that the water police were conducting an operation over the weekend and were anchored near Pulbah Island overnight.

Some of the crew on board Excalibur had personal phone numbers for the police crew and knew they would come at the drop of a hat, but embarrassment prevented the phone call being made.

We were not in any danger, just geographically challenged.

Weight on the boom finally gets her off the bottom. - HCW 2010 War stories
HCW Media
Then, with five blokes including Alex and Sid in the water, hanging off the boom on the port side, the winds increased from the northeast by a few knots.

With the wind and all the weight on the boom, we started to slowly move off the bottom into deeper water.

As the boat slipped off the sand bar and lurched (no pun, Lloyd) forwards, it became obvious that we were about to leave the skipper and Sid behind if they didn't get back to the boat.

The crew frantically tried to wash the speed off and steer the boat windward as Alex and Sid did their very best dog paddle to get back to the boat, where they were whisked on board to waiting towels and a rum toddy to warm them up.

The race continued through the night and into the morning.

Eventually, three laps were nearly completed, finishing in Toronto Bay just short of the home marker.

Towards the end of the race, the skipper started receiving frequent text messages about his mishap with the bottom of the lake.

Someone, yet to be determined and with an investigation currently under way, had leaked the news of the mishap to the shores.

It is a common saying that 'what happens on tour stays on tour', but it didn't apply in this instance.

The race completed, and with beers in our hands back at the club, we listened to the results.
Excalibur's crew, post-race. - HCW 2010 War stories
HCW Media

At this time, all the crew and skipper vowed we would return next year to compete again in this successful and most enjoyable event.

Thanks to HCW and RMYC committee -- see ya next year. Thanks Alex.