1 tallship, a quadracopter and 5 teenagers

October 22, 2012

The East Coast Odyssey culminated in Sydney with a 4-day sail out of North Heads into the deep ocean.

The mission, to collect samples of the ocean surface, to look for micro-plastics in the ocean. Six passengers plus crew took to the seas with a triumphant hoisting of the sails and a fresh northerly wind. 

Our passengers: a family of three teenage boys and their father Steve Potts; a teenage boy and his mum Kate Parker. The fifth teenager, Ewan, is part of the crew of the Yukon. A sailor since he was a child, Ewan is as comfortable manoeuvring a 60 tonne ship as most kids are playing DS.

Under the guidance of Captain David Nash, who salvaged the vessel from beneath a Danish harbour and built it by hand over many years, the kids learnt to sail.

Being on any sailing vessel teaches you a certain discipline - you're at the mercy of the elements and have to respond when they need you to, not when you want to. Sailing is a 24 hour activity - it builds a sense of maturity and respect when you have to work as a team, under the guidance of an experienced and responsible leader.

The first thing we did was split into two watches with 4 hour shifts and divvied up the overnight sessions. While initially, the prospect of staying awake from 12-4am doesn't fill people with delight, it fast becomes one of the best things about the trip. Four hours beneath the stars, crystal-like bioluminescence washing over the deck and sharing stories with friends. It's a beautiful place to be.

Shortly after leaving North Head, the Potts boys were busy building their quadracopter, a 'drone' or type of robot. It has four rotor blades and can carry a GoPro camera. The boys hadn't flown it over water before, so they were a bit anxious. The maiden flight was a success and for the first time, we got a glimpse of the vessel under sail from above. 

Dr Jennifer Lavers set up a trawl for plastic. As has become custom on this trip, coastal upwelling had created a thick soup of plankton - salps (a type of sea squirt), crab and fish larvae and, to our surprise, a large amount of pumice stone. Pumice is the product of undersea volcanoes and an incredible ecosystem, supporting colonies of sponges, coral and shellfish. In one trawl, we collected a gelatinous sea-through fish, a larva of an eel, known scientifically as a 'leptocephalus'. It's with the world expert right now for an identification - watch this space!

Ironically, the rich waters were relatively poor in abundance of seabirds and marine mammals. It wasn't until day three we encountered a large pod of Common Dolphins that joined the boat to bow-ride for an hour on sunrise. It was spectacular. Albatrosses, usually in abundance, were scarce. A huge sub-adult Wandering Albatross drifted past and there were young Black-browed and a few Shy Albatrosses dotted around. The ubiquitous Wedge-tailed Shearwaters were a constant companion throughout the trip.

Far offshore one morning, the wind rose and we were suddenly under sail but making only a few knots. The East Australian Current was running south at 2 knots. Suddenly, someone spotted a whale blow but it disappeared. Birds were circling, including a Little Shearwater, one of the species studied by Dr Lavers on Lord Howe Island and prone to feeding on ocean surface plastic. We were over about 1,300m of water leaving us wondering if it was a Sperm Whale we'd seen - we back tracked over our route but in the chop, we couldn't find any further signs.

That afternoon as the sun was setting, we were finally joined by a pod of Long-finned Pilot Whales. The orange glow of the sun illuminated their blows as they drifted in the water, males showing off their huge bulbous dorsal fins. The silhouette of the Blue Mountains was just visible through a haze to the west. As the sun set, we sat down and eat Rogan Josh and shared stories about the day. 

The penultimate day of the trip we were expecting strong southwesterly winds, so we headed inshore to Pittwater. Just a few miles from Sydney, this natural harbour is surrounded by forest and mountains, like a mini-fjordland. It's a stunning setting, sheltered from the elements, where we could drop anchor for the night. 

Four days at sea goes so quickly but by day 3, the routine was well-oiled. Everyone had long got over the inevitable slight queasiness that accompanies the first day at sea, were sharing duties on board and enthusiastically offering to take an overnight watch. The trip had been wonderfully varied but the ocean had one more surprise in store.

On the last day, we were a few miles from Sydney and as we turned the corner to head along the coast back to Q Station in Manly, a roaring wind set in, gusting to 50 knots. Sails were reefed and finally we were making five knots on just the foresails. The boat was keeled to starboard, the sun was hot and there was the continual refreshing burst of droplets from waves exploding off the bow. All of a sudden, Humpback Whales appeared in the melee of white-water that surrounded us. A pair of Humpback Whales frolicked and leapt no more than 100m away … they were clearly having as much fun in the surf as we were. 

People dream of sailing through North Head on a tall ship and here we were doing just that. We arrived safe and sound back in Manly on a September day when Sydney reached 32 degrees. 

Seeing wildlife, sailing in the open ocean and seeing for ourselves the pieces of plastic on the ocean re-affirmed the role we play in this environment.   

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Written by

Simon Mustoe


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