Bidding Oz Adieu on Sunny Lake Macquarie

A worldly adventure comes to a close with a lovely anchorage and a chilly beverage. From "Herb's Watch" for January 25, 2008

Herb Catalinas 368

The Catalina 42, Volare, fresh from an eventful crossing of the Pacific Ocean, rockets off the starting line at the recent Catalina Rendezvous on Australia's beautiful Lake Macquarie.Herb Mccormick

I'm a sucker for surfing movies and one of my favorites is the all-time classic, The Endless Summer. The sequel isn't quite as good, though I was much taken by one of the two protagonists, a free-spirited California soul called "Wingnut," the Zen-like master of the long board. It's hard to imagine a more blissful existence than roaming the world searching for the perfect wave, a quest where the journey is the destination.

I was thinking about Wingnut the other day, as I neared the end of my own take on The Endless Summer, a three-month odyssey through Malaysia and Australia hunting for the ideal breeze. I'd sailed the length of the Malacca Strait with a boatload of mad Aussies in the Raja Muda regatta; fulfilled a long-time sailing ambition by knocking off a Sydney-Hobart Race; raced offshore along the coast of New South Wales from Botany Bay to Port Stephens, enjoyed a booze cruiser or two in sensational Sydney Harbor; and had generally had the time of my life fooling around in boats. It was a trip I'd heartily recommend to any itinerant sailor.

My last adventure was at a rendezvous of Catalina sailors hosted by an old sailing mate named Rod Mackay, a former professional sailor who is now a yacht broker and dealer on Lake Macquarie, near Newcastle, an hour's drive north of Sydney. There was some symmetry to the occasion, as I'd launched my odyssey on another rendezvous, with a group of Seawind Catamaran owners on beautiful Pittwater. Rendezvous are always fun, a nice mix of sailing and partying with a band of like-minded individuals crazy about their boats.

The star of the show, actually, was Lake Macquarie itself, a fabulous inland sea right off the Tasman that's several times larger than its much more famous cousin, the epic harbor of Sydney. The lake has it all: warm water, great wind, dozens and dozens of quiet anchorages. For some reason--perhaps the somewhat tricky, narrow entrance--Lake Macquarie doesn't attract a lot of cruising sailors, making it a well-kept secret that the folks who call it home don't want to get out. Sorry, guys, the cruising world needs to know.

There were ten Catalinas in attendance, ranging from a sole 25-footer to three Catalina 42s. I had the extremely good fortune to sail with local sailor John Cotterill on his solid Catalina 34, Catatonic. John and his mates, Greg Weir and Paul Hunt, are lifelong pals who have a very good time taking the mickey out of one another. Thanks to my usual boneheaded job of calling tactics, I helped guide them to a completely mediocre mid-fleet finish in the sole race of the weekend, though they didn't seem to mind too much. They were much more concerned about the beer being ice cold, which it was.

The race wasn't much of a contest, thanks to Debbie and Greg Cockle, sailing the well-appointed Catalina 42, Volare, who got around the course so quickly they were almost lapping boats. Later, over drinks at the rendezvous headquarters, the Royal Motor Yacht Club, I had a chance to talk the Cockles, and it became completely apparent why and how they'd given the rest of the fleet a good, long look at their transom.

Volare, you see, had just landed in Australia after a two-year, 8,000-mile cruise of the Pacific. Debbie and Greg bought their boat in California, took her down the coast of Mexico, then jumped off directly for the Marquesas, making landfall a scant twenty days later. They couldn't say enough good things about their Catalina. "She's such a great boat, so fast," said Debbie, a point that had been thoroughly exhibited on the racecourse. "And we had no breakdowns or trouble at all. So many people we met got tied up in ports forever waiting for parts. Not us."

Later that night, Greg regaled the group with a talk about Volare's voyage. If there are more ardent champions than the Cockles of the virtues of Catalina yachts, I've yet to meet them.

The next day, with my daughter, Maggie, we joined Rod and his family for a cruise-in-company to aptly named Catalina Bay, which served as a base for Australia's fleet of "flying ships" during World War II. Ducking around Coward's Corner at the entrance to the bay--so named because its protected waters will provide shelter to any coward seeking solace in a storm--we rafted up with some other Catalinas for a relaxing day in the sun.

It was a great way to wrap up what had been a wonderful Down Under sojourn. At day's end, we close-reached smartly back to the yacht club, cool drinks in hand, as the first signs of a southerly change in the weather began to move in over the water. By the time it arrived, though, bringing lashing winds and rain, the boat would be tidied up and I'd be heading for a plane.

Just like Wingnut. Who I think, with good reason, would be equally envious of me.

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