Hawksbury Cruise
James Francis

At the end of the year two thousand, I was given a school science project. I had a year to complete it. Well, eleven months later, nothing had happened. I knew I was going to make a boat from the beginning, but my chances were looking pretty slim. I had built a couple of boats before, one successful, one unsuccesful. Anyway, I decided to write down a few ideas about the dreamboats I wanted to build, as well as what I had read about cruising dinghys, that is dinghys for weirdo’s, dinghy’s that you could sleep in, I loved the idea.

With a week and a half to go I realised the boat I was going to build would have to be fairly ordinary. So I found a spare five minutes and drew up some sketches of an eight-foot by four-foot, by two-foot punt (a boat with a flat bottom), with a full deck and narrow four-foot cockpit/foot well that was self-draining. It had a two-foot by two-foot hatch in between the bow and the cockpit, so two people could have a cozy night's sleep below deck - there was a longitudinal bulkhead between the two berths, so as not to be too cozy. The boat’s mast was to be hard against one side of the boat, it looked strange but from what I had heard it would work just as well because the boat's bottom was flat and could handle a bit of asymmetry.

Somehow it got built in four and a half hours worth of weeknights, and I even managed a take it for a quick and hopefully last sail. I did pretty well in the assignment which helped my comfortable last place in my science class. The boat lay around the yard at home getting in the way and killing the grass for about another month. Our neighbours called it 'Double Coffin'. I called it 'Cruising Dinghy' for the assignment, but the name that everyone could agree on became, 'Little Shitter', ‘ shitter’ because that’s the international nautical term for a shit boat and ‘little’ because it was about 16 times smaller than any other shitter we had ever seen.

A couple of weeks before Christmas 2001, I was on the phone with my sailing mate, Brad Phillips, and I said, half dreaming, "We should have a cruise up the Hawksburry River." Brad sounded enthusiastic and replied:

"Yeah, do ya wanna?"

"Shit yeah! But what should we go on?" I asked.

"We could take ya 'Shitter'," he replied sarcastically.

But it then occurred to us that the shitter could be quite fun, it was also be easy to get there and back.

So it was done. The morning before we left, we were still worried about our parents not letting us go, but in the end, it was confirmed, because Brad had ten years experience racing in the manly juniors ,Flying Elevens and 12 foot skiffs as well as anything he could get a ride on. Brad had also done a lot of camping and heaps of outdoor stuff. I had raced for the last few years in dinghies, as well a little bit of cruising and a couple of ocean races. We just kept telling our parents this and they eventually let us, and also I had already bought four days food with my mums money, so she had to let us go.

It was not until that morning, that we started to pack our gear and organise the boat. The mast was from an old windsurfer; the sail was a flat piece of Taiwan tarp; the boom was the whisker pole from our family's Columbia 27; and the centreboard, rudder and hatch were carved out that morning with the circular saw. We took air mattresses for buoyancy as well as for sleeping on, and we brought a small tent, just in case.

DAY ONE, 18th December.

My mum delivered the boat and us to Bobbin Head, on Cowan creek. As we were about to leave, she told us to put our lifejackets on (the bulky ones you put on when you abandon ship). I laughed at her, and she replied sternly, "Ah, excuse me, James Francis, you put them on, or you don't go." So we put them on, sailed around the first bend, then took them off and stuffed them under the aft end of the cockpit.

We then noticed our next problem - a 2.5-knot current was going to be against us until dark and we also had fifteen knots of breeze against us. Trying to sail to windward with a sail that has no shape in it is bad enough, but when you have 2.5-knots of tide pushing on your centreboard it is impossible. We would have to paddle. We made it easier by going close to all the points we had to round, because the tide took the bends wide, but it was still extremely tiring. We found it hard to eat or drink, because if we stopped paddling we would just get washed backwards.

Oysters made it too difficult to go ashore, but at about 2 pm we anchored to have a break. Brad opened the hatch to pull out the food bag, instead he ended up pulling out everything we had brought and reported that there were forty litres of water in there. I knew where it was coming in, because I had tried to fix it the day before. I just wished I had been a little less stingy with the fibre glass.

I sat down on the back of the boat peacefully nibbling away at a block of cooking chocolate and some Oreo biscuits, while Brad bailed out the water by the twenty litre bucketful. Bailing on this boat was not as easy as it may have sounded, because you have to climb down into the tiny cabin and clamber back out with each bucketful.

"Well done Brad".

We got under way again and about an hour later we came to a point that we just couldn't get around. We paddled as hard as we could and still couldn't make any progress. This went on for another ten minutes. I was tired from paddling for the last three hours and I was beginning to get frustrated. I jumped ashore with the bow rope to pull the boat around the oyster-covered rocks. I started swearing and getting angry when I couldn't pull the boat by this one rock. Brad was laughing at me, because I'm normally not a very serious person and he thought I was joking. I then blew my fuse and pulled the boat really hard into the rock, putting a big split across the bow! Oh well, at least the boat was around the point.

Brad apologised to me after he saw what he made me do (it was all his fault). I began to get my humour again. It was now beginning to rain, so we decided to stop in a quiet bay with only a houseboat moored in it. We picked up a public mooring and decided to have a laugh. Both of us climbed into the wet cabin and left a tiny crack in the hatch to watch the crew of the houseboat lined up along the deck, stunned at how we could possibly have fitted into the minute space below the deck of an eight foot boat.

After that was over, we tried to dry our leak with metho, which was hard because the water was coming in while we were doing it, then fix it with silicon, but the repair (obviously) wasn't perfect.

Afterwards we made our way for Cottage Point where we intended on staying the night. It was a nice stopover with a marina and kiosk and was filled with luxury cruisers and proper boatmen. We arrived there at 10:30, completely buggered from hours of paddling. We picked up a mooring and cooked burritos for dinner on our metho stove. We noticed that we had way too much water in the boat, even to consider staying on it. But I was still keen to sleep on it, I said to Brad “the fact that it leaks doesn’t matter, we’ll be sleeping on blow-up mattresses so we’ll just float up as the water rises”.

He replied “But a couple of hours into the night we won’t be able to float any higher. We might drown”.

I accepted this and suggested we could sleep on the deck but I think he wanted to get a good night sleep or something. So we thought we might squat on the seemingly vacant houseboat next to us, but we changed our minds when I noticed a figure moving in the dark cabin. So we paddled ashore and pulled our boat up on the slipway and carried the soaking tent up the hill and pitched it (sort of) on the first bit of ground we could find. It was eleven thirty. We were zombies.

DAY TWO, 19th December.

We were awoken at 6 o'clock by cars brushing against the side of our tent. It turned out we had camped on the edge of the driveway to the kiosk. We quickly de-rigged the tent in a gap between the traffic before we were seen and ran back to the boat and were under way within five minutes.

We had the wind and tide with us, taking us to the mouth of Cowan Creek. By 9:30 we had travelled as far as we had over the whole of yesterday. Amazingly the tide and wind turned to our advantage when we arrived there and made a course up the Hawksburry River. Going past that junction of the rivers enabled us to look straight out to sea, and we experienced waves up to about a metre. The boat handled very impressively. Our progress was looking good, as we had only been sailing for three hours and we had sailed ten miles.

We stopped for lunch at Brooklyn. We were a little out of place, when we walked around in this luxury marina and hotel complex. We were covered in sweat and mud, and the upper class boatmen found the 'Shitter' a real laugh for some reason.

After lunch we continued on up the Hawksburry River with about twenty knots of wind behind us and three knots of current against us. I guess our speed over ground would have been between four and five knots. We were very happy with this. We found it great sailing. We filled the cockpit up with all our food and clothes, put the front hatch in place and spread my sleeping bag across the whole deck, like a picnic rug to dry. Brad pulled his sleeping bag up the mast and set it as a spinnaker to dry. We were flying!

To add to the picnic scene, we had the metho stove on all afternoon, constantly making noodles and hot chocolates, the downfall was when the stove fell over and burnt the side of my sleeping bag. Later that afternoon I drifted off to sleep while steering. This sent us straight to shore and I was awoken by the centre board snapping in half on a rock. The centre board is essential for sailing as it allows you to sail forwards rather than side ways. Oh well.

At about 7 o'clock we stopped at Bar Point for dinner, just as it was getting dark. After dinner we decided to press on even further in the darkness. We now had the tide with us, so we paddled another three miles, but in the complete darkness, without a torch or compass or map that we could read, we simply could not work out where we were, which was a problem since we were somewhere near the junction of the Hawksburry river and Berowra creek , and we could not afford to take the wrong turn off.

We decided to play it safe, therefore we paddled back to the one light we could see at Bar Point. This meant paddling against the tide and we did not arrive there until 11:00. We were buggered again.

Having pitched the soaking tent on the public wharf, we were ready to collapse, when a local hillbilly came down and helped us move our tent along the shore to a piece of grass on the bottom of his property. He said goodnight and told us what to do if we had any problems with the local red belly black snake.

Everything in our tent was soaking and completely stank. We were also camped on a sloping hill, which meant we could not easily get a good rest. Throughout the night I kept on catching myself steering with my hand on an imaginary tiller, but I reassured myself of reality by touching the tent wall. I never really slept that night. Brad must have been having similar problems, because he started shaking me to say we were drifting again.

DAY THREE, 20th December.

We slept in until 7 o'clock (Brad did) and found a tractor parked two metres beside our tent. A closer inspection revealed that the tractor had circumnavigated our tent. Twice! We got back under way and had breakfast and drank the final drop from our two litre water bottles that had lasted us since the morning before - pity that we wouldn't be able to drink anything till the afternoon and it was a scorcher of a day. Oh well.

We worked out a good way to overcome our tiredness for the final ten miles of our cruise up Berowra Creek. We kind-of ran a watch system, like on yachts - one person steered for an hour, while the other slept on the foredeck. When it was changeover time we bailed out the cabin.
At about 2 o'clock we reached the end of our cruise. We had slipped along with five knots of breeze behind us for the last six hours. Just as we were about to get off the boat, I dropped my mobile phone in the water, but a bit of metho brought it back to life.

On the way home in my mums car she refused to turn the air conditioning on despite the 38 degree temperature, she said we had to open the windows because the smell was too overwhelming.

A couple of weeks later we showed our photos to Brad’s mum. She didn’t believe that we went up the Hawksburry in that strange boat

“You didn’t go up the Hawksburry in that thing! Bradley Philips. You lied to me. You said you were using a proper sailboat with a cabin”.

“nah, I didn’t lie to you mum”.

“James, I think you are very irresponsible, I never would have let Brad go with you if I’d seen that boat”.

“that’s why we didn’t show it to you Mrs Philips”.

In early January the following year, Dad was talking about taking some garden rubbish to the tip, he was talking about borrowing my uncles bow trailer. I wasn’t really taking any notice of what he was saying. On the Saturday I came home from the sailing club for lunch and I found that dad had overcome the problem of not owning a bow trailer. He had the shitter upside down on our boat trailer. He cut the bottom off the shitter and filled the boat up with rubbish. Sort of like a disposable box trailer.

James Francis

Post Script

This story was extremely funny to Brad and myself, because it was true. We were both involved so we found it funny that everything that could have possible gone wrong did.

I'm a little worried that this story won't be as funny to somebody that was involved.

The intended audience is people who are boating fanatics simply because they will find the story interesting as it was such an unconventional cruise. But hopefully it could still be enjoyed by non-boaters.