By Patricia Green
An Australian girl, growing up on a farm on the Lachlan River, develops an affinity with water, marries a sailing man, shares his passion, commences a life sailing Hobi Cats on inland and coastal waterways, holds senior positions in education, circumnavigates the country in a monohull, explores tropical islands in a catamaran, writes for sailing magazines, helps disadvantaged peoples in the Pacific, becomes a skipper after her husband’s death and sails solo on her “good looking cat” Subzero.
Cherylle Stone describes herself as being gifted with a “fearless love of water and its challenges”. Growing up on a farm on the Lachlan River, once they could swim across and back, two sisters enjoyed freedoms denied town children. The imperative to explore, test herself and seize the day was established early. The girls wandered the river— paddling, collecting yabbies, attempting to float on a half forty-four gallon drum—a Huck Finn life for Australian kids!
At the age of six, Cherylle began skiing lessons on Lake Cargellico. The sisters became excellent skiers, pitting themselves against the elements, persisting with the challenges. It was a family affair. Harold Miller, their father, held the endurance record for barefoot skiing. With their mother driving the boat, the girls attempted manoeuvres that Cherylle would never contemplate today. Both excelled at slalom. Cherylle revelled in the exhilaration of jumps, daring to fly up timber ramps despite the possibility of crashing or of being injured by skis on landing. Meeting challenges head on and honing skills with determination and wry humour are attributes displayed by this woman from her early years.
After graduation, Geoff, with a Forestry degree, and Cherylle, a teacher, married and settled in Eden. This period marks the beginning of Cherylle’s life as a seafarer. Geoff’s family had always sailed and he had spent his childhood mucking around with dinghies in Sydney waters. The couple had spent university breaks on the family yacht, but, she reports, “It was pretty tame after water skiing—no big deal!” They bought a “beautiful, varnished, plywood, twelve-foot catamaran”. Launch day saw the establishment of the “Eden branch of the For’ard Hands Union” when Geoff, having instructed her to put on a trapeze harness, failed to explain its purpose. Once out on the water he directed her to “hook on to that loop and hang out over the side”. “I squawked” she laughs, but after a dry run on land, they were off into the swell of Two Fold Bay. Tongue in cheek, Cherylle adds “There has always been a branch of the union. I encourage others to join as they tell their tales of woe.”
Sailing in those days did not include wet suits or safety jackets—just put on a woolly jumper, a pair of sandshoes and off you go. For a woman with a zest for approaching timber ski jumps at high speed, this was a piece of cake!
After three years in Eden, they purchased their Hobi 16. Geoff was transferred to the pine plantations at Oberon and Cherylle accepted an appointment to the High School. These were the years of “Swamp Sailing” on inland waterways—Lakes Oberon, Wallerawang, Carcoar, Wyangala, Jindabyne just a few. “Inland waterways are less formidable than off-shore ‘can’t see the horizon’ oceans,” she claims, “the wind either nothing or too much!”
Early on, during the Jindabyne regatta, Cherylle realised she needed to learn to take charge of the Hobi if Geoff left— “Which he did”. He thought he was hooked up, but fell off and was about thirty metres behind, when she heard him yelling instructions to come back. Nonplussed, she realised she had no idea how to turn the Hobi, much to the amusement of the sixty crews giving her wide berth as they passed.
“I knew nothing. It was a good lesson that whatever the vessel, we needed to be able to care for each other.” she reflects with a rueful sigh. And one she mastered, for they were to sail for many years together, always conscious of the other’s whereabouts on the vessel, either able to take charge, despite possible conflict and the futility of appealing to the For’ard Hands Union. “You’ve got a boat to look after, each other to look after, so the bottom line is that you’d better be careful both of each other and of the boat.”.
After nine years on the Central Tablelands, the Stones, appointed to positions in the metropolitan area, purchased a home at Soldiers Point and commenced weekend commuting. Fearless competitors, they were selected to compete in many events including Nationals in Melbourne, Fairy Bower and Botany Bay. Placed seventh in the Selection Trials for the Australian team to compete in the first Hobi Worlds, they competed in Hawaii in 1988. “We didn’t do particularly well, but we did have fun!”
Few women were engaged in racing when Geoff and Cherylle started out on Hobis. Most crews were all male. Cherylle did not have the strength to ease the jib so Geoff would luff up. Later, when more females began sailing, techniques changed for dealing with the jib and big, beefy men began to luff up too. By then, Cherylle has worked out a system for herself!
Compared to racing, cruising is another world where women are respected and valued as crew members. “You travel in your own time and at your own pace.” It is a little like caravanning for nomadic sailors, exploring new territory alone or in company, meeting up at an agreed destination, sharing tall stories, spare parts, weather warnings, food and music. Excursions on shore for barbecues, boule and exploration might be included. “Friendships forged through cruising last forever.”
In 1986, the Stones bought a Catamaran, a Seawind 24. They began cruising the NSW coastal waters, and continued racing the Hobi. In the Seawind, they sailed to the Myall Lakes National Park, a large coastal lake system. In time, the couple itched to tackle the challenge of sailing further afield. Catamarans then, were not suited to the cruising they anticipated. “So, we grew one leg longer” and in 1992, purchased a “a leaner”, a monohull—Willy Wagtail—named for its characteristic waggle! Now it was time to use holidays and long service leaves cruising along the coast sailing three times to the Whitsundays.
The years 2001-02 marked a new phase in life for the Stones. Both retired and spent fourteen months on Willy Wagtail, circumnavigating Australia in the wake of Flinders, to celebrate the bicentennial celebration of his achievement. They cruised in company with many vessels, some joining for one or more legs and others completing the whole journey.
Exmouth to Perth proved to be the most exacting leg, strong winds prevailing South East or South West. The number of anchorages was limited by the Zuytdorp Cliffs extending for one hundred and fifty km and rising in places, 250m above the sea. On one occasion, anchored inside Ningaloo reef at Norwegian Bay, the vessel pitched unmercifully all night wearing out a snubber. “As soon as it was daylight, we got out of there!” Weather forecasting was not so reliable then. Rounding Cape Leeuwin, a forecast for good weather changed to a gale warning. Sheltering at an anchorage protected by cliffs, they waited out the gale for forty-eight hours.
Then they set off across the Bight, expecting great weather and smooth sailing. About one hundred and fifty miles west of Ceduna at 10pm, Cherylle on watch with two sails up, a bolt failed, the mast snapped, and the boom hit the dodger just as she was head down grabbing the torch. With the mast hanging over the side, sails floating on the ocean, a shaky Cherylle holding a trembling torch, Geoff went around with bolt cutters freeing all the stays. With foresight, he kept the HF aerial and jammed it into the life lines which act as an antenna, so that when it was time for the midnight “sked”, they found they could communicate with the others. Then, firing up their twenty horsepower engine, they “book-booked” to Ceduna and were piloted in. New rigging, sails to come from Adelaide and a wrecked dodger to be repaired meant that they would spend three months in SA, celebrating Christmas with other members of the cruise in Adelaide. Under sail again, they followed the map of Flinders’ journey, visiting each of those spots along the spectacular SA coast.
In 2004, Geoff and Cherylle purchased a 12m catamaran, Subzero, named for the Melbourne Cup winner, and painted in its colors. “Why wouldn’t you? You sail on the level. You sail fast. It’s spacious. It sails well to windward, has dagger boards rather than mini keels. And it’s a good-looking cat!”
And so commenced a rich, fruitful period—so many people to see, so many places to go, so many things to do. These were joyful years together—summers at Soldiers Point, cruising in coastal waters, racing at Port Stephens and wintering in the Pacific— cemented by deep love and companionship, a keen appreciation of our natural world and its challenges, enthusiasm for competition, joy in the company of other cheerful wanderers and love of a great tall tale!
The Stones commenced regular visits to New Caledonia and Vanuatu in 2005. They established a close relationship with a local family. The extended Yata family dreamed of building bungalows on Tanna Island for the tourist trade. This venture would provide income for islanders and pay the fees for secondary education for children. Two years later, the Stones brought over a mobile sawmill. This would enable the villagers to mill the timber lying around and begin building units for tourists. In 2009, the couple returned with a wind generator, batteries and solar panels. They provided items such as linen, crockery and mattresses for the bungalows as well as materials for building a shower and toilet block.
There were rallies in the Louisiades between 2007 and 2013. Cruising travellers to these remote islands take plenty of basic goods to give, or to barter for fresh fruit and seafood. The couple joined a rally in 2008, between biennial visits to Vanuatu. “Subzero was well down on her lines” on departure from Australia, because of the variety of trade goods for barter, as well as supplies for clinics and schools.
“Cruising in the Louisiades is a bit of a challenge,” Cheryl wrote in an article. The deep anchorages were “corally. We often encountered that tell-tale grinding sound of chain on rock or coral….”. Digital charts were unreliable, so they depended on Ozi Explorer, linked to a GPS to use aerial photos to help judge where “the hard bits were”.
Cherylle was captivated by the Kimberleys. The couple left Port Stephens in March 2010, sailed to Darwin and Broome, spending three months on the Kimberley coast and returning in December, a round trip of 8000nm.
“A thousand miles of largely uninhabited, stunningly beautiful rocky coastline, half a dozen majestic, navigable rivers and an equal number of large bays and sounds occupied by an amazing variety of fauna and flora, splendid fishing, countless calm anchorages, endless walking opportunities, fantastic art galleries and good supplies of water,” she wrote in an article that reflects her deep appreciation of our land, its natural wonders, its history and its beauty.
In 2011 Geoff and Cherylle set off on their fourth journey to New Caledonia and Vanuatu. Returning home, they sailed Subzero to New Zealand and left her to be painted during the summer. In May 2012, they collected Subzero and joined a rally of about twelve boats on an eleven day cruise from New Zealand to Tonga and then on to Fiji.
Now began their last passage together wandering through the Pacific islands they loved so much. Geoff became ill in Fiji and they flew back to Australia for medical treatment. Geoff died in November 2012 leaving behind his best mate, his lifelong partner flailing helplessly in the face of such a loss.
How does one reconstruct a life once an essential component no longer exists? Clearly there were some dilemmas to be resolved—to sail or not, to keep a boat with which she was familiar—or not. “I needed to keep sailing,” Cherylle says. “It’s not brave. There is nothing else I want to do. Sailing solo is not as much fun as in company but I do it in order to continue cruising. If I waited to always have a crew, I would not be sailing enough.”
To continue her seafaring life, Cherylle adapted to the demands of a solo life. “There were Geoff’s jobs and my jobs. Geoff was a fairly cool calm competent person. He was really good on weather, and forecasting. He was pretty handy with the engine and the mechanical stuff. He understood electricity. Plumbing was not a problem. And navigation was something he loved and adored. I was in pretty good hands.” Now all the jobs were hers. “Sailing requires physical and mental fitness. Keeping a boat and equipment functional is a constant process of careful planning, observation and checking.”
She proceeded to arm herself with the knowledge necessary to maintain an independent life and continue to sail. She needed to morph from carefree crew to skipper. “Just get on board on Wednesdays with knowledgeable friends and do it!” A couple of inexperienced people wanting to sail, now race regularly with her at Port Stephens in a mixed fleet. “Nothing develops skills as quickly as racing!” She took a one day course in diesel familiarisation (one of Geoff’s jobs!). Now she knows how to change the oil if necessary, but prefers skilled mechanics to look after the engine.
With her characteristic determination to craft a rich life, Cherylle has found a way of being that enables her to continue sailing solo or with crews who may not be lifelong companions, but have become good friends. She has maintained her close relationship with the Yata family on Tanna Island and flies there each year. She stays at the Tanna Island Dream Bungalows, in one of the dwellings she and Geoff made possible. She has provided the materials for the construction of permanent kitchen/dining room block for guests as a memorial to Geoff. She has continued to support the project as need arises. The Stones promised to contribute to university fees when any kid in the Yata family “made it”. One child has already graduated and is employed in a government department in Vanautu.
It is May 2017. Soon, Cherylle with crew, will travel north, hugging the NSW coast sailing against the current. From Southport, she will sail solo into the Whitsundays.
In a few months, twenty miles out on the edge of the continental shelf, running free on three knots of current—and “hopefully, fifteen knots of breeze from behind”— Cherylle will return south for the summer.