Lord Howe Island BBQ Cruise to complete its first decade

Lord Howe Island
Brent Vaughan
It’s a rather tricky thing to celebrate the tenth anniversary of something that doesn’t officially exist. That’s the task facing participants in the annual BBQ Cruise to Lord Howe Island which will take place for the tenth consecutive year in early November.

The event is entirely informal – it has no organizing authority, no rules, no entry fee and no starting time – yet its popularity has grown to the point where the cruise-in-company is now a fixture on the East Coast blue water calendar and attracts more entrants than the 'official' Gosford-Lord Howe Island Yacht Race which has traditionally preceded it by a week or two.

There’s a touch of irony, therefore, in the fact that the BBQ Cruise owes its origins to a time when the race was so popular that not all intending competitors could secure a mooring in the LHI lagoon.

Nigel Stoke, skipper of the 61-foot classic Fidelis, takes up the story. 'We were entered for the Gosford-Lord Howe in early 2002 and assumed that, as in prior years, that meant that we should make our plans for the boat and crew. But two months before the race the Gosford club told us that we wouldn’t be allocated a mooring. Doing a round trip without stopping at the Island wasn’t for us, so we withdrew.

'But I got talking with David Champtaloup of Caprice of Huon and said ‘why don’t we just sail over next year anyway’? We knew it was unlikely that a club would promote or encourage others to join us, so somehow we came up with idea of having a BBQ on the island at a fixed time, and to invite others to join us there.'

The official Gosford-LHI race always starts on the last Saturday in October, (although not this year) so to avoid putting unmanageable pressure on the Island, Stoke and his comrades decided to leave a 10-14 day gap. The nominated date they then agreed for the BBQ was the first Tuesday after the Melbourne Cup, which it’s been ever since. It didn’t matter when, or from where, participating yachts set off: the only fixed point was that the BBQ would begin at Ned’s Beach at around 1630 hours.

And why not give the gathering some purpose? Two long-standing members of the Fidelis crew, Rhod 'Captain' Cook and Tom 'Single' Moult, had spent family holidays on the Island for many years. Before long they came to a happy agreement with the Parents & Friends group of the local public school to make the BBQ into a fund-raiser.

'It just seemed a natural thing to do', Moult remembers. 'Over the years, we yachties have all had so many good times on the Island that this seemed a perfect way to give something back. There isn’t a public school in the world that couldn’t do with a bit more cash.'

So the islanders provided and cooked the food for the BBQ, the yachties each chipped in $50 (and, naturally, brought their own liquid refreshments). Just four boats took part in the first cruise in 2003 – Morning Tide, Suraya, Caprice of Huon and Fidelis – but a tradition had been founded.

Early morning arrival Lord Howe
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Interest in the cruise grew so quickly that by the second year it was necessary to hold a Quiet Little Drink at the Orient Hotel on the Sydney waterfront to bring together intending skippers and crew to exchange contact details and knowledge of Island procedures. It’s a decidedly informal affair, but at some point all participants are reminded that everyone should make their own arrangements on when to leave, how to prepare their boats, and to secure their own bookings for moorings and accommodation at Lord Howe.

More than 40 boats have now taken part in the annual cruise and $25,000 has been raised for the LHI school (it’s now their second largest fundraising activity). In addition to the QLD, there is now a 'Compass Check' at the Sydney Amateur Sailing Club later in the year for skippers to socialise and swap information and experiences about the trip.

Offshore veteran Rhod Cook, who has crewed in every one of the BBQ Cruises, believes that there’s also a more serious purpose behind the traditions of the Quiet Little Drink and Compass Check gatherings.

'We cannot emphasise enough that each skipper is responsible for his own yacht’s safety', Cook says. 'It’s quite a long way to the Island – around 420 nautical miles – and a fair bit of that passage is at the very limit of helicopter rescue capability.

'Having no fixed departure date means we can pick our weather to some extent, but even in cruising mode you can’t always avoid tough conditions. We like to recommend that each skipper should consider equipping their yacht up to a sensible equivalent of the Category One safety requirements for offshore racing.'

The continuing success of the Lord Howe BBQ Cruise owes much to the goodwill of the Islanders toward the event. It enjoys the support of the LHI Board, the local police, the legendary harbor master, Clive Wilson, and the school community.

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Those who get in early and take a mooring slot will experience Lord Howe like this. - Butlers Business and Law Round Lord Howe Island Yacht Race
John Curnow ©
As it continues to grow, the event may well need the involvement of one of the major Sydney yacht clubs, not to 'run' the cruise as part of their program, but just to serve as a common contact point. In the meantime – and quite happily – it will continue not to exist.

The annual Quiet Little Drink for any skippers and crew interested in participating in the Tenth Anniversary LHI BBQ Cruise will be held on Thursday 14 June from 1800 hours, upstairs at the Orient Hotel in The Rocks district of Sydney.