How lucky are we? Moving to Diamond Beach 18 years ago, having endured the mind numbing daily commute into the Sydney CBD, Jacqui and I have carved out a better lifestyle, selecting the Great Lakes because of the spectacular waterways, proximity to Sydney and its climate.
I drafted the Free Spirit, chalked it out on concrete, then engaged a boat builder in Queensland …what a nightmare!
We ended up selling just about everything we owned to get the boat completed, including our vehicle, as the budget nuked out. Completed just before Christmas 1993, the boat builder jumped ship, leaving me with the parting words: “Keep a good 4 miles off Point Danger.”Great!
It was near perfect sailing most of the way down the coast, until the BOM got it horribly wrong on Christmas eve 1993 near South West Rocks. Conditions were rapidly deteriorating, and the forecast 10-15 knot nor-easter became a 20-25-30-35 knot plus southerly. Our new boat was learning to fly, as we punched into the howling southerly. Hydraulic fluid oozed from the steering, making it mushy to steer.
Refuelling was nearly impossible, surrendering nearly half of the fuel to the sea. Losing power or steering would have caused broaching, and a capsize was likely. When push comes to shove, I was amazed how readily I would have been prepared to ditch my fibreglassed life savings to save my own skin.
After arriving in Forster, the Naval Architect’s plans that were acceptable in Queensland were not so in NSW; I had to redraw them myself, missing out on peak season.
The sea change has had its challenges. The planets aligned in a near catastrophic way for us in 1996/1997. After completing a cruise in November 1996, near cyclonic winds struck while moored at Paradise Marina. The town blacked out, Free Spirit’s roof ripped off, and boats spun on the deck of the marina. Tree limbs fell, adjacent buildings suffered major damage and in the middle of it all, a badly shaken pizza boy delivered our pizzas.
In December 1996, we lost our mooring at Paradise Marina, and soon afterwards our motors were vandalised during peak season in January 1997. Our first child was born later that month, increasing financial pressure.
In February 1997, along came the tourism decimating tsunami … the Wallis Lake oyster contamination crisis, leaving us hanging on by a thread.
Free Spirit Cruises is constantly fine tuning its business, with the operation today being a far cry from where it was in its infancy. Operating the Free Spirit may be nowhere near as technical as my past occupation, but it is certainly far more challenging, requiring skills from desktop publishing and marketing, to accounting and public relations, together with understanding a raft of compliance obligations.
Today, the focus is on efficiency and sustainability, operating as clean and green as our budget permits. With each efficiency gain, our costs reduce and our exposure to potential fuel/energy cost increases is minimised. To this end, our aim is for near zero fuel costs. I will never owe another dollar to a power company in my lifetime; in fact, they will always owe me.
Our lighting costs have reduced by 91% by installing LEDs. Our carbon footprint is being offset through a carbon sink forest at the Great Lakes Winery. I am constantly studying best environmental practice and always looking for better ways to operate.
Today, we have wonderful support from the local community chartering the Free Spirit for work functions, parties, weddings, or simply taking friends out for lunch on one of our scheduled cruises. Groups often take our cruise to the Great Lakes Winery or do an historical tour to Nabiac along the Wallamba River.
Free Spirit Cruises is proud to have won the Excellence in Environmental Sustainability Award, Excellence in Tourism Award and The Business of the Year Award for the Great Lakes in 2011.