Crossing Bass Strait [25]

‘Once Bitten, Twice…’

By Gary Edmond

Most people would agree that paddling and alcohol should not be combined. Of more concern is the combination of alcohol and trip planning. It was during a relaxed evening reclining on a beach with some fellow kayakers, a year ago, that I suggested an ambitious plan which had been concealed and dormant in my mind for some time. Rather than receive the caution and reservation I had expected, there was momentary silence, reflection and then enthusiasm. This was the beginning of preparation and research which lasted the better part of a year. Equipment had to be assembled, kayaks modified, climatic patterns investigated and logistics organised.

What I had proposed was an expedition across the consistently roughest water in Australia, namely Bass Strait. Bass Strait is the stretch of water that divides Tasmania from mainland Australia. It was named after an English naval surgeon and explorer George Bass (1771-c.1803). During the late 18th century Bass and Mathew Flinders (1774-1814) explored northern Tasmania and discovered a watery strait de-bunking popular belief in a land bridge between the (our) mainland and Tasmania. Bass and Flinders had undertaken their own expedition in an eight by five foot sailing boat, the Tom Thumb. In a sense Bass and Flinders’ exploration in such a small vessel has provided a precedent for subsequent generations of water based adventurers.

The narrowest passage between the mainland and Tasmania is approximately 220km wide. The path we eventually chose followed islands which had once been part of a land bridge – tens of thousands of y eyears ago – and measured just over 300km. The Strait itself is relatively shallow and captures and concentrates the weather patterns of higher latitudes. Bass Strait deservedly holds a wide, in fact, international reputation, due in part to its treacherous nature and also because it comprises a section in the popular annual Sydney to Hobart yacht race. The yachts generally give Bass Strait a wide berth ppreferring to push east into the Tasman Sea to avoid potential danger.

Whilst Bass Strait has been the site of many deaths and wrecks during its relatively brief navigational history it has featured in a great many more incredible tales which have served to heighten its stature and firmly entrench its place in the Australian psyche. Of course it is these same considerations that make such a crossing appealing and challenging to an experienced sea kayaker trying to cut his or her teeth.

Originally a group of five paddlers committed themselves to the crossing scheduled for Easter 1995. Attrition caused by a combination of work commitments and physical injury eventually reduced this number – as late as the morning we departed mainland Australia – to three. David Winkworth, affectionately know as “the propeller man”, was the first casualty. He was forced to withdraw his involvement back in February due to his thriving business.

So it was that four paddlers left Jacqui Windh, who had generously provided logistical support, at Port Welshpool on their way to Refuge Cove. Refuge Cove, on Wilsons Promontory was a popular yachties anchor some 42km to the south and our last campsite before abandoning the Australian mainland. But our party was still to lose another member before embarking for Tasmania.

Arunas Pilka, a very powerful paddler, had broken his new kevlar kayak into two discrete pieces just three weeks before Easter. Arunas and I had been on an overnight paddle and as the sun emerged we ran a “gauntlet” (rough, often breaking, water between two rocky outcrops). As we crossed between the rocks, after about 12 hours of paddling, a large wave (1.5m) broke on us and Arunas was forced back onto rocks and trapped for some minutes in a turbulent gutter. By the time he was able to land, his kayak was dissembled and he had lost considerable quantities of skin from his legs and buttocks.

Shaken, but undeterred he promptly acquired a new sea kayak only to discover he was experiencing some minor wrist irritation. On the morning we were to leave Victoria we rose about an hour before dawn. Arunas consulted the group concerned about persistent “niggling” in his wrists. He had taken some mild anti-inflammatory medication but this had not relieved the sensation. Arunas was placed in the invidious position of having to decide whether he would continue. Would his wrist condition be exacerbated by the paddling or would it subside once he was warmed up? Arunas’ commitment to the group and healthy respect for Bass Strait influenced his decision to remain behind.

I’ll never forget my sense of loss, for Arunas and myself, when he decided to discontinue. There, shocked, in the darkness of Refuge Cove we undertook a rapid gear reshuffle. The four of us had basically divided into two teams to share equipment and food. Now my partner was gone and I had to hurriedly reorganise our gear. My two other paddling companions John Wilde and Evan Shillabeer were receptive and the surplus gear was shared around evenly. We then said our sad good-byes. What can you say to an expedition member who has been there all along and suddenly isn’t?

Symbolically the three remaining paddlers tentatively left the Victorian coast entering a shroud of mist on our way to the first of our temporary destinations. Some fifty kilometres away lay Hogan Is. Leaving the coast we ventured into one of Australia’s major shipping lanes – between Sydney and Melbourne. In a relatively thick mist our visibility was limited to about 100m. We knew that commercial ships travelled at about 20 knots so we assumed that we would be able to dodge them if required. The seas were benign and the fog lay gently over the water’s surface. Through the shroud we heard the occasional “aeroplane” in the distance which we eventually realised were fog horns. The noises occasionally drew closer but fortunately never quite reached us before they receded into the distance. Whilst enveloped by the mist albatross regularly cruised by, momentarily hovering above the bows of our kayaks. They are elegantly sculptured birds able to glide effortlessly across the surface of the ocean.

In anticipation of navigational difficulties I had purchased a Garmin GPS 40 (Global Positioning System) to include amongst our equipment. It proved to be a reassuring device during our paddle through the mist. Every hour or so I cranked it up for thirty seconds to check our bearing and the distance to Hogan Is. Our compass navigated course varied a few degrees here and there but was basically accurate. Even with only 12km to paddle – according to the GPS – we were unable to ascertain our preferred destination. When you’re about 40km offshore on the first day of a long open ocean crossing the absence of land becomes disconcerting. Indeed the efficacy of a compass let alone a more technologically dependent GPS can raise serious disquiet. Although it must be said that 40km out it is easier to paddle on in hope than retreat in despair.

By about 11am the sun had burnt away the mist leaving only a cloud line on the horizon. We could now see the occasional bulk carrier cruising by despite the cloud concealing our destination. Finally a vague silhouette of an island appeared faintly through the cloud. Hogan Is. was surprisingly large. It was surrounded by numerous smaller rocky outcrops and featured only one bay with an easy landing. After circumnavigating the island it became apparent that this bay was well oriented for the prevailing conditions and allowed a very comfortable exit adjacent to our eventual campsite.

Meanwhile Arunas had returned to our camp at Refuge Cove despondent. After a couple of hours of contemplation he had packed his gear into his kayak and fruitlessly paddled out into the mist in pursuit. After about twenty minutes Arunas realised that such a venture was relatively foolhardy and consequently turned back. Ironically his wrists offered less irritation than he had anticipated but he had no visible point of reference or GPS to navigate by and would have arrived at Hogan Is. after dark. It must have been a very slow and lonely paddle back to Port Welshpool over the next couple of days.

Most of the islands in Bass Strait are leased to farmers who run cattle or sheep. Tradition and long family associations with particular islands are obviously more important than the commercial viability of such enterprises. Hogan Is. was uninhabited though it offered, like many of the Strait’s islands ,a dilapidated hut as refuge. The hut was, presumably, utilised by the lessees when they came to inspect their herds of cows. It also provided some old, though edible, supplies for sailors in distress. We camped in a stockyard which was one of the few flat pieces of grassy ground close to the small beach. A still night and a warm beach fire saw over-provisioned paddlers eagerly and triumphantly reduce their supply of port.

The next day we paddled to the Kent Group of islands. This cluster consists of three major islands – Erith, Dover and Deal. The island group lay about 42km from Hogan Is. and was preconceived as probably the most interesting component of our trip. Deal Is. especially, had a permanent resident and considerable historical interest to us. At one time the Deal Is. lighthouse was the second highest operating light in the world. It is located at an elevation of about 260m and formed part of the substantial influence Deal Is. had exerted upon Tasmanian navigational history.

The Kent islands are very remote and steep. As the dawn burst forth we could identify the group from a range of about 35km. Despite being able to observe our featureless destination it took many hours of paddling, and a very gradual approach before we arrived. When I say paddling, not every one on the trip employed paddling as the exclusive means of propulsion. John the most experienced, oldest, and dare I say craftiest member had brought a sail. The 10-15 knot westerly aided his Tasmanian rigged sea kayak across the water.

During our transit two vessels – presumably catching sight of John’s fluoro pink sail – approached to investigate. Those in a commercial dive boat were intrigued by our presence. The second group, in a yacht, were concerned and disappointed when after dropping their sail and motoring up wind all we asked for was an up-to-date weather report. They told us some foul weather was expected so we made haste for Deal Is.

The wind increased from the north and combined with the tide to funnel along and in between the Kent Group resulting in a slog to the southern end of Dover Is. Before long we arrived under Dover’s towering cliffs. They offered protection before we ventured around into Murray Pass. The Pass is deep and flows quickly. We caught the turning tide and paddled to Deal Is. where we had intended to camp. After a quick lunch, continually interrupted by rampaging wallabies which knew no fear, we ascended the island to the caretaker’s residence. Bill, who takes readings for the bureau of meteorology, informed us that we were unable to camp on Deal Is. as it is a nature reserve. He recommended a hut on Erith Is. about 1.5kms back across Murray Pass.

By this stage the wind had risen to about 25-30 knots. We were becoming cold standing around talking so we asked Bill if we could use his solar-phone to obtain a weather report for the next twenty four hours. The prognosis was unfavourable for the following day so we hastily returned to our kayaks and negotiated about 1km of virtual white water conditions including 2m standing waves as we battled wind against tide in Murray Pass. Eventually we pulled into protected Bulli Bay (West Cove) and paddled toward the hut seeking refuge and warmth.

As the winds increased and the rain arrived the hut appeared very hospitable. Its logbook proved a colourful source of information. It appeared that a number of families travelled to Erith Is. each summer to spend about 4-6 weeks holidaying on this remote windswept isle. Other accounts were given of monstrous storms with 75+ knot winds and yachts dragging anchors in the bay. We also noted two previous entries in the logbook recorded by sea kayakers from earlier expeditions. The hut also boasted a potted history of Erith Is. which retold of stranded sailors from one of the nineteenth century wrecks who had constructed a primitive coracle from wood, bones and seal skins in a vain attempt to cross Murray Pass to Deal Is. Unfortunately their endeavour failed as sharks were attracted by the scent of hastily dried seal skins. Posterity records they made it back to Bulli Bay considerably faster than their departure.

As had become the custom, on the next morn we awoke to our alarms but in the foreboding, howling darkness decided that the weather remained unsuitable for the next leg of the trip. From Erith Is. to the relative safety of Flinders Is. was a 65km haul. This was the longest open stretch of our expedition so we were looking for appropriate weather. Weatherbound, we spent the morning exploring Erith Is. Later in the cold windy afternoon we donned our wet paddling gear and returned across Murray Pass to obtain weather information through Bill. Again we stood in the spine-chilling wind whilst we were lectured on safety and moral responsibility. Bill had warmed to us; having spoken to some residents on Flinders Is. who were aware of a previous kayak crossing. Evidently Bill had realised that our adventure was unusual but within the realm of the achievable. Again he graciously provided his solar-phone for a reverse charge call.

This time the weather forecast for the coming day was relatively favourable. It forecast SW winds at 20-25 knots early in the morning shifting to the NW later in the day. In the evening it predicted a storm from the SW. Our course was predominantly SE. We decided that we would probably go, realising that there would be very serious consequences if the wind didn’t change or if we were caught in the storm. If the SW winds remained we could well have been pushed out into the Tasman: the next available land being New Zealand some 2000km to the east.

That evening we retired early to an insidious and amplified chorus of rat noises. In the two short days we had been on Erith Is. the rats had become increasingly emboldened. During the night John surreptitiously abandoned the hut to escape their constant rummaging and occasional face scampering. He was lucky. For as I lay, arm out of my sleeping bag and oblivious to my impending fate a rogue rat bit my finger causing it to bleed. I knew that I slept peacefully but this was ridiculous. My inability to contain an instant stream of expletives led a slothful though cognisant Evan into guttural fits of laughter. I wanted to “torch the joint” but was dissuaded by my bemused companion. My vexation was only abated by our recognition than John was missing. Fearing him carried off by the vermin we endeavoured to locate him and prepare for the demands of the new day. Evan eventually located him sleeping peacefully under a tree. If the weather report was take-it or leave-it the rats had rapidly swung the balance in favo

Early morning was relatively calm in protected Bulli Bay. However as we paddled out into Murray Pass under cover of darkness the wind and tide fought. We had decided to go south between Deal and Dover Islands rather than north with the tidal stream around Deal Is. because if the SW wind remained we were determined to avoid being blown too far north, away from Flinders Is. When we eventually broke clear of the tidal influence in the Pass a large ground swell of about 3-4m with breaking white caps greeted us. It introduced moments of doubt and also exhilaration. We paddled tentatively for about half an hour and then stiffened our resolve as we became increasingly committed – there was no turning back.

In the distance behind us, we were relieved to spot the NW front approaching. A few hours out this changed wind caught us and pushed us in the desired direction. Unlike the others I was without a rudder and despite the presence of a retractable skeg worked consistently all day in 25-30 knot winds to keep my kayak on track. Of course John erected his sail and cruised. Again we could see land about 50kms away but it took us 8.5 hours to traverse the 65km in very windy conditions.

Tired but elated we entered Killiecrankie harbour where we soon found a shop supplying us with drinks and hot pies. Later that afternoon the anticipated storm arrived. In the evening as we sat relaxing around a small fire, John produced a bottle of port and wine glass which he had brought to celebrate Evan’s birthday. That night we slept very snugly as the winds bellowed around us. The next day was not conducive to paddling so we layed low and explored the locals hills – talking and eating with some interesting, if not eccentrically affable locals.

Refreshed, the new day brought a mild westerly wind as we headed south along the coast of Flinders Is. The larger open ocean legs were now behind us. John, rapidly testing friendships and stretching kayaking credibility, was utilising his sail at every opportunity. At one stage he opened an enormous lead as he cruised for about an hour at 9 knots as a small squall struck.

We continued south to Whitemark, the island’s major township (population 700), enjoying a hotel counter meal that evening. At Whitemark we were met by Curly, or was it Crusty?, the sailor. He had a litany of improbable though entertaining and predominantly innocent stories to regale us with: like the time he had been overcome with fumes and fallen unconscious for six weeks whilst painting a caravan – only to regain consciousness to find himself still holding the wet paintbrush; or the time he suffered his first air-embolism whilst diving for abalone when he should have been on holiday – as he indifferently rolled a cigarette. Eventually his stories wore thin and we were eager to escape back onto the water.

Our homeward push was hampered by shallow water and windy conditions which only allowed us to paddle and drag our kayaks 12km on the following day. We made it to scenic Trouser Point under the Strzlecki Peaks (777m). The day after we struggled 50km, due to largely unfavourable winds, to the beautiful granite outcrops and tranquillity of Rebecca Bay on the southern tip of Clarke Is.

From Rebecca Bay only Banks Strait remained. This relatively short crossing (23km) maintains a notorious reputation as the channelling of winds and tides from Bass Strait have been known to create 7m breaking waves – easily capable of looping yachts We could see the Tasmanian mainland clearly and hoped that the weather would provide an opportunity to cross as our fresh water supplies were low and finding water for sitting out bad weather would be time consuming.

We woke to find a magnificent sunny day with a slight breeze. Indeed conditions were so encouraging that we headed off about an hour earlier than the optimum time to maximise the benefit of the tide in order to avoid the escalating afternoon winds. This proved a mixed blessing as we were required to paddle vigorously for over an hour against the current. This influenced us to take a brief rest on Little Swan Is. and inspect the pelican rookery. We returned to our kayaks and finished the last 5km in about half an hour as the wind propelled us to Tasmania proper. On landing we experienced a combination of relief, euphoria and regret. The paddle we had prepared for and contemplated so affectionately for the last year was now over.

All that remained to be done was to recover the wine and port I had secretly buried on that remote Tasmanian beach months before. As we toasted to our success I thought of my friend Arunas and the terrible disappointment he must have experienced. An awareness of his tenacity and strength brought some comfort added to the realisation that he would be there next time.

Trip Itinerary
Day From To Distance
1 Pt Welshpool Refuge Cove 42km
2 Refuge Cove Hogan Is. 50km
3 Hogan Is. Erith Is. 42km
4 Weathered in
5 Erith Is. Killiecrankie 65km
6 Weathered in
7 Killiecrankie Whitemark 50km
8 Whitemark Trouser Point 12km
9 Trouser Pt Rebecca Bay 50km
10 Rebecca Bay Little Musselroe Bay 23km