Topless Sea Kayakers Talk About Xena [34]

By Doug Fraser

The decision was final, the group had voted, Xena was to be declared the goddess of sea kayakers. Whether she could paddle was irrelevant, for a group of guys stuck on Deal Island in the middle of Bass Strait she had other attributes which appealed. The question now was whether we should offer Stan as a human sacrifice to appease her and ensure good weather for the crossing to Flinders Island. As the leader of the group I decided that this would probably be a bit untidy and besides, we would be left with a Greenlander IV of dubious seaworthiness which we wouldn’t be able to give away.

This story is about a crossing of Bass Strait by a team of six, which was undertaken during the period of 23 February to 4 March this year. Rather than give a commentary of where we went, which has been done before, I will concentrate on the issues and decisions which confronted me as the trip leader.

Launching the boats at Tidal River near Wilsons Promontory

The group consisted of myself, Russ Davis from Wagga, Stan Podobnik from Melbourne, Wayne Langmaid from the central coast and Gerry Thomas and Andrew Lynton who had driven over from Perth. Of note, was that apart from Gerry and Andrew, no one had really paddled together before. The expedition was also being run an Army activity under the Army’s fairly strict sea kayaking safety guidelines.

Unfortunately two Army personnel had to pull out at the last minute due to postings and sickness leaving me with only three military paddlers. This was a problem as the Safety regulations required a minimum of four. Thankfully Wayne was agreeable to officially becoming a member of the activity and as such we could continue. Gerry and Andrew were never officially part of the team however, despite this, they turned out to be excellent paddlers and team players. The inclusion of a civilian as part of the team did however, require a change to the leadership styles available to me, as the use of my normal authority was no longer always going to be appropriate.

This lack of familiarity with each other’s skills meant that as the leader, one of the first things I had to was ascertain what standard we were all at. To do this I initially got a description of previous experience well before the activity and where I could, I got a second opinion of paddling skills. While I had tried to get all the Army personnel together the previous December for an assessment, this proved to be logistically impossible. I knew that Wayne and Russ should have had good personal skills but I knew nothing about Gerry and Andrew and very little about Stan. To overcome this lack of knowledge I decided that the first days paddle would only be 25km around the bottom of Wilsons Promontory with the relative safety of the nearby coastline.

When we arrived at Tidal River the wind was blowing at 40kn from the West and continued to do so for the next day. Thankfully on the Monday it had dropped to about 15kn and we headed off for Waterloo Bay on the Eastern side of the Promontory. We left through about 2m surf and regrouped outside the surf zone before heading south. It was not long before we had started to break into natural groupings separated by about 200-300m. Stan had a tendency to paddle off by himself out to sea which surprised me and, not knowing the standard of his paddling skills, required me to bring him back within a safe distance.

After about an hour we started to encounter clapotis and the speed slowed down considerably. Stan was dropping behind and as I found out later, was taking in a considerable amount of water. We were not making sufficient speed so I commenced towing Stan so that we could get around the bottom of the Promontory where we bailed his boat out. When we held a debrief on the day’s activities that night, it appeared that all the participants were nervous during these initial stages as they embarked on this adventure with virtually an unknown group. As the leader I had focussed on keeping the group together and on making a respectable speed and did not have time to think about the same sort of things that the other paddlers were concentrating on. Next time I will try to remember what must be going through their minds.

By the time we had reached Waterloo Bay we had averaged only 4km/hr, an unacceptable speed for a group which was undertaking such a big task. It was clear that Stan’s previous paddling, which had primarily been in Queensland waters, had not prepared him for this expedition. I stated to the group that on the open water crossing the next day, if we were not making a minimum of 6km/hr after the first two hours, we would turn back and I would be forced to call off the expedition.

The next day was calm and we paddled off into the morning sun. Thankfully we were making about 7.5km/hr as we headed for Hogan Island, a distance of about 50km. The group spread of 300-400m was manageable, given the conditions. Every 55 minutes the lead paddler stopped and we would rest for 5 minutes once the last boat arrived. While this allowed everyone a decent rest it did mean that the lead paddlers tended to stiffen up. As the leader I found the use of GPS to calculate speed made good to be invaluable during this and all subsequent open water crossings, as it allowed me to ascertain the likely time on the water and hence risks and options.

Setting up camp at the Paps near Cape Portland

We arrived at Hogan Island that afternoon after about 8.5 hours paddling and were glad to get a rest. Unfortunately this did not necessarily mean sleep as the island is infested with fairy penguins which, despite their cute appearance, are real party animals at night.

The most important information the trip leader needs is accurate weather information as this determines whether you should put to sea, given the group, the tides and the distances. Hogan Island was the only place where we could pick up the VHF forecast for the entire trip, however we also carried a HF radio which allowed us to contact our Safety Officer Ashore to provide forecasts for the remainder of the expedition. The forecast for the next days paddle to Deal Island was good but a weak front was due to hit sometime in the afternoon.

We headed off early in the morning and soon developed the same yet manageable spread. Both Russ and myself were experiencing wrist swelling while Wayne had contracted a bout of gastro. We could see Deal from Hogan Island which was comforting and we did the 42km in about six hours. The front hit just as we rounded the Island but we all safely made it into the idyllic Winter Cove.

As the leader I decided that after three long paddling days, and given the minor injuries, the next day should be a rest day. This was despite the fact that it was likely to be suitable for the major crossing to Flinders Island and that the weather was going to turn worse. We spent that day exploring the island and visiting the lighthouse museum. That night strong winds arose and we spent the following day holding down our tents to prevent them from being blown away. I again decided not to attempt the crossing to Flinders and remained on Deal for a third day as the predictions were for 2-3m seas and 20kn winds. Given the range of paddling standards within the group I considered that the possibility of encountering difficulties to be too high.

Cliffs of Deal Island

To break up the monotony of waiting a number of us paddled around the spectacular cliffs of the island, in between watching Wayne gorge himself on his wife’s prepared recipes, only to have to lay in the sun like a python while his body digested enough food for the whole group.

The forecast for Sunday 1 Mar was good, with winds at 15kn and decreasing, so we headed off on the 62km crossing to Cape Frankland on Flinders Island. We made good speed but at about the half way mark Gerry got a migraine headache and started vomiting. He began to slow down and needed to rest his head on other boats at regular intervals. I contemplated various towing mechanisms should he become unstable. These would have slowed us down considerably but could still have been accomplished as I was happy to arrive at the sheltered bays of Flinders Island in the dark if need be. I had also anticipated this possibility and everyone had cyalumes and torches handy. Gerry had other ideas however, and put in an impressive effort to persevere through his sickness and regained his speed.

After nine hours we arrived at Cape Frankland, however we encountered a strong tidal current and overfalls. I decided to pull into the nearest beach to avoid risking further damage to Russ’ wrist by having to fight the tide. The campsite was idyllic and we all enjoyed a well earned rest, relieved to have broken the back of the trip.

The forecast for the next day was for a northerly tail wind which sounded promising. The longer range forecast meant that it was necessary to change the original plan, and instead of spending two days exploring the Island, we needed to traverse it in one day. This was to allow us to be able to cross Banks Strait on Wednesday before the weather was due to turn bad.

In the speed to get going the next morning I conducted a short brief on the planned activities however, in hindsight I should have been far more specific as to how the group would be managed. Unfortunately the tail wind did not eventuate and instead we had a 15kn headwind all day for the 50km trip to Trousers Point. As could be expected this led to a greater group spread, which caused some frustration, but due to the proximity of the coast I considered it to be quite manageable. Given that we were hugging the coast some of us were prepared to take a more relaxed attitude to navigation while others preferred a more rigid point to point track. This led to a breakdown of the hourly regrouping practice. As a result there was a deal of friction within the group that evening and it was necessary for me to run a defusing session to get all the issues out in the open and derive solutions before the next two critical days. Solving the issues this way was quite novel for me, as in the military a far more authoritarian approach would normally be used. The key outcomes were that for the final open water crossings coming we would keep a tighter formation, and that everyone agreed that if they had an issue or concern they were to raise it at the hourly break and not stew on it.

Crossing the Franklin Strait near Trouser Point

The next day was clear and sunny and what a relief, it was only 40km to Clarke Island with a stop over half way on Cape Barron Island. The team worked well with no evidence of the problems of the day before. The weather report that night however, was not good and it looked as though we may be stuck on Clarke for three days with Tasmania in sight, only 25km away. The next morning we crowded around Stan’s tent in the dark to hear a rather dubious weather report which was more favourable, predicting tail winds but with a front hitting late afternoon.

We weren’t going to wait and got in our boats for the crossing of Banks Strait, renowned for its rough seas. The current flows at about 3kn and there are significant tidal races around the islands. We hit one as soon as we left the shelter of the cove, and while it was clearly of concern to some of the group, I was relieved to see that they were all stable and handling the conditions well. Based on this I decided to keep the group going. We were navigating by the GPS and keeping on a straight course, however at times this meant heading at up to 50 degrees of the true bearing to counteract the 3kn current. Again the tailwinds did not eventuate and we were taking 10-15kn on the nose.

Our actual speed along the track was slow due to the 2-3m seas and high ferry angle, and it was four hours before we reached the western side of Swan Island. By this time we were being hit with 20kn westerlies and showers. Despite this, morale was high as we were so close to our finish point. The wind continued to pick up to over 30kn and the seas became rough and breaking at 3-4m. We were getting nowhere against the current. We continued this for about half an hour and it was interesting to see that the smiles were now gone as we fought to make progress. Rather than head for our proposed pull out point of Musselroe Bay we cut across the current in an effort to make some progress. Wayne spotted some calmer water and we headed for it. I was aware that we were about 2km from our correct finishing point but, given the obvious tidal races around the points in between, and the obvious fatigue of the group, I decided to pull out in a sheltered bay.

There was a great relief amongst the group that we had landed safely and had achieved our objective. We could now pin on our legend badges. It had been a long trip and the final day of rough weather had topped off a great adventure. We quickly changed into dry clothes and got shelter from the howling wind then undertook the long task of getting picked up by our driver.

We had crossed nearly 300km of water without incident. No one had come out of their boat and had anything occurred I am confident that we would easily been able to handle it as a group. In particular the team, which consisted of quite a mixed bag of paddlers who really knew little if anything about each other prior to the trip, had been successful. As the leader I had been presented with some challenging group dynamic issues and had been forced to increase my range of leadership styles. As a result, I believe I got far more out of it than just being able to say ‘I crossed Bass Strait.’ As for Xena, well we will have to try and get her to preside over the next Rock’n’Roll weekend.