Solo Bass Strait Crossing [38]

by Stuart Trueman

A shaky start

A few incidents had made things a bit uncertain and I didn’t know for sure that the trip was on until Christmas Eve. Some of the things that had to be overcome included: after a few incidents that made things a bit uncertain.

  • smashing the boat up in a rescue attempt at the end of November, after which the bow needed replacing.
  • tearing ligaments in my knee while surfing kayaks and could hardly walk during the first half of December
  • spending the last of my money on Christmas and a computing course
  • being offered a job but managing to delaying the start date
  • watching thought provoking TV footage of the perils of the Sydney to Hobart yacht race

These were all sorted out and we set off Tuesday 29th.Dec.

30th December 1998

I left Port Welshpool 12.30 and headed off into a 15-20 knot wind. Sharon, who had driven me down put on a brave face and waved goodbye, she faced a long lonely drive home.

We had set out from Sydney on the 29th and during the day and a half drive we had been following the progress of the Sydney to Hobart race. Rescuers had just pulled two bodies out of the sea and called off searching for any other survivors; this did nothing to improve morale!

I asked a few fishermen using the lee side off Wilson’s Prom to shelter their boats for weather reports, but they were vague. They asked where I was going, but I didn’t bother telling them the plan as I knew I would be thrown a load of incredulous looks and more doom and gloom.

The kayak was quite heavy with 15 days food; 2 days water and everything needed to get by for the trip ahead. This extra weight not only makes things harder to get moving, but on the ocean, the bow tends to sink into waves causing the deck to get swamped and a wall of water smacking into your chest. This constant smacking of water not only takes your breath away with the cold, but you loose a lot of forward momentum.

I arrived at Refuge Cove 8pm to be met by a ranger who waived the $4 camping fee when he learnt of my destination and used his radio to alert the authorities of my intentions. There were about half dozen yachts in the bay and I was able to get a favourable weather update from them.

31st December 1998

New Years Eve, what were you doing?

Overcast day with 10-knot easterly.

Set off and headed for Hogan Island which was over the horizon for the first couple of hours then became a distant target.

To get to Hogan I had to cross the shipping lanes that are used by ships rounding the southeast corner of Australia. You have to keep an eye out, as a ship can pop up over the horizon and be in your immediate area in an alarmingly short time. To get out of the way and avoid any problems you need plenty of notice.

I arrived at Hogan Island within my estimate of 7 hours. As with the whole trip, I was impressed with the interesting, pristine coastline that teemed with wildlife. I erected the tent next a hut used by the occasional fishermen and those who tend to the cattle kept on the island. The hut had a water tank and a logbook with entries of those who had paddled this way before me. (I estimated that about 12 other groups had ever done the trip averaging 3 per trip). I saw my first Cape Barren Geese, and during the night plenty of fairy penguins, accompanied by mutton birds, were having a noisy party which ensured I didn’t feel lonely while welcoming in the New Year.

During preparations for the trip I was concerned that my watch battery had not been replaced for 5 years. I was going to get it replaced, but as the trip was not confirmed until a couple of weeks prior to departure, the battery replacement never happened. The odds were that it was very unlikely for it to pack-in during these particular two weeks.

After about 1hr into the day I noticed the figures were hard to read, then impossible. Absolutely disgusted with myself for not putting the batteries in I almost threw the watch to its watery grave. During November I had an accident with the kayak during which I not only lost the bow of the kayak but also my sunglasses. Father Christmas was good to me and replaced them with a new polarised pair which when used with digital watches make the figures hard to read. I was glad I didn’t throw it away after I finally figured this out, two days later!

1st January 1999

Up 4.30am paddling 5.30am light winds, overcast.

The cloud was low and the view of the Kent Islands from Hogan had gone. After two hours of paddling I could only see the bottom half of the islands as the cloud was still hanging on to the cliffs. This was not unusual and is one of the reasons the islands lighthouse was decommissioned.

During the journey an albatross crossed my path which I considered to be a good omen. (Otherwise it would have been a bad omen so I made sure and bagged the better option first?!) I arrived at Eirth Island 11am and opted to enter Murray Pass from the north and not take the short cut through Dover and Erith due to the currents. This was a good choice as the pass between the two is almost always dry.

I found a hut on Erith and a family group of about 15 who spend each Christmas on the island. They gave me a coffee while I told my story. I then headed across the pass to Deal to find someplace to get a weather report and a camp spot.

I really hit the jackpot as the two ladies who were temporarily looking after the lighthouse buildings put me up in a disused cottage complete with shower and phone. To complete the picture, tame Roo’s grazed on the lawn as I walked down through the penguin colony to a BBQ of four 8lb Crayfish, a bucket of abalone, fish, beer and mutton bird all supplied from the waters of the Kent Islands and the overnighting yachts. This was roughing it in Bass Strait!

2nd January 1999

A front was predicted so I spent the day exploring Deal Island. I was given the key to the lighthouse to have a look inside and to check out the view…it was spectacular! I also had an interesting look at the museum dedicated to the Kent group. Enjoyed another great BBQ thanks to those hospitable folks on the yachts. During the BBQ a favourable weather report came in so I got ready for the long stretch to Flinders Island.

3rd January 1999

Weather looked good, so after the caretakers waved goodbye I set off 6am catching a gust of wind with the sail to set me on the way. The wind soon died down so I picked up the paddle. The tide took me out west 4 miles off Craggy Island. I was unconcerned, as I knew the tide change would help me get back in.

I had invested in a Global Positioning System before setting out which was not only useful in the mist to direct me to my invisible targets, but was good for monitoring drift and progress. I had marked on my charts where I expected to be every hour, then I put those co-ordinates into the GPS. All I had to do was turn the GPS on each hour to see if I was on track.

Just as I passed Craggy Island a bank of cloud came down reducing visibility to 1 mile and the wind picked up to 20 knots from the north west so I was able to use the sail again. I couldn’t see Flinders Island until half an hour before sailing right into Killiecrankie Bay at 3pm, which was a great relief after 2 hours of paddling in the mist.

Killiecrankie is a small place with a campground, small shop and a phone…what else could you possibly want in a town!!

The kayak held up well to nine hours on the water with only the cockpit leaking a bit. I was tired and covered in so much salt you could write your name in my encrusted arms. I was also very pleased to turn around and see the main open ocean crossing behind me.

4th January 1999

Still weary from yesterday, I had a slow start setting off about 8.30am. Around the north west of Flinders Island I came across 2-3 foot standing waves. This was due to the tide only so it would be a real shit fight with even a 15-knot wind blowing. The tide helped me along to Prime Seal Island arriving at noon where I found a locked hut, which was well maintained with water and a porch to enjoy the view. I knew where my spot was going to be for the rest of the day…. I sat on the porch and took in the great view of Strzeleki Peaks stretching right up to Tasmania. A fantastic spot, sea kayaking can certainly get one to places you would otherwise miss.

Even though I wore sunglasses all the time I did have some trouble with my eyes, which was caused by a combination of salt, sunburn and glare over the past 6 days,

5th January 1999

Leisurely start, I left at 8.45am passed Chalky Island to the north and got to Whitmark at 11.15am. There was a slight northwesterly wind and visibility was down to 5miles, so I was glad I got the views yesterday.

Whitmark consists of a post office, pub and a handful of shops but no harbour just a jetty. I got a paper, rang home, then went to the pub had a shower, a few beers and a mixed grill, great.

After relaxing at the pub I set off for Trouser point campground, which I didn’t find right away, but I did find a good spot for a tent. I had a walk around and found the campground on the southern side, but as I was settled into another great spot I stayed put. Predicted storms tonight.

6th January 1999

The currents run through Franklin Sound at 2.5 knots, a 2knot current can increase my speed by half or decrease it by half so it makes a big difference. The tides meant a start at either 6.30am or 3pm to catch the ebb tide, but as I didn’t fancy getting up early again or arriving late on Clark Island, and as another storm was forecast, I decided to take the day off and explore the area. I spent the day beach combing and trying to think of a good reason not to climb Strzelecki Peak.

I was invited to dinner with the couple who had earlier supplied me with water during my stay.

7th January 1999

In the water 6.30am but only got 1 mile into Franklin Sound before turning back. A southeast wind had picked up and was running over the tide so I headed for the campground. Sitting around the campfire chatting to other campers was a better option than struggling into a 20-30 knot cold shower; I was on holiday after all!

I borrowed a bike and got into Whitmark to make a call home and let the police know I was around. They were expecting me as they had received a call from the ranger at Refuge Cove. I also checked the weather, which revealed that the wind was expected to blow for the next few days. I therefore didn’t make plans to move the next day. The weather was quite cold with 20-30 knot winds and drizzle

8th January 1999

The sun came out but it was still blowing. Campers moved their tents, concerned that the trees would shed a few branches on them.

Another lazy day spent sheltering from the wind or warming by the fire. I was starting to relax a bit too much, but I hadn’t lost the urge to push on to Tassie.

I learnt that one of the camping groups were doing their trip as a tribute to one in their group who had a terminal condition. This would be the last holiday they would have together. They were very strong about it and you would never have guessed that they had such a dark cloud hanging over 1999, an inspiration.

9th January 1999

The wind had eased, the white caps had gone, but it was still gusting to 20 knots. A very hard day. Setting off at 7am I hugged the coastline to shelter from the wind as best I could. I had a quick rest at Key Island for half an hour then pressed on to Preservation Island landing at 1pm. I rested until 3pm when the tide had lost some strength. The crossing to Clarke Island was rough and I crawled into Spike Cove at 4.30pm buggered. I found a small hut but no water, even though I had enough for the night I paddled back out to the moored trawlers and filled a few containers with fresh water, just in case. Along with the water I also received a favourable weather report. I slept well.

10th January 1999

Up at 5.30am but waited until 7.30am to get paddling allowing the ebb tide time to die down. I was much relieved to see the southeast wind had calmed down and, as forecast, a light north easterly was in its place.

I seemed to make good time, but as I got closer to Swan Island the tide became stronger. It took some discipline to let it pull me past the island and keep paddling in a southerly direction and not head for dry land. North east of Swan Island I hit a tide race, this would be a place to avoid if the wind was blowing. I headed for Great Musselroe bay as there looked to be some buildings on my chart and that was where the tide would take me.

I arrived at noon marking the end of the paddling part of the trip. Now I had to face the challenge of getting the kayak and myself back to Sydney.

I took a walk around town and quickly came to the conclusion that there was not much to Musselroe. I asked a man walking down the road if there was a place to get a pie and he laughed, explaining this was it. He suggested that I should take a drive down to the campsites, as they were nice.

After explaining why I didn’t have a car the hospitality that I found throughout the trip came to the rescue once again. After a couple of steak sandwiches, a few beers and a shower I found myself sitting in a ute with the kayak on the back heading for George Town.

11th January 1999

Laundry, shower, clean kit then got a lift into town for a feed. I tried getting the kayak on the ferry but they would not take it. Forget the 6 foot seas and the 20 knot winds,…it was the quotes of over $600.00 to get the kayak back to Sydney that had me really worried… In the end Tas Freight took pity on me and agreed to pick the kayak up from the campsite and take it to Sydney for $150.00.

I then arranged a flight out the next day before settling down to a few beers in celebration of the final stage of the trip.