Tassie Odyssey [43]

The Highs and Lows

By Mik Snoad, with running commentary by David Whyte and Dirk Stuber

Earlier this year David Whyte, Dirk Stuber and I completed a 32-day sea kayak expedition from Devonport to Hobart, a distance of about 650 km.

In this story about the expedition there are lots of gaps in the day by day chronology mainly because the days and moments that most easily come to mind were the high points and low points of the trip.

I have also tried to give a sense of how I was feeling at these times and some of the interactions between the three of us.

Extracts are from my daily diary of the trip with retrospective commentary from both Dave and Dirk.

Day 1

Paddling out east from Devonport on the first day (what a relief to be on the water). After a short lunch break on Wright Island, Dave and I had fast and sometimes furious sailing as the wind increased to about 25 knots.

I was sail/surfing down waves at great speed sometimes out of control. I had to stop occasionally to wait for Dirk who does not use a sail and for Dave who seemed to be making heavy work of it.

This was my best fun sailing since the Cape York trip last September.

Unfortunately David injured his arm on that first day. This was not a propitious start to our expedition and given the nature of his injury (to forearm tendons) could make it difficult for him to continue. What a blow and a worry especially for David as the trip idea and most of the planning was done by him.

David thinks sailing in the boisterous conditions without a rudder caused the injury. Many powerful sweep strokes are required to keep the kayak from broaching in those conditions.

Day 2

High humour (on my part at least) at our lunch stop where a large dog shapes up to Dave’s boat and cocks its leg. It then gets a whiff of the salami in Dirk’s boat and tries to abscond with it.

We had stopped for lunch on a sheltered beach at Low Head near the mouth of the Tamar River. Crossing the mouth of the river was an interesting experience with a mix of standing waves and aggressive powerboats.

Day 4

We reach Bridport on schedule despite slow progress at times caused by Dave’s injured arm. Hot showers at the camping ground are heaven. Dave visited the local doctor and got some oral anti-inflammatory drugs for his arm injury.

We all had medicinal alcohol and a fun night at the pub where the locals treated us like brothers. The steak and seafood dinner was superb.

David decided to stay in Bridport to install a rudder and to rest his arm then rejoin us in two days time at Little Musselroe Bay. All this with the generous help of Jeff Jennings of the Maatsuyker Canoe Club.

Day 8

Stuck at Little Musselroe Bay. David rejoined us yesterday afternoon. However he is dry retching and cannot hold down any food and not much drink. We worry about the cause of his sickness and hope he will recover quickly so we can get going.

Day 10

We have lost another day this time stuck on Swan Island in Banks Strait. Dave is still quite sick and is getting weaker from lack of food and possibly dehydrated. Also strong onshore easterly winds make a departure off the rocks at our landing spot at Jetty Cove a risky proposition.

Dirk and I are both losing patience with the continued delays and feel Dave should seriously consider quitting the trip or at least get medical help and have an extended period of recuperation before rejoining us later on. This is difficult to arrange given our location on Swan Island and the strong winds.

Discussion on these options is at times heated. Nigel the caretaker is very helpful. It’s with some relief when Dave departs for the mainland (of Tassie) on a cray boat with Doug who we had previously met at the Bridport Pub. I went for a long walk to the western side of the Island to get some personal space.

Day 11

Late afternoon at Stumpy Bay – a beautiful spot with the wonderful light of the late afternoon sun highlighting the large creamy coloured boulders that inhabit this part of the coast. There is a very large shell midden not far from our campsite.

Today Dirk and I have finally turned the NE corner of Tassie and are now at last heading south towards our destination of Hobart. Our morning paddle was a hard slog against tide and wind from Swan Island to Musselroe Bay. For me it’s been a relief to put Dave’s problems behind us for a while.

Day 12

A long hard 48 km slog mostly against a 10 to 15 knot headwind. The hard grind takes a lot of the joy out of the experience. The coastline is very attractive in places with lots of offshore reefs and small rocky islands with bull kelp attached.

I sense Dirk is unhappy with me for pushing on. He is a strong paddler but I get the impression he is bored with the hard slog especially two days in succession. I’m feeling grumpy and not sympathetic as I am keen to make our next reprovisioning stop at Bicheno, about 80 km away before a series of cold fronts and storms forecast for later in the week stops us.

I am starting to be concerned that our earlier delays mean we may not have time to paddle along the spectacular cliffs of the SE coastline around Cape Pillar and Tasman Island. This is a priority for me.

A comment from Dirk:

“I know you expected to sail a lot more and I think this influenced your moods. You were hoping to relieve fatigue with sailing and it rarely happened.

“I think as a generalisation a non-sailor would have to pay more attention to technique and fitness because there is no alternative. On the other side the non-sailor has to be comfortable with the fact that on windy days the sailors will usually get ahead especially over long distances. People should be aware of this when they are planning expeditions.”

Day 13

Dave is back with us recovered from his illness and seems to be coping with the paddling quiet well with his arm tightly strapped. We make good progress in the morning with Dave and I sailing part of the way.

We stop near the town of Beaumaris to make phone calls and have lunch. This landing place on a steep beach with a small but nasty shore dump was a big mistake!

Day 14

The loss of half of our only spare paddle in the surf exit yesterday afternoon was the start of an unfortunate chain of events that resulted in our lunch stop at Beaumaris dragging on for two tense days.

After a fruitless search for the paddle we had an uncomfortable first night camped on the wet sand in heavy rain. This discomfort and my frustration culminated in a blazing row between Dirk and I that included an exchange of insults.

It was early morning, wet and foggy and in the dim light difficult to see how big the dumping waves were. I was all fired up to go because the weather forecast indicated that we could get stuck on this exposed beach if we delayed. Dirk was not in a hurry to go anywhere in those conditions.

Later that morning when the conditions had indeed deteriorated Dirk and I took a long walk into Scamander. I was feeling really bad about several things I had said that morning and apologised to Dirk.

Dirk says:

“An amusing point is when we first disagreed at Beaumaris I was naked from the waist down. Because it was raining and dark I did not want to get any clothes wet. I was just wearing my cag.”

Day 15

And what a day! 55 km all paddled in good conditions arriving in Bicheno tired but still feeing strong and with a big fat salmon for dinner.

Despite the windless conditions during the day, a big easterly swell crashing onto the beaches and cliffs made a landing for lunchtime rest stop out of the question. Our only landing rest stop was mid afternoon in the lee of Long Point just 12 km short of our destination.

The surf break-out that morning from Beaumaris beach was a full-on adrenalin rush experience for me. Our early morning consensus had been that we could get off but it would be difficult. Facing us was a vicious dumping shore break with a very strong cross flow then a gutter and then further out 1.5 to 2 metre dumpers with occasional larger sets.

Dirk who has had considerable experience in big surf got out OK with patience in the slop zone and good timing. Dave got a dream run in a lull after I pushed him off into the shore break. I was a bundle of nerves when my turn came. Two aborted attempts later after being swept sideways back onto the beach by the strong side drift, I managed to get off the beach with the help of a bystander.

I promptly capsized in the shore break but managed somehow to roll back up by pushing off the bottom. After a short time in the slop zone where I was mentally rehearsing the possibility of rolling under one of these big buggers in front of me I headed out. Got the timing wrong of course (I’m not big on patience in the surf).

Confronted with an impossibly steep two metre wave with heart pumping I tried the roll under it (something I had never done or even seen done before). I was a bit late with my roll and ended up surfing sideways in the washing machine back toward the beach supported by a big high brace. Not where I wanted to be!

Managed to pull off that wave and head out again after a short wait in the slop zone. Same story again except this time I went into the roll earlier and it worked perfectly.

After the wave passed over me I rolled back up and started a 200 metres gut-busting race to beat another big set that was forming up out the back. When I reached Dirk and Dave patiently waiting for me out the back I was knackered. Only 55 km more to go that day!

Day 17

Probably should have been scared at one stage but I was too busy keeping the boat upright in near gale force conditions accompanied by very strong wind gusts off the cliffs.

About 30 km out from Bicheno (where we had spent the weekend on R & R), the strong winds changed up a gear. Dave and I were negotiating a narrow gap partially blocked by a reef between several sheer islands called the Nuggets and the adjacent towering cliffs of Cape Tourville in very confused seas. Dirk was ahead of us.

I shot through the gap in the reef closely followed by David, then caught a big double header wave and bounced down the front of it at speed into the marginally better conditions where Dirk was waiting for us. What an adrenalin rush!

David says:

“Each morning we always checked the weather forecast which came on around 5:30 am. The forecast for this day was strong winds 20-30 knots. We had a talk about it and decided as it was in a favourable direction we would go.

“By lunch time it gusting to near 50 knots and the strong wind warning had turned into a gale warning. We had forgotten the weatherman’s adage – ‘When the forecast is bad expect the worst.’

“I had to buy 12 maps for this trip 1:100,000 (which is a good scale) and the cost of laminating all of them seemed too much so I opted to carry them in my bushwalking map holder.

“This works fine in most conditions but it can’t take being on the deck all the time as the water gets in, especially in bad weather, so I took to carrying it in my day hatch and bringing it out when necessary.

“When we left Bicheno I studied the map and knew which bay to turn into, what the distance was, and how long it would take to get there. As the weather deteriorated I stopped opening my day hatch as I was carrying my good SLR camera in there as well. The weather was such that opening it meant it was likely to fill with water and though it was in a dry bag I didn’t want to take any chance. At one stage I had the hatch half off and then started shooting down a wave, it was pretty exciting stuff. I put the hatch back on pretty quick.

“Because of this, I didn’t look at the map for a long time thinking I could remember what was on it, but I hadn’t. I also didn’t realise how quickly we were moving (nearly twice our paddling pace), the wind was far too strong for sailing and holding up my unfeathered paddle moved me along quite rapidly.

“When we got to the entrance to Wineglass Bay, which is a long way in, I was convinced it was still around the next headland. Dirk was pretty insistent that we land anyway so we headed in. If we had continued on there would have been no way we could have turned back and it was unlandable cliffs for another 25 km.

“In future I will always carry a map on deck in unknown territory and have a bit more respect for strong wind warnings. Disasters usually come around not because of one mistake but when a few are linked together. Here we made two and a third was in the wings.”

Day 19

Camped at Chicken and Hen Inlet on the southern side of Schouten Island. Feeling good in this sheltered spot after our 34 km trip down from Wineglass Bay.

The spectacular mountains of Freycinet Peninsular are now behind us while ahead of us tomorrow is the longest open water crossing of the trip. I have been feeling a bit apprehensive about this crossing. It’s about 37 km, however the towering peaks of the Bishop and Clerk on Maria Island, our destination, are clearly visible. This crossing shouldn’t be a problem if the weather holds.

Dinner that evening is fresh crayfish for entrée followed by fresh abalone sautéed in oil and garlic then almost fresh tomato and vegetables in a sauce with Cus Cus on the side. We didn’t bother with our usual gourmet herb damper. We were doing it tough!

Day 23

Arrived at Lagoon Bay late afternoon after the long crossing from Maria Island in good conditions once the morning fog had lifted. Dave has been paddling well and his arm injury seems to be getting better.

Dirk says:

“I think Dave should be congratulated for the way he managed his illness. He showed determination, self reliance, courage and made an excellent come back.”

This is a really beautiful spot with high cliffs, rocky inlets and gulches all around us. Gauntlet heaven! Dirk is almost drooling. Dave set up his camera on the headland to catch the sunset and moonrise. A large black snake disappeared down a wombat hole in the middle of our campsite. We worked out that the Reverend Fairey was at this exact spot on his canoe trip over 100 years ago.

Day 28

This is the day I have been waiting for. We head off at 7 am from Fortescue Bay where we have been stuck for two days by strong winds. It was a frustrating wait for all of us. Dirk was keen to get going every morning. I was feeling quiet apprehensive about doing this stretch of the coast in anything other than ideal conditions.

We had been advised by Mike Emery of the Tasmanian Sea Canoeing Club to allow six to eight hours to traverse this very exposed stretch of coastline with its massive cliffs. There would be no landing possible until we reached Port Arthur except for a very tricky seal landing on Tasman Island if the conditions were right.

The previous day Dirk and I took a long walk out to Cape Huay after deciding to wait another day for better weather. From the Cape I could see far out across the windswept and white-capped Munro Bight what looked like a wide band of standing waves trailing out to the east from Cape Pillar 12 km away.

In any event the weather was kind today. Just after a murky sunrise we gaped in awe for a while at the gauntlets between the towering cliffs of Cape Huay and The Lanterns.

The poor light disappointed David. He was hoping for some spectacular photographs of The Totem Pole and The Candlestick to go with an article he would try to have published in US Sea Kayaker magazine. On the beach earlier this morning David had angrily jacked up on Dirk and I because we had wanting to get going before sunrise. He insisted we wait to get good light. I felt guilty for not considering his priorities.

The run through this towering gauntlet between The Totem Pole and The Candlestick was not particularly challenging. There was a big surge in the slot but only an occasional breaking wave coming through. We got to Cape Pillar by about 9:30 am and after a close look at the towering Tasman Island decided a seal landing was out of the question. It was low tide and the swells we needed to lift us up onto the narrow kelp covered rock shelf were not reaching high enough.

Even if a landing had been possible we would have had to fight for possession of that narrow ledge with some very large aggressive looking seals. Unlike the other seal colonies we had come across on our journey these were staying put. So we headed off for Port Arthur after chatting for a while with the two-man crew of a small professional net fishing boat. My TLC felt very seaworthy in this exposed place when I compared it with their open 16-foot tinnie.

At Port Arthur that afternoon we experienced more Tasmanian hospitality, some humour and a self-inflicted headache for me as Dave explains:

“Often when we landed near civilisation Dirk would be a bit embarrassed by Mike and I. We never seemed to be able to get all the white zinc off our faces and sometimes we just plain forgot it was there. We were starting to go feral. So when we called into Port Arthur Village (not the convict ruins), Dirk had had enough and changed into nice respectable clothes (well, his cleanest shorts), and walked into the next town to find some real shops and get a decent cup of coffee.

“Meanwhile, Mike and I are walking around Port Arthur village looking for a public phone. We must have looked quite a sight in our paddling gear – Mike with his shorts that are three sizes too small and me with a face that looked like someone had throw a bag of flour at it.

“But the Tasmanians are some of the friendliest people around and when we asked a local about the phone he invited us up to his place to use his. After several cups of coffee and homemade cake and biscuits, we were ready to leave but he insisted we take some home grown vegetables and some fresh fish he had caught.

“When we got back to our campsite there no sign of Dirk but another friendly local, John, whose house was just above us, invited us up to try his home brew. Now I have seen some good home brew systems but his was unbelievable. Even Mike, who is a bit of a connoisseur in these matters, was impressed. He had a specially modified fridge with a keg and tap inside.

“It was quite a few jugs later when staggered down the hill feeling a little merry, to meet Dirk who was wondering where we were. The home brewer John even gave us a couple of bottles to take back.”

Day 29

From Port Arthur to White Beach is also a long, very exposed stretch of coastline with towering cliffs, especially the magnificent spires of Cape Raoul with its resident seal colony perched on an almost vertical rock face. The unrelenting big swell crashing on the cliffs made the narrow passage between the Cape and Raoul Rocks tricky as the large, confused rebound interacted with a strong tidal flow.

This was the most southerly point on our expedition and we were now on the home stretch to Hobart via White Beach. We have an invitation from Mike Emery to join the Tasmanian Sea Canoeing Club at White Beach for their AGM tonight.

We met up with a large group of Tasmanian kayakers (or sea canoeists as they prefer to call themselves) at Wedge Island where they had landed on boulders. There were kayaks perched up on top of boulders or jammed in between them. Dirk’s plastic boat was no problem to land but I felt compelled to drag my heavily laden TLC up onto the rocks (with Tasmanian help) as if I did this every day!

That night at their AGM where Tasmanian hospitality was once again very evident, I had no hesitation in pronouncing (to loud cheers of agreement) that the coastline we had just traversed is the best and most spectacular sea kayaking environment in Australia. Not so sure about those boulder beaches though.

Day 32

After a couple of days R & R at White Beach, the two day paddle to Hobart (Dirk chose to do it in one day to maximise his time in Hobart) was uneventful. Well almost!

Dave and I had a close encounter on the Derwent River with a large, very fast and very menacing Devil Cat. In the distance we spotted a dark rumbling menacing shape silhouetted against a huge trailing plume of white spray. It was heading directly towards us at high speed!

With a sense of awe and disbelief I said to David, “Do you see what I see?” Our hurried assessment was followed by a quick sprint, hesitation, reassessment, then a radical change in direction, which put us about 100 metres to the side by the time it reached us. The scary thing is that we had no idea if they ever saw us. This took all of about 30 seconds!

We paddled into Constitution Dock in late afternoon. I was feeling a strange sense of unreality in this place full of artificial structures, unnatural noises and smells. However I felt it was appropriate to finish in this historic place remembering that the Reverend Fairey had also completed a similar journey in his sea canoe here over 100 years ago. Dirk and Mike Emery met us and whisked us away to Mike and Veronica’s secluded house up on the mountainside behind Hobart.

My spaced out feelings and sense of unreality continued for quite a while. However, the generous Tasmanian hospitality and a few Cascade ales soon fixed that.

An interesting question to finish off with is “Would we do it all again?”

Our 650 km, 32 day expedition was a total experience. There were many moments of wonder and joy. There were also many frustrations and some stressful incidents.

This was real life. It is not really surprising that the three of us were at odds with each other at times. Even before we left home we had discussed some apparent differences in our individual expectations and priorities for the trip.

Dave says:

“If you put three middle-aged blokes together for five weeks paddling, eating, sleeping and socialising together every day you can expect some friction.”

Dirk says:

“We deserve a pat on the back with the group decision making. 32 days and 650 km and only one scary incident, Wineglass Bay, I think is excellent. We were relative strangers when we started. And we are still talking.”

The answer to the question is for me an unqualified yes. I am addicted to Tassie.

Footnotes

  • Dirk and I and two others are preparing for another trip to Tassie early next year.
  • David has submitted an article, along with 50 of his slides, to US Sea Kayaker magazine. They have accepted several slides for publication – watch out in coming issues. The rest of the slides may be back for the slide show at the AGM.

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