Bass Strait? No Worries! [45]

By Andrew McAuley

I’d been keen on the idea of a Bass Strait crossing for some time but other commitments made the planning of this trip rather uncertain. We only really decided it was on about three weeks before the paddle, the ‘we’ being Greg James and I.

Greg, a strong paddler and rock climbing friend of many years, was ‘between jobs’ and could pretty much do what he wanted whenever it suited him. The world that I inhabit is not quite so flexible! Although some friends do seem to doubt that I have a job either with the amount of time I seem not to be there. I managed to get a couple of weeks off over Christmas, and in late December my wife Vicki and I set off from the Blue Mountains to Melbourne via Brisbane (had to do the Christmas thing with the folks!). Greg met us in Melbourne and we headed south from there.

Over the Christmas period a strong westerly system had moved through Bass Strait and the weather looked really ugly for a while there. We arrived at Tidal River late on December 27 and it was cold, wet and miserable with strong SW winds blowing us straight back into the car. Things eased a bit by Friday morning (December 29) and we headed off into it, plugging into a brisk 16-18 knot breeze with many whitecaps and a reasonable swell about. As we neared the tip of ‘The Prom’ the south-westerly became more of a tail wind and we were able to launch the sails somewhere near Fenwick Bight. The rebound swell was powerful but our pace picked up considerably after rounding the SE point where the lighthouse is stationed. The waters became more sheltered but we still had the wind there to give us a good push. We cruised into Waterloo Bay after about 3 1/2 hours paddling. The coastline around this part of the promontory is absolutely spectacular and I was glad we’d chosen this route rather than a start at Port Welshpool as some parties do. Vicki walked in to Waterloo Bay to spend a final night with us at before we headed off into the unknown.

December 30 brought a southerly wind and a long slog across to Hogan Island. There was still quite a bit of swell about and along with the haze it ensured we could not see our destination until after almost two hours paddling. Even then the island was only a glimpse when on top of a wave and when the other swells in front weren’t blocking the view. We had some excitement on this leg when a container ship hove into view from the north. It appeared to be heading directly for us at about 20 knots, a very intimidating sight. As these vessels are one of the few on the water that have a turning circle wider than my Pittarak, we put on the pace and did our best to stay clear. About an hour or so after this one passed us another showed up on the southern horizon heading north. This was starting to feel a bit like a dodgem car course but once again we regarded ourselves as invisible to them and got the hell out of there! After a long 52 km paddle with a beam wind all the way we rounded the northern tip of the island and landed at a small cove near the hut and water tank. A brief check of the log book revealed no other paddlers had come this way since Ian Dunn’s group a year before, then Stuart Trueman on a solo trip in 1998.

The following day, New Year’s Eve, was spent with the resident fairy penguins and mutton birds on Hogan Island while we waited for a 20 knot ESE wind to abate. New Year’s Day saw us on the water with a strong easterly still about. Whitecaps littered the sea and it was not much fun until the wind slowly abated later in the day. There was a lot of haze around and the Kent group of islands, our destination that had been clearly visible the day before, had disappeared from sight. Paddling towards an invisible target can be a little disconcerting at times but we were starting to get used to the idea – it seemed to be happening a lot! Eventually the wind dropped off, the haze lifted and we hauled past the mouth of Murray Pass. The tide was against us here and very strong. It took considerable effort to get past Pulpit Rock, after which the tide helped us down to Winter Cove. We landed here in a low surf kicked up by the previous couple of day’s easterly weather, feeling tired after a long day’s paddle. We found the camping under the casuarinas to be excellent, very sheltered with great views of this beautiful cove.

After a day of exploring the island and generally expending too much energy, the forecast for 03 January was sounding good for the longest leg of all – about 62 km across to Killiecrankie on Flinders Island. We had NW winds forecast with a SW change of about 20 knots during the day. As it turned out the north-westerly lasted only a few minutes after our 5:30 am start. We then had quite calm conditions for the next couple of hours before the south-westerly kicked in. Sails were up as soon as it did, which gave us a good push along in winds up to about 18 knots. We were going so fast that we soon realised we would miss the tide change to take us back south. Our paddling plan for this crossing had been to paddle a strict compass course for most of this leg, allowing the tide to sweep us north and then back south again without wasting our energy trying to fight it and maintain a straight line course. However this all changed with the tail wind coming in so well. With the ebbing tide taking us north at up to 2 knots, our strict compass course was about 40 degrees away from the correct track. By using the GPS and with wind assistance we adjusted our heading to 160 degrees in order to make good a course of 120 degrees.

Just off the southern end of Craggy Island we encountered a tide race which led to some quite wild paddling in near whitewater conditions. In the lee of Craggy we rafted up for a break, however Greg promptly capsized with sail up and found himself swimming around his boat in the middle of Bass Strait. After snapping a couple of photos I asked him what he was doing. The spluttered reply was something about my Pittarak’s bow trying to take his head off during that raft up – but I denied all knowledge and involvement!

We landed at Killiecrankie after 7 1/2 hours paddling, but not before Greg made me do a celebratory roll to make up for him getting wet earlier in the day – he had already done his!

Craig Saunders of the Tasmanian Sea Canoeing Club was there on the beach with several other paddling friends. They showed us across to the campsite and generally made us feel welcome.

Greg and I were both keen to check out the climbing crag at Mt Killiecrankie. That afternoon we trekked along the beach in the strengthening wind and then followed the coast around to a spectacular cliff of impressive granite, about 150 metres of climbing although the mountain itself is much higher than this.

Thursday 04 January dawned calm with light NE winds forecast, however we slept in to wait for the tide to come right for us then launched off for Prime Seal Island. We found a very nice campsite on the eastern side of the island that proved to be very sheltered from the stronger north-easterly that kicked in later that evening.

Friday 05 January brought a SE change and a long slog in pouring rain across to Trousers Point. After landing we immediately headed for the pub, getting lucky with a couple of lifts taking us most of the 16 km there. The beer was great and the locals even better. One of the wild-eyed cray fishermen looked like he might belt somebody before long but he turned out to be the friendliest bloke in the world, and was absolutely awestruck at what we’d been up to in our kayaks.

Tassie hospitality turned it on for the late-night hitch back to the campsite as well, with a charming local couple taking us right back to the tents, about 20 km out of their way.

Our ‘rest’ day was taken up with the climb to the top of Strezlecki Peak, then a long hot slog to the pub again (no lifts this time!) for more calls home and another counter meal. Far preferable to paddling into the 25 knot SE winds that persisted during the day. The late night hitch was a bit more lucky than the trip in, with another friendly local taking us all the way to the campground then inviting us to share a few more beers with him around the campfire. The friendliness and hospitality was very refreshing after having spent the last few years of my working life in the madhouse that is Sydney, a world away from here.

Sunday brought a forecast of SE winds 10-20 knots. We decided to plug into it but make it a relatively easy day to Thunder and Lighting Bay, about 22 km from Trousers Point. We found nice open camping at the eastern end of the beach, sheltered from the easterlies but a long walk to the freshwater springs at the other end of the bay. The snorkeling was good too with abalone for entrée that night. The following day saw the south-easterly increase in strength to 25 knots reported at Swan Island. It was a wild sight with the outgoing tide running against it. Neither of us were keen to paddle into that stuff so we spent the day wandering along the coast towards Preservation Island, no great hardship as it is all so spectacular.

Tuesday 09 January dawned a little better, we still had a 15 knot headwind but were keen to get moving and push on into it. We left Cape Baron Island at high tide and made 8 km/h into the headwind with tidal assistance. The tides were getting noticeably stronger as we approached Banks Strait. The rocky outcrop near Spike Cove (Lookout Rock) had large stopper waves in its lee during the peak tidal flow. It was intimidating and at the same time exhilarating to find ourselves in near white-water conditions at times.

We pulled into a small cove just west of Rebecca Bay to have a break and wait for the tides before the final crossing of Banks Strait. The wind had slowly swung around and by the time we were ready to head off it was ENE and allowed us to use the sails, although being so close to the beam it was a little unstable at times. We found some big standing waves and rough conditions in Banks Strait but overall it wasn’t too bad, perhaps because we had built it up in our minds so much before! As we cruised into Little Mussleroe Bay we saw a mirror flash and two friends running down to the beach to meet us. It was fantastic timing, they had only been there for three hours. After unpacking the boats for the last time we headed off to celebrate, jubilant with success. It was a fantastic trip made all the better by good company and some truly great paddling.