Crossing Bass Strait – Almost [45]

By Dirk Stuber, with comment from Arunas Pilka and Mike Snoad

This is the story of four sea kayakers and our crossing of Bass Strait.

Dave Winkworth and I paddling Nadgee Expeditions, Arunas Pilka in the Collins Class Greenlander and Mike Snoad in an unnamed wooden kayak he had recently built.

We kayaked from Port Welshpool, Victoria to Lady Baron on the southern end of Flinders Island. We left on the 29 December and returned to Port Welshpool on 17 January, still 50 km short of the Tasmanian mainland. Twenty days! Most crossings of Bass Strait take approximately ten days. What happened? What went wrong? Read on and all will be revealed.

Friday 29 December

Five people huddled around their sea kayaks. It was freezing cold, raining hard, blowing a gale force headwind and the bay was a mass of whitecaps. Should we paddle? I was quietly freezing to death and the thought of spending the day in Port Welshpool did not inspire. Peter Provis, a Victorian who accompanied us to Refuge Cove and was familiar with Wilson’s Promontory, suggested we slog it out for 12 km across the bay and the land mass would then give us some protection from the SW wind.

Great idea and after a hard slog we made it to Jack Suey Bay, 25 km, and decided to camp for the night. I was exhausted. For the past two months I’d let my training routine slip. Considering what lay ahead I wondered if I was fit enough for the crossing. But I was here with my mates and I had no intention of turning back. We had a relaxing afternoon exploring the bay. It is a lovely wilderness camping spot.

Saturday 30 December

Left for Refuge cove, 20 km. It was still blowing 50 km SW. I was getting the exercise I needed. In beautiful Sealer’s Cove we discovered a school of salmon. Arunas, Dave and Mike caught six in a very short period of time. At Refuge Cove we gave one to a yachty and he gave us a bottle of sparkly wine. Good swap I thought.

Refuge Cove is worth a visit by kayak or foot. A magnificent bay that provides all-weather anchorage. Several yachts were there and it was booked out with hikers. We had three nights there waiting for the right weather so it gave plenty of opportunity to explore the area. More salmon were caught and swapped for beer and wine. Also the yachties put on a good light show New Years Eve, burning off expired flares and other fireworks.

Tuesday 2 January

With a favourable weather forecast we left for Hogan Island, 50 km. Peter accompanied us for an hour or so. He decided he needed to defecate so with the support of my kayak he slipped into the water. Within a minute I smelt a foul odour and did my best to escape. But he was laughing and would not let my kayak go. I turned around to see lumps of his waste matter clinging to the deck of my brand new Nadgee. I was not impressed. Was I experiencing a secret initiation rite of the Victorian Sea Kayak Club? I’d only known the guy for a couple of days!

With a 5 am start we could not see the island for a few hours. Our deck mounted compasses and the two GPS units came into their own. I was nervous and excited paddling in the dark with no land to be seen. Eventually we saw the outline of the island and from then on it was head down and straight ahead. We reached Hogan at midday, great paddle, calm sea and little wind. I wrote in the logbook located in the hut that this was real sea kayaking; no one had used a sail on the crossing. It was great reading the entries of Club members such as Gary Edmond, John Wilde and Stuart Trueman who had completed the crossing before.

Hogan Island is beautiful in an austere way. It is treeless and the only shade was in the lee of the hut. Arunas had collected some abalone and I went spear fishing. I lined up a big fish but the rubber on the hand spear snapped. Arunas was disgusted that I’d come on the trip with such poorly maintained equipment. I felt guilty but I was glad to get out of the cold water.

All afternoon we suffered the bites of vicious march flies. There are about 100 cattle on the island that are their staple diet. Finally with dusk the flies disappeared but then the penguins started. We were camped near their burrows. For a little bird they make a hell of a racket. Most of the night they screech, scratch and fight. Arunas said they are feeding their young and reproducing. My thought was it sounds more like sexual assault and it made me wonder about Arunas’s sex life. One tried to enter Dave’s tent, however he is happily married and he fended off the amorous creature.

Wednesday 3 January

The weather forecast was borderline but it was only 35 km to the Kent group. We had to escape the flies as they start early. All went well for 20 km then the SW front hit and within minutes the sea was all whitecaps and steep metre-high waves. Mike and Arunas were in heaven; they erected their sails and never stopped grinning. However the wind turned south, down came the sails and the slog began. After half an hour I started hassling to turn to the NE and enter the famous Murray’s Passage from the north. The guys resisted as the tide would be ripping through the passage to the north and we’d have to fight it. But after further hassling we turned for the northern tip of Erith Island. Up went the sails and slow progress was made against a huge tidal rip with standing waves. Dave was having fun surfing the overfalls in the middle of the rip. I wanted to get closer to land. For an hour or so I paddled parallel to the standing waves and for long periods I was paddling in the trough with one-and-a-half metre white capping swells on either side. I had a strong image of Moses parting the Red Sea to allow the Israelites to walk across.

We regrouped at the northern entrance and paddled to the beach on Erith Island. The current was quiet manageable especially as we worked the eddies. I was pleased that we’d made the change in direction and avoided a horrible slog into the wind. I think Arunas paid me a compliment (I deny it categorically – AP) but I can’t be sure as the wind was blowing so strongly.

Erith Island has a resident group of voluntary caretakers. Some 24 people representing 3 generations of the same family. The eldest had been coming to Erith every summer for about 30 years. They made us welcome with tea and cake and told us the history of the Kent group, but they also let us know there is no camping on the island. They were not impressed when we said previous sea kayakers had camped on the island. So we had to paddle to Winter Cove on the other side of Deal Island again slogging into a headwind that would have been gusting 60 to 70 km/h.

Thursday 4 January – Wednesday 10 January

Winter Cove is a beautiful place to camp. You could not find a more isolated location on the island. There is an excellent camping spot on the southern end of the beach amongst the Casuarinas. We ended up staying 7 days, the first 3 were fine but the last 4 were very slow. We circumnavigated this very rugged and majestic island, visited the lighthouse and museum, talked to the caretakers, fished, walked across the island twice and I ‘entertained’ the lads by reading some of the gory bits from the book Hannibal. An odd book to read when you are in paradise.

Dave impressed by collecting all the suitable driftwood and constructing tables and benches. We were very comfortable. Dave and Mike soon established a routine of daily hygiene. So every day I was confronted by their proud nudity. I thought about Mark Pearson, the Club’s homoerotic expert, infamous for taking secret photos of Club members in the nude. He would be salivating at the thought of missed opportunities. Arunas distinguished himself by not washing for the 20 days. On one occasion he threw himself into the ocean and emerged complaining that he had been stung by jellyfish. I witnessed the same behaviour when we crossed Torres Strait in 1996. My conclusion is that he is allergic to water.

We became frustrated because we could have paddled for the first 4 days. The ocean was calm and there was very little wind, however the forecast was always a strong wind warning, south-easterly or easterly. On the two occasions we walked across the island, we used the caretaker’s phone to ring the Department of Meteorology in Melbourne to complain about the inaccurate forecast. When I asked one wit for advice I heard him laughing with his colleagues and his reply was come back in winter when the weather is better. Ha ha ha. Flinders Island is 60 km to the SE and a favourable weather forecast is essential. We discussed the problem with an experienced yachtsman we met at the caretaker’s cottage. He agreed and said the sailing community believed that the weather forecasts for Bass Strait had become very conservative as a result of the criticism the Department had received after the 1998 Sydney to Hobart yacht race. For the last 3 days at Winter Cove the wind blew strongly and it was obvious we could not leave.

Thursday 11 January

Finally, at 4 am on the eighth day we woke to find the wind had abated. Hallelujah! Lets get out of here. The forecast was for a freshening NE later in the day. We were on the water at 5 am and paddling hard. At about 3 km we stopped and discussed our options. There was no wind but we had a confused sea with 4 metre sets. If the wind blew strongly it could get ugly very quickly. However the thought of returning to Winter Cove was too distressing. I was low on food. I’d only packed for 2 weeks.

We paddled to the south of Wrights Rock, 21 km without stopping, had a snack and then aimed for Craggy Island another 20 km away. Again the pace was relatively brisk and we started to experience serious group spread. At this stage I was paddling well and keeping up with Dave. There was frustration at having to stop to regroup. Mike said he was having trouble keeping up and was unhappy with the pace because he needed a short stop for a snack every hour or so to keep up his energy levels. The swell was rolling through from the north at 3-4 metres and the NE had started to blow. My thoughts were that when these huge swells start to white cap I don’t want to be out here! So we pushed on to Craggy and we passed it at least 5 km to the south, pushed by wind and the spring tide. At this stage Dave suggested we use the wind and aim for Cape Franklin on the northern end of Flinders. Great idea but Arunas was cranky as he was desperate to get to the shop at Killiecrankie. I told him I was not going slog into the wind for an extra couple of hours so we could have an ice cream. Dave was having such a good time he suggested we paddle straight to Whitemark, a total of over 100 km for the day! And I thought Arunas was loopy with his need to have an ice cream.

Over the last 15 km, having used all my adrenaline, I got slower and the others got stronger. Mike managed to get some assistance from his sail and how I envied him. I eventually landed on a rocky beach, had something to eat and drink and fell asleep. I awoke to hear that I had to paddle another 10 km to Roydon Island where there was a hut with tank water. So we laboured on. At least the scenery had improved as we were paddling along the rugged coast of north Flinders Island. After 70 km of fighting wind and current we landed on the island to find it was dry. The hut did not have a tank! We found out later that it had been stolen. I almost died of thirst that night but I did not complain. We were so short of water that Mike cooked our pasta in sea water.

To make matters worse I was sleeping on the comfortable bed in the hut when I was torn from a deep sleep by the screeching and scratching of a family of penguins nesting under the hut. I staggered from the hut to seek revenge. If I’d had a flamethrower I would have barbecued them. Arunas, who was also sleeping in the hut, almost died laughing at my antics.

Friday 12 January

Roydon Island to Whitemark, 37 km. You may be surprised to read that once again we had a 40-80 km/h SE head wind. We were all keen to get to Whitemark for the famous bakery, pub and fresh water. We left the island with only half a litre of water each. Arunas started bragging that when he got there he was going to have a wash. Yeah, yeah.

We left at 7:30 am and the battle started. We aimed for Settlement Point about 12 km into the wind and the short, sharp, nasty white caps. Dave plugged ahead. He needed to see the doctor as he had an infected finger that was giving him grief. Arunas and I paddled together and when we reached the Point we had a talk to Dave who was just leaving and then we waited for Mike. He did not arrive and we experienced the anxiety that sea kayakers have in this situation. Was he in trouble and how can we best manage the situation? Arunas had kayaked Cape York with Mike and I’d spent 5 weeks paddling NE Tasmania with him. We know he is a tough, competent and self-reliant kayaker. I assumed he’d sought shelter from the wind. Actually he’d landed about 1 km away near an isolated hut to get drinking water and had watched us paddle around the point. Off the point we experienced another tidal rip. We’d heard a lot about tidal rips and their dangers, but from our experience they are no worse than a grade 1 or 2 white water rapid.

Arunas, who had kayaked Flinders before, headed straight for Whitemark. I decided to follow the shoreline to try to get out of the wind and break the monotony. I eventually rounded Long Point, saw some buildings, and headed for them. I badly scratched my Nadgee landing on a rocky beach but I was so tired I did not care. I walked up through the scrub ready to devour the contents of the bakery only to find I was looking at the western end of the airstrip. I consulted the map and I had another 5 km to go.

Dave arrived at Whitemark at 1:20 pm, Arunas at 2:30, I at 4:30 and Mike never made it. Well not in his kayak. I leaped out of my kayak and raced to the bakery. Everyone was there. Dave looked clean and relaxed having washed and changed. His clothes were not even wrinkled. Mike was grinning like a Cheshire cat. He’d stopped at a house, 10 km away and decided to camp there for the night. He’d had abalone for lunch and a shower. His host had driven him into town. Arunas and I looked like fermenting seaweed washed up onto a rocky coast The bakery did well for the next couple of days.

Mike made a phone call and we received the bad news. The ferry was leaving for Victoria on the 17th, not the 23rd of January as originally planned so we lost the 6 days and therefore did not have time for the last 50 km to Tasmania and the return to Lady Barron to catch the ferry.

Sunday 14 January

After a rest day we left for Trousers Point, all of 12 km away. It was windless except for the last 3 km. Literally within seconds a 60 km/h NE turned the sea white. It never ceased to amaze how quickly the weather can change. Trousers Point is a must-visit camping spot. It is absolutely spectacular with the point and beach totally dominated by the magnificent granite mass of the Strezlecki Mountains. Sharing the camp was a group of students from Trinity Grammar, Melbourne. They were bush walking and a nicer bunch of teenagers you could not meet.

Monday 15 January

Trousers Point to Lady Barron, 20 km. This was the dream paddle, gale force westerly wind and 8 km/h tide running to the east. Ripper. At one point Dave checked his GPS and without paddling we were moving at 8-10 km/h. We reached Lady Barron in 2 hours.

There we met Craig Saunders from the Tasmanian Sea Kayak Club. He was there with family and friends on a kayaking and cycling holiday. Mike was still at Trousers Point. He wanted to climb Mt Strezlecki, which required two attempts because of the crazy weather. He said it was well worth the effort for the spectacular views.

Tuesday 16 January

Mike arrived by mid-morning and we spent time relaxing and exploring Lady Barron and nearby islands. Mike was very pleased with his homemade wooden kayak. We were all impressed. It cost $800.00 to build and performed very well in all conditions. I think it will be available in kit form in the future. Dave and I were very happy with the performance of the Nadgees. And what can I say about the performance of the Collins Class Greenlander? You’d best ask Arunas.

Wednesday 17 January

Lady Barron to Port Welshpool on the Matthew Flinders Ferry. It was over in 16 hours. It took us 19 days by kayak. For me it was awful. I felt seasick for most of the time. Downstairs in the dinning area was a couple that became seasick and started vomiting. We retreated to the storage deck that we shared with 500 sheep. We slept next to our kayaks perched on the wool bales. For long periods of the time I watched and smelt the tide of sheep’s urine and faeces spread across the deck. If someone needed to go to the toilet you had to wade through the sewage and exchange a few pleasantries with the vomiting couple downstairs. Absolutely fabulous experience.

We arrived at 4 am and had to wait for the sheep to be unloaded. Port Welshpool was windy and cold, just as it was the day we left. A fitting end to our adventure. We spent the day driving to Dave’s place at Tathra. I think Arunas finally had a shower there but I’m not sure. Some of us hope to return next January to complete the trip, but more importantly to once again experience the magic and rugged beauty of the Bass Strait islands.