King Island And Beyond [52]

Andrew McAuley Paddles Western Bass Strait Solo

By Andrew McAuley

It was around 5 am on January 16 this year, in the pre-dawn light three of us were struggling down to the beach in Stanley, Tasmania, with my loaded kayak.

I remember easing into the cockpit and Paul shaking my hand in the darkness to wish me a good trip. Seemed as though he wasn’t sure he’d ever see me again!

Laurie was a little more circumspect. “Don’t do anything f**ken stupid out there mate!” was his best advice before giving me a good shove through the low surf. This was heady, emotional stuff!!

The three of us had just finished an awesome trip paddling down the west and south coasts of Tasmania over the past couple of weeks, sharing a strong bond of friendship as we travelled this majestic coastline and occasionally had some close calls in wild conditions.

After we finished the west coast trip I had to make a quick decision about whether to continue with my plans to cross to King Island and beyond. This had always been the intention however Laurie had been planning to join me as well. Family commitments meant he had to cancel these plans at short notice. This left me facing the long crossings of western Bass Strait alone, something I found rather daunting to contemplate. My wife Vicki was at home pregnant with our first child and I had a lift back home with the guys right there that I was about to refuse! There were plenty of other reasons to go home and forget about the trip. The weather might not come right, I could get stuck in Tassie with a kayak and no way home, I could get a repetitive strain injury and have to pull out halfway, etc, etc, etc. However, if I didn’t give it a go I felt sure I would regret it later. After all, I was in Tassie, with my kayak and a lift to wherever I wanted, and with a good level of fitness after the last two weeks or so of paddling. I decided I would have a crack at it if the weather patterns looked right. And as it happened, they did.

Paddling north from Stanley, and then north-west as I rounded North Head, conditions were calm with very little wind. After paddling the wild west coast, the northern side of Tassie seemed relatively benign. However, as I neared Hope Channel things started to liven up. A south-easterly wind had kicked up, with the strong tides in the area creating a lot of water movement all around me. I had caught the last of the flood tide to help carry me north and I knocked over the 50 km in good time without pushing too hard.

On the last big trip up Cape York and across Torres Strait, Ben Eastwood and I had mounted sails on our boats to take advantage of the strong trade winds. We knocked over big miles day after day with the sails and had great fun surfing downwind in following seas. I did wonder, though, about the reliance on sailing and whether one’s fitness for paddling suffered as a result. For this trip to Tassie I decided to leave the sail at home and travel by paddle alone. I was a little concerned about the risk of tendon or wrist injury on the long crossings of this western route across Bass Strait, which could effectively cripple me a long way from home. I therefore tried to treat my body well and not push too hard to avoid this happening.

On landing at Three Hummock Island I was feeling fit and strong and ready to push on to King Island the next day if the weather was right. This next crossing was 80 km and there were strong tides to contend with, so getting the right conditions was important. I viewed this crossing as the crux of the trip because of the tide, wind and exposure of the area, even though the last crossing from King Island to the mainland is longer at around 100 km. For me, it was an important milestone to get to King Island and once there I felt I could wait as long as I had to for the right weather for the last crossing.

The tides were right for a dawn start the next morning if the weather was playing the game. The forecast was for north-easterly winds turning northerly during the day at 20 knots. After some deliberation I decided not to go, as I was concerned about having to battle 20 knot northerly winds at the end of a long day — there is not a whole lot of land to the leeward, south of King Island! The decision was difficult as the forecast was ‘borderline’ — my course was WNW and NE winds would have been ‘just’ OK, though I was really looking for south-east or easterlies. As it turned out the wind blew easterly at 20-25 knots all day and I could have gone. I quickly learnt that the accuracy of forecasts in this area cannot be relied upon! However, after a change due the next day the winds were forecast to go ‘light and variable’, so it looked like there was another weather window coming up.

I wandered up the South Hummock to pass the time. Albatross Island and Dangerous Bank were clearly visible but King Island was nowhere to be seen. I also paddled across to Hunter Island to check out Shepherds Bay and the surrounding area. Rob Alliston and his wife, the Island’s only residents, were away in Hobart but had a friend looking after the place for a while, and we shared a few welcome cuppas. The march flies here were diabolical, however march fly cricket helped pass some time. They went into the attack first, and scored well. After a few hat-tricks I saw a huge cloud of them on a black shirt drying on my boat. With a stealthy approach I managed to score 23 with one slap of the hand! Twenty-three!! It must be some kind of record.

The forecast held and on January 19 I left for the long crossing to Grassy on King Island. I left a little later than I would have liked as the tides were getting later each day, and with them, the optimum time to get around Cape Keraudren and away from the Hunter group. As expected, off Cape Keraudren there was a big tide race and a large swell rolling in from the SW. You really felt like you were amongst it out here! I plugged away into the maelstrom and gradually drew closer to Albatross Island as the wind lifted to about 15 knots from the SW. I couldn’t resist the chance to land here even though it was south of my course and I had to fight the tide, which was streaming to the north, and the SW headwind. It turned out to be a real battle and I almost chucked it in due to the strength of the tide. I took a photo from about 4 km away thinking that would be as close as I would get, thought about it for a second and then put my head down with new resolve and got stuck into it, finally landing at about midday. It’s a very remote place and quite hard to get to, so I was happy to be there and would have liked more time to look around. However, I had a long way to go so after hauling my boat up on the rocks I sorted out a few things and left again within about 15 minutes of landing. As I plugged on, Albatross receded in the distance behind me and Black Pyramid became visible to the south. I quite like having land in sight, even if you can’t actually land on it! This became a reference point for my progress until finally King Island became visible from about 40 km out. I became aware of a strong tidal effect as I got closer to the Island, and unfortunately it was conspiring to carry me south of the Island. I decided to hold my bearing for a while and see if the tide would turn and take me back north, however it became clear this wasn’t going to happen in a hurry so I adjusted my bearing to compensate for the drift.

Just on dark I cruised into Grassy Harbour, feeling surprisingly good after a 12.5 hour day in the boat. There was a small crowd in the sailing club shed sharing a few bottles of wine and a yarn. I asked one of them where the nearest phone was and within about a minute I had a glass of red in one hand, a plate of steak and salad in front of me and a place to stay the night! King Island hospitality was fantastic. They were fascinated to learn where I’d come from and offered some advice about the local coastline.

January 20 saw strong NW winds, a precursor to the next change so I gave the kayak a well-deserved rest and had a bit of a look around town, stocking up a few supplies at the shop. The next day’s forecast was for westerly winds to 30 knots tending SW during the day. I knocked up about 30 km before calling it quits in the strong beam-on westerlies. North of Naracoopa there were very few decent places to camp and the wind was blowing sand everywhere, so I was keen to get off the beach for the night if I could. Sea Elephant Lagoon looked OK on the map and fortunately when I got there I found a nice spot, so I bunked down there for a pleasant night.

January 22 — the wind was SW at 15-20 knots so I plugged away to the north, planning to land at Disappointment Bay at the northern tip of the island, my last stop before the big crossing to Victoria. Well, I can see why it’s called Disappointment Bay!! Some poor old mariner probably thought, as I did, that this bay would be sheltered from the prevailing south-westerly swell because it faces north. Wrong!! The swells in western Bass Strait are so powerful that they wrap around Cape Wickham and roll in with a great deal of force, breaking heavily across the bay. I saw this and retreated like a scared rabbit, back around to the more sheltered Rocky Point. However this was an exposed, windy spot with poor camping on the beach right under a mutton bird rookery. They are noisy critters at night and I was keen for a good night’s rest before the big day tomorrow so I looked around for alternatives. After walking the length of Disappointment Bay I worked out that I could land at the far western side where the surf was smaller, though there was some risk of boat damage as there are a lot of partly submerged rocks up this end, especially at low tide. I decided it was worth the risk for a good night’s sleep and landed up there OK with care.

Unfortunately I needed to see these rocks for the breakout through surf the next day so I delayed my departure until about 5:45 am. I got out with no problem and headed northwards, using my compass light until it became light enough to see the compass dial properly. Off Navarina Reef there was a tidal movement to the east with eddies and rips but this didn’t concern me greatly as I figured I’d be out of it soon. The wind really was light and variable this time, in line with the forecast. For most of the day there was no land visible. King Island receded behind me and the paddling was pretty monotonous. Albatross, short-tailed shearwaters and crested terns provided some entertainment but there wasn’t much else to look at out there. Heavy smoke from bushfires on the mainland created a very thick haze as I drew closer to Victoria and conspired to make the Otway Ranges completely invisible until I was about 30 km out. A couple of bulk carriers passed by in front of me but aside from that it was just a matter of putting my head down and getting it done. I stopped briefly every hour for food, and sometimes even more briefly on the half hour when I felt the energy dwindling. I cranked up the GPS only every two hours as I wanted to see real progress when I did it! Also any time spent not paddling was not getting me any closer so I wanted to keep as much time with hands on the paddle as possible.

As I drew closer to the coast I noticed the bearing to the nearest town (Marengo) kept changing. It became obvious that I was in a current taking me south-west around Cape Otway. Whether it was a tidal current or a seasonal ocean current I’m not sure, but the last thing I wanted at the end of a long day was to have to fight this thing. I gave it heaps for an hour and monitored my progress with the GPS. A miserable 4 km!! This was about half the distance I had expected. I decided to make a beeline for the coast to get out of this current and then land at the first opportunity. From a distance the coast south of Marengo looked OK. I later found that this was the area near Shelley Beach. As I drew closer, just on dark, I could see heavy dumpers breaking onto a rocky shore. I didn’t want to risk the boat on a landing like this so I decided to continue and look for something better. It was about 9 pm and I knew Vicki would be worried about me and was waiting for a phone call. I had made the mistake of promising to call as soon as I landed, without allowing for contingencies like this. So, I called her up from the water on the mobile and told her I was safe and sound on a beach brewing up a hot meal!! Well, at least one of us would sleep well that night!

I plugged on into the darkness looking for a place to land. This part of the coast looked hostile. Through the pitch black night there appeared to be a sheltered cove at Marengo with a built up area right on the coast — not good for a decent night’s sleep. There were reefs around and I nearly got cleaned up by a rogue wave. I decided to follow the coast around to my original planned destination, Apollo Bay, where I knew the landing was good. I arrived at about 10:30 pm after around 16.5 hours in the boat. I was weary but didn’t feel the need to kiss the ground or anything dramatic like that. What I really needed was some hot food and sleep!!

Getting home was the next challenge but things quickly fell into place. I found my way to Melbourne and the next day I was on my way north with Ian Dunn of the Victorian Sea Kayak Club with the boat strapped to the roof feeling very satisfied with an awesome month of paddling.

Thanks to Ian Dunn, Stuart Trueman, Paul Loker and Laurie Geoghegan for assisting with the logistics and/or planning of this crossing.

Trip Statistics
Destination Distance
Stanley to Three Hummock Island 50km
Rest – Bad weather  
Rest – Bad weather  
Three Hummock Island to Albatross Island to Grassy Harbour (King Island) 80km
Rest – Bad weather  
Grassy Harbour to Sea Elephant Lagoon 30km
Sea Elephant Lagoon to Disappointment Bay 30km
Disappointment Bay to Apollo Bay 100km*
Total 290km

*Includes a detour via Shelley beach/Marengo. The GPS measured the most direct route to Apollo bay at 97km