Playing Poker with Davy Jones [53]

By Karl Noonan

The devil and the deep blue sea are Davy Jones’ Locker, which is where seafarers go to an unholy end, so says sea mythology.

You are never far from disaster if you are a paddler who ventures to cross open waters like Bass Strait.

I am not the one to play poker with the likes of Davy Jones but I do like a challenge. Methodical caution is the best insurance against the dangers as Davy has all the good cards and I play bad poker. Life does draw you into the mythology of the sea. I was lured into Davy’s game.

Just north of Wilsons Promontory, Victoria, is the Corner Inlet, home to a number of quiet fishing Ports at the northern edge of a tidal lake system. The Search & Rescue facilities are located in the relative peace of commercial fishing ports of Port Albert and Port Welshpool. Port Albert’s on-water facilities are excellent particularly the camping ground on the water for the early morning start. From here the paddle to Hogan Island, the first stop on the eastern crossing to Tasmania is about 70 km. It is 10 km to the mouth of the Corner Inlet, the remainder is open water.

Avid kayakers see Bass Strait as an achievable goal. They go, and many now have done the crossing. There is nothing like success to attract the avid adventurer. So kayakers will continue to follow those who went before them and I am no less an enterprising follower.

Some say it is the ultimate achievement. It is for the ambitious. Once crossed, the memories last for a lifetime. Certainly the relief is palpable and worth the tensions if you like that sort of experience. It is also, clearly, not for everyone. For me, it is a perfect kind of challenge.

In the mind of ordinary Australians, Bass Strait is awesome. Historically it is a seafarer’s graveyard and kayakers do get blown away too. With the dangers known then, why have so few kayakers perished? Because in fact, it is a new challenge and as you would expect paddlers are well prepared. There are high tech aids now, recognised safe island bivouacs, trip and weather reports and rescue services, not to mention the magic of these windy islands to draw us to this wild location. That is what makes Bass Strait a good challenge, albeit a dangerous one but one of the best. Given that so much is there in support, there is still no reason to believe that with fitness and skill success will be delivered.

When it was my turn I had paddled down from Curl Curl Beach, Sydney, to be ready. On the journey down I had encountered a new lifestyle and enjoyed the rigours of sea life. I became confident and was prepared for an open water crossing. I also knew I had to have something in reserve as a solo paddler; the right mindset, one that did not rely on anyone.

There are closer departure points than Port Albert such as Refuge Cove and Waterloo Bay along Wilsons Promontory for an open water departure. But remember I was confident. Port Albert it was to be.

Chas, whom I met the previous day in the camping ground, was now my very good friend. He had great map skills and advanced technology. Armed with a laptop he was able to plot the crossing’s waypoints, all the way to Hobart, straight into my GPS. There were now open water waypoints that could be counted off when there were no distinguishing features about me, ever so helpful to understand the effects of tide, speed and wind influences. Chas also assisted me, at an ungodly hour to carry an 80 kg, Mirage 19 to the water’s edge.

This was my first solo open water paddle. It was February 1998. I recall the cold mist in the dark that morning when lowering myself onto my seat to settle in for the long day ahead, ever so careful not to overbalance down the greasy ramp. That was the first step in a very big day.

We waved to each other as I quietly glided away into the black.

The end of the flood tide was useful to help get me to the Corner Inlet entrance, at Bentley Point, Snake Island, a sand spit 10 km away. Over forty, barren sandy islands protected the Inlet. No fishing boats were leaving Port that morning to follow, so the lake’s beacons were pursued. The one-hour paddle was made easier by skirting the mangroves and skimming over shallow sea grass meadows and leap frogging to distant beacons. Years later images of a starry night, the chill of the cold wind, the splash lifting across the deck and the silent beacons leading me to Bass Strait remain vivid memories.

At Snake Island the safe waters meet the vagaries of the sand bars, surf and the open sea. The entrance to the Corner Inlet is surrounded by treacherous conditions, at times the map says it ‘breaks occasionally’ and ‘breaks heavily’. I alighted onto the sand spit for my last good stretch, breakfast and for the final VHF weather report. Not far off shore Seal and Cliffy Islands ominously sat as black silhouettes, islands I was told were difficult to access. Only in desperation would I use them in an emergency. They were probably useful for wind protection only, as I was informed landfall access was limited.

It was first light. The body was feeling good and the mind was settling on the biggest decision of my life — to go or to wait another day. The wind dropped. The sea settled.

Everything felt right and I too was calm. It was about a 10 hour trip. Only one hitch, the weather report stated ‘gale this evening’. In weighing the odds I concluded I would surely arrive mid-afternoon. I had come too far and waited too long in port to take more idleness. I was ready. Hogan Island was just out there in amongst cumulus clouds. Was it Davy Jones whispering in my ear!

I had seen Cliffy Island go by early in the morning on my starboard. Most of that time was spent working on a paddling cadence in a light breeze and gazing at the suns fracturing light in the rise and fall of the gentle swell. By mid morning ships plied the coastal route around Wilsons Promontory under a blue sky belying the calm. I kept staring at the thin band of cloud amassing across the horizon before me. It was keeping its distance.

Lunch was an uneasy ten-minute rare break. I now paddled steadily onward in a dead calm over the same gentle undulating swell. Wilsons Prom faded. At about this time I felt I was beyond the point of return. Another card was played, and another when the GPS stopped working in the humidity of the waterproof bag. With the clouds climbing the sky and with no waypoints my concern grew, my commitment didn’t waver. The deck compass became a focal point of attention. It was also quite apparent that the band of clouds and I were on a collision course. Hogan could not be seen. The notion of a real contest began.

The southwester was freshening by three o’clock. So now Davy Jones was playing his hand. Was I really so surprised! The predicted change was here early and it was too late to wish I were somewhere else. No paddler wants to be caught in Bass Strait weather so I paddled with that much more determination. I was playing my best hand. Hogan did appear at last and my spirits lifted. Perhaps it was an hour away or was it to be a long night on a wild sea?

White caps were all about. I sucked in air to paddle a little harder. My mantra, ‘Steady as she goes’, stayed me. The fear grew and I prayed and talked to a little girl back home and my kayak Madeline and wished a simple prayer to succeed.

“God don’t let me screw up.” I knew this was a race against time and a tiring body. There were still decisions to make and I would yell into the wind and it felt good.

“Stay steady,” I repeated often. I have seen bigger waves at estuaries, I reminded myself.

Every few minutes I reassessed my posture and seat position. The island began to drift in and out of the clouds like a phantom and each improved visual lifted my spirits. I chose the treacherous lee shore of the island to go around… the western shore line ran away into the distance… the southern shores appeared closer. The thoughts of being swept away were now real. Perhaps time would not allow me to swing in behind the far extremities of the island so it was to be the wind blown southern cliffs my fate would be determined. The Tasman Sea was vast and it was just as close.

Within 10 kilometres the sea was up; the breeze was stiff; the change quickened. At 5 km I was dropping into ever deepening, long lumpy troughs and rising over crests and trying to minimise the thumping descents. As the island’s cliffs grew higher and closer I questioned whether crossing under the rock strewn cliffs was really my best choice. At that time I thought I’d rather take my chances on the rocks than be swept away. Doubt prevailed until it was futile thinking about it. The sky and sea was grey and the wind blew stronger. All the portents of a serious situation worsened with persistent thoughts of disaster. Within a couple of kilometres some of those waves drew back into breakers.

Before I reached the cliffs, twice I turned into the breakers to have a wave engulf me. I could swear a current was at play. The tide through Bass Strait is stated at around 2-3 knots but special effects occur in shallows and this would have a play around islands in the wind.

When I presented myself at the cliffs, I was say 100-200 metres in close, a turmoil of waves crashed against the rocks at my back and on my beam as I slipped and paddled away on a saw tooth course against the onrush of waves. The wind whipped around my face. Perhaps at home this would almost be fun, but not alone here in a laden kayak. Perhaps for a kilometre I ferried across the front of those cliffs, leaning into breaking waves. The clapotis sucked and shoved, many times I turned into bigger bludgeoning waves, the white water often pushing me back. It was surf at the rocks, stirred and shaken and I didn’t enjoy the taste in my nostrils and throat. At the end of the cliffs there was that palpable relief that comes so few times in a life. I lay back at this point and let the wind drive me before it to safety behind the island.

One hour later the sky was black and the waters were windswept… it was the usual Bass Strait 50 knot blow.

I often spare a thought for seafarers lost or the paddler who will not be coming home. So Davy Jones must have felt cheated that day. Soon enough Davy will again whisper in another ear or as I imagined, roar a gale of laughter at the end of another paddler’s day. I thank God I came up trumps on my visit to this windy island, Hogan stalwartly waiting, a place like heaven in the clouds.

It is hard to ignore the whisperings of the sea, never a gale. The anometer reading said it all and if you think either whisperings or 50 knots is your poison then Bass Strait is already in your diary.