More B****y Sea Kayakers … [57]

By Nick Gill

Allan Wheatley, the Mr Big of northern Flinders Island is getting edgy. The title of this story, more or less expressed as we landed at Killirankie, encapsulates his views on sea kayakers who try to paddle across Bass Strait. Over the next two days as we waited at Killikrankie we were well treated to Allan’s views on sea kayakers. It does seem he has some basis for his views. In recent months he has assisted one of a pair of kayakers who got into strife near Killikrankie after setting out from Deal Island with a poor forecast. It seems this kayaker had rescued his companion, who subsequently left him. A plane was sent out but Allan ended up picking him up off a beach north of Killikrankie. Of course we only have Allan’s version of events but the story served to bring home the point that when you are paddling through eastern Bass Strait, you are travelling through a thoroughly uninhabited part of the world. After thirty odd years of growing numbers, people you meet hardly blink at the sight of more kayakers, and yet a dominant theme is a concern that they’ll have to come out and rescue you at risk to themselves. Allan’s story is one of several that demonstrates to locals that sea kayakers are generally idiots. They have little appreciation of the dangers to which they are exposing themselves to in Bass Strait. Not that that many people really cross the strait; the logbook at Hogan Island recorded only ninety-six in the last ten years. However, tThere has been a steady growth in the annual numbers. By the time we hit Hogan Island in mid-March, there had already been five groups and seventeen paddlers before us in 2004. No wonder Allan is getting edgy.

Bass Strait is really wasted on a crossing. The white beaches and clear waters of the granite Furneaux Islands beckon. It’s no wonder the Tasmanians keep coming back for Furneaux cruises, and you could do a lot worse than take a kayak over to Flinders Island with a car and pick the eyes out of the area. However, on a crossing maintaining the forward momentum is what it is all about; you are always looking to squeeze a few more kilometres out of the day. Even a short fifteen kilometre hop from an exposed campsite at Thunder and Lightning Bay, to the Cape Barren settlement was worth the pack to get a better position from which to head for Whitemark. For someone like me who likes to cruise a bit and stay on at prime campsites, the constant pressure to keep moving forward and keep our minds on the job was not one of the more pleasant features of this trip.

The trip started well. Rob Mercer, Paul Loker and I caught the new ferry from Sydney to Devonport on the fifth of March. We loaded our kayaks, gear, and walked on with a small bag each. The ferry cost a small fortune but was just about worth it for the food alone. I cleaned up on the marinated octopus and Rob stocked up on the rather good lamb shanks in anticipation of leaner times ahead. Laurie Geoghegan drove down to Port Welshpool and left his truck near the water. Ian Dunn of the VSKC met him there and generously drove him to Melbourne, where Laurie jumped on the Devonport ferry. We all met up in Devonport where Bob Warren from Penguin Fibreglass (manufacturers of Greenlanders) met us and drove us to Little Musselroe Bay. After the organising efforts of Paul and Laurie this arrangement worked well and at journey’s end we simply headed home in Laurie’s truck.

At Little Musselroe we set up camp and Tom, the elderly owner of the shack closest to the ramp regaled us with tales of a kayaker who died on the crossing about forty years ago (as best we could tell). The next day the forecast was suitable to head across Banks Strait to Clark Island and having worked out a strategy for the tides and currents we set off in cool and overcast weather at about 9am. As we headed across the first stretch of water taking a course between Little Swan and Swan Islands a headwind freshened. We decided to head over to Swan Island and look at the Strait from there. By the time we reached a beach on the northern side, gusts to 30 knots into our faces, made it clear that Banks Strait was not going to happen that day. Having spent three days on Swan Island two years earlier watching Banks Strait being whipped up by 40-50kt winds, I was definitely hoping these winds were going to drop.

We made camp on the only space available, the track, and variously went for a wander, ate, and snoozed. After a while I saw two people stomping aggressively up the beach and saw trouble approaching. Sure enough, it was two unfriendly island caretakers. Swan Island is a private island, and the caretakers at the time of my earlier visit were friendly. These two took their role as protectors of the owner’s, and fee paying visitors’ interests, very seriously indeed. While a bit of chat, and the establishment of some mutual connections (they knew Norm Sanders in his Tasmanian sailing days) blunted their displeasure and demeanour, they insisted we leave as soon as possible. They intended to mow the track the next day in anticipation of the owner’s visit the following week. Of course we had no intention of leaving unless conditions were appropriate the following day. Fortunately for everybody’s state of mind, the following day brought calm conditions and we were off for a Banks Straits Crossing.

With observations of 25 knots before light at Eddystone point, we abandoned plans for an early departure. We went at 10am in calm conditions, aiming for a ferry glide of about thirty degrees across the strait and heading for Spike Bay. It was glassy calm, which was good, but the calm brought thick mist and we paddled Banks Strait on compasses, with the odd GPS readout. At one point Laurie stopped us to listen to a roar reaching us through the mist. We assumed it was the infamous Moriarty Banks (See NSW Sea Kayaker Vol. 37). We had plenty of time in the tide cycle, and we paddled on forty degrees to give ourselves some leeway. This turned out to be overcompensating a little (we were there at full moon but as we learnt later, in this area the strongest flows actually come in the days following the theoretical time for spring tides). Clarke Island gradually appeared out of the mist and we saw Rebecca Bay, continuing on to Spike Bay by 12.30pm against a current for the last section. Spike Bay was stunning, white beaches, clear water and granite covered in orange lichen. Unfortunately after a mere 20 kilometres I was feeling absolutely flattened – heavily fatigued and shaky. The mystery symptoms had not plagued me for about a year. In early 2003 they caused me to pull out of a Montague Island paddle after only two kilometres. I slept on the beach while the others checked out some huts on the next beach. This development caused me no end of worry over the next few days as we made our way up the coast of Flinders Island. Should I pull out? Was I up to the bigger crossings north across to Victoria? The last thing I wanted was to be a burden, and to precipitate real difficulties if things got rough thirty kilometres from land. I resolved to see how I went; my last pull out point was Killicrankie, and that was still at least a couple of days away. Indeed, I felt strong that afternoon as we ground along into both headwind and current, past the beckoning beaches of Preservation Island, and into Thunder and Lightning Bay. Even after we landed under a setting sun, and hunted for campsites, I felt full of energy and ran up and down the beach, looking for somewhere half decent to camp. I could forgive the guys for taking it in turns to shadow me over the afternoon – I’ve done it enough to recognise it when I see it. As it turned out, we had paddled right past the best campsite in this area at Lascars Bay (lawn, hut, fire area – built recently by inhabitants of Cape Barren Island). We somehow missed the good camp area in T and L Bay up behind the Ti-Tree at one end of the beach. We must have been very close to it. We ended up camping on the fore dune around the middle of the bay, and dining off granite outcrops on the beach. We had done over forty kilometres, a good start to the trip proper.

The next day the trip took on a decidedly civilised hue. It began with the bruiserish imperative to make at least some distance. There was a strong SW change forecast and our campsite was perfectly positioned to get walloped. So after a leisurely start, we headed around to the Cape Barren settlement in Franklin Sound to get into a more sheltered position. Cape Barren was rather more significant than anticipated. A small town a with shop, community office, school, and post office. About seventy people, mainly Aboriginal, live on the island. It was raining, as it had been on and off since leaving Little Musselroe and we parked ourselves in the shop, and got into a bit of a hot junk food lunch. Much to the disgust of Laurie, our resident hard man, we decided to rent the town’s holiday house and dry ourselves out. Of course at this time, the sun came out, and the afternoon was sunny if windy. The view across to Flinders Island and the Strzelecki peaks was spectacular. By this time however the decision was made and we set up house. While I rang Sally and checked out transport options off the islands should I need them, the others got a trip around the island with Luke, the community nurse. They went up peaks, toured the town dump, and visited Lascars Bay, where we should have camped. That night I revelled in reading my book in a comfortable armchair.

The next day we made the dash for our next rendezvous with civilisation, heading across the blue waters of Franklin Sound to Flinders Island and the town of Whitemark, where we had a date with the pub. On the first stretch across the Soundsound, Rob, Paul and I managed a little sailing, just about the only sailing we got the whole trip. The wind didn’t last, however, and we had to paddle most of the fifteen kilometres or so to Trousers Point. This was a great stretch. The rugged southern peaks of Flinders Island rise rose abruptly from the water, and the granite shore shoreline and clear water invited endless cruising in close. The trip however went on. It was a cruisey morning, apart from a little minor slop between Mt Chappell island and Entrance Rock, where water flowing out of the Sound, meets flows that run more or less north-south. We had Lunch lunch at Trousers Point, another delightful spot, and then kept on to Whitemark in smooth conditions. Offshore islands seemingly floating floated above the glassy sea surface. We arrived at about 3pm, after making about eight kilometres per hour while paddling – a good speed that we maintained for the later crossings.

The camp at Whitemark is the public reserve south of the boat ramp. We made camp and headed off to the pub. Talking to a local fisherman we got advice on the currents, and on eddies in the large bays to the north of us. We had heard the food was bit ordinary but three of us had an excellent meal of marinated wallaby. Laurie was less impressed with his soup, but we all enjoyed a good pudding for desert. This meal was also characterised by some rather intense discussion about the coming stretches, and how to tackle them, and the timing of the tides. Hearing this, a large group of women sitting next to us requested a presentation on our trip – Rob and Laurie obliged. Their interest and encouragement put us in good spirits.

The next day dawned glassy calm, and at 7.30 we headed off to our encounter with Allan Wheatley at Killikrankie. The plan this day was to try and make Killikrankie, putting ourselves in a good position for the crossing to the Kent Group. It turned out to be a long day, about fifty-five kilometres with currents, a couple of big bays to cross, and relatively boring scenery in the first half of the day. We pulled in at Settlement Point, site of the infamous nineteenth century settlement for Tasmanian Aborigines, for a break, and then headed on to Royden Island, just south of Cape Frankland. There was a strong current flowing south against us, and we had been keeping closer to shore, hoping to pick up an eddy. As we neared Royden however, it became harder to avoid the current – we should have stayed closer to shore for longer – and the final kilometre or two was hard going straight into it. Royden was another island just made for lingering on. However, we just had some time to kill waiting for the tide to change, so that we could get around Cape Frankland, and then continue north with minimum effort. We had lunch and a bit of a snooze, in the lovely little hut on the island. Unfortunately, as a 2002 group of NSWSKC paddlers discovered, the tank here has been stolen, and there is no water on the island. We left at 3.30 and rode the rapid tidal flow around the cape. Another great stretch of glorious granite and beaches, with quite a few houses scattered along the coast. We had a light northerly wind against us, but it was a sunny clear day and great paddling. We got into the little sheltered bay of Killicrankie about 5.45pm, as the granite glowed orange in the setting sun, and the Kent Group sat dark on the horizon. We also ran into Allan on the beach. Apart from conveying his views on our species, Allan directed us to the camping area on some private land behind the beach.

That night we decided on a rest for the next day. We had a very good four-day forecast so we were reasonably happy that we had some room up our sleeve. We had been doing some biggish days and felt a little weary. With our somewhat late arrival, camp setup and dinner, we also felt that we were not as finally organised for the crossing to Deal Island as we would like. The next day was pleasant but a moderate SW came up in the afternoon. We may well have made it to Deal but I think we were glad to be off the water. We didn’t do much except sleep in and head up to Allan’s shop where we bought him out of pasties and Mars Bars. That night the forecast was for a SW, but a crossing was not out of the question. We decided to get up early and see how the weather was. At 4am it was westerly (at least that’s what Rob said; he got up) and at 6am the observations at Flinders Island and Wilson’s Prom were up to 29 knots (all this from Rob’s CDMA phone which worked throughout the trip, and which made getting forecasts and observations simple). We were definitely staying put. Having squandered the previous day, we resolved to do something with this extra day. Something turned out to be buying a big crayfish for lunch from Allan, demolishing it, hiring a car from Allan and going for a drive around Flinders Island – a good day. That night the very helpful owner of the campsite, a woman having a go at growing olives, again brought over a printed weather forecast. It was looking good so we got our act together for a good start. By this time my concerns about my ability to go on were diminished. I’d been paddling well for the last three legs and had had no repetition of the earlier problems.

By 5.45am we were off into the dark. Ahead of us lay sixty kilometres to Winter Cove on Deal Island. This is where the challenge of Bass Strait really made makes its presence felt. For years I’d wondered if I had the gumption to tackle these crossings and for me pushing off Killikrankie beach was a significant step. Even though the forecast was good, a light westerly and the seas calm, it remained a commitment in a stretch of water known for change. Our planned course relied upon moving with the currents one way then the other across the tidal cycle. This worked fairly well although we did end up on Craggy Island instead of passing to the south of it. An intensifying current as we neared it essentially gave us no choice but to paddle to it and the calm seas allowed us a rare landing on the rocky island and an unexpected chance to stretch our legs. Hopefully, it also allowed the large shark Laurie had just spotted to move away. Fed and stretched we relaunched and continued the grind towards Deal Island which, as with all the destinations on these big crossings, remained resolutely distant while appearing quite close for many hours. We paddled past Wright Rock for what seemed like hours. On this crossing as on others, we stuck to our plan of hourly breaks and of eating a range of high GI foods such as chocolate bars, various sweets, dried bananas and so on. Less often we would also eat prepared lunches with bread or rice cakes. I also had a number of home dried stewed fruit rollups with plenty of added sugar. At these stops I would also check our position with the GPS and plot it on my chart. Gradually, Deal Island came closer. One of my rudder cables snapped and I got some stomach cramps but otherwise the day was uneventful. It was simply a case of making that next paddle stroke, and then the next, and the next and devising little mind games to keep time ticking along. As we approached Deal we began to be swept off our course by an intensifying current and the last few kilometres were hard work at the end of a long tiring day. The deep sides of Winter Cover were a welcome relief and the sight of Mike Snoad on the beach was a further bonus. Pulling up at about 3.20pm on the gorgeous white beach was particularly satisfying. The biggest crossing in distance (and in our minds) of the trip was over, relatively speaking it was all downhill after this.

Mike, in a relaxed groove on his third crossing, was dug in for the duration with all the comforts of home and he quickly got the hot water on. We set up, got water, and Rob and Paul set off for the caretakers’ cottages. Laurie had a snooze on the beach, and still feeling a bit off colour after the cramps, I got myself organised for an early dinner and night and took the chance to rest and listen to the radio. The forecast for the next day was reasonable and it was still the same as Mike helped us off the beach the next morning. We paddled around the cliffs of Deal Island in glorious sunshine. As we came around to Murray’s Pass, between Deal and the smaller Erith and Dover, there was strong wind and current moving through it. Laurie went out wide and we lost sight of him – for the next thirty-six hours. The other three of us kept close to the islands to North Rock, where we had arranged to stop and assess the sea and weather. We didn’t see Laurie who apparently was in the vicinity looking for us. With a moderate SW blowing and the seas looking roughish, the unknown location of Laurie tipped the balance. A decision was made to head in and take advantage of the hospitality of Deal Island caretakers Dallas and Shirley. Maybe we should have gone. The next day at Hogan, Laurie said that the wind was not so bad and, once away from the island, the seas moderated. If we had, however, we would have missed what for me was one of the great experiences of the trip. Of course first we had to head up Murray’s Pass into current and wind – we probably should have gone around the islands to come in from the other direction. But, after hugging the shores of Erith and Dover we got upwind and upstream of the jetty; from there, speeding under sail and tossed by standing waves, we shot across the Pass into the calm of East Cove. Walking up to the caretakers’ cottage we were treated to a huge lunch, once again in the company of the irrepressible Mike Snoad, who had wandered over. The caretakers at that time, Dallas and Shirley are kayaker friendly, having given shelter to a rather storm shocked Vince Browning during a previous stint on the island. They set us up in the second cottage, kitted out with solar lights by NSWSKC members over the previous summer, and gave us a BBQ, partly comprised of food left behind by the same club members. They also regaled us with more kayaker stories. There was a pair who had built kayaks and were making their first extended kayak trip ever on Bass Strait, and who were clearly under prepared. Then another group who made Deal Island, but had so scared themselves that they refused to leave. After nine days the caretakers had to organise a boat to take them off the island. By evening conditions had moderated and we had no reason to think that Laurie hadn’t made it. The day hadn’t been dreadful and Laurie had been paddling strongly. Certainly we didn’t want to call out the rescue squads. We could see Hogan, and beyond it, the peaks of Wilson’s Promontory, our destination.

The next day was the day Rob and I sang ‘Old MacDonald had a farm’ to ease the miles. It was a calm day – the winds started off around 10-15 knots from the SW but soon dropped off to be around five knots most of the time. We got up at 4.30am as we had to walk down to the water from the cottages and we wanted to get across the swash way between Dover and Erith Islands that is exposed around high tide. Dallas and Shirley saw us off and we saved several kilometres by getting across the swash way. We had 40 kilometres to paddle and hoped to make it all on the ebb tide – a tight fit. We had a ferry angle of twenty degrees and we managed to hold our course well over the crossing. Hogan came into sight after an hour or so and we plugged away. I started the singing about various farm animals and was soon accompanied by Rob. Paul declined to join us. We just missed the turn of the tide, and the last stretch (once again) was a bit of a push to hold course and to get into the rocky cove with the hut at about 1pm. Laurie was waiting for us having enjoyed a quiet evening to himself. He had considered going on but decided to wait for us.

We had all heard rather poor things about Hogan Island – rats, march flies, noisy penguins, a grotty hut, boring landscape etc – but we loved it. A basic but comfy hut, grassy tent sites, plenty of good water in the tank, driftwood for fires, and more of the stark, uncompromising granite. This was a good thing because we were there for four days. The same weather system – two large and more or less stationary high pressure cells – that had been giving us sunny days were also generating winds of various westerly orientations. As we were paddling more or less west at this point, this was a potential problem. The next four days saw these winds ramp up. They also brought a succession of forecasts which consistently underestimated wind speeds. In fact the next day the forecast was acceptable, 10-15 SW, so we headed off early. We paddled into a strongish W-SW with a steep chop and decided to turn back. We were learning that you need to check the early observations at Wilson’s Prom, which were west at 21 knots that morning. Over the day the wind continued to strengthen and it was a good day to be off the water.

We had a good day at the hut and Rob and I walked up to the weather station. The island is a pastoral lease, the hut belongs to the lessee, and we saw the herd of cattle that are kept on the island. Apart from the cattle we had the company of two yachts, one a small fishing boat, Flickan, out of Port Albert, and Alcazar, a large Abalone boat out of Devonport. That night Dale, the owner of Flickan dropped over for a cup of tea and a chat. He was concerned by what we were doing but seemed reassured by our answers and attitude. Dale was there the next few days and was particularly friendly, giving us fish and making phone calls on our behalf when we were concerned about our mobile batteries. The divers on Alcazar also turned out to be friendly; the owner dropped by one morning and told us to go come on board for a feed. They also probed us on our preparation and attitude. We headed around in our kayaks for lunch. We boarded via the transom at the rear of the boat and tethered the kayaks with our tow ropes. On board we were plied with food, hot drinks, and later, beer. Paul and Rob recharged their phones. At one point the kayaks became hopelessly tangled and in the course of untangling them, Paul and I managed to set Laurie’s adrift. It took some quick work on Paul’s part to jump in his boat and retrieve it before the wind carried it back to Deal Island. We were there for several hours and when we left we had food heaped upon us. This was a good thing as several members of the group were concerned about their food supplies. That night we had chicken cooked over the fire and the next day continued to feast on ham and egg sandwiches and other delights.

We were on Hogan for two more days. The winds continued to be strong westerlies and well above the morning forecasts – wind speeds up to the high thirties were recorded at Hogan Island over this period. Over this time the Port Welshpool Cricket team, out for a post-season camp, joined us. They came over in a fishing boat and camped across the bay near the old cattle yards.

On the night of the twentieth of March we were getting despondent. We could see Wilson’s Promontory but couldn’t get the break we needed. There was a possible window of opportunity forecast for the next day but after that the weather forecast was again looking bad for us for several days. Food was an issue as was getting back to jobs and families. Trying to get back on the cricket team boat was reluctantly discussed as an option. On the twenty-first we got up early – the forecast was good; 5-15 SW turning SE then NE and for once the observations of eight knots at Wilson’s Prom matched this. We were off! It was a great crossing, fifty kilometres of light winds, calm seas and sunshine. We made good speeds all day. Gradually the details of Wilson’s Prom emerged from its bulk as we got closer. As the folds of the coast and its ridges emerged we could see the location of Refuge Cove. We were carried a little south of our route by currents but essentially held our course, helped by a change of tide towards the end. We paddled into Refuge Cove and landed at 2.45pm after leaving at 7.15am. Another beautiful location and by chance, on the beach was a collection of NSWSKC paddlers (and one lone Victorian) preparing to head the other way. This group, Huw Kingston, Rohan Last, John Lipscombe, and Greg Murray had come down from Melbourne as part of Huw’s City2City events. What a turn around from the previous night’s despondency! Here we were in Victoria by mid-afternoon, setting up camp and feeling the satisfaction of completion. After two weeks of pretty good paddling conditions but nevertheless constant effort, decision-making, and attention to forecasts, distances, and currents, it didn’t seem quite real.

The next day we saw the other group off and embarked on what was really a formality – the forty kilometres into Port Welshpool. Although the wind was up again, it was another pleasant day and we motored up the Prom, aiming to beat the ebb tide to get into Corner Inlet. This we managed, and after some punching into the wind, Rob, Paul and I set up for a good sail over the last few kilometres into Port Welshpool. We carried our kayaks into the caravan park near the wharf and got ourselves organised before heading off to the pub for an excellent meal and a celebratory drink. The next day we got going early and by midnight, with the help of Sharon Betteridge, we were all safely home in Brogo, Wollongong and Sydney. All that remains now is to get back to the Furneaux group and give those islands the time they deserve.

Acknowledgements: A trip like this takes training and preparation and a lot of time before as well as during the actual paddle. For their generous support we would all like to thank our respective spouses Sally, Nadia, Sharon, and Leonie. Sally and Nadia were left with young children for two and half weeks and Laurie and Nick are in their debt. We would also like to thank Ian Dunn and Sharon Betteridge for their assistance with transport, as well as Bob Warren. Nick would also like to thank physiotherapist and kayak coach Therese ‘Buzz’ Powell for her assistance with training over the years. Dale from ‘Flickan’, the crew of Alcazar, and Dallas and Shirley on Deal Island were generous and hospitable. Peter Osman lent us his HF receiver for weather forecasts and Norm Sanders made and fitted a sail to Nick’s kayak. Although he may not approve, Allan Wheatley made the trip that bit more interesting than it otherwise might have been. Finally, we would like to thank the various volunteer rescue and communication organisations in the region who accepted our float plan and took an interest in our plans.