NSW Sea Kayak Club – Sailing on the Edge — Bass Strait [62]

By Mike Snoad

13th March 2004.

The first four hours sailing from Hogan Island to Deal Island are wet but uneventful. It is good, fast sailing on a beam reach in a steady 15 knot southwesterly. The occasional breaking wave that slaps over the side of my kayak makes for a wet trip. This is a solo trip but I am in good company. This is the third trip across Bass Strait in my trusty expedition kayak. ‘We’ are a comfortable team and life out here is good. However the northwest tip of Erith Island is not far away and this relaxed sailing is about to come to an end.

This is the first serious test of my expedition kayak sailing, fitted with two masts ketch rigged and a total sail area of about 1.5sq metres. The idea came from a chance meeting in Bass Strait with that famous Tasmanian sea canoeist (kayaker) Laurie Ford in March 2003. Our paths crossed on the water twice that trip and I was intrigued to see that he had two masts with sails mounted on his longish single kayak. I had seen this arrangement a few years earlier on double kayaks at the Tasmanian Club AGM and also one double kayak with four masts! At the time it looked like a lot of fun but not to be taken seriously. However the meeting with Laurie forced me to rethink this sail arrangement.

Back to our story in Bass Strait. The northwest corner of Erith Island is well known for tidal races with large standing waves that guard the northern entrance to Murray Pass, which separates Erith Island and Deal Island. These tidal races are a feature on the sea charts for the Deal Island Group (AUS 148). On a previous trip with three companions (NSW Sea Kayaker, Issue 45, pp 19), we traversed a large patch of overfall with standing waves east of Erith Island. Also Vince Bowning had a very scary experience in this general same area (NSW Sea Kayaker, Issue 52, pp 27).

Approaching Erith Island I can hear the standing waves before seeing them. Soon there are white caps ahead of me and on both sides. The wind is now up to about 20knots and is wrapping around the high cliffs and driving rows of steep two metre high standing waves in the direction I am travelling. It looks messy and a bit scary with no obvious way around. Commonsense dictates that this is the time to get the sails down. But the adrenalin is pumping and the challenge is there to be met! I know from previous experience that standing waves of this size are not difficult to negotiate providing the tops are rolling off gently. This is the case so I press on regardless with all sail set! It’s a weird experience sailing and paddling down the face of a two metre wave that is going nowhere, outpacing it and then catching up with and riding up and over the back of the wave in front then doing it all again. It doesn’t seem to take long to negotiate this mess and turn the corner into Murray Pass where the seas are calm but the swirling wind and strong tidal current makes for a hard slog into West Cove on Erith Island.

After a short lunch break we are off again heading south through the spectacular Murray Pass. More standing waves about two metres high span the narrows between Dover Island and Deal Island. This time we are going against the break with both sails up. These standing waves are quite closely spaced so that sailing out against them results in a ‘hobby horse’ fast up and over motion that is exciting and a lot of fun. The occasional white water spilling off the top of the waves is easy to handle. Later I was to find out that this ‘fun’ was observed by the crew of several yachts anchored in the cove at Erith Island. Apparently they were concerned for my safety not being aware of the capabilities of sea kayaks and also being wary of negotiating standing waves in their yachts.

The towering cliffs guarding the southern entrance of Murray Pass are spectacular. This is one of the most remote, wild and beautiful places in Australia. Most people in this country don’t even know these islands exist. Even fewer know how to get there. How fortunate am I, sailing around the southern tip of Deal Island on a sunny day with towering cliffs overhead and a brief glimpse of the lighthouse high above? A Sooty Albatross soars nearby dipping down, skimming below the wave tops with a wing tip lightly brushing the water. Sleepy seals relax in the foamy backwash at the base of the cliffs with one flipper extended. Food for the soul. A time and place not easy to share with words.

We round South Bluff and then head east across Squally Cove. The wind gusts funnelling over the ridge at the back of the cove make for more fast sailing in the relatively calm seas in the lee of the island. Once again a prudent approach would be to get the sails down before turning the corner and heading north along the cliffs to my destination at Winter Cove. On a previous visit to this coast my three companions and I (NSW Sea Kayaker, Issue 45, pp 20) travelling in the opposite direction had to contend with powerful wind gusts (Willi Waws) of at least 50 knots on the beam buffeting us from the cliffs above. Fortunately for us the gusts only lasted for about 15 to 20 seconds, however in that time forward progress was impossible, as the paddle blade was kept busy planted deep in the water in a powerful brace.

Once again the prudent approach does not win out. Maybe it is the sunny day with the deceptive steady 15knot winds on the southern side of the island that lure me into a false sense of security. Or perhaps it is my anticipation of landing and camping in Winter Cove again, my remote paradise of several previous visits and many leisurely days fishing and walking or just hanging out soaking up the karma.

The first Will Waw gust is a shocker. One moment we are sailing along relaxed with everything under control, then almost instantly, a beam on gust partly from above, has us in its powerful grip. The force of the wind on the sails is tipping my kayak over at an alarming angle. I am leaning heavily on the paddle in a big brace as the blade skims the water like a water ski. Sheets of water carving off the bow make it difficult to see but I think I can hear the masts and rigging groaning under the strain. I visualise a sudden breakage of paddle or rigging followed by a crashing stop at this amazing speed. I’m not game to let go of the paddle with one hand to ease the sail sheet lines because it feels like the wind will tear it from my grip.

Then just as suddenly as it started the Willi Waw is gone. Instant relief is tempered by the sure knowledge that a repeat visit will follow shortly. No time to get the sails down, just ease the sheets for both sails, then hang on as the next powerful gust has us creaming along almost as fast as the first. A quick look down at the GPS indicates we are doing 30km/hour. It is now possible to see that the mast in front of me is bending slightly but it looks OK. Who knows what the sail behind me is doing. At least I can now see where I am going. Just as well as we are close to the cliffs and there are some outrider rocks ahead.

It’s a relief when at last I turn west into Winter Cove and get the sails down and stowed. The beach is only about a kilometre away at the head of the cove but as usual this last bit it is a hard slog into the wind. The topography of this amazing high island has a firm grip on the wind.

Would I do it all again the same way? Who knows? The adrenalin rush generated by sailing on the edge is addictive. Conversely the beauty of this wild place seems to demand ones undivided attention. A return visit is the only way to find out!