It’s All Good [63]

By Andrew Watkinson

As I glanced left I could just make out Seal Island, a distant brown smudge on the horizon, and three years almost to the day when my first Bass Strait crossing started.. and finished. This starting – my second – was now underway and found me in the company of two fellows well known to you. Here we were, at last, at last, at last, having launched from Port Welshpool at 9am and making steady progress along Wilsons Prom, the first step to Hobart. On my right my good friend Harry Havu, and my left Keith Oakford, who would soon become my good friend.

Harry and I had shared many adventures, but Keith and I didn’t know each other so well, just having been on the odd club paddle together and dinner at my place. I developed tendonitis in my shoulder (bicep) tendon that meant I had to follow my own training plan, and that, with busy lives, meant Keith and I didn’t even share an overnighter before our trip. But if decent fellows share an interest and proficiency in kayaking and common objectives for the trip, what can go wrong? Actually… Nothing. We agreed we wanted to cross Bass Strait as quickly as weather allowed and cruise more leisurely to Hobart.

Approaching this trip, I expected (like most people I guess) to put more into the team than I’d take out. It’s the way it’s always been – I got a lotta energy and not terribly shy about sharing it (even if people don’t want it!). This trip however was destined to show me the other side of sharing – that of receiving, and paradoxically the pleasure that can come from accepting help when you need it.

But back to day one. On approach to Refuge Bay I noticed a twinge in my left forearm, which I promptly forgot in the excitement of arrival. Next day enroute to Hogan Island said twinge revealed itself to be a torn forearm muscle, and on landing at Hogan the pain was such that I couldn’t even grip my cup of tea, and the swelling showed I indeed had a problem.

I was pissed, dreading this might be a trip-stopping problem, that I might have to rest at Hogan and return to Port Welshpool. Harry gave me his Voltaren cream, I upped my Celebrax (yes I knew about the downside) and Keith insisted we tread the sand in Tassie together. That three of us did so is because two fine fellows paddled slower for the entire Bass Strait crossing – and that is frustrating and more tiring than paddling at your personal resonant speed. There was never even a hint of disquiet from H&K, yet we probably spent 15 per cent more time on the water because of me. I couldn’t have made it otherwise; I had to nurse my arm continously.

We awoke to a perfect day two, revelled in the deep colours the early sun brought to this beautiful island. After two, yes two, cups of tea we took our leisurely leave of Hogan around 9:30am and set off for Deal Island.

For the entire trip we were never rained on, and mostly we had sunny and kind conditions. Today was also to be the day Harry would have the mantle of navigator thrust upon his shoulders. Not just because he can juggle three-dimensional equations in his head (current, wind and time), but because he gets them right. On the other hand there was me. Or rather my inclination to be absolutely possessed of being right when in fact, sometimes… I’m not.

Approaching the end of our lazy 40kms to Deal Island, I was eager to land, my arm was sore and I wanted a cup of tea. Noticing Harry and Keith continuing south when it was perfectly clear to me that Murray Passage was east, I yelled out, loud-like: “Hey you pillocks.. that’s Murray Passage to our left, LEFT, you got that? LEEEEEFT!!!”

There was no margin to interpret with any doubt that our shortest route to Murray Passage lay to our left. Harry and Keith immediately and without question did a 90 degree turn and paddled in the direction of my conviction.

By and by, H&K awoke from their collective, companionable paddling stupors and realised I had us heading onto the rocks that connect Dover and Erith islands. That was my fleeting flirtation with navigating. The upside was that I had made an incalculable contribution to the group’s safety. Now we all knew who wouldn’t be planning anything relating to Bass Strait, kayaks and we three.

After calling in to say g’day to Tony and Linda, the island caretakers and jolly good fellows, Harry and Keith found our way to Winter Cove. But on arrival we were faced with a sandy beach only 300m wide, and while handsomely protected from the sea the surf was coming in relentlessly in 30cm sets – sometimes more. And there were rocks, actually, rock, a singular, forlorne and lonely rock near the middle of the beach, an 80cm wide rock, maybe even a metre.

Harry went first and managed to get ashore on the remaining 299m of gentle and smooth beach, Keith went in next and didn’t. Seems he found the idea of using the beach to stop the kayak somewhat passe, preferring instead the unconditional stop on offer with the rock. I will forever be thankfull that when my turn to land arrived Keith braved the conditions to wade out and warn me not to hit the rock. Which I didn’t. Hit the rock I mean. And that is how Keith became known as Mohammed.

The next day, as we were thrashing our way overland to DI lighthouse and Mohammed was losing the trail, I elbowed my way to the front, and in the same masterful voice of the previous day’s navigation contribution proclaimed he better let a clever bloke do the leading, ie ME. Even before those fateful words completed their journey to K&H ears, my nose was already on its way to the ground as I stumbled and fell full length on my face. And that’s how I came to be known as Wilson – the island-bound mute (I had nothing more to say), butt of an endless and mercyless tirade of tease.

While being plied with Tony’s fresh baked scones and tea, to which we only put up the most token resistence, I noticed a boat in Murray Passage. Tony said it was the Seahorse Spirit. And my world stopped. The Seahorse Spirit, a contract boat to the Navy, had left its station three years ago to steam to rescue myself and Pete on that first attempt to cross Bass Strait. And some guy I never met stood by the VHF radio all night in case our situation deteriorated. As you know the chopper got to us first, but the Seahorse Spirit was on its way. I asked Tony to call them up and I recapped the story to the guy on the radio, and said I had been unable to thank them for the help they gave and were so prepared to offer. So I thanked him, he said he knew of that event and some of the fellas aboard were on the Seahorse Spirit that night. He was happy to pass my thanks along, and wished me well in this new endeavour, adding it was good to know I was back on the water. If you wish to read the full account, please refer to: “X BS, Easy as AB… D” in the magazine approx April 03.

It’s a strange thing being rescued. Stranger still to be rescued by strangers. It was a great gift these strangers gave Pete and I that night, and to be able to thank someone who represents those good people was a big deal for me. To be able to thank them here was one of the highlights of my journey.

After two sunny and warm (but southerly wind) days on Deal Island, we launched at dawn (6:20am) for Roydon Island, 70kms and 10 hours away. My arm was troubling, and two hours into this crossing my rudder cable broke (behind the foot pedal). To accomodate our heading, current and wind composite I had to sweep three strokes with my painful forearm to one with my right arm. I looked back at Deal, and thought angrily of plan B that I had prepared in case the arm got too bad – leave by ferry with Tony and Linda when they returned to the mainland a few days later. I called out to Keith that I was going to return to Deal Island and plan B. Keith said I was past the point of no return, and paddled off. I kinda agreed, ‘cept I could return to Deal using 3:1 strokes in favour of my good right arm and two-and-a-half hours, as opposed to maybe six to get across.

So on we went, me paddling like a drunken sot with the rather blunt rudder afforded by hip swings and sweep strokes competing with a sideways current for favour. Methinks those choosing to paddle Bass Strait without a rudder might also like backpacking with bricks in their pack.

For two-three hours I paddled all-the-while thinking furiously of a way to get my rudder working: landing on Wright Rock to do a repair, but I dismissed that idea even as it was born – I been there already.. Then, how about upending the kayak and getting my hands on the foot peddle and bodgying up some kind of repair on the water? But the Jaws music hammered in my head to the accompanying vision of my feet a dangling in 50m above Bass Strait seabed. No, that was not good. And so on I went relentlessly seeking an answer..

Then I had it! I untied the nylon cord that connects the rings together that terminate the cables to the rudder and to the rudder foot pedal, and then I tied the nylon cord around the ring terminating the rudder cable to the deck elastic. That fixed the rudder in place at approximately the right angle to follow Harry’s heading, and I could over-ride it with strong pressure on the other pedal. And it worked, and lo and behold I could paddle like a sane man, a happy man and more importantly a whole man because I could now favour my good arm.

Part of our plan was to re-group every hour and have a munch break. In fact group spread was good for the entire trip, never more than one km and mostly within a few hundred metres, and in Banks Strait – 100m. About five hours into this crossing my arm eased and I found myself with my good fellows in the middle of Bass Strait, taking lunch under a sparkling sun, on top of the world, OK, sea, feet stretched out and lounging on my deck, knowing I was gonna make it to Roydon! But I did pause to reflect that I was here because H&K were paddling slower than otherwise. And while I paused I scooped some water from the mid-point of this crossing – the furthest we ever got from land (30km) – and carried it the rest of the way so I could give something of my trip to those I cared about at home.

Two hours out of Roydon we picked up a friendly current that moved us along at 9km/h, and we arrived at 3:30pm. Keith, determined to avoid hitting rock after his Winter Cove learning, wisely gave Wright Rock a wide berth of 3km, and Craggy Rock 10km. On reflection I think Keith cut it a little fine with Wright Rock.

Next day, day six we planned a short 17km potter to Prime Seal Island. Keith and I lost sight of Harry. I wasn’t worried, I mean idyllic and benign conditions, plenty of landing spots, and Harry strong as an ox. Just no Harry – last we’d seen he was off fishing. But even Harry can have a mishap, and Keith who had by then by unmentioned agreement assumed the mantle of safety officer, called a halt and went back to look for Harry. Well it was good call. Harry caught a fish and while getting the hook out of its mouth proceeded to insert the other hook in his finger. He had to cut the barb off and pull the hook through. Even the strongest of us can have a mishap. Anyway, he threw the fish back and kept his finger. We spent the afternoon and night on the NE tip of Prime Seal Island, and the warm and sunny weather continued.

Day seven we arrived at Whitemark for lunch, only to find everything was closed (Sunday), except the pub, where we ate something called a pie, got fresh water (town water is regarded as dodgy) and electricity for our phones and cameras.

Then off to Trouser Point. As I paddled just off the point maybe 300m behind K&H, I heard a collossal splash behind me, and as I twisted my neck like that dude in “The Exorcist” I found myself looking at the expanding wash rippling out from a mighty big disturbance. Then my eyes took on the “Mad Max” manic glaze as I couldn’t help but notice underneath my kayak a two m White Pointer circling. I wasn’t so much bothered that a shark was circling my kayak as I was by the fact that it was me in the kayak. But at least the shark was five m down. Anyway it circled three times and then must’ve got dizzy ’cause it swam off, and I paddled up to cosy alongside H&K for a bit.

You don’t get to hide your mistakes when you paddle as a team, but you do get to play with five aces in the pack.

Day eight was supposed to be Trouser Point to Clarke Island. Was also supposed to be W10/20kts, 2m swell, 2m sea. Was also supposed to be paddled by three clever kayakers. After rounding Sir John Cape battling a 20kt headwind, we were hoping to swap the headwind for a sail wind to Clarke Island, Spike Bay. The wind increased to 25/30kts, swell 4m, sea 2m and breaking. Keith suggested we divert to Lascar Point, and after some debate finally we were decided by the fact that while we were pretty sure we could land on Clarke Island, we couldn’t guarantee it with these conditions. So we changed heading for Lascar.

Now we were surrounded by mountains of swell and avalanches of water, accompanied by 30kts of wind that was really too strong to sail with. And I was a pondering the possibility that a 6m dumping wave might just catch the sail and break the mast out of the kayak, leaving a rather inconvenient hole in the deck.

However there was a more pressing matter – the current we had not needed to consider greatly when we set off to Clarke Island was now in our face, and opposing the wind, causing the waves to rear up and threaten. But the only way to reach land was to sail – the current was stronger than the wind if we didn’t use our sails.

Then, well lets say, a timely reminder of an item on my to do list as my foot snapped to the floor. It was not an unfamiliar feeling. And for a moment I wondered if I could get ashore and fix it without telling H&K. But then I considered our position and knew I had to tell them. So in the middle of nature’s arguing wind and sea I stopped and opened my spray skirt. Harry thought I was going to fish, and paddled over to tell me not to be a fool. Right sentiment of course, just the wrong reason. I wasn’t about to start fishing in this lot.

I couldn’t think of a way to describe my problem and maintain any dignity so I went for pathos and just held up my dangling, limp, impotent rudder cable and let the picture tell the story. The story was of course that my other rudder cable had just broken, same place. Harry offered his sage advice:

“For ****s sake ANDREW — I thought you were going to replace it?”

Apparently I hadn’t. I had planned to do so on the first rest day, which would’ve been tomorrow.

Happily I knew how to bodgy the rudder up, if this had been the first time it would have been very awkward – I didn’t have two hours and calm conditions to think up the fix. But while the bodgy fix was OK in calm conditions, in this sea it didn’t work anywhere near as well. The water was so turbulent that it took maybe 50m to start a turn, and that required a gust of wind or a smack on the bow by a wave, then I could complete the turn. It was a difficult one-and-a-half hours to Lascar. I didn’t get dumped on by even one of those 6m things – luck because several times they reared up and I dunno, I squirmed, wiggled, and they let me alone.

Keith by now was “off” rocks, so he tried out “seas” and got buried a couple of times. I think he’s off “seas” now. Harry of course just loved it; well he did when we were all supping tea at Lascar! You might understand why, even though H&K took 700 photos on the trip, we haven’t even one photo of this afternoon. But we had a sweet rest day nine at Lascar Point, sheltered from wind, we had a table, views and flat grass. No water, but oh my what a lovely day!

All the way from Refuge Bay Harry had paddled in front of me, where do you think he was when I was on my fragile journey to Lascar? Upwind and behind me. And at the time I knew where he was and why. I would have done the same if the positions were reversed, but they weren’t and he did. And for that I am glad.

The reason we were heading to Lascar and not Spike was Keith speaking up when it would have been easier not to. I didn’t and neither did Harry, but the conditions recommended a discussion. And that’s what we got going because of Keith. It’s good to be in a team. The conundrum with safety calls is that after you’re safe, you don’t always know if they had to be made. My attitude is that if an experienced and sensible member of the team says “Hey, let’s not” then out here that is the right decision.

Both the cables to my rudder pedals are now 2mm nylon cord. The cause of failure was metal fatigue – the terminations did not rust, there was no sign they were dodgy.

After a couple of abortive attempts to cross Banks Strait to Tassie, we finally got a weather window. We were exercising caution because if you read the Admiralty Chart you will find a note that currents up to 6 kts can flow after strong westerly winds, and that’s what we’d had/having. But this day 13 the forecast was for 10-20kts NW/W swinging late in day to East 25kts. With NW/W then E we would have wind with current all day – no standing waves. Well that was the 5am forecast.. The 6:30am reality was East wind 10-15kts. We were already half-an-hour into the crossing and facing the very conditions we had sought to avoid. No-one wanted to turn back to Spike Cove, but we were shaping up to paddle 20km broadside to strong wind opposing a potentially very strong current. We had spoken to the Coast Guard at 6am and advised him of our intention to cross and to call him when we arrived.

Anyway, the wind stayed below 20kts, the current was not strong, and I sang to Keith and Harry to piss them off more than the threat of wind could. I’m good at that.

My song for that day had this verse:

Away, I’d rather sail away

Like a swan that’s here and gone

A man gets tied up to the ground

He gives the world its saddest sound

I paused to reflect, and commented to Keith as we approached Tassie, that we were as untied as we would ever be, and right then giving our world its happiest sound. And on we paddled…

Until, simply, we just arrived.

All of a sudden we three were standing on Tassie, and right by a perfectly good camping spot. It turned out to be the front garden of a rather decent old timer who plied us with permission to camp, fresh water and electricity for our phones. Even Harry had a wash.

Two paddling days later my arm was just plain ol’ stuffed, I had to get it some rest, and Keith had to get home, so my friend Jo in Hobart picked us up at Binalong Bay. Harry paddled solo the 200km to Maria Island and we regrouped at Maria Island six days later, arm improved enough to paddle comfortably.

We had had perfect weather all the way, but were growing concerned we would wear it out, so we paddled to Hobart in four days. Glorious days of sun, calm seas and the most astonishing scenery. On the second day we passed a “gateway” near Eaglehawk Neck. The beauty, the exquisite grandeur stopped Harry and I in our tracks, we marvelled at the sight before us to Tasman Island and behind us to Maria Island. This is a place every kayaker can visit. And you should not be alone, for this is greatness on the grandest scale, and the only thing grander than this creation is to share it with a good friend.

At the Totum Harry found a narrow chasm that suggested the possibility to squeeze him and his kayak through, so he did, of course. He took photos of the cliffs, capes, seals and just hour after hour of consuming coastline.

By now Harry had paddled 800km, and I, 650km. If you want to understand what that means on a personal level, that effort required 40,000 calories (800 Wheat-Bix) more than just living and breathing, and the distance, a third of million paddle strokes.

So finally, we turned the corner and entered Storm Bay. The wind, current, swell was with us and, wistfully, our journey behind us. We arrived at Roches Beach, Hobart, and I walked up to Jo’s house, drove the car back to collect Harry and our portable world-in-a-vacuum. Harry got first shower – he’d earned at least that. The master navigator got us here with the minimum of fuss, our safety man Keith got us here with a generous margin of safety, and perhaps the author helped now and then put a smile into all of us.