Bass Strait. Port Welshpool to Tasmania [66]

By Les Allen

Ever had that sinking feeling in your stomach? I think we all have and as the wind buffeted me, that feeling was growing. It was supposed to be the start of the Bass Straight crossing but I knew that it was not going to happen. The wind was now a steady 20 knots, gusting to 30 and forecasted to go to gale force. After all the build up, not starting was a blow. We had planned for bad weather days but this was different. I was nervous about taking on the Bass and stalling at the start was not helping.

The afternoon was atrocious with howling wind and sheeting rain. I was coming back from the shop and had to stop in a tourist information shelter as the rain and wind was so strong. I chuckled to myself: I had thermals, Polatec jacket, Gortex jacket, over pants and beanie on and this was 1 January. What must winter be like! But more importantly what will the Bass be like. The bay was littered with white caps and six metre waves were forecast. I was very glad I was on dry land and could not help but wonder what lay in store for us.

Day one

The night before we left it was drinks around the campers’ shelter and, even though it was 6.30am, some of the residents came down on the beach to give us a farewell. The packing finished we headed off across the bay with Refuge Cove our destination 42km away.

Port Welshpool is in a large estuary and the current at the mouth was really pumping. We were cruising along at 10km/h without working. As we rounded the entrance and looked up the coast to Wilson’s Prom I was relieved to see the swells were not too bad. Sealers Cove looked beautiful and we were enjoying the rocky cliff line as we turned into Refuge Cove. What a magnificent sight; a kidney-shaped cove with two beaches and thick forest running down to smooth rocks and perfect white sand. As I paddled in I had a good feeling about the trip.

Day two

I woke feeling excited as today was the first crossing. 50km is not a great distance and the weather was forecast to be a 10 to 15 knot side wind. I like that snug warm feeling when you first get in your kayak for a long day and as you head off the boat melds with your body and becomes an extension of your legs. Behind me Wilson’s Prom looked dark and foreboding but I was feeling jubilant to be finally taking on Bass Straight.

Ten hours into the day and Ian was really struggling. The side wind was a straight head wind at about 12 to 15 knots with stronger gusts and our speed was progressively getting slower. With 4 km to go we ceased making headway and Ian was sea sick. Nothing left but to pull out the tow rope and put in some work. I was feeling strong and knew we were going to make it but one look at Ian and I knew how bad he was feeling.

The sea conditions were picking up. As we neared the island there was a 10 metre shelf around it. The current was running left to right with the swell running right to left and the wind wave reflecting around the island at a 45 degree angle to confuse matters. This gave us interesting conditions. The tow was going well and Ian was now becoming stronger. I have seen Ian dig deep before and had every confidence he would bounce back. As we approached the sheltered area of the island I was doing very little towing as Ian was almost keeping up with me. His green face was slowly turning to white and he even smiled.

The bay and entrance were no place for towropes as there was the occasional big spilling wave coming across. Ian was picking up so he stowed the rope and followed me to the entrance. A wave picked up the back of the boat forcing me to concentrate as the boat accelerated into the entrance. Two quick strokes and I was speeding down the face of the wave with breaking foam either side of me. At the end of the race I was surprised to see two other paddlers and as I turned to land next to Tel one of them grabbed the bow of my boat and pulled it up. Eleven hours of hard paddling and I was feeling good. I guess it was my turn to have a strong day.

The two other paddlers were from the NSW Sea Kayak Club. A group of thirteen were staying two weeks on at our next destination, Deal Island, 43 km away. They had paddled over that day and landed half an hour before us.

Day three

The next day it was quite windy in the morning and unfortunately straight into our face. We had plenty of time and I was keen to explore the island anyway. The wind had died down and it was a beautiful balmy night. I crawled into my tent and as I started to drift off to sleep I was woken by a rustling noise. It took a few seconds to register then I realized there was a rat trying to get into my tent. I whacked the tent with the back of my hand sending the rat flying. Content that I had taught it a lesson I relaxed and started to drift off. Oh no, not again. The rat was back. Hang on there were two, no three. I grabbed my torch and opened my tent. There were rats everywhere. As I shined the torch around they just ignored me. I thought rats were supposed to be scared and run away. Not these fellows. They were not going to let some human stop them getting a meal.

Day four

The trip over to Deal was uneventful with a light side wind and light seas. As we neared Murray Pass I could see the tide ripping through. The NSW guys said it was not too bad if you hugged the side and worked the eddies. The others were a fair way behind as I rounded the headland and started into the pass. I slowed down a bit and concentrated on finding the areas with the lowest tidal influence. The pass has steep rocks on either side with high hills making it look quite dramatic. The paddling was easier than I expected and as the others caught up I found myself gazing around at the rock formations. I stopped in the lee of a small kink in the pass where there was a large rock about two metres off the steep granite sides.

I headed through the gap but as I moved through I saw out the side of my eye a larger than normal wave hit the outside of the rock. Oops bad timing. The wave came around behind creating quite a suck, slowing me down. As the back of the boat started to rise the wash appeared around the front of the rock as a small building wave. Locking my knees under the braces I paddled hard to gain speed. Suddenly the boat accelerated forward and the wave behind took control of the boat. The bow dived into the on-coming wave slowing the bow and yawing the boat. Using my legs I lifted the low side of the boat as the bow broke through the top of the small wave. A small wall of water hit my chest causing and involuntary grunt and as the wave passed under the boat I accelerated through the gap. Sensibly the others went around the rock.

The 10km to Winter Cove were done at a leisurely pace and we were now veering right into the cove. The cove is funnel-shaped with rock either side and a white sand beach at the back. I shouted to the others that I would go in first and film them landing.

As they stayed back I headed in. From outside the break it is very hard to see what the surf is like as a wave passes under you and you try to see what the waves are like in the break zone. The two seconds on top of the wave is not enough to give you much of a view and as you come down the back of the wave you just see a green wall head in obliterating all view of the beach. It seemed OK so as the next wave started to build I leaned forward and paddled hard. The back of my boat started to rise and I strained to get the heavy boat moving. As the back lifted the boat accelerated down the front of the wave. The bow dug in sending a sheet of spray in the air. As the bow came up I was really flying with the boat bouncing down the front of the wave. The wave slowed to brake and I stopped paddling so I would not get too far in front. As it crashed behind me I paddled really hard to pick up as much speed as possible before the wall of white water hit me. I heard the white water roaring and hissing as it took the back of the boat. Fortunately I had enough speed and the boat once again accelerated forward allowing me to ride the white water right into the sand. The bow slid up the sand as I threw my paddle with one hand and ripped off the spray deck with my other. Both legs out I stood up and quickly grabbed the front of my boat as the next wave rushed in to swing the back around. Pulling 100kg of boat up the sand is no easy task. Digging my feet into the sand I strained with both hands on the toggle to move the boat up out of reach of the waves.

Day five

We had light head winds but as we had to do 65 km we decided to have a rest day. That afternoon we decided to walk over the island to the NSW paddlers for a chat. Once again we had great hospitality and they gave us more food. You would never starve with these people.

Day six

This was the big one, the longest crossing of the straight. The forecast was not the best with a side or quartering head wind. The next few days was forecast to be worse so we decided to head out for a few kilometres and make our decision from there. The island was covered in mist and there was a sea fog on the water. As I headed out from the cove the tide was making bouncy conditions and the wind did not look good. A few kilometres out we stopped to chat . Everyone was tooing and froing. Daren wanted to go on, Ian was erring on the side of caution and Tel was umming and aring. I was for going back but we decided to go on a little further. At that stage we were heading for Wright Rock but as we were going to go around Cape Franklin to Rogan Island we could head a little more off the wind. I re-set the GPS to Rogan Island and the new heading was a better angle to the wind. With out sails up we could just get a little bit of help from the wind but more importantly it was not a head wind any more.

We decided to go for it, the sea fog and a few spits of rain made for an eerie setting. I felt snug and comfortable in my boat. It is a funny feeling I get in these condition and I relate it to sitting in my cubby house as a kid watching the rain and feeling snug. So … normal people don’t kayak across Bass Straight either.

We stopped for a break in the lee of Craggy Island where two fishing boats had stopped. As we headed off the skipper of one of the boats advised us that we had better get moving as they were expecting a strong southerly change. I swore to myself. Just our luck we still had 27km to Rogan Island and the wind was swinging and building to a head wind. We now had some added urgency. Everyone was paddling strong and we could see Flinders Island of on the horizon. The wind was a slight head wind but at this stage very light. If the southerly did spring up, and we had seen just how quickly the wind could change at Port Weshpool, we would have no choice but to head back to Craggy Island and try the seal landing.

As we got closer to Flinders the wind picked up. As we were turning to head for the Cape the wind was on our stern quarter and the sails and tide were giving us some assistance. Twelve hours after starting I rounded the end of Hogan Island feeling pretty elated. We only had one more obstacle between Tasmania and us. The infamous Banks Straight.

Day seven

We were camped at Trouser Point and as I got out of the tent the Strzelecki Peaks were shrouded in mist and the morning was dominated with heavy black clouds. It was an ideal staging point for our short crossing to Cape Barron Island. It didn’t look as though it would be that easy as dark foreboding clouds obscured Cape Barron. There was a storm brewing and it was right where we wanted to be.

We decided to follow the coast around to the east so we would have a better angle on the wind as we crossed Franklin Sound. The going was hard as the wind was up around 15 to 20 knots. I stuck to the coastline and had to lean into the wind as it gusted strongly in gaps or as we ducked around mini headlands. The shore on the other side of the sound was now visible and the water in between was littered in white caps. It was going to be a bumpy ride and the wind was side on. I looked around and everyone had a look of conviction on their face. I pulled the line on my sail and flipped it up. The sail immediately cracked and started flapping wildly before I could rein it in with the other sail line. As I pulled it in the boat leaned and started moving. Grabbing my paddle and counter leaning I had a quick look around then planted my blade in the gray lumpy water. The boat surged forward and the bow plunged through a small wind wave soaking me with cold water. It was an exiting ride. The waves were side on but with a little manoeuvring I could still get a ride.

Looking left as the wave built I waited to just the right time. Then hard right rudder and lean left as the boat rode up the wave and the sail took the full force of the wind, the boat veered right and accelerated down the gray face of the wave. Then it was hard left rudder and lean into the face. It is exhilarating to have a wall of water 20cm from your head as you rush forward at 15km/h. Every time my elbow touched the face of the wave a shot of cold water hit my armpit, sending a shiver down my back. As the boat reached the valley of the wave the trick was to hold speed and line till the wave dissipated. As the white cap roared and hissed on top of the crest I then veered left looking for the next ride. This way I could ferry glide against the wind and waves to head down the sound to Cape St John.

We hit the shore of Cape Barren just before the settlement. The conditions were getting worse. It was raining heavily and the wind was swinging more to the south than southeast. It was a spontaneous decision. There was a small white beach and shelter from the wind. We landed and pulled the boats up. I was freezing. The wind and constant drenching in cold water had sapped all my heat.

Day eight

Now we had to face Banks Straight. It is not the distance that is the problem as it is only around 25km wide. The problem is the three knot tides; enough to drag a paddler way off course and to cause waves to really stand up and create very rough conditions. Most people go down to Clark Island and cross from there as it is only 20km to Swan Island. We decided to head off from Cape Baron and do a 50km day. The plan was to pick up the outgoing tide and use it to suck us down to the straight and cross on the end of the out going tide and land on Swan Island. Timing was everything. The forecast was for westerly winds picking up in the afternoon. I was worried they would tend south and pick up too much slowing us down and leaving us in the straight on the turn of the tide.

As we rounded Cape Barron we could see the tide starting to have an effect. We continued down to Preservation Island and passed down the east side. At the southern end I looked around to the right and saw the small eddy line as the tide was picking up. This is the area I thought we would get most of the tidal influence. Now we were entering the straight and would see if our planning was right or wrong.

We were now committed as we were about 10km into the straight. The wind was picking up and I was still worried it would turn south. I was using my GPS to stay three km west of our cross track error. This automatically gave us the correct heading so we could counter the tidal drift. The seas were starting to pick up. They were not a problem for us, but if the wind picked up more and we got caught in a tide change then life would be dramatically different. Nothing more to do but keep paddling.

The closer we got, the stronger the wind became. At about 7km from the island the waves were one to two metres with the occasional big set coming through.

The wind had been slowly shifting south so I decided to change direction and make straight for the northern tip of Swan Island. This gave us a better angle to the wind and would get us into the lee of the island as quickly as possible. There was no argument from the others so I assume they were thinking the same thing. As we neared the light house at the end of the island the waves were being forced around the tip of the island making for steep and messy seas. I was glad when we finally rounded the end of the island and now had to battle a head wind to reach the sheltered bay.

I was now very happy as we had beaten the Bass. A good 50 km day under our belts and we could see Tasmania about four km away. As I looked across Banks Straight I was very glad to be on the Island. We landed about one hour before tide change, which was perfect timing for us. Now the tide had changed and the water at the end of the island had been churned into a sea of white. The waves were not that big but it would not be a nice place to paddle as you would be pounded constantly. It is easy to see why Banks Straight has a fearsome reputation. In fact the whole Bass Straight crossing is an exercise in weather prediction and planning. Get it right and it is not a bad paddle, providing you have the fitness and skill. Get it wrong and you are in big trouble.