Learning from Experience [66]

Two attempts to cross Western Bass Strait via King Island

By Stuart Trueman

Things go wrong: December 2000 – January 2001.

I flew into Devonport blissfully unaware that this was the first flight of the day which had not been cancelled due to high winds. I was picked up by Bob Bush of the Maatsuyker Kayak Club, who was good enough to ferry me around and put me up.

My first night’s sleep was not the best start to the trip; I spent most of it running to the loo as a bladder infection took hold. I hardly had the strength to walk round the block until the drugs kicked in a few days later.

I felt sorry for Bob and his family who, at short notice, were not only good enough to include me in their Christmas celebrations but also had to put up with me having to go to the loo every fifteen minutes.

Feeling much better after partially completing the course of antibiotics, (keeping the rest in case it flared up again. Not recommended!) I decided to go on a day that promised bad weather, and they were right. I spent four days on Walker Island in north west Tassie with winds over 50 knots.

I then started getting forecasts that promised a window of opportunity for a crossing to King Island so I positioned myself on Hunter Island for the crossing. The evening before I was planning to go, the forecast turned on me. Very disappointed, I turned off my alarm and slept in. Next morning the forecast had changed again for the better, things looked good and I set off, but by then I had missed the tides.

I started off in calm conditions, the sun shining and a light following breeze but things gradually turned for the worse and the seas grew. The winds built up to over 35 knots from the SW, it was hard to estimate the size of the seas but waves regularly broke over my head, soaking me in cold southern ocean. It’s difficult to describe what it was like paddling in those winds with the swell and 3 knots of current but it was the hardest days paddling I’d had to do. If I had to put a number on the swell size it would be 5 meters with a sea running on top of that. This means that I could only see the islands for a short while as I reached the top of the swell. These conditions were beam on and as I climbed up the swell I’d have a quick look up to see if the wave was curling over then brace for a cold one. Then a quick look around for directions as I descended, correct my heading and make a bit of progress before the next wave.

With the seas being pushed along by 35 knots I copped one over the head every 15 minutes and each time it was a shock to be drenched in cold water that was slowly sapping my strength.

When I realised I was being pushed north I tried to fight it and continue but after five hours I was further from King Island than when I started! I had eaten and drunk much of my supplies the rest had been spoiled by the sea. I had a number of problems with my set up that definitely did not help matters. My kayak was old and too much water leaked into the cockpit so I had a significant amount of cold water in the kayak which, apart from being uncomfortable, sloshed about and made things sluggish. I was reluctant to keep using my electric pump as I was planning to be out for at least another week and I was without a charger. About a cup of water that had forced its way into my paddle made the paddle heavy and awkward as the water ran up and down the shaft. A blister on my right thumb had got sand in it and developed into a deep hole.

After five hours I was not past Albatross Island, in fact I was still north of it when I should be looking at it over my stern to the east. I realised that to continue was futile and turned back to Three Hummock Island.

After ten hours paddling I landed exhausted on a remote beach 2km from where I’d started. I dragged the kayak up the beach and grabbed some clothes and headed into the bush to get changed. I was very cold. After stripping my wet clothes off I noticed I was bleeding from both wrists. I was wearing a new watchstrap which had gradually cut into my soft wet wrists during the day. While paddling I had noticed this on one arm and swapped it over but it had slipped off my clothing then done the same to my other wrist. I looked up and, to my relief, I saw a couple of bird watchers looking at me through binoculars. I was very keen to find water and a suitable campsite with the minimum of effort so I waved both arms at them with the desperation of an exhausted ship wrecked sailor.

Looking back I’m surprised that they plucked up the courage to send just Mr. Bird Watcher who didn’t get any closer than shouting distance but at the time I thought they were decidedly unsociable not to both come down and give aid and comfort.

With the benefit of hindsight if I was on one of the most remote beaches on one of the remotest Islands in Tasmania and my wife and I saw a naked, pale blue man with blood running down both arms frantically waving at me I’d run away.

It took me a couple of days to get over that, during which I ran out of supplies so I decided that King Island would have to wait for another day. My bladder infection returned, as a result of not completing the course of antibiotics, and David Williamson from South Australia became the first to cross Bass Strait via King Island.

On reflection, I hadn’t taken the trip seriously enough. I’d had a good run of successful trips and had become complacent in my preparation and didn’t treat the area with the respect it deserves. My equipment was substandard and had gone untested in severe conditions for too long. When it comes down to it we are exploring an environment in which only our kit keeps us alive.

So after this trip I got the best equipment for expedition sea kayaking, I worked on my fitness and, with that day embossed on my mind, my respect of the sea was reaffirmed.

One of the benefits of solo sea kayaking is that when you have made all the decisions and done all the work success is all yours. The other side of the coin is that if things don’t go well there is nowhere to hide.

The King Island attempt festered in the back of my head for five years.

Things go well: December 2006

Again Bob picked me up and dropped me off in NW Tassie. This time he was quicker to get rid of me and I was paddling a couple of hours after he picked me up. Perhaps he also had bad memories of our last Christmas together!

Tides were good and I got to Shepherds Bay to prepare for the next day which looked good for the crossing to King Island.

Tuesday 19 Dec 2006

South to south east winds 15-20 knots, 2 metre seas, 3 metre south west swell.

I left Shepherds Bay 8.00am in the rain. I had decided that I would do the trip without using a GPS. On my previous attempt the GPS would not get a fix, in fact it only showed my position once and that’s how I knew at one point I was further from Grassy than when I started at Shepherds Bay. At the time, having no GPS seemed a major problem but, on reflection, I had a compass and chart which should have been enough. I had neglected my skills and relied on electronics, not too good for an instructor who teaches sea kayak navigation!

I paid a visit to Albatross Island and got a reminder of the movement of water in this area at the northern tip as I checked out the landing spot. “We came, we saw, we paddled away.” Too rocky for me on the day, I had a spot of food and drink, woke the resident seals then continued on my way.

After 11hours 30mins I paddled into Grassy Harbour and set up camp in the toilet block but I was happy to be there. Six hours later it blew 35 knots from the east for two days.

At around 5.30pm on my second day on King Island I felt the winds had died down enough to set off again and headed south to have a look at the west coast. I rounded the southern tip and made camp at Surprise Bay. The south west coast is a rugged and beautiful place with few landings. If you see some kelp watch out as it often drags large rocks to the surface when least expected.

After Cataraqui Point the coast changes and beaches and landings appear. I passed the site of Australia’s worst maritime disaster, “The Cataraqui”. I found it hard to imagine how so many could have died so close to the safety of land with only a few low rocks to climb over.

After a slog into a headwind I arrived at Currie and set up by the BBQ. I was lucky enough to time my visit with the yearly arrival of Santa who came round in a fire truck that evening to hand out lollies and balloons to the kids.

The next morning I had a dream trip with 20 knots pushing me along up to Quarantine Bay where I bumped into John Brewster. John along with Earl Bloomfield was the first to circumnavigate Tasmania in 1979. It was one of the pioneering sea kayak expeditions in Australia. I accepted an invitation to spend Christmas with the Brewsters and friends which was a very pleasant day indeed.

26 December

I made Cape Wickham and prepared for the crossing to Victoria.

27 December

South west to southerly winds 15-20 knots (decreasing), Seas 1-2 metres, SW Swell 1-2 metres. Off at 2.00am on an overcast, moonless night. The only thing visible was the Cape Wickham lighthouse. After an hour the clouds broke up which made things more comfortable as I could navigate by the stars. They gave something fixed to look at and so help prevent sea sickness. This didn’t last long as the clouds built up again bringing showers through the day. When all was dark I found I could keep direction by making a note of the direction of the swell.

It was a relief when daylight came and I took in my surroundings. It’s quite an exposed feeling to be paddling out of sight of land.

I had left on a flood tide and paddled NNW. After 14hours 30 mins I landed at Surveyors Creek which is round the corner from Why River, 13 N miles (23 km) east from Apollo Bay where I was heading. On the face of it this could be an argument for the use of a GPS.

Andy McAuley took 16 hours 30 mins to paddle to Apollo Bay. While it would be nice to think I paddled faster than Andy I know this is unlikely. What’s more likely is that the flood tide took me east and I let it, Andy followed his GPS to Apollo Bay and fought the current. The end result is I paddled further, got closer to Melbourne and spent two hours less in the kayak by using the currents.

So I like to think that the use of GPS actually hindered Andy and not using one helped me. Anyway, food for thought.

Next day I paddled to Anglesea and spent a pleasant night at the yacht club, then on to Portsea inside Port Phillip Bay.

The demons of my previous attempt have been laid to rest after a wonderful couple of weeks on the water.

With thanks to Lendal Paddles, Solution Spray Skirts and Nadgee Expedition Kayaks.

Thanks for logistical support to Bob Bush, Maatsuyker Kayak Club and Les Bognar, VSKC.

Distances per day
From To Approximate Distance
Robbins Passage Shepherds Bay 20 NMiles (36 km)
Shepherds Bay Grassy 43 NMiles (78 km)
Weathered In
Grassy Surprise Bay 12 NMiles (22 km)
Surprise Bay Currie 14 NMiles (25 km)
Currie Phoques Bay 15 NMiles (27 km)
Weathered In
Christmas Day
Phoques Bay Cape Wickham 7 NMiles (13 km)
Cape Wickham Wye River 58 NMiles (105 km)
Wye River Pt Roadknight (Anglesea) 17 NMiles (31 km)
Pt Roadknight (Anglesea) Portsea 27 NMiles (50km)