NSW Sea Kayak Club – Bass Strait Direct Crossing [73]

By Stuart Trueman

I’d been paddling for six hours and could no longer see the hills of Wilsons Promontory; I’d have to paddle for a further 26 hours before seeing land again.

Crossing Bass Strait directly is a long paddle.

In Melbourne, a few days before, the weather forecast was foremost in my mind as I attended various talks, meetings and demonstrations at the Victorian Sea Kayak Club AGM.

I had to decide whether to proceed with the plan of catching the ferry from Melbourne to Tasmania on Sunday night, then paddle north on predominant south west winds, or head off to Wilsons Promontory, the southern most point of mainland Australia, then paddle south to Tasmania on the forecast of northerly winds. I put my money on squeezing a few days of northerlies out of November and headed off to Wilsons Prom.

Once there, with a good forecast, I relaxed — now all I had to do was paddle for two days.

What’s that? Relax! When he was planning to paddle 215 kilometres across one of the world’s violent stretches of blue water!

It may seem difficult to understand until you have an appreciation of the preparation and planning that is necessary just to get you to the starting point of these trips.

Getting to the shore with everything ready and favourable conditions is quite an achievement itself. The feeling of relief intensifies for the solo paddler who is responsible for all aspects of simply giving themselves a chance to attempt their goal.

I don’t intend to run through the catalogue of expedition preparation; it is a personal journey of learning, with each lesson allowing you to ensure future success. Experience is the key to develop this area of sea kayaking. Start somewhere manageable then take it where you want to go.

The loud crack at 3 am signalled the tent pole breaking. Well that’s a good start, I thought, and rolled over for another couple of hours kip in a rather limp looking tent.

I loaded and set up my Mirage 580 sea kayak then walked it down the beach on a nifty set of wheels with the help of Bill Robinson from the VSKC who had come down to see me off. A quick check, a photo, then I said my goodbyes and jumped in the kayak. My timing was not good — the sea ran away and didn’t return, leaving me high and dry and looking slightly silly. Bill was sympathetic, took a photo, helped me re-locate further down the beach and then I was away.

The weather was 10-20 knots NNE stretching itself to 25 knots if it tried. As land slipped away the wind decreased as the influence of the Prom was reduced. I got into a rhythm and pace I could maintain and tempered all the built up confusion of feelings which were directing me to catch every swell and blast off into the distance.

When I returned to work the requests came: ‘Tell us the exciting things that happened on your trip’. Then it dawned on me that one of my objectives was to ensure that nothing exciting happened. Planning to take the excitement out of a trip could answer the question ‘Why doesn’t sea kayaking appeal to the younger paddlers?’ and raises the question ‘What am I going to write about?’.

Well, I invariably get asked how long it took. I realise that open crossings are becoming more common so I took a GPS to record my track to see how my pace was affected during the paddle, with the intention of sharing this info with interested paddlers. I took a look at the distance after 10 hours. The next time I looked — at dawn — the batteries had died. No GPS. No saved track.

After 10 hours I had paddled 80 km; 8 km per hour. That is the one and only reading I got from the GPS. From this I managed to imagine the following calculation as I paddled through the night:

  • At 0530 I would have been paddling 22 hours.
  • 22 hours at 8 km per hour is 176 km.
  • That left only 30 odd kilometres to Tassie. I will be able to see the hills soon after dawn! After all, I could see the departure hills after approximately 40 km.

It actually took 10 long hours from 0530 to 1530 to see land after dawn.

I had concocted a formula to give myself the answer I wanted — as each hour passed many conflicting thoughts fought the facts as to why I wasn’t on the beach yet. Not least of these was my ability to hold a compass course for 26 hours while bobbing about on the ocean. As it turned out I was 3 — 4 km to the west of Stanley when I first saw land. Not bad I thought.

Well, I was happily ignorant of my flawed calculation during the first light of dawn and I was mightily relieved to have paddled through the night without falling asleep. I pushed the hatch cover on after putting away some food, then in slow motion lost balance and rolled over. I hastily grabbed the paddle and attempted a brace. With the paddle at the wrong angle it sliced through the water like a knife — down I went.

I tried a roll, got my head out of the water and then back down. It took another two goes to realise that the two bladders of water loose in the cockpit had shifted and were both starboard. Their combined weight conspired to make me lose my balance as I came up from what would normally be a successful roll. On the fourth go (I think) I noticed a strange light. Oh shit! I thought; hope that’s not what they talk about in near death experiences! Nope, just my head torch still on. Anyway, with the possible consequences of failure to roll up affirmed, I gave an extra effort and up I came. The first thing I did was empty one of the bladders; after all I’d be able to see land soon …

Just after that I was wrapped in sea fog. Just my luck, I optimistically thought, I’ll probably run aground!

Then I paddled past a tennis court. At first I didn’t think too much of it but then I realised that it wasn’t a grass or clay court, but water. I nodded knowingly to myself, pleased that I still had the mental capacity to recognise that a tennis court in Bass Strait was a mirage, based on the fact that it wasn’t grass or clay …

The fog didn’t really clear and formed banks of clouds. Each one looked like it held land within, but as I approached it would dissolve to reveal another cloud bank in the distance, equally promising. But after half a dozen or so disappointments I’d become jaded and considerably slower as fatigue took hold.

Then I cracked.

I was sure that I remembered seeing some batteries in the bag I’d dropped in the for’d hatch. If I could get these then I could get the GPS working and ease my mind. Out I jumped; the water didn’t register as being too cold at first. I was being careful not to flip the kayak as I had stuff loose in the cockpit that I didn’t want floating off.

Off with the hatch — now I could feel the cold water. Fantastic, found the batteries … F*^#! They’re AAA; I need AA for the GPS.

Reluctant to do a re-enter and roll and lose what was in the cockpit, I decided to do what all instructors abhor: the ‘Cowboy Rescue’. Basically, launch yourself onto the kayak, swing a leg over, sit in the cockpit and get your legs in — sounds easy. After half a dozen goes and various bits of kit floating off, losing a shoe, ripping my trousers and almost castrating myself after getting tangled in my tether, I was in.

The water had made me cold. I thought I’d warm up with a quick paddle; I took about eight strokes before I slumped over the deck, exhausted.

Half an hour later I saw the low lands of north west Tassie; the higher ground was hidden in the clouds. Three hours after that I was on a beach looking back across the water, 35 hours after leaving the ‘Prom’. I thought a couple of nice looking birds on the beach would welcome me. But as I got out the kayak, doing an impression of a wobbly-legged Bambi, one walked away totally unimpressed to check out some interesting crustacean, the other did a crap and flew away.

I’m not sure if swimming with your kayak after multiple failed attempts to get back in is what my work colleague meant by ‘exciting’. It certainly didn’t feel like that at the time, more like a worrying wake-up call to the degenerative effects of cold water. Anyway it gave me something to write about.

I’d like to mention the assistance I was given in preparation and logistics of this and other trips. When we think of the benefits of kayak clubs we think of training, guided trips and boozy camps.

But what we have is a huge resource of people with an appreciation of all things kayaking. I unashamedly tap this resource when needed, to solve problems, to get things done.

The list of those who help is long, but I’d like to single out Mike Snoad of the NSW Sea Kayak Club, Bill Robinson of the Victorian Sea Kayak Club and Bob Bush of the Maatsuyker Sea Kayak Club.

I would also like to thank Mirage Sea Kayaks and Lendal Paddles.