Devonport to Hobart, the West Coast Way



The dark Southern Ocean swell was peaking up in front of Harry in a menacingly high wall of water. Its steepening lip looked as though it was just about to collapse like a brick wall and smash him into oblivion.  Not far to his left, a massively powerful wall of foam was sweeping towards him along the length of the wave as it broke.  He was cutting it awfully fine. I picked up my camera.

Harry dug his paddle deep into the steepening wave, muscling his 5.8m kayak, crammed with two weeks of food and camping gear, as hard as he could toward the peaking green lip.  Harry is a big, strong, fit lad, but his boat and gear weighed something like 80kg.   If he didn’t make it, a massive volume of water was going to smash him backwards toward the reef and almost certain destruction. His loaded boat would crumple under the impact of the tons of water in that wave even before it hit the rocks.  It was Harry versus the Southern Ocean, and from where I was sitting in my boat about fifty metres to his right, the odds were not looking particularly favourable: he probably had a second or two to make it.

But suddenly the bow of his Mirage punched out of the back of the wave like an overloaded missile launched from a submarine.  I squeezed the shutter button. For a second he was airborne as his momentum carried him through, before the boat smashed down into the trough beyond with a crash that sounded like it would split the fibreglass hull in two.

Dropping my camera on the deck, I hastily grabbed my paddle and dug it deeply into the cold, dark water as hard as I could to get my boat moving again.  The dark line of another swell top was racing inexorably towards us, and with about thirteen seconds between each peak, I wanted to be in much deeper water, and quickly!

An hour ago, four of us – Harry, Keith, Wildey and I – had paddled out from behind the sheltered headland of Green Point, near Marrawah, under a purple dawn.  Marrawah is just south of the north-west corner of Tasmania, a little way down the west coast and is the most westerly village in Tasmania.  With a pub, a phone box and a general store, there’s not much to it, but it has two claims to fame.

Firstly, the last Tasmanian tiger was apparently captured here.  But more relevant to us is the fact that Marrawah is the first stop for the huge southern ocean swells which have travelled about 16,000km from South America.  As a result, it is now a world-famous big wave surfing destination.  The biggest recorded wave at Marrawah clocked in at an almost incredible 19.5m in height.   Almost, but not quite incredible: we learned later that the waverider buoy off Cape Sorrell, half way down the west coast, stops working at a wave height of 19m because the massive walls of water prevent it from communicating with its base station on the mainland!

So after three frustrating days weathered in at Marrawah by a continuous 20 knot southerly, it was with both some relief and no little trepidation that we had set off into the Southern Ocean earlier that morning. We needed to exploit the forecast window in the weather and make some progress southward down the west coast of Tasmania.

We had set off from Devonport ten days before, and were making for Hobart – a distance of 850km or more, so at Marrawah we were roughly a quarter of the way into the trip.    From here, the only resupply point available to us before Hobart was Strahan, around 170km to our south, and there was no guarantee that we could get in there, hence we needed to carry at least two week’s worth of supplies.

The previous night’s Bureau of Meteorology forecast suggested that we now had just three days of east to north-east winds to make the 170km to Hells Gates, the entrance to Macquarie Harbour on which Strahan is situated, before the wind turned back to the south and increased again preventing further progress.

If we didn’t make Hells Gates, we could be in big trouble, as there are very few landing spots on this section of coast which are viable in a big swell.  A 4-5m SW swell was forecast, slowly decaying over the following three days to 2-3m. This would still be a formidable challenge on a coast exposed to the power of waves which on their journey here have amassed an incredible amount of energy – some of which we were just beginning to witness.

It is for this reason that the west coast of Tasmania is such a committing kayak expedition.  Kayaking here has been described, by one of the few people who have paddled it, as ‘playing chess with the weather’ in which your decision to make a move is based on a weather forecast which can change rapidly.  Once committed, landing options are limited, and being caught out by the weather can have dramatic, and potentially fatal, consequences.

We had been told that two kayakers had found this out the hard way the previous year when they were unable to find Granville Harbour, one of only two or possibly three realistic landing options between Marrawah and Strahan.  With darkness upon them and hypothermia setting in after one of them had capsized and come out of his boat, they activated an emergency satellite beacon.  Although the rescue authorities knew exactly where they were, they could do nothing to help because the rescue helicopter was not equipped to winch at night.  So the kayakers were forced to endure some appalling conditions until they could be extracted at first light. They were lucky to survive.

Harry’s big wave was our first taste of really big west coast swell.  Even though we were all old and crusty and between us had more than 120 years of paddling experience and done some very committing trips before, we were still very apprehensive about the conditions we could face here.  The cumulative effect of locally wind-driven seas on top of a big swell that has travelled for thousands of kilometres can deliver some fearsome conditions.  Today’s swell was fulfilling our expectations, although we were very fortunate not to have to deal with anything more than light winds of 5-15 knots.

After Harry’s close call as we rounded West Point, just about the most westerly point of Tasmania, we headed out wide, in awe of the intimidating mountains of water that rolled in from the south west.  And they were not just tall, they were fat as well.  I think Keith counted a dozen paddle strokes from trough to crest, about six to eight across the top, and a dozen from crest to trough.  Occasionally a big wave would darken ominously and we would hastily swing our bows seaward to face any potential break head on.  In spite of many years paddling on various oceans and big volume white water rivers around the world, I found the sheer mass of these waves and their unpredictability very intimidating.

The uncertainty was the most nerve-wracking aspect.  Our chief enemy here was statistics.  When the Bureau forecasts a 5m swell, the forecast height is for the average of the highest one third of the expected waves.  That naturally means that some waves can be significantly higher than the average.  This can have potentially devastating consequences if a kayaker finds themselves near a bombora or reef that is not breaking under ‘average’ wave height, but which will potentially erupt without warning into a breaking wall of white water when a significantly higher than average wave passes over it.  Which they do.  Many times a day!

Accounts by the few previous kayakers to have made this journey all suggested that the biggest threat on the west coast is this random breaking of waves in otherwise apparently calm areas of ocean.  As a result, we were very alert to signs of shallower areas.  We avoided lighter green areas that were obviously shallower than the surrounding deeper dark blue water, looked for traces of foam on the surface which might indicate recent breaks and frequently checked the GPS and marine charts for rocks, reefs or shallow areas.

However, the charts were of limited use.  Even in 2011, much of the area that we were travelling carried the cautionary, and unsettling, word ‘Unsurveyed’ in many places.  As a taxpayer, it made me wonder what the Royal Australian Navy’s hydrographic survey ships had been doing since Bass and Flinders had sailed around Tasmania in 1798-99.

Today we were not to be disappointed by the statistics.  As well as the massive explosions of energy where the swell broke against the rocky coast, areas of white water could be seen erupting far off into the distance to the south, as well as out to sea.  We paddled on, as briskly as we could with loaded boats, to make the 65km to the next realistic landing option at Sandy Cape.

Nine hours later we finally pulled in behind the headland at Sandy Cape.  With the knowledge that we would sooner or later be confronted by some of the legendary surf landings for which the south west of Tasmania is famous, it was a great relief to find only small waves after a long day and so many muesli bars.  After making do with snacks on the hour every hour to keep fueling our bodies, we were quick to set up our tents and get a brew on before cooking dinner and tuning in to the weather forecast on the short wave radio: there was definitely no mobile coverage here!

I for one was grateful to finally settle into a warm sleeping bag and try to get some rest before another 5a.m. start the following day.  We would need to start at first light again to crack the 55km to the next landing at Granville Harbour with a decent safety margin.  But we couldn’t realistically set off any earlier because of the risk of inadvertently paddling over a shallow area and being taken out by a breaking wave in the dark.

Next day, our landing at Granville Harbour, scene of the previous year’s near disaster, was interesting. Granville Harbour is not so much a harbour as two rocky headlands about 300m apart, each with their own point break, and separated by a rocky ‘beach’ with a nasty breaking bombora roughly in the middle, along with a smattering of other smaller reefs and rocks.

After eight hours of business-like paddling, we arrived in mid afternoon, somewhat weary, but were suddenly perked up by some swell-induced adrenalin as we neared Granville.  As we paddled closer to shore the detonations of huge waves crashing onto the rocky coast resonated with a resounding crump not dissimilar to artillery fire.  After some cautious observation, we committed and paddled hard through the entrance before threading our way through the rocks toward the makeshift boat ramp, which was overlooked by a few shacks.

It was a typically cold, grey, wet, and windy west coast day.  While cadging some fresh water off a local shack owner, we were interested, and a little unsettled, to discover that Granville would close out with only another half metre of swell.

With the swell at around 2.5m as we landed, the middle of the forecast range, it would not have taken too much more for the ocean to deny us access to pretty much the last safe haven before Strahan.  If we couldn’t get into Granville, the next option, Trial Harbour, would probably be out of the question too.  Even Macquarie Harbour 55km further south could hardly be described as a safe haven, as getting there required paddling through the Hells Gates, its notoriously dangerous entrance which, according to a retired fisherman we had met in Devonport, has killed countless sailors.  This reinforced the importance of having accurate local knowledge on which to base our decisions.

The BOM forecast that night brought the realities of this part of the world into sharp focus.   The wind was forecast to change from a 15 knot westerly to a south to south-westerly by ‘late morning’, increasing to 15-25 knots in the afternoon, and 30 knots by evening.   In other words, our choice was to race the change to Hells Gates and hope we got there before it did, or stay put at Granville for another two to three days before more favourable winds returned.

We debated the options and potential consequences.  In the words of Stuart Trueman, who at that stage was paddling around Australia and who had paddled this coast himself, “If you waited for a good weather forecast in south west Tassie you’d never get anywhere.”

In the end, the consensus was to go for it and try to make it to the fleshpots of Strahan before the bad weather set in.  But based on our previous average speed over the preceding couple of days, we were going to need to leave Granville at 4a.m.  Oh joy!  That meant a 3a.m. start.  Early to bed, trying to avoid Granville’s vicious mosquitoes.

The next day didn’t so much dawn as start with an irritating alarm at dark o’clock.  At least it had stopped raining, and there was no wind to speak of, but it was dark. Very dark.  In fact it was the darkest night I think I’ve ever seen.  There was no moon, no stars, no ambient light of any sort, and we could just make out a misty sea fog.  Our head torches bobbed around in the gloom as we hastily packed up and rammed down some form of breakfast even if we were not exactly hungry yet.  We would definitely be needing some fuel in the tank.

At 3.50a.m., we were ankle deep in water at the boat ramp.  We adjusted head torches and other forms of illumination so we could see each other in the pitch darkness.  There was a pause.  Wildey said something like, “It’s very dark.  Anyone volunteer to navigate us out of here?”

Before I’d turned in, my mind had been running through all the ‘what if’ scenarios.  It was not hard to come to the obvious conclusion that at 4a.m. it would be very dark, which would make it slightly more interesting to negotiate the rocks and reefs, and avoid the big breaks to make it safely out to deeper water.  Notwithstanding the ribbing I’d inevitably get for ‘following the purple line’, this was obviously a job for the GPS.

So with the benefit of the previous day’s track and visibility of the rocks and reefs from our campsite, I’d spent a few minutes creating a GPS route that we could follow to ensure we missed the nasty bits.

“Yep, I’ll do it.  I’ve got a route plugged in to my GPS so as long as we keep together we should be fine.’

We launched and tentatively groped our way out into the darkness.  There was absolutely no horizon or point of reference to be seen whatsoever.  It was disorienting, paddling by feel alone, except for the small colourful screen of the GPS glowing brightly from my spraydeck.  Our head torches were not much good for illuminating anything beyond the boat but at least meant we could see each other.

I had spent too many years in the army blundering around on dark nights in unfamiliar places, and was only too familiar with the potentially disorienting effects of darkness and unknown terrain.  Tonight was to be no different.  We needed to snake our way out north from the boat ramp for about 250m to avoid a couple of small rocky reefs close in, and then turn sharp left to head west south west and track out of the harbour to miss both the break on the southern headland and the bombora out in the middle.

It was not a massively complicated route, but the first couple of hundred metres was sufficiently disorienting as to raise doubt as to whether I knew where I was heading.

“We’re going round in (no prizes for guessing the expletive) circles!!” cried a voice from the darkness.

A fairly brisk conversation followed, this was not the place to stuff around; I rafted up the team, held up the tiny glowing screen so they could see the route and explained where we, or rather I, the volunteer navigator, were aiming to go.  I should definitely have done this before we launched!  Hopefully all on the same page, we headed off again into the darkness.

I had to concentrate hard to ensure the little blue triangle that represented me (or rather my GPS) did not deviate too far from the purple line which represented the pre-programmed route out of Granville.  It was like some weird kind of computer game, and staring at the screen produced a worrying disorientation in my already fuzzy head.  After a while, instead of focusing on the tiny screen, I tried to steer a course using my deck compass. But even with a torch fixed on the compass and my vision a bit squiffy from staring at the GPS, it was almost impossible to read the bearing accurately enough.

Fortunately it was not too long before we were far enough out to be reasonably safe from the break on the headland, which we could hear booming and hissing somewhere in the darkness to our left.  We altered course to head to Hells Gates and paddled on into the dark, dark, darkness on a fortuitously oily swell.  If there had been any wind to speak of, it would have been a different story.

Seven hours later, two of which were in darkness, we had still not seen land because of the sea fog.  Blessed with an oily, rolling swell, we paddled hard into the nothingness in the expectation that the sou’westerly was due at lunchtime.  I think we were all somewhat relieved when the Cape Sorrell lighthouse, still some 20km away, resolved itself out of the mist around 11a.m.  So we still had a way to go before we could say we had beaten the change!

At about 3p.m., after eleven hours paddling during which we averaged a measly 4.9km per hour against a mysterious northbound current, we finally plodded up through the outflowing waters of Hells Gates.  With high water due later that afternoon, we had expected the assistance of a flood tide.  However, local knowledge suggested to us later that, with the volume of water from power generation on the Gordon River above Macquarie Harbour, Hells Gates tends to offer an outgoing flow most of the time.  You live and learn!

The remainder of the trip was full of such adventures, marked by long days on a beautiful and sometimes threatening ocean, or weathered in to a sheltered bay, both dominated by stunningly rugged mountainscapes wreathed in cloud.

We experienced everything from the ferocity of 30 knots or more of pure, clean Tasmanian wind threatening to rip the mast stays from our decks to the serene companionship of gliding albatross and wheeling flocks of mutton birds.  We felt both trepidation at the prospect of big surf landings (most of which, by the greatest of good fortune, never eventuated), as well as the relief of finally paddling into the calm haven of a hidden river mouth at the end of a long day to discover a grassy, pocket handkerchief-sized campsite tucked into a fold in an otherwise forbiddingly harsh landscape.

Only once were we unable to land where we had hoped. Perhaps predictably, this was at a place called Rocky Boat Harbour. Not for the first time, as we got close in the swell seemed to peak up and smash across the whole width of the boulder beach.  It didn’t look very inviting. So we decided to push on to South Cape Rivulet, or failing that, Cockle Creek.  Denied our landing, at 2p.m. it suddenly looked like going to be a very long day.  But by the greatest of good fortune, and with a delightful irony, we unexpectedly found refuge only a few kilometres further on when Harry spotted a narrow gutter along a headland of Surprise Beach which made an exciting run into a rain-lashed beach.

The trip was full of memorable moments like paddling through Mosquito Passage on Robbins Island, rounding Cape Grim and sneaking in through a gutter behind a reef to avoid some massive surf at Gorge Point.  But rounding South West Cape under sail provided a particularly memorable, if fairly anxious, moment.  It was intensified by an ocean which had initially lured us southward with enticingly favourable sailing conditions, before the swell and seas combined to produce a confused battleground of water. At the same time, the wind rose up to shove us around the corner with bullets of 30 knots or more while breaking waves whacked one or two of us sideways for 30-40m in some of the most challenging conditions any of us had ever experienced at sea.

But for me the real highlight of the trip was to be sustained over twenty-six physically and mentally demanding days by the unerringly good humour, energy, determination and seamanship of my companions.  Wildey’s ability to get back into a cold, cold ocean at the end of a long day’s paddling and dig up a feed of abalone was only slightly less miraculous than his ability to fry up said abalone with garlic and chilli and provide us with a tasty and welcome change from our dehydrated diet.  Harry’s eye for a landing and dry sense of humour were instrumental in preserving our physical and mental integrity under some trying conditions.  And Keith’s energy and enthusiasm could not fail to carry you along on a wave of optimism, no matter how miserable the weather.

This trip was probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, physically and mentally, but not to be missed for the world.