Sea Canoeist, June 1981
Scribe Mike Emery
By 9am I was away, with some packing details still not sorted out. By 10am, Cecily and Tony were on board and the three canoes on the roof. Then the seven hour drive up to the North East tip of Tasmania. At least I’ll then be able to camp and get some sleep.
Tony had other ideas. It was about an hour to slack tide, the sea was calm; we could comfortably do the 8km crossing to the east end of Swan Island, before dusk. It was New Year’s Eve and Tony had already asked the Dept. of transport to notify the lighthouse keepers we were coming.
We paddled out of the river mouth on Little Musselroe Bay Beach, a gentle swell, a low sun in the blue sky, 4kms of beach curving away behind us - Swan Island beckoning on the horizon, exhilaration competing with drowsiness. Dusk was falling as we landed on a little sheltered beach by the disused and rotting jetty, and made our way over the sand dunes to the settlement - three houses, a few ruins, an open mown space, and the lighthouse.
Our knock on the door was greeted with both delight and surprise. The Dept. had informed them that three visitors would be flying in from Flinders Island, and since visitors are a rarity they had prepared a celebratory dinner for us. Then dusk fell, and since aircraft are prohibited from using the strip at night, they had eaten the dinner themselves - we were just an hour too late!
But now we had another problem. Two delightfully hospitable families preparing for the big celebration, honouring us as guests and adamant that we join in. Yet slack tide was at six in the morning, the immediate forecast was excellent, fishermen had told us the calmest water in Banks Strait occurred around dawn and to try to match it with a slack tide if at all possible. Our hosts were just blurred shapes through my half-closed eyes. I tried desperately to join in sociable conversation only to fade out in mid-sentence. They took pity on me and I was carted off to a comfortable bed ..........
“We’re leaving at 4.30”, was the last thing I remember. Tony and Cecily held out for some hours; Albie vowed that having got his guests there, there was no way he was going to let them go that quickly! He’d threatened to chain us to our beds till after the tide changed, but that in view of our somnolence, sleep would keep us captive.
I woke an hour late, roused Tony and Cec, and crept out of the house and across the sand dunes. Within minutes, we were on the water, around the north end of the island, past some minor reefs and onto a compass course for Rebecca Bay on Clarke Island - an 18km crossing with a nasty reputation for currents, overfalls and rough water. We found none of that. Just the lightest of swells and a sun which strengthened rapidly. Half-way across, an enormous flock of mutton birds passed us and continued for perhaps 15 minutes - a wide dark column across the sky. Thousands more sat on the water, dots in every direction, sometimes letting us come within a few yards of them.
As we approached Clarke Island, the lighthouse faded into the darkness behind us and the increasing current became very obvious, though not a problem - just a notable discrepancy between the direction in which one pointed and the direction in which one moved. We slid into a sheltered bay, a broad, sweeping beach backed by sand dunes and terminated by granite buttresses; clear water, white sand, and a collection of half-submerged boulders in brilliant red.
The crossing had taken 2 1/2 hours. We breakfasted, sunbaked, explored the beach, then set off eastwards around the coast - landing at South Head for lunch and a swim, where Tony picked up some abalone. Approaching Moriarty Point, we could see heavy surf a short distance out to sea where the chart warned of a reef; we noted it respectfully and paddled on close to the rocks. It was just after we had rounded the point and were heading northwards, Tony, a short distance ahead, Cec and I chatting as we paddled, that I glanced at the shore. We were making no headway at all. After half-an-hour of very hard paddling, we rounded the corner into Moriarty Bay and decided to camp rather than battle the current.
On Friday morning we paddled up the coast; there was no noticeable current. We landed at Black Point, surprised a flock of ducks on the lagoon, amongst the sand dunes, then paddled on hoping to reach the passage between Clarke and Cape Barren Islands at slack water. The tide tables were insufficiently detailed to predict slack water, and there was a fair amount of guess-work involved. We reached the passage entrance - a long, sandy spit, jutting out into the channel - and paddled to two tiny rock islands in the channel. A large flock of terns rose from one of them, hovered, then landed again. We paddled close, and the same thing happened again. Landing on the rocks, we slowly approached the rookery. Every time one of us moved, the whole flock would rise, screaming, hovering, watching us, then land again. We edged to within 2 metres of the rookery area, then just sat and watched. The individual nests were just shallow depressions in the sea grass, eggs and chicks sitting in the open, but so well camouflaged, that one only saw them when a parent landed again. We returned to the canoes to find the tide had dropped a foot in perhaps thirty minutes, and had some trouble manoeuvering the boats back to the water.
We crossed the passage without incident, and landed on a delightful little beach, surrounded by more red granite boulders. A sea breeze rose and we spent an exhilarating afternoon paddling up Kent Bay in a significant chop. We camped at the head of the bay, and spent some time looking for signs of the substantial settlement that existed there early last century - a rough settlement of escaped convicts and ship’s deserters making a living out of seals. We found little - the stone foundations of a chimney, a bit of broken glass, which may, or may not have been old - but we were more intrigued by Bishop’s Creek, which at half-tide, stopped flowing in, flowed outwards strongly for 5 minutes, and then resumed its original flow again. We walked up the creek a long way, looking for fresh water, but it was brackish all the way. We finally found a lonely flowing soak and relied on that.
On Saturday we paddled up Rice’s River, watched by several wallaby who stood on the banks. After a couple of kilometres the river narrowed and became blocked with brushwood and we turned round, one at a time, backing and filling in the confined space. I was the last to turn and just as I started to paddle away, a Cape Barren Goose jumped out from a bush a metre away, and fled.
We paddled back to the Armstrong Channel into a stiff headwind and landed on Battery Island for a rest - a little beach, a lot of big boulders, some patches of grass, a lot of birds; cold and damp. We gave up our aim of Preservation Island and made for the closest shore, landing on an intimate little beach, with granite outcrops at each end, camping in the scrub just above it.
The following day the westerly was still blowing, so we walked up the Battery Bay hills, through open burnt scrub to some big rock outcrops, then down to an isolated lagoon - a wide band of white sand cut off from the sea by sand dunes, reeds, still water, large, old paper-bark trees; then to Whale Head, named from an enormous round backed lump of red granite that rises out of the water just off the Cape. Sheltered from the wind, we sunbaked and swam before walking back to camp.
On Monday the wind had abated and we headed past Wombat Point again, to Preservation Island - site of the beaching of the ‘Sydney Cove’ in 1797.
We found a buoy which we assumed marked the wreck site in the channel between Rum and Preservation Islands, landed in a little bay with a narrow, rocky entrance, then explored the island - mainly a cattle lease but with a nice bouldery southern end and some good beaches. At the northern tip, Tony skin-dived and came up with the biggest crayfish I’ve ever seen - and a graphic account of the under-water battle gripping the feelers with both hands, pushing out with his feet against the rock with all his might, trying to haul the cray out of his hole, and running out of air at the same time. One side of the shell had been filed smooth by the friction with the side of the hole, as he was pulled out. Cooking him was a problem as the tail wouldn’t fit in our biggest billy, let alone the whole cray! We pushed as much of him into the billy as would fit, tied up all the legs with string so they didn’t dangle, then extended the billy with aluminium foil and steamed him for about an hour.
In the late afternoon with the current behind us we rounded the west end of Cape Barren. As we passed Cape Sir John, the end of Long Island came into view - just a gentle rounded hill, but with a structure on top which looked more and more like a Greek ruin, as we approached. It turned out to be a collection of boulders, several standing on end in silhouette on the summit in the fading twilight.
We camped a little east of the settlement and the next day spent several hours walking back to the settlement and talking to the locals about mutton birds, boats, shifting shoals. The storekeeper-cum-postman-cum-mutton birding entrepreneur looked as if he was straight out of the latest western - cowboy hat, long sideburns, and visible through his shirt, (in case you still hadn’t got the message) a T-shirt with ‘Cowboy’ inscribed in large letters!
We paddled out to Anderson Island - also used for grazing sheep and cattle - landed on the beach amidst large numbers of Cape Barren Geese. One of these made no attempt to fly away and Tony eventually picked him up with little fuss.
We continued eastwards with the current behind us on a hot, calm day. It was intriguing to be several kilometres off shore, and to be able to look down through the water at all the details on the sea bottom - the sand, the seaweed, the stingrays. At one stage, the details were so clear it was hard to imagine the water was more than a metre deep, so I felt downward with the paddle. It was only a metre deep! No wonder this place is considered dangerous for yachts. We saw a fishing boat in the distance, on its side, on a sandbank, and were later told it had run aground and been abandoned.
We aimed to reach the channel between Vansittart (Gun Carriage) Island and Cape Barren Island at low tide, but were a little later and had to paddle hard in a flood tide to get through Cooties Reef. The wreck of the Farsund came into sight - a three-masted, steel sailing ship that grounded on the sand a century ago, and still stands upright at about her correct level above the water - but she appeared to be surrounded by surf. Tony was already half-way out to her (a kilometre off shore) and so I followed. The surf turned out to be localised patches and there was no trouble avoiding them. Landing on the wreck was exciting; a broken mast lay across the deck and overhung the water on one side, and we had to catch this on the top of a swell (without hitting our heads on it) and hang from it while the canoe dropped away beneath us.
The boat is in very poor condition, though the overall shape is still complete, many of the hull plates had rusted through leaving just a sieve-like skeleton. On deck some parts of the mast still stand and a group of rigging screws sprout from the rail - having rusted solid before the cables disappeared. The focsle is higher above the water than the rest of the ship and is caked with bird droppings; there is a story that a man attempting to salvage fittings was caught by worsening weather, and had to spend three days there.
We paddled back to the shore in the twilight and camped on a sheltered beach in the channel. Walking along the water’s edge at twilight, I came across two sting-rays cuddling in a few inches of water.
In the morning, Tony and I climbed the tall hill that makes the island distinctive, walking past a herd of cattle with a certain amount of caution. The view from the summit was superb; Cape Barren Island with its mountains, Franklin Sound with its array of islands, the jagged ridges of Mt. Strzelecki, and the sweep of surf beaches stretching into the haze up Flinder’s east coast. That, I knew, would be my next challenge; for the southern half of the east coast is a maze of shoals, notorious for currents, breaking waves and sand banks. We could see a turbulent stretch of water off the north-east of the island, and descended for a closer look. There appeared to be a strong current curving southeastward around the northern end of our island and sweeping out from the east coast to leave a pocket of calm water between itself and us. We watched from the beach as a sizeable fishing boat motored across the calm water, crossed the distinct demarcation line between the calm and turbulent, then bucked and plunged as it pressed onwards.
We walked back along the shore for three kilometres to our camp, preceded all the way by a flock of Cape Barren Geese who were disinclined to fly.
Again, we missed the current, and paddled eastwards through Cooties Reef, then up to Bates Bay where the Vansittart settlement used to be. A week later, I was to find references to this bay in the museum on Flinders Island. There used to be a major trading centre on the grassy slopes behind the sweeping beach, and had as many a twenty-five sailing ships anchored in the bay at one time.
We found a couple of run-down houses, some stockyards, a few tombstones, a few more foundations, and a stone well with a dead snake floating in it. Again, no-one was living on the island. In the afternoon we paddled across the sound, past a series of islands and over Spencers Reef, to Lady Barron township, to be greeted by a number of intrigued tourists and yachtsmen. We made a few phone calls, bought a few items of food, gave in to the temptation of a counter meal at the pub, and set off again well after dark. We paddled by moonlight across the bay, through the Billy Goat Reefs to camp on White Beach, ready for an early start on the somewhat intimidating east coast.
Up at dawn, and on the water within half an hour, planning to reach Pot Boil Point at slack tide. We paddled for seven kilometres along a calm, surfless beach until we could see a line of surf in the distance, stretching out to sea. When very close to the point, I discovered my rudder out of action and dangling, so we landed and did the simplest repair job which was to lash it to the back deck. The point was a spit of sand with currents flowing towards it along the shore from both directions, and colliding in a series of breaking standing waves. Tony paddled through without difficulty, then due to a misunderstanding, came into land again a couple of hundred metres up the coast. He then tried to launch again but was unable to, due to the strong current along the shore, which always swept the canoe sideways to the breaking waves. Tony had to walk his boat back to the south side of the point and go through again. Meanwhile, Cec and I went through. At the point itself, there was a lot of turbulence, with a lot of small breakers coming rapidly and very close to each other from several directions. We had a wet bouncy couple of minutes before getting into more predictable water - parallel lines of breakers around two to three foot high and at 45 degrees to the beach. I took about a dozen of these before I realised that I was getting a long way off shore. I tried to sneak back towards the shore between breakers, but there was barely enough time to turn head on again to the next break - I was broached a couple of times, and had to support heavily. Finally, I was through with Cecily close behind but it was a long time before Tony caught up. In the fifteen minutes between his first and second passing of the point the tide had built up very much and he’d had quite a battle.
We paddled on to the entrance of Logan Lagoon, a kilometre or so away, but progress was very slow because of the contrary current, so we landed for a few hours for breakfast. The only food I could get at easily was a fruit cake I’d bought at Lady Barron as a delicacy and which I’d tied on deck because it wouldn’t fit in with my other food - it’s amazing how much fruit cake one can eat for breakfast when one’s hungry. We walked along the lagoon - a combination of sand, reeds, shallow water and some quit dense scrub - watched a large flock of very shy pelicans, then launched the canoes again. The wind was easterly and the surf at the beach was building up. We paddled up the coast just outside the surf for several kilometres, with a lot more surf over scattered shoals out to sea. Then we found ourselves in a wide channel, beach surf on our left and another continuous line of surf a hundred metres or so, on our right. Continuing on we found the way ahead was also blocked; a narrow strip at right angles to the two line of surf continued all the way from the outer bank to the beach. Tony eyed it briefly, then ducked through quickly. I eyed it apprehensively, but made it with a minor support stroke; Cecily was out of luck, and was bowled. I landed while Tony checked that Cec and her boat weren’t swept out by the currents - they weren’t but her hat and some minor items were.
We decided to wait until the surf was gentler. We carved a very cosy camp site out of dense scrub in the sand dunes and made ourselves comfortable. We stayed there for two days watching the surf, making marks on the beach to record the tides; wading or swimming in the shallow water to feel what the current was doing, but we were unable to make predictions. High and low tides weren’t six hours apart, and the tides appeared to bear no relation to the current. We searched for fresh water to replenish our supplies and failed there also. Eventually, we dug a metre deep hole in the sand with a paddle which filled with a black, evil smelling liquid. After decanting to remove the sand and boiling to remove the smell, it was recognisable as water, though still very salty and only fit for cooking with. We also weathered a thunderstorm which contributed slightly to our water supplies.
Saturday the tenth, the easterly hadn’t let up, the surf looked marginally smaller, but I was still unenthusiastic about setting out. We dithered, then decided to try anyway, late in the morning. We had great trouble launching because of the current which kept sweeping the boat sideways before one could get into it. I got away after several attempts, got through the soup and then was hit by two large, broken waves in succession, which pushed me back again. I started moving forwards again, was hit by another big one, was thrown off-balance, supported, recovered, and down came another. Then came another, and I noticed it had only just broken. I must be nearly through - seconds later, I was outside the surf, moving gently up and down on an innocent looking swell, winded and exhausted, arms limp by my sides.
Tony came through a moment later, and we watched Cecily as she still battled to get off the beach, catching occasional glimpses from the top of a swell. When she did get off, she was overturned by a breaker and swept back again. We waited as she dragged her canoe onto the beach, emptied it and repeated the laborious launching procedure. The same happened again. I suspect, because Cec’s canoe is much narrower than ours - and Tony decided we’d go back. He caught a wave and disappeared, to reappear on the beach, apparently without incident. He later described the bow digging in and the boat being on the point of looping before it slipped around sideways. Meanwhile, I watched the swells for a couple of minutes trying (and failing) to pick up a pattern, when suddenly I realised that the swells had moved me gradually in towards the beach and I was already within the breaking zone. I started paddling furiously while watching over my shoulder. I saw a swell behind me appear from nowhere, grow until it towered over me, and break just at it reached me. Tony reckoned it was a six to seven footer. My experience had been limited to three or four footers, but I plunged my paddle in and threw myself into it, and hoped. I felt myself straining while under water, managed to change my grip on the paddle and felt better. The wave let me go just as suddenly, and I readied myself for the next of the breakers to catch me. I shook the water from my eyes to find I was already on the beach, Tony’s grinning face looking down on me.
We lit a fire to dry ourselves then put up a tent fly against some threatening drizzle, and ate. About 2pm we tried again and made it, Cec exuberant, because she’d been bowled over again, but managed to roll up in the surf. Outside the surf line the sea was very gentle, but we had another problem. Babel Island was about 27km away, the current was against us (though not strongly so), it was fairly late in the day and if we didn’t make it, we would have to land and launch again through the surf. It was a long afternoon.
We landed on Babel at dusk, after awakening a fishing boat skipper on his anchored boat, to get local advice about the tides. He expressed some considerable astonishment.
The next three nights were spent in a mutton birder’s shed above a little granite gulch, wood-stove, tables, beds (of sorts) and candles. Babel is a tall island with several summits and steep slopes, little beaches scattered around it, and the whole of it is a mutton bird rookery. After dark, the sky would be filled with the wheeling, fast-moving shapes and the air filled with their calls. We climbed the various peaks, watched the mutton birds that had cheated by nesting under a rock instead of digging a hole, watched the surf along the submerged spit of sand that links Babel to Flinders. We paddled out to Storehouse and Cat Islands, to find them also perforated with mutton bird holes. With every step the ground caves in beneath your feet, and you wonder if you’ve just smothered another one.
Cat Island has a gannet rookery that had 10,000 birds at the beginning of the century. Forty years later, this has been reduced to a couple of dozen, mainly due to cray fishermen using them for bait. We walked across the island looking for any sign of them, found a flat, uninteresting barren island covered with mutton bird holes, a little battery operated lighthouse, and then amidst the long grass, a clearing a few metres across with 18 gannets - tall, white birds with long, graceful necks, a yellow head with black patches around the eyes (that make them look like guests at a masked ball) and a few tail feathers.
They sat, or stood, on this windblown shelterless patch, ignoring us, except for some cries. They reminded me of the last of the full-blood aborigines, herded together in a little settlement on Flinders Island, cut off from the way of life they knew, and losing the will to fight on. We approached very cautiously, one at a time, to take photographs from outside the boundary of their cleared area. They did not flinch. We could see two chicks, fairly large and very fluffy, there may have been some eggs. Occasionally, a seagull tried to land among them, to be chased away by a pecking beak.
Tuesday the thirteenth, and we paddled on up the coast of Flinders about 50 kilometres of unbroken surf beach. We crossed the spit to Babel by paddling down a surf-free channel we’d picked out from the top of Babel, then crossed a large area of continuous, but small surf. We rested on a flat rock a kilometre offshore and watched the cormorants in somewhat blustery conditions and landed for lunch a few kilometres further northwards in easy surf at Patriarch Inlet, paddling up the river as it snaked across the beach. We didn’t stay long - I counted eighteen dead whales on the sand, without even trying.
We paddled on, making slow progress, suspect the tide was against us and I was also taking water. Eventually a thin vertical black line was seen on the horizon. It was the mast of the “City of Foochow” - almost as old as the “Farsund” - driven ashore in a strong easterly, now her hull has sunk beneath the sand and only the short, hollow iron mast stands erect. We surfed in without incident and camped in the scrub behind the beach. I managed to half swim, half wade out to the mast and climb on it. That night the tide receded to reveal a large area of wet sand, and I spent some hours walking down the beach on a black stormy night, watching the reflections of the shore in the wet sand. At the Foochow Inlet, I disturbed a large flock of birds which rose, invisible, screeching around me. They sounded so close, I expected to feel the wind of their wing tips.
Morning came and we launched again, uneventfully. This time we had wind and current behind us and we flew up the coast in spite of rougher seas. The coast line was unchanging beach and sand dune, but the sea was full of variety. The water would change colour, change its clarity (presumably due to offshore currents carrying sand), alter its texture as the wind and current altered their interactions. My boat was making water - there was already a leak that I’d been unable to find and the water was rough enough to make rafting to pump out difficult. We reached the northern tip of Flinders, some large boulders with some fishermen, some offshore boulders with rough water and breaking seas between them and the shore, and a lot of breaking seas further out. We eyed it all for a couple of minutes, then decided to run the gauntlet inside the rocks; the breaking seas looked reasonably predictable. We ran through in a couple of minutes, a bouncy and exhilarating ride. Round the corner was a calm sandy cove. We landed, lunched and swam. Tony went over to the rock where the fishermen stood. They ignored him, in spite of our having passed fifty metres away in the biggest seas of our trip. We decided they must be tourists. We launched again, going westwards through Sister’s Passage, again with the wind and tide behind us, tall steep seas, but predictable and not breaking; the rocky shore swept past at a speed that would do credit to some motor-boats, then around Blyth Point and we were heading southwards for the first time. Now the wind was against us and weariness was beginning to show. We crept along the shore line to the Old Man’s Head - a great rock protruding above a little peninsula, watching for approaching boats. Round the corner, a little sandy beach with its back to the sea, and a pair of big arches under which we paddled. Across the Killiecrankie Bay to the settlement and a boat load of relatives and friends of Cecily’s coming out to greet us. We had covered about 50 kilometres. We spent two days at Killiecrankie. My cockpit coaming was separating from the deck and explained the leak. I visited friends in Whitemark, and listened for hours as Mrs Stackhouse (part aboriginal and proud of it) talked of moves to record as much as one could of her ancestors, of the Emita Museum, of visiting authors researching their history of sixteen years during which she had gone to Babel for two to three months each year to work at mutton-birding, taking only a bit of flour and sugar and living off fish and crays and birds they caught as they worked.
We set off again, revitalised, refreshed, my boat repaired, very grateful for the hospitality. We took four days to get to Trousers Point at the south-west corner of Flinders, via Royden and North Pascoe Islands, Bun Beetons Point, Marriott Reef and Castle Rock, the rebuilt aboriginal chapel at Wybalena, a thunderstorm in Lillies Bay and a fog and compass course across to Arthur’s Bay, a hot loaf at Whitemark, running aground and having to walk, towing the canoe while in the middle of the sea on our way out to Green Island, and finding there a very neatly papered wall - using 1885 newspapers. These contained articles on how well brought up the Queen-to-be was, and one describing a newly discovered means of propelling ships - the drawing looked a bit like a screw propeller.
We spent a day climbing Mt Strzelecki, a most impressive and rewarding mountain, jagged granite crags, sharp-edged scrubby ridges and deep, narrow valleys. It took us three more days to cover the fourteen kilometres to Ned’s Point on Cape Barren Island. Each day we had strong winds and rough seas, and each day we set out, only to give up after a short distance. On one of these days, we stopped by default at Big River Cove and I spent the afternoon exploring a narrow bush track, a little footbridge across the river, then suddenly a paddock and a farmhouse; two great spurs of Strzelecki towering on either side and a single farm of flat, fertile land, snuggling between the folds of the mountain, its own river, its own beach front, it seemed a paradise for the right person, yet there wasn’t a single sheep or cow in sight - just, literally, thousands of wallaby.
At Ned’s Point was another deserted farm on the beachfront, surrounded by enormous pine trees and a great flowering gum, tractor and other machinery decaying in he pine needles, not a person there, not an animal in sight. We helped ourselves to water from the tank and camped behind the beach. The twenty-fourth was an exciting day. We paddled to the western end of Long Island and spent hours photographing the boulders, swimming, Tony catching more fish than we could eat. Then, with the change in tide, we set off southwards. We swept past Cape Sir John, met up accidentally with friends in Key Island Bay, raced down the west coast of Preservation Island, judging the currents between the rocks and deciding which breaks we were prepared to go through and which to avoid, down one classical river rapid - the smooth triangle, the drop, the standing waves, all a couple of hundred yards out to sea - across Armstrong Channel, a visit by a high powered catamaran, with a dozen tourists on board who wanted to know what we were doing; another visit half an hour later by the same catamaran with a different load of tourists, the run down the west coast of Clarke, the character of the sea changing with every cape we passed - little haystacks, parallel ridges a foot high and only a few feet apart, oily swells and just plain, breaking waves.
Finally, the sun very low, we rounded Lookout Head and glided into Rebecca Bay. A yacht was anchored there and two fellows ran down the beach to meet us. They had seen our paddles glinting in the sun, long before they could see us and had decided we must be whales. We camped on the summit of a sand dune and watched the sea as we cooked our meal. There must have been half a dozen large cargo ships go past that evening. We rose before dawn and launched soon after sunrise. The water was rougher than the previous trip but in no way serious. We paddled out past some rocks, trying to judge what the current was doing to our predictions. We set our compass course but the lighthouse on Swan Island became visible very soon. The texture of the water was quite different to the outward crossing, lots of little sharp-edged waves, instead of a smooth rolling swell, interrupted occasionally by circular patches of smooth water - an oily smoothness although there was no oil there; patches perhaps 30 or 50 metres across, with edges so sharply defined, that the surrounding waves broke when they reached the patches edges. We would break out of the rough water, glide across the patch, then drive into the waves again on the other side. Otherwise, the crossing was uneventful. We came across more mutton birds, but not in the quantities we’d encountered a month before; it also took an extra hour for the return trip, presumably because of unfavourable currents.
As we approached the lighthouse beach the entire compliment of keepers and their families assembled to greet us.They fed and entertained us heartily; I was glad they’re taken our previous early departure in good spirit. The trip seemed over, with only a trivial paddle back to the mainland (or the “away”, as the islanders called it).
The ghosts of Furneaux had other ideas. Slack tide was at 3.30pm so we planned to leave at three for a crossing of a bit over an hour. There was a bit of sea fog around the top of the lighthouse (though none at sea level), so we worked out compass courses while we still had the extraordinary convenience of a kitchen table available. But we talked and ate for too long and it was well after 3.30 when we launched. The fog had lowered a bit, but visibility was still no problem. We paddled round the west end of the island, and the fog descended. When Tony was three boat lengths ahead, he was virtually invisible.
At the same time the sun shone down fiercely from a blue sky - the fog was only a few metres thick. We guessed a correction to our compass bearing to allow for the cross-current which would be increasing for the whole of the crossing, and paddled on. The water was almost flat calm, clear reflections of the other canoeists rippling in the water, yet the sea had a heavy, oily feel; it seemed extraordinary hard to keep the boat moving, as if the boat was sticking in the water.
We paddled for half an hour, then rested, sunburnt and thirsty, the fog as thick as ever. We could hear some motors running, not very far away, they sounded like outboard motors but their direction didn’t seem to change. Perhaps electric generators on land? Were we in an isolated patch of fog with tourists running around in the open close by? Every minute we rested, the current would be growing and working out where we were when we finally landed would be more difficult. We paddled on then rested again. The motors were still there, sounding very close, but there were no other clues. We had a third rest; we knew we should be very close to the shore by now, mildly apprehensive that we hadn’t yet found it, our only option was to stick to our compass course.
Then, as we talked, we thought we got a glimpse of something ahead. We moved one canoe length, and we were out of the fog. Another two canoe lengths and there was a little rocky headland with a fisherman on it, staring at us. We asked him where the entrance to Little Musselroe Bay was. “Right here,” he answered, pointing to the sandbank a few metres away.
We paddled down to the lagoon entrance to be greeted by the locals who’d farewelled us on our departure, and watched the holiday-makers in their little runabouts travelling very gingerly along the narrow strip of water between the beach and the wall of fog. We phoned some very worried lighthouse keepers on Swan Island, who had seen the fog come down just after we’d disappeared from view, and were convinced we’d tried to turn back to the island and missed it.