Bass Strait March/April 2016

The Girl (Sue Shearman) & The Old Man (Laurie Ford)

Up ahead was a mad swirling chaotic area of water caused by the very strong tide race over the shallow area off Lookout Head, and also by the remains of the south-westerly swell after a few days of strong winds. We were being swept into it by the strong tide and could not avoid it if we wanted to. But I did head a little further off-shore in case of a capsize so there would be more time for a rescue before being dashed up on the rocky shore.

Only a short time ago we had arrived at Foam Point near Spike Bay on Clarke Island just as it was getting light enough to see where we were going. We’d had a 5am start from Preservation Island. Foam Point stretches way out to sea and there are rocks and reefs everywhere and as we approached it looked quite daunting – almost a solid wall of breakers across in front of us. But as is usually the case when we were closer, it was then possible to see a way through the mess of breaking waves and we were being swept into it anyway. Like a drunk weaving his way across a busy road we managed to avoid all the rocks and reefs. Minutes later we were through and into calmer water in Spike Bay but still being carried along by the strong current.

And now a bigger challenge off Lookout Head. It looked, and was, wild and then we were into it – one second the bows were pointing skyward on top of a haystack, the next down in a trough with water breaking over the full length of the kayaks. By far the worst conditions we had for the whole trip. We haphazardly bounced from wave to wave for a couple of hundred metres and then we were through and in calmer waters as we turned left into Rebecca Bay and had a quick chat to a man on a fishing boat anchored there, telling him we had just come from Preservation Island and were going ashore to wait for the right tide to take us west of Cape Portland. The red flashing lights on our hats were still flashing – they had been essential to see each other at the start.

It took a few minutes to wait for a lull in the surf before Sue landed, and then minutes later had walked along the beach to where there was phone reception to phone her partner Garth. “What was it like” he asked. “Terrifying” was Sue’s reply. Not really the sort of answer to a new partner who has never been in a sea kayak and does not’t understand anything about the conditions they can handle, and has been very apprehensive about the whole idea of the trip for some months.

This was our last day of the 15 day crossing of Bass Strait from Port Welshpool in Victoria to Little Musselroe Bay in NE Tasmania. And never again for me. It was a slightly crazy idea for a 76 year old man to do it once more – my 5th crossing in a sea kayak. And why was I out here anyway? About a year ago Sue Shearman (under 50) had asked “what about a Bass Strait paddle?” and after a moment’s thought I said “why not.” The two previous years I had led sea kayak trips out to Flinders Island and return and had paddled for 5 hours at a time on more than one day. It might be a bit of a giggle to do it once more, but I knew it was going to be very hard even with all the training we would have to do before-hand.

My last crossings were twice in 1982 and twice in 1987.

Two weeks ago Garth had dropped us off at Port Welshpool on Tuesday 29th March, where we launched our heavily loaded sea kayaks about 11 am and headed out for Wilsons Promontory for the first night.

I loved the audio on this bit of video. Here The Girl is setting out across Bass Strait in a kayak and she is telling Garth to drive safely.

It was fairly low water and we started to feel the current against us as we got near the end of the channel and pointed across to the Prom. We were just going to go as far as we could in daylight and then camp – might make Johnny Souey camp site with a bit of luck. We didn't, but stopped at a beach just around the corner north from it. We landed and found a really good camp spot and were soon set up. Had a camp-fire on the beach where there was plenty of dry sand to put it out with. This beach didn't seem to have a name so we named it Suzie May Beach. We were on our way. Both sea kayaks were fitted with two sails and a rudder, and electric pump. All our gear was in the two compartments, one in the front and one in the rear.

                                                      Suzie May Beach – great camp site.

                                                                                  Day one track

Wednesday was a bit more overcast and a bit of rain as we rounded the corner and did land at Johnny Souey for a look at the camping facilities there – Suzie May was much much better. Then it was on to Sealers Cove where we landed again to check the camping – not very impressed with it. But we did have a long break for lunch on the lovely beach before continuing to Refuge Cove where there were two boats anchored. Not long after we landed and were setting up camp in the boater’s camp site 4 or 5 yachts from Tasmania and a motor vessel arrived for the night as well – they had come across from Deal Island. One yacht was the Willyamer with the sister (Christine) of one of the hockey players I played with this past summer. They all came ashore later to BBQ on the beach so we had a chat to them, but I left early to get off my feet.

                                                                           Day two track

Thursday the forecast was for west winds 10 to 15 knots which would have been great if they had arrived. Instead it was an 8 hour 50km practically windless paddle across to Hogan Island which we could see lifting over the horizon after about 2 hours paddling. The last two hours the wind did arrive and fairly strong which was lucky as we were just starting to get into a contrary current along the side of Hogan Island and without the wind assistance we would not have got around the northern end of the island and for quite a while I was contemplating going around the southern end. The wind against the current was producing some largish steep waves and I was constantly looking back over my shoulder to make sure Sue was still upright. No problems there and as we cut diagonally across the current close to shore I had to take the rear sail down to make it easier to look back. Then we were on the eastern side of Hogan and in smooth water as we went a short distance and then made a tight right-hand turn to go into the beach in front of the hut. I made use of this while Sue preferred to put her tent up next to it. Sue went off to walk to the top of the hill. We did sit in the hut with Sue’s solar powered light, talking for quite a while. The second longest crossing was now behind us. The forecast for tomorrow was similar as the one for today so we planned to get away early for the next crossing to Erith Island – only a mere 39km. Erith is one of the 3 large islands of the Deal Island Group.

                                                                     Hogan from the hut.

                                                                     Sue’s kayak about to refloat.

                                                                                     The Hut

                                                                              The Hogan Island Light

                                                         Erith & Deal Island from the Hogan light

                                                                       Day three track to Hogan Island

Friday was another day with very minimal wind assistance and it took 5 3/4 hours to land on the beach in Bulli Cove in front of the shack there. I've seen this shack a number of times in the past when it belonged to Brian Stackhouse when he and his brother Alf ran cattle here. I have visited the island in Alf’s ketch the ‘Alcheringa’ with Alf and Brian and their sister Cecily Butorac. In fact this is a photo of Alcheringa at Erith Island back in the 80’s.

I was also here in 1982 when I made my first double crossing of Bass Strait, and again in 1987 when 3 other members of the Maatsuyker Canoe Club and I paddled across to Refuge Cove and back from Little Musselroe Bay from NE Tasmania – they were Kaye Beswick, Ian Macdonald, and Toby Clark. I met the Murray-Smiths both times, Brian had been giving them permission to use his hut over the summers for a number of years.

It had now been 4 days paddling for Sue and I without a break so we opted for a few nights here. The weather was also unsuitable for continuing for a few days.

Saturday we climbed a hill or two looking for phone reception and I did something to my right Achilles tendon – it was very painful to hobble on for the rest of the trip – particularly getting the heavy kayaks up and down the beaches.

On Sunday Sue paddled across to Deal Island to check it out and met the caretakers there – we had talked to them on the VHF radio as we entered Murray Pass on Friday afternoon. I watched her all the way across till I saw her land near the jetty, and had told her to inform me via VHF radio when she was ready to paddle back again.

Before the trip we had both bought some very bright LED spot lights (divers torches) and mine had a strobe function as well. The lights were for looking for landing spots in case we were caught out after dark. We also had a nylon strap sewn on top of our hats where we could put a red flasher - the type bikes use as a tail light.

When Sue was ready to launch to come back to Erith I put my strobe on and it was very easily seen from Deal Island beach – about 2km away. That was very nice to know that it is a good signaling device even on a sunny day. I did try the ordinary bright spotlight function but that was not nearly as good. The Deal Island caretakers told Sue about a group of 12 kayakers who had to call for a boat to come out from Port Welshpool and take them and their kayaks back to Victoria. And we had also heard about two groups who had got as far as Refuge Cove but then turned back to Port Welshpool. It can be a daunting experience heading out into the open ocean for 12 hours or more. That was the time we read in the Hogan Island log book that one group took just to get to Hogan Island from Refuge Cove. Because I had the VHF radio on all day I heard some chatter from the yachts that we had met in Refuge Cove – they were on their return voyage to Tasmania. Later that afternoon the motor cruiser “Westwind of Kettering” came into our cove and we talked to them briefly via radio. We were all going to be crossing to Flinders Island tomorrow. They were in Garden Cove, and entertaining the island caretakers on board in the evening.

                                                    The track from Hogan to Erith Island

Three nights in the Erith Island hut and then Monday was the big day, and again no real wind forecast – a real blow to me as I had been saying all along that I was going to need wind assistance to get across to Killiecrankie – 63km. We’d decided on a 5am start to give maximum hours of daylight. Very dark at 5am and we certainly needed the flashers to see where the other paddler was as we paddled out of Murray Pass and round Deal Island onto a compass course of 115 degrees magnetic. An hour later the sky started to lighten and we could see the end of Deal Island and not long after could see Craggy Island Light, and then lumps of Flinders Island. The sun came up into a gloomy sky. I might add our watches were still set on Daylight Saving Time and we did not change them till after landing on Flinders Island.

Four hours later we were in the vicinity of Wrights Rock, where we both spotted a Willy Wagtail – a long way from land. Every day we had been stopping on the hour every hour for a drink and chocolate/jelly bean break. Another 3 hours to Craggy Island and I was feeling pretty tired, and still 4 hours to go. We went very close round the east side of island and had there been somewhere easy to land I would have landed to have a rest. I stopped more frequently after that, every half an hour. I was always going to make it, but very slowly. The Girl looked as though she had only launched her kayak a few minutes ago and was a hell of a lot fitter than I was.

                                                       5am start from Erith Island.

                                                                       The end of Deal Island

                                                                           Wright’s Rock

                                                                             Craggy Island


But after 11 hours the tide took us across the bay and into Killiecrankie. We managed to pull the kayaks up above high tide and get into dry clothes and feed ourselves and put up the tent and tent fly – but I was pretty well all in by then. I was so tired and also relieved at finishing the big crossing that I had a small emotional moment for a few minutes. I downloaded the latest forecast but was too tired to even look at it, and I was thinking I was going to need a few rest days here anyway to recover. We camped in the “day use” area. We had not seen any of the yachts on their crossing – they must have been to the west of us heading down the west side of Flinders Island.

                                                        Track from Deal to Flinders Island

Tuesday morning I woke about 3am and felt much better (must have been those 8 SAO biscuits and Spam I had for tea) and then decided to look at the forecasts. There was a lot of fresh SW and W winds forecast in a day or so, but today was N to NW winds freshening during the day. The idea of resting for a day or two and then combating W winds to get round Cape Frankland was not very appealing so I wandered over to the Girl’s tent at 3am and woke her up and said we needed to be on the water paddling no later than 7.30 am to get round the Cape with the last of the flood tide. She thought I was joking to start with but I soon convinced her it was a great plan. We actually launched before 7 and had our best day of the whole trip. We sailed in light winds around the Cape and then towards Whitemark. Landed briefly opposite Royden Island for Sue to tape up some chafing and then as the wind strengthened we had a glorious sail all the way to Whitemark with both sails up on each kayak. The kayaks were slicing through the water. The Girl had her sails “Goose winged” for the first time ever – she had never heard that term before. One sail out each side with a following wind. We covered the 46km with effortless ease, despite a few wobbles now and then. If only we had had this wind yesterday.

                                                       Early start from Killiecrankie

                                                                     Rounding Cape Frankland

                                                                           Whitemark Bakery

                                                                         A well-earned rest

I went to the Whitemark International Hotel and paid for a room for two nights – they were fully booked the third night or we may have stayed longer. A visit to the bakery for pie and chips was vital to keep the spirits up, but maybe not wise as it was “Parmie” night at the pub and I didn't have a hope in hell of eating more than half of mine. I was almost too tired to eat. The beds and the hot showers were heaven.

                                                                                   Track to Whitemark

Wednesday was a bit of a rest day but we did wander round some of the shops, and visited Dawn at her “Furneaux Art Gallery.” A bloody good artist. I had taken the battery out of my kayak to take into the hotel room and used it to charge my tablet and 4G device and also the VHF radio – thinking it would charge up once back in the kayak by my solar panel on the rear deck. Wrong. I've only had the solar panel for about a year and this was the first time I had taken the battery out. Unfortunately there was still some salt water in the bottom of the kayak and the two leads dangled in this for two days and totally corroded the positive terminal off the wire. I only discovered this just before leaving again on Thursday morning but managed to connect the battery back up using a bit of cord to tie the almost non-existent terminal onto the battery terminal. But it was a cloudy day and no sun to charge the battery and it never really got much of a charge for the rest of the trip.

After not being able to finish the Parmies the first night, and after another visit to the bakery today we opted for a cup ‘o soup and biscuits for tea – using the coffee making hot water in the pub lounge. The Girl had been feeding me cups ‘o soup since Hogan Island – we did stock up on them at the IGA in Whitemark.

Thursday was an 11am start to try and get to Long Island about LW but this proved not to be possible. And just as we were departing a large barge came into the jetty right on high water with a load of blue metal for the airport runway. As we sailed across in strengthening west winds the outgoing tide and wind was obviously sweeping us sideways into Franklin Sound and I turned and headed for Ned’s Point. I must have been a bit complacent at this stage of the journey and hadn't even turned my chart over on the deck in front of me – thinking I have been here so often I could find my way home blindfolded. Big mistake as I did not recognize Ned’s Point (a bit far out) and overshot it by a few km before realizing it. We went ashore on a beach for a while for me to have a rest before paddling back into the stiff wind to Ned’s Point where the sheltered camping is worth making an effort for. Another good campfire night before early to bed.

                                                     It was carrying a load of blue metal for the airport.

                                                                  Sooty Oyster Catchers (mainly)

                                                                    Sue disturbed a seal

                                                                         Camped at Ned’s Point

                                                                          Whitemark to Ned’s Point

Friday I wanted to get to Preservation Island come hell or high water to sit out the bad weather that was on its way. We had an easy 2 hour paddle to Old Township Cove against the light wind, but with the last of the flood tide. Waited an hour here for the tide to change and I used the time and a spare bit of wire to make a much better connection to the battery.

                                                                       Old Township Cove

Then set off round the corner and down the side of Cape Barren Island towards Cape Sir John. Very bouncy moments before the cape where there was a huge lumpy area of confused tide race that we raced through with sails up into smoother waters in front of Thunder & Lightning Bay. It was then a delightful sail straight across to Preservation Island with increasing following wind and waves. The house was unoccupied and we moved in for 4 nights.

Sue roamed the island while I rested my Achilles tendon, but I did struggle up the hill each day to get Internet connection for the updated forecast, and look at the wild conditions all around us. Our food was lasting well and had been added to at the IGA at Whitemark. I took the battery out again and made a lasting permanent connection and covered it with Araldite to make it waterproof. Sue had a couple of surprises as she walked over the island. Once a herd of cows galloped towards her and she got behind some bushes – not sure if they were going to trample her. I smiled when she told me later as exactly the same thing had happened to Elli and I years ago. A mob of young heifers galloped across the paddock towards us and threw Elli into a bit of panic. “What are we going to do?” “Just sit down” and we did. The mob pulled up short about 2 metres from us and formed a circle around us. We sat still and quiet and eventually a couple of them stretched out their necks like giraffes and licked us and then backed away quickly – they were just very curious and rarely see people out there.

Sue also filmed a large snake for some minutes as it went in and out of a burrow and only turned the camera off and vacated the area as it slowly turned towards her.

                                                                    Ned’s Point to Preservation Island

Tuesday started to look good for the final crossing of Banks Strait (10 to 15 knot SW to W), but we needed to be starting from Rebecca Bay. The difference between LW and HW was over 3m so the currents would be at the strongest I've ever seen out here. I wanted to start 3 hours before HW (at Swan Island), intending to be very close (but well west) to Cape Portland before the tide changed. If we got there too late the current would sweep us past Cape Portland and across to Swan Island as has happened before. Originally we intended to paddle across to Spike Bay late on Monday and leave early from there to duck around the corner to Rebecca Bay. Then the comforts of the shack took precedent and we decided that it only meant starting an hour earlier from here – another 5am start. The wind and seas had slowly been decreasing but were still fresh on Monday evening.

On the water at 10 to 5 and we certainly needed the flashers again, as well as the bright spot lights as rocks and points loomed up in front of us before we cleared Preservation Island and Rum Island. Twice we would have run aground without them. Still a bit of unpleasant westerly swell side on as we made our way across to Clarke Island, and Foaming Point, desperately hoping it would be light enough to see it when we got there. It was just, and is described on the first page. Sue felt slightly seasick in the dark.

                                    Very early, Sue’s flasher going, approaching Foam Point.


                                                                         Crossing Spike Bay

                                                                      My flasher, in Spike Bay

                                                                  Entering Rebecca Bay

We changed into dry clothes and waited on Rebecca Beach till 10.45 then launched once again. There was a bit of surf so I helped launch Sue straight out, and then had some difficulty getting out myself as I got side on once and went out with a cockpit full of water. Once out I had to sponge out which took about 12 minutes and then it was off into and across the minor (compared to the earlier one) tide race and then settled down to a compass course of due magnetic S. We paddled reasonably strongly for the first hour to get across the current that turns up towards Preservation Island. Even so when we saw the tracker plot later it showed us being swept a long long way to the west. But this was part of the plan, to be to the west of Cape Portland. Sue had a “Spot Tracker” which updates a webpage every half an hour so that family and friends could watch our progress each day.

                                                                  Waiting in Rebecca Bay

                                                        Approaching the tide race off Rebecca Bay

                                                                            The tide race

3 1/2 hours later the tide still hadn't turned but did shortly after and we made it to within 50m of a beach on the end of Cape Portland 4 hours 20 minutes after leaving Rebecca Bay. Dozens of wind generators had slowly been getting larger and larger. Could have landed of course but the tide was now starting to run in our favour and we shot down the coast to Little Musselroe Bay where the water was starting to pour out of it. But not quite strongly enough to stop us both paddling straight in and to the boat ramp – but another 15 or 20 minutes later and it may not have been possible. That was my 35th crossing of Banks Strait. Garth was there waiting for us – and had a supply of egg & bacon pies and Coke – good lad. He and one of the shack owners helped us make light work of carrying the kayaks up to the vehicle. Got into dry clothes and talked briefly to Liz Ponting before heading off on the long drive to Hobart. Garth drove all the way and I was home at Dodges Ferry about 10.30pm, then he had to go on to Coningham to drop Sue off.

                                                                      A very welcome landfall

                                      Entering Little Musselroe Bay where the tide was pouring out

                                                  The final track - Rebecca Bay to Little Musselroe Bay

And so my 5th crossing of Bass Strait was over – and very definitely my last one. Even when doing some of our 5 and 6 hour training paddles earlier in the year I had been telling Sue it was “Elder Abuse” to make an old man paddle such long distances. But I am glad I did it, particularly as my good mate Sue got so much out of it, and she would not have done it with any other paddler. We had anticipated night paddling and so had all the necessary gear to do so safely. Safety is a great concern of mine and in 40 years of sea kayaking have never had an incident where we were ever in trouble – despite paddling to Flinders Island regularly, and to Maatsuyker Island regularly, and round the south coast of Tasmania to Port Davey regularly, and out to Hunter and Three Hummock and Albatross Islands in Western Bass Strait. Sue and I first visited Albatross Island in 1998. Very few people would realise that a sea kayak is a safer vessel to be in than many larger vessels when the weather cuts up unexpectedly. That is if you are a real sea kayaker of course.

We both had waterproof movie cameras that could be mounted in the mast step when we were not sailing, but a bit difficult to use in really rough conditions. Making a superb movie of any trip has never been one of my main aims – but this time I did take 119 movie clips, and 136 photos. Many of these are a bit spoiled by water on the camera lens – something hard to avoid in rough conditions. The wildest conditions are rarely captured on camera as you are holding on for your life to stay upright and avoid a capsize.

Approx. Distances:
Port Welshpool to Suzie May Beach –  20km
Suzie May to Refuge Cove –   20km
Refuge to Hogan –     50km
Hogan to Erith –     39km
Erith to Killiecrankie –    63km
Killiecrankie to Whitemark –   46km
Whitemark to Ned’s Point –   30km
Ned’s Point to Preservation Island –  28km
Preservation Island to Rebecca Bay –  13km
Rebecca Bay to Little Musselroe Bay – 23km
Approx. Total…………………………..332km

Bass Strait Poem
The Greedy Goose, though she can’t fly
Thought maybe perhaps Bass Strait she could try
In her sea kayak, long and sleek
And visit many islands where one could sleep.

But on her own? That would tempt fate
Perhaps she could go with her good ole mate
The legendary one who has done it before
He’s gone back and forth to the score of four.

One more time might be a bit of a giggle
But we’ll surely have to be as fit as a fiddle
So together they talked and came up with a plan
And paddled on the Derwent as training began.

“This is going to be hard” the Old Man thought
But off they both went and food they bought
And torches and clothing, this won’t be a lark
And fitted their hats to take flashers in the dark.

Port Welshpool to Erith we paddled four days
And Suzie May and Refuge were two of the bays
Where we camped on the Prom before heading to sea
Then over the horizon went she and me.

Three nights on Erith was a delightful treat
But the Old Man managed to hurt one of his feet
And the Girl went to Deal to visit the folk there
While we waited for the weather to start to turn fair

Then off in the dark for the big one at last
But without any wind so we didn't go fast
Eleven hours to Killiecrankie where the Old Man was beat
The Girl could see he was almost dead on his feet.

No rest day because the weather was right
And we left the beach at the sign of first light
And the sailing was great, oh what a lark
As we headed for the pub at the town of Whitemark.

Real beds and hot showers, pies and good food
A place to stay longer if only we could
Two nights was enough and we left the good joint
And had a good night down at Ned’s Point.

Preservation was next, a great place to stay
Particularly when bad weather is on its way
A four night rest and a start in the dark
And survived the big seas but it was no lark.

Just one more big effort, the end was in sight,
And away we went feeling as high as a kite
Nothing would stop us as we closed the far coast
A successful crossing and now we could boast.

She’s one of the few who dared do Bass Strait
Another trip to remember with her best paddling mate
One more trip to remember that I've done with The Girl
We may yet paddle again and sails unfurl.

April 2016.


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