Swan Song

 A night paddle across Banks Strait and return a few days later by a 79 year old. Crazy?? Quite possibly.

Start and finish times.

Start at Steps Beach: - 0257

Finish at Rebecca Bay: - 0714

Start at Rebecca Bay :- Early

Finish at Spike Bay: - 0900

Start at Spike Bay:- Before 0900 I think

Finish at Preservation Island: - 1011

Start at Preservation Island: - 0803

Finish at Cape Portland: - 1343

Finish at LMB: - 1536

Banks Strait March 2019 (once again)

This trip had been planned for over 6 months but for one reason or another (family and health and work) the starters dwindled to just me. But I love the Flinders Island area and thought I’d go anyway.

 Thursday 7th looked good on BOM’s Meteye a week earlier – SE winds all day, beauty. But the forecast changed daily and come Wednesday 6th it was for SWwind till the middle of the day when a strengthening nor-westerly change would arrive. This was not so good but still possible.

Several things to take into account.

The difference between low and high tide at Devonport is 1.7 metres – that is relatively low for anywhere in Bass Strait. This means the currents through Banks Strait will be slow.

Low water at Swan Island is at 0431, and again at 1704.

The present forecast (from Meteye) for Banks Strait is for SW winds 10 to 15 knots till the middle of the day and then going north-westerly at 15 to 20 knots. (I’m not taking it for granted that these forecasts will be at all accurate, a few days ago BOM were predicting SE 10 to 15 knots all day. The forecast they are now giving does not bear the faintest resemblance to that previous forecast).

Leaving 2 hours before low water is really not on – that’s 0230 or 1504. By 1504 the wind is predicted to be NW (a head wind) so that is not an easy option. Leaving at 0230 is not an easy option either; there will be no moon as it is the period of the new moon  What there is of it rises about 0805 and sets about 2119. Might leave Little Musselroe Bay Wednesday evening and camp around the corner on the first beach. An early morning start from LMB in pitch darkness at low tide launching over rocks wouldn’t be any fun.

But because the currents will be slight (east to west) and the early wind SW, that would let a kayak pretty well sail straight across - one cancelling out the other. (from sunrise for the next few hours)

 Wednesday 6th
So I drove up to Little Musselroe Bay Wednesday and loaded the kayak down close to the water and then parked the car in David’s property – which I had a key for. There was a possibility of an early morning start in the dark and I didn’t want to be trying that from LMB so was just going to paddle round the corner and camp on the beach where the steps come down from the end of the road.

Looking across at Swan Island when I first arrived at LMB.


All the way across to Swan Island was a mass of whitecaps, but the sea in close here was fairly calm. Now I have to say that for some time now I have been getting a bit unsteady on my feet. I’m alright on flat floors and foot-paths but on uneven ground I stumble a bit. As I got out of the kayak at Steps Beach I fell over in the water – not a great start. Got into dry clothes and set up to sleep at the top of the beach just with the bivvy bag and sleeping bag but no tent or fly as I normally use.

It was not warm and while sitting there in the sleeping bag I began to wonder if I was slightly crazy doing this again and did give thought to putting everything back on the car and going home. Then I thought I’d spend the next few years wondering if I could have done it. I was still trying to decide when I would leave and thought that a start at first light at 6am would give me about 6 hours before the predicted change. However while sitting there (about 8pm) I noticed it was now a flat windless calm out in front of me and it shouldn’t have been – not this early. It seemed to me that the predicted weather pattern was arriving more quickly than forecast and it was more than possible the change tomorrow would arrive well before the middle of the day. A 6am start was now out of the question. Two options left – go home, or start paddling at 0230 which should have me arriving over the other side about day-break and I’d be able to see where I was. I’ve done a hell of a lot of night paddling on the ocean over the years so decided this would be another one.

 Thursday 7th
I launched before 3am and headed off magnetic N as I usually do, and as I got away from land started to feel the wind and with the aid of my headlamp put the big sail up. I had a small pencil like torch for a compass light and it gave more of a yellow light than white. I used it for a while to pick up a couple of stars to steer by and then turned it off for the rest of the trip. The SW wind was just right, no white caps but I was constantly supporting as waves came out of the darkness. There was just starlight, and a few clouds. When my stars went behind a cloud there was a very bright star back over my right shoulder I could see and help me know I was still basically going in the right direction – plus the wind on the back of my neck.

 I couldn’t paddle to keep warm because of the constant support strokes and basically sailed the whole distance across Banks Strait till it started to get light enough to see where I was. There a few km straight in front of me was Lookout Head on Clarke Island – exactly where it should have been, and the tracker shows a remarkably straight course as I had predicted till the very end.

 I had been hoping to get around the head and at least get to Spike Bay or further but about now the wind did go west and started to increase with corresponding larger waves – not helped by the wind and waves being against the current. Eventually I took the sail down because of the danger of a wave breaking into it and capsizing me – I was putting in some big support strokes. It was impossible to paddle against this wind and waves – must be getting old as once I would have ripped into them. I now made hard work of getting the last km or two into Rebecca Bay.

 The other physical problem I have that has been getting gradually worse is my arms are almost too weak to lift my body up out of the seat of the Sea Leopard to get out (and I can hear Mac and Matt saying well if you paddled a Mirage you wouldn’t have that problem).

 The beach is a bit steep and the small waves were breaking right on the beach as I surfed nose first onto it – but before I could get out the next wave slewed me round side on and tipped the kayak up on its side and my head was on the beach covered in water and the thought went through my mind that here I am on the beach and I’m going to drown. Another wave came in before I managed to get the spray-deck off and get out and the kayak went back out with the back wash. Just as I’m on my knees trying to stand up the kayak came in again (cockpit full of water and sand) and knocked me flat on my back before going out to sea again. Every-time I tried to struggle to my feet I would be knocked over again and by the 4th or 5th time I was using some fairly bad language – before finally managing to get out of the way and grab the stern and drag it onto the beach.

 I’d lost my hat and head-lamp and my left shoe, and the left sail holder had been broken off the deck – in really piddly little waves.

 I felt cold as it was still very early. In past times we have had to walk right along the beach searching for scraps of drift wood for a fire but there must have been some big SE storms as there was literally tons of wood at this end of the beach. I lost no time in getting a big fire going and sat next to it for the next two hours without moving. I finally dragged the kayak up the beach above the high water mark and had a closer look at it. The rudder blade would not move up or down – jammed solid with sand and I broke a cord while trying to free it. Had to get the repair kit out and glue a new cord in place. Nothing else seemed to have been damaged.

Later in the day I scrambled up the bank to look for a campsite but when I got to the top I realised I didn’t have the energy to make a few trips up here with camping gear so would have to camp on the beach. On the way back down I stumbled and rolled down the rest of it.

My paddling clothing had dried out and I spent most of the day lying in the bivvy bag, partly for shade and partly to get away from the March flies which were bad. During all this lying about I was starting to partly regret my decision not to go home before I started. I was quite tired with a lot of sore muscles and was beginning to think about the return trip back across Banks Strait. Would I have the energy to do it?

 I considered the option of making my way round to Lady Barron and getting the ferry back to Bridport, or going to Whitemark and flying to Launceston – leaving the kayak to go to Bridport on the ferry. For 37 years I’ve been nipping across Banks Strait without a doubt that I’d get there (although didn’t last year but that was because I stuffed up the tides) and now I was being a bit apprehensive about it. I could not get a forecast here – no VHF reception. Seeing my car was at LMB I thought the best option would be to get to Preservation Island and rest up in the shack for a week and then use the next good forecast to go home.

 Friday 8th
It was calm and there were no waves – a novice could have launched with extreme ease. The tide was running towards Spike Bay. I got away as soon as I could and rounding Lookout Head met a very very light northerly. Paddled into Spike Bay but didn’t land immediately as I considered going on to Preservation Island but then thought I had all the time in the world and would keep the paddling days as short as possible. Landed in the usual place and then felt very cold again – worse than yesterday. I put on every bit of clothing I had – long sleeved thermal, down vest, long polar fleece trousers and then just lay down on the grassy area at the top of the beach.

Approaching Spike Bay.

By noon I was starting to warm up and removed the long sleeved thermal and set about setting up camp. Hardly any fire wood in here so lay in the sleeping bag for the rest of the day. I’d only eaten a few cheese biscuits on Wednesday and Thursday and still wasn’t feeling at all hungry but forced myself to have 8 Sao’s and Spam – I figured I needed all the energy I could get. I got very weak VHF reception here and heard that Sunday was going to be NE all day with a NW to W change very late in the evening.

 I again had all day to think “What am I doing here?” It rained lightly overnight.

 Saturday 9th
Another still morning with the tide running in the right direction so had a more leisurely start for Preservation Island. A sunny day and I paddled close to the yacht “Savant” anchored just off the east of the island. I paddled alongside it and knocked on the hull and also called “is anyone home?” but got no response.

My plan for a long rest in the shack were shot down in flames as they now have a warning they have video surveillance. I had noted a couple of years ago that they had NBN out there so video surveillance would now be easy to arrange. I set up my tent fly just outside the fence and again spent most of the day lying still. The forecast for Sunday had changed again and was now NE till the change late afternoon. And over the next few days a couple of cold fronts were forecast and where my tent fly was was not the place to be when they came.

They have put a new deck on.

I still wasn’t feeling hungry but forced myself to eat again, and I was still only on my second bottle of coke after three days. Then late afternoon I felt an incredible thirst and finished that bottle and most of another one before going to sleep. Then I woke up a lot during the night and had to keep drinking.

 Sunday 10th
The forecast had changed yet again – now light variable winds going N 10 to 15knots and the change mid-afternoon. The range of tide at Devonport was 2.2m so not as good as Thursday but still would not have the extreme tides when the range is 3m.

 High water at Swan Island was 1pm so the tide would change round about then at Cape Portland – from west going to east going. I figured I needed to be close to Cape Portland or to the west of it when this happened. If I left at 8am I would have 5 hours to get across – and more than likely in a straight line as the cross currents would be small.

 This was the day I had been just a little apprehensive about but with all the resting I’d had by the time I actually launched I thought I could easily paddle across here without the wind assistance. I had a full bottle of coke in the cockpit as well as the usual jar of jelly beans.

 The wind was variable and didn’t start to be useful till I was south of Rum Island. It slowly built up to be a good sailing wind nearly all the way across. I was heading magnetic S but as I got close to Cape Portland I aimed into and across the current to keep closer to the cape for the tide change – I was there in plenty of time for this. Again the tracker shows my route as a straight line.

I landed on a beach right at the west end of the cape for about ten minutes and then could see the tide on the beach was falling so headed off again for LMB. I now had 6 hours of current so for long periods just sat in the kayak not paddling and letting the current take me along. But even with not doing a lot of paddling the tracker shows the distance between the half hour points was not a lot different from coming across Banks Strait. It’s a lovely current along here when it really gets going.

I managed the fast out pouring current at LMB to get to the boat ramp but was feeling fairly done in and sat in the kayak for a few minutes before getting out. Retrieved the car and backed it down the ramp to load all the camping gear into it – then parked it on flat ground to load the kayak. I found I did not have the strength to pick the empty kayak up and had to drag it over stones and concrete to get it to the car, and then I needed to sit down for 5 minutes. Then I managed to get the kayak up on the car and then had to sit down again for 5 minutes before tying it on. I found I could not take my paddle apart – it got a fair pounding at Rebecca Bay so maybe full of sand stopping the button from depressing.

Those of you that have seen me recently unload my kayak off the car and then put it back on at the end of a paddle might find this difficult to believe – but I was well and truly knackered, barely able to drive. I still had an incredible thirst and drove into Gladstone for an ice cream and a pie and a large bottle of lemon drink – I thought I’d had enough coke in the past 24 hours. I stopped at the Anson’s Bay turn off to eat the pie at a more suitable temperature and continued to St Helens at a steady 80km. I’d finished half the bottle of lemon by the time I got to Scamander.

 Once through St Helens I increased the speed limiter to 90 and stuck on that all the way home. I arrived home at 5 to 10 and was in bed by 10pm.

 This was my Swan Song. The Fat Lady has sung. I get home after a 2 hour paddle and sit in my lounge feeling tired, and even more so after a 4 hour paddle. If I had had company then I think I would have done the 2 weeks paddling around the islands out there in easy day stages, and of course if I had had company I would not have done the night paddle.

 I am aware that I can still paddle as fast or faster than most other paddlers – and I put this down to a very efficient paddling style and a very efficient paddle. Maybe I have made paddling look easy but it has not been without some effort. A sad day but I am hanging up my paddle. I had to give up hockey a couple of years ago and that was a sad day as well – the two sports that I so loved and have had terrific enjoyment from.

 I guess I can still give advice and possibly help with fitting out kayaks but there is one other person I could thoroughly recommend. Ian Macdonald has been paddling as long as I have and has unusual common sense and is a meticulous worker – not like my rough and ready solutions. He is an all-round Mr Nice Guy - not grumpy like some I could mention.

 Laurie Ford,

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