We could hear the wind coming down the hillside a full ten seconds before it hit us. Instinctively, Gerry and I rolled to opposite sides of the tent.
"No paddling today", I muttered as the tent shook heavily. We were camped in Winter Cove on the east side of Deal Island in the middle of Bass Strait. Today it was earning its fearsome reputation.
The Bass Strait, three words that had been looming in my consciousness for years. Four years ago I had missed out on joining a group making the crossing due to other paddling committments. Other trips came and went in the intervening years but crossing "the Bass" was becoming my holy grail. I knew we were destined to meet.
Then late last year Dusty called from Sydney ... was I interested in joining a group on the crossing? He and another old friend were going with an army adventure training exercise to kayak from Wilson's Promontory, Victoria, to Little Musselroe Bay, north east Tasmania. He left me some contact numbers and a departure date, February 22 from the Prom.
Local paddler, Gerry Thomas, quickly came on board and we started lifting our paddling tempo. Safety Bay to Mandurah and return, Rottnest and return.
We were paddling two to three times a week, plus putting in 40 - 50 kilometre days on the ocean each weekend.
As I was having trouble contacting my friends in Sydney (always off on exercises) we quickly resolved to plan the crossing as independent entities. Maps and tide charts were poured over endlessly.
"Craggy Island", "Beagle Rock", "breaks heavily in easterly weather", "Beware, tide race", "Rum Island" (that's better), - my head was swimming!
We consulted Telstra for channel frequencies and times of weather reports on VHF radio. As usual the planning always seemed harder than the paddle itself!
Finally I heard from Dusty and Bruce, they couldn't make it, other committments, but we were still welcome to join up with the Army crew, all unknown paddlers to me. My two buddies had done the crossing in '94 so I pump them for some last minute advice and a week later Gerry and I are crossing the Nullarbor in my trusty Subaru.
We stop over briefly with friends in Robe, South Australia, where we blow the local fishermen away on a training run. A 25 knot headwind and we paddle nine kilometres to an island in one hour and 45 minutes, surfing back in fifty minutes.
They won't forget those crazy kayakers from the West in a hurry.
Melbourne, where we leave my car at the home of part time Swan Canoe Club member, Ian Sandell, and his wife, Isobell. A day looking around Melbourne's outdoor shops, woah! hang on to the credit card! Sunday, 22nd, D-day and it's a forty knot westerly. We spend the day in the tourist park of Tidal River reviewing equipment and watching the boys go through the motions for an Army promotional video.
Monday: the wind has abated some and we hit the water. Our target for the day, Waterloo Bay, is 22 kilometres around on the east side of Wilson's Promontory. Wild surf on the beach and a confused sea rebounding off the cliffs, wind 10 - 15 knots. Russ sets up a sail much to Gerry's and my amusement. We had seen them in magazines only. The wind was not favourable for our parafoils, but Russ's gaff rig was working well. Seas around three metres.
Stan has a few gear problems and with photo stops we are all happy with our five hour shakedown paddle.
That night we make radio contact with Mark, the seventh member of our party who calls us from the bridge of the "Spirit of Tasmania" en route to Devonport, Tasmania, with kayak trailer and Toyota "Troopie". Mark's weather forecast sounds good.
Tuesday and we paddle out from the mainland heading for Hogan Island fifty kilometres away. Wind light, seas slight. Gerry and I shed our buoyancy vests to paddle in thermal tops, almost tropical. At 428 feet high, Hogan Island is a promise on the end of a compass bearing for one and a half hours, after which it slowly comes into view. After another hour Gerry and I shoot off ahead to get some photos of the group arriving. We arrive about forty minutes before them and have time to grab some food before climbing a hill to watch them come in. Wayne looking like he's paddling well within himself. Our time: seven hours and 45 minutes.
That evening I pick up a weather report from Port Welshpool on VHF, sixty or seventy kilometres away. Mark also booming in on HF from Hobart.
We are still under the influence of a high pressure system and make good time the following day on a short 42 kilometre crossing to the Kent Group. Six hours.
The Kent Group: Erith, Dover, and our landfall, Deal Island. They have recently been proposed as nature reserves and rightly so. Towering cliffs, beautiful coves, wooded headlands, absolutely magnificent!
We propose to have a rest day tomorrow and explore the island. There is a fresh water creek at one end of the beach with plentiful water for washing and after filtering, drinking and cooking.
We sit up late that night yarning, quietly in awe of our surroundings.
We sleep late and then wander the island, meeting the family of a research scientist. They have have been on the island for six years. Their island sojourn is ending soon with the nature reserve proposal. After checking out a small museum and hiking to the now disused lighhouse, we retire to "our" beach. Russ and Gerry set off for a spot of rock fishing, watched by a couple of small wallabies.
That night the winds arrive and we end up spending two more days on the beach. There are thunder and lightening displays at night and a large pod of dolphins on display during the day.
After three days on Deal we set off at 8:00 am for the northern end of Flinders Island, 63 kilometres away. With moderate winds and swell, we encounter a lively tide race just off Flinders and land after nine hours, easing cramped limbs from cockpits.
We are a little over half way, but the three big open water crossings are behind us and everyone is slightly relieved.
We skip down the west side of Flinders Island, stopping at the small settlement of Whitemark for water and obligatory Cokes and Mars bars. The big sugar fix! We finish the day at the interestingly named Trousers Point, the magnificent Strzelecki Range as a backdrop.
I feel privileged to be at this place, at this time and to have arrived by paddle power.
As I had expected, the Army team's environmental awareness was outstanding. Pack it in, pack it out, no wood fires, low impact travelling.
The next day we island hopped forty odd kilometres to Clarke Island, our island jump-off point to cross Banks Strait to Tassie. Along the way Doug and I chattered about the state of sea kayaking coast to coast. Doug is Secretary of the NSW Sea Kayak Club and although a Staff Officer based in Canberra had seen a lot of sea miles pass under his hull.
Our weather forecast from Mike that night was not too promising: twenty knots with a front in the afternoon and gales for the following two days.
The Army was not allowed to put to sea if the forecast was for over twenty knots (the old O.H. & S. regulations again) and Gerry and I were determined not to be stuck there during the gales. For the first time it looked like our little group was to split up.
Gerry and I sat down to consult tide charts. Banks Strait is notorious for tides and tidal races.
Although our direct bearing was 180o we knew the strong north westerly wind forecast and south easterly running tide would necessitate a much more westerly bearing to stop being swept east of Tasmania.
In other words, we were preparing for a 25 kilometre ferry glide!
The Army receive one last weather forecast early in the morning and decide to go. We are still a team!
We head off on a bearing of 240o, my GPS showing a giant ferry glide. I'm normally a believer in low tech simplicity, but the GPS is a great bit of kit!
The wind is 15 - 20 knots, the sky is dark and foreboding with a short spaced, deep two to three metre swell. Stan is not coping well with the conditions and our speed slows, the wind slowly increases and the inevitable happens. The tide turns and, when still four kilometres from land, we find ourselves in three metre standing waves. Wind against tide. The swells are short spaced and steep, breaking on the top. One second in a hollow, the next on a crest. We battle through the tide race and head for the nearest point of land: a headland and one kilometre from our planned pick-up point. We land on a rock strewn beach, my wind gauge showing thirty knots.
Mark was not expecting us to paddle that day and was still in Hobart, four or five hours away with the trailer. We had a long carry through farm paddocks, electric fences and locked gates to the road. It was 2:30 pm. Mark would arrive at 10:00 pm. We would arrive in Launceston Army Barracks at 1:00 am. Aagh! but that was still to come, did we know, did we care!
Standing on a windswept beach wearing every item of dry clothing I possessed, I was euphoric. Handshakes and back slapping all around. We had arrived.
The Bass Strait was no longer a dream, it was a memory.
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