For more than 10 years I had been thinking of crossing Bass Strait from Victoria to Tasmania in a sea kayak – a distance of 330 kilometres. There was something fascinating and alluring about such a venture on the wild seas of the Strait, more so than any other place in Australia. I knew it would be challenging and demanding, with a number of long days (in excess of 10 hours) sitting in a small craft, traversing large stretches of open water. The whole trip could take up to three weeks, although the actual days of paddling are often less than half the total days away as weather conditions play a big part in determining when you can paddle, particularly on the longer distance runs.
You need to be self sufficient in terms of food and water and undertake extensive preparation and training. In addition to the physical requirements it was important to be mentally ready and in a state of mind to feel comfortable in rough ocean conditions. I felt I could do it.
In early 2013 I made the first step towards realising my dream by purchasing a second hand sea kayak. I then joined the Victoria Sea Kayak Club (VSKC) to gain experience and skills with an underlying purpose of undertaking this trip. There were many opportunities to participate in VSKC events and training days with friendly and helpful members offering advice and suggestions on everything from techniques to choice of equipment and gear.
There were islands with safe landing sandy beaches located strategically across the Straits eastern side to enable a paddle from one place to another in a single day (there were two occasions when we left in the dark before sunrise). The longest distance is between Killiecrankie and Erith Island, at approx. 70 km. There are settlements on the larger islands (Cape Barren and Flinders) but many of the smaller islands are uninhabited (apart from penguins and rats).
My kayak is an Australian made kevlar Mirage 580. I chose the Mirage 580 (at 5.8m long) mainly because of my height (191 cm). Most sea kayaks are between 5.3 to 5.5 metres in length. I was able to find a second hand Mirage 580 in Melbourne for a reasonable price in very good condition with accessories including an electric bilge pump and compass. Oddly enough the previous owner sold it after an unsuccessful Bass Strait crossing attempt in 2012 (his group wasn’t prepared for cyclic weather changes and got stranded on Hogan Island with insufficient water and supplies)!
After a couple of years of routine kayak training in a variety of different waters and conditions including Port Phillip and Westernport Bay, Phillip Island and Wilsons Prom, I was confident that I had acquired sufficient skills to be able to successfully cross Bass Strait as a member of a group.
An opportunity came about when Julian a VSKC member who had previously done the crossing a number of times, posted a Bass Strait crossing trip on the VSKC’s event calendar. The trip was originally planned as a VSKC trip from Vic to Tassy, then Julian was going to help lead an army ‘Mates4mates’ group back to Victoria. However the Vic to Tassy component was dropped and Wim, Bill and me, as a semi-independent group, would start with the Mates at Tassy.
The Mates4Mates are a military group made up of the injured, ill and wounded former and serving Australian soldiers. Some Mates have PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). As part of their program they have available different challenges for post-combat rehabilitation and to push them physically and psychologically. The Bass Strait challenge was one of the activities on their program.
Many of the Mates had minimal kayaking experience and were introduced to the activity only months before the trip. There were nine kayaks (six singles and three doubles) in the Mates group. We stayed with the Mates4mates for the first week between Little Musselroe Bay and Killiecrankie until leaving them at Killiecrankie when a strong wind forecast caused the Mates to remain on land in accordance with their paddling rules.
During the two and a half weeks of our trip (from March 15 to Apr 1) we encountered three other kayaking groups (apart from Mates4mates) – three from NSW (all brothers), four paddlers from WA and Jake and Tyler from Victoria (whom we spent four days with on Erith Island). There was another group of two that evidently by-passed us travelling in the opposite direction at Erith/ Deal Island (they stayed at Winter Cove on Deal whilst we were at Erith Island).
DAY 1 (Sun 15 Mar 2015) – Little Musselroe Bay to Preservation Island.
It was to be an eventful first day on the water. There were 12 kayaks (nine Mates4mates and us three Victorians) all lined up on Little Musselroe river beach. At 9.00am we departed for our journey across Bass Strait. First of all we had to cross the notorious Banks Strait – a sub strait of the Bass Strait. We had a 20knot SE wind which was favourable weather for our 03 ° north magnetic bearing crossing.
It was an interesting first days paddle. To start with one of the Mates got grounded on the rocks when negotiating the Bays entrance on the ebbing tide.
When only 10 minutes from the beach I made an embarrassing mistake when I lost a paddle. My sail was up to take advantage of the following wind. My paddle leash was a plastic coil type and at times it annoyingly ties itself in a knot so I left it off. The sea was quite choppy. When I was fitting my Gopro camera to my head with the use of a head strap I placed the paddle across the deck to free up both hands. As I went to grab my paddle it wasn’t there! By the time I got organised and dropped my sail, grabbed my spare paddle from the rear deck and did a 180° turn I couldn’t find my paddle. It was gone. From then on I kept my paddle leashed.
By afternoon the seas were increasing to about 2 metres with whitecaps and the occasional breaking crests. This was a real test for some of the Mates who were fairly new to paddling and it wasn’t long before a double kayak capsized. Both paddlers ended up in the water after an unsuccessful brace following a breaking wave. We assisted them to get back in and stabilise their boat until all the water was pumped out and everything squared off. After the second capsize that afternoon (by the same crew) we emptied the numerous water bags that were secured above the deck to lower their centre of gravity. The electric bilge pump ceased to work after their first capsize so they were forced to use their hand pump. This was tiring work for already fatigued paddlers. I reckon they would have slept well that night. Banks Strait lived up to its reputation as an unpredictable stretch of water.
We arrived at Preservation Island at 4.00pm after covering some 40 km. Preservation Island was named following the wreck of the merchant ship Sydney Cove in 1797. During the early-to-mid-19th century the island was a base for sealers exploiting fur seals and southern elephant seals. This might explain why we didn’t see any seals on the island?
DAY 2 (Mon 16 Mar) – Preservation Island to Trousers Point
We left Preservation Island at approx. 11.00am and paddled to Cape Barren Island and its only settlement, called The Corner, for a pie and ice cream. The residents of Cape Barren Island consist of an Aboriginal community of approximately 70 people. Most of the residents are descended from a community of mixed descent (European and Aboriginal people) who had originally settled on several smaller nearby islands but relocated to Cape Barren Island in the late 1870s. Australia’s only native goose, the Cape Barren Goose, was first sighted on this island.
We then crossed over to Flinders Island arriving at Trousers Point, part of Strzelecki National Park, at 4:00pm. The wind was approx. 12 knots (kn). The sails assisted us for the final 10 km. After hauling the kayaks up on the narrow beach above high tide level we set up camp. Shortly afterwards three kayakers (all brothers) from NSW arrived closely followed by four paddlers from WA. Both of these groups were travelling in the opposite direction to us. They had been away nine days since leaving Port Welshpool. Trousers Point beach had 19 kayaks parked on it that day!
DAY 3 (Tue 17 Mar) – Trousers Point
There was a strong wind warning and the seas were quite choppy so we didn’t mind taking the day off and walking to the top of Mount Strzelecki at a height of 756m. It took us about 4 hours return to complete the walk which got our leg muscles working – more calories lost that day! We couldn’t see much from the summit as we were in the clouds but had good views on the way up. It reminded me of Wilsons Prom with the spectacular scenery of huge granite boulders and rock faces.
DAY 4 (Wed 18 Mar) – Trouser Point to Whitemark
We were looking forward to a meal at the Whitemark pub and a visit to the bakery. We covered the 17kmpaddle that morning without a hitch and landed on the beach at the public park. The wind was 15knots but the bay was fairly sheltered from nearby islands.
After setting up camp we used fresh water from the sink in the toilets to wash the salt off ourselves. We then got dressed into dry clothes for lunch at the pub. It was chicken parma for everyone. The meal was one of the most generously sized meals I have ever had and was very tasty. Most of us went back to the pub that evening for dinner after a relaxing cuppa at the cafe. I thought that if I keep up this routine I won’t lose any weight at all on this trip.
DAY 5 (Thu 19 Mar) – Whitemark to Roydon Island
The biggest day so far – 46 km. We set off at 7.30am and didn’t get to our destination until 6.00pm. We had a break for early lunch near Long Point whilst waiting for the 20knot NW wind to abate. After rounding Long Point at midday we stopped at Emita for a 30 min break and then proceeded for Roydon Island against a 12 knot headwind for what seemed like ages. There was a pleasant relief when we got a favourable breeze for the last hour after turning west and running for Roydon Island. The sails went up to make the most of the conditions.
Roydon Island was an idyllic location. The landscape was picture perfect. The penguins were very noisy, calling to each other that evening, as they wandered through our camp site to their burrows. The same chorus was heard early the next morning.
DAY 6 (Fri 20 Mar) – Roydon Island
Remained at Roydon Island for the day. No paddling given the 20 – 25knot wind from the west. Sunny, mostly at 21°C. There was good drinking water in the tank at the hut. We did some exploring of the Island.
DAY 7 (Sat 21 Mar) – Roydon Island to Killiecrankie
Departed at 11.15am at high tide for Killiecrankie. It was a bit choppy around the headland and we kept clear of the rocks. The wind was about 10 knots from the west so once we passed the headland and turned east we put up our sails to assist. We arrived at Killiecrankie at 2.00pm, unpacked our boats and proceeded to The Deep Bite Cafe for arvo tea and back again for a meal that evening. Seeing Deal Island on the horizon beckoned us.
DAY 8 (Sun 22 Mar) – Killiecrankie
No paddling – too windy. The Mates arranged a rental house at a nearby town. We were invited so we all went to Palana by vehicle. The Mates looked after us again. The kayaks were left high up on the beach at Killiecrankie.
DAY 9 (Mon 23 Mar) – Killiecrankie
We shifted back to Killiecrankie beach with intentions of paddling on Tuesday. Occasional showers in the afternoon.
DAY 10 (Tue 24 Mar) – Killiecrankie to Erith Island
Bill, Wim and I got up at 5.00am to hit the water at 6.00am. We ended up leaving the Mates4mates at Killiekrankie when we went by ourselves to Erith Island. The Mates were restricted on paddling on high wind warning days, whereas Bill, Wim and I were happy to take advantage of the forecast 20 knot following wind that day. We were three individuals who had made a decision to paddle together from here on. (The Mates didn’t get an opportunity to leave Killiecrankie for another week!)
Low tide was at 9.30am and with a bearing of 301 ° north magnetic and a 2kn tide we left the beach in the dark and paddled into Bass Strait. It became quite rough a few kilometres from the shore and by then, with a 25kn wind behind us, we were fully committed. The next stop was Deal or Erith Island.
As the hours went by we passed Craggy Island (20kmfrom Killiecrankie) and Wright Rock (40kmfrom Killiecrankie). About 20km from Deal Island we decided to make for Erith Island as it was closer for our next leg to Hogan Island and we had sufficient daylight. We arrived at Erith Island at 4.00pm. 10 hrs and 70 kms.
Normally we would cover this distance given the tail wind in much quicker time than 10 hours, however, the 25knot wind and rough conditions caused us to do a fair amount of bracing in between paddling and it was too rough to raise the sails. Bill attempted to sail but broke his mast after broad siding near Craggy Island that morning so I was the only one with a sail (Wim didn’t have a sail fitted) which assisted me during the last 20km when winds dropped below 20kn.
The seas in the morning were rougher than forecast. This was confirmed by the updated forecast which increased the wind from 20kn to nearly 25kn. Had the forecast been updated before we left we may not have launched that day. This was the roughest day of our trip and it required constant focus and concentration. Fortunately we had the skills to be able to safely handle these conditions. It was not as a s bad as one of our training days. In the afternoon I was actually enjoying surfing down the face of the 2-3m waves.
All the same I was glad to hit the beach at Erith Island. My bum was sore and I was looking forward to standing up after 10 hours in the confines of a kayak. We decided to stay in the Erith hut. Built in 1958 and maintained by Friends of Erith it was quite comfortable with a glass front wood heater and good drinking water. Just as well as high winds were approaching. I battled through the scrub that evening to get to the West of the Island for phone reception not realising that there was a cleared track taking off at a point from the beach which I didn’t discover until the next day!
DAY 11 (Wed 25 Mar) – Erith Island
At 10.00am we did the 2km paddle across the Murray Strait to Deal Island and met the caretakers, Tim and Lyn , and two yachties, Ian and Snowy who had their Yacht anchored at East Cove. Evidently Ian and Snowy had sailed their yacht from Flinders the same day as we had paddled from Killie. They too had a wild ride. Next we walked to the lighthouse and scaled the stairs to look at the commanding 360 °view. The lighthouse was de-activated in 1992 and replaced by beacons on two rock islands nearby. The museum was well worth a look. There were lots of Bennett’s wallabies and Cape Barren Geese on the Island. At 3pm we paddled back to Erith Island and met two paddlers who had just arrived from Hogan Island in a plastic double kayak. Jake and Tyler were tackling the bass Strait but in a different direction. It was good to have their company for the next three days. Tyler caught a nice Short-finned Pike for dinner. The daily temp was 16°C.
DAY 12 (Thu 26 Mar) – Erith Island
Too windy to paddle with 30 – 40kn wind from the west. We cleaned and sorted through our gear and tidied up. Ian had shifted his yacht across from Deal Island. Lit a campfire in the evening and got a visit by Ian and Snowy.
DAY 13 (Fri 27 Mar) – Erith Island
Still windy. Stronger gusts than yesterday with spray being whipped up on the bay. Murray Pass and the ocean looked really rough with a big swell and white water. Ian and Snowy offered to take us across to Deal Island in their yacht. Wim and I chose to stay back in the comfort of the hut. The other four got quite wet just getting shuffled from the beach to the yacht in the small inflatable tender. Ian visited us that evening and brought a large hot baking tray of roast potato and vegies which we gobbled up in no time.
DAY 14 (Sat 28 Mar) – Erith Island
The weather had settled somewhat so we decided to get some exercise and paddled with Jake and Tyler across to Deal Island so they could walk to the lighthouse before us three did a circumnavigation of Dover and Erith Island in a clockwise direction. As we hit the south west coast of Dover Island we hit a 15kn headwind and the residual swell from the day before . It was tough going for a while. Once we turned the corner I could spend more time relaxing and admiring the spectacular coastline and rugged cliffs of Erith Island. I wish I hadn’t left the Gopro behind as I would have loved to get a photo of this north side of the Island. Three hours and 17km later we arrived back at the Cove. This was a training day so no sailing. Before hitting the beach we boarded Ian’s yacht to have a much welcomed cuppa with him and Snowy, and say goodbye as they were leaving for NSW the next morning.
As we were disembarking from Ian’s yacht we observed a large catamaran entering the cove. It had sailed from Port Albert with a dozen walkers from the Melbourne Bushwalkers. They we going to spend the next three days camping at Erith Island and walking daily on Deal Island – being ferried daily by the catamaran. They were a friendly group and camped near the old stockyards.
The rats were getting bolder by the day and made themselves home at night scampering everywhere, including over us as we slept. All food had to be hung from hooks and well secured in the kayaks. To leave a muesli bar in your pfd pocket was asking for a rat to eat a hole in it – as Wim found out. The Friends of Erith had left a tub of poison so I gave the rats a daily feed. By the end of the stay the tub was empty but the rats were still very active so there must have been quite a few around.
DAY 15 (Sun 29 Mar) – Erith Island
For Wim, Bill and I it was rest day whilst Jake and Tyler had departed early that morning for Killiecrankie. They had a good west wind. That evening we were invited by the bush walkers for dinner at their camp. Lots of food was prepared which was a good change from dehydrated and freeze dried packet food. They made us very welcome and really looked after us. We said we were going to Hogan Island the next morning. I think they took pity on us paddling all the way back to Victoria in our lightweight narrow boats but wished us well. We met some of them on the beach at dusk that evening to watch the penguins come ashore. This was our sixth night on Erith Island.
DAY 16 (Mon 30 Mar) – Erith Island to Hogan Island
This was the day to get to Hogan Island. The weather was not great with a headwind and ebbing tide against us but we were keen to make a move as we had been on Erith for six days and the forecast showed a small window the following day when we should be able to get to the Prom (and Victoria). There was no fresh water on Hogan so we didn’t want to get stuck there. We took about 14 litres of water each.
The Kayaks were packed and in the water at 7.20am in time for high tide. We were able to knock a couple of kilometres off the trip that day by using the Swashway between Erith and Dover Islands. The Swashway is so shallow that it can only be paddled about 30 min either side of high tide. Even then you have to carefully choose your path. See video.
We battled 12-14kn winds in our face for 42km that day arriving at Hogan Island at 3.50pm. This was the most grueling and demanding day of the trip for me – 8.5hrs to cover 42kms (less than 5km per hour ave. speed). It was constant hard paddling with no stops. To stop would mean being beaten backwards by the wind and tide so we ate (and did everything else) on the move.
We had heard that there were rats on Hogan Island but we didn’t think they were so brazen. No sooner had we landed that we observed a large rat heading towards our boats on the beach. I investigated to find it in my kayak cockpit up on its back legs gnawing into my under deck bag. It wasn’t too worried when it saw me and I had to bang the boat to get it out. I then removed all traces of food. To stop the rats from eating holes through our tent walls we left a free feed of oats close by that night.
DAY 17 (Tue 31 Mar) – Hogan Island to Johny Souey Cove
The day was looking good. We set off at 8.45am. 20 minutes later we had paddled around the islands north side and steered a magnetic bearing of 276° towards Wilsons Prom. There was virtually no wind. It was a glorious day. I don’t think we had paddled in such perfect weather conditions yet. A superb day to cover the 52km to Refuge Cove. As the hours melted away the mountains on the Prom were gradually getting larger. Half way across we noticed a ship on the horizon. 20 min later at a few km away it seemed to be bearing down on us and we were thinking about evasive action or getting on channel 16 and contacting the ship. But as the minutes passed we could see that it was going to cross our path less than 500 metres ahead. It was a large container ship probably doing 30kn. You have to be alert in the shipping channel.
The going was good so at midday we decided to change course to Johny Souey Cove. This would enable us to easily catch the flooding tide to Port Welshpool the following morning before high tide at 10.30am. We pointed towards Rabbit Island on the horizon and started thinking about the pleasures of getting out of the kayak and stepping foot in Victoria. We arrived at 6.15pm and congratulated each other on the achievement. This was our second longest day on the water. Paddled 9.5hrs and covered 60kms that day (6.3km/hr).
DAY 18 (Wed 1 Apr) – Johny Souey Cove to Port Welshpool
Not wanting to miss the advantage of the flooding tide we set of at 6.40am with torches. Absolutely no wind and calm conditions. The tide was taking us along at an ave. 9km/hr. The closer we got to Port Welshpool the more fishing boats we saw and heard. The high water allowed us to cut across the shallow end of Little Snake Island. Three hours later at 9.40am we arrived at Port Welshpool. Hooray, we made it. We all danced on the beach. I was soon giving my wife Margie a hug. Bill kindly shouted us a beer at the pub to celebrate the victorious crossing.
On reflection I was physically in shape for the big days, had the energy and felt confident in handling the conditions. The physical complaints were minor such as a few blisters on my fingers and a sore bum from many hours in the seat. Some moments were personally testing and I was out of my comfort zone, however these experiences are definitely positive and character building. On a few occasions I was reckless and made a mental note to do things better next time. I only lost one kilo in body weight during the expedition but I suppose I was quite lean from all the training before leaving.
During the trip I learnt heaps. Expedition kayaking is quite a bit different to a day paddle in the bay or on a river. It’s important to make yourself familiar in the full use of all necessary electronic equipment such as GPS, (PLB) Personal Locator Beacon/ EPIRB, Spot tracker, UHF radio etc and take sufficient solar panel charger or power bank external batteries with USB and phone cables for charging your smart phone. Monitoring daily weather uses up battery life. Use only Telstra service phones – service is available within a reasonable walking distance of all camping sites.
Having a sail certainly assisted. In a tail wind, or up to 45° into the wind, its advantageous to use the sail to augment paddling. Its better if all kayaks in the pod have sails fitted. In certain conditions paddlers without sails can’t maintain the speed of the other paddlers who are using sails. Having a sail means less time on the water and less calories burnt.
Wearing a high vis hat and colourful layers helped retain visual contact between paddlers, particularly in rough weather. It’s surprising how hard it is at times to keep track of a fellow paddler in rough seas. The sail is also an excellent means of making a kayak more visible.
In retrospect I think it was better that we split from the Mates4mates after the first week. Not that they weren’t a nice bunch of guys – quite the opposite, they were great company and fun to be around. It was more a case that so many paddlers in a group made it unwieldy, and the paddling structure that was implemented made me feel restricted. We found that once we separated as a smaller group we could practice navigating and making strategic decisions which we weren’t able to do as part of the larger group. Also I felt that being a member of a smaller group of three, that successfully completed the crossing, gave me a bigger sense of overall achievement.
As it turned out the Mates4mates arrived at Port Welshpool four days after us. After reaching Deal Island they didn’t have to wait long to make their run to Victoria.
This was a fantastic trip that will stay with me forever. It was a dream realised, full of adventure and excitement. Meeting all sorts of people on the way made it more interesting and memorable. Thanks to Wim and Bill for the good times and friendship, to the Mates4Mates for their assistance and company and to Julian from the VSKC for the opportunity.
I have put together a video showing some footage of the trip. See it at https://youtu.be/533qb5CLtXY