Two young mates, a kayak and a BIG OCEAN
TheBattleofKilliecrankiewasfoughtbetweenmen;ourbattlewasnotwithmenbut thewind;thestrongestheadwindofourtripsofar.Killiecrankieliesonthenorthern tipofFlindersIsland.
“Jonesy” I cried “Are we going forward or are we gunna get blown back to Victoria?” “9 km an hour” he replied. We had strategically timed the ebb tide, but never had we witnessed anything such as this. The strong tidal influence was having a drastically greater impact on our progress than the 65km/hr headwind! Gigantic waves erupted all around us; we were crashing through a 4 metre swell. Our Pittarak double handled the conditions magnificently. Not once did we feel threatened that we would be rolled upside down…
This is the story of two young mates (Justin Jones and James Castrission); a Pittarak double kayak and Mr Penguin (our team mascot); together, we crossed Bass Strait via the “Eastern Route”. This crossing - 350km - is a stepping stone to “Crossing the Ditch”. In the summer of 2006/2007, we will attempt to kayak 2200km across the Tasman Sea, from Australia to New Zealand - unsupported. This will be the first ever kayak crossing and the longest two man kayak expedition ever undertaken, with no sight of land for 45-55 days. Why paddle to New Zealand you may ask. Well, we all have goals; we are fortunate enough to live in a country like Australia and we have the opportunity to explore a vast array of different landscapes each with their own unique attractions. By challenging oneself in the outdoors, you peel away layers of superficiality to reveal yourself. That is why we have chosen to paddle to New Zealand.
There are 28 islands between the Australian mainland and Tasmania and our course linked three of these: Hogan Island, Deal Island (in the Kent group), Flinders Island. Pre-trip jitters on our drive to Melbourne were compounded by a look of despair on Jonesy’s face: he was losing the battle to a nasty fever.
I chuckled: “Perfect partner to go paddling across Bass Strait!” Four days later, we began our journey.
Our paddle to Refuge Cove was uneventful. We enjoyed great weather and a much welcomed tidal assistance which spat us from the mouth of Port Welshpool and guided us down the magnificent coast of Wilson’s Prom. As we drifted to sleep at Refuge Bay, we knew from the weather forecasts that our first island crossing would not be blessed with the same good weather. In the morning, low cloud hid the receding peaks, making us feel like Jurassic Park extras. There was little chitchat; full concentration was required for the choppy conditions. No sight of land for almost two hours heightened our sense of isolation. We paddled round the southern tip of Hogan Island to find ourselves hidden from a Southerly wind that had caked salt down our left-hand sides. Although there are no trees on Hogan Island, the birdlife, penguins and the general elation of being on our own island was magical. Next morning, our tranquil shelter became a cauldron of froth caused by a change in the wind direction. The exit looked dangerous, and thoughts of paddling into a 30 knot wind didn’t appeal. Instead, we spent the day exploring. After a day out of the kayak, it’s amazing how rapidly the body adapts to the stresses of expedition paddling. Both of us felt much stronger after our rest day (although, that may have had something to do with eating all the chocolate mousse!) The topography of the Kent Group (covered in a thick blanket of shrubs and trees) is a stark contrast to Hogan Island.
On our fifth morning we awoke with trepidation: our biggest crossing – 65kms. With a cold front expected the following
day, bringing gale force weather, we were anxious to seek refuge at Killiecrankie - a small fishing village with a population of 15 on the northern tip of Flinders Island. A 6am weather forecast obtained over our satellite phone provided assurance that we had a window to get to safety. We started paddling on a bearing of 1240 with no sight of land. As each hour passed, our umbilical cord with Deal Island was slowly severed, leaving us more and more exposed. We were alone. It was a humbling experience sitting in a primitive kayak, surrounded by hundreds of kilometres of ocean, with only a smattering of islands dotted around us. Our minds wandered to six months ahead: we would be half way to NZ! This was why we crossing Bass Strait: for the physical, mental and psychological preparation. Our progress could have been cunningly deceptive without our trusty GPS giving us constant measurement of our speed; such is the havoc that currents and tidal influences can play. Our compass kept our GPS readings honest. Slowly, Flinders Island crept over the horizon like Atlantis rising from the sea.
A wave of relief washed through our veins as we arrived at Flinders Island. We had the biggest stretch of ocean behind us; we could enjoy the company of people - not penguins - and we had experienced the foul weather that has made Bass Strait famous.
“Gale warning for all Bass Strait!” Nestled in a tiny hut behind sand dunes, we gained welcome respite from the intensifying storm. After it passed, we hitched a ride with a local fisherman to Whitemark (the capital of Flinders with a population of 50) to tuck into a pub meal and down a couple of beers. Later we discovered our “free ride” sentenced us to 5 hours labour moving the local souvenir shop around the block! Shifting display cabinets had us keen to be back on the water and we packed the kayak ready to proceed down Flinders Island. Although we had received an adverse weather report, the weather looked favourable at the time, so we jumped in our kayak and set our sights on Roydon Island. As we paddled out from Killiecrankie, an old salt clearing his lobster nets casually warned:
“Wouldn’t go out there today boys” Enough said; in we went. Better not to disrespect 53 years of local knowledge and an adverse weather forecast? The cold front passed the following morning and with an OK from our old mate, we were off down the western Coast of Flinders Island to set up for the Franklin Sound crossing. As our journey progressed further south, the chill penetrated our bones. Throughout the day, there was a constant coolness in the air requiring us to wear gore-tex jackets even whilst paddling. Our fingers felt like wooden roots curled around our paddle shafts. At Trouser Point we lit a fire to provide warmth and to cook; our supply of fuel was diminishing rapidly. The nagging chill did not let our bodies efficiently recover during sleep and copious amounts of energy were expended to warm our bodies during the night. As we started across Franklin Sound - a stretch of ocean renowned for more vessels lost than anywhere else in the Bass Strait region - we were blessed with lake-like conditions. “Hey Jonesy” I yelled “How’d you like to push to Tassie today?” Silence Was I suffering from the debilitating effects of summit fever? Did Jonesy think that I had been out on the water too long?
“Let’s see how we feel in a couple of hours”, he cautiously replied. Hours went by and we found ourselves at a cross-road. Head for land or go direct to Tassie? As conditions remained idle we called our landman to ensure that the Bureau did not expect any adverse weather shifts. The go ahead was given and on we went! But the tide shifted direction and our speed dropped. We considered worst case scenarios. (It’s amazing how your head can play with different speed, distance and worst case scenarios). The slog continued but we were forbidden to complain. This stretch of ocean (known as ‘Banks Strait’), is renowned for sinking ships and epic adventures. As Tassie drew closer, the number of birds and penguins in the water grew - and so did our singing! 5km out we knew our judgement had paid off; the tide swept us toward Tassie like a landing jet. Touchdown! After over 9 hours on the water we arrived at our destination. No waving flags or cheering girls in mini-skirts waving pom-poms; just a deep glow of self-satisfaction and this was infinitely more rewarding than anything else. We had paddled 350km across Bass Strait over 9 days with little support. It was a special moment; a moment of reflection on setting a goal that we believed and had achieved. Crossing Bass Strait was an incredible experience; especially considering Jonesy’s illness prior to the event. However, it is really only the start of things to come. A confidence-builder; a trial, and now a solid foundation for our upcoming, major expedition: to kayak from Sydney to Auckland this coming summer. For sponsorship, more information and regular updates, please visit: www.crossingtheditch.com.au