Most people think that crossing Bass Strait in a sea kayak is a very dangerous thing to do. Some people thought we were insane. Although there have been a few hardcore paddlers that have straight lined it from Wilson’s Prom to Tassie – the normal sea kayaking route is to travel through a string of islands including Flinders Island on the eastern side of Bass Strait.
It is quite a common activity for sea kayakers to paddle across Bass Strait. Several groups make the trip each year. It is not the sort of activity that is newsworthy – unless you are raising money for something or something goes wrong. We were a few days behind the guys from A Date With the Strait who had lots of media coverage – 3 champion paddle boarders who succeeded in their attempt to be the first people to cross Bass Strait on paddle boards. There was also a group of 3 paddlers from Queensland out there at the same time as us, a group of ski paddlers started the crossing in mid-March and the Bass Babes are planning a crossing for April.
Did you see any sharks? No
Was it dangerous? No. It was safer than catching the Frankston train
Did you have a support boat? No. We were fully self sufficient and carried our own gear.
Was it really hard? Yes and no. We didn’t encounter any really challenging conditions or big seas – but we had some long days and frustrating headwinds.
Were you scared at any stage? No. We had paddled in much tougher conditions as part of our training program.
Did you have any sticky situations, rescues or rolls? No. We did have some strong head winds where we could barely make forward progress, and some small swells, nasty chops and strong tidal flows. But neither of us fell in, rolled or needed rescuing.
Where do you go to the toilet? Where it was not possible to go ashore (which was most of the time) we would use a Gatorade bottle. On the rare occasions it was calm we could do it alone – but if it was rough we would have to raft up and hold each others boat steady.
Do you sleep in your kayak? No. You can make it to an island each night
How long is the longest day? It is about 63km if you travel in a straight line – which is nearly impossible so you end up travelling further than that. Our longest day was 70km
Wouldn’t it be quicker to go to Tassie in a straight line? Yes – and there is a few hardcore paddlers that have done it. I will never be on that list!
Why does it always look so calm and nice in your photos? Taking photos when it is rough is quite difficult. You often end up with salt water on the lens and a blurry photo. When it is really rough I need both hands on the paddle at all times to stop being capsized. But what about using a Go-Pro? I trialled a Go-Pro on a paddling trip about a year ago and hated it.
Is it expensive to do a trip like this? Yes. While I am not suggesting you need a new carbon fibre kayak and lots of flash gear to do a trip like this – you really don’t want to skimp on your gear as your life may depend on it. I borrowed a lot of stuff from mates which helps.
How did you and G-Man get along noting the long and potentially stressful nature of the trip? We have been mates for over 20 years and have camped and paddled together countless times. We got on really well and I was lucky to have him as a paddling partner.
Would you do it again? Before the trip I thought to myself: “This is going to be pretty easy – so I reckon for a decent challenge after this I should do a solo double crossing in 2015”. While I am glad to have successfully paddled across Bass Strait I have no desire to do it again – especially solo.
WARNING TO NORMAL PEOPLE: The following section contains lots of maps, photos and details that will bore most people unless you are into sea kayaking. Mrs Bretto thinks that I spent longer writing the trip report than I spent doing the trip itself.
It was a relatively short 27km run from Tidal River to Waterloo Bay (Wilson’s Prom – mainland Australia) so we took our time leaving home and getting to the Prom. We launched from the beach at Norman Bay which I wouldn’t recommend unless it is high tide as you may have a very long carry to the water. We luckily got the gate key from the friendly Parks Vic rangers so we could unload our boats and gear close to the water. My dad kindly drove the car back home for us and my friend Stevo joined us for a brief surf session on his sit-on-top and to wish us well.
As it turned out we should have left a few hours earlier because our trip was painfully slow and we only just made it to camp before dark. Although we had both paddled our boats fully loaded before on overnight trips – our boats were now significantly heavier than we had previously paddled. As a result we ended up going through more waves than over them and the reduced freeboard meant we both took on a lot more water than normal through the spraydeck/coaming seal. This extra water had to be pumped out periodically which slowed us down further. Perhaps I should have taken less stuff or perhaps I should have paddled my boat in this exact load condition before.
I felt a bit flat and on several occasions I asked myself what we were doing out here. Do I love the idea of adventure more than the adventure itself?
Conditions were pretty decent but the SW swell caused a messy rebound off the rocky coastline. G-Man was battling with seasickness most of the way which caused him some dehydration issues by the end of the day. I was impressed that he didn’t even slow down as he would spew between paddle strokes. And although he remembered his pants for this trip G-Man was also getting a bit cold – a condition worsened by the water sloshing around in his cockpit. Once we rounded the Prom Lighthouse at South East Point we were protected from the annoying swell and G-Man’s seasickness began to improve. The last 10km from the lighthouse was quite enjoyable paddling as the sun was setting across the Prom.
We were greeted at Waterloo Bay by several friendly hikers including some guys from Mornington Peninsula who made G-Man a hot coffee and a group of school girls from Leongatha who offered to transfer our mountain of gear up the beach.
The trip wasn’t off to a good start and it was about 10pm by the time we had cooked dinner and hit the tents. Unfortunately our late arrival put us on the back foot for the next day as we had a long crossing to prepare for and we would need to get an early start.
Day 2 – Rest Day at Waterloo Bay
At 5:20am I managed to get 1 bar of service on my phone and although the forecast looked great for the morning – the winds were forecast to pick up to a 20 knot headwind in the afternoon. As this is the second longest crossing of the trip (52km) we would be on the water all day and need to get the weather right. Battling a 20 knot headwind for hours was a challenge I could do without. Given we were not very organised from Day 1 and lacking confidence in our ability to paddle a long way at a decent speed we decided to take a rest day and enjoy the comforts of Waterloo Bay (fresh water creek, great beach). It was a tough decision because at about 6am when we made the call there was no wind and the sea appeared very calm. By 9am the wind started to pick up a little and by lunch time I was sure we made the right decision.
So we had a lazy day of sleeping on the beach, swimming, sorting out some gear and doing a couple of short bushwalks to try and find mobile reception.
It was great talking to the hikers at Waterloo – a bunch of nice people enjoying the Aussie outdoors. They all seemed very interested in our trip and several expressed their desire to undertake such an adventure themselves. Although I have bushwalked around the Prom before, I was envious of the relative simplicity and safety with which the hikers had arrived at the same beautiful spot as us. Both G-Man and myself decided to get back down to the Prom for some bushwalking after this trip.
Although I hadn’t spoken with him about it before the trip – my old mate Carl started sending us weather forecasts via text message. This turned out to be invaluable because it was much easier for him to analyse the BOM forecasts on his computer at home and send us a summary than it was for us to get the forecast on a smartphone with limited service. Luckily Carl is a very experienced yachtsman and has spent much time in the waters of Bass Strait. He also didn’t mind getting up at 5am each day to assess the latest forecasts and send us his summary before we hit the water. Not a bad bloke for a kiwi. Reckon I owe him a couple of beers.
We set off at 7am into a moderate headwind which lasted the whole 55km to Hogan Island. I thought Bass Strait would be tough but this was a serious challenge for us.
We averaged a very slow 4.3km/hr against the wind and waves and we had to fight for every kilometre. Our progress was slowed further by having to pump out the boats every hour or so as the near constant green water across the boats meant the spray decks just couldn’t cope. And every time we had a brief stop – we would drift back towards the Prom.
After 4 hours of paddling into a bumpy and empty grey horizon I decided I wasn’t having any fun. It didn’t appear that we had progressed very far from the Prom and the only thing of interest was that it sometimes rained on us. I was seasick and homesick and it was just hard work. It wasn’t at all like the brochure. There was nothing to stop us from turning back and spending a couple of leisurely days paddling up the Prom to Port Welshpool. We had no sponsors, no charity to raise funds for, no commitments. Seeing my family seemed very appealing – spending another week or more paddling did not. So I raised the idea of turning back to G-Man. He took about 2 seconds to consider my proposal before responding with “Harden up and keep paddling”. So we did.
I am glad we kept going. I took a seasickness tablet and before long things seemed much better. Hogan Island came into sight and once we reached the half way mark the trip was on. There was no turning back now.
Later in the afternoon we predicted we would be landing on an unfamiliar island in the dark – but fortunately we made it to a sandy beach at Hogan Island 20 minutes before last light. There is only 2 small sections of sand on the whole island which would have been almost impossible to find in the dark.
After 13 hours on the water – we were wrecked. So we set up camp amongst the penguin colony, cooked a quick meal and crashed.
Day 4 was much better. A moderate WSW swell and smaller waves – so we set off at 0900 for the more leisurely 43km run to Deal Island. We got into East Cove via the southern entrance to Murray Passage with the ebbing tide at 1630 and quickly decided this is a much better place to spend some time than Hogan Island. We got some fresh water from the Caretakers cottage and had a quick look around the settlement. We would have enjoyed a rest day to explore the island and visit the lighthouse, however the weather was looking good the next day for our big run to Flinders Island before a big low pressure system came through.
It was during today’s paddle that G-Man’s seasickness prevention program provided much amusement. He was seeing phantom penguins popping up near his boat (whitecaps), giant steam trains (clouds) and a massive owl (rocky cliffs) among other things. I suggested he should go easy on the Kwells for a while.
Weatherman Carl said we should paddle today or risk being stuck at Deal Island for several days. So we left Deal Island before 7am (just before slack water to avoid the tidal flows in Murray passage) and had several hours of perfect conditions. No wind, sunny skies and very gentle roll.
From about 10am the wind started to build on our port bow. It started at about 5 knots but we ended up with 10-15 knots later in the day. No big drama it just slowed us down a bit.
We had a really good plan: Paddle straight for Killiecrankie. The flooding tide in the morning would shift us to the south – and the ebb tide in the afternoon would shift us north and back on course for Killiecrankie.
But what actually happened: The flooding tide in the morning shifted us to the south as expected. However the NE winds got stronger throughout the day and continued to push us further south. The ebbing tide offered little help to correct our deviation and we ended up about 13.5km to the south of our planned course.
Although not ideal it really wasn’t a problem as we decided to alter course for Roydon Island instead of our original destination – Killiecrankie. We missed out on visiting the town but we saved ourselves some hard work and 10km off the following day.
Our revised plan seemed pretty solid until we got closer the coast of Flinders Island we hit the ebbing tide. It wasn’t slack water for another hour and we were going nowhere. It didn’t help that the wind direction seemed to keep swinging around. So we changed plans again and snuck in behind Cape Frankland for some shelter and to kill some time, pump out the boats etc until the tide went slack. We then had an easy trip to the sandy beach on Roydon Island about 2030 at last light. We had been on the water for more than 13.5 hours and covered 70km. Not a bad effort when you consider we had paddled 100km in the 2 preceding days. G-Man suggested we ride the flooding tide and continue paddling to Emita (about 20km away) but I was done for the day.
Rather than set up camp amongst noisy penguins for the third night in a row – we stayed in the shack on the island. We could still hear the Cape Barren Geese however which sounded like they were conducting a very violent mating ritual.
We had now completed the third and final big crossing of the trip. I wouldn’t say the trip was in the bag – but we were feeling pretty confident.
What should have been a fairly easy run down the west coast of Flinders Island turned out to be a battle with a strong offshore wind. It turned out the 3 QSKC paddlers had spotted us on one of their many land-based adventures and followed part of our journey southward as we struggled against the wind.
We did 39km from Roydon Island to Whitemark and we went ashore a couple of times to consider stopping for the night. But in the end we made it to Whitemark and landed just south of the small jetty where we saw the 3 QSKC kayaks laid up. We quickly got changed into dry clothes and rushed into town and made it to the pub 4 minutes before orders closed for meals. We had a well deserved feed and a quick chat to the Queenslanders who we easily spotted in the crowded pub – they were the guys using drybags like handbags and charging their phones on the pub powerpoints.
A protected beach near Emita where we took a break and planned our next move.
Day 7 – Rest Day at Whitemark
We had been going pretty hard since we left the Prom so it was great to have a rest day and a chance to look around. We sorted out some gear and ate a lot of food. The timing of our rest day worked out really well because there was a cold front coming through with strong westerlies and it would have been an unpleasant day to be on the water.
So we had a big breakfast at Freckles Cafe and grabbed some supplies. We both had plenty of food left but we topped up a few items at the supermarket in town. Then we did some more sleeping before going back to Freckles for a big lunch. Then we had another nap and then went for dinner. It was a busy day….
We left Whitemark at the crack of dawn to catch the high tide. The Queenslanders had also decided to continue south today but we beat them onto the water by about half an hour. The sun rising over Flinders Island was great as Mt Strzelecki towered above. If we had another day on Flinders Island it would have been great to climb Mt Strzelecki but we had to keep moving.
The wind was pretty stiff as we made our way to Trousers Point. It is a great spot and it would be nice to camp here for a couple of days – but we had about 10 minutes on the beach before we had to crack on.
The trouble was that the wind was coming from the east and if we headed south for Cape Barren and Long Island we would certainly be swept out to the west and wide of our destination. So we planned to ride the last of the ebbing tide to the east (against the wind) and then head south west with flooding tide and wind. But as it turned out we got no help from the tide and we ended up battling the wind and doing a giant ferry glide across Franklin Sound. It was only when we were about half way across we became confident we would make it. It was very interesting to look at the GPS track afterwards because I thought we had gone much further to the east – however in reality we had gone more or less in a straight line.
As we got within a few kilometres of Long Island we could see the 3 Queenslanders were also nearby. We had left Trousers Point about half an hour before them and they were catching up to us. They had their sails up and it turned into an informal race to Long Island. We all landed at Long Island for a quick break and a chat about the different strategies we used to cross the Sound.
A friend of G-Man’s had kindly offered for us to stay at his place at Long Island but when we got there we still had plenty of daylight and the wind and tide were now in our favour for a change. So we topped up our water (thanks Bill) and charged down Long Island Passage. We went around to Thunder and Lightning Bay and found a nice spot to camp although it would have been nice to have a few more metres of sand above the high tide mark.
We had another early start – and had a great run with the tide past Preservation Island. Conditions were good and we were feeling pretty confident about finishing the trip off today. We hit the highest speeds of the trip with little effort which was a morale boost after the many slow speed sessions we had suffered through. We were paddling through some spectacular locations and if you had more time you could easily spend a week exploring the islands around here. If you didn’t want to cross Bass Strait – you could have a great 1-2 week trip from Little Musselroe Bay up to Whitemark and explore all the islands in the area.
As we approached Lookout Head on Clarke Island the ebbing tide had stopped and our progress was no longer assisted. Now we were just paddling against the wind. We knew we couldn’t cross Banks Strait with the flooding tide (which flows NW) and the 10-15 knot easterly wind as we would be swept far to the west and miss our rendezvous point at Little Musselroe Bay. So we pulled up on a nice little beach on Clarke Island to wait. We spent an hour or studying the charts and weather forecast before we agreed on our strategy to cross Banks Strait – the final challenge on our journey. We then spent 3 hours eating and sleeping in the sun.
We got back on the water at 2:45pm which was about 1 hour before high tide. The wind and flooding tide took us west as we planned before the tide turned and the notorious Banks Strait current dragged us back to the east. Our plan worked perfectly (for a change) and we nailed the crossing and landed at Little Musselroe Bay just before 7pm. There was some intense tidal streams just off the tip of Tassie and the navigation was a bit challenging in the setting sun for the last couple of kilometres but it was all good – we made it.
After 325km without incident G-Man nearly came to grief in the swift current flowing out of the estuary at Little Musselroe Bay as we landed. He was about 5 metres from shore but he managed to salvage the situation before I could get a photo. We walked and paddled our way up the estuary for a few hundred metres where the first half of our land-based support crew was camped. We surprised David by being 1 or 2 days ahead of schedule as he didn’t have any mobile service out there. Within a few minutes he had some steaks cooking over the fire and a cold beer in our hands.
We spent the next day lazing around camp and driving into Gladstone (the nearest town) to stock up on bacon and other essentials. David did some fishing and Mowbro and Geoff showed up – the second half of our support team. I flew home the next day while G-Man, Mowbro and Geoff had to wait another day to get the car on the Spirit of Tasmania and get our kayaks and gear back home.
Other stuff you may be interested in
Navigation was pretty straightforward and we had good visibility the whole time. We both had deck mounted compasses and A4 laminated charts made for each day / leg of the trip. We kept these charts on our front decks and they contained an overview of the route including the bearing and distance as well as close-ups of the destination showing back-up landing sites and tide tables. Click on the link below to see one:
We both used Garmin etrex GPS units on RAM mounts. These worked very well with no water ingress, great battery life (2 to 3 days) and decent visibility in the sun. They were very useful for checking our progress, deviation from the planned route and estimating our arrival times.
All the primary routes, back-up routes and potential landing sites were pre-programmed at home using Garmin Basecamp and we both ran exactly the same files so there was no argument about whose GPS to follow. Each GPS route was given a code which was shown on the hardcopy charts so we could easily select the correct route each day. The system worked well.
You could do this trip without a GPS, but if you ended up paddling at night or in fog you would wish you had one. Don’t bother using your mobile phone in a waterproof case for navigation as the touchscreen can be problematic when wet and battery life is poor compared to a proper GPS unit.
We managed to get mobile service everywhere we went with the exception of Little Musselroe Bay where it was a 30 minute walk (or 5 minute drive) to the top of a hill. We could normally get enough service to send and receive text messages within a few minutes of our camp and we could often make phone calls and access the internet. While both G-Man and myself were using Telstra SIM cards, his Blackberry handset had much better reception than my HTC. If I could get one bar of signal he would typically have 3 bars.
G-Man and I took separate food and cooking gear. G-Man’s diet consisted mostly of protein shakes, banana bread, baked beans, Backcountry freeze dried meals for dinner and about 10 cans of Coke – although several of the coke cans ruptured in his day hatch.
I managed to stay low carb the whole trip and ate fresh meat for dinner for the first 2 nights and then I had home made dehydrated meat meals (beef mince, chorizo and chilli) which were quick and easy to prepare in the frypan. Breakfast was typically a Quest protein bar and lunch on the water was normally a LC protein shake and/or 100g of salami. I vacuum sealed my salami and cheese into 100g packs and they were fine after 9 days with no refrigeration. Is Don…is good. I also ate a lot of nuts. I had plenty of food left over as I had taken enough food for at least 12 days. Unfortunately low carb foods are generally quite heavy compared to normal lightweight hiking foods.
I drink a fair bit of water so I carried quite a lot. When we left Waterloo Bay I had 16 litres on board in case we had to spend a day or two at Hogan Island where there is no water source that I am aware of (there may be a spring somewhere?) After we made it to Deal Island I adjusted the amount of water I carried depending on where we were going and the likelihood of getting water there. I always carried a few extra litres in case we ended up camping short of our destination and had no source of fresh water for the night. Most days I would leave with 2L in my PFD bladder, 1L made up with Shotz electrolyte tablets and 1L spare in the dayhatch plus another 6L or so in the boat somewhere.
Plan for the worst – hope for the best!
My mate Dr Cambo provided expert advice on what medication and first aid gear to take. We carried a comprehensive range of medicine ranging from antihistamines to antibiotics. The intention was to keep us going in the event of minor ailments or to keep us comfortable while we waited for help in the case of a major injury. Fortunately we didn’t need to use anything serious as blisters and chafing were our only issues. But it was good to have just in case.
I carried a home made fibreglass repair kit in case we needed any serious repairs – and some gaffa tape and sikaflex for anything minor. Fortunately we didn’t smack into any rocks and both boats performed well. Glad I took it though.
We both carried PLBs (Personal Locator Beacons) in our PFD’s (Type 2), but G-Man took safety to the next level by also carrying an EPIRB, a waterproof VHF radio and an inflatable PFD Type 1.
We both took spare rudders in case we damaged one in a surf landing or otherwise but we didn’t encounter any big surf. Probably not required unless your rudder is dodgy to start with.
Gear I didn’t need
I thought I might end up on a remote island with time to kill and no decent food so I threw in a telescopic fishing rod and some basic tackle. As it turned out I had no time to fish and plenty of food so the fishing rod never came out of my boat.
I enjoy hammocking when I get a chance so I threw in my lightweight rig. Most places we camped had no decent trees and we didn’t have much time for lazing around so the hammock didn’t make it out of the boat either.
For more than a year leading up to the trip I tried to paddle once a week. This involved fitness work on the bay, surf skills, big waves, strong winds, night paddling, self rescues, assisted rescues, rolling, towing etc. While we didn’t encounter very challenging conditions on Bass Strait I think we were quite lucky with the weather and I was glad to have the experience and skills in case things turned nasty.
to Mrs Bretto for being so supportive, my kids for pretending to miss me, David, Mowbro, Geoff, my dad, Carl, Dr Cambo, Mel, Bill, Kylie, Stevo, Pete, Coop Dogg, Niko and everyone else who helped out or loaned me gear and of course G-Man for sharing this adventure with me.
I would also like to thank the many paddlers who have provided invaluable advice on Bass Strait, both those that I have spoken with and those that have posted their trip reports online.
This is a short video made by Graham from the QSKC of their trip.
This is a short video of the guys from Peak Adventure doing the crossing on ocean skis shortly after G-Man and myself. Thanks Roy.