Bass Strait has long carried a fearsome reputation as a stretch of water not to be trifled with. But as Jack Finlay and photographer, Chris Carey, were fortunate to discover earlier this year, timing can be everything, and when the weather gods smile Bass Strait offers the very best of cruising under sail.
The sea is a fickle mistress. It can dish up idyllic conditions or weather that will turn your the blood in your veins to ice. Few stretches of water have a more fearsome reputation than Bass Strait, so you’d be well justified asking why we would want to sail it. The answer was well summed up by American author, Jack London, when he explained his motivation for his 1907 cruise of the South Seas, “The cruise was our idea of a good time” he explained.
Around the same era, sea captain turned novelist, Joseph Conrad, reflected, “The sea has no fortune, no love, but beyond the horizon lies a view worth a king’s ransom”.
For “Poitrel II” and its three man crew of “laughing fellow rovers”, those two sets of words, written more than 100 years ago, were the motivation that earlier this year took us into the indigo waters of south western
A place with a reputation
Along with a lot of other people we’ve always regarded Bass Strait as a place that needs to be watched. With its rapid, intense, and continuously changing weather systems, its currents, short sharp seas, navigational issues, and exposure, (especially on its western side), to the unsettling swells of the Southern Ocean, the Strait has a well deserved reputation as a seaway to be respected. It’s one place where it pays to watch your barometer, keep a good weather eye and your guard up!
Over the years the area has carried its share of labels and monikers. They’ve ranged from the glowing “God’s own country”, “the wind capital of the world”, “Australia’s last frontier”, all the way through to the sombre “a dire stretch of water”. They’re all correct in their own ways, and on a bad day Bass Strait is no place for the faint hearted.
But as is equally well known, the area certainly has its compensations, with a deserved reputation for beautiful anchorages, spectacular wildlife, and friendly locals. As with a lot of other cruising grounds the pleasures are there for those who dare. Frontiers are rarely one hundred per cent safe.
Knowing all this, and with almost 60 crossings of the Strait in small yachts between the three of us, we willingly paid the piper and let the wind call the tune. A good time and a view worth a king’s ransom were what set us out to sea!
“Poitrel II” is a Peter Joubert designed Brolga 33, the product of a time when rating rules resulted in some wholesome designs. Stiff, sea kindly, dry, well balanced, soundly equipped, and with a good turn of speed to windward, it’s a well credentialed yacht in which to sail Bass Strait. With a divisional win in the 1974 Hobart race, and as a sister ship of “Berrimilla 2”, the world circumnavigator, and North West Passage veteran, “Poitrel II” isn’t a bad way to go anywhere, especially if creature comforts like refrigeration, hot water, and plasma screens, aren’t on your list of necessaries! Substitute instead, (amongst other things), a good spray dodger, and
effective wind vane and electronic self steering systems!
Our intended destination was Hunter and Three Hummock Islands, with the primary aims being secure anchorages, and no untoward dramas. It has been said that adventure only begins when things go wrong! Well in that sense we weren’t adventurers, and apart from an unscheduled visit to the fishing port of Stanley to replace a broken bolt, and a wave aboard off Hunter Island (that drenched the skipper whilst the helmsman sheltered under the dodger!) things panned out as planned.
Of value to others
All cruises have a life of their own, unfold at their own pace, yield up their treasures and anguish, and teach their own unique lessons. Satori in the Strait! This one was no different. So what came out of it that might be of value to others?
Perhaps some of the following:
Weather in the Strait is always a factor, and time to sit out unfavourable developments in appropriate anchorages is almost mandatory. They say February and March can be pretty settled, and possibly they are, but I’ve heard some bad stories from those times too, just as I’ve heard of weeks of calm winter weather. Whatever the vagaries at play here one thing is for sure, the weather forecasting services now available through the Bureau of Meteorology website, and yacht routing services, such as www.bouyweather.com, have revolutionised sailing in this area for those who are
appropriately equipped with internet and/or weather fax reception, in addition to HF/VHF radio.
Certainly the grandeur of nature at play is one of Bass Strait’s treasures. We were fortunate enough to pass through pods of more than 200 feeding dolphins, see huge schools of Australian Salmon, (some of which we hooked up for an evening meal), catch flathead whilst drifting, gummy sharks whilst anchored, and abalone whilst diving. (If you’re going to do these things remember to take out the appropriate licences from Tasmanian Fisheries before you leave. This can be done online.) We saw a huge Sea Eagle plucking Australian Salmon from the water in great wheeling dives, its talons extended, hitting the sea in just the right spot at just the right time. And of course the muttonbird flocks! They might not have been the 100 million plus streams that Matthew Flinders witnessed in 1798, but great numbers of them certainly passed across our path at various stages, and never ceased to amaze us. Could those tiny bodies really venture north to Alaskan waters and back each year?
Much of Bass Strait can be cruised in shortish hops. There are lots of anchorages offering a spectrum that ranges from very good security and holding, to usable if you’re prepared to run anchor watches and prepared to move at very short notice. Study your charts before you leave, talk to friends who have been there and mark up the places they’ve tried. Seek the knowledge of local fisherman for any area you’re in, most fisherman are only too happy to share their experience. Use plenty of chain and an appropriate size and type of anchor. Take bearings that will give a clear way out in the event of a wind shift. Don’t hesitate to establish anchor watches. If you have any concern about the weather, tie in your reefs, and have your mainsail ready for hoisting before settling in for a night. Be careful about leaving boats unattended in any anchorage, and if in doubt at all don’t go ashore. We spent two days of our trip unable to leave the boat, but happily and successfully fished as the wind and current had us this way and that, rocking and rolling, but happy to stay put on a deeply embedded anchor!
Cruising under sail anywhere is sure to result in the unplanned at some point, and our cruise was no different. A bolt securing the alternator to the engine block sheared, leaving its end still threaded in the block. With no charging possible, we saved what remained in our batteries for the engine start necessary to enter the fishing port of Stanley, and continued our cruise under sail-only for three days.
Stanley had never been in our plan, but as it turned out, the unexpected stay was one of the most satisfying aspects of the cruise. The friendliness and helpfulness of the local fishing community and the townspeople, was something we will never forget. So often we were told, “We like to help people, because one day we might need help ourselves”!
What would the world be like if that credo prevailed?
Stanley was also where we met Marcus and Sharleen, from the S/V “Pelagian”. It was this remarkable man who undertook the removal of the broken bolt from the engine block. A graduate of the Polish Merchant Marine Academy, Marcus has completed 7 world circumnavigations in everything from square rigged sail training ships, to “Pelagian” his 60ft self-designed and built steel ketch. Originally launched in the early 1990s as a 45 footer, Marcus later cut her in two and added an additional 15ft to improve performance and sea kindliness! On board he has a fully equipped workshop with a lathe, milling and welding equipment, and a 6 tonne cache of “spares”! With all of this he is able to readily drum up work in whatever ports he chooses to visit.
At one stage during his Pacific rambles Marcus visited an atoll where an American yacht with a badly damaged propeller was sheltering. Using his chainsaw and lathe he carved and turned a timber propeller from the root of a coconut tree. Not only did it get the American boat back to a port with facilities, but its specifications became the template for the bronze replacement!
Naturally, Marcus and his TIG welder made short work of our problem! By welding a smaller diameter bolt to the stump of ours, he was able thread it out from the engine block, not once but twice, for the bolt had in fact broken in two places! “Pay me in Captain Morgan rum”, he requested when settlement was discussed!
What an encounter!
Bass Strait has a most colourful history, full of the worst and best of human
endeavour. At one stage the assaults of the early 19th century sealers on the local aboriginal tribes, their kidnapping and enslavement of Aboriginal women, and their slaughter of the seal and sea elephant colonies led to their being
described as “the most reckless, dissolute, quarrelsome and lawless inhabitants of this earth”. Frontiers can certainly be wild places!
For us, the historical references took form in simple ways. Our first sight of Three Hummock and Hunter Islands
after a 24 hour crossing of the Strait, for example, was made in much the same haze as Bass and Flinders in the “Norfolk” experienced on December 9 1798, and noted on their charts. The spray and spume from the Southern Ocean swells breaking on Dangerous Bank were the same as those glimpsed from the “Norfolk” that same day, and which clearly confirmed the existence of Bass Strait as a body of water between what is today Tasmania and the Australian mainland.
All this history, right through to more modern stories of the Alliston’s years on Three Hummock Island, and Bern Cuthbertson’s modern day recreations of early whaleboat voyages around Tasmania, are in so many good books. Read them before you set sail, take some with you, and your trip will be all the richer.
So, did we have a good time, and did we catch views worth a king’s ransom? Most certainly “yes”! In the midst of these memories, perhaps the most enduring vision for each of us is from a full moon night at sea, the stars splashed all about like a brightly shining million dollars, the little yacht working its way over and across the swells, self steering vane locked on, and The Pointers of the Southern Cross our reference into the darkness ahead. A satori in the Strait?
On such memories as these are Bass Strait cruises launched!
NOTE: Jack Finlay has been sailing, surfing, and diving most of his life and has cruised and raced along the east Australian coast, and south western Pacific. He lives in Torquay, and sails Poitrel II out of Geelong. Chris Carey is a prominent Australian surf photographer. This cruise was his first experience of sailing in open waters.