Tasmania 2003-04

Just two months after our Lord Howe Island trip we were ready to head back down to Tasmania for an extended summer of cruising. At that time Tassie ranked as my No.1 cruising destination on the planet (15 years later it is still in my top 3!) and I couldn't wait to spend some time there, on my new toy, with family and friends.

The plan that emerged, was to firstly accompany the Sydney to Hobart Race fleet to Hobart with my son Matt and some old sailing buddies as crew. Karen and my youngest daughter Cath, as well as good friends Tony and Cindy, would join us there for a three week trip around the bottom of Tasmania, to Bathurst Harbour and Port Davey in the extremely remote South West National Park. 

We would then return to Hobart, where Tony and Cindy would leave us for our elder daughter Beck, dear friends Simon and Sage and their kids Rosie and Johnno, to join us for a further two weeks on the east coast. The boat would then be left in Triabunna until late February when we would return with friends Mark and Anne to cruise in the Furneaux Group of islands (located in Bass Strait on the NE corner of Tasmania) for 10 days, before heading back to Sydney.

Sydney to Hobart
Sea-sickness, Seniors, (in)Sanity, Shims and Sea Shanties

My originally proposed crew for this first leg of our journey comprised two father and son teams (myself and son Matt and my good friend Garry and his son James), plus two old buddies who I sailed with, back in the late 70's, on the (then maxi) yacht Ballyhoo - Shero and the legendary Don Mickleborough (or as he used to introduce himself to the ladies "I'm Don Two, Don Juan is dead!" Sadly Don Two has now followed in Don Juan's footsteps). As it turned out Shero had to pull out at the last minute, so (unbeknownst to me) he invited his (and Don's) good friend Lou to stand-in. Don and Lou then put their heads together and invited (also unbeknownst to me!) their good mate Jacko to join us as well. I should've sensed these three highly experienced septuagenarian sailors and larrikins might prove to be handful!

Sydney to Hobart Crew

Back: James & Garry, self and son Matt

Middle: Cindy and Lou

Front: Jacko and Don Mickleborough

The final unplanned change to the crew list came about when Cindy, who was supposed to join us (with her husband Tony who was competing in the Hobart race) for the second stage of our journey, announced that she would like to join us for the trip down to Hobart.

I had some reservations, because you can pretty much count on getting somewhat of a pasting on any passage to Hobart and Cindy had never been to sea before. Cindy, being the willful lady she is got her way however - and what a blessing that turned out to be! 

Sea-sickness

I had planned to leave with the fleet, but just prior to the start of the race, the drive pulley for the stabilizer pump decided to part company with the main engine crank shaft. I opted to stay in the calm waters of Sydney Harbour to make the necessary repair and we ended up leaving a few hours later. The first 12 hours or so were pleasant enough with a following NE breeze, but then a perennial "southerly buster" blew in at 25-30kts. With the wind blowing against a 2kt south flowing current, conditions rapidly deteriorated and became very uncomfortable. To my great surprise, Cindy handled the change extremely well but unfortunately young James became extremely sea-sick and more worryingly, frightened and distressed. Not even the threat of a Stemotil suppository inserted by a (seemingly) uncaring captain was enough to shake him out of it!

We decided that morning to seek some shelter, to give James a chance to recover and let the worst of the southerly blow through before carrying on. The obvious choice would have been to head to Eden, a fishing port near the NSW / Victoria border, but Mickleborough suggested heading to Bittangabee Creek instead. Garry, Lou, Jacko and myself had probably completed more than 100 passages to and from Hobart, yet none of us had ever heard of, let alone been to, Bittangabee Creek. "Used to come here every year on 'Southerly' on my way back from Hobart" said Don. 'Southerly' (also known as TGFH - The Great Floating Hotel) is a 34' Charlie Peel designed yacht Don had owned for more than 50 years and raced to Hobart on no less than 14 occasions.

Captain enjoying the peace and tranquility of Bittangabee Creek after a rugged night off the NSW coast

So under Don's expert guidance, amongst breaking seas, we eased through an imperceptible crack in the cliffs to emerge in a beautifully sheltered hidy-hole just big and deep enough for Ada Hardy. The change in conditions from just 5 minutes earlier was extraordinary and it took less than 10 minutes for young James to emerge fully recovered - and ravenously hungry to boot. We fired up the BBQ, settled in for lunch and waited for the conditions outside to settle down. 

Seniors and (in)Sanity

Just before nightfall, having received the latest weather forecast and with James fully recovered, we headed back out to sea to find conditions significantly improved and continued on our way to our planned stop at Babel Island on the other side of Bass Strait. We settled into our watch system and all went well until about 4:00 am, when I was woken by Lou who said: "Don wants you up in the wheelhouse. There is a problem with the radar." I climbed sleepily up the ladder to the wheelhouse to discover there sure was a problem - it had been disassembled into at least 30 pieces and spread across the wheelhouse floor! Don, Jacko and Lou looked on somewhat sheepishly. After politely (not!) inquiring as to what was going on, I was told that Don, who in a previous life had been an electrician (or something similar), felt the back lighting dimmer was not working properly and had disassembled the radar to investigate. He was now having some difficulty putting it back together and wondered whether I had an instruction manual on board!! Who knows what was going through their heads, or what they were all doing up in the wheelhouse together, as they were meant to be on separate watches. I bundled all the pieces up to deal with it in daylight and left them with strict instructions to not touch another thing!

Garry enjoying a meal at sea - another one NOT prepared by one of our seniors!

I managed to reassemble the radar before breakfast but was becoming increasingly frustrated with my senior friends. It was like having a group of pre-school children on board who wouldn't do as they were told, wouldn't clean up and wouldn't leave things alone. Little things, but amazing how they can become extraordinarily grating after even just a few days at sea. Cindy sensed I was struggling and offered to take charge of our troublesome trio. I gave permission gladly and within hours she had them obediently working to a roster of on board duties and under threat of being put ashore at the first available opportunity if they did not behave! 

Shims and Sea Shanties

Conditions improved throughout the day to become glassy calm late that afternoon as we approached Babel Island on the NE corner of Tasmania. Just before anchoring in "the Gulch" on the southern side of the island, we sank two cray pots to try and catch some of Tasmania's renowned crayfish overnight. Don, who prior to becoming an electrician and legendary ocean racer, had been an equally legendary professional cray fisherman instructed us exactly how and where to place the pots with guaranteed success.

We enjoyed a nice meal and a few glasses of wine in our peaceful anchorage and after two uncomfortable nights at sea slept like logs. Early the next morning we launched the tender to retrieve our pots and sure enough, were rewarded with two nice size crays around the 1.5kg mark and a number of under size which we released. The two crays would make a nice snack but not a full meal for 8 hungry mariners. Not to worry however, because within minutes Don had added to the haul by calling on an old fishing mate also anchored in the bay who contributed a 3kg monster to add to our catch!

Don with 3kg crayfish at Babel Island. Note how our crayfish (which are not crayfish at all but officially Southern Rock Lobsters) do not have claws like Atlantic lobsters. 

Babel Island shoreline

Commercial cray boat anchored in "The Gulch" at Babel Island with Ada Hardy in the background

After breakfast I decided to have another go at remounting the stabilizer pump drive pulley because my hasty repair back in Sydney looked like it was about to come undone. Don, who in addition to having been a cray fisherman, an electrician and a legendary yachtsman, announced that he had also previously been a mechanic and would give me a hand. We removed the offending pulley and on close inspection found that the bearing surfaces on both the crankshaft and the pulley where somewhat worn, making a loose and uneven fit. We figured we could file the bearing surfaces of both crankshaft and pulley to make them more true, but would then need a thin piece of metal (a shim) to wrap around the shaft to achieve a nice tight fit. Don immediately came up with the idea of cutting a shim out of an aluminium beer can as this would be about the perfect thickness. We called to the crew loitering about on deck to pass an empty beer can down to the engine room and explained why. An empty can promptly appeared, and then another and another and another ....... as the boys on deck decided they could make a valuable contribution to our engineering work by making as much shim material as possible - which of course meant that the beer cans first had to be emptied!! By the time we successfully completed our repair there were at least twenty empty cans scattered around the engine room and a well lubricated crew on deck!

After spending the rest of the day anchored at Babel Island enjoying a shore excursion and an extended crayfish lunch, we left late in the afternoon, in perfect conditions, for an overnight passage down the Tasmanian east coast to Schouten Passage and then on to Hobart. My seniors team were in a most jovial mood (Don had joined the shim makers for the afternoon session) and amused us all, particularly young Matt and James, with an endless recital of bawdy sea shanties that went on well into the night.

We arrived in Hobart a few days later ready for a crew change and to prepare for the next stage of our summer cruise - around the bottom of Tasmania and up the rugged west coast to Port Davey and Bathurst Harbour.

A much amused James listening to Jacko's bawdy sea shanties!

Hobart to Port Davey and Return
Lara Croft, a Rushing Russian Back Packer and a Gale Swept Passage Home

Matt, Cindy and I bid farewell to our troublesome (but very amusing) trio of seniors as well as Garry and young James and welcomed on board first mate Karen, Cindy's husband Tony and my youngest daughter Cath. We reprovisioned, celebrated New Years Eve in Hobart and headed off the next day bound for the wild South West National Park and Port Davey / Bathurst Harbour.

Our route took us down the Derwent River and then a right hand turn into the enchanting d'Entrecasteaux Channel.

Time for a crew change: Son Matt, Tony and I in the back, Cindy, Karen and young Cath in front.

The d'Entrecasteaux Channel is named after the French naval officer and explorer Bruni d'Entrecasteaux who explored and charted the area in 1793. The channel separates Bruny Island from mainland Tasmania and along with the Huon River estuary, makes a beautifully sheltered and scenic cruising ground. The area abounds with wonderful anchorages and quaint fishing villages such as Kettering, Cygnet and Dover. At the south western end of the channel lies Recherche Bay, a perfect staging to point to wait for the right weather to undertake the 60nm passage around South East and South West Capes (unimaginative but informative names!) and up the west coast to Port Davey and Bathurst Harbour.

Recherche Bay

Huon River Estuary

We spent 4 or 5 days in the Channel and Recherche Bay before being rewarded with a perfect weather forecast for the hop to Bathurst Harbour. Bathurst Harbour is located in the South West National Park which is a justly designated World Heritage Wilderness Area. The area is totally unspoiled, uninhabited and accessible only by foot, by boat or by light aircraft (subject to the weather). The air strip, located in Melaleuca Inlet, was constructed by Denny King who owned a small tin mining lease in the area. Denny mined the site by hand from the the early 1930's until

he floated in a Caterpillar D2 bulldozer in 1953. In 1955 he set about building the airstrip which he completed in 1957. Denny stopped mining in the early 1980's and the airstrip is now used by bush walkers who don't have the time, or energy, for the 5 day walk to get there otherwise. Check out this link to www.worldwildplaces.com for some stunning photographs of the area - far better than anything I could produce! 

Song "Port Davey Bound" by the Trawldogs

Lara Croft and the Australian Customs Service

One afternoon (well after the start of Happy Hour), whilst anchored in Wombat Cove, a large offshore Australian Customs vessel passed by and dropped anchor in a bay nearby. Gale to storm force winds had been blowing offshore for the past few days so we speculated they probably came into Bathurst Harbour for a little respite. Within a short period of time a RIB appeared around the headland with a young, somewhat nervous looking, female official at the controls. She very inexpertly maneuvered their boat alongside and identified themselves as ACS officials.  

Once safely in Bathurst Harbour we settled down to a carefree fortnight of exploring the huge but intimate expanses of the harbour, hiking and fishing for crays off the Barrier Islands at the entrance.

My "Trawldogs" Tony and Matt hauling cray pots off the Barrier Islands

Tony, being a bit of ladies man, had by then taken stock of the lovely lass at the helm clad in Customs official overalls and equipped with a side arm and astutely evaluated that she been dispatched on a training exercise with us as the subjects. 

Lara Croft at the helm of Australian Customs Service RIB

"You must be Lara Croft" Tony said. "How can we help you?" Lara giggled, her supervisor ignored the flirty comment and they went on to advise they were on official duties, blah, blah, checking credentials, etc. (Reality being they had come into shelter from their real job searching for illegal immigrants at sea and that this was a training exercise for Lara!) We answered all their perfunctory questions until they asked to see the boat's registration papers.

This posed a bit of a problem as I had recently changed the boat's registration from Tasmania to New South Wales, but did not have the papers with me. The numbers on the bow (TEK1) were the old Tasmanian ones, which I should have removed. Whilst I was fumbling around looking for an excuse for not being able to produce our rego papers or the new registration number, "Lara" looked up overhead at one of the fishing floodlights fitted to the boat and noticed a 6 digit number stenciled upon it. "Would that be the rego number?" she said. "Of course it is" I said and she duly wrote it down in her clipboard. In actual fact, the floodlight was a Tasmanian street light that had been press ganged into service on Ada Hardy by the previous owners (one of whom worked for the Tasmanian Electricity Board!). 

Having completed their investigations, the ACS bid us farewell. As they headed off Tony ducked over to the other side of the boat to have a much needed pee ....... at which exact moment Lara and her supervisor appeared on that side taking photographs of the boat for their records. So now, somewhere in the depths of ACS archives, there must be a record linking a boat named Ada Hardy with a Tasmanian street light and an unidentified man with a hand on his .....!!!

A Rushing Russian into the Teeth of a Gale

We had planned for our friends, Simon and Sage and their two kids, to fly into Melaleuca from Hobart and for Tony and Cindy to fly the return trip. As it transpired no flights had made it into Melaleuca for the past 4 days due to strong winds and poor visibility and there was no break in the weather in sight. I hiked up to the airstrip on the day our friends were due to fly in, to check if the park rangers stationed there had any update on the likelihood of any flights getting through. They confirmed it was unlikely anything would get through for the next 48hrs. I borrowed the ranger's sat phone and called our friends to tell them to stay in Hobart and that we would steam round overnight to pick them up later the next day. 

 

There was a small crowd of about 30 hikers milling around the two small huts at the airstrip - a back log waiting for a flight out. I had noticed a rather agitated young man among them, who appeared to be eavesdropping on my conversation with the rangers. As I headed off down the track back to the boat, he came running after me carrying his back pack and all his camping gear and pleaded with me to take him back to Hobart on the boat. He claimed that he had to be in Hobart the next night to catch a flight out or else his life would be in extreme danger 

Motoring up Bathurst Harbour our Russian friend wondered if conditions would get any worse!

He wouldn't expand on why exactly he was in so much danger, but he seemed genuine enough, so I agreed to take him with us on the 20hr run back to Hobart. It was blowing a good 30kts as we motored up Bathurst Harbour when  our Russian friend announced he had never stepped foot on a boat before and wondered whether the conditions would get any worse. I told him to enjoy the next hour or so because once we got out into the open ocean things would become dramatically less comfortable.

Our hitch hiking friend became decidedly quiet as we punched out of the entrance a little while later into 30 - 40kts of wind and a 4 - 5m sea. In fact he stayed glued by my side for the next 6 hrs as we made our way down the coast and made the turn around SW Cape, into the lee of the land and more sheltered waters.

Our Russian friend looking a little anxious.

Breaksea Islands astern - doing their job

Punching our way into the south westerly gale.

He told me afterwards that he had never before been as terrified and that not being able to detect any fear in my eyes was the only thing that got him through the ordeal. We got him back to Hobart in time to catch his flight and have never heard from him since!

Safely back in Hobart for another crew change

East Coast of Tasmania

Our elder daughter Beck, as well as our good friends Simon and Sage and their kids Jonno and Rosie, joined us for the next 2 weeks on the east coast of Tasmania. The east and west coasts are dramatically different, both in terms of climate as well as landscape. Whilst the west coast is rugged, sparsely inhabited and totally exposed to frequent strong weather fronts from the south-west, the weather on the east coast is much more benign (although 4 seasons in one day are still common!) with many more towns and villages. It is still however largely unspoiled, with some dramatic and varied landscapes and beautiful anchorages.

We enjoyed a wonderful two weeks with our two families including gorgeous anchorages at Port Arthur, Fortescue Bay, Maria Island, Schouten Passage and the spectacular Wineglass Bay. After that we left the boat with my friend Frizzle in Triabunna, to return in early March for a trip to the Furneaux Group of islands and the passage back to Sydney.

Furneaux Group
Mutton Birds and a frightening encounter with "The Pot Boil"

Map of Furneaux Islands

We arrived back in Triabunna as planned in early March with our friends Mark and Anne from Sydney. Our aim was to explore the Furneaux Islands located on the NE tip of Tasmania (we had stopped at Babel Island on the way down which is also part of the group) and hopefully catch a few of the giant crayfish for which the area is famous. Like so much of Tasmania the islands are very remote, with little in the way of development and very exposed to frequent fronts moving in from the Southern Ocean. Good, all weather anchorages, are few and far between and the frequent changes of weather makes keeping a good ear to weather forecasts essential.

As it turned out we enjoyed a week of nearly flat calm conditions which allowed us to extensively explore the islands. The crayfish gods on the other hand were not with us - despite dropping 2 pots every night we never caught one fish!

The islands have a rich and colourful history of tough and determined settlers known as the "Straitsmen" who grazed sheep and cattle on the islands and fished the surrounding waters. A wonderful video history titled "Wooden Ships and Stockmen" has been produced by Tasmanian crayfisherman Garry Kerr, a short excerpt of which can be seen here.

"Wooden Ships and Stockmen" by Garry Kerr

Grilled Muttonbird

Towards the end of our stay we headed to Lady Barron, the main settlement in the islands and an all weather port. We would stay here to wait for a favourable weather forecast for the 48hr run back to Sydney. That evening we ventured ashore for our first restaurant meal in 10 days where Mark's attention was immediately drawn to an item of "Grilled muttonbird" on the menu.

 

Muttonbird, the local name for the short tailed shearwater, is an oceanic sea bird with a wing span of up to 1m. They nest in burrows on land and are prolific around the Furneaux Islands. Tasmanian Aborigines have harvested the chicks for their flesh, feathers and eggs for generations and a few families are granted a license each year to continue to do so. According to Don Mickleborough, they were also commonly "unofficially" harvested by crayfishermen to use as bait, and on occasions they found their way onto the dinner table as well. Don was rumored to still source and keep a small supply of frozen muttonbird in his freezer in Sydney, some 40 years after he had stopped fishing!

I had heard muttonbird (as a food) being politely described as having an "acquired taste" but had never seen it on a menu before. I had no intention of trying to acquire the taste at this stage of my life but Mark, who had never heard of muttonbird, and is without doubt the most adventurous eater I have ever known, decided he would give it a go. Our waiter did his best to dissuade him, but eventually took the order on the understanding that we would have to wait until the other diners had been served - apparently the smell could be bad enough to sometimes put people off their meals! The waiter had not exaggerated. The foul smell that started to filter out of kitchen emptied the restaurant fairly promptly of the few remaining diners and it was only our eager anticipation of Mark's imminent suffering that kept us at the table! To our great amusement the challenge proved even too great for Mark who described the taste afterwards as "a hint of chicken marinated in regurgitated seafood". 

A Frightening Encounter with The Pot Boil

We retired back to the boat after dinner to receive the latest forecast which had a fairly strong south-westerly change due through the islands late the following afternoon. If we left early the next morning we would be most of the way across Bass Strait before the front caught up to us and we would then ride the following breeze all the way home to Sydney.

In a flat calm, Mark and I slipped the mooring early the next morning and headed down the meandering channel that leads out of Lady Barron to the east. The only thing that lay between us and the open ocean was the Vansittart Shoals (marked "Breaks Heavily" on the charts) and the narrow shifting channel through it know locally as "the Pot Boil". The channel through the shoals is only about 3m deep at low water, not more than 100m wide and it is not bouyed because it's location is always shifting.

Back on the mooring at Lady Barron. Anne, Karen and I sheltering from the wind on the foredeck.

The current location of the channel is indicated by a movable lead light above Lady Barron which shows white if you are on track or red/green if you are off the axis either side. This sounds good in theory but with the shallowest part of the shoals located some 5nm offshore the light can be hard to see (particularly in bright daylight!) and the "white" sector between red and green is awfully small! Notwithstanding, I was not in the slightest bit worried because there was hardly any wind and it had been that way for the last week so I was expecting calm sea conditions.

 

As we headed offshore towards the shoals I started to become somewhat concerned - primarily because I could see nothing but a solid wall of white water on the horizon in front of us. I called the Lady Barron coastal station on VHF a couple of times but got no response. After a few minutes I received a call from a small day charter fishing vessel who had heard our calls and asked if they could assist. It turned out they were a mile or so behind us also heading out through the Pot Boil, and when I expressed my concern about the white water ahead they replied: "No problem, we will pass you and you can follow us out if you like." So I slowed down but continued heading down the channel, swept along by a 2 knot current towards the wall of white water ahead, comforted by the confidence of the local vessel approaching from behind to guide us through. As we got closer and closer, the depth sounder signal became intermittent because of the increasingly turbulent water and the red/white/green lead light became harder and harder to see because of the amount of sea spray mist from the breaking waves ahead.

We lost sight of the boat behind and then bounced lightly on the sandy bottom. By this stage we were less than 100m from the closest breaking waves with no sign of a clear passage through so I made the decision to bail out and head back. As we had lost sight of the lead lights I had to guess whether we had more water for the turn to port or to starboard and needed to rely on the track line we had left on the chart to guide us back in until we could pick up the lead lights again. By the time we turned (I guessed starboard and it worked!) the current had swept us into the start of the surf line and we had white water all around us!

As we headed in to Lady Barron, picked up the lead light and our heart rates settled back to normal, I called up the local boat who had offered to guide us out to find out where they had got to. "Oh man!" he said. "We turned back a while ago. No way I was heading out through that. Never seen it like that before!". Well thanks for letting me know buddy!!! It turned out that the breaking seas were the result of a huge ground swell caused by a large cyclone that had been stationary in the Tasman Sea about 1,000nm to the north during the previous week. I learned later that this same ground swell had earlier caused significant coastal erosion along the NSW coast.

We tied back up to the same mooring at Lady Barron and stayed there for another 48hrs as the forecast south-westerly change blew through. By the time we attempted the Pot Boil again the NE swell had been flattened by the opposing SW winds and we passed through without incident.

 

Two days later we arrived back in Sydney ready to start planning our next adventure!