Across 'The Strait' in winter

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Mark Riley recently undertook a boat delivery to Tasmania in the depths of winter. This is his account of the journey.

Most people head north for the winter but our client had just bought a beautiful boat (a Sea Ray 540 Sundancer) from us at Marine Riley and he lived in Hobart while the boat was in Sydney.

Fortunately for us, we love delivering high quality and well-looked after boats, although there were a couple of minor issues:

1. Going across Bass Strait is not recommended in winter due to the sea conditions and unpredictable weather.

2. There are lots of things in the water, including a lot of whales so we don’t travel at night and the days are short in winter and we had a long way to travel.

3. Did I mention the icebergs in Bass Strait? OK, there weren’t icebergs but it certainly felt like it crossing 'The Strait'.

So after four weeks of planning and waiting for a weather window, we finally had four days of good weather (we soon found out it was only four days maximum) to get from Sydney to Hobart (daytime travel only). Due to fuel range and daylight, we broke the trip into four stages:

  • Sydney to Bermagui
  • Bermagui to Lakes Entrance
  • Lakes Entrance to St Helens
  • St Helens to Hobart

Stage 1 - to Bermagui

My rule is always to leave early (off the dock at 6am) so if you have any issues during the day you always have some daylight to try and get things sorted. Issues in the very late afternoon soon escalate when darkness is coming on. The owner of the boat decided to join us from Sydney to Bermagui (owners are always welcome on delivery trips), so this gave him the opportunity to learn more about his boat, using the navigation gear and electronics and generally understanding what his boat was capable of.

With not a lot of light and a long distance to travel we were soon out of the Heads and sitting on 25 knots in reasonable conditions which improved as we got off Jervis Bay. But not all was great off Jervis Bay; a quick call from the Navy on channel 16 soon had the owner a little concerned…

I was on the radio back and forth with one of the Australian Navy’s finest destroyers giving my current co-ordinates, speed and heading as it was important to them. After hearing my constant communications with the destroyer the owner casually asked what all the talking back and forth was all about?

Well he asked, so I just made him aware that the Navy destroyer was letting us know that we were in the firing range and today they were doing live firing! Could we please move out of the range! A minor detail really as we were moving through it at 26 knots. What are the chances of a direct hit?

So I decided it might be best to leave the area in a hurry. The captain of the destroyer thought this might be the best idea also. Looking off to the horizon we saw not just a destroyer but a whole Navy fleet.

With hourly inspections of the engine room, a constant watch for whales, fish traps and stray containers, we were soon in Bermagui after a great day at sea. Bermagui is primarily a fishing port and you can buy fuel at the wharf. We put in 1,750 litres and trawler next to us put in 12,000 litres… it made me feel much better. After securing and washing down the boat we went to check on the local hotelier to ensure all was OK. After several hours we decided to go to the local Chinese restaurant for dinner, a story for another day.

Stage 2 – to Lakes Entrance

Up at 5am to check the engine room and everything on board, we were ready to leave the dock at 6am, so off we went, just my crew and me; the owner thought he might leave Bass Strait for another time. Bermagui is a reasonably good bar to cross, though very narrow, but with some planning and good weather it is OK.

We headed south, dodging the seals, whales and hundreds of dolphins, but there weren’t many boats out there, maybe something to do with the temperature. We stuck very close to the coast to avoid the west to south west conditions as much as possible. The trip from Bermagui to Lakes Entrance in Victoria was one of the most scenic I have ever had. Gabo Island is truly stunning with its pink granite lighthouse, beautifully kept cottages and spectacular landscape.

This area is one of the most isolated with hundreds of miles of coastline, but no signs of people or buildings at all and no ports to enter either. This is why being able to enter Lakes Entrance is so important. It was a solid eight hours to Lakes Entrance with swell rolling in from the southern ocean but very little wind as the day went on.

Upon approach to Lakes Entrance bar we were pretty apprehensive as it has a bad reputation. Given our good weather it only had a reasonable sea running over it but it was still “interesting” to cross. Soon though we were safely inside the bar and tying up at great facilities and the lovely village of Lakes Entrance (after another 1,800 litres was put on board).

Stage 3 – across the Strait

Up again at 5am and, after the usual checks, we spent time confirming the weather forecast for Bass Strait and away we went for five hours before we would see land again.

The bar was calm with a low swell, a run out tide and the sun was shining. We were soon running along at 26 knots directly for Flinders Island, the water was like glass and we charged towards the oil rigs on our way south, on the every present look for icebergs. We thought there had to be icebergs close by because it was so cold (have you ever driven a boat in your sleeping bag at the helm?).

There was an amazing amount of sea life and stunning deep blue water, actually a lot of deep blue water, and at the halfway point we realised it would be a long swim either way… (we purchased a life raft for this trip and had all our personal grab bags ready at the back of the boat just in case). There is no mobile or VHF reception in Bass Strait but we did carry a satellite phone in case of emergencies and personal EPIRBS.

After five hours of running in unbelievable conditions we were off the islands of the Flinders Group. These isolated islands are truly a sight to be seen; having never been so close to them we were amazed at their natural beauty.

As Bass Strait is known for, the forecast quickly changed as we headed down the east coast of Flinders Island. The wind in the morning was going to be 30 knots from the west with swell to match, so we decided to keep going on to St Helens as we had enough fuel. As we passed the protection of the islands, a 20 to 25 knots westerly popped up on the beam for an “interesting” ride to the north east tip of Tasmania.

St Helens also has seen many boats come to grief on its bar so when offered the assistance of Marine Rescue to guide us in over the bar we gladly accepted. It was a pretty uneventful crossing but I can we why it could be so dangerous in anything but good conditions.

I won't say much about our night in St Helens, only to say it was an eye opener… great people and an interesting night out (how did they so quickly know we weren’t from around there?)

Stage 4 – to Hobart

The owner met us again for the trip from St Helens to Hobart and I must say this was the most interesting. With a safe crossing over the bar we headed out for our last day at sea.

The owner had never seen Wineglass Bay from the sea so we decided to head in closer to the coast and go into the bay for what would be a memorable occasion. Wineglass Bay from the ocean is truly stunning with massive granite cliffs and crystal clear waters, so we slowed to 8 knots to take some photos. As I turned my camera around I noticed a large unmarked RIB coming towards us at high speed with three men on board with guns! Oh I thought, this is going to be interesting…

Within a minute we were being boarded by Tasmanian Police and I don’t think they were looking for lollipops! After many questions, IDs being shown and pictures of our trip so far being shown, it wasn’t looking great for us and our journey south (what was jail in Tasmania going to look like?). The owner came forward to ask the police on board how their boss was, as he was a neighbour of the owner of the boat.

Very soon we were on our way south again. In all seriousness the police were very polite but had been tracking a boat down the coast which we passed earlier in the day. That boat must have had very special lollies on board to attract so much interest from them.

A few miles south we passed the police mother ship from which the RIB had been launched and they gave us a wave on their way past…

We had a 40 knot southerly forecast to hit at 2pm so we didn’t really want to get right around the bottom of Tassie to get to Hobart so it was decided that given the great conditions at that time we would head through Dunally Channel. This required crossing quite a swallow entrance which should be taken with care.

Coming out the other side the wind had picked up and gave us a taste of true Tassie weather. A big southerly swell was rolling through and it was certainly time to get her home to her new berth in Hobart. Within a couple of hours we had her safely alongside as the 40 knot southerly hit. Did I mention it was also snowing!

If you would like to know more or would like your boat delivered anywhere in Australia or the Pacific, Mark Riley can be contacted on +61 418 250 727, marineriley.com.au.

Republished with permission from Marine Riley.

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