Michael's Bass Strait Story
New - Rent or buy the documentary of the trip: Bass Strait Laser
The idea of sailing a Laser across Bass Strait initially came during some down-time waiting for wind at a regatta. The discussion was something like Ė what else can we do in Lasers that would be fun apart from sailing around the cans?
Thoughts turned to filming surfing in Lasers, maybe catching big waves and wiping out and of course we needed a big stunt at the end of the film Ė Bass Strait. I went away and thought about the idea and became motivated to do it for a few reasons:
1) Most people aware of Bass Strait know it has a nasty reputation but it also has it share of moderate days. The thing is, Iím far from crazy but do know how to sail a Laser really well. I knew I could handle the conditions we decided on.
2) It would be positive publicity for the sport of sailing (as long as I made it).
3) I love sailing downwind in a Laser in big waves.
The preparation began in October last year with a search for good take-off and landing spots. I settled on a small town called Stanley in NW Tasmania. It sits on a peninsula that sticks out into Bass Strait and offers protected launching in a SW breeze.
The choice of the best landing spot was a compromise of distance and ability to land without issues. I wanted to do most of the sailing in daylight so I was after the shortest route possible. I ended up choosing a beach called Tidal River at Wilson's Promontory, some three hours from Melbourne but closer to Tasmania. It is a very flat beach with low surf, protected by islands offshore. It's 115nm from Stanley to Tidal River at a bearing of 012. So I had those numbers in my head for months!
I consulted with weather guru, Roger 'Clouds' Badham about finding a weather window. I wanted to go downwind to make the trip fast. This meant waiting for a SW front to come through and for the wind to die down a bit and then take off. Statistically, fronts come through that part of the world every three and a half to five days.
Next thing to do was to find out how fast I could go downwind in a Laser over extended periods and to make sure the equipment and I was up to it. I did some downwind runs of 15-20 miles along the Sydney coast with a GPS. From that I figured I could average about 7.5 knots sailing downwind in 18 knots. This equated to 15+ hours to sail across the Strait Ė this meant that some night sailing would be inevitable.
I knew that preparation would be the key to making the trip a success. So I also put a lot of effort into sorting out the equipment and safety issues. My coach, Arthur Brett sourced a support boat - a new 32 foot semi-planning cruiser with Tim Phillips at the helm (www.woodenboatshop.com.au).
I sourced equipment including an analog compass, hand-held GPS, inflatable life jacket with harness/tether, strobe light, flares, satellite phone (Globalstar), EPIRB, VHF radio and light sticks.
Arthur made a rectangular Mylar/Dacron pouch to attach under the grab rail at the side of the cockpit and store the high-value items - GPS, radio and flares. The clear Mylar allowed me to see the GPS display without removing it from the pouch. An EPIRB I carried in a pocket in my big jacket.
I also had a screw-top plastic container tied at the back of the cockpit which stopped my bananas et al. getting crushed or soggy. I clipped six 500-750ml drink bottles onto the back of the hiking strap.
On the subject of equipment on board the Laser, I also carried bananas, PowerAde, chocolate bars, carbohydrate gels, Sustagen, coke and some Red Bull. Not nutritionally balanced but plenty of energy! I also had a sunscreen stick and bottle of water to splash on my face.
I took some goggles to deal with the spray but it didnít end up being as bad as I thought because the waves were at such an angle to the boat as to not produce heavy spray into my eyes. However, I did cop a fair bit of water into my body and the wet weather gear did its job well.
My sports science background helped me prepare physically and decide on a nutrition strategy. To prepare physically, I did sessions in the gym focusing on the back, abdominals, arms and shoulders with less work on the legs, to match the demands of downwind sailing.
Many years sailing Lasers in all sorts of winds and waves (to 45 knots and 4-5m swells) have seen me break a few things along the way so I knew the weaknesses of a Laser. I decided on all-new gear (spars, fittings, etc.) as it is the most robust. The boat was virtually unmodified except for adding the small pouch in the cockpit, an orange patch on the sail and painting the centreboard orange (to aid identification).
A Laser sailor and cameraman at my local club, West Ashton, also heard about my idea and he said ĎIím coming to film ití.
I started closely watching the weather in Bass Strait for about a month beforehand to get more of an idea of how the systems moved through and the wind strength and directions they produced. My test runs down the coast indicated I needed wind speed of 14-25 knots at a true wind angle of 120-150 deg.
So we got to Stanley - by putting the Laser on the back of the support boat and motoring across from Melbourne on a light day. That night a strong front came through from the SW and it looked good for a take-off in the next day or two.
However, the SW front kept on coming! It blew 30-45kts with seas to 5m for the next two days and then started easing. While the wind blew and the squalls continued to come we filled in the time by looking around town, making friends with the locals and playing a couple of rounds of golf.
After much frustration balanced by a desire not to take on the Strait at its fiercest, I finally pushed the Laser into the water at Stanley six days after we got there!
At 2:00 am that day I dressed myself in 6 layers of clothing - from lightweight thermals to thicker thermals, to a spray top and waterproof offshore pants and jacket plus boots, balaclava, gloves, inflatable PFD and harness. It was about 13 degrees with the wind chill making it feel a little less. However, I was toasty warm!
I decided to deliberately overdress slightly at the start since it would be easier to take something off. During the crossing it warmed up a little when the sun came up, but I was slightly wet by then and so stayed at a good body temperature throughout.
After rigging, checking everything and launching I finally started sailing away from the harbour at Stanley at 3:30 am.
The first few hours involved some of the most extraordinary sailing I've ever done. About a mile offshore the wind steadied at about 15 knots with a slight wave. Or at least I thought so - because I couldn't see a thing apart from my compass (illuminated by a little glow stick) and the all-round white light of the support boat a few hundred meters in front. (Picking a good weather window meant no chance of combining that with a full moon).
The 15kts of wind from the SW put me on a perfect reaching angle and I was planning at 8-10 knots into the blackness. As I got further away from shore I could feel the waves getting bigger but couldn't tell for sure.
A couple of times I put the bow into the wave in front and water poured over the deck, filling the cockpit. Coming close to capsizing, I thought about sailing more conservatively, but I didnít want to slow down so just moved my weight further back to try keep the bow up. Nonetheless, I went down the mine a few more times.
Needless to say, I was looking forward to the dawn. When the sky first lightened up I could start to see the outline of the waves and they werenít as big is I thought - to 1.5m.
Now that I could see the waves I could also start to use them properly and do some surfing - this is what I had been looking forward to for months - so I started to work the boat a bit more.
Into the mid-morning it was still overcast with the temperature about 17 degrees and wind 15-18 kts out of the SW. Time and distance were travelling relatively quickly in my head thanks to a perfect set of conditions. My average boat speed to dawn was 8.1 kts and I would slowly increase this during the day to finish with an 8.7 kt average.
Mid-Strait, in the distance I could see a flame above the surface of the water. As I got closer over the next few hours the flame revealed it was attached to an oil rig. For a while I pondered sailing right under its yellow steel frame but was glad I didn't when a guy on the rig radioed that I had just sailed within its 500m exclusion zone. (Maybe they thought me a terrorist?). We explained what we were doing and they said 'no worries mate'.
The wind had lightened a little at that stage - to about 12-14kts and I was worried it was on a downward trend. I had made good speed so far and didn't was to drift into the finish. But it didn't stay soft for long.
My body was starting to feel the effects of reaching on one tack for 7 hours. My back was stiff throughout; my bottom was getting soggy and irritated and my arms getting a little weaker. Regularly, I did some stretching and mobility exercises and sailed the boat in different positions to reduce the discomfort.
The guys on the support boat thought I might be showing off a little as I steered while lying face down and standing up all while still surfing the waves. However, these things I had tried in training as well.
Along the way I saw lots of birds, albatrosses, tiny sea birds and schools of fish. At one stage, I sailed about a meter from a large thing floating just below the surface. I think it was organic, about 3m long and 1.5m wide, silvery-white and of a nice tapered-cigar shape. Not a shark, maybe a sunfish. If I had hit it I would have gone over the handlebars, but Iím sure the boat would have been fine.
Into the early afternoon the wind started to pick up again - gusting to 22 knots. A little squall caught me by surprise while I was eating and I had to drop my banana and start sailing properly for the next 15 minutes to keep the boat upright. At some stage there I hit my top speed of 19.7 kts.
Things were going so well and I was still feeling relatively fresh I kept working the boat throughout, trying to catch every wave I could.
I had been watching my progress on the GPS and was aware of my ETA of about 4:30pm. Nonetheless it was great to see land again when a mountain-island at the tip of Wilson's Promontory (Rodondo Is) popped out from behind the sail about 20nm from Tidal River. At this stage the seas were about 2.5 meters and I was still having fun.
I thought the guys on the support boat were starting to get a little bored as they seemed to be constantly talking on the satellite phone. It turned out to be media calls with ABC radio in Tasmania and Melbourne closely following my progress.
The wind was up and down in strength a little over the final 10 miles and the gusty bits were quite testing with my grip on the mainsheet and tiller weakening. I was determined not to capsize so I had no chance to eat or drink in the last hour as a 25 kt squall came through, sending me toward tidal river at 10-14knots.
Luckily, the water flattened out behind some islands and with 400m to go I let off an orange flare in celebration. For a moment, the wind blew the sparks into the sail causing a little anguish but I quickly held it out the back of the boat to burn freely.
At 4:31pm at the sheltered end of the beach at Tidal River I stepped into the rich turquoise shallow water. It was a cool, windy day and there was still a slight drizzle from the last squall so the beach was virtually empty. I was immediately greeted by my coach, Arthur Brett, wearing a 3mm full-length wetsuit. He gave me a hug and some nice words before we got the trolley off the support boat and started pushing the Laser up the beach (the support boat would have to motor back to Melbourne).
A few tourists came up, having heard updates on the radio during the day. Then a bunch of about 40 kids on a school camp came running down and surrounded me, also having heard my progress on the radio. For the next hour it was a mix of answering questions from the kids, doing radio interviews, answering calls from family and friends and packing up the boat.
With a good mix of tiredness and excitement we drove back to Melbourne, mission accomplished.
All images © West Ashton or Michael Blackburn.
The Nut and marina at Stanley
Stanley and the Nut
View from the Nut Chairlift
Stanley boat ramp
West getting some scenic shots
Arthur and West battling the SW wind
What it really looked like at 3am