On many occasions, I have stood on top of the cliffs at Cape Schanck and wondered what it would be like to be down there in the sea. Until recently, it never occurred to me that it would be possible in a sea kayak but on February 2nd 2014, there was the opportunity to do just that. It was almost 212 years to the day after Acting Lieutenant John Murray sailed a nuggety 60 ton brig, the Lady Nelson, past Cape Schanck and into Western Port, on January 31st 1802.
The Lady Nelson had been deployed to chart the northern coastline of Bass Strait. By late January 1802, it was her third visit to Western Port. A few weeks earlier on the way to Port Phillip Bay, Murray had anchored at Elizabeth Cove, near Ventnor on Phillip Island. Rather than attempting to enter Port Phillip Bay in the prevailing bad weather, he decided to head south into Bass Strait and chart the east coast of King Island until conditions improved. On return from King Island, Murray planned to make for Cape Otway, then sail east to Port Phillip Bay, but in even in more bad weather was again unable to get through the Heads and instead sought refuge in Western Port.
The Lady Nelson at anchor in Hobson’s Bay 1802, wood engraving by F. A. Sleap 1888. State Library of Victoria collection.
Governor King had ordered Murray not to mess around and finish off the work of navigating the southern Victorian coast, which remained uncharted, although navigation of Western Port itself was complete. Presumably, any further delay was frustrating and Murray was keen to make a start. The ship dropped anchor at 5pm at Elizabeth Cove. Even so, Murray had the whip out at 4 o’clock the next morning and sent First Mate Mr Bowen to lead a group of six men west in a launch to explore the entrance to Port Phillip Bay. They returned in a week but it wasn’t until two weeks later that the weather was kind enough for the Lady Nelson to round Cape Schanck and sail on through the Heads on February 15th, 1802 on an ebb tide.
The protected waters of Elizabeth Cove had been discovered on the Lady Nelson’s first visit to Western Port in early 1801, under command of James Grant. Grant, who was good friends with Captain John Schanck, designer of the Lady Nelson’s three sliding keels which made her more suitable for navigating shallow waters, had led the first exploration of Western Port after George Bass stumbled across its eastern entrance in 1798. It seems that Grant’s description of Western Port was, at least in my view, grimly prophetic:
“Western Port is capable of containing several hundred sail of ships with perfect security from storms, and will admit of being fortified”.
Cape Schanck from Phillip Island, painted by John Black Henderson, ca 1860. State Library of Victoria collection.
In spite of detailed instructions to chart the northern Bass Strait coastline, Grant never finished the job, apparently owing to bad weather. He became rather preoccupied though, with Churchill Island. There he cut down a few trees, planted wheat and corn, vegetables and fruit trees and even built a small hut, declaring an enormous fondness for the place. It’s no wonder he never managed to complete the survey and who knows what the rest of the crew were supposed to be doing while he was messing around on Victoria’s first hobby farm. He resigned his commission soon after his return to Port Jackson and eventually retired to France.
I can’t help but think of George Bass as a one of those people who are forgivingly annoying but good company. A surgeon and adventurer, he is often described as charismatic and gregarious and it was probably for this reason, and a few family connections, that Bass got to hang around with the cream of the crop of navigators, Bligh and Flinders.
Bass, servant William Martin and Matthew Flinders had already completed a of boys’-own adventure from Port Jackson up the Georges River in a 3 metre rowboat – the endearingly named Tom Thumb, which he had somehow managed to persuade Bligh to bring along on the Reliance. Bass cheerfully declared it available for the proposed exploration, since Governor Hunter was, not surprisingly, unwilling to provide any other vessel to a couple of twenty-somethings. In a re-built version of the tiny craft, also named Tom Thumb, and with a “mast, and sail and a stone for an anchor”, Bass, Flinders and Martin sailed south from Port Jackson to Tom Thumb’s Lagoon (Lake Illawarra) and back again in 1796.
For his next adventure in January 1798, Bass managed to get hold of a whaleboat. He rowed down the east coast with six companions from Port Jackson, around Wilsons Promontory where the boat came close to sinking, and into Western Port, the first Europeans to do so. Just like that. In a whaleboat. However, the existence of Bass Strait remained unconfirmed until late 1798 with the circumnavigation of Tasmania, led by Matthew Flinders in the Norfolk.
Today, on February 4th, 2014, paddling buddy Ron picks me up at 7.45 am and we head off down the freeway to Flinders. Both of us are worried about getting forty lashes for being late but Peninsula Link delivers and we’re actually early. There are patches of fog on the way, which only get heavier and by the time we reach Balnarring Road turnoff, it’s pea soup. I have decided to make a start toward becoming a graded paddler. One of the requirements is a weather report, which I rehearse in the car on the way down. Ron snorts. There was nothing about fog on the BoM-site.
Looking west off Flinders Ocean Beach
On January 30th, 1802 off Cape Schanck, Murray recorded in the Lady Nelson’s log book: “We had a very heavy swell and perceived the surf about Seal Islands breaking in a fearful manner; sounded every hour. The very bad weather has again prevented me at this time from overhauling this Cape or tracing the adjoining coast.” The next day, he observed “the long range of breakers on the western side of the Port: several of them had shifted their berths nearer to mid channel….The whole of them for several miles broke incessantly and remarkable lofty – we passed within 2 miles of them. The reefs on the eastern side also broke much further out”.
By February 5th the weather was hot and sultry and the air was smoky. “Native fires” could be seen along the coast but these soon disappeared after the arrival of the Europeans. Murray is “apt to think that summer does not begin in this part till January”. Thunderstorms and a cool change did not clear the “hot sickly weather and thick fiery haze” until a week later, when Murray was finally able to sail the Lady Nelson past Cape Schanck at 4 am on a Monday morning.
On February 2nd 2014, while Melbourne also roasts in “hot and sickly” 410C heat, at Flinders we can expect 310C, partly cloudy with variable light winds tending south to south-easterly and freshening by the evening. What in fact happens is a light north-easterly and fog. Lots of fog. Low tide was at 8 am. The swell is supposed to be WSW, Terry says it’s NW. I start to feel a little anxious about this grading. The Met Bureau really needs to do something about those typos.
As the fog starts to lift at Flinders Ocean Beach, a line of breakers comes into focus a few hundred metres off-shore. All of a sudden everyone’s in the water. This is always a source of perplexity to me, how is it that one minute everyone is fiddling around, making endless adjustments, organising the never ending array of detail and gadgetry that seem to go with sea kayaking, then suddenly like a shot out of a gun they’re halfway to Tasmania?
There are a few surfers and paddle boarders at the outer break, which we circumnavigate and head south around the edge of Mushroom Reef. It’s all a bit of an act of faith since the fog is still concealing the headlands and cliffs along the coast, although occasionally the sun breaks through.
Once we reach deeper water, the colour of the sea deepens to turquoise-emerald although occasionally dark shadows of reef and bright sandy patches still appear. Strands of dull yellow kelp ripped away from the sea floor are suspended by their air bladders, just below the surface. The plan is to do some rock gardening and explore the sea caves along the coast.
As we paddle past the layered basalt cliffs, headlands fade in and out of sight as the fog comes and goes. The word “eerie” is mentioned more than a few times. At some stage we pass the Blowhole. We must also have passed a couple of other paddlers since a couple of days later, I read a blog post about a return trip from Cape Schanck that Sunday morning. Creepy. The closer we get to Cape Schanck, still miles off, the more the swell starts to pick up. Breakers crash-land against the shore platforms at the base of the cliffs. The group weaves around the really white water then back a little closer to the coastline.
Rounding the vague outline of the Arch, just before Bushrangers Bay, it all gets a little more serious. Pity about that fog. The swell is around a metre but seems a lot bigger and it’s not a good time for photos. But the pitch and fall of the sea is exciting and lives up to Terry’s promise of blue water paddling. Once through the most turbulent section, in the distance the swell starts to increase and it looks like we will have to turn back. Tamsin and Terry have a quick conference and decide that all things considered, it’s time for lunch.
Terry toughing it out in the swell
In February 1802, Murray found an abundance of edible wildlife on Phillip Island and up the Bass River. Fish, swans, parrots and ducks all graced the ship’s table. Pigeons were salted down. The supply of oysters and mussels was such that “a company of 6 or 8 men would not run any hazard of being starved here for several months from the vast quantity of shellfish to be found”. Interestingly, there is no mention of kangaroo or other terrestrial fauna. Water was more difficult to come by but a spring found at Elizabeth Cove on the earlier visit to the island under Grant’s command, provided plenty of good, fresh water for the ship’s barrels.
A few kilometres back toward Flinders and one gentle surf landing later, it’s lunchtime on the only bit of beach where it’s possible to put in. So far, we’ve come about 13 km and although the sea has been a bit all over the place, there’s been very little wind. It’s been a great opportunity to concentrate on technique and for getting a feel for some real sea. Then we’re back into the surf again. I launch in first and Tamsin yells at Ron to help me with my skirt. This is how rumours start.
Lunch stop. Photo: Greg Skowronski
On the way back, I need to demonstrate a few things for the Grade 1 thing. But to be honest, by this time I’m starting to flag a little and really can’t raise the energy. Plus, a couple of times I stop to take a few photos then find I’ve fallen behind and have to paddle like mad to catch up, plagued by the fear of capsizing unseen, because I have NO WHISTLE, and unnoticed, being consumed by something swimming around in the depths below. I grew up at Hastings and I know about this stuff. I do a little half-hearted edging and a couple of sweep strokes but it’s all a bit tedious in the waves. Terry asks if I can do a bow rudder. A what? I wave my paddle around in the general direction of the front of the boat but, somewhat energetically, he tells me this is no time for a lesson. Whatever. Pulling the rudder up, I hope that this will earn me few points, and almost manage to resist the temptation to surreptitiously drop it back down.
Heading off after lunch
The fog’s still with us on the way back to Flinders. Photo-wise, it makes for continued drama and once West Head comes into view there’s a clear sense of where we are. Sort of disappointing now after all the fog, which has become kind of Zen in its own way. Once the beach comes into view, a few people peel off for a surf in one of the offshore breaks while a couple of us do some more grading tests. Swimming a kayak for 50 metres and the like. Two hundred more likely. Nice in the water though. The beach has filled up with people by the time we get back and the March flies are out in force. Then comes the moment of truth. I hand my book over and get a few things signed off, as well as stern look or two just to make it clear that I didn’t get let off the hook lightly. The fog’s still parked around a couple of the headlands in the distance. We didn’t get into the sea caves or quite as far as Cape Schanck but that was because the sea and the sky colluded to throw up something different, in a day of the unexpected. A second, or even third attempt would be welcome.
- Fog still lingers around a couple of headlands at mid afternoon.
Map courtesy of Bruce Downes
Estensen, M. (2005) The Life of George Bass Surgeon and Sailor of the Enlightenment. Allen & Unwin.
Brown, A. J. (2004) Ill-Starred Captains Flinders and Baudin. Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Fremantle, Western Australia.
The Discovery of Port Phillip Bay. Abstracted from “Log Books of Lady Nelson” by Ida Lee (1915) and “Early History of Victoria” by F. P. Labillière (1878). http://www.ladynelson.org.au/history/discovery-port-phillip-bay (accessed February 2014).