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Crossing Bass Strait by Boat

After we decided to sail our little yacht from Brisbane to Hobart, the major worries of our trip were pretty much focussed on one short leg: crossing Bass Strait. This narrow section of Australian water has long been infamous for being a right pain and at times downright dangerous to cross.

crossing bass strait sailing
crossing bass strait

With the roaring forties (40 knot winds howling through straight from the Southern Ocean) regularly aggravating the relatively shallow waters that rush across a highly uneven sea bottom, Bass Strait is notorious for getting rough. Her bad reputation only got worse after the tragic 1998 Sydney to Hobart yacht race when 5 yachts sank costing 6 crew their lives. I guess it goes without saying that we were not about to underestimate the most challenging part of our journey south. Careful planning was needed.

Crossing Bass Strait in numbers
Days spent at sea: 3
Days spent waiting out weather: 5
Fuel used: 130 litres
Number of bird-collision-rescue-missions: 2
Number of dolphins spotted: 25
Crossing Bass Strait in january

Since this would be our first time crossing Bass Strait, we decided to wait out perfect weather in Eden no matter how long it would take. The only problem is that by the time you make it to Flinders Island four weather forecast areas come together and all of these seem to say something completely different from one another most of the time. From wind direction to strength, it’s pretty much all over the place.

Finally though, in mid january, most areas promised 15 to 20 knot north to northwesterly winds for the next two days with a switch to 30 knots west to southwesterly on the third day. A tight window (we certainly didn’t want to get stuck in those strong southwesterly winds), but with around 15 knots on our back we should pretty much fly to Flinders (and shelter) in less than that. So we decided to just go for it.

Soon after our evening departure we found ourselves casually surfing a comfortable 1.5 meter swell with a nice stiff breeze in our backs. Speedy 7, 8 even 9 knots at times were showing on our GPS plotter (which, trust us, is plenty fast for our old girl) and our ETA was half to pretty much a full day quicker than expected. Unfortunately for us though, perfect winds were about to run out.

By the time the sun rose all wind dropped out and the sea was as flat as a pool. Continuing our trip under motor, we did have the pleasure of several dolphin pods gracing us with their presence and providing some much needed entertainment while we listened to their chatter and watched them play in front of our bow through crystal clear water. Heaps of Albatross were gliding by faster than I could point my camera. Even though we certainly couldn’t complain about the views, the drums of diesel disappearing into the tank were becoming an increased worry.

crossing bass strait dolphins
crossing bass strait dolphins

Our perfect winds never did show up again and we pretty much motored the entire way there, until the southerlies kicked in about 10 miles north of Outer Sister Island. After three hours of punching into a stiff headwind we anchored in the northern bay of Outer Sister and waited out better winds with some much needed sleep.

The next day, we headed towards protected Lady Barron to further wait out the howling winds plaguing Flinders’ coastline and restock some supplies and much needed fuel which was down to less than 10 litres. The forecast predicted 25 knot southeasterly winds which seemed more like 35 perhaps even 40 to us. Especially around the Franklin Sound, where gail force gusts funnelled through the narrow shallow passage and punched through the mountains of Strzelecki National Park, sailing became downright impossible. When the tide also turned against us, we were quite literally not moving anywhere even with the engine blazing and we had no choice but to anchor in the choppy waters and wait for westerlies to come.

In the middle of the night, the wind finally shifted in our favour allowing us to float on into our safe anchorage. Since Franklin Sound was a bit of a nightmare to get into, we sat in Lady Barron for a few days until we could drive out on a glass out with a beautiful 15 knot northerly carrying us through to mainland Tasmania.

A few tips for Crossing Bass Strait
  • Like with many sections of coast, the weather in Bass Strait is terribly unpredictable. During our time spent crossing Bass Strait we didn’t have a single day where the weather did what was forecasted. Be prepared for everything.
  • If you find yourself, like us, around Flinders without fuel you can refill at three spots (as far as we figured out). According to locals we spoke to, a truck comes around to the Nothern Bay once a week (on thursday – booking and ordering of fuel is necessary). Fuel stations can be found at both Whitemark and Lady Barron. Whitemark is the largest town with an IGA and ferry terminal, but was too rough for us to visit. There’s also very shallow sand-flats in front town, making a high tide access only. We ended up restocking at Lady Barron where you’ll find a small TasPort station. The guy that runs it was nice enough to give us a lift to the convenience store / fuel station and back. But it is very doable to walk there from the boat ramp if you need only a small amount or a fuel truck can sort you out at the public jetty for a serious refill.
  • Both Franklin Sound and Banks Strait have extreme tidal flows and it can be almost impossible to move through against the tide.

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