Sailing Tasmania: Bucket list cruising across the Bass Strait

Cruising in the ‘roaring forties’ proves rewarding for Janneke Kuysters as she braves the Bass Strait to explore Tasmania

“No pizza today.” When this announcement is made at Port Cygnet Sailing Club, all conversations among members in the clubhouse stop. “The pizza guy says it’s too hot. He won’t bake today,” is the explanation. Too hot in the Roaring Forties? It’s true; it has been a delight to sail here with warm temperatures, clear skies, light breezes and moderate waves.

The sailing club members recover from the disappointment of missing their pizza by delving into more cheese and crackers with gusto. The local Shiraz flows, as does the conversation about sailing, racing, crews and skippers: this is cruising in Tasmania at its best.

Tasmania is one of those bucket-list cruising destinations. On the other side of the world and across the daunting Bass Strait, it takes a lot of effort to get there. But the rewards are plentiful: stunning landscapes; very diverse cruising areas; superb food and a friendly welcome.

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Bathurst Harbour on Tasmania’s west coast

The cruising areas can roughly be divided into three: the north of Tasmania and the islands scattered in the Bass Strait, the east coast, and the west coast. The numerous islands to the north of Tasmania, such as the Furneaux Group, Hunter Islands and King Island, offer excellent opportunities to break the crossing of the Bass Strait into daysails, with a wide range of anchorages available to find shelter from the occasionally strong winds.

The islands are little treasures where everything revolves around really good food; many are the base for specialised fleets of fishing boats and the cattle on the windswept pastures produce milk for an abundance of cheeses and other dairy products.

The north coast of Tasmania has a few towns, Launceston being the largest one. This second largest town of Tasmania lies on the banks of the river Tamar and has an active sailing community.

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Sharon Bon, who cruises with her husband Jason from Launceston on their Fountaine Pajot Athena 38 Aurora, comments: “The Tamar river is a perfect place to potter around in a boat. Launceston is 30 miles inland, so you can take your time exploring the river and using anchorages, jetties and sailing club facilities as you go south. Beware of the strong current though.

“We also find Launceston a good base for cruising the north coast of Tasmania and the Bass Strait islands. The north of Tasmania is known for the excellent wineries, which are worth a visit.”

The most popular cruising ground is on the east coast of Tasmania, where there is shelter from the rough westerly winds and the large swell of the Southern Ocean. Steep cliffs rise out of the icy cold water on the north east coast, and large granite boulders are covered in orange lichen.

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Photo: Alamy / Shane Pedersen

The weather can be unpredictable here and the distances between safe anchorages are slightly longer, but shelter can be found at iconic anchorages like Wineglass Bay and Chinaman’s Bay on Maria Island.

Passing the pipes

In the middle of the east coast the Tasman Peninsula juts out into the Tasman Sea. The rugged coast has some interesting dolerite rock formations: the ones at Cape Raoul famously resemble organ pipes and feature in many photographs from the Sydney to Hobart Race. The peninsula is also home to Port Arthur Historic Site, the world-renowned ruins of a penal settlement.

Once around the peninsula, Storm Bay opens with many more options for anchoring. As soon as we drop the hook in Nubeena we meet Australian Margaret Beasly, who has sailed around the world with her husband Chris Wilkie for many years in their Alan Payne 40 Skookum Storm Bay of Hobart. She told us: “We finally came back to Tasmania and enjoy every minute we get to go out and sail here.”

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Spectacular ‘organ pipe’ rock formations at Cape Raoul near Port Arthur. Photo: Rolex / Carlo Borlenghi

Hobart appeal

A pleasant south-easterly slowly pushes us up the river Derwent, the infamous closing stage of the Sydney Hobart. You can almost feel the agony of the racing yacht crews in their final miles to the finish line. The mouth of the Derwent can be the place where races are won or lost: Mount Wellington looms in the distance and its bulk changes the direction and strength of the wind in the final minutes.

For us, the warm embrace of the marina of the Royal Yacht Club of Tasmania beckons, and we have the luxury of being able to start the engine when the wind drops. In Sandy Bay, the RYCT and the Derwent Sailing Squadron have large marinas where visitors are welcome (a 20 minute walk into Hobart). In the city centre, Constitution Dock offers berthing too.

Hobart is one of those towns where you can easily stay longer than you intended: the foodie scene dishing out Tasmania’s best foods and drinks, the museums and well-preserved heritage buildings, the laid-back atmosphere and all the facilities a yachtsman could want are here. But there is more to be experienced elsewhere, so after two weeks of indulging, we slip our docklines and head south to Bruny Island.

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The lighthouse on Bruny Island. Photo: Piter Lenk/Alamy

The first thing you see when you sail closer to Bruny Island are the nets over the orchards. Fresh fruit is abundant, but birds are too, so the crop is protected. Meanwhile, out to sea, large Norwegian-flagged ships work the fish farms.

Bruny Island shields the south-east coast of Tasmania from strong easterly winds and swell. The D’Entrecasteaux Channel is a sailor’s playground in itself: many small bays offer anchorages, often with a small village nearby.

We happily pottered around here for a week in a steady rhythm of sailing, enjoying the delicious food and meeting very hospitable Tasmanians. Yacht clubs like the Port Cygnet Sailing Club often have an active social programme to which visitors are welcomed.

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Salamanca Markets in Tasmania’s capital, Hobart. Photo: Kerin Forstmanis/Alamy

Go west

The southernmost anchorage is Recherche Bay, which offers shelter from all but easterly winds. And that is exactly why yachts anchor there: as soon as the wind veers to the east, it’s time to go west. In a long day, you can sail around the south of Tasmania; a milestone in itself. The scenery is eerie, even under blue skies and bright sunshine, and the large south-westerly swell is impressive.

Once round Southwest Cape, Port Davey is our next destination. Port Davey was once the place where whalers sought refuge in bad weather; on shore they’d meet loggers of the majestic Huon pine. Now there is a lone fisherman tending to his lobster pots.

On the eastern side of Port Davey a small strip of islands, aptly named Breaksea Islands, covers the entrance to Bathurst Channel, which leads to Bathurst Harbour. Bathurst is a true gem, which can only be visited by yacht or small airplane (in Melaleuca there is a small airstrip and some huts for the park rangers). VHF coverage is limited, internet nonexistent; it’s a perfect place to unwind.

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Tasmania’s Bathurst Harbour is protected by the aptly named Breaksea Islands. Photo: Viktor Posnov/Alamy

Further north on the west coast there is a similar, though slightly more populated, inlet of Macquarie Harbour. No nice islands here to shield the entrance from the swell: it is called Hell’s Gate for a reason. Once through the challenging tidal currents at the harbour mouth, the large estuary offers enough places to explore for a month, especially near the confluence of the Gordon and Franklin rivers.

Macquarie is typical of Tasmania – the island offers such a diversity of cruising options at relatively close distances, that many visitors come back again and again. But it is not only the beauty of the landscape that leaves a lasting impression: the genuine hospitality of the Tasmanians who love to share their amazing home will stay with you for a long time.

A chequered history

Dutch navigator Abel Tasman was the first to sight Tasmania on 24 November, 1642. He called it Van Diemen’s Land, after the Governor of the Dutch East Indies. He named an island on the east coast Maria Island, after the wife of the Governor.

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Chinaman’s Bay on Maria Island

The Dutch thought that Australia wouldn’t yield any value for the Dutch East India Company, so they didn’t colonise any further. In 1700 Captain Cook arrived and started exploring the east coast of Australia, before a fleet of 11 British ships arrived in Sydney Harbour 18 years later.

In 1798 George Bass and Matthew Flinders circumnavigated Tasmania and established that is was an island. The race was on to colonise it, and the British won by settling in what is now Hobart in 1803.

From 1788 the British began shipping convicts to Australia. They were set to work alongside the settlers until their sentence was over. Returning home was almost impossible, so most of them settled in their new country and helped populate the new colony.

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One of the locals… a Tasmanian Devil. Photo: David Kleyn/Alamy

A second penal settlement was established in Tasmania, where Governor McArthur ruled with an iron fist. Conditions were grim, especially for reoffenders, and many died of exhaustion. Several prison ruins can still be found in Tasmania, as part of the Unesco World Heritage Site programme – Port Arthur is a particularly recommended site to visit.

Van Diemen’s Land had become synonymous with hardship, so in 1856 the name of the island was changed to Tasmania in an attempt to change the image and make it more attractive to settlers.

Tasmania had been inhabited for thousands of years by several Aboriginal tribes before the Europeans arrived. They coexisted with the colonists peacefully at first, but when the settlers took more land for farming, the Aboriginal Tasmanians fought back. The Aboriginal population was decimated by disease and gunfire, until the last remaining Aboriginal people were sent to a settlement on Flinders Island, where they withered away.

Tasmania essentials

To make good use of all the anchorages Tasmania has to offer, there are several cruising guides available. We used Cruising Tasmania by J. Brettingham-Moore. In addition, the government organisation Marine and Safety Tasmania (MAST) offers information on several platforms, including Facebook.

Anchoring in Tasmania is relatively easy; the thick mud provides excellent holding, but a deckwash system (or a crewmember with a bucket!) is advisable when the anchor is pulled up. MAST provides courtesy moorings, as do some of the sailing clubs.

Navigation is easy with good charts, the major hazards being submerged rocks and shallows. Be aware that the fish farms sometimes ‘lose’ large items in storms; so sailing at night is risky after such a weather event.

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Anna Caroline is a steel Bruce Roberts 44, originally built in Nelson, New Zealand

Even in summer it’s important to keep an eye on the weather. The Australian Bureau of Meteorology offers local forecasts. The weather can change rapidly in these high latitudes, so cruisers need to be prepared to leave at a moment’s notice. The volunteer rescue services broadcast the weather forecast regularly on VHF. The reception is good, except for Bathurst Harbour on the south-west coast.

Provisioning is relatively easy on the north and east coast. On the west coast only Strahan has some facilities. Hobart is an official port of entry, so all customs, immigration and biosecurity facilities are available. You will need a valid passport and visa before you arrive.

sailing-Tasmania-Wietze-van-der-Laan-Janneke-Kuysters-squareAbout the author

Wietze van der Laan and Janneke Kuysters left the Netherlands in 2013 and have sailed half way around the world with their Bruce Roberts 44 Anna Caroline. They cruised the Australian shores for a year before setting off to explore Indonesia.

Content extracted from https://www.yachtingworld.com/cruising/sailing-tasmania-across-bass-strait-123512