“We were 73 days out from San Francisco. and entering Backstairs Passage, with less than a days’ sailing to our destination.”
“When we passed CapeWilloughby there was a strong south-east gale with a heavy sea. All hands were on deck and the vessel was running before the gale. I kept the vessel as close on to the western shore as I judged it was safe, as by so doing I would be able to shape a course for Cape Jervis….. Just at this time, as we were entering the passage, to my surprise the vessel struck the outer edge of the Scraper (reef). The wheel was at once put hard down, so as to get farther out, but the next sea hurled her farther in, and the vessel would not answer the helm.”
That was the fate of the 4 masted Schooner “Kona” in 1917, bound for South Australia with a load of lumber from San Francisco and their introduction to the Scraper Reef off the coast of Kangaroo Island. Luckily the 11 crew were able to launch a lifeboat and were washed into the calm waters of Antechamber Bay.
Fortunately our meeting with the Scraper was in very different weather conditions. We had decided to paddle across Backstairs Passage, which is a particularly turbulent stretch of water dividing Kangaroo Island from the mainland. Conditions are made interesting by a 3kn tidal current being squeezed through the Passage as well as the Yatala Shoals, although the Autumn neap tide suggested calmer seas.
Our plan was to paddle across Backstairs Passage to Antechamber Bay and set up camp, paddle the Scraper in calm conditions the following day, then catch a tide back to Cape Jervis on the mainland the next day. With luck we could also venture a few kilometres further along the east coast to land on the tiny beach at Pink Bay near Cape Willoughby Lighthouse, which is the most eastern point of Kangaroo Island.
No mistakes; no miscalculations; extreme caution was in order as getting caught in the wrong place or the wrong tidal stream can mean being swept southwards. Michael and I had done this crossing many times in various conditions but it was Rodney’s first crossing. He had been putting in many hours training in the kayak, not only doing endurance work but lots of sessions paddling the coast in windy, sloppy conditions combined with many sessions handling large surf waves.
We had picked a Neap tide to cross the Strait as the tidal movement would be minimal. The forecast in the morning was for 11kn SE which is a cross wind that would be blowing against the Ebb tide flow. Wind against tide always makes for a very choppy passage and with that in mind we set off from Cape Jervis.
The predicted 11kn SE wind rose to about 15kn soon after departure and went more to a ESE direction giving us a side on sea of around 1m. Lots of white caps and sloppy conditions but easily handled.
We were able to use the side sea to our advantage, often catching small runs that picked up the laden kayaks. The crossing took 2hr 15m and was generally uneventful except for a few waves that pitched up suddenly and landed a ton of water on your shoulder. It’s also a little difficult taking photos in these conditions, so please excuse our defects.
We just missed running over a wooden pallet that had been floating for some time, given the number of barnacles on it.
We had made a couple of course changes during the paddle as we found the wind was holding us further west than we had originally calculated. We hit the shore of Kangaroo Island at Cuttlefish Bay, a tiny sandy bay only accessible by water, exactly as planned.
The next job was to push east on the last of the Ebb tide and into a wind that had now gone even more easterly. This meant no protection provided by the high cliffs and lots of boiling clapotis on every small headland. The next 8km took us another 2hr of hard paddling before we rounded the headland into Antechamber Bay.
The camp was located inland a few hundred metres on the banks of the Chapman River, however on such a low tide the mouth was closed and a portage was required.
This riverside campsite went perfectly with a Grant Burge Shiraz, kindly supplied by Rodney, our personal sommelier.
I did tell Rodney the Possums were very friendly but he was still a little amazed to find one sitting at the table with him. This guy grabbed some food and ran.
The next day was perfect weather with only a light 4kn breeze predicted and very little tidal movement. We set off to portage back into the ocean and head for the Scraper Reef and then to Cape Willoughby and Pink Bay .
Members of the South Australian Boat Draggers Association in action.
The Scraper lays approx. 1km off Cape St Albans and is well known for its’ large breaking waves in any easterly weather. Water over the reef is only 1 fathom deep (about 3.3ft/ 1.82m) taken on an average tide.
Unfortunately “Google Earth” doesn’t show “The Scaper” but you can get an idea of the wave action nearby if you view Cape St Albans photographs.
As we rounded Cape St Albans we caught a glimpse of large breaking waves but they were mainly slow moving swells across the reef.
I paddled into the edge of the reef while Rodney took photos and Michael stood by as our safety paddler.
We then pushed on towards Cape Willoughby.
….. and landed at nearby Pink Bay.
You can see the remains of previous inhabitants.
After a lunch stop it was back on the water to catch a small flood tide back to camp.
On the way we spent time playing in the rocks around Cape St Albans.
Light rain had fallen during the night and the wind was evident even in our protected campsite.
We checked weather forecasts through a couple of sources which both predicted an acceptable wind from the SE. We had a phone conversation and ascertained that the wind at nearby Penneshaw was currently 11kn from the SE and it was expected to remain that way for a few hours.
We decided to cross earlier than planned as the last hour of the very small ebb tide would be overridden by the SE wind. We would then be running a flood tide with the wind in the same direction.
We packed and portaged back into Antechamber bay where conditions were as expected, being at the bottom of Beaufort Wind Scale around 4, meaning “smaller waves, becoming larger; numerous whitecaps”. Our heading would take us within 1 nautical mile of the Yatala Shoals so I knew from experience that the waves would be quite steep and confused where the tidal rips collide.
We started off across the passage with the conditions as predicted.
After 1 hr we found the SE wind had picked up slightly making for sloppy conditions with larger swells and occasional breaking seas. It was actually lots of fun making fast runs down steep waves and then being surrounded in deep troughs.
Michael and I were enjoying the conditions and Rodney was really getting the hang of running parallel to the waves, rising and falling as they swept under him.
Everything continued to plan as we approached Blowhole Creek on the mainland and then started our run west to Cape Jervis staying a couple of kilometres offshore to get the best of the following sea.
We arrived at Cape Jervis 4 hours after launching, with the crossing of Backstairs Passage from Antechamber Bay to Blowhole Creek taking around 2hr 30m.
Our last duty to load up and head for the Yankalilla Bakery, for a decent cappuccino and pasty.
Paddlers and photographs by Ian, Michael and Rodney. Editing by Ian.