South towards Tasmania

Summer had arrived and we were ready to sail south to Tasmania. We had two concerns: the bushfire situation impacting the coast of New South Wales and the weather in the famously treacherous Bass Strait between Tasmania and the Australian mainland.

We had hoped to stop and provision in Batemans Bay or Eden, but the severe fires had us adjusting plans. Southerly winds had pushed a large fire towards Eden and officials advised that boats not stop there. The Australian Navy was helping to evacuate the local towns and villages and there was no fuel, provisions or docking for additional boats. 

We decided to stop, at least to rest, in Batemans Bay, just north of Eden. We had a lovely overnight sail and motored the last few hours, arriving into the bay in the morning. Batemans Bay had been evacuated a few days earlier and there were still fires nearby. Some of the residents were sheltered in the local sports complex and from the boat we could hear the occasional announcement. Other than seeing the occasional emergency vehicle through the smoke haze, the town was deserted and eerily quiet.

Smoke haze at Bateman's Bay, day time

We advised the local Marine Services that we were in the bay and listened to the local radio station for fire updates. Around noon one of the nearby fires flared up again. We watched helicopters fighting the blaze as the smoke got worse. After a while, the helicopters had to stop due to poor visibility and the local radio advised people that evacuation routes were closed. The announcements were chilling to listen to. 

Fires flaring up on north side of Bateman's Bay

By mid-afternoon it was dark, the smoke was dense, the boat was covered in ash and we had closed all the windows because ash was getting inside. We were concerned about embers landing on the boat, so we had our fire extinguishers handy, full buckets of water and hoses on deck and the seawater washdown connected. The smoke turned orange with the setting sun. Batemans Bay was apocalyptic with no birds, nobody in town and ash everywhere.

Smoke haze turned orange as the sun started to set

The mobile phone services were limited, so we used the satellite phone to check the weather and determine the best window to continue sailing south. After a restless night, it looked okay to leave. The wind had returned and pushed a lot of smoke away. We washed off the ash and soot and left Batemans Bay for Tasmania. 

Soot covered deck
Malcolm rinsing the deck

It took most of the first day to sail along the southeast mainland coast and enter the Bass Strait by evening. The forecast was for fairly strong wind, expected to slowly calm to reasonable and then to become quite light in 24-36 hours as we would approach the Tasmanian coast.

As we sailed south it started to rain. This was very welcomed for the people living onshore. The rain wasn’t strong enough to extinguish all the fires, but it helped. For us, however, it was accompanied by fog and reduced visibility. As always, we had the marine radio on and were listening for announcements. The fires had knocked out some radio towers and some local marine service stations had been evacuated. 

A few of the Sydney-Hobart race boats were heading north, as they’d finished the race and were coming home. We saw one of them and the two people onboard looked wet and cold. We were fine, heading south with the wind, but some of the northbound boats were having trouble. Overnight, one had lost its keel and had capsized. The crew had been rescued but the boat was left adrift. Around twilight we passed near its last known position and kept a good lookout. 

There was a lot of traffic on the radio as the northbound boats pulled into Eden to shelter from the northerly winds. Some of them were not happy about the limited services available. We radioed Marine Services to inform them we were continuing on to Tasmania. Marine Services coordinated with services in Tasmania and assigned us an identification number, “Transit 597”. Maritime Services in Tasmania was expecting us to check in with them in 36 hours.

By dinner time, we had passed the mainland and were into the Bass Strait. We hadn’t seen the capsized boat and it was now well behind us. The latest forecast confirmed that the wind was going to calm and we settled in for a few nights passage to Tasmania.