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by Peter Evans - Melbourne, Victoria - Australia

Part One - Part Two

I had some time off work so decided to get away from the house and settled on a circumnavigation of French Island. The first day started mid afternoon, with a southerly wind and four feet waves. After moving out of Hastings harbour, and then into the channel, I was exposed to the chop from the sea. Fortunately, I am used to rowing in rough weather and my boat has a narrow bottom and a lot of flare, and tends to handle rough weather very well. My boat is self-designed and is 13.5 x 4ft and for want of a better name I think of it as a semi-dory.

For safety I had flares, a wetsuit, a lifejacket (though not worn), a bailer attached via a lanyard. All my gear was tied to the boat and was in waterproof bags. I have a rope over the transom that assists in boarding from the water in necessary. The rope at the stern stays there all the time and is used to secure the boat to the car whilst car-topping. For those that don't know I have wheels on my boat, I secure an axle to the top of the transom and put on a couple of 8 inch pneumatic wheels from a removalist trolley.

Going east out of Hastings with the sea coming from the side, the boat handled pretty well. I did get one wave that splashed over the gunnel. There were very small whitecaps on a small swell and if the boat and once a peaked wave coincide then with the motion of the boat and I got a little wet. Just deal with it and keep rowing. After a while I get to more protected area and the waves seem smaller. I feel a bit tired because I find rowing in strong winds and a choppy sea tiring. So I think keep going east all across the channel and then close to the other shore turn left and follow the coast of French Island. Unfortunately, there is a sand bank between where I was and where I wanted to go. I see what I think of as a short cut across the sandbank, and decide hey that's got to be a good idea.

An hour later, (could have been more) after dragging my boat across shallows, I finally cross the sandbank. Dragging the boat which weighs 100kg with gear is not fun.

On stepping out into the 'sand' my feet sink 12 inches into the sand and mud before they support my weight. I can try running quickly so that my feet don't have time to sink in, however this is not sustainable and revert to walking while pulling the boat via a bow rope. Generally, I would go 20 or 30 paces and then stop because it was such hard work. I was feeling good and enjoying myself, but could not work out why I was so out of breath after dragging the boat through the shallows from thirty paces. Eventually, I settle upon the idea of walking beside the boat with the boat supporting some of my weight and going a few paces at a time.

There is an argument which I could perhaps concede, that a smart person might have taken wetsuit booties for tasks like this. Perhaps the argument could be made stronger still if that said person actually had a pair of said wetsuit booties and if that person had actually rowed in that area previously and was aware of the shallows and mud. Might this said person concede that leaving such booties at home was an error, they might perhaps if pushed but of course at first questioning they will of course deny the utility of such foot ware as for those overly soft. Possibly as the scratches and cuts add up day after day they might be possibly more likely to concede that the omission of said booties was an error, but one has their pride and to admit such a possible error risks offending the ego.

It took a while, it may have been an hour, more likely 1.5 to 2 hours later I have passed over my short cut and am now into a small channel close to French Island. I can now row North following the coast. It is getting on dusk by now starting to get dark, the wind has died down, there are no waves in this smaller protected channel and now I can row north following the coast.

I keep looking to the right of the boat (I have to look left as am facing backwards whilst rowing), trying to find a nice sandy beach where I can camp for the night. Unfortunately, all I can see is mud banks that make it impossible to reach the coast. So I row on and on looking for a place to settle for the night.

Now a smart person may have had a chart and a compass. However, you guessed it I had no chart, and I had no compass. I do however have a memory of what the island looked like by looking at Google maps, so that's just as good isn't it? Fortunately, it was a clear night (it was night by now), and I was able to pick up the Southern Cross, and from that work out where South is. I was heading just to the east of North before I found the point and could do my turn.

I thought I might make a run for the coast through what first looked like another shortcut. However, after a very short time it became obvious that there was no short cut and the beach I was heading for was hidden behind a good 150 yards to mud flats. Decided to get the hell out of there and retreated. Orientate myself via the Southern Cross again, and keep rowing North.

Around about midnight I find the coast turning to the right, does that mean the point is soon. I see a boat fishing up ahead and decide to row in that direction.

Judging distances at night and on the water is difficult. What looks close might be 1.5km away. I keep pottering away, my new set of oars that I had only finished building a week before seem to be doing OK, but are a bit overpowered. Additionally, I found out in the rough water occasionally the blade was hit the wave tops on the return stroke. I decide that after this trip I will raise the rowlock position by half an inch, to give me that much extra clearance on my oar return stroke. Another problem I have is that one of the new oars has a loom that is slightly too large for the rowlock when leathers are fitted, with leathers there is no clearance and I cant rotate the blades to adjust their angle whilst rowing. I have to use my other hand, reach over and twist the loom so that the blades are at the right angle.

These are the third pair of oars that I have built. The first was cheap and nasty, and my second pair my previous housemate threw out. The stupid, f**** cow, bi***, evil, fu*** bi***. If you have not guessed, no I don't like her. Generally I am opposed to the idea that some people should have been drowned at birth, however in my life I have met a small number of people where I feel an exception to that rule would have made the world a better place. My first pair of oars were based on a Michael Storer design which proved woeful. They have through time ended up shorter and with much narrower blades and much more like Pete Culler/Jim Michalak type oars. We cant get the knot free large dimensioned softwoods here is Australia, that are used to make oars in North America. Thus I have to make mine with laminated plywood blades and laminated pine looms.

Back to the Story

A bit after midnight I find that the land on my right has disappeared, I thus assume I have rounded the point. Using the stars I row east for awhile. But now there is no land close by and I admit to being disorientated. I look around and can see a town on the northern shore of Westernport bay, about 6km away. Don't want to go there.

After a while of feeling like a dill, I decide to row South. At first this makes no sense because I have made almost a complete 180 degree turn, and that does not seem very smart to me. After a little bit more rowing I realise that what has happened is that I have rounded a quite pointed point (as opposed to non pointed point) and that my navigation is relatively sound. Its been a long day, its 1am in the morning and I want to get some sleep. I see a flashing light up ahead, I row towards it and see that it sits on top of a mound of rocks. That will do. Now does this mound of rocks have a nice sandy beach to spend the night on? Actually no, the mound of rocks in actually quite rocky, and smooth flat surfaces seem in short supply. I drag the boat onto some shallows (a tiny bit of sand surrounded by rocks), I explore this outcrop and deduce there is no god given campsite awaiting there. However, beggars cant be choosers and this will do.

I put the boat into the lee of the wind. There is a light south wind blowing. Using one of my packs I jam this behind a high rock outcrop. I tie the bow rope to this. This is my anchor. For those that might be curious, did I bring a proper chain and anchor? Of course not, that would have been too smart.

I throw some bags between the first and second thwart, that will be my sleeping area. I grab a bite to eat, chocolate, some cheese, boiled eggs, biscuits, apples, bread rolls soaked in olive oil, whatever food can give me energy, that is what I want. I take the down sleeping bag out drape if over me, and try to sleep.

I am tired, but at least now I have a bit to eat, have some rest, and am that little bit warmer. After awhile I find the cool wind gets under the sleeping bag, and I deduce that it might work better if I (wait for it) actually used the sleeping bag as a sleeping bag. This involves me getting up putting my feet in the toe of the sleeping bag and zipping it up. By some miracle, using the sleeping bag as it is intended actually leaves me warmer than going my own route. Just before I go to lie down and get some rest I notice that my little sand bank is now under water as the tide is now rising. I rest for a couple of hours and this does me a lot of good, I feel less tired and though I could not sleep, the rest being what it was. Of course almost immediately after trying to sleep the boat is now floating and bangs into the rocks. Fortunately, I am in the lee of the outcrop and the waves and very small and the bangs and scrapes of the boat on the rocks are relatively benign and I decide that the boat can handle this abuse.

Rested to a a degree and with the realisation that the banging and scraping of my little boat on hard sharp rocks is not going to stop, I decide to move on. Grabbing my backpack containing food that was the 'rock anchor' I decide to push on. Find the Southern Cross, and then find south, and then head off.

From my last trip I am aware of Mangroves on the North side of French Island. This is where I plan to settle down and get some sleep. After an hour or so I find what looks like a small gap if the Mangroves and I push the boat into there. The gap is barely wider than my 4ft wide boat, but it will do. Tie the boat to a Mangrove tree, grab the sleeping bag, and sleep on thwarts and my gear bags. I am not fussy, this will do, and will do fine.

First light reveals a high tide and the option of moving on. However, I feel dead tired, and decide that the rest will do me good. Is this a cop out? Is this prudent? I decide that hey, I am on holiday, I have the right to do what I want to do. So back to sleep it is. A bit before midday I can feel the boat making funny noises. I wake and find the tide has now gone out and the boat is now aground and resting on a Mangrove root. For those unaware, Mangrove mud flats are not the most welcoming of places to be found on this planet. Going further inshore leads to more and more mangroves and more mud, to the left leads to Mangroves, to the right Mangroves, and towards the water leads to exposed mud flats. Hmm, so sit it out on the boat it is. I want to boil up a cup of Tea with my Trangia methylated spirits stove, but I left the pot support at home and only have the burner and fuel. Drat, no caffeine fix just yet.

I pass the time by watching the waterbirds and the small crabs that live among the mangroves. I surmise that this must be the highlight of their lives, filtering out mud for food, digging holes in the mud to live in and occasionally fighting other crabs for the right to live in their small patch of mud. How does their existence compare to mine, are they more content? Is it better to be a crab, or a person? Does a crab with a good life live a better life than a person with a horrible life. I decide the question is too inane and besides, I deduce that I don't really care, let the philosophers worry about that one.

Whilst waiting for the tide to return I managed a short stroll on the sand and mud flats, taking care to step on mud and sand which looked as though they would support my weight, and not that where I would sink knee deep.

I see the mudflats recede as all too quickly water covers them. Soon the boat is floating and reversing the boat, poling my vessel this way and that punt style though with an oar substituted for a pole, I reach open water. Moving once again. Now a choice, keep going or decide to rest some more. I cop out and decide for more rest. I see a little island with a nice sandy beach about a kilometer away. I row out to it, now the afternoon wind has picked up and I have if anything a tail wind. I reach the island, see a sign, walking up to this sign I find it reads, 'landing prohibited, sensitive bird nesting area'. Sigh so much for that plan. Immediately back to the boat, head for some sand on French Island proper. Battling headwinds, rowing directly over a half-submerged small mangrove clump which ignored my requests to get out of the way I reach the beach. There are some mooring buoys here, though I choose to tie the boat to an old fence post instead. Exploring the area I discover a clearing of salt bush and a track leading inland.

Following this track for 200m I find it opens up to farmland. Hmm, guess I am on private property. Should I stay should I go. I go with the argument its only a sin if you get caught, and besides all I am doing is just resting up a bit. I notice cow tracks here, but why do cows come down to the beach to drink seawater, now that does not make sense. Finding a reasonably discreet clump of trees I chill out, make camp and rest up. I make a small fire, it could be a total fire ban day, but since I have no radio to tell me whether it is or not, I decide to go with a fire anyway. A few hours rest in the afternoon, eating food, drinking water, allowing my muscles to re- cooperate after the strains of yesterday.

It is this day where I decide to work on my oars. I find them slightly overpowered so taking a small hacksaw tool I cut 2cm of blade from each tip. After ten minutes I discover the blade works better is the teeth are pointing in the right direction. Blade snaps, its OK, I just hold the blade between my fingers. After only 30 minutes both oar blades are shortened by desired amount. I do like to take a few tools on trips like this, better safe than sorry. Although 2cm may not sound a lot, it makes a notable improvement to the oar balance and to the reducing the overpowering of the oars.

Now an argument could be made that when going camping for four days, to take a tent. Perhaps even more so if one had several tents at home and that putting of a small tent in a pack would have taken an additional thirty seconds. However such an action would have prevented the joy one feels by being eaten my mosquitoes at night and March flies during the day. Seriously a most enjoyable experience, confirmation of this can be found in the numerous other most enjoyable experiences that others commonly noted by others being eaten alive both day and night.

That night contemplating life, watching the stars, looking at my fire, watching the water, I see a dark shape some 10 yards away. Looks kinda cow shape, and it turns out to be a cow. Seems most unconcerned about my presence. It wonders off and after a while I wonder where it has gone to, for I have few other amusements right there and then. I find it a short while away most contentedly munching on Pig Face, a succulent plant that is found on sand dunes. Reminds me of a beach in Chiloe, southern Chile, where whilst trekking along the Pacific coast I came across numerous cows most contentedly munching away on seaweed, gee who knew.

I sleep well though in the early hours of the morning I smell what I think is firecrackers. I strain my mind, is it new years eve. Lets see, I worked Christmas eve, then I spent 3 days resting up, and then I did this and then that. Next, how many days in December? I find this simple problem to find out what day it is, takes far far longer than it should. I am sure when I was younger such deductions took less time, is this an early sigh of cognitive decline? I eventually deduce with a high degree of certainty that it is not new years eve, thus my puzzlement as to what that smell was.

I awake at first light and see white fluff at the bottom of my sleeping bag. It seems that I have gone to sleep with my feet over the coals of the fire and the sleeping bag foot has burnt away exposing the down filling. Of course this was not a mistake, this was in fact a cunning plan to discover what the down looked like in my thirty year old down sleeping bag, problem solved, all I did was go about it in a slightly convoluted manner.

First light reveals a high tide, light winds, and good rowing conditions, time to move. I put out the fire with several saucepans of seawater, I don't want to be that guy that burnt out half of French Island because he was too lazy to put out his fire properly. I had some burnt a tin the day before and decide that this will rust away to nothing, and thus discard it into the bush. Although this may sound like littering, I tell myself it will rust away quickly, and on my trip I was careful not to discard one bit of plastic.

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