Water Safety On The Bass Strait Challenge With World Class Windsurfer Allison Shreeve
by Allison Shreeve
Safety on the water is one of the initial lessons I learned from my first coach. Always wear a life jacket, take spare rope, sail with other people, or tell someone if you’re going out alone
where you are going and for how long. Due to the nature of sailing we do have to consider the natural elements before we hit the water. What is the wind forecast? Is there a storm or front warning, chances of lightening? What is the tide or current doing (this affects you more when there is no wind)? What is the temperature and therefore what will you wear to keep warm, be protected from the sun and wind? If you are unprepared for a sudden change in the conditions, you could end up in a lot of trouble. Being informed and getting local knowledge is always a smart idea. Are there any hidden rocks, rips, crab nets, danger areas you should be aware of? Knowledge is key to minimizing risk.
Throughout the years I’ve done pretty well in Formula windsurfing, earning myself four world championship titles. I love speed and the thrill of racing. With all extreme sports there are safety risks and for me to be the best, I’ve had to push myself and take chances. I’ve raced down a purpose built canal in France to break a world speed record and I topped 50kph to break the Australian speed record. I have had some hard stacks, luckily without major injuries, and I’ve been rescued many times through gear failure or drastic changes in the weather. So while there are obvious basic safety essentials, and of course good old common sense, there are times when a bit more than one’s usual planning is required, such as when I decided to windsurf across Bass Strait.
I was about to take on one of the most treacherous waterways in the world, 230km long between Tasmania and mainland Australia. It was to be my biggest challenge and by far the most dangerous. I spent a lot of time doing my homework on launching and landing sites for myself and my support boat. Windsurfing from the beach is easy, but when you have to consider your crew, support boat, safety and even media, there was no simple answer. So I decided to fly down to Victoria to check out the best landing places because there was always going to be the possibility of crossing Bass Strait and arriving close to night fall. It was about a week after black Saturday when the terrible bush fires swept Victoria and wiped out entire towns. The small town of Tidal River was my first choice to land, however because of the devastation all the roads were closed. I also had to consider the support boat and this place was not ideal for a boat with a considerable draft. I decided on Inverloch which is a beautiful town about two hours south of Melbourne even though it added 15km to the windsurfing challenge, but there was an inlet where the support boat could come in, a beach where I could safely land, and the surf lifesaving club offered jet skis and support if needed. So the decision was made, I would leave from Stanley on the NW corner of Tasmania and head for Inverloch in Victoria.
I realized that this challenge was going to be tough on me physically, so I started training with 8kg on my back to get used to all the extra weight I would be carrying. I also spent hours and hours on the water doing really long reaches across Botany Bay. It is about 10km out to the heads in a straight line, so I could do these long runs out the heads, play in the swell a bit and then turn around and head back in. Even this was really dangerous and I had to get rescued once when a massive surprise lightening storm came over when I was outside the heads, with rain so heavy I couldn’t see 30 m in front of me. I had my radio and other safety gear on me. I had also taken note of a nearby boat before the storm hit so I headed in that direction. With lightening striking within 50m of my mast, thankfully I found the boat and was taken10km back to the beach. It’s very hard to do offshore training safely. Given my predicament of having to train alone, and because I could not afford a support boat, I compromised by using what I had at my disposal for the sake of safety, and spent most of my time training in sheltered waters like Sydney Harbour and Botany Bay where I was more visible.
I was then sponsored to do a survival at sea safety course involving a 3 day offshore crew and radio course to assist with my preparations for the Bass Strait Challenge. I recommend anyone wanting to have adventures at sea to do such courses that teach among other things how to delay hypothermia, raising awareness of all sorts of potential hazards at sea, and minimizing risk. I also flew to Mackay in Queensland to undertake a survival at sea course and found myself having to outrun the category 4 tropical cyclone Hamish down the coast!
Two weeks out from the challenge, my checklist of safety procedures were being crossed off. I had organized an Aerotrac GPS unit and tested its system and emergency button while sailing. I bought an EPIRB and registered it with my details. I had a custom RFD PDF1 lifejacket with a pocket sewn on the front for my radio. In my Camelbak I had flares, a light reflector, waterproof torch, glow sticks, die for the water, zinc, food, 3 litres of water, knife, spare rope, even a bright orange V sheet rolled up tightly. In hindsight, I should have included a spare hat as I lost mine after the first 5 hours into the challenge!
My support boat Calypso II was hooked up with internet provided by Telstra so we could live video stream. My support crew of a total of nine experienced men who all had specific roles during the challenge and were briefed on the carefully prepared risk management plan so all possible contingencies could be dealt with appropriately in the event of an emergency.
Part way into the challenge I had launched my board off a really steep wave and crashed. My support boat was a short distance away as I had to wait for him with the speed difference, but because the swell was picking up they couldn’t see me and started heading away from where I was in the water. With my radio I was able to give directions to where I was.
Four hours into the challenge, I was almost half way across when a southerly front hit at 35kts and the sea state went from 2m to 4m in a matter of minutes. Obviously with a 9.5m sail and
a Formula board I really started to struggle. I don’t usually fall in when training, but when faced with such extreme washing machine type waters and blistering winds, my sail was in the water much more than I’d expected. I started getting really severe leg cramps in my hamstrings and quads. I would try and stretch one side of my leg and the other would cramp. When I tried to up haul, my calf muscles would go. I endured 9 hours and traveled 115km before it was finally time to stop the challenge. I was starting to suffer hypothermia from being in the water so much and I didn’t want to do further damage to my leg muscles, as I was in a lot of pain. While I was attempting to complete the challenge unassisted, I ended up needing my support crew after 9 hours of toughing it out in extreme conditions. Without the preparations, and my dedicated and experience support crew, I could have ended up in real trouble. I had exceeded the required 100km challenge which fulfilled my pledge for Coast Care’s ‘Life on the Edge’ charity campaign, so I called it a day. And what an incredible day it was. For more information about the Bass Strait Challenge, you can visit www.bassstraitchallenge.com.
My next challenge is not quite so hazardous, but I’m aware of the difficulties I face as I commence campaigning for the London 2012 Olympics. To support my Olympic Campaign, please visit www.aus911.com for more information. Remember to be responsible and think of your safety, always.