Forget eternal flames and red-hot pokers; I am experiencing an entirely new vision of hell. Prostrate, I’m unable to move an inch for fear of retching with every violent lurch of the wooden boards that separate me – barely, it seems – from an angry, churning ocean. Even doped to the eyeballs, sleep is elusive, due largely to the pressing need to hang on for dear life to avoid being thrown from my bunk. This was definitely not in the brochure.
An eight-day cruise from Melbourne to Hobart on the replica tall ship Enterprize had conjured images of billowing sails and skimming majestically over water; of wonders calmly admired while inhaling fresh briny air on a sundrenched deck. But back in reality, after another lost day and night, trapped in the damp, dark recesses of the forecastle, I find myself uttering a desperate landlubber’s plea: “For pity’s sake, skipper, find us some land!”
Of course, our captain – above decks, steering us through this world of pain – hears nothing of my outburst. Later, I would be grateful. For I describe here the low point of what was a grand adventure; by the time Enterprize docks in Hobart, we would have tales of the sublime and spectacular to add to the harrowing. Despite the odd romantic notion, I was not so naïve as to have embarked on this voyage without expecting some rough and tumble. Even so, few of the 10 passengers and seven crew who joined the ship in Melbourne expected quite the ride that was to come.
First impressions had been instantly favourable. Enterprize’s recycled timbers, tar-dipped hemp ropes and hand-sewn canvas sails were all the more beguiling next to the dockside buildings of cold, characterless steel and glass. The effect was of having time-travelled back to the 19th century. The original Enterprize was the ship that founded Melbourne, essentially as a satellite of Launceston, from where she was despatched for this purpose in July 1835. Yes, Victorians: your state began as a bastard colony of Van Diemen’s Land. That vessel, a coastal trader, was wrecked in 1847; today’s Enterprize, completed in 1997, is a replica constructed using traditional wooden boat-building methods.
The volunteer crew – some retirees, others taking time out from day jobs, all united by a passionate and infectious love of tall ships – are impressive. They snooze on deck from time to time. But when skipper Kevin Martin barks an order, they jump, as if fearful of a good flogging. The paying passengers, too, are keen to lend a hand. Most are middle-aged blokes with a week’s ticket-of-leave from the missus. All quickly sign up to a watch – the system by which small groups of crew and passengers work shifts to allow the ship to sail day and night.
The strong south-southeasterly head-wind that would hound us most of the way to Hobart made itself felt from the moment the Yarra widened into the vast Port Phillip Bay. Despite a combination of motor and sail, the going was rough and Kevin – a wise, moustachioed old sea dog – abandoned the attempt to reach the heads, instead changing course for the shelter of Portarlington.
The next day we entered The Rip, where the shallow waters of Port Phillip Bay meet the deeper, rougher waters of Bass Strait. This mixing zone was initially eerily calm, but the water became more chaotic as we edged into the strait. Ultimately, the ship was pitching and rolling in large waves. It was exciting; our first taste of the rigours ahead.
But in the hours that followed, I gripped the side of the ship grimly, occasionally marvelling at the wildlife but frequently feeding the fish. Albatrosses glided, muttonbirds swarmed, cormorants dived and daredevil dolphins raced under and across our bow.
The next day was lost almost entirely to my bunk. I’ve sailed in rough conditions before but in big, steel-hulled ships. This was like being trapped in an endless earthquake. The following dawn, however, brought the blissful sensation of stability – and an even more welcome sight: land. Overnight we had anchored in a calm, sandy bay at Deal Island, halfway across Bass Strait. Just 6km long, Deal is a pint-sized wonderland that we’re given some hours to explore. Secluded sandy coves dot its coast, lined by tea tree, casuarina and small eucalypts. At the tide line, orange lichen adds a vibrant flourish to granite rocks. Wallabies and Cape Barren geese wander its buttongrass plains, unfazed by human visitors. Steep hills rise to jagged, pillar cliffs. Towering higher still is Australia’s most elevated lighthouse, at 305m above sea level (although the lighthouse itself is just 22m tall). After a reciprocal visit from the island caretakers – whose kids fancy Enterprize a pirate ship – we set sail, passing the many islands of the Furneaux Group, the razor-back of Flinders Island’s Strzelecki Range basking in late summer sunshine.
Then we’re into the notorious Banks Strait, off Tasmania’s north-east, and the biggest waves yet. The bowsprit occasionally disappears into a tumult of wave and wash. It is exhilarating, but as the hours pass my enthusiasm wanes and the old curse returns, forcing me below decks. Fortunately, conditions ease further down the east coast and Kevin, acknowledging the ordeal we’ve endured, rewards us with a visit to Wineglass Bay, one of the nation’s most stunning beaches.
The morning of our penultimate day brings more spectacular scenery as we glide through what Kevin calls the “hole in the wall”: the gap between the fantastically columned Cape Pillar and Tasman Island. Once through to Storm Bay we are in the home stretch, but the wicked wind has a final trick up its sleeve, shifting to a northwesterly when, for the first time, we want to keep the southerly.
After a last night in the tranquil surrounds of Quarantine Bay, northern Bruny Island, we enter the Derwent, the wind at long last moderately favourable. So it is with unaccustomed dignity, and equally uncommon full sail, that we cruise unaided by motor past the beachside suburbs and tree-topped hills of Hobart to Elizabeth Street Pier.
We learn that of the three tall ships that set off at the same time from mainland ports to a Hobart wooden boat festival, only ours has made it in conditions that Kevin now confesses were the worst in his 14 years of undertaking the trip. It’s a fitting achievement for the Enterprize and its unflappable captain.
Melbourne to Hobart aboard the Enterprize costs $2150