Tackling the Bass Strait in a Laser

Author:
Publish date:

Olympic medalist Michael Blackburn crossed the notorious stretch of water in 13 hours

Olympic medalist Michael Blackburn crossed the notorious stretch of water in 13 hours

Olympic medalist Michael Blackburn has sailed a Laser across Australia’s notorious Bass Strait, the same stretch of water that challenges big racing sleds in the annual Sydney-Hobart Race.

Blackburn, 37, the Australian who won the bronze medal in the Laser Class at the Sydney Olympics, completed the epic run March 9, covering 115 nautical miles from Tasmania north to mainland Australia in 13 hours, 1 minute. Surfing with the wind much of the way, he averaged 8.7 knots and hit a top speed of 19.7 knots.

The course was across the treacherous body of water that in 1998 took the lives of six sailors and sank five boats during the Sydney-Hobart Race. In that race winds reached more than 80 knots, according to some participants, and waves towering as high as 70 feet smashed some large yachts into floating debris, while causing many others to turn and run. The smallest boat in that race was 35 feet, the largest at least 80 feet.

By contrast, a Laser is 13 feet, 10 inches with a mere 76 square feet of sail. And almost no cockpit. What could cause a sailor to attempt such a crossing in so inadequate a vessel?

“The idea initially came during some down-time waiting for wind at a regatta,” Blackburn says in a series of e-mail interviews. “The discussion was something like, ‘What else can we do in Lasers that would be fun apart from sailing around the cans?’ Thoughts turned to filming surfing in Lasers, maybe catching big waves and wiping out, and of course the big stunt at the end of the film: Bass Strait.”

If one were looking for a sailor to perform this stunt, one would have to look no further than Blackburn. In 2004 he was the top-ranked Laser sailor in the world. He has participated in three Olympics, has a Ph.D. in sports science, and has written a book, “Sail Fitter: Sailing Fitness and Training” (www.sailfitter.com).

“He’s out of his head,” says sailing legend Gary Jobson. “But Michael Blackburn is one of the greatest Laser sailors of all time. It [the crossing] impressed me. Bass Strait is pretty wild water.”

Blackburn didn’t just walk down to the edge of Bass Strait one day and go for a sail. The adventure was the product of long and detailed planning, equivalent in some respects to the preparation for an assault on Mount Everest. He is a very organized man, according to Jobson, and that quality showed in his preparation.

First, however, there was the need to rationalize such a stunt. “I went away and thought about the idea more and became more motivated to do it for a few reasons,” Blackburn says. “Most people aware of Bass Strait know it has a nasty reputation, but it also has its share of moderate days. I didn’t want to annul its reputation, but the craziness of the stunt would still be clear. The thing is, I’m far from crazy but do know how to sail a Laser really well. I knew I could handle the conditions we chose.”

Blackburn saw the feat as a way to generate positive publicity for sailing “in contrast to the usual story of Bass Strait beating up on big boats,” he says. But there was a more fundamental motivation.

“I love sailing downwind in a Laser in big waves,” he says.

So the planning began. He consulted with a weather expert, looking for a time when he would be able to sail downwind all the way. Then he practiced making 15- to 20-mile runs along the Pacific coast, and learned that he could expect to make 7.5 knots in an 18-knot wind. His coach found a support boat for the expedition, and Blackburn located some on-board equipment, including a compass to be mounted on deck and illuminated by light sticks, hand-held GPS, an inflatable life jacket with a harness and tether, strobe light, flares, satellite phone, an EPIRB and a VHF radio.

Blackburn had had a Mylar pouch made for the cockpit to hold the electronics. He planned to clip six full plastic drink bottles onto the back of the hiking strap, within easy reach. And he got a screw-top plastic container to keep his food from getting crushed or soggy. This larder would hold bananas, Powerade, chocolate bars, carbohydrate gels, Sustagen, cola and Red Bull drink.

“Not nutritionally balanced, but plenty of energy,” he says. “I also had a sunscreen stick and a bottle of water to splash my face.” And goggles if the salt spray got to be too much for his eyes.

Blackburn says he has been sailing Lasers for 14 years — in winds as high as 45 knots and 13- to 16-foot swells — and has broken a few things along the way. “So I knew what the weaknesses of a Laser are,” he says. “I decided on all-new gear [spars , fittings, etc.] as they are the most robust.”

The boat was virtually unmodified, except for the equipment pouch, he says. And he put an orange patch on the sail and painted the centerboard orange … just in case.

Blackburn explains that the Strait’s deserved reputation is the product of several features. “Bass Strait is about 80 meters deep in the center but slightly bowl-shaped, with rims about 50 meters deep at the edges,” he says. “On either side the continental shelf falls away to depths of 2 to 4 kilometers. Being bounded by land to the north [the Australian mainland] and south [Tasmania], the Strait can behave like a wind tunnel. Broad [west] and [southwest] wind flow is channeled such that in narrower parts of eastern Bass Strait wind speeds can nearly double those in the open ocean.”

Blackburn’s route, designed to take advantage of moderate southwest winds, would begin in Stanley, on an appendix of land dangling off the northern shore of Tasmania, and head northeast toward Wilson’s Promontory, a fist-like peninsula punching down into the Strait from the southeastern shore of Australia. On March 3, a day of light winds, the Laser was put on the back of the support boat, and the sailor and his crew motored south across the Strait from Melbourne. It took six days for the winds from a subsequent front to drop to the 14 to 25 knots Blackburn wanted. Those winds finally arrived, and at 2 a.m. March 9 he began pulling on his clothing: six layers, from thermals to offshore foul weather gear.

“I was toasty warm,” he says.

At 3:30 a.m. Blackburn hauled in his mainsheet and began sailing away from Stanley, heading north. “The first few hours involved some of the most extraordinary sailing I’ve ever done,” he says. “Once I was about a mile offshore, the wind steadied at about 15 knots with a slight wave. Or at least I thought so because I couldn’t see a thing apart from my compass and the all-round white light of the support boat.” The support vessel stayed as far away as 500 yards but also closed to within 3 feet at times for up-close filming.

“The 15 knots of wind put me on a perfect reaching angle, and I was planing at 8 to 10 knots into the blackness,” says Blackburn. “As I got further away from the shore, I could feel the waves getting bigger but couldn’t tell for sure. A couple of times I slammed the bow into the wave in front, and water poured over the deck, filling up the cockpit. Needless to say, I was looking forward to the dawn.”

His first surprise came at first light. The waves were only about 5 feet, not the monsters they had seemed in the darkness. Now he was able to use the waves to surf, moving the boat surely under an overcast sky in about 62-

degree air. With the daylight, he began to see wildlife: albatrosses and smaller seabirds and schools of fish.

“At one time a [10-foot] sunfish or small whale was so close I could reach out and touch it,” he says. The sea was blue-gray, and above there was a mix of high and low clouds.

Halfway into the crossing, Blackburn saw a flame on the horizon. A few hours later, he saw that it was from an oil rig. “For a while I pondered sailing right under it but was glad that I didn’t when a guy on the rig radioed that I had just sailed within its 500-meter exclusion zone,” Blackburn says. “We explained what we were doing and they said, ‘No worries mate.’ ”

For a while at midday the wind eased to as little as 12 knots, and Blackburn worried about this trend. His body was starting to speak to him: stiff back, soggy and irritated bottom, some weakness in his arms. So he did stretches.

“The guys on the support boat thought I might be showing off a little as I steered while lying face down and standing up while still on the plane. However, these things I had tried in training as well.”

The winds stiffened in the early afternoon, gusting to 22 knots. Now the Laser was planing regularly, at one point hitting its top speed. Eating, which he had been doing throughout the sail, became a challenge. “A little squall caught me by surprise, and I had to drop my banana and start sailing properly for the next 15 minutes to keep the boat upright,” he says.

By the time the tip of Wilson’s Promontory popped above the horizon, seas had built to about 10 feet. He noticed the fellows on his support boat were constantly on their phones and figured they were bored. In fact, they were fielding calls from the media.

Over the final 10 miles the wind went from moderate to 25-knot gusts, and the Laser leapt over the waves at 10 to 14 knots. “I was determined not to capsize, so I had no chance to eat or drink in the last hour,” says Blackburn.

Just off of the beach, where the water flattened behind some islands, Blackburn set off an orange flare. “For a moment the wind blew the sparks into the sail, causing a little anguish,” he says. At 4:31 p.m., he stepped off the Laser, greeted by his team and then by a gaggle of 40 schoolchildren who had been following his progress on radio.

Tired and excited, Blackburn drove back to Melbourne with his team that night. His hands were worn and irritated, his back stiff and his arms tired, but he was surprised that it wasn’t worse. He pondered future adventures.

“I want to do the Volvo Ocean Race, and have had talks with a team and will try out,” he says.

He can be assured the boat will be bigger than a Laser.