Friday, October 23, 2009

Elusive Pedra Branca

Last weekend I joined The Lady Nelson in Hobart for a 3-day sail. The destination was Pedra Branca – a ‘white rock’ 16 nautical miles off the south coast of Tasmania. As we sailed down the Derwent River the sea unremarkable but during the night, when we the D’Entrecasteaux Channel, the wind and sea picked up.

Like most of the crew trying to grab some sleep, it was a near impossibility, and with a 3m swell rolling up from the SW and a 1-2m sea from the W, the replica colonial brig was tossed like a cork.

That morning dawn was slow to break. Curtains of ominous clouds gathered, as I thought about Pedra Branca, and visualized the striking images I had seen on the Web of this isolated and inhospitable island.

The Pedra Branca group lies at lat. 43 deg. 50 S and long.146 deg. 58 E. The largest island, Pedra Branca, was named by Abel Tasman in 1642. It is 270m long, 100m wide, and rises to 60m in height and covers 2 ha. In geographical terms, it is borderline between being classified as a rock, an islet or an island.
The smaller islands are Mewstone, Eddystone and Sidmouth Rocks. Over fifteen thousand years ago this group was part of the Tasmanian mainland and is listed as a World Heritage site. Three of the islands are composed of dolerite and sandstone which rise vertically from the ocean floor, but thousands of years of erosion have led to the formation of giant steps which rise to a height of 60 metres. The apparent white colouration is from guanno left by thousands of pairs of seabirds.

Sea conditions in this area can be treacherous and in 2002, a young research scientist was washed from the rocks by a freak wave despite having climbed to 45m above the sea. At the time the swell was recorded at almost 14m. And in 1973, a Japanese steel fishing vessel of 254 gross tons, hit the islet and sank within minutes. All but one of her 22 crew drowned.

As the Lady Nelson was tossed about, I considered how the tiny colonial brig, had battled the waves on her voyages in the early 1800s. The seas we were experiencing were small compared to the near 14m swell running on that fateful day in 2003.

But the Southern Ocean can be a fickle body of water and at 7 nautical miles from the islands, the captain decided it was best to head back to the mainland.

Sitting at the stern and watching the following sea, I noted two angular grey smudges floating on the rippling horizon behind us. They appeared like a pair of ghost ships but I realised this was Pedra Branca and one of the other islands.

I may not have sailed around Pedra Branca, but at least I can say I have seen the island, albeit from a distance.

Pics: Dolerite cliffs at Cape Raoul + SW Tassie mainland + Pedra Branca courtesy of Jane Elek from the 2010 voyage which made it to the island

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