Outer Banks: Gone With The Wing

On March 3rd 2022, Andrew Englisch became the first person to attempt to wing foil across Bass Strait, the infamously hazardous body of water that lies between Australia and Tasmania. Spoiler alert – he did it, and in so doing successfully raised over $11,000 for a mental health charity. But it was hard won…

Words: Andrew Englisch
Photos: Michael Peters 

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I was shattered. Floating in the middle of the treacherous Bass Strait, my body was falling apart. My arms and legs were cramping and my heart was pounding out of my chest. I had lost sight of the support boat in the heaving swells and driving sheet rain. I was only a few hours into my world-first attempt to cross Bass Strait on wing foil, broken and defeated. The journey had barely begun and I felt like a complete failure.

My journey began six months earlier, during the COVID-19 pandemic. My hometown Melbourne was the world’s most locked down city, totaling 262 days, during which I was unable to work in my film-making business, depressed and without purpose. Lying on the couch searching for another show to binge, I stumbled across The Americas Cup racing in Auckland, and watching the 75-foot foiling boats fly above the water at 100km per hour instantly captured my imagination. The next day, after researching the technology, I discovered wing foiling, bought a new setup, watched a few YouTube videos and headed down the coast.

My mental state of mind improved every time I ventured out and my life took on a new focus. Then one day on a chilly winter southerly after being out for three hours and clocking over 60 kilometers, I gazed out at the horizon and thought, “Imagine if I could just keep going, imagine if I could get to Tasmania!”. It was such a crazy thought, because I had only been foiling for a few months, but I jumped in the car, raced home, burst in the door and announced to my family, “Guys, I’m going to be the world’s first person to wing foil across Bass Strait from Tasmania to Victoria”. They looked at me blankly for a few seconds, cracked up and said “Whateve”’… They thought I was being ridiculous.

Ridiculous? Possibly. But I was committed, and also thought a world-first adventure would be the perfect way to celebrate my 55th birthday and raise money for the mental health charity Waves of Wellness. The plan was to cross Bass Strait from Tasmania to Victoria, island hopping past Flinders Island, Deal Island and hopefully touching town in Wilsons Promontory four days and 240 kilometers later.

Six months later I was at the top of Tasmania drifting in the middle of Bass Strait, completely broken and struggling to see how I could finish the journey. My support crew (aboard our support boat, the suitably ominously named ocean research vessel ‘The Abyss’) and the skipper watched on helplessly as I flayed around in the surging three-meter swells. My whole body was in agony and despite hours of attempts, I couldn’t get moving in the 10-12 knot breeze. I felt like a complete failure and retreated to the boat. Tomorrow would hopefully bring better conditions…

I awoke to the sound of wind whistling through the rigging and jumped up on the deck to see a white-cap-filled harbor and a steady 15-20 knot breeze. I quickly suited up, attached all my safety gear, pumped up the wing and jumped in the water. I put my head on the board, took a few deep breaths, steadied my nerves and lifted the wing out of the water. Instantly the wind picked me up, I gathered speed and started to foil. Yes! The next few hours were incredible as I blasted past remote deserted islands, surfed the 10-foot swells and only touched down once before we reached our destination for the day, 60kms later at the top of Flinders Island. Redemption.

Buoyed by the success of the previous day, I excitedly prepared myself for the next leg between Flinders and Deal Island. This would take us deep into Bass Strait where a broken wing or lost support boat could be fatal. I was also warned of ‘extremely aggressive wildlife’ which wasn’t ideal when I could be floating in the ocean for hours at a time and had already seen plenty of fins. Luckily the wind direction was ideal, and I flew across the waves following the gulls and flying fish, humbled by the beauty and ruggedness of this remote landscape. After three hours, Deal Island emerged out of the mist like Jurassic Park and I glided past the towering sea cliffs and magnificent coves, landing in our last anchorage before the final push to Victoria.

Day four and Victoria was only 80kms away and within reach. Just a five-hour blast and I would hopefully touch down in Wilsons Promontory. Unfortunately, the wind was light and my thoughts took me back to disastrous day one. I was so close but if the wind didn’t increase, I was going nowhere. Desperate to get going, I put up my biggest wing, jumped in the water and started pumping to catch the marginal breeze. I barely managed to get going and for the next few hours battled to stay up, using every muscle to fine tune the foil, wing and board. Every wave I would almost come to a stop, pump like crazy and get going onto the next wave. This continued for hours until the wind completely dropped and I flopped back into the water. Head down I waited. I was only a few kilometers from Victorian territorial waters but with no wind there was no way I could make it. As I sat in the water with my head on the board, my support crew saw a pack of fins circle me as I lay there unawares. They were relieved when the suspect creatures jumped out of the water to reveal themselves as a pod of friendly dolphins, rather than a great white.

After an hour of dangling in the strait and monitoring the weather radar, the skipper yelled out that a line of wind was coming in. I quickly jumped back on the board, caught the gust and continued the final leg. The wind kept building, swells increased, and I was in complete flow riding the waves all the way into Wilsons Prom to my welcoming family and mates. Despite a shaky start I felt so proud to have completed the journey. Not bad for an ‘old bugger’.  

Visit gonewiththewing.com.au to find out more.

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