Armed with surfboard and wetsuit, Sam Vincent surveys the island state’s perfect waves.
Five hundred metres past the turnoff to Port Arthur Historic Site, down a gravel road, through a pear orchard, two hours' walk along a trail flanked by scrub, down a cliff and beyond a series of truck-sized boulders, you'll find Australia's biggest waves.
In the past 10 years, Shipstern Bluff off south-eastern Tasmania has gained a reputation as Australia's most fearsome surf break. Named after the Titanic-like headland that looms above it, "Shippies", with waves regularly rising six metres, is visited by the world's best big-wave surfers, though this is still considered a secret spot.
For surfers with an adventurous streak, Tasmania offers several other world-class, albeit smaller, surf breaks and myriad chances to ride uncrowded, pristine waves generated thousands of kilometres away in the Southern Ocean.
You'll still need your wetsuit, however - summer is a relative term in Tasmania.
A word of warning: Shipstern Bluff is suitable for professional surfers only. It is dangerous and unpredictable: when it's "on", a heavy swell hitting the shallow reef here causes a six-metre body of water to materialise quickly. For those brave and experienced enough to ride it, the wave's trademark "speed hump" mid-break has been likened to free-falling down a set of stairs. The nearest hospital is an hour's drive away and sharks often mill about the nearby seal colony. It's little wonder that fishermen colloquially call the spot "Devil's Point".
My board stayed in the car but I still wanted to have a look. The easiest way to Shipstern Bluff is to drive to the Cape Raoul walking track car park in Tasman National Park, accessed via Stormlea Road, south of Nubeena. Follow the trail for two hours (2½ hours on the way back on account of the steep path) through thick bush to Raoul Bay; Shipstern Bluff is below the cliff to the right. A strong south-westerly swell is required for monster waves.
For mortals, the island's best breaks in the south are all within easy access of Hobart. On the eastern entrance to the Derwent, Clifton Beach breaks both ways in most conditions, while Eaglehawk Neck, the isthmus joining the Forestier and Tasman peninsulas, has exceptional waves when the swell is south-easterly and the wind westerly.
An excellent option is Bruny Island. Though its western shores are sheltered by the D'Entrecasteaux Channel, Bruny's east and south coasts bear the brunt of Antarctic swells (and water temperatures).
The pick of the island's southern breaks is Cloudy Bay. It's Australia's southernmost surf beach, where eagles wheel under clouds. Surf it in a southerly swell and a northerly wind.
Clifton Beach is a 45-minute drive south-east of Hobart; Eaglehawk Neck is an hour's drive in the same direction; Bruny Island is accessed via a 15-minute ferry crossing from Kettering, which is 40 minutes' drive south of Hobart.
Who knows how many more Shipstern Bluffs are waiting to be discovered off Tasmania's wet 'n' wild west coast? This is arguably Australia's least-explored shore: a rain-lashed and unforgiving littoral of forest, raging rivers and rocky coves shaped by the Roaring Forties.
The few convicts who managed to escape from the notorious Macquarie Harbour Penal Station found the terrain far harder to penetrate than the prison they left and little has changed.
Of the known surf spots, two of the west coast's best are at its opposite ends. In the far south, where Tasmania's west and east coasts meet like the point of a love heart, South Cape Bay is a pristine beach break that gets huge, clean waves on a southerly swell. Surfers carry their boards along a stunning walking trail and it pays to bring a few - when I visit I'm met by a bitterly disappointed surfer whose board snapped soon after paddling out.
More easily accessible is Marrawah in the far north-west, Tasmania's westernmost settlement. With a bucolic backdrop of dairy farms and windmills, Marrawah's three beaches - Ann Bay, Mawson Bay and Green Point - have hundred-metre-long rides when the swell is westerly and the wind offshore. The local surfers are friendly and happy to impart advice. Often you'll have to access private land to get to the best surf, so don't forget to close all gates you open.
South Cape Bay is a five-hour hike from Cockle Creek, which is a two-hour drive south-west of Hobart. Marrawah is a 3½-hour drive north-west of Launceston.
While Tasmania's west, east and south coasts are exposed to monstrous swells uninterrupted by land for hundreds of kilometres, the presence of Victoria means much of the state's northern shore is blocked from swell. As a consequence, the waves here, though good, are rarely big.
Exceptions are the beach breaks at the mouth of the Mersey River in the north-west and Tam O'Shanter in the north-east, the latter a left-hander that offers particularly long rides in west to north-west swell.
The north's best surf, however, isn't on "mainland" Tasmania but on King Island, halfway to Victoria on the western edge of Bass Strait. Though more famous for whey than waves, King Island's location (in the path of the Roaring Forties) and diverse coastline means the surf's always up somewhere. And with some of the country's best dairy, beef and seafood waiting onshore, the post-surf feasts aren't bad, either.
On King Island's east coast, try Martha Lavinia, ranked by Tracks magazine as Australia's best beach break. (If you're not surfing, try the beachcombing.)
On the island's west coast, British Admiral beach works well in an easterly wind and westerly swell, as does Fitzmaurice Bay in the south-west, where at low tide adventurous cows wade into the surf to eat nutritious bull kelp.
The mouth of the Mersey River is in Devonport; Tam O'Shanter is a 45-minute drive north-east of Launceston; Regional Express and King Island Airlines fly daily to King Island from Melbourne for about $300 return.
Tasmania's east coast is characterised by mild weather, easy access and a string of beaches where the white sands and azure waters belie the chilly reality of the Tasman Sea. With honeypots such as the Bay of Fires, Wineglass Bay and the Freycinet Peninsula, this part of the state can sometimes feel like a tourist merry-go-round, though there are plenty of great surf spots where you're likely to be the only one in the water.
While Marion Bay (famous for the Falls music festival) has a great peaking wave when the swell/wind is from the east/west, the shelter afforded by Maria Island and the Freycinet Peninsula means the best waves on this coast are in the north.
The Scamander River mouth has terrific longboarding waves in a north/north-west swell and south-easterly wind; walking over the massive dunes to the break armed with a malibu makes me feel like an extra in Bruce Brown's legendary surf film The Endless Summer, where the protagonists hike miles over dunes to South Africa's Cape St Francis only to discover there's "nothing there, just perfect waves".
The town of St Helens, 20 kilometres to the north, has some good spots; try the eastern arm of the entrance to Georges Bay.
The east coast is the location of Eddystone Rock, Australia's latest big-wave surfing hot spot, having first been surfed as recently as 2008 (like Shipstern Bluff, surfers are towed on to the waves here with jet-skis). Its remote location means it's beyond the reach of all but the most dedicated visiting surfer (and it means the Tasmanian surfing fraternity won't be too annoyed with me for disclosing its location).
Marion Bay is 40 minutes' drive east of Hobart. Scamander River mouth is 2½ hours' drive east of Launceston and St Helens is an extra 30 minutes.
Sam Vincent travelled courtesy of Tourism Tasmania.
Virgin Australia flies to Launceston from Sydney for $198 and from Melbourne for about $158. Flying to Hobart on Virgin costs about $228 from Sydney and $170 from Melbourne. Fares are return and include tax. The Spirit of Tasmania ferry leaves Melbourne nightly for Devonport (and vice versa) from $97 for a seat and $140 for a cabin, one way. The journey is 11 hours; see spiritoftasmania.com.au.
When to surf
The most pleasant time to surf in Tasmania is late summer/early autumn, when the water is at its warmest. However, the biggest swells and most favourable wind conditions occur in autumn and winter.