Port Phillip Bay has an almost waveless beaches and shallow water. It is fringed with suburbs and lassoed by a monotonous highway. It has glittering high rise apartment blocks, marinas, holiday houses, piers and sandy beaches. Port Phillip Bay is urban by anyone’s standards.
I have arranged to test drive a couple of sea kayaks at Sandringham, a middle ground beachside suburb which straddles the social divide between Brighton to the north and an array of suburbs to the south with equally ludicrous names – Black Rock, Beaumaris, Bonbeach and, improbably, Chelsea and St Kilda. The last of these is Frankston, a city in its own right and the gateway to the Mornington Peninsula, which divides Westernport from Port Phillip Bay.
Beyond Frankston, the rocky, cliffed coastlines and intermittent bays with their coarse yellow sand at Mt Eliza, Mornington and Mt Martha give the coast a slightly wilder mantle but it’s short-lived and the Bay soon resumes its almost perfect curvature as it sweeps toward Point Nepean, past Dromana, Rosebud, Blairgowrie and Rye and finally, Sorrento and Portsea. The Bay ends at the orange, calcarenite cliffs of Point Nepean and about three kilometres opposite, at Point Lonsdale. At this point its waters are pinched into the Rip and sucked in and out of Bass Strait.
Working back toward Melbourne from Point Lonsdale on its western coastline, the Bay is a ragtag collection of fashionable holiday resorts, unfashionable holiday towns, industrial estates, a sewerage farm, the mouth of the Werribee River, market gardens, an airforce base, shallow muddy bays, the majestic Corio Bay at Geelong and offshore, a couple of marine reserves and the serendipitous Altona beach.
Closer to the city, the stubby Williamstown peninsula on Hobsons Bay is the last beach before the industrial wonderland of the Port of Melbourne. After that, there are the beaches of Sandridge and Port Melbourne, still close to the docks and under the shadow of the West Gate Bridge, then South Melbourne, and as the industrial landscape drops away toward Albert Park, Middle Park and St Kilda. And so it goes on, Elwood, Hampton, Sandringham.
Sandringham has a very swish yacht club, marina and array of gleaming boats of one sort or another. There is a grid of wooden moorings but the shallows are squelchy and thick with the residue of marine fuel. What should be sand is viscous, oily slime which sucks my sandals off my feet as I push the kayak out onto the water, adding to my annoyance with the long drive to get here, the insouciant attitude of the kayak shop owner and the disagreeable nature of suburbia, wealth, cafes, overflowing rubbish bins, brutal gusts of northerly wind and seagulls. Soon I’m sick of it and give up and go home.
But a few weeks later on a mild Friday morning, after a little bit of shopping around, I am launching my new kayak off Sandridge. Only an occasional flash of reflected sunlight indicates the cars tracking the curve of the West Gate Bridge which, as ever, rises over the Yarra River, just beyond the Williamstown waterfront on the other side of the shipping channel. The hull of the kayak scrapes the sand as I pull it the last metre or so into the shallows, to the very edge of Bay. Then comes the moment when the hull slides into the water and land is left behind and very soon the car park and Surf Lifesaving Club buildings and compound are tiny in the distance. On the bay, there is a gentle swell as the sea lists between its shores.