Getting dumped

It is amazing how much you can do in a sea kayak with so little skill.  Well, sort of.

On Sunday, there was a paddle planned from Shoreham Beach to Flinders Pier, a nice segue from the previous paddle from Flinders to Cape Schanck.  Among the 13 paddlers, there were at least two grade 3 paddlers, including the trip leader/instructor.

It all started out to plan, the metre high swell was predicted on the BoM-site, as was the gentle southerly and sunny skies.  All good.

There were a number of surf breaks along the way.  All I know about surf, is how to spell it.  I hadn’t read a single paragraph about kayak surfing and had no idea how to deal with waves.  But, never one to let lack of information get in the way of a new experience, I thought I’d give it a go.  And if I’m to be totally honest, I also detected an underlying challenge.

I decided to try it after watching the experienced kayakers and seeing what they did.  Trouble was, they were quite a way away and mostly concealed by the swell.  During my first couple of attempts, I was able to run with the swell a little but not for long and soon the wave crest outstripped my paddling effort.  After, there was a fair bit of paddling to and fro and repositioning my boat, which soon became a little tedious.  Then there was an opportunity to catch a big wave.  Terry yelled at me to paddle hard, lean forward and keep the bow down.  Which I did.  The last thing I remember before the boat crashed in the break and I ended up in a washing machine, was, hmmnn this sure feels weird, surely the nose is about to go under….

I think I learnt more in the next twenty seconds than I have in three months.

Lesson 1.  Sure, paddle forward until the wave starts to break but then lean back and stern rudder your way out of disaster.  In other words, get the rest of the instructions before paddling off like a maniac.

Lesson 2.  Be really confident that your fellow paddlers are competent in surf rescues.  They were, and I knew I was safe.  However, in spite if the fact I had been ticked off for rescues in the grading system, I had no idea about a surf rescue.  I Instantly forgot almost everything that I had thought I had learnt.  However, I didn’t panic or feel worried. Trust and patience are important.

Lesson 3.  Nothing is the same in turbulent water.  You can’t see anything since it’s all white and foamy. I kneed my spray deck off and almost instantly lost grip of my boat.  I swam after it and thanks to having bought a new PFD with more arm movement the day before, managed to get to my boat before it was swept away.  My pump also came away from the elastics but was picked up by one of the others.

Lesson 4.  It will take time for a rescuer to get into a safe position and not harpoon you with their boat.  The rescuer needs to wait until there is sufficient time between breaking waves.

Lesson 5.  When the time comes to get back into your boat, don’t stuff around.  Get in really quickly, get the spray deck on, release the paddle leash if it has become tangled up, then paddle like mad through any breaking waves.

Lesson 6.  Think about what happened, de-brief with the rescuer, read up on surf and have another go some other time after it’s all digested.

Lesson 7.  Be amazed and excited about how great sea kayaking is.

Shoreham to Fliders

Foggy Flinders

On many occasions, I have stood on top of the cliffs at Cape Schanck and wondered what it would be like to be down there in the sea.  Until recently, it never occurred to me that it would be possible in a sea kayak but on February 2nd 2014, there was the opportunity to do just that.  It was almost 212 years to the day after Acting Lieutenant John Murray sailed a nuggety 60 ton brig, the Lady Nelson, past Cape Schanck and into Western Port, on January 31st 1802.

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The Lady Nelson had been deployed to chart the northern coastline of Bass Strait.  By late January 1802, it was her third visit to Western Port.  A few weeks earlier on the way to Port Phillip Bay, Murray had anchored at Elizabeth Cove, near Ventnor on Phillip Island.  Rather than attempting to enter Port Phillip Bay in the prevailing bad weather, he decided to head south into Bass Strait and chart the east coast of King Island until conditions improved.  On return from King Island, Murray planned to make for Cape Otway, then sail east to Port Phillip Bay, but in even in more bad weather was again unable to get through the Heads and instead sought refuge in Western Port.

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The Lady Nelson at anchor in Hobson’s Bay 1802, wood engraving by F. A. Sleap 1888. State Library of Victoria collection.

Governor King had ordered Murray not to mess around and finish off the work of navigating the southern Victorian coast, which remained uncharted, although navigation of Western Port itself was complete.  Presumably, any further delay was frustrating and Murray was keen to make a start.  The ship dropped anchor at 5pm at Elizabeth Cove.  Even so, Murray had the whip out at 4 o’clock the next morning and sent First Mate Mr Bowen to lead a group of six men west in a launch to explore the entrance to Port Phillip Bay.  They returned in a week but it wasn’t until two weeks later that the weather was kind enough for the Lady Nelson to round Cape Schanck and sail on through the Heads on February 15th, 1802 on an ebb tide.

The protected waters of Elizabeth Cove had been discovered on the Lady Nelson’s first visit to Western Port in early 1801, under command of James Grant.  Grant, who was good friends with Captain John Schanck, designer of the Lady Nelsons three sliding keels which made her more suitable for navigating shallow waters, had led the first exploration of Western Port after George Bass stumbled across its eastern entrance in 1798.  It seems that Grant’s description of Western Port was, at least in my view, grimly prophetic:

“Western Port is capable of containing several hundred sail of ships with perfect security from storms, and will admit of being fortified”.

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Cape Schanck from Phillip Island, painted by John Black Henderson, ca 1860. State Library of Victoria collection.

In spite of detailed instructions to chart the northern Bass Strait coastline, Grant never finished the job, apparently owing to bad weather.  He became rather preoccupied though, with Churchill Island.  There he cut down a few trees, planted wheat and corn, vegetables and fruit trees and even built a small hut, declaring an enormous fondness for the place.  It’s no wonder he never managed to complete the survey and who knows what the rest of the crew were supposed to be doing while he was messing around on Victoria’s first hobby farm.  He resigned his commission soon after his return to Port Jackson and eventually retired to France.

I can’t help but think of George Bass as a one of those people who are forgivingly annoying but good company.  A surgeon and adventurer, he is often described as charismatic and gregarious and it was probably for this reason, and a few family connections, that Bass got to hang around with the cream of the crop of navigators, Bligh and Flinders.

Bass, servant William Martin and Matthew Flinders had already completed a of boys’-own adventure from Port Jackson up the Georges River in a 3 metre rowboat – the endearingly named Tom Thumb, which he had somehow managed to persuade Bligh to bring along on the Reliance.  Bass cheerfully declared it available for the proposed exploration, since Governor Hunter was, not surprisingly, unwilling to provide any other vessel to a couple of twenty-somethings.  In a re-built version of the tiny craft, also named Tom Thumb, and with a “mast, and sail and a stone for an anchor”, Bass, Flinders and Martin sailed south from Port Jackson to Tom Thumb’s Lagoon (Lake Illawarra) and back again in 1796.

For his next adventure in January 1798, Bass managed to get hold of a whaleboat.  He rowed down the east coast with six companions from Port Jackson, around Wilsons Promontory where the boat came close to sinking, and into Western Port, the first Europeans to do so.  Just like that.  In a whaleboat.  However, the existence of Bass Strait remained unconfirmed until late 1798 with the circumnavigation of Tasmania, led by Matthew Flinders in the Norfolk.

Today, on February 4th, 2014, paddling buddy Ron picks me up at 7.45 am and we head off down the freeway to Flinders.  Both of us are worried about getting forty lashes for being late but Peninsula Link delivers and we’re actually early.  There are patches of fog on the way, which only get heavier and by the time we reach Balnarring Road turnoff, it’s pea soup.  I have decided to make a start toward becoming a graded paddler.  One of the requirements is a weather report, which I rehearse in the car on the way down.  Ron snorts.  There was nothing about fog on the BoM-site.

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Looking west off Flinders Ocean Beach

On January 30th, 1802 off Cape Schanck, Murray recorded in the Lady Nelson’s log book:  “We had a very heavy swell and perceived the surf about Seal Islands breaking in a fearful manner; sounded every hour.  The very bad weather has again prevented me at this time from overhauling this Cape or tracing the adjoining coast.”  The next day, he observed “the long range of breakers on the western side of the Port: several of them had shifted their berths nearer to mid channel….The whole of them for several miles broke incessantly and remarkable lofty – we passed within 2 miles of them. The reefs on the eastern side also broke much further out”.

By February 5th the weather was hot and sultry and the air was smoky.  “Native fires” could be seen along the coast but these soon disappeared after the arrival of the Europeans.  Murray is “apt to think that summer does not begin in this part till January”.  Thunderstorms and a cool change did not clear the “hot sickly weather and thick fiery haze” until a week later, when Murray was finally able to sail the Lady Nelson past Cape Schanck at 4 am on a Monday morning.

On February 2nd 2014, while Melbourne also roasts in “hot and sickly” 410C heat, at Flinders we can expect 310C, partly cloudy with variable light winds tending south to south-easterly and freshening by the evening.  What in fact happens is a light north-easterly and fog.  Lots of fog.  Low tide was at 8 am.  The swell is supposed to be WSW, Terry says it’s NW.  I start to feel a little anxious about this grading.  The Met Bureau really needs to do something about those typos.

As the fog starts to lift at Flinders Ocean Beach, a line of breakers comes into focus a few hundred metres off-shore.  All of a sudden everyone’s in the water.  This is always a source of perplexity to me, how is it that one minute everyone is fiddling around, making endless adjustments, organising the never ending array of detail and gadgetry that seem to go with sea kayaking, then suddenly like a shot out of a gun they’re halfway to Tasmania?

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There are a few surfers and paddle boarders at the outer break, which we circumnavigate and head south around the edge of Mushroom Reef.  It’s all a bit of an act of faith since the fog is still concealing the headlands and cliffs along the coast, although occasionally the sun breaks through.

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Once we reach deeper water, the colour of the sea deepens to turquoise-emerald although occasionally dark shadows of reef and bright sandy patches still appear.  Strands of dull yellow kelp ripped away from the sea floor are suspended by their air bladders, just below the surface.  The plan is to do some rock gardening and explore the sea caves along the coast.

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As we paddle past the layered basalt cliffs, headlands fade in and out of sight as the fog comes and goes.  The word “eerie” is mentioned more than a few times.  At some stage we pass the Blowhole.  We must also have passed a couple of other paddlers since a couple of days later, I read a blog post about a return trip from Cape Schanck that Sunday morning.  Creepy.  The closer we get to Cape Schanck, still miles off, the more the swell starts to pick up.  Breakers crash-land against the shore platforms at the base of the cliffs.  The group weaves around the really white water then back a little closer to the coastline.

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Rounding the vague outline of the Arch, just before Bushrangers Bay, it all gets a little more serious.  Pity about that fog.  The swell is around a metre but seems a lot bigger and it’s not a good time for photos.  But the pitch and fall of the sea is exciting and lives up to Terry’s promise of blue water paddling.  Once through the most turbulent section, in the distance the swell starts to increase and it looks like we will have to turn back.  Tamsin and Terry have a quick conference and decide that all things considered, it’s time for lunch.

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Terry toughing it out in the swell

In February 1802, Murray found an abundance of edible wildlife on Phillip Island and up the Bass River.  Fish, swans, parrots and ducks all graced the ship’s table.  Pigeons were salted down.  The supply of oysters and mussels was such that “a company of 6 or 8 men would not run any hazard of being starved here for several months from the vast quantity of shellfish to be found”.  Interestingly, there is no mention of kangaroo or other terrestrial fauna.  Water was more difficult to come by but a spring found at Elizabeth Cove on the earlier visit to the island under Grant’s command, provided plenty of good, fresh water for the ship’s barrels.

A few kilometres back toward Flinders and one gentle surf landing later, it’s lunchtime on the only bit of beach where it’s possible to put in.  So far, we’ve come about 13 km and although the sea has been a bit all over the place, there’s been very little wind.  It’s been a great opportunity to concentrate on technique and for getting a feel for some real sea.  Then we’re back into the surf again.  I launch in first and Tamsin yells at Ron to help me with my skirt.  This is how rumours start.

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Lunch stop. Photo: Greg Skowronski

On the way back, I need to demonstrate a few things for the Grade 1 thing.  But to be honest, by this time I’m starting to flag a little and really can’t raise the energy.  Plus, a couple of times I stop to take a few photos then find I’ve fallen behind and have to paddle like mad to catch up, plagued by the fear of capsizing unseen, because I have NO WHISTLE, and unnoticed, being consumed by something swimming around in the depths below.  I grew up at Hastings and I know about this stuff.  I do a little half-hearted edging and a couple of sweep strokes but it’s all a bit tedious in the waves.  Terry asks if I can do a bow rudder.  A what?  I wave my paddle around in the general direction of the front of the boat but, somewhat energetically, he tells me this is no time for a lesson.  Whatever.  Pulling the rudder up, I hope that this will earn me few points, and almost manage to resist the temptation to surreptitiously drop it back down.

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Heading off after lunch

The fog’s still with us on the way back to Flinders.  Photo-wise, it makes for continued drama and once West Head comes into view there’s a clear sense of where we are.  Sort of disappointing now after all the fog, which has become kind of Zen in its own way.  Once the beach comes into view, a few people peel off for a surf in one of the offshore breaks while a couple of us do some more grading tests.  Swimming a kayak for 50 metres and the like.  Two hundred more likely.  Nice in the water though.  The beach has filled up with people by the time we get back and the March flies are out in force.  Then comes the moment of truth.  I hand my book over and get a few things signed off, as well as stern look or two just to make it clear that I didn’t get let off the hook lightly.  The fog’s still parked around a couple of the headlands in the distance.  We didn’t get into the sea caves or quite as far as Cape Schanck but that was because the sea and the sky colluded to throw up something different, in a day of the unexpected.  A second, or even third attempt would be welcome.

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Fog still lingers around a couple of headlands at mid afternoon.

Map courtesy of Bruce Downes

Flinders to Cape Schange Google Earth

Sources:

Estensen, M.  (2005) The Life of George Bass Surgeon and Sailor of the Enlightenment.  Allen & Unwin.

Brown, A. J. (2004)  Ill-Starred Captains Flinders and Baudin.  Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Fremantle, Western Australia.

The Discovery of Port Phillip Bay. Abstracted from “Log Books of Lady Nelson” by Ida Lee (1915) and “Early History of Victoria”  by F. P. Labillière (1878).  http://www.ladynelson.org.au/history/discovery-port-phillip-bay (accessed February 2014).

Twist and Shout

It’s blowing a hooley today.  The forecast predicts 17 knot off shore winds at Balnarring Beach but the sea looks remarkably calm from the beach:  an offshore wind and outgoing tide.  It took roughly an hour to get here from North Fitzroy, almost a miracle, thanks to Peninsula Link.

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Grant arrives, carries his kayak down to the beach and we head off.  Since the tide has almost reached its lowest point, there are a few rocks to navigate.  Once clear of the reef we are instantly blown deeper into the bay.  I don’t notice this for a while but Grant probably does.  Once we’re a couple of hundred metres off shore, it’s a beam sea so that the choppy waves belt at us sideways.

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In spite of the wind, the water is clear.  Closer to shore, sand or beds of seagrass are just visible beneath the surface.  At first it’s difficult to distinguish the pattern of olive green leaves and whitish stems flattened with the current and I mistakenly think we are over a reef.  Further out, there is just deep, aqua water.  Western Port truly is a unique colour.  Looking back, the beach is eaten away by rising tides.  It’s the same at Somers,  gnarled tree roots lie exposed and naked on the beach, protruding from miniature sand cliffs once part of the old dune system which rises up steeply above the beach.  Enormous, architect designed houses are  gradually replacing the old, fibro-cement holiday shacks.

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The plan is to head toward Merricks Yacht Club, a short distance of a couple of kilometers, so that we don’t have to paddle too far against the wind on the way back.

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At one stage I nearly tip over and have trouble getting a grip with my knees, then realise that the foot pegs need adjusting   So we paddle to the beach, which seems to take ages in the headwind and it’s hard going.  Once on the beach we decide to head back.  I’m relieved, it’s pretty tiring paddling in this wind and as yet my technique is not developed enough to work the paddle blades efficiently.  The wind seems to be getting stronger.  I need to use my core more effectively, twist and watch the paddle blade as it plunges into the water.  Harder than it sounds.  Grant and I have given up talking, or rather yelling at each other, in the wind.  It’s a good experience and worth knowing that a wind stronger than 15 knots is pretty unsustainable for me, at this stage anyhow.

Looking across the water, we can just make out Seal Rocks and the Nobbies, tiny in the distance.

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All in all it’s been a short but challenging, if uneventful, paddle – a test of what it’s like to paddle in a strong cross-wind or headwind, so that’s been valuable.  Grant gives me a lot of good tips and even though I think I’ve been twisting my core, it’s still not enough.  Core-building exercise are prescribed, not that I’m all that enthusiastic about this but I guess I’d better do it.

At last, back on the beach.  It’s deceptively sheltered once back on land but the cool change is building.

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Balnarring beach is littered with remains of the old pier, much reduced in size since I was here last, probably as a teenager, and other structures intended to constrain the inevitable erosion.

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There are a couple of families picnicking, although no-one is swimming.  It’s been hard work but great to get a feel for paddling in strong wind.  Once the kayak is washed down and loaded back on the car and goodbyes are said, I head to the store for a coffee.  A large, Russian family are barbecuing sausages in the rotunda,  the men are barking down mobile phones, kids run back and forward and women speak intensely in small groups.  The coffee is good.

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Pitch Perfect

Today’s paddle is Ventnor to the Nobbies off the western end of  Phillip Island.  Possibly out to Seal Rocks at the edge of Bass Strait.  The route follows the northwest coastline along empty, sandy beaches and lumpy dunes, through emerald green water and around the occasional bommie and rocky reef.

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After an hour or so, we stop for morning tea near the remains an old jetty, at least that’s what it looked like although it seemed impossibly high put of the water.  Seabirds perched on the spars squawked and flapped their wings in outrage at the kayakers below.

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The Nobbies seemed a long way in the distance but we seem to get closer and closer in no time at all.  Layers of lava flows are etched into relief by the sea and capped with calcarenite, suggesting a badly iced cake.

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Up close, the Nobbies are no longer a lump of basalt in the sea, but a busy place.  Seabirds nest among the the pink Carpobrotus flowers and succulent coastal plants which cover all but the most exposed slopes, seals and penguins mill around at the base of the cliffs and still more birds circle the tiny island, riding the air currents and swooping suddenly into the sea for prey.  Cape Barren Geese, albatross, penguins, gannets but most commonly silver gulls and pacific gulls are commonly recorded (http://www.eremaea.com/SiteSpeciesList.aspx?Site=424).

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Consensus is reached to extend the paddle out to Seal Rocks, with a little rock hopping around the chain of sea platforms along the way.  The water is pretty shallow close to shore and the visibility good.

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Soon though, it’s suddenly deep once once we reach blue water.  It starts to feel like a real sea kayaking trip and it’s exciting as the kayak splices the waves, crests and falls with the surge of the swell.

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Delight is the only word for the first sighting of the seal colony, even among paddlers who had been out to the rocks before.  It is the second largest colony of Australian Fur Seals.  They almost the same colour as the rock and for a moment, I don’t realise how many there are, flopped in the sun, slithering into the water, or staring at the new arrivals.

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With seals go sharks, not that anyone was nervous…

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Up close, seal pong started to get pretty strong but these amazing animals continued to delight as they circled and dived beneath the kayaks, clambered up onto the rocks, showing just how clever they are in the water.  Their wails and moans sound like cheers from a football crowd.

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They seemed to get more and more bold and cheeky as they got used to the boats, teasing and at the same time warning us off from the young.

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Reluctantly, we need to leave and paddle the 13 km back to Ventnor Beach on the incoming tide.  Everyone seems to have extra energy after the experience and even though I’m used to seeing spectacular scenery and wildlife, this has to rank with one of the best days on record.

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Seal rocks Google Earth

Postscript….some weeks later, one of the kayakers re-visited Seal Rocks.  If there was any doubt about loss of biodiversity in the area, sighting a seal with its head bitten off would seem to provide ample evidence that sharks at least are alive and well.

Crepuscular and Iambic

There have been a lot of fun paddles over the last couple of months but the best, and toughest for a novice, have been in Western Port.  Beautiful Western Port.

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On Thursday evenings, at 6 pm during summer, a small group of men, and on occasion me, meet at Woolleys Beach, Crib Point.  We put in next to the BP jetty.  As a teenager, I sometimes accompanied my father to this same jetty to deliver pharmaceutical supplies to ships which had docked at Crib Point but whose sailors were not allowed on shore.  The ship would radio in from sea with an order for the chemist, my father, who would drive down to Crib Point with the delivery.

In those days, the chemist often delivered prescriptions to the elderly or housebound, so it was nothing out of the ordinary in that respect.  Occasionally, the captain would offer my father a whisky after showing us around the bridge, high up above the decks and the day to day world of maritime life.  The ships arrived from all over the world, as ships do, and being invited on board was a treat allocated to the oldest child.  Hard to imagine that the Stony Point and BP jetties, now longitudinally bisected with cyclone and barbed wire fencing, could provide such hospitality.

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I love Woolleys Beach.  It was here and at Jacks beach a little to the north, that we were taken garfishing at night.  Using a car battery strapped to a skiffle board and connected up to some sort of waterproof light on an extension pole, we kids trailed along in the dark, knee deep in murky water and scared shitless that we would step on one of the many stingrays which, startled, skated away into the gloom.  Worse, we had to eat our prey.  Used to King George whiting locally caught less than 24 hours earlier, even eating flathead was unthinkable, much less the mouthful of bones which was garfish.  I don’t remember how we caught the garfish and occasional flounder but I’m guessing with a net.  It’s hard to imagine that the family’s hunting armoury extended to anything more sophisticated, although it is possible that we had some kind of home-made spear.  Home-made, because no-one bought anything in those days.  That’s what sheds full of junk were for.

Later in life, as a young adult, these secluded beaches and car parks in the bush were far more fun at night.  Especially with an HR station wagon, flagons of wine and a packet of Marlborough Red.

Woolleys has changed so little over the years, other than having become a little sandier, although sand is still in pretty short supply and anyway, most of the beach is covered in rock.  High tide reaches almost to the fringe of bush that lines the coast.   Pillows of seagrass leaves, scooped up from the shallow sea floor by the incoming tide, line the upper strand; the mangroves have spread out a bit and there is a lot of recruitment now, where once there were larger, older trees.  It’s much the same at Jacks Beach and Hastings.   Not that it makes much difference.   The sand is a flimsy veneer and with the slightest pressure becomes an anaerobic wallow.   At low tide, the ooze closes in around your legs in a suctioning embrace.  It reminds me of Saturdays afternoons spent at Hastings Yacht Club while my father sailed the catamaran he had built in our garage.  My mother didn’t sail, at least not that I recall, so presumably she was playing tennis or socialising in the fibro-cement clubhouse, while we kids were sent outside to play on the mudflats.  Hastings was never referred to as a beach.  No matter how tedious or boring the environment, it was punishment to be kept indoors and at the very least, always better than hanging around inside.

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On Thursday nights there’s a bit of banter, then the boats are carried down to the shore.  Depending on whether the tide is in or out, kayaks are dragged through the seagrass-thatched mud or pushed off toward the channel.  At first, there was some surprise when I turned up, being the first new paddler to join the group for some time.  But they are inclusive and welcoming, albeit with a thinly disguised warning that I would need to tolerate a bit of blokey stuff.  I can’t help but wonder if a woman might unbalance things a little but if so, they’re too polite to say, much, and after a couple of weeks I feel more or less at ease.

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In the evening light, the northern end of Westernport is green and tranquil.  It is lined with mangroves and sweeps of inter-tidal mud banks exposed at low water; pelicans and seagulls cruise the shallows.  On the turn of the tide, people are fishing from boats anchored just off the main channel; there is one large tourist boat returning to Hastings but the wind seems to carry the engine sound away.

I want to make the most of these paddles, before the Port of Hastings development starts.  Construction is a few years away yet but the project is likely to go ahead and will transform northern Westernport into a container terminal capable of servicing hundreds of ships a year.

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To my mind, it’s a tragedy of epic proportion that makes the arrival of the refineries and steel mills in the sixties seem relatively benign but which prompted massive increases in land prices during what is remembered as a halcyon period of employment.  Locals were bewitched by the “BP flame”, now decommissioned.  A slender, cylindrical furnace easily clearing the canopy of the surrounding bushland so tall it could be seen for miles, its purpose was to burn off excess gases in an enormous fireball which always seemed barely contained.  Almost instantly, it became a feature that had always belonged to the landscape, with its eery glow in a sky unpolluted by the lights of the city.

It was part of the phenomenon that embraces exploitative industries as saviour, something to grasp at; blindly accepted even in the face of broken promises, pollution, noise and traffic and most sadly of all, the loss of an entire place.  There are, no doubt, the same predictions for the Port of Hastings development.  Some grass-roots opposition has emerged but it is poorly organised and ineffectual. The broader community is indifferent.  Western Port has always been seen as a resource but rarely a magical bay crammed with sea birds, whales, fish, dolphins, seagrass, mangroves and all manner of deep water marine life.  Concealed beauty and abundance.  Prosperity and impoverishment.  A weird sister foretelling gain and loss.

The first week, we paddle south toward Stony Point in a stiff headwind on a rising tide and mild swell.  The green sea rushes north to the main channel leading to Hastings and the industrial jetties at Long Island.  The current pushes against the bow of my kayak and the hull smacks into the chop.  I can’t hear much over the sound of spray flung about in the wind.

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Stony Point is not much more than a fibro-cement shop selling fish and chips, bait and ferry tickets, a car park, a boat launching ramp, caravan park, a Port Authority office, and the end of the railway line from Frankston.  The ferry to French Island and Phillip Island leaves from the jetty.  It carries cricket teams between French Island and the mainland for home and away games.  Bobbing up and down in the swell, a conga line of locals unloads the weekly shopping onto Tankerton jetty.  Tourists were, and still are, relatively scarce.

The paddle is tough in the wind.  There are a couple of tugs are tied up at Stony Point jetty and there is a clear view across to French island.  We round the point to Hann’s Inlet, which leads to Cerberus Naval Depot.  It starts to rain, lightly, and it feels like we’re out at sea even though the shore is only a couple of hundred metres away.

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Turning the boats back north and into a following sea, it’s suddenly and eerily quiet without the noisy protest of current and wind.  No longer a head-on battle, the sea artfully and unpredictably claws at the kayak, sometimes shoving bow into trough, or playfully pushing its stern obliquely over the wave crests.  The sails on the other boats go up and with the south-westerly at our backs, we coast back to Woolleys Beach along the flank of the channel to avoid a large tourist boat that seems to have come out of nowhere as it makes its way toward Hastings.  The experienced paddlers surf its wake but for me, finding some compromise with the wily current is enough.  When Woolleys comes into sight, I’m starting to feel tired after ploughing into the headwind and hope like hell that the end is in sight but soon we’re back at shore and it all seems over too quickly.

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It’s twilight carrying the boats back up to the car park, dusk by the time we’ve washed them down, dark by the time we sit at the picnic table to hop in to a few drinks and some snacks.  The others are surprised that I’m from Hastings, in fact I don’t think they believe anyone actually comes from Hastings.  Then again, one of them lives in Crib Point, which is even more unlikely in my book.

The following week, the group heads in the other direction, toward Sandstone Island, stopping on the way at what must be one of the most bizarre sights in Westernport, the HMAS Otama submarine.

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Here’s the thing.  In 2002, a local group describing themselves as a community organisation, the Western Port Oberon Association (WPOA) bought the submarine with a view to converting it to a maritime museum.  So far, courtesy of the then local Liberal member Peter Reith, $500,000 was granted by the Federal Government in 2001 to the WPOA, so that they could tow it back from Western Australia, with a bit of extra spending money.  No doubt  a sum Parks Victoria could happily use to manage its two parks at French Island, as well as those at Churchill Island and Yaringa.  All of these will be in the firing line for destruction come the Port of Hastings.  Add it to the $500,000 spent on the HMAS Cerberus in Port Phillip Bay and it becomes obvious that Parks Victoria is in the wrong business.

However, not until the return of a Liberal State government has there been an approved location for the Otama as a maritime museum.  Consequently, the submarine has become a rusting eyesore dumped off Crib Point.  The current plan is to drag it off to a site adjacent to the Hastings marina.  After a fair amount of dredging, land reclamation and infrastructure costing millions of dollars, a maritime museum will be built.  Supposedly.  Just exactly what the connection is with Hastings is pretty hard to fathom.  Excuse the pun.  Sure there’s Cerberus (with its own Federally funded and curated museum), and there was a strong fishing industry at Hastings, but submarines?  The WPOA website is spin taken to new heights and clearly has the support of the Liberal party all under the smokescreen of job creation.  Even so, the amount of money involved is flabbergasting.  I’m not sure where this all fits with the Port of Hastings development, but I’m guessing there’s somehow more to it all than meets the eye.

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But hey, it’s fun for kayakers and from the water the Otama looks every bit of its 2,000 tons.  By sheer force of bulk, it generates its own currents as the sea parts at one end and races toward the other, 90 metres away.  But its external structure is also featureless: nothing but sheer vertical planes rising from a curved hull and ornamented with rusting fittings.  There’s not much to look at after a while and we paddle off to Sandstone Island.

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By now, there is very little water left in this corner of Westernport and it’s a bit of a race to get around to the other side to avoid being marooned.  Birds pick at the exposed mudflats.  My paddle almost gets stuck on the bottom and I nearly have to get out.  Julian does, and squelches over the shallows to deeper water.  I resort to pushing off the bottom with my hands and after what seems like about three years, we’re all water-borne again.  Then it’s back to Woolleys in the evening light.

The third paddle I do with the group is to French Island.  It is almost impossible to wade through the mud and get into the boats.  Mick has arrived with a ludicrous aluminium home-made kayak that he bought on eBay.  It is artfully bent and misshapen but happily moves through the water at a cracking pace.

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The tide is falling and the route follows the BP jetty before heading west toward Middle Spit, an inter-tidal mud flat a kilometre or so off French island.  The shallow water at its edge is warm and the air is humid, although there is a light wind which is just enough to make me a little chilly.  Everyone climbs out of their boats for stretch.

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It’s a strange feeling, walking around an ephemeral island in the middle of Western Port, in kayaking gear, like a bunch of Robinson Crusoe impersonators.  At low tide, the surface is sandy and rippled, there are sheets of water rendered pewter by the low angle of the setting sun.  Our feet sink readily sink through the thin sandy surface and into the mud beneath.  For a moment my childhood fears of being stuck, for ever, return.  Like in those old Jungle Jim television shows when someone would always go down in the quicksand, the rescuer’s fingers gradually losing grasp of the victim’s until all that remained was a subtle indentation on the surface, before everyone simply moves on.

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A hundred metres or so away there is a group of rocks which someone speculates may have been dumped as ballast, since any other explanation is hard to think of.  There are also the shells of mud oysters and other bivalves.  I had only been wondering the other day if mud oysters were still common in Western Port.  Not for the faint hearted, being much larger than a Pacific or Sydney rock oyster – mud oysters are a bit of a mouthful.  I had thought that they were never popular, although they were fished in Port Phillip Bay in the nineteenth century until suffering a population crash, attributed to disease.

The weather is still looking good and the tide is about to turn so we head off to French Island.  Our route follows the edge of Middle Spit then picks up the channel leading toward Tankerton jetty, where the ferry docks.  The jetty seems impossibly high out of the water at low tide but there is a series of platforms to allow for the tidal range, around two metres.

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It always strikes me just how isolated French Island is.  From memory, all that is visible from the reasonably long jetty at Tankerton is a collection of salt bitten, rusting cars and an information shelter.  There may also be a lodge or some sort of low key accommodation.  From the beach, arriving by kayak, it’s like landing on an uninhabited island.  There are still fewer than 100 permanent residents and no mains electricity or water, only a single general store and the island is not part of any shire.  It used to be possible to borrow a car from the collection at Tankerton to get around as a visitor and the island was well known for not needing a driver’s license since it was outside any jurisdiction.  There’s time for another quick stretch and then it’s back in the boats.

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From this point on it all gets a little more exciting.  It’s my first time paddling in a following sea as well as ferry gliding across the current at the same time.  This is great but initially a little unnerving when the bow of my boat dives in under a wave.  And then I actually let out a little scream.  I still can’t believe I did that.  Mick was very right in pointing out that it wasn’t going to help and that paddling through the swell was the way to go.  Yep.

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Soon everyone is spread out along the channel, singly or in pairs.  There is a bit of light traffic crossing the main channel so we need to pick up pace to avoid the tourist boat which is returning from Hastings.  I think it must be the somewhat clumsily spelled Georgianna McHaffie, which runs cruises between Hastings, Phillip Island and Flinders.

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The swell’s not particularly high but enough to make me want to concentrate on not falling out of my boat.  There is a well-intentioned gesture among seasoned paddlers to chat away to novices to get them to relax.  It drives me nuts.  Quite often I like to paddle along and watch the sea, concentrate on trying to improve my technique or just not have to yell over the wind and waves.  Sometimes it’s nice to have a conversation and then I do.  At other times, no-one else wants to talk either and so I don’t.  I might be screamer but at least I know when to shut the fuck up.

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Anyway, the sea looks gorgeous:  green and mysterious but with a light pink cast from the summer evening light.  Soon I’m enjoying its rhythm, and the surge and retreat of the swell.  The boat is pushed and pulled sideways and I learn to go with it.  Then the shoreline inches closer and the BP jetty takes shape and I realise that we’re nearly back at Woolleys after covering about 12 kilometres.  The tide has only just started to come in and the last swatches of exposed seagrass will soon be flooded again.  Hauling the kayaks through the mud and back up to the beach is truly appalling.  The mozzies are in full force.  Weeks later black mud is still stuck under my toenails.  Lying in bed that night I am rocked by a ghostly swell.

It’s good to be home.

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Wooleys to French Is

The Paris End of Cranbourne, or the murky north

Also known as Warneet.  Not unlike the northern coast of France really and especially nice for those who appreciate mangroves, mud and seabirds.  And a small slice of old Westernport, now condemned to its fate as the Port of Hastings.

Sunday morning at Warneet North Boat Club , calm and clear conditions with an incoming tide.  About twenty kayakers pull their boats over the mudflats, a thin sandy top layer disguises the sucking, squelching mud beneath.

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One by one, the kayaks slide into the water, paddle downstream to the jetty for a warm up, then turn around and head upstream along a mangrove-lined creek.

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A few directional problems, there are a lot of people in the water but who cares, it’s a nice morning.  The paddle is friendly and chatty.  Would have been good to do a bit more distance, to at least justify the drive to get here.  Still, it’s pleasant cruising upstream along the mangroves, until the water depth runs out and we have to turn around and come back again.

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Warneet is still pretty unscathed form sea changers and tree changers, the mozzies and mud probably scare a lot of people off.  There are plenty of fishers and holiday shacks.  And birdlife on the beach.

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The jetty is in pretty good shape, occupied, as so many jetties are around the bays, by people fishing, either alone or in small family groups.  There are lots of yachts and boats and general busy-ness.  It’s nice and daggy.

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