Canadian Bay to Mornington

The beaches at Mt Eliza are lovely.  Ranelagh, Moondah, Sunnyside.  Canadian Bay Club, established in 1957, the year I was born, was also a location for the film “On the Beach”, the film of the Neville Shute novel of the same name.  It starred Gregory Peck, Ava Gardiner and Fred Astaire.  Other scenes were shot around Frankston, so can be claimed as the Bay’s own.  More significantly, at least from veteran local kayaker Bill Robinson”s point of view, the club provided an unofficial heaquarters for the sea kayak club for many years.

It’s a fine place to put in, for a paddle to Mornington.

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The coast seems to drift by quickly, past some very large properties, the province of the rich and, bizarrely, Sunnyside nudist beach.  I imagine it is one of the most exclusive sections of coastline on the Bay.  And for good reason.  The beaches are secluded, and the properties are fortified against public intrusion by the rocky red bluffs which protrude from the coastline between Black Rock and Mt Martha.

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By contrast, the pretty bathing boxes arescattered along the coast all the way to Mills Beach bely their asking price in the contemporary real estate market.

Mills Beach from the waterThe beach is as it has always been:  Yachts, swimmers, sunbathers, kids and people paddling  in the shallows.

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Sleepy and sunny.

Looking north from Mornington Yacht Club Beach

Then it’s back to Mt Eliza.  A relaxed and companiable paddle about 12 km.

Heading back toward Mt Eliza about 1 km north of Mornington

Canadian Bay

Musee des Beaux Arts at Sandridge, with apologies to Auden

Sandridge beach is the very last beach before the docks.  A crescent of sand squeezed in between Princes Pier and Webb Dock with a large modern life saving club and cafe, reasonably civilised changing rooms and free car parking.  Sandy tracks thread through re-planted native vegetation.

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By 9.30 am on a mid-week day in January, it’s already 300 but Sandridge is sheltered from the hot, northerly wind.  The beach is quiet, only about a dozen people are scattered around the sand and a few are in the water.  There is the sound of traffic in the background and occasionally, the squawk of a seagull.  A couple of kayaks glide languidly through the deep green water and a couple of kids splash around in the shallows.  A single red giraffe crane looms above Webb Dock. At any moment, white legs might disappear into the green water.

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A squad of young men in fire truck-red shorts are doing some sort of training. Swimming between yellow markers a few metres off shore and running between others impaled further up the beach. They gather on the shore to listen to the trainer’s instructions. He is upright, muscled. Fit and balding, gold chain and blue Speedos. A thinning crop of white chest hair. He explains the manoeuvres carefully to the thirteen young men, who are beginning to flag in the heat. Instructive, even-voiced and clear. He sprints back and forth to consult with two other men and to re-position plastic sticks and discs in the sand. The young men lie face down in the sand, heels together, elbows bent, hands beneath chin and heads down. On the word go, they leap up and scramble to retrieve a stick spiked into the sand about ten metres away. There are more sticks than boys and those that failed have another go, grinning at each other.

The water is calm but not cold. I am hesitant about swimming all the way out to the yellow marker about 200 metres off shore. I tell myself I am worried about being sliced to ribbons by a jet ski but in truth, that’s not really the reason. In the end I swim about half way then change course and swim across toward the beach berm built from black, volcanic rock and then head back in to shore. Surfacing, I catch the eye of another swimmer in a wetsuit, wading through the shallows. We smile and start chatting. He has travelled from Sunbury for a swim but is interested in the Williamstown group, preferring to find people to swim with. And here’s the difference between pool swimming and open water swimming. In the pool, swimmers are self-absorbed, concentrating on their stroke. They rarely talk to one another and concentrate on getting the laps done. A boy could certainly fall out of the sky unnoticed at a public pool while someone else is just swimming dully along. It’s different at the beach. There is a shared love of swimming in the sea, the sun or the cold, the excitement and sheer joy of the third thing.

Back on the beach the young men are finishing up. The trainer claps and congratulates them. Well done. They look pleased but keen to be relieved of the hot sand.

A Middle Eastern family has set up camp under the wooden shelter. They are well equipped for the day with a beach tent, a fluorescent green umbrella, fold up table and an enormous esky. A small child, entrapped, hangs from a sling within a circular plastic contraption and three boys run back and forth between the camp and the water’s edge. The father sits at the table munching a sandwich. The mother is covered from head to toe in a purple Islamic swim suit.

It’s getting hot so I decide to have another swim, this time out to the marker, encouraged by the thought of the man still in the water. A little bit of critical mass. Swimming out is fine but when I reach the buoy and look back toward the beach it seems like a really long way, in spite of knowing that it’s only a couple of hundred metres. A moment of fear creeps in when I realise that I am without the buoyancy of a wetsuit. It’s a reminder of how dangerous water can be. I turn around and head back to shore, upping the pace to make it happen a bit quicker and focussing on the green umbrella in the distance. Progress seems slow through the bottomless yellow green and I swallow a few mouthfuls of saltwater but eventually, coils of sand worms and the rippled sea floor come into focus.

The squad of young men in the red shorts is just dispersing from the changing rooms. Chatting to one of the trainers I discover that they are a soccer team, in the State league third from the top. But they can’t progress and the coach in the blue Speedos has been brought in to work with them. He is German and specialises in this sort of thing.

“The team has it in them”, says the trainer, “the German will get it out”.

It’s all about mind, a psychological barrier endemic in the team. The trainer is confident that they can and will do better. His faith is touching. The young men are clearly a bunch of working class kids mostly from Middle Eastern backgrounds. I voice my reluctance about swimming alone out to the marker but he’s not having any of it. He clearly thinks that this is ridiculous.

“What’s there to worry about”?

I mumble something about an irrational and unfounded fear of sharks, since it seems too complicated and out of place to explain my anxieties. He opts for a rational explanation to do with sharks being found only in the channel at the heads. Except during the dredging, when some strayed into the outer reaches of the bay. This is not all that comforting, I didn’t think there were any sharks at all in the bay. I am about to point out that I’ve just swum about fifty times further than any of the young men and am old enough to be his mother, but instead I wish the team well and we say good bye. Thanks guys, he says. Don’t think his mind’s been on the job. Maybe the German will have better luck.

Later in the year I swim at Sandridge with Tony one Sunday morning, a cold and bleak day, the only swimmers in the water on a deserted beach other than a couple of life savers messing about with an inflatable boat.  We swim to one of the yellow markers then across to another one and back again, then into shore.  I remember the day in summer when I met the other swimmer, Mike, now a good friend.

It had rained the night before and the water is a little cloudy, although with enough clarity to see for a metre or so beneath the surface.  Emerging from the water, we agree that on days like this, gloomy, with no-one else in the water or on the beach, it wouldn’t take much to feel afraid.  Suddenly and shockingly afraid.   An unexpected shadow cast by the sun disappearing suddenly behind a cloud, or a wad of seaweed appearing at the periphery of vision.

I think the sea provides expression for a fear of nature which I believe sits beneath the conscious surface.  Most Australians have very little experience of landscape but everyone goes to the beach.  But fear of sharks is a fundamental part of the psychological landscape of the beach.  Not drowning, sunstroke, or polluted water but fear of some unknown aspect of nature which in truth, is at best remote but more likely, impossible.   Perhaps it’s a lack of control over the environment, sometimes there is residual unease that stays with even some of the most experienced, veteran swimmers.  For me, being able to see through the water at this time of the year has added a dimension of curiosity to swimming.  Knowing what lies beneath the surface has stripped away some of the uneasiness.  But unable to see beneath the surface, swimming becomes an act of faith.

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Boxing Day at Black Rock

The tide is just starting to come in on Boxing Day morning, in time for a paddle from Ricketts Point at Beaumaris, north to Black Rock.  Ricketts Point Marine Sanctuary is another of the Bay’s little surprises.  Through clear turquoise water, algae, rocky reefs, fish and sea grass combine in a display of colour and texture invisible from the flat, sandy beach only metres away.

Tide coming in at Ricketts Point

Tide coming in at Ricketts Point

Looking across the Bay to the south, smears of distant showers and a smudgy grey sky and the diffuse grey green sea are precursors of the cool change predicted for around midday.  Still further, the granite You Yangs  squat above the flat volcanic plains north-east of Geelong.

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Cool change coming in over the You Yangs

Still, there’s still time to paddle toward Black Rock and beat the weather.  Occasionally, the wake from a speed boat disturbs the mild swell and current of the incoming tide but otherwise conditions are pleasant and the paddle is reasonably easy work under the cliffs along the beach which shelter the coastline from the north wind.

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Heading off before the cool change (photo: Greg Skowronski)

The Spirit of Tasmania, momentarily caught in the pre-storm light, heads out toward Bass Strait, then on to Devonport.  Otherwise, there are surprisingly few craft out, possibly because of the threat of unsettled weather.  Thankfully though, there are no jet skis.

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Rounding the orange calcarenite cliffs of Half Moon Bay, the wreck of the HMVS Cerberus comes into view.  It’s closer in to shore than I had imagined and much smaller, since the rising tide conceals part of the hull.

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The wreck receives considerable attention from volunteers, Heritage Victoria and others. This includes Federal Government funding of $500,000, probably well in excess of Parks Victoria’s budget to manage the Bay’s marine parks and reserves.  The HMVS Cerberus website lists ways that the public can help:  everything from making general suggestions, to joining the navy.

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The Cerberus has a number of claims to fame, which to fully appreciate, some knowledge of maritime history is needed.  That counts me out.  I find it a little hard to believe that the wreck “is important as evidence of the development of Australia as a nation and as part of the British Empire…a period in Australia’s history when the colonies were thought vulnerable to coastal attack and invasion. This was especially felt by Victoria, the wealthiest colony, and from which, a significant amount of the wealth from the goldfields was exported” (http://www.cerberus.com.au/nhlist_values.pdf).

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The Cerberus is, however, the only remaining breastwork monitor class warship…

On the way home, I stop at Sandringham to have a look around.  The modern yacht club building dominates the beach but moored along the older jetty, away from the marina, are a number of small old-fashioned sailboats, with their own place in the history of the Bay.

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The paddle, an easy 7 km, return.

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Willy to Altona

It’s a bright, sunny morning but I feel like I’ve forgotten something since I am now much more efficient at getting packed up and ready to go. The plan is to paddle from Williamstown to Altona with Ron.

There is a traffic jam on the Bolte and in the distance, the West Gate Bridge looks like a giant slug.  I am sandwiched in between roaring trucks but on occasion get a glimpse of the sapphire blue water of the Bay.  Finally get to the beach and unload the kayak, then find Ron,who is waiting in the carpark behind the Life Saving Club.

After navigating the fishing lines off the breakwater, it’s full sail to Altona, at least in Ron’s case, who soon has his sail up and angles his boat for a bit of product placement.  Show off.

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It’s a nice run to Altona, birds perched on the emerged reef at low tide stare haughtily at us across the water.

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Altona Beach is a bit of a hidden treasure, especially on a sunny day.  We haul the kayaks up onto the sand and have lunch at a picnic table overlooking the beach.  Have to be worse ways to spend a day than this…

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  A few jellies have washed up on the beach.  We saw them in the water where at first we mistook them for discarded plastic bags.  They are blubber jellies, only mildly venomous but their lumpish shape and lack of decoration or elegant trailing stingers makes them look slightly sinister.  Once washed up on the strand though, they are pretty huge.  Their presence in the Bay seems to be seasonal, blown in on the tide and wreaking havoc with swimmers.

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On the way back, we have a bit of a play under Altona Pier before paddling the five km back to Willy.

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An uneventful, lovely day.  Simple pleasures of sun and water and lunch on the beach.  A bit of wildlife and good company.  Doesn’t get much better than this.

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Tall Ships

In mid September, the sea kayaking club arranges a paddle from Sandridge to Williamstown for a close up view of some tall ships anchored in Hobsons Bay.

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There is a perception that, being the new girl, I am nervous.  Well I am, now its been pointed out.  In the distance, Williamstown takes shape surprisingly quickly and it’s amazing how quickly we approach the western shore of Hobsons Bay.

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At anchor, is the Oosterschelde, the Lord Nelson and a couple of others, all of which I’m sure must look great under full sail.  I’m not sure what I was expecting but to be honest, it’s a little underwhelming.  After all, it is billed as the Melbourne International Tall Ship Festival.  But I can’t but help think back to Hobart in 1988 at the time time of the bicentennial when the harbour was choked with ships from all over the world.

The kayaks weave in and out of yachts and then edge close to the hulls of the tall ships.  Day visitors peer at us over the side, while crew climb  high up the rigging, balanced and sure-footed.

Tall ships, Williamstown, September

The paddle circumnavigates the Williamstown docks, around the tall ships, then back across the channel to Port Melbourne for morning tea, finishing at Sandridge.  For me, the highlight of the day is crossing the shipping channel.  Hardly Bass Strait but the currents surge and retreat, opposing and yielding.  It feels like the real sea: deep and moving and resistant.  A rare glimpse into the Bay.

Tall ships Google Earth

From pool to sea

At the local pub there is a photograph of swimmers at the Fitzroy Pool which sits above the fireplace in the public bar,  dated 1926.  In it there are five men, in the swimming costumes of the day, or naked, grinning for the camera.

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Fitzroy pool was made famous by Helen Garner in her first novel “Monkey Grip”, later a film.  Set in Carlton, it is a seminal work about communal domesticity, addiction to drugs and destructive relationships and places which defined Carlton in the 1970s.  Fitzroy pool is one of those places.  The words “Aqua Profonda” and above, “Danger Deep Water”, on the wall at the west end of the pool, were painted in the 1950s as a warning to Italian children, continually being fished out of the deep end and close to drowning.  The sign is registered by Heritage Victoria as having historical significance as a rare example of the early acceptance of migrants into the dominant culture of the time.  Hooray for Mr James Murphy, the pool manager at the time, whose care and concern for young post-war migrant swimmers, lives on.

The deep end, Fitzroy Pool

Fitzroy pool is open, spacious and has the air of a real pool.  On the other hand, the old Brunswick Baths where I swam before they closed for renovations, could not be more different. Ten metres away, trains roared past; bombing was ignored; the double lap lane was a study in perpetual motion.  No-one cared about the deep end at Brunswick.  And it was very deep.  A relic of more reckless days when a diving board was in place.  Somehow it all worked.  Kids competed to touch the bottom, suspended motionless and puff-cheeked above the dirt-encrusted tiles.  Surfacing triumphantly.  But when the Brunswick Baths re-opened in 2013, the deep end was gone forever.

Plying up and down the Fitzroy pool, I became more and more curious about open water swimming.  Not just going to the beach but swimming distances in the sea.  I had read Roger Deakin‘s ‘Waterlog’, to this day my favourite book and was entranced by the idea of just swimming.

The Scottish Hebrides seemed like as good a place to start as any.

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What was I thinking?

I had no experience of open water swimming whatsoever, much less 1.4 km across the 70 metre deep Corryvreckan whirlpool.  The weather was cold and rainy, we camped in flimsy tents which eventually blew over in gale force wind.  Then the porridge oats ran out.  Who would have thought it, in Scotland?  By now, I had come to fully appreciate a carb-loaded breakfast as I shivered into my cold, clammy wetsuit each morning.  Thankfully, most of the swims were eventually called off and substituted with boat trips and walks around the Isle of Scarba.  I will always remember, with deep gratitude, the central heating and thick tartan carpet at the B & B in Oban where I eventually thawed out and dislodged ticks infested with Lyme’s disease from under my skin.

The Corryvreckan whirlpool, not a good time for a swim...

The Corryvreckan whirlpool, not a good time for a swim…

Looking over the Grey Dogs, Scarba

The Grey Dogs, Scarba

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In spite of it all, I was hooked on sea swimming and when I returned home, I found a bunch of people to swim with in Port Phillip Bay, at Williamstown.  Over the months I began to feel more confident and lost the anxiety which plagued my early swims, leaving my legs weak and my lungs breathless.  As the seasons progressed, we swam under warm, sunny skies; through piercingly cold winter water; in rough, choppy waves and in two metre swells on Grand Final Day.  We swam on Labour Day, on Christmas Eve, over reefs and across the sea floor in water that was sometimes satin-sapphire blue, sometimes milky green, sometimes thick and soupy, sometimes littered with dead birds and debris spewed from storm water drains after spring storms.  We swam with jellyfish, stingrays and puffer fish.  But most of all, we swim for sheer pleasure.

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Head to Head

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.

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Half Moon Bay, Black Rock

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.

Mothers Beach, Mornington

Mothers Beach, Mornington

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.

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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.

Port Melbourne Beach, one morning in late winter

Port Melbourne Beach, one morning in late winter

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.

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Sandringham Yacht Club

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Sandringham Beach

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.

The glittering city

The glittering city