Around Princes Pier

Today is a test run of my new sea kayak.  I launch off Sandridge and paddle gingerly toward Williamstown. I have resolved to fall out (on purpose), get wet (obviously) and get back in (hopefully) again.  The aim is to become sufficiently confident to go off on my own.  So the plan goes.  However,  I can’t resist the idea of paddling off into the void of the bay.   The water is flat and grey and every now again the kayak is gently lifted and lowered by the swell.  I look behind me.  The beach is suddenly distant and soon we are almost around the point toward Webb Dock.  The kayak moves unexpectedly fast, skimming past a solitary fisherman fiddling with his line, glancing up and tracking the kayak with an anxious gaze, concerned that we might become tangled since I am sticking close to shore where if the worst happens, I can swim the boat in.  So I like to think.

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Rounding the point, Williamstown is laid out along the edge of Hobsons Bay.  For a moment, I don’t recognise it, until I spot the bristle of  masts around the yacht club, then identify various landmarks:  wharves, sheds, a naval destroyer and the cluster of houses along the Strand.  I realise I’m at the edge of the shipping channel close to Webb Dock, not too far from the mouth of the Yarra, with a sum total of about twenty minutes sea kayaking experience.

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Williamstown across the shipping channel

Webb Dock is an outlier of the docks along the Yarra.  It has a couple of enormous boxy cranes, a few containers and a ship.  Signs direct stray watercraft to keep a distance of 75m, which I am inclined to obey under the circumstances, with the expectation of the water police appearing and swamping my boat.  So I turn around and head back toward the glittering towers of Port Melbourne.  The sea is slatey grey-green and the clouds are starting to thicken overhead.  The bridge is slumped over the north western skyline.  I don’t feel like going in yet so I paddle toward the ruins of Princes Pier.

Webb Dock from Sandridge Beach

Webb Dock from Sandridge Beach

From the water below only ranks of weathered pylons are visible.  Panicky seabirds shriek in protest at the disturbance, sweeping from one spar to another, settling, squawks receding with one last, huffy, fold of wing.  There are surprisingly more pylons than I had thought; the pier must have been enormous.  In fact it was over half a kilometre long and intricately linked not only to movement of cargo in and out of Melbourne by rail and sea, but also human movement to and from wars in the northern hemisphere.  The recent restoration project has rebuilt some structures and deliberately exposed the original pylons by removing part of the old decking,.  It honours the industrial, maritime and social history of Port Melbourne.  Paddling deeper into the skeleton and surrounded by the ruins is eerie.

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The water is clear, almost aquamarine.   Beneath the surface fronds of kelp move slowly with the current which winds among the stumps.  The wood is fissured from the salt and at the waterline its surface is braided with glossy black mussels and crusted with cream coralline algae.  Paddling toward the other side, it’s weirdly quiet; the birds raise and settle their wings in half-hearted protest then return to sentinels and gaze out to sea.

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As ever, the bridge is a constant on the skyline.

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Back close to the shore, I practice falling out and trying to get back in again.  It’s difficult but I eventually succeed although the next day I am covered in enormous bruises and it does little to increase my confidence since I realise how much harder this would be in rough sea.  

Better to learn to not fall out in the first place.

Better find someone to paddle with I think.

Then Ron showed up. How easy was that?

Princes Pier Google Earth

Getting off at Point Cook

Three of us head off to Campbell’s Cove on Sunday morning to paddle to Point Cook Homestead and back.  The area is often romanticised as something of a backwater and unspoiled beach.  It is that section of the bay more or less around Werribee, better known for market gardens, the Point Cook air force base and the sewerage farm.

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The week had been pretty windy but some respite was forecast up until lunchtime, so we take advantage of the conditions and head south.  None us have any idea what to expect, since Lara and I had only met last Friday night at the VSKC rolling night, and I had only met Ron when we got chatting on St Kilda beach the same weekend.  On arriving, we realise that Campbell’s Cove is a nudist beach, one of four in Victoria apparently, identified by a sign saying ‘clothing optional’.  Later, a  quick search on Google suggests that it’s a pretty sleazy area.  There are a couple of men huddled in between the saltbush lining the edge of the upper strand, looking undecided about where to settle in the tepid spring warmth and wind.  Trying not to stare, we unload the boats and paddle off.

The day is a little overcast but not too windy close to the shore.  Point Cook seems a fair way off but we eat up the kilometres, and eventually Ron stops worrying that he might have to rescue the two women.

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We paddle through the Point Cook Marine Sanctuary.  The remains of an old pier capped with seabirds almost perfectly imitates the distant city skyline.

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After about five km, reach a sandy spot on the shore below the homestead and pull up for a stretch.  A few people who have wandered down to the beach and stop for a chat.

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The homestead is surprisingly and nicely low key, especially considering it has bed and breakfast accommodation, a large café and had drawn a fair few day visitors.  The garden and lawn is windswept and the buildings are in various stages of renovation.  It was built by two Scottish brothers in 1857 but after a number of ownership changes after 1920, became derelict before being bought by the State government and restored.

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A big bluestone building in the middle of the lawn, that seems oddly out proportion to the living quarters, provided housing for all the other activities associated with the homestead – the stables, a ‘rabbiter’s hut’ and other quasi-domestic functions.

Among the salt bitten Norfolk Pines and cypresses and post and rail fences, the remains of the original gate is a solitary structure on the lawn, like a plastic gate in a kids toy farm set.

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After a coffee, we head back down to the beach and glide off into the water.  The wind has started to pick up, so we stay pretty close to shore.  Most of the coastline is part of the RAAF base and the low dunes along the foreshore are strewn with metal wreckage from collapsed fences and various other bits of junk.

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It would be worth coming back on a clear day to get a better view of the reef below.  Even with the water a little murky, it’s possible to get an idea of the pattern of seaweed and rocks and a hint of stingrays, banjo sharks and fish.  Even in a headwind, we still make pretty good progress, although by the time we approach the long RAAF jetty, the wind is rising and seagulls are flung about in the gusts.

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Back at our starting point after a ten km paddle, at one end Campbell’s Cove is a collection of multi-coloured fishing shacks clustered together on the water’s edge.  Four wheel drives and aluminium fishing boats define their boundaries.  Occasionally a big bloke in wrap-around sunglasses emerges to fiddle with boat fittings, rearranges some tools, or just wanders out from through a fly wire screen door and looks around.  Otherwise, most shacks seem uninhabited.

Months later, a friend tells me of the abuse her husband copped while they were looking at one of the shacks advertised as up for sale:  “Get out of here ya fuckin’ Asian”.  Actually, he’s a fuckin’ Fijian.

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At the other end of the beach, pale men’s bodies appear and disappear among the saltbush.  Only one man stands on the beach, hands on hips, fat rolls, pubic hair and genitals defiantly turned windward, staring at us as we paddle toward the shore.

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A couple of months later in January, there’s another paddle to Point Cook, this time from Altona on a day of blustery onshore winds and choppy sea.  Coincidentally, we meet four others on the beach who are off to Point Cook, so we decided to paddle together.

It’s all a bit nerve racking in the rough sea and a bit of a slog but soon we hop out on the beach and walk up to the homestead for a coffee.  In spite of rolling up in sandy kayaking shoes and looking pretty scruffy, the staff at the cafe don’t seem to notice and serve up coffees, scones and jam with good cheer.  

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On the way back the surf’s up and soon we’re spread out across the waves.  My boat skims across the crest of a wave for about ten metres.  Once I get used to the feeling it’s exciting, so I try out a bit of stern rudder to stay perpendicular to the waves.  Trouble with this boat is it feels very high out of the water and a bit tippy, even though the chines stop me from going over.  Later, Ron tells me, somewhat wryly, that I’m getting cocky and am sure to capsize sooner or later.  He’s probably right, and looks annoyingly comfortable in his British kayak.  The digital photos tend to flatten the swell by the way…

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Once back at Altona Beach, we have to navigate a multitude of kite surfers close to shore and it’s here that I nearly come out.  Nearly but not quite.  Jackie can’t believe that she didn’t fall out and neither can I.  Pleased, we haul the kayaks up the beach and back onto cars, then have a late lunch in Williamstown and later, Japanese in East Brunswick.  Another great day on the Bay.

Pt Cook 2 Google Earth