Sunday morning at Elwood

Autumn has settled in Melbourne, along with warm late afternoons, cooler nights and calm early morning seas.  It’s especially amenable to outdoor living in bayside carparks.

Arriving at Point Ormond at 8 am we are lucky to snag the last couple of spots where we can park until midday without paying a fee.  Campervans and station wagons, occupied mostly by European tourists with picnic tables, chairs and even a couch, take up much of the carpark.

At Sandridge Beach carpark, also a popular campsite, the Life Saving Club had made a number of complaints to council and police about campers defecating in bushes, running extension cords across the carpark, blocking access to the club’s ramp and camping there for days so that members on patrol, or conducting or running training sessions were unable to find a space.  However, when the issue was reported in the Herald Sun (January 23rd, 2015) and the Leader (February 23rd 2015), I am surprised to read that opinion was largely weighted in favour of the campers (although there were few respondants.)   Arguments in favour of illegal camping were the high cost of alternative accommodation and a view that council had a responsibility to manage all public places for public use of any kind. The problem is now considered solved at Sandridge with the introduction and enforcement of no standing rules between 11 pm and 5 am.

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Conditions were perfect though to leave all this behind and head from Point Ormond, Elwood, on to Port Melbourne then back after a coffee stop at St Kilda.

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We could see Williamstown, the West Gate Bridge and Webb Dock along the skyline.  A large cruise ship and the Spirit of Tasmania were berthed at Station Pier.

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A few days earlier, paddling from Sandridge toward St Kilda, another cruise ship was at dock, getting a fresh coat of paint in an inspiring challenge to the laws of gravity, not to mention proportions.

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Princes Pier never fails to delight.  Whether swimming or paddling through the remains of its turpentine piles, it  is a little different each time.  Melbourne ports were busy places when the plan to build the pier was approved in January 1912.  The number of sheep exported had doubled in the 35 years since 1877. Greasy wool, wheat, butter and gold were the highest exports, followed by flour, leather, mutton and lamb, geldings, biscuits, books, newspapers and apples. Hardwood timber, bags, bark, cement, lime, sand and shell, soap, tallow and grains were unloaded from overseas and interstate.  Fully commissioned in 1916 as New Railway Pier, by the time the Armistice was declared in 1918, nine of the 193 volunteers from the Melbourne ports had been killed in the war.  Steamships dominated the northern part of the bay, although an occasional barque, ketch or schooner still sailed into port.

New Railway Pier was formally re-named Princes Pier in 1922 after the Prince of Wales who had visited on board the HMS Renown two years earlier.  Twenty-five thousand people crowded onto the pier to see the royal party and the HMAS Australia, berthed at the same time.  The Harbour Trust Commissioners reported with pride, that the water was deep enough not to have to wait for high tide for the Prince’s ship to depart, in spite of the Marine Engineers’ strike earlier that year, which had disrupted coal supplies and hence dredging operations in the Melbourne ports.

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The wind picked up by late morning and followed us on our way back to Elwood beach.  Past Lagoon Pier, Station Pier and finally through St Kilda Pier with its landmark pavilion, re-built after being deliberately burnt down in 2003.

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A short, three hour, sociable paddle close to home.  And back just in time to avoid a fine.

Fronting up in the west

Victoria’s latest sea kayaking sensation the “Retired or Unemployed Melbourne Paddlers” (RUMPs) and their SeaSaWW colleagues (Sea Swimmers and Work Waggers) set off from Altona on Monday for a paddle to Point Cook. A tight-knit and disciplined bunch, they paddled off with grit and determination for the arduous journey ahead. DSC_0466 Struggling in the harsh winter conditions and a tough following sea…

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 the paddlers finally sighted land – Point Cook. DSC_0469 After an onerous seven kilometres, the weary kayakers struggled ashore, skilfully guiding their boats over concealed rocks and bravely confronting the corpses of massive blubber jellyfish floating in the shallows. DSC_0474 Tired and exhausted but always prepared for an expedition, the RUMPs staggered up the beach to take shelter in an abandoned farmhouse, and replenished their energy from their meagre supplies. DSC_0478 Faced with the long journey home, all that lay ahead was wilderness.

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 But this historical event did not go unrecorded. DSC_0482 As the wind picked up, so did the nuggety RUMPs’ spirit and after a democratic discussion to decide on the best paddling strategy…. DSC_0484 …the paddlers soon reached Altona pier… DSC_0489 …unnoticed by the local authorities. DSC_0486 At last, the Gondwanan vegetation of the western front. DSC_0491 Age will not weary them…. DSC_0494   Altona to Pt Cook

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).

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

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.

Ricketts Pt

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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will to altona Google Earth

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