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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Photo 25-12-2013 11 23 50 pm

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.


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.

Photo 25-12-2013 11 37 24 pm

Sandringham Yacht Club

Photo 25-12-2013 11 36 45 pm

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

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.


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.


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.


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 (


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.


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.


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.


With seals go sharks, not that anyone was nervous…


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.



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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Photo 2-01-2014 5 42 38 am

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.

Photo 2-01-2014 6 33 10 am

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.

Photo 2-01-2014 6 32 43 am

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.

Photo 2-01-2014 7 09 27 am

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.

Photo 2-01-2014 7 06 43 am

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.


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.


Photo 2-01-2014 7 30 48 am

wooleeys google earth

Wooleys to French Is

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.


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.

Photo 6-09-13 12 09 01 AM

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.

Photo 6-09-13 12 31 03 AM

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.


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


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

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

photo 4

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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.



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.

photo 2 (1)

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.


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.  


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…


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