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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.