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

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Tall Ships

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

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

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

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

Tall ships, Williamstown, September

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

Tall ships Google Earth

From pool to sea

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

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

The deep end, Fitzroy Pool

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

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

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

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Jura

What was I thinking?

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

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

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

Looking over the Grey Dogs, Scarba

The Grey Dogs, Scarba

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

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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