Two ocean swims west of Cape Otway

The uninterrupted flow of the weather across the vast oceans between Argentina and Cape Otway sees wild storms, strong winds and huge swells hit this part of the south-east coast of Australia with full force. The coast is littered with shipwrecks, and demands respect and caution from all mariners venturing near it.

The so-called ‘shipwreck coast’ stretches over 100kms west from Cape Otway. Over 50 sailing ships have been wrecked along this part of the Victorian coast. It is aligned NW/SE, and faces the prevailing westerly seas and winds that have pounded this coast for millions of years. While not the most southerly point in Victoria, it extends to just shy of the 39th parallel. Cape Otway is technically not in the latitudes of the roaring forties, but it frequently feels otherwise. The parallel of latitude on which Cape Otway sits passes some 240 nautical miles south of Cape Agulhas on the southern tip of the African continent, and the next land to the west is the east coast of Argentina.

The wildest weather and most powerful groundswells to strike the coast east and west of Port Campbell come from the west and south west. The bay at Port Campbell faces directly south west. It is spared nothing in bad weather and big south-westerly swells.

The following two photos of the Port Campbell jetty indicate the range of conditions which can be experienced in the bay at Port Campbell, and this part of the west coast of Victoria.

The weather and sea conditions on the west coast are the subject of previous posts on this blog, including: ‘Wild weather and a big swell on the coast west of Cape Otway’ (published 28 June 2017), and ‘Some winter cameos from the west coast of Victoria’ (published 12 August 2017).

Ocean swimming in this area requires great caution, but also offers great rewards. This post is one average ocean swimmer’s account of two ocean swims in spectacular locations on this coast. I hope to share something of the sense of joy and adventure of ocean swimming in this part of the world.

The 2020 Port Campbell Ocean Swim

The Port Campbell surf life saving club has a long, active and proud tradition in ocean rescue and water safety. In addition to conducting regular beach patrols from November to Easter, the volunteer members provide an important coastal rescue service along 60kms of the coast. They are equipped for inshore rescue operations in areas inaccessible to other vessels and often inaccessible from the land. Port Campbell is the only place between Apollo Bay and Warrnambool that a rescue craft can be launched. Volunteers remain operationally ready every day of the year. They have attended many call outs in life-threatening conditions at isolated and dangerous beaches and locations. They are currently equipped with a 6m rigid-hull inflatable boat to assist in this role, in addition to the standard surf life saving IRBs (inflatable rescue boat), the ‘rubber ducks’. Training over and above life saver training is required to serve on this boat on coastal rescues. In earlier days, there was a team equipped with a rocket with a rope connected to it, for firing from the land where possible to those in need of rescue from the sea.

At Sherbrooke Creek beach (between the 12 Apostles and Port Campbell beach) on 21 April 2019 two volunteer members of the SLSC died when their 6m rigid-hulled rescue boat overturned while they were attempting to rescue a tourist who was in the sea in wild conditions and in trouble. The tourist was subsequently winched to safety by a rescue helicopter. There was a very high swell at the time, and conditions were described by locals as treacherous. They were local dairy farmers. They were highly experienced and respected members of the club. They were a father and son, aged 71 and 32. The club and the whole Port Campbell community were shocked and shattered by the tragedy. The heroism of the two men has rightly been widely recognised throughout Australia and abroad. I salute their bravery. Ross Powell and Andrew Powell and the sacrifice they made will not be forgotten.

Since 2004 the Port Campbell SLSC has participated in conducting a three-swim ocean race series with the surf life saving clubs at Warrnambool and Port Fairy. There is a prize for the overall winner of the series, as well as prizes for individual performance in each of the annual races. Swimmers are welcome to do one, two or all three of the races. The event is called the Shipwreck Coast Swim Series.

The Port Campbell swim is my favourite of all the regular ocean swims conducted by surf life saving clubs along the west coast of Victoria. It’s a true ocean swim. The race has been cancelled on occasions due to rough seas, and this close-knit crew of water men and women does not rush to cancel for rough seas. Indeed, I have arrived to race on days when I was confident it would be cancelled, only to find that the race was going ahead.

The swim takes swimmers out beyond the eastern headland of the bay to where there is a spectacular view down the coastal cliffs to the east. The sea is never still at the far turn buoys, even if from shore it appears to be so. Sometimes the swell is sufficiently large that even with a field of a couple of hundred swimmers, not one of them can be seen by an individual swimmer when in the troughs. I have experienced breaking waves out the back, and strong currents taking me seaward past the eastern headland. I would not contemplate such a swim without the Port Campbell SLSC members on paddle boards, skis and in rubber ducks patrolling the swimming field to ensure safety. It is a wonderful privilege to be 600m or so offshore, swimming in such a place. I was so enthralled and rapt with the wild beauty of this place, that last year, my 11th Port Campbell ocean race, I abandoned the notion of racing, and just cruised around the course with my GoPro camera taking photos and chatting to lifesavers along the way, all of whom laughingly endorsed my decision to tour rather than race. The photos and story of that swim are on this blog in the post, ‘Port Campbell Ocean Swim February 2019’, published February 3 2019.

There is a wonderful small community vibe to this swim. The swim is very well organised and safety is clearly paramount, but the administration and organisation aspects are refreshingly relaxed. The field is generally around 200 strong, so there is no rush, or press or pressure associated with the race. The start and finish lines are friendly places.

So of course, I lined up on Sunday 2 February 2020 for my 12th ocean swim at Port Campbell. I’ve always liked supporting this club and its community, given its history and tradition of selfless support to those in trouble in the sea. I knew it would be business as usual and that on race day, while nothing would be said, the absence of two volunteer members and stalwarts of the club would be deeply felt. In a strange way, it felt like a privilege to swim in their bay on their watch.

The scene upon arrival in Port Campbell. I had 6 mates doing the swim with me. It looks glassy. It’s an illusion. Certainly great conditions for the swim, but not glassy and calm like it appears to be. The wind backed around not long after this photo was taken and the conditions progressively got a little rougher out the back as the morning progressed. When I rounded the outer buoys around 11:15 there were currents, swell, a bit of chop and deep clear green water offering glimpses of the luxuriant underwater plant life that flourishes on the underwater reef and rock formations.
The white buoys are course lines. Keep all buoys on your left. The two outer buoys are taller and orange. Most buoys were not visible most of the time. I had to choose a navigation point a bit higher to aim for, such as a cliff, a building on the shore, trees, a cloud etc.
A rubber duck on the left being checked before the race. The briefing was conducted using the white board on the right. There was excitement in the air as swimmers progressively appeared in wetsuits and stood around talking tactics and conditions. But as you can see, there was an absence of crowds. By way of contrast, the annual Pier to Pub 1200m ocean swim at Lorne attracts 5000 swimmers and over 20,000 spectators.
L to R: Mike, Liz, Andrew and Hamish. These three boys arrived from Melbourne on motorbikes.
The start of the 1200m race. I’m on the far right in the front row, in a black wetsuit.
That’s me in the shallows having just stood up when it was no longer deep enough to do any sort of stroke. I always swim right into the shallows, because swimming through knee-deep or waist deep water is much faster than wading or trying to run through it. Not that it really matters. On this day I placed 178 in a field of 207 overall, and 33 in a field of 42 in the 60+ ‘super veteran’ category. There were 29 swimmers behind me. I chose to focus on them in assessing my performance, rather than the speedy youngsters who didn’t pause en route to enjoy the scenery. My average pace for the swim was 2:03/100m ( 20:30 per kilometre, or 2.993 kph).
Feigning running ability up to the finish line, where with a clock and a pen and paper, my time was recorded by a race official – old school, but it works.
My nephew Andrew. In 2014 he couldn’t swim at all, and he entered the Pier to Pub 1200m swim at Lorne. He came to me for clues on developing some sort of swimming stroke in the 8 weeks before the race. He did it, and has been steadily improving his stroke ever since. He is tall and fit, two good qualities for an ocean swimmer.
Son in law Hamish and nephew Andrew. Hamish grew up in the country, and his early efforts at ocean swimming after he met my daughter were ‘interesting’. He too has improved since and is well on the way to developing a good stroke. Hamish keeps himself running-fit, which is useful for his ocean swimming.
The 2020 Port Campbell crew. L to R: Mike, Al, me, Andrew, Hamish, Hunto and Kerr. The range of swimming times was between 22 and 32 minutes. Everyone did well and enjoyed the swim.
Liz’s Anzac biscuits are the stuff of legends. I rationed them carefully, as ravenous ocean swimmers can quickly account for all Anzacs within reach. Andrew is shown savouring his Anzac after the swim. The T shirt design this year was approved by all.

But I have the collectors’ item when it comes to Port Campbell ocean swim T shirts!

Post-swim awards. Before the earned prizes are handed out, there is always a raffle of spot prizes for competitors whose names are pulled out of a hat. Two years ago I won a pair of goggles. I was ambling across to the raffle area before it commenced, mainly because our lunch booking time was still 10 minutes off. Then the first name I heard over the PA was ‘John Longmead, number 517’. Knowing that you have to be present to collect, I shouted a triumphant response, and started jogging to collect my prize. I was not being heard. My name and number were repeated, and my louder perhaps slightly more desperate response was also repeated. Then I heard the words that the first raffle prize winner, not being present, would forfeit and another name would be drawn. I changed down a gear and flicked the sport mode switch (spent as my legs were from running the 20m up the beach to the finish line in the swim) and sprinted through the crowd, right arm extended, just in time to avoid the completion of the re-draw.
My unearned spot prize in the post-swim raffle. Given the $35 entry fee (online only), I probably broke about even.
A delightful lunch at ‘Forage on the Foreshore’ for our party of eight. This cafe is directly opposite the beach we just swam from. Sam and Laura have been here for a few years now. The standard was high from the start. I have visited here more than a few times over the years on my motorbike, and have always been very grateful for the strong coffee and half-brick size piece of fresh hedgehog. I also always enjoy the friendly service. Sam and Laura do a great job. I heartily recommend their French toast.
L to R: the motorbikes ridden from Melbourne to the swim by Mike, Hamish and Andrew. Hamish’s bike was a hired BMW 750 GS. Its engine blew up on the return trip, near Mait’s Rest about 17kms west of Apollo Bay. It was a standard engine blow up, not involving the rear wheel locking up (which potentially could’ve been disastrous). Hamish returned to Melbourne a little later than planned that evening, riding pillion on Mike’s Triumph Tiger. Retrieval and transport logistics were handled well. All in a day’s outing.
By the time we had finished lunch, the bay at Port Campbell had returned to its natural state. There was barely a person in sight. The headlands, the colours, the sky, the SLSC flag, the clean sand – an iconic Australian beach scene.
The club house of the Port Campbell surf life saving club overlooking the beach and bay.
Port Campbell bay. A beautiful place. The race left no trace it had occurred.

The memorable and never repeated Boat Bay swim at the Bay of Islands on 14 March 2015

The organisers of the Shipwreck Coast Swim Series (the SLSCs of Port Campbell, Warrnambool and Port Fairy) in early 2015 announced the ‘inaugural Bay of Islands swim’, to be held in Boat Bay. This bay is part of the beautiful but lesser know Bay of Islands, west of Port Campbell and the Twelve Apostles. I signed up in a flash, recognising this as a wonderful opportunity to do a decent swim offshore in the waters of this wild coast. The swim was never advertised as a race, and indeed was explained as an organised swim in a beautiful place with some safety backup. What a great idea.

The use of the word ‘inaugural’ in the advertising, caused me to believe the event would be repeated. Unfortunately, it never was. It remains a wonderful memory, all the more so for it having been a one-off. I persuaded good friends Susan, Mike and Richard to join me for this swim. It was always known it would be weather dependent.

This pretty much sums up the swimming issues at Boat Bay. It fails to mention sharks, but their presence is well known and taken for granted. I am aware that others have dived and snorkelled here. But I don’t know of any who have done a swim such as we did.

The link to this video clip (7:50) of the Boat Bay swim is included with the kind permission of Wendy Couch. It captures something of the beauty of the location and the magic of the swim.

https://vimeo.com/user27560798wendycouch

What about a swim out from Loch Ard Gorge, around Mutton Bird Island and back?

I have only heard this unofficially, but it is said that the Boat Bay swim was not repeated because regular fishermen at Boat Bay complained about being denied use of the boat ramp for those couple of hours in 2015 when the swimmers were there.

Prior to learning that the swim was not to be repeated, there was talk was of the 2016 swim being at Loch Ard Gorge, out the entrance, around Mutton Bird Island, and back to the beach. That would be about a 2km swim. The Boat Bay swim was around 1500m. I was most excited about the prospect of the Loch Ard swim – again very condition dependent – but on the right day, what a thrill it would be to do that swim. There is said to be a lot of marine life around Mutton Bird Island, and of course, the remains of the wreck of the Loch Ard.

Loch Ard Gorge

View to the south through the narrow entrance to Loch Ard Gorge

7 thoughts on “Two ocean swims west of Cape Otway

  1. Thank you John, its lovely to remember such a beautiful day and delightful swim . I remember relishing every view under and over the water. always on the ready to be plucked out of the water by one of the numerous people guarding us in the many IRB’s. IT was so enjoyable not being a race, we had time to relish and enjoy our surroundings and swimming companions.see you swimming soon………SSS

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hope that another such swim can be organised at some point Susan; if not at Loch Ard Gorge, then at Boat Bay again.

      It looks as though the weather and sea conditions will be favourable for the AB team of 6 to do the swim across the Rip tomorrow.

      SSS

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  2. John, you’ve elegantly rendered these swims for posterity. Having not joined you for the Boat Bay swim, you’ve colorfully brought it into our consciousness. Pity those fishermen didn’t get the message about sharing in kindergarten. Yes, a swim around Mutton Bird Island would be idyllic.

    Hunto

    Liked by 1 person

    1. One of the problems with the organisation of a swim around Mutton Bird Island is that the safety IRBs could not be launched from Loch Ard gorge. They’d have to launch at Port Campbell. This would necessitate a calm day for the enjoyment and safety of swimmers as well as boat crew. Such conditions do occur in the area, but they are not the norm. Autumn would offer the best window. While kayaks and paddle boards could be launched from the beach in Loch Ard gorge (after being carried down quite a few stairs), leaving swimmer safety to such craft without the backup of rubber ducks would not be wise. But another Boat Bay swim would not have this problem….

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  3. Oh what incredible experiences. I was taken out there with you in the race, and could imagine swimming and trying to find the white buoys, or any head to ensure I was heading where I was meant to be. Not sure about using a cloud for a point of reference yet if that is all there is or you can see, you have to. I have swam with dolphins in NZ outside of the bay entrance into Akoroa. In deep sea it was amazing but I was concerned with what might be under neath me.
    I loved swimming when I was young and wish I was fit as this sounds incredible. How many kms do you end up swimming?
    I am glad you had the opportunity to swim in the inaugural and only swim at the Boat Bay Swim. Wonderful post thank You I really enjoyed your sharing

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your comments Tazzie. Your swim in NZ with the dolphins sounds memorable. Clouds certainly do have their limitations when it comes to navigating as an open water swimmer, but there are some circumstances where they can be useful (especially high level clouds which hold their relative position longer than low clouds), even if only fleetingly. On the Pt Campbell swim, I ended up swimming 1347m. If your question was more general, the answer is that I swim around 300-350kms a year. When training for some longer ocean swims in recent years my monthly tally just before those swims got up to 50kms. If you live near the sea in Tassie, there might well be a bay near you where people meet regularly to swim in the ocean (such swims almost always involve coffee and conversation afterwards). I am confident you will find anything between a quick dip in the cold ocean and swimming longer distances in it most uplifting. This reward is instantly available. As for fitness, that will happen automatically if you swim regularly. I am 70, and quite a few of the friends I swim with in the ocean all year round are in their 60s. There has been no talk of anyone easing up or quitting ocean swimming! I gave a lift to Lorne to an 80 year old for the Pier to Pub 1200m ocean swim in January. He swam it faster than I did (but I still gave him a lift home).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank You John for answering and both are welcome. Thanks also for the information.
        I am also delighted to know you are not bitter towards the gentleman who beat you!.

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