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