The main beach at Apollo Bay faces east and is completely exposed to the wind waves and rough seas brought by easterly and south-easterly winds. The waves erode the beach and dunes up to and sometimes above the high water mark and the wind moves huge amounts of sand. Once the wind gets above around 25 knots the bay becomes a potentially dangerous place for swimmers, entirely unattractive to surfers and a magnet for kite surfers who revel in the 25-30 knot winds.
In strong easterly conditions there is a lot of water moving around creating rips and side sweeps and general movement of water in often unpredictable directions. An ocean swimmer could stay afloat and swim in these conditions but would most likely encounter currents quite different to those normally experienced in the bay which could make it very difficult or impossible to return to shore before becoming exhausted or hypothermic.
So far this week at Apollo Bay the wind has been blowing non-stop day and night from the east at 25-30 knots, gusting higher at times. Monday had some sunny breaks, but on Tuesday we only saw cloud and cold winds. The forecast is for the winds to moderate and stay from the east or south-east until at least the end of the week.
Any water person in the area shown the photos below without being told anything about when they were taken could immediately identify the conditions as easterly. They are very distinctive compared to the conditions when the wind is from anywhere between the NW around through W to S.
I live in Apollo Bay and start most days with an ocean swim. I don’t swim in the open bay in strong easterly conditions, but fortunately the local harbour provides protected waters which are an ideal plan B. These photos capture something of the easterly sea conditions, as well as the contrasting harbour waters in which I have continued my daily swims during the otherwise unswimmable easterly conditions so far this week.
First day of easterlies
Day two of the easterlies
Harbour swim on day three of the easterlies
The easterly by day three had eased a little and was closer to 20 than 30 knots. The open seas were still white and rough. The inviting glassy clear water inside the harbour was the spot to swim today. Eight of us swam in the harbour this morning instead of the usual locations of Apollo Bay (and sometimes Marengo). Of course, warming up over coffee and a chat followed.
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
Only a handful of people will ever see these coastal landforms, even though they are right beside the famous and busy Great Ocean Road. They were created out of sand dunes by a very high tide and a wind from the west. The next high tide, strong onshore wind or solid rainfall will see them disappear.
These sand cliffs and other forms were produced by the usual agents of wind, sand and water, but on a remarkably compressed timescale, geologically speaking. At sunset yesterday, the Mounts Bay (or Marengo Beach) sand dunes had a uniformly flat surface, indistinguishable from the dry sand on the beach save for the angle. A high tide overnight combined with a solid swell and the wind blowing over the dunes from the west saw these coastal geomorphic forms appearing not in millennia, but in hours. The same processes will remove them in days. The net result will be sand removed from the dunes and washed out to sea. These intricately sculpted sand forms are sadly evidence of the serious problem of coastal erosion which is affecting many parts of the Great Ocean Road.
These dunes are under significant threat from ocean waves and tides. In an attempt to halt the advance of the erosion, they are replenished regularly with sand from further up the beach by local authorities which surprisingly are yet to come up with an effective and permanent solution to the continuing erosion at this location.
Your mind and eyes might hunt for scale when looking at these pictures, like a zoom lens on autofocus trying to lock on to something. There are sufficient clues in each photo to assist in this regard. Suffice to say, most of these features are on a much smaller scale than you might think at first glance.
The above photos were all taken with my back to this beach (known as Marengo Beach or Mounts Bay Beach), and they are all detailed closeups of the formations on the dune shown below in both directions. Some of these images were taken with a macro lens. This beach is a km or so south of Apollo Bay, on the south-east coast of Australia.
I stood on the shore of the Southern Ocean this morning under a blue sky with a cool wind on my back, squinting into the sun. Cold sea water was washing over my feet and a small swell was rolling in orderly lines across the bay. I was savouring these moments and didn’t want to rush them.
I waded through the shallows then swam over the sand bar at Tuxion and under a few green waves which briefly stood tall in the offshore wind before breaking. A friend I bumped into on my walk to the beach joined me for the first 500 metres. We found our green-water distance from the shore and headed south. The water was cool and clear. The swell lines gently lifted and lowered us, something I always enjoy. Then after a short chat while treading water out from the SLSC we went our separate ways.
Hamish took some drone footage from a point midway between the SLSC and the lookout from the beach as I swam out to sea a bit and then back. I then swam north back to Tuxion, the beach at the end of my street. This return leg was a little further seaward of the sandbar because the waves were now breaking further offshore as the tide went out.
The video below (which has no soundtrack) was edited by trimming it to 1’52”. There was no editing of any other aspect of it. The colours are as the drone camera recorded them. I have also posted 10 screenshots from the drone footage which capture a few features of the swim which I found enjoyable. In sharing this video and the screenshots I hope the reader gets some insight into the joy of an ocean swim.
At around 0:50 in the video, I have paused at my turn point to enjoy the scenery. A wave passed under me as I did so. I also spent a short time (not captured on the video) before heading back to shore just floating on my back in the swell while looking at the clouds and enjoying being effortlessly suspended by the ocean, weightless, between heaven and earth. Most of my ocean swims are out and back, and in company. A bit of a chat at the turn point is an established ritual. A longer chat over coffee after the swim is an even more established ritual. Conversations over coffee among those still warming up after an ocean swim are somehow livelier and more convivial than normal coffee chat. There is truth in the ocean swimmers’ aphorism that ‘you’re only one swim away from a good mood.’
What appears to be a large dark mass of fish swimming at great speed towards me and then under me as they are chased by a large shark not visible in the shot (at about 1:20 in the video) is simply the shadow of a small cumulus cloud sailing overhead in the brisk sou’westerly.
Drone footage courtesy of Hamish Christie.
Some readers will recognise the title of this post as coming from the poem ‘Sea Fever’, published by John Masefield, the English Poet Laureate, in 1902. The first two lines of the second stanza are:
“I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;”
When solid ocean swell hits the coast around Apollo Bay, the spectacle of waves of substance hitting the exposed reefs and beaches is not to be missed. This is so even with swell such as in these photos which is not in the large wave category. Little Henty Reef and Point Bunbury are two of my favourite vantage points for such swell events (as anybody who has had even a cursory glance at the posts on this blog will know). The early December 2019 swell shown in these photos was solid and in the moderate range by local standards. I have seen much larger swells breaking on this reef. (For example, see the post on this blog titled ‘Large Southern Ocean Swell Pounds Local Reefs’, published 1 November 2017).
I am a regular ocean swimmer. On days with swell like this, the southern end of the east facing main beach in Apollo Bay is quite swimmable. In fact it’s exhilarating to swim in the smaller swell (which should not be taken to necessarily mean small swell) which results after larger swell has lost some of its size and energy in the process of turning left through nearly 180° around a point to break on that beach. Big swells are usually accompanied by winds coming from between north west and south west. Winds from those directions blow offshore (from the land out to sea) at the main beach at Apollo Bay, which makes for clean and glassy waves which stand up as they near the shore for longer than they would without the offshore wind.
Having swum in the ocean for most of my life to date, I have experienced all sorts of sea conditions in many different locations. These experiences make it impossible for me to look at the ocean, whatever the conditions might be, without wondering what exactly is causing what I am seeing, and without imagining what it would be like for me to be out there in the middle of it all. Such ruminations usually end up with me conjuring up some delusional scenario in which I survive the troubled seas against all the odds, and make it ashore unaided and triumphant.
None of this is intended to give the impression that I actually want to be out there in wild seas where drowning would probably be a certainty, it’s just that I can’t resist imagining what it would be like and what I would do if out there. So please don’t read any of the observations in the captions below as actual plans, or as expressions of any desire to actually be in the water with these waves. But I certainly find them mesmerising to watch.
The ocean does not issue invitations or free passes and it grants immunity to nobody. For an ocean swimmer, knowing how to swim is probably less important than knowing when not to swim.
Little Henty Reef, Marengo
This reef is only a couple of hundred metres offshore at Marengo, just south of Apollo Bay. It forms part of the Marengo Reefs marine sanctuary. The reef has many elements to it, and it has quite irregular formations under the water which dictate how and when a wave passing over it will break. Waves seldom break in a uniform way here as they might at a beach with a flat sand or rock seabed near the shore.
The two photos following were taken a second or two apart.
Point Bunbury, Apollo Bay
The beach immediately south of Point Bunbury has a reef lining the shore. This reef is more uniform in its structure than the Little Henty reef. So waves tend to break in a more uniform manner at this location, except where there are irregularities in the reef and channels or a change in contour of the sandy seabed.
Two shot sequence of one wave – taken only a second or two apart.
Another two shot sequence of one wave, taken seconds apart.
These next two photos show two different waves breaking in about the same location just south of Pt Bunbury. There is a reef near the shore in the area near where they are breaking.
As we drove off the ferry at Devonport gales from the west were lashing the west coast of Tasmania with wild waves, snow and ice. We had experienced 5m swells and 45 knot winds on the trip across Bass Strait. All part of Tasmania in winter.
The low terrain on the lee side of the island meant that at least the roads in that area would be open. So it was that we drove off the ferry having abandoned our plan to start our tour of Tassie with a night at Cradle Mountain and headed east instead.
With visions of east coast beaches in our minds it came as a complete surprise while meandering across the north-east of the state to suddenly find ourselves surrounded by magnificent temperate rainforest, replete with myrtles, sassafras, giant tree ferns and moss and moisture on everything. To simply stand in such rainforest for more than a moment or two and to breathe in the silence and the moist plant-scented air is a feast for the senses and the spirit.
Bay of Fires Conservation Area
We drove up the dirt road which parallels the coastal dunes going north from Binalong, and turned down a rough track to our right which took us to the beach in the next photo. Our first glimpse of this beach as we walked clear of the scrub and low dunes was a breathtakingly beautiful sight; and it was mid-afternoon, not even sunrise or sunset. The sand was white and clean, the water was crystal clear, and the offshore wind made the inshore waters and small swell lines glassy. The orange patches visible on the granite boulders are lichen, a common feature on all beaches in the area. We were the only people there.
Dawn patrol at the Bay of Fires
Freycinet National Park (between Bicheno & Coles Bay)
Not far south from St Helens is the spectacular Freycinet National Park. Having spent some time in this area on a previous trip we planned to bypass it on our way south to Cockle Creek. But we couldn’t resist a diversion to call in at one of the long beaches in the northern part of the National Park.
August is usually the coldest month of the year in Apollo Bay. The forecast for last Friday was for an intense low pressure system and a couple of associated cold fronts to bring very strong and cold winds to the west coast, and indeed to the whole state. Winds in the 50-60 knot range were forecast. Snow was forecast down to low levels. A sizeable swell would be expected with such a weather pattern, and was forecast.
So it was that I forsook my Friday early-morning ocean swim and headed west for Pt Campbell with my camera, an hour before first light, to see what the southern ocean looked liked in such conditions. The recorded wind at Cape Otway (see right) at 0519 was 85kph (46 knots).
The red dot on the BoM rain radar screen shot is Apollo Bay. It’s on the protected side of Cape Otway and accordingly doesn’t feel the full force of weather and swell from the west and south west. In fact a westerly wind is directly offshore at Apollo Bay’s east-facing beach. Pt Campbell and the adjacent coast line on the other hand are ‘around the corner’ on the weather side of the cape, and take the full force of weather and swell from the west and south west.
It all looked very promising for being at the right spot at the right time, as far as big storms and big seas go.
The pre-dawn attempt at driving to Port Campbell to witness the storm and big seas
Plan B – an ocean swim at Apollo Bay
There was a strong offshore wind at Apollo Bay. There was certainly some swell, but it was much smaller than forecast. So, the pre-dawn photographic mission to Pt Campbell having been aborted and perhaps not a lot lost in terms of photographic opportunities, I settled for a solo swim in squally weather conditions at AB with my GoPro camera. What a contrast the offshore conditions at AB were to the wild white ocean at Castle Cove and points west.
Mid-July winter weather on the west coast of Victoria, Australia. Temperature range this day was 7°-12°C. Winds gusting to gale force. Wild seas west of Cape Otway. Air temp adjusted for wind chill in the early morning was +2°C. These strong onshore conditions continued unabated for a few days and brought heavy falls of snow to the Victorian Alps. The higher points of the Otways also received a light dusting of snow.
Bookends of a calmer day, a few days before the passage of the cold front.