At play on the bay

“How good is this mate?” beamed crewmate and Club Marine advertising man, Pete Rhodes as we surveyed the scene before us.

At the time, we were enthroned on a pair of comfortable perches at the helm of a Chaparral 330 Cruiser headed south on a lap of Melbourne’s Port Phillip Bay. Our mission was to explore the body of water that separates the city of Melbourne from Bass Strait and report our findings for others who might wish to follow in our wake.

As it turned out, our timing was perfect. Mid-Autumn Melbourne is, perhaps, the best time of year to explore all that the Bay has to offer from a boating perspective. It is generally the mildest period weather-wise, with temperatures in the mid to high 20s and winds tend to be at their kindest.

Making our mission even more appealing was the craft on which we were currently cruising. A large American cruiser with all the mod cons supplied by Aussie Boat Sales, at historic Williamstown near the mouth of the Yarra River, the Chaparral pampered and protected us throughout our two-and-a-half day expedition (see review elsewhere).

it is one of the world's greatest boating-friendly waterways.
Still-life and wildlife – Port Phillip Bay offers a wealth of attractions for adventurous boaties.
Still-life and wildlife – Port Phillip Bay offers a wealth of attractions for adventurous boaties.

Created around 10,000 years ago, when the ocean invaded low-lying areas of Victoria at the end of the last big glacial period, Port Phillip Bay is, without doubt, one of the jewels in the crown of the great Australian marine lifestyle. Boasting a coastline of more than 260km, a total area of almost 2000sq km and a body of water 35 times greater than Sydney Harbour, it offers almost complete protection from harsher ocean influences courtesy of the narrow entrance at the Heads at its southern end. While conditions can sometimes get a bit ‘lumpy’ due to the short, sharp chop that can develop in strong winds, the Bay is a comparatively benign and safe area for saltwater boating pursuits.

And even if caught out by bad weather, there are many shelters and safe harbours that boaties can retreat to.

That is why, on any given day – and especially in the warmer months – the Bay lures boaties of all persuasions, from small tinnies to larger power craft and yachts. And for anglers, the Bay is becoming more and more productive each year as the effects of past forms of environmental vandalism, such as scallop dredging, fade into history.

Personally, I have enjoyed the Bay on all manner of craft and can vouch for the fact that it is one of the world’s greatest boating-friendly waterways.

Having said that, it also needs to be noted that it encompasses a wide variety of features and characteristics that boat users need to be aware of if they are going to make the most of the Bay in terms of safety and comfort. In this regard, when venturing out, boaties need to make themselves aware of water depths and occasional channel and hazard markers and other structures that are scattered around the Bay.

The Bay is a relatively shallow body of water. Shaped roughly like a large, flat bowl, it doesn’t get much deeper than 19-20 metres for the most part, except around the Heads. In fact, large areas, particularly around the southern and western shores, can be very shallow for normal boating. There are also a number of aquaculture sites that skippers need to keep an eye out for, some of them not as well marked as they could be. If you’re new to the Bay or visiting from interstate, it’s best to consult the locals and grab one or more of the excellent publications that are available for safe Bay navigation.

Top: Seascape meets cityscape at Marina YE in Docklands. Above: The Yarra River offers boating access to the heart of Melbourne.
Top: Seascape meets cityscape at Marina YE in Docklands.
Above: The Yarra River offers boating access to the heart of Melbourne.

Our expedition began at Aussie Boat Sales at The Anchorage Marina, where boss, Scott O’Hare introduced us to the Chaparral 330. Our plan was to begin with a slow cruise up the nearby Yarra River to check out the marinas and other attractions that now lure boaties to the doorstep of the city. On the way, we took advantage of the 24hr refuelling service at Pier 35 on the Yarra, between the Westgate and Bolte bridges.

Our hosts for this first evening were the friendly folks at Marina YE on the southern side of the Docklands precinct. Allan and Ronetta Cayzer are highly experienced marina managers and made us feel particularly welcome as we arrived at their modern facility just on dusk.

Marina YE is located as far up-river as most boats can reach, due to bridge height restrictions, and offers a range of short-term visitor services. It welcomes overnight or weekend visitors and for a fee of $50 a night, visitors can berth their boats securely and use bathroom and laundry facilities. There is a licensed supermarket and many dining options within an easy walk and I can personally vouch for the quality of the menu and service on offer at the Kinya Japanese restaurant overlooking the marina. There is something special about enjoying fine food and wine within view of your boat in the middle of a city of more than five million people.

The bright lights and sometimes curious sights of Crown Casino are a five-minute walk away and there is easy pedestrian access to the city and Etihad Stadium for the sporting crowd.

Docklands by water

Often called ‘a work in progress’, Melbourne’s Docklands precinct is the product of the biggest urban renewal program in Australian history, which started in 2000. And since the beginning, the developers placed a strong emphasis on public art, with mixed results.

Over 30 works of art are on display in the Docklands area, which range from the ridiculous to the sublime. For the sublime, there is the six metre-high, latticed hooped sculpture, Webb Bridge, which you will see as soon as you dock at Marina YE on the Yarra’s south shore. Already considered a landmark for the Docklands and Melbourne, the snaky steel bridge is based on an Aboriginal eel trap, and is fast-becoming one of the most photographed structures in the city.

For ridiculous, you can’t beat John Kelly’s ‘Cow up A Tree’. Located on the Harbour Esplanade on the north side of the Yarra, across the street from Etihad Stadium, the eight-metre high sculpture is just what it says it is: it’s a cow. In a tree.

After you’re done scratching your head over the cow, it’s a short walk to the Fox Classic Car Collection housed in the Queen’s Warehouse on the corner of Collins Street and Batman’s Hill Drive. The $15-million collection includes more than 50 prestige vehicles collected by trucking businessman Lindsay Fox. It’s open Tuesdays only and entry is $10 for adults, $5 for children.

Berthing overnight at the Docklands is a great way to take in the best the city of Melbourne has to offer, all in one location. The Docklands has an enormous array of restaurants, offering everything from the outstanding pub fare of the James Squire Brewhouse to the amazing BlueFire Brazilian Churrascaria Grill (‘Meat and seafood carved at your table until you say “no more”!’)

Further afield is the Crown Entertainment Complex. Located on the south bank of the Yarra River, Crown is one of the largest gaming facilities in the southern hemisphere. It has 11 bars, 25 restaurants and music venues showcasing performers from around the world.

From the north side of Docklands, getting to Crown is much harder than it looks. Trying to walk there is a bad idea. Your best bet is to catch a $10-taxi ride from the taxi bay on the corner of Collins Street and Navigation Drive. Otherwise, it’s a short stroll from Marine Ye.

Summing up, Docklands has plenty on offer, and one of its best features is that it can all be accessed from the water.

Docklands by water

For those visiting by water, there are alternative berthing options on the northern side of the river at Waterfront City and adjacent areas.

Our overnight stay highlighted the fact that, with the advent of the Docklands development in recent years, the Yarra is now much more of a boating destination in its own right and offers many attractions for anyone wanting to experience the city from the comfort and convenience of a boat.

Portarlington
Portarlington

As Melbourne began to stir the following morning, we stowed the lines and gently eased our way downstream, our intention being to head for Victoria’s ‘second city’, Geelong, hopefully in time for lunch.

a welcoming, dynamic and vibrant destination

Once clear of the Yarra, the big Chaparral eased onto the plane as we opened the throttles and headed out of Hobsons Bay and south-west. We were blessed with a near-windless day and skirted the narrow waters of the western side of the Bay for our first leg to Geelong. The coastline for much of this stretch offers little in the way of landfalls, although the announcement of the Wyndham Harbour residential marina development near Point Cook should give boaties a reason to pay more attention to this region of the Bay in the near future. Otherwise, we stayed well clear of the shoreline and kept an eye out for aquaculture zones and restricted areas.

Moored at Geelong.
Moored at Geelong.

It’s worth keeping in mind that the small bayside hamlet of Portarlington, on the north-eastern corner of the Bellarine Peninsular, is worth a visit either going into, or when departing Geelong. It has a pier that can accommodate a handful of boats and attractions include the historic Grand Hotel as well as a couple of restaurants and bars. There is also the option of a lazy picnic on the picturesque foreshore. It pays to stick to the channel markers on the approach though, as larger craft can get caught out.

Given that the outer approaches to Corio Bay can also be a little tricky depth-wise, especially at low tide, we chose to stay within the Hopetoun Channel markers for our approach and eventually the city of Geelong hove into view around three hours after our departure from Docklands. Over the last decade or so, the Geelong waterfront has undergone a major transformation from the somewhat dour visage it used to present to those approaching by sea. It is now a welcoming, dynamic and vibrant destination for boaties and offers a range of options for those looking for an overnight berth or fine dining.

Discovering Geelong

Geelong is the second largest city in the state of Victoria. Heavily industrialised on the north side, the southern side, near Barwon River and the foreshore is more picturesque. Especially attractive is the waterfront area called Eastern Beach. Visitors can stroll along the promenade and take in the public art, restaurants and cafes that have been drawing crowds for over 70 years.

Probably one of the most iconic structures in Geelong is the Carousel Pavillion on the Quay at Waterfront Geelong. Inside is the magnificent fully-restored Armitage-Herschell antique carousel. Built in 1892, it is one of only 200 carousels in operation around the world. Entry is free, but a ride cost $3.40 for children and $3.90 for adults.

A short walk inland will bring you to the Scottish Chiefs Tavern Brewery (99 Corio St). Established in 1848, it’s the oldest working brewery in Australia. Relax in the beer garden, surrounded by the historic blue stone walls and try ‘Chief’s big burger’ accompanied by the Beacon Pale Ale, one of the many good beers brewed on-site.

Geelong caters for all boating tastes.
Geelong caters for all boating tastes.

We chose to nudge into the small visitor’s berth at the Royal Geelong Yacht Club, host to the huge annual Audi Victoria Week regatta, since we were only intending staying long enough for lunch and a quick tour of the foreshore. For those with a bit more time on their hands, there is plenty to keep them occupied, with an antique enclosed carousel, restored sea baths, Cunningham Pier, a range of eating options, quality hotels and plenty of public art sprinkled around the area.

Queenscliff’s new marina offers plenty of facilities for visiting boaties.
Queenscliff’s new marina offers plenty of facilities for visiting boaties.

Retracing our footsteps, we were soon cruising east out of Corio Bay and along the northern shore of the Bellarine Peninsula – a worthy destination in its own right either by land or sea.

With the sky darkening at the same rate as the wind strength and wave height increased, it soon became apparent that the last part of our voyage would be a bit uncomfortable. Fortunately, the Chaparral rode out the majority of the freshening westerly, which we were forced to take abeam for the second part of our run south into Queenscliff harbour near the mouth of the Bay. This can be a tricky bit of water at the best of times, with enough shallow water and roaming shoals to keep any skipper busy. The best bet here is to keep your wits about you and stay well within the main West Channel markers, which we did as we headed for the approach to Queenscliff.

History on show at Queenscliff

One of the most picturesque and historic towns in Australia, Queenscliff offers a rare mix of sophisticated cafes and restaurants alongside fishermen’s cottages and traditional pubs.

With its tiled floors and marble columns, the 120-year old Vue Grand Hotel has an intimidating facade. But if you tuck in your shirt long enough to walk through the opulent Grand Dining Room to the hotel’s rooftop bar, you’ll be rewarded with a relaxed, easy-going pub that offers one of the best views on Port Phillip Bay.

Another bastion of old-world charm is the Queenscliff Hotel. While it, too, flaunts its Victorian splendour, the Queenscliff also lets its hair down a bit with its tranquil courtyard restaurant and reasonably-priced a la cart bistro menu.

Not far from the centre of town, at the top of Shortlands Bluff, stands Fort Queenscliff, proudly protecting the commercial shipping lanes to Melbourne and Geelong since 1860. The fort is open for guided tours weekdays from 1 to 3:00pm. Visitors will need some form of ID to take part in the tour. Cost: $10 for adults, $5 for kids.

A moped is a great way to take in a bit more of the peninsula, and Geelong and Ballarine Mopeds offers them for $50 a day. To get a bike, all you need is a standard driver’s licence and a credit card. The mopeds come with a full tank, and can be delivered directly to you at the marina and picked up at the end of the day at no extra charge. Ring Allan on 0409 234 300 for info.

A five-minute moped ride down the coast will take you to the Point Lonsdale Lighthouse, at the end of Point Lonsdale Rd. Built in 1902, the majestic white lighthouse is poised on a small bluff, overlooking the entrance to Port Phillip Bay. You can walk along the bluff any time, but the lighthouse is open to the public Sundays only, from 9:30am to 1:00pm.

The township is a showcase of old world charm.
The township is a showcase of old world charm.

Within sight of the Heads, the historic burg of Queenscliff has recently become a magnet for Melbourne boaties and especially yachties, with the completion of the Queenscliff Harbour marina development. The expanded harbour now offers 280 fully serviced wet berths and is set up to welcome visiting boaties with open arms. For $50 per night, visitors have the peace of mind of a secure berth, plus bathroom and laundry facilities. The just-completed marina boasts comprehensive boatyard servicing facilities, including a giant 150-tonne travellift, dry stacker boat storage and 24-hour refuelling. It also has a range of dining options right on the marina, and more available a short stroll up the road in the township. Speaking of which, Queenscliff oozes history from every sandstone brick and it is well worth setting aside the time to soak up the old world ambience of its shops and public buildings.

Point Nepean on the eastern side of the Heads.
Point Nepean on the eastern side of the Heads.

Boaties new to this part of the Bay should keep a lookout for the Queenscliff/Sorrento ferries, which run regularly between the two bayside towns. When approaching the marina itself, you also need to be careful entering The Cut – the narrow entrance channel to the marina. The current can run up to four knots or more, so you need to keep your wits about you as you negotiate your way into the marina.

There are literally hundreds of destinations and activities to keep the most jaded boating family occupied

After dinner at the nearby Esplanade Hotel, we spent a very convivial night aboard watching a spectacular lightning show, which conveniently took place within sight of us, but far enough away to leave us otherwise unaffected.

Popes Eye is a popular spot in the summer.
Top: Popes Eye is a popular spot in the summer.
Middle left: Size does matter … boaties need to keep a sharp eye out for ships at all times.
Above: The South Channel Fort’s decaying gun emplacements provide entertainment for young and
not-so-young boaties.

The next day would require an early start as we had much ground to cover and points of interest to ponder, so after topping up the tanks we were soon clear of the marina and decided to take a look at the Heads before we continued our exploration of the Bay. Actually, the Heads were surprisingly calm as we motored out, so I thought we’d take a peek into Bass Strait, just for the record.

Top: Historic Sorrento has been a haven for boaties since European settlement. Above: The view from the popular Portsea Hotel.
Top: Historic Sorrento has been a haven for boaties since European settlement.
Above: The view from the popular Portsea Hotel.

The Heads, or The Rip as the Bay entrance is also known, is an interesting and, at times, intimidating stretch of water. With Point Lonsdale on its western tip and rocky Point Nepean opposite, it is the only entrance to Port Phillip Bay and as such can get a little busy from time to time. As Australia’s busiest port, Melbourne attracts a lot of shipping, all of which must traverse the Heads.

You don’t need a boat to enjoy fishing on the Bay.
You don’t need a boat to enjoy fishing on the Bay.

At just on two kilometres in width, with a constricted channel for heavy shipping, it’s a place where skippers really needs to know what’s going on around them. Various combinations of wind and tide can also aggravate the situation and conditions can change pretty quickly. Over the years, the Heads have claimed a host of recreational and commercial vessels, so if in doubt, simply don’t go out.

It’s also worth noting that both sides of the Heads are now designated Marine National Parks, so anglers need to be careful where they drop a line.

The southern end of Port Phillip Bay, encompassing the Mornington Peninsula, has been described as ‘Melbourne’s Riviera’ and teems with watercraft of all varieties during the summer months. It’s easy to see why, too. There are literally hundreds of destinations and activities to keep the most jaded boating family occupied. Whether you’re into diving, fishing, wildlife watching, getting some air on a PWC, exploring or just lazing on the sundeck, there is an option for pretty much every boating preference.

Meandering Mornington

The Mornington Peninsula is known as Melbourne’s southern holiday playground, but in reality attracts visitors year-round to explore the Bay and ocean coastlines, and the many land-based attractions.

The Point Nepean National Park is a major tourist attraction, featuring great views of the Heads and many old military sites and gun emplacements, as well as the Quarantine Station, which was the first port of call for many early migrants.

Nearby is the small village of Portsea, featuring the Portsea Hotel overlooking the southern reaches of the Bay, while historic Sorrento lures tourists with its authentic sandstone architecture harking back to its origins as one of Melbourne’s first settlements.

For one of the most spectacular views anywhere in Australia, the top of the 340-metre peak, Arthurs Seat is a must for all visitors. It overlooks the Bay, with views all the way up to Melbourne and out over the peninsula and Bass Strait.

Since the early ‘70s, the popularity of the Mornington wine region has grown considerably. Today, there are more than 200 wineries on the Peninsula, and over 40 cellar doors. To do the region justice, the best bet is to contact one of the 26 wine tour companies in the region. The Mornington Peninsula Vignerons Association, which represents the winemakers in the area, is a great place to go for an unbiased list of tour operators. Phone: 03 5989 2377, or visit the website at www.mpva.com.au.

The Mornington Peninsula is rapidly becoming known for some of the world’s best natural golf terrain, with gently rolling sand-hills creating perfect contours and fast-draining sandy soils providing excellent year-round golf. There are a total of 18 golf courses around the Peninsula that range from nine holes in a very relaxed country atmosphere to public courses and clubhouses and resorts that are equal to the best private clubs.

The town of Mornington is the gateway to the peninsula and boasts a small harbour and marina with a limited number of moorings available to visitors. The best bet is to call ahead to the Mornington Yacht Club (03 5975 7001). There are also some sheltered anchorage points inside the harbour, but visitors should check forecasts as the harbour is exposed to northerly winds.

There are also many great restaurants and pubs around the town and Mornington boasts the longest-running street market in Victorian, which opens every Wednesday, from 9:00am to 1:00pm.

One of my favourite places is Portsea, which beckons boaties with a small, scenic bay and jetty overlooked by the well-known and patronised Portsea Hotel. For waterborne visitors, you can either find a spare spot to tie up on the jetty, or drop anchor off the beach and paddle into shore. Lunch or dinner at the hotel is a relaxing way to survey the surroundings and appreciate the Portsea boating lifestyle.

For those wanting to explore the water-based attractions, especially if you’ve got junior crew aboard, a spot of snorkelling at Popes Eye is worth considering, as is a visit to the small seal colony at Chinaman’s Hat. The South Channel Fort is also a must-see for the kids, containing the remnants of gun emplacements and offering plenty of exploring possibilities.

Speaking of kids, if you’ve got some on board, the southern part of the Bay is where they are most likely to spot dolphins, with several pods calling the area home.

Visiting boaties wanting to spend a few days in the area also have the option of paying a visit to the Blairgowrie Yacht Squadron and marina, which offers visitor berthing and limited bathroom and laundry facilities. The local shops are an easy stroll away and the marina is a good central base for boating activities throughout the southern part of the Bay.

Top: The Mornington Pier and yacht club is a haven for boaties and tourists. Above: The colonial era HMVS Cerberus continues to maintain watch over Melbourne’s waterways.
Top: The Mornington Pier and yacht club is a haven for boaties and tourists.
Above: The colonial era HMVS Cerberus continues to maintain watch over Melbourne’s waterways.

Also, it needs to be kept in mind that the large expanse of coastline from Sorrento all the way around to Martha Cove is particularly welcoming for owners of smaller craft, who may just want to park up on the sand or throw the pick out and wade ashore.

Our second day on the Bay was blessed with brilliant high-20Cs weather and calm seas, so we used the opportunity to skirt the Mornington Peninsula bayside coastline, dropping in at one or two points along the way, including the marina-based Martha Cove development, which has had a somewhat troubled history, with sales of land and house packages not living up to the developer’s initial expectations.

The marina itself is a modern and attractive facility, but it lacks any visitor services. Overnighting is possible, but you’d want to byo everything as there are absolutely no restaurant or other facilities on offer. Plenty of waterfront real estate is available, though …

As we departed the development, we swept around Martha Point and began our homeward northern run back to Melbourne on the eastern side of the Bay. As noted earlier, there are a few aquaculture sites around the Bay, including a couple north of here that boaties need to be wary of. Best bet is to keep one eye on the chart and the other on the water as some of them aren’t that easy to spot, even in good weather.

We were headed for Mornington for our next stopover, which happily coincided perfectly with lunchtime. Home to the Mornington Pier and Mornington Yacht Club, the harbour has limited berthing facilities, but we were able to nudge into the small jetty in front of the yacht club for a brief stopover.

With the promised Frankston boat harbour yet to materialise after more than 20 years of discussion and endless reports, the next point of interest for owners of larger craft is Beaumaris Bay, around 25km directly north from Mornington. In between is a large sandy stretch of coastline encompassing many bayside beaches that attracts a large part of the Melbourne population during the warmer months.

Beaumaris Bay offers refuge from northerly winds, which can turn the Bay into a mess at times, and it is increasingly being used as a temporary anchorage for larger craft overnighting.

The top third of the eastern side of the Bay from here on up is home to quite a few yacht clubs and marinas and also provides good fishing opportunities, with many reefs close in to shore. Some of the marinas have good access for short-term visitors and the Sandringham Yacht Club’s recently-completed impressive new clubhouse is well worth checking out, especially if you’re in time for lunch or dinner at the Harbour View restaurant.

For history buffs, there is also the wreck of the colonial era HMVS Cerberus at Black Rock, the first warship of what would eventually become the Australian Navy. Well worth a visit, although these days boaties are not encouraged to venture too close and climbing aboard is prohibited – not that you’d think so judging by the number of youngsters who use it for a diving platform in the summer.

Speaking of which, the warmer months mean that a lot more craft of all sizes and types are on the water, particularly in the northern part of the Bay, so skippers need to keep their eyes peeled when on the move.

For visitors, particularly if you happen to have a trailer boat, you need to be aware that many of the boat ramps spread around the Bay, particularly those closest to the city, can be very busy at times, with parking overflowing onto surrounding roads. Best to get there early if you want to avoid long delays and possible aggravation.

We ended our circumnavigation of the Bay back at The Anchorage, having spent the past two and a half days barely scraping the surface of what is surely one of the world’s most boat-friendly stretches of water.

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