Dodging Gales in Lower Spencer Gulf

(Better late than never, this blog post describes our December 2020 trip.)

Spencer Gulf is the biggest gulf on Australia’s southern coast: 173 nautical miles long and 42 nautical miles wide at its mouth. At the bottom of Eyre Peninsula, nestled within the wilderness of Lincoln National Park, lies Memory Cove, the last gulf anchorage before the open ocean. Pass Cape Catastrophe, a few miles to the south, then turn west and 400 nautical miles of South Australia’s rugged west coast await you. In 2016 and 2017 I did precisely that, sailing to Coffin Bay one year and Pearson Island the following. This time would be different. A storm was brewing on the far west coast that would bring gale-force winds and big seas. I, therefore, decided to turn north where we could enjoy the semi-protected gulf waters (Tuesday, December 1st).

Upon leaving the cove you enter Thorny Passage, a tempestuous body of water when the wind is against the tide. Cape Catastrophe got its name when Captain Matthew Flinders tragically lost eight of his crew here in 1802. I timed our 08:30 am departure to be just before the low tide so we could enjoy slack water. The seas were further pacified by the offshore WSW wind. We hugged the eastern leeward side of Taylor Island less than two hundred meters offshore, piercing through the flat water at 7.5 knots. Once clear of the island we adjusted our heading for Point Bolingbroke, 20 miles to the north.

Tuna pen in Boston Bay.

By 10:00 the wind had increased in strength to 25 knots boosting our boat speed to 9 knots. Twenty minutes later we were abeam of Cape Donnington and encountered our first tuna pen. These large floating structures are used to corral juvenile tuna where they are fattened prior to being harvested. They litter the waters offshore from Port Lincoln in their dozens and are typically less than 100m apart. It would be highly inadvisable to attempt to sail through this region at night.

At 11:39 we were abeam of Point Bolingbroke and the seas immediately calmed down. We hugged the shore for the next nine miles, enjoying superb flat-water sailing with views of low coastal cliffs on our port side.

Shortly after 13:00, we turned into Tumby Bay. The town, which takes its name from the bay and lies in its southwest corner, is a popular tourist destination and home to 1,400 people. We'd originally planned to go ashore, but the low shoreline offered no relief from the offshore wind and we struggled to find a place with good holding amid the dense seagrass. So, reluctantly, at 13:38 we were underway again, this time headed for Port Neill further north.

Port Neill

We enjoyed thrilling following seas for the next twenty miles averaging 8 knots and hitting speeds of 12 knots when surfing. At 16:30 we were anchored in the calm shallow waters of Port Neill. Watch the tides here! Guide books report a depth of 3m within 200m from shore, but this was not the case when we visited. The area north of the jetty reportedly has deeper water but the southern area offers better protection from southeasterly winds. The bottom was weedy but, on our second attempt, we found good holding. It had been six days since we'd been in a port so we decided to go ashore for a pub meal. The locals who had seen Arriba sail into their bay were excited to see us – and very friendly.

Enjoying a pub meal at Port Neill.

We set sail the following morning at 8:06 (Wednesday, December 2nd). The tide was very low and Arriba's port engine leg, while not quite dredging, was in the weeds. Fortunately, there was an offshore breeze and so I decided to sail off the anchor rather than attempt to motor off and mow the seagrass. Our destination was Reevesby Island, 23 miles to the SSW as the crow flies. We encountered a 9 knot southerly headwind so we zigzagged our way upwind, hugging the coast as much as possible. Once past Tumby Bay, we made our final seaward tack for the north coast of Reevesby Island, known as Moreton Cove, where we arrived at 15:51. We'd sailed 42.5 miles, almost twice the direct distance.

The cove was just as beautiful as I recalled from my first visit six years earlier. We took the dinghy ashore where we noticed a great deal of plastic and other flotsam. When visiting wilderness areas I’ve always adhered to the motto “take only photos, leave only footprints”. We took it one step further, though, by collecting as much of the waste as three people could carry – which we ferried back to Arriba and later recycled back in Adelaide.

Collecting waste on Reevesby Island.

The next morning, we swam ashore and snorkeled through the rocky reef on the western side of the bay which was teeming with life. At 10:56 we weighed anchor and leisurely motored the three nautical miles around to the western side of the island, known as Home Bay or The Lagoon (top photo). Going ashore, we toured the dilapidated old homestead before hiking across to the eastern shore of the island, known as Haystack Bay. Returning to Home Bay we took the dinghy across the shallow stretch of water to Lusby Island. We spent the remainder of the day relaxing aboard.

Reevesby Island homestead.

My crew were still slumbering when the following morning (Friday, December 4th) I relocated Arriba about 500m to the northern end of Home Bay. I anchored close to a rocky reef that I’d spotted the previous day and was keen to explore. Cathie and I snorkeled and we spotted three large rays and numerous fish. Razorfish (pinna bicolor) were also abundant and I could have collected dozens. Instead, I limited my harvest to only three, which we enjoyed as appetizers that evening. (They taste similar to scallops.)

At 09:12 we weighed anchor and set sail for Wedge Island, 41 nautical miles to the south. Forty minutes later we passed the SE coast of Kirkby Islet, a tiny rocky island with very little vegetation. We tacked onto a SE course, passing Langton Island on our port side, at 10:20. An hour later we passed the south coast of Spilsby Island, the second largest island in the Sir Joseph Banks Group and the only one with private land. Till now, we’d been sailing with just our gennaker on a beam reach. At 13:00 we raised the main and were now sailing at 7.2 knots in 10 knots of wind.

Vela kayaking at North Islet.
At 16:34 we anchored briefly at the southeastern corner of North Islet, the small rocky island one mile off the north coast of Wedge Island. Vela kayaked and soon found herself surrounded by a pack of curious seals. Alas, the wind was still from the east and there was too much swell for us to linger. The main anchorage, the eastern side of Wedge Island, would provide excellent shelter once the westerly winds arrived. Till then, we needed another place to anchor, namely West Bay, on the northwestern side of the island. There, in a depth of 15 m and less than 100 m from cliffs, we enjoyed a tranquil sunset.

West Bay, Wedge Island.

The tranquility came to an abrupt halt at 3 am, when the long-awaited storm descended upon us with full fury and little warning. Within minutes the wind was gusting to 28 knots! Rocks were now on our lee and barely 50m away. The same cliffs that, a few hours earlier, had been protective and peaceful were now terrifying and sinister. There was not a minute to lose, with the wind buffeting us and jostling Arriba like a toy boat, it took us over ten minutes to raise the anchor. The instant the anchor lost its grip on the seafloor, I spun Arriba around at full throttle and headed for open water, winching up the remainder of the chain while underway.

By 04:00 we were safely anchored on the eastern side of the island and could relax once more. Our slumber was briefly interrupted at 06:20 when we drifted. Although largely protected by the mass of the island, we were still experiencing 20-knot winds. I reset the anchor and, this time, I let out a generous 30m of chain in less than five meters of water.

East Coast, Wedge Island.

After breakfast Vela and I went ashore to stretch our legs, she swimming, me kayaking. The eastern shore of the island boasts a wide sandy beach under vegetated sand dunes, overlooked by a motley collection of deserted beach houses. We hiked to the beach’s southern extremity which ends in a rocky cliff, atop of which sits the island’s lighthouse.

Even though Cathie had stayed behind, I was nervous about being ashore for too long and so we were back aboard an hour later. The winds continued to build and by noon we were routinely jolted by gusts of 28 knots. The tugs on our anchor, while disconcerting, reassured us that we were holding fast. Out to sea, a gale was now blowing in earnest and the ocean was awash in spindrifts – the spray blasted off the tops of the waves.

The brunt of the gale passed by during the night. We were all tired from the previous day’s excitement, so the howling wind was no impediment to a good night’s sleep. At 9:20 am the next morning (Sunday, December 6th) we weighed anchor and set sail under a doubly-reefed main and no headsail. With westerly winds gusting 24 to 28 knots and following seas, our boat speed averaged 9 knots, hitting 12 knots in the surf.
Leaving Wedge Island behind.

Three hours later we passed Althorpe Island. The anchorage on the northeast corner of the island is normally well suited to winds from the southwestern quadrant but, under the current conditions, it was untenable. The southern coast of Yorke Peninsula was equally unattractive, so at 12:35 we changed course for Kangaroo Island. Crossing a very bumpy Investigator Strait took us another three hours but by 15:12 we were due north of Mares Tail. We jibed and, by hugging the coast, sailed east in relatively flat waters. By 17:30, we were safely at anchor in Boxing Bay. We had sailed 66.4 nautical miles in eight hours and averaged 8.3 knots.

The following day was a lazy one and we did not get underway until 15:34. The previous day we had crossed Investigator Strait north to south; today we reversed that direction. We enjoyed pleasant sailing in 15 to 20 knot SW winds, averaging 6.5 knots. At 20:10 we were anchored on the eastern side of Troubridge Island where we enjoyed a spectacular sunset.

Sunset over Troubridge Island.

The next morning, we leisurely circumnavigated the island in our dinghy observing massive flocks of cormorants nesting ashore. Troubridge Island is a conservation park and a permit is required to go ashore, which we respected. Today would be the final leg of our voyage. With some sadness, we weighed anchor at 09:44 and sailed with main and gennaker in 8-knot winds. Two hours later the winds faded and we motor sailed the rest of the way. We reached North Haven at 16:43.

The past thirteen days had rewarded us with remote islands, beautiful beaches, stunning wildlife, wild seas, and more. Can you believe that in 500 nautical miles we had shared an anchorage with another vessel just once? Only in South Australia!






North Haven to West Cape Bay



West Cape Bay to Leven Beach



Leven Beach to Whalers Bay (Thistle Island)



Whalers Bay to Memory Cove



Memory Cove to Mittler’s Cove and return



Memory Cove to Port Neill via Tumby Bay



Port Neill to Moreton Bay, Reevesby Island



Moreton Bay to Home Bay, Reevesby Island



Reevesby Island to West Bay, Wedge Island



West Bay to East Coast, Wedge Island



Wedge Island to Boxing Bay via Althorpe Island



Boxing Bay to Troubridge Island



Troubridge Island to North Haven


TOTAL (nautical miles)