Session #1 JG's Reef, Point Billie, Ningaloo Station 24 October
We're about 1200km north of Perth, camping about 50m from the water's edge on a sandy point on a remote sheep station. The Ningaloo reef lies in wait about 1km offshore, and we've been here 24 hours now, waiting for the wind and swell to build. It's about 27 degrees and the water's not much less than that! perfect. Through my binocs, I can see some swell wrapping around a break in the reef, and it looks small but clean side-shore. The wind is 15 knots and building.
Getting here has been a mission, but absolutely worth it. The longest road trip I've ever done to sail! It started with 10 hours flying from Wellington to Perth. Stepping out of the airport into 30 degrees after leaving in 10 degrees was just magic. Then being picked up by a mate at the airport, complete with 4WD and the schmickest camper trailer I've ever seen, and immediately hitting the road north for a 5 hour, 400km drive to Geraldton, where we crashed the night. Hit the road again at 6am the next morning and arrived at Ningaloo station around 4pm, covering another 800km or so. While it's a long way, the drive's part of the whole experience, the changing landscape and increasing temperature firing the anticipation and imagination for the first sail.
We decided to check out Ningaloo first, rather than go straight to Gnaraloo, as a friend had found this new point break there while camping with his family, but had only sailed it in tiny swell. Ningaloo's not known for wavesailing, but Google Earth showed it definitely had potential, so we took a punt. What's an extra 600km round trip anyway?
Back to the present. It's around 5:00pm, the wind's still lightish, but we make the call to give it a go. My mate Martin doesn't have any light wind wave gear with him, so he decides to rig a 6.5 freeride sail on a Super X board and check out the reef. I rig my 5.8 wave sail and 86L wave board, which should see me right. It's a nice cruise out to the reef over a sandy bottom with plenty of coral outcrops that get denser the further I go out. By the time I arrive at the reef, Martin has already got 4 shoulder high waves under his belt (albeit not riding too radically on the gear he's got!) The waves wrap around really nicely to give 3 or 4 down the line turns over what looks like very shallow reef.
After 3 great waves of my own, I notice that Martin's down in the break. He doesn't seem to be waterstarting too quickly, so I head over to see what's up. Ugly. He's broken a mast on the super shallow, sharp reef. By this time, the sun's getting close to the horizon, and the wind's dropping. After quickly talking through the options, we decide there's no way I can tow him and his gear in, so I take his boom and start to sail in to find a boat from one of the few other campers along the beach. Leaving him so far out there to paddle in was a horrible feeling! I would hate to be in his shoes. And to make it worse, I'm off the plane for the whole 1km sail in ! frustrating!
Once at the beach, I manage to find a guy with a small tinnie to help. By the time we're back out there it's getting pretty gloomy, we can't immediately find him and I fear that he's been washed out to sea with the tide though the opening in the reef. But as we get closer, we find him diligently paddling away, covered in reef cuts and looking like shark bait. We haul him over the side and he collapses in the bottom of the boat. He's had to ditch his sail and has lost his spreader bar! no great loss given the circumstances. Relief washes over us.
That night around the campfire, Martin admits he was pretty freaked out by the whole experience. If we hadn't picked him up when we did, he was facing at least a 5km paddle in the dark to the next point north, and then a long walk back to camp. Not a nice thought in remote, sharky waters. We decide to bail the next morning and head south to Gnaraloo. In other circumstances, I could have happily stayed to sail again another day ! the reef really has potential and I think it would rock on a slightly bigger swell with the waves breaking further out. Also, it's a great spot to camp ! you can leave your gear rigged at your campsite and wander on down when the wind's up. But we made the right call, and Gnaraloo beckoned!
Lessons learned: when sailing a shallow reef break 1km offshore, have a boat on hand, ideally in the channel!