LS logo The MURRAY LAKES new
(a bit of geography here...lots of new photos too)
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Click here for Lake Alexandrina at her best!           Burning questions... ...more photos too!

Murray Lakes mapAustralia's largest river system finishes its journey to the sea in broad and shallow freshwater lakes. Officially, the Murray Lakes are freshwater, and Adelaide's reserve water supply--which explains why Adelaide is building filtration plants. The lakes were originally semi-tidal estuaries. Barrages were built from the 1920s to keep the tides out and to raise the pool level for the steam navigation which the railways had killed a decade previously.

The water and the weather...

The Murray Lakes are big and shallow: Lake Alexandrina, the largest, is some 360 sq km, with depths mainly 10-12 feet shoaling to 6 feet. The lake shores are low-lying and barren. Given the size of fetch and the shallowness, waves can build up to 5 ft rapidly. Waves are square and come very close together.

L Alexandrina
The main part of Lake Alexandrina, looking east-southeast from Milang jetty. (Race fleet limping into the protected anchorage.) Photo (c) DH Fatchen

The climate is thoroughly Mediterranean. In summer, winds tend to be light airs in the morning or gentle south-easterlies, and in the afternoon south to south-east sea breezes at 25+ knots. For variety, there can be scalding hot strong northerlies before the passage of cold fronts. Changes come from the south-west, with winds at near gale or gale.

Southern L Alexandrina

The southern arm of L. Alexandrina, looking south from Point Sturt.  The distant dunes are the barrier between the Coorong and the Southern Ocean (Indian Ocean on the charts!). For scale, the largest boats in the scene are 25-26 footers. The ripples are about 2-3 feet.   Photo (c) DH Fatchen

All of this makes the lakes themselves rather chancy and treacherous places, and they kill people occasionally. On the other hand, the protected waterways of the lower Murray River near Goolwa, and in the Coorong, are a delight of shelter, reedbeds, mudbanks and odd nooks and crannies. The Coorong, 150 km of narrow lagoon, is hardly frequented--apart from birds.
Not at sea, but might as well be.  Lady Kate motorsailing across Lake Alexandrina in worsening weather. Photo (c) TJ Fatchen empty horizon


Sailing in harm's way. Martha Jane Shirley Valentine photographed from AS29 Lady Kate motorsailing in the dying early-morning light into an oncoming front on Lake Alexandrina, trying to catch the paddlesteamer Oscar W.  Shortly after this photo was taken, Shirley Valentine was knocked down in a line squall and the sloppy reefing pendant on Lady Kate jammed the mainsheet. 

In winds way above 40 knots, Graham Cheers was crawling forward with a large knife to try to cut halyards while the Tadpole was being knocked flat by his own boom, having freed the jam.  This, after all, is why one wears a harness when singlehanding...
We fled to cover to lick our wounds. (Out of Macho Mode and back to Cruising Style). Photo (c) TJ Fatchen

Playing and

Normally, the protected water areas are for playing in...

Finniss R Estuary
The Finniss River and Currency Creek estuaries between Clayton and Goolwa. 
Clayton Bay
Clayton Bay: the leading divisions of the Goolwa-Milang race just entering. 
Clayton Narrows
The narrows at Clayton. 

 ...though they too can get a bit rough if the westerly changes come in with a gale... Photo (c) NJ Fatchen

But the big lakes and the Coorong, not to mention the big river to the north, provide lots of scope for extended cruising, with peace, solitude, wildlife, navigational challenges, places to see, and nobody else much around! Eat your heart out, North America...we've got better pelicans, too, none of those grotty little brown northern hemisphere things...  (Why not visit us? You can charter yachts and launches to explore the Lakes and Coorong. Or houseboats on the Murray River for the weak-kneed or sybaritic...)

calm protected water

Pt Malcolm Lighthouse Lady Kate passes the Point Malcolm lighthouse on the entry to the Narrung Narrows between Lakes Alexandrina and Albert.  Alas for romance, the lighthouse is but a daymark, and the current light a modified sodium vapour street lamp...but a century and a half ago, this was a major intercolonial gateway.  Photo (c) TJ Fatchen
There is quite deep water in the reedbeds below the lighthouse, and one can snuggle into little harbours and reed embayments, with the tall reeds effectively stopping the wind and deadening wave action.  Here, the Martha Jane Shirley Valentine refuses to bestir herself first thing in the morning. Photo (c) TJ Fatchen new

Pomanda Point, at the eastern end of Lake Alexandrina, pointing west to Point Sturt.  There is now a light on the point, but, alas again for romance, it's mounted on a bit of waterpipe...  Although Lady Kate  still has one reef in, she's about to become becalmed for the next two hours... Photo (c) TJ Fatchen 2003
... until the sea-breeze cuts in at lunchtime, this time at 30 knots (it never gets much over 30 knots). Photo (c) TJ Fatchen 2003
AS29 in lock Two locks allow access from the Lakes to the sea and the Coorong.  The larger lock, at Goolwa, is a manned lock capable of passing small ships.  Larger ships can be sent through a navigation pass, created by removal of part fo the barrage.

The long Tauwitchere Barrage contains a small, self-operated manual lock, great for exercising the biceps and the back.  The AS29 in the photo has had her boomkin removed to fit into the lock without damage! Photo (c) TJ Fatchen

For a lot of the time, no-one can get out to sea, since the river's flow has been intercepted (for irrigation) to the point where a channel through the bar cannot be kept open. 

Tauwitchere Barrage Looking along the Tauwitchere Barrage, at the swing bridge over Tauwitchere Lock.  The Coorong, salt water, is to the right, and the southern arm of Lake Alexandrina, reputedly fresh water, to the left.  Where would you prefer to cruise, hmmm??  Incidentally, that chop comes straight into the lock when the gate's open... Photo (c) TJ Fatchen
The Coorong The Coorong at Tauwitchere Barrage. The Coorong lagoon extends at around this width for a further 130-odd km to the south-east. AS29 Lady Kate awaiting entry to the lock.  Photo (c) TJ Fatchen

Teary del Fuggy: Pomanda island in flames under the Lady Kate boom, with the prow and signpost of Pomanda Point to the left.  The navaid on the point is a solar-powered QFl white light, stuck on a 2" pipe (how unromantic), but still a welcome sight as it rises above a bleak black horizon during a night crossing.  Why the flames? we thought it was a maroon desperately calling for help, or a wrecked trailer sailer dying of thirst, but we saw no-one.  It was only as we sailed away that we solved the mystery newfires

For Light Schooner afficiondos only:
Photo (c) David Gill and courtesy Duck Flat-Wooden Boats.
The Lake in 25 knots
Here's Lake Alexandrina on a normal summer's afternoon. 
From the state of sky and the course of the Norwalk Islands Sharpie 23', this is a more-or-less stock-standard summer day, with the southerly sea breeze in at about 25 knots, and the chop picking up. A strong wind warning would not have been issued for these mild conditions.

Note that while there must have been a second boat present for the photo (!), there's no-one else in sight. The Sharpie is on its way from Milang to Point Sturt, so the photo gives a good feel for the size of the lake (though at least there's land visible in this direction...) The hump in the distance is Mt Barker, 1696 ft, some 25 nautical miles distant northwest from the boat's probable position. The Lake is at 5ft ASL.

To visualise the Light Schooner here, remove a bit more than half the NI Sharpie's freeboard, chop a foot off the beam and lower the sail rig a bit more.

The NI Sharpie is enjoying the conditions. The Light Schooner would still be coping with the conditions under fore and reefed main (jib already down, staysail under lock and key), but the enjoyment factor would be reducing as backsides get soggier and go numb...if out for pleasure, we would be thinking very hard about going in another direction at this stage, watching conditions very carefully, and ready to drop the foresail. See our Scooner sailing tips.

If we were racing, the NI Sharpie would now be leaving us well behind at a rate of knots (hiss, boo). But then again, gentlemen don't sail to windward anyway... The wind and wave would be absolute delight on a broad reach, at which stage a Light Schooner would be planing furiously, surfing every wave, dipping her bowsprit under from time to time, have her staysail up but still probably a reefed main and no jib, and leaving the other sharpie behind (yesss!).

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