Travel Story Cruising WA: Sailing south into the wake of history

Photo of Stephen Scourfield

Two of the world’s great oceans collide and combine near Cape Leeuwin, one of the world’s three great capes.

Along with Cape Horn and the Cape of Good Hope, Leeuwin is one of the three fingers that dare to dip into the great circulation of the Southern Ocean as it revolves, otherwise unencumbered, around the planet.

As we sail south from Perth across the more benign Indian Ocean and turn this corner, all bets are off. Further south, there is only Antarctica.

But even before that, there is nautical history, as we pass Cape Naturaliste. French navigator Nicolas Baudin, mapping the coast, stopped here in 1801 and named the big, still bay by it for his group’s flagship, the Geographe, and the point after the party’s second ship, the Naturaliste.

Not much further south is Redgate Beach where, in 1876, the SS Georgette, carrying 50 passengers, was wrecked. Sixteen-year-old Grace Bussell rode her horse into the surf to rescue survivors and stockman Sam Isaacs swam his horse out through the surf to help them. Over four hours, all were saved.

And then, in 120m of water, in the night, I feel the shift. The ship’s bow inches eastwards and the swell changes. It’s picking up the cruise ship on the stern starboard quarter, suddenly lifting and driving it forward, carefully spinning around Cape Leeuwin.

South of the point and the lighthouse, the St Alouarn Islands’ geology disappears under the ocean, to re-emerge in Antarctica. 

A most ancient history. More recent histories are here, too. Some 400 years ago, Dutch sailing ship Leeuwin was off this cape, producing charts which were published in 1627 as the “Chart of the Land of Eendracht”.

Matthew Flinders landed in 1801 in today’s Flinders Bay and named the cape.

While Cape Leeuwin has the reputation for being the place where the Indian and Southern Oceans meet, oceanographers often tell me that only begins at 60 degrees south.

Off Albany

From the ocean, among the bulbous granite islands and steep-sided coast, it seems almost impossible to spot the entrance to Albany’s Princess Royal Harbour. How on earth, against this dangerous shoreline, did they find this narrow entrance in sailing ships?

The entrance from King George Sound seems a tiny slot. Behind it is a natural harbour.

Think of this for history ... that in November 1914, a fleet of 38 transport ships assembled here, with seven warships as escorts, to take World War I troops via Sri Lanka and the Suez Canal to training camps in Egypt.

Breaksea Island sits sentinel; a witness.

Off Esperance

I look back at my notebook to words as I wrote them on the ship: “To weave in through the Recherche Archipelago to Esperance is one of my most exciting arrivals at sea.”

For there are more than 100 islands in the Recherche, as seen in 1627 when Pieter Nuyts and Francois Thijssen sailed into the archipelago and named by d’Entrecasteaux in 1792 after two ships in the sailing party, Le Recherche and Esperance.

Matthew Flinders was here in the 1800s; Pirate Black Jack Anderson stayed and cached booty here in the 1830s; the Sanko Harvest sank in 1991, becoming a good dive wreck.

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