Keelboats on the Gippsland Lakes: yes it can be done

“I’d never sail the lakes in a boat without a draw-up keel.”

The owner of a modestly-sized trailer sailor shakes his head as he eyes the length of our Jarkan 36. The envy lacking in his gaze becomes understandable as he recalls pulling his centreboard clean up only an hour or two ago and dragging his yacht across the muddy bottom of Lake King. Yet, perhaps surprisingly with our 1.7 metre draft, we were both tied up at the same jetty.

It is a common misconception that the Gippsland Lakes, an extensive lakes system in Victoria’s south east, are unfit for keelboats. While they are notoriously shallow in many places they’re also home to our, or rather my father’s, Jarkan 36 deck saloon Mr. Percival.

With access out to Bass Strait from Lakes Entrance the Gippsland Lakes system covers some 350 square kilometres and has plenty of exciting and beautiful sailing to be done.

Having the Easter weekend off from work this year I decided to make the most of the holiday on the Gippsland Lakes with my dad and my boyfriend, Chris, who was completely new to sailing.

After a long drive down from Melbourne the night before we set sail from Metung on the Friday morning. The weather was stunning with a warm autumn sun shining over glassy water. We left Kings Cove marina, where Mr. Percival is berthed, into a slight breeze and headed west.

While it was pleasant champagne sailing it was not long before I foolishly wished for a little more excitement. Like much of Victoria, the Gippsland Lakes are prone to dramatic weather changes and although we knew the forecast called for strong winds it was still a shock when they set in.

Over the next hour the wind rose steadily to 25 knots and was gusting over 30kts with rain visible not far off.

We hurried to put first one and then two reefs in the mainsail as we headed upwind. I held the helm for the entire leg, revelling in the weight of the rudder on the wheel as she heeled over. Certainly one of the advantages of the keelboat is how little the weather worried the 36 footer as she sliced through the chop on a sharp lean.

The only other yacht that seemed to be out was a cutter a few hundred metres ahead of us that was punching along bravely, but not fast enough to beat us.

I entertained myself for a while trying to catch up and, being rather successful, hummed the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ theme song while ordering my crew to “make ready the guns”.

Unfortunately the smaller ship turned tail just before I came alongside and chickened out of the battle.

It was shortly after that we decided the cutter actually had a far wiser strategy than us. We were still an hour or so off our destination and the conditions had not allowed for someone to go down as galley slave.

In short, we were starving and tired so we dropped the main and sailed downwind on the jib to tuck in behind the east side of Raymond Island.

Out of the wind and the approaching rainstorm, we dropped anchor and swiftly put the kettle on, enjoying the warmth the island’s protection brought.

Welcome respite

After a typical smorgasbord lunch and a coffee or two we reluctantly pulled up the anchor and headed back out into the unrelenting wind.

It had stopped gusting quite as strongly but was still around 25kts as we sailed close-hauled towards Sperm Whale Head. At this point we had to start paying attention to the channel markers, which of course were situated in exactly the wrong place for the wind direction.

It took us a couple of hours to tack southwest along the channel to the small jetty. We arrived at about five o’clock and after two attempts mooring in front of an audience of motorboaters we were finally docked and out of the wind again.

Sperm Whale Head is part of a long peninsula between the lakes and the Ninety Mile Beach and is part of the Lakes National Park. One of my favourite places to berth on the Gippsland Lakes. The other being Rotamah Island just nearby, it is the site of some of the most spectacular sunsets I have witnessed.

It also has a lovely picnic and barbeque area, public toilets and plenty of wildlife. After a lovely dinner cooked on board we settled off to sleep, lulled by lapping water and swan calls.

Easter roasting

The following morning the wind had barely dropped at all on the lakes so we were in no hurry to leave.

Instead we took our time with the traditional holiday breakfast of fried eggs, bacon and tomato on toast with freshly brewed coffee. Feeling human again we left Sperm Whale Head at about 10.30 and headed west towards Loch Sport.

Again we were close-hauled with the wind averaging 20kts and gusting above 25. We caught up to a few small yachts battling the conditions but one by one they turned around and headed home, making me feel more than a little triumphant.

After tacking for a few hours we finally got a lift in the wind and were able to head straight down the narrow part of Lake Victoria.

Beyond Loch Sport the lakes system becomes a bit difficult for keelboats but is popular with smaller yachts, especially for the annual Marlay Point Overnight Yacht Race which begins in Lake Wellington and finishes at Paynesville.

We were making excellent headway towards Loch Sport when a storm cloud emerged to the southwest and rather than try to beat it to the lakeside town we set our sights on lunch.

On the north side of the lake, Waddy Point beckoned us with a sandy little bay and protection from the wind. A few other boats were pulled up dreamily on the beach in a little patch of sun and we anchored behind them to enjoy another delicious lunch spread as the rain blew over.

Having promised friends we would meet them in Paynesville for a coffee we decided it was best to head back east after lunch. Much warmer with the wind behind us we finally took off the layers of wet weather gear we had been wrapped up in all morning.

Being more of an upwind person I soon got bored and Chris and I snuggled up for a siesta while Dad and Bruce, the autopilot, took care of the sailing.

When the two of us reemerged, bleary eyed, we found ourselves surrounded by bright spinnakers. An Easter Saturday yacht race was under way with about thirty boats on the course and Dad had managed to get right in the middle of it.

The autopilot was disengaged as we realised the main part of the race was exactly between us and where we wanted to go. It was a close call weaving through the racing yachts without having to drop the sails but we just managed to follow one of the finishers into Paynesville.

Our friends had just recently bought a small yacht in Paynesville and were learning to sail so we met up to say hello. It felt rather ironic tying our 36 foot yacht up to the Motor Cruiser Club jetty but no one seemed to mind.

After a quick tour of their new toy they were quick to agree to a coffee back aboard Mr. Percival. Unfortunately the weather had not been very kind to first time sailors so they had just been fixing things aboard, as there is always plenty to do.

After a good chat and a well-needed cuppa out of the rain, we followed an earlier promise of a roast at Resides Jetty on the south of Raymond Island. The Explorer 16 Association we had previously been a part of when we had our little blue Explorer 16, were down for its annual Easter rally.

At this point the light was fading so we just started the motor and made sure we had the charts on hand to avoid short cuts across the sand banks.

As I carefully made my way around Raymond Island everything was running smoothly. I was giving the beach a wide berth with the depth sitting comfortably at six to seven metres. We were losing light fast and swore we could almost smell the camp roast waiting for us.

The depth dropped slightly and I headed out further from the bank. Suddenly it hit three and then two metres, dropping fast. I swung her a full 180 and cranked the throttle. Mr. Percival scraped the muddy bottom but luckily kept momentum. I breathed a sigh of relief.

Dad decided at that point he had better take back the helm. A wise decision as we were nearing our destination at Resides jetty. We could see the small shapes of Botteril Explorers berthed ahead and the light of the campfire through the trees.

I went up to make ready the ropes as Dad guided her toward the end of the jetty where it would be deepest. Up the front and almost ready to hand across the bow rope the momentum suddenly stopped and again I felt the keel sink into the lake bottom. Dad seemed rather nonchalant and motored through it to the jetty.

Our helpers on the jetty had a good chuckle as they took the ropes and helped us moor. By this time the light was all but gone and we were more than relived to be safely berthed for the night.

It was well worth it when the roast was finally ready. Potatoes, pumpkin, peas and a huge piece of lamb all cooked to perfection on the camp fire. Then out came the guitar for a sing-along and toasted marshmallows because it is not a campfire without burning marshmallows.

Chris and I were heading back up to the boat and found Dad crouched over the side of the jetty. Little prawns were jumping everywhere. So naturally we grabbed the net and chased them around for an hour or so. The biggest ones were a bit too crafty for us but we managed to catch a few for fresh bait.

Then the moon rose and the clear water showed its true colours.

The Gippsland Lakes is home to a type of microorganism that sparkles when the water is disturbed. I have come across it a few times and it is absolutely stunning.

Every little ripple or splash sends off a dazzling light display and I have sat there for hours splashing water to watch it.

I have also heard when the dolphins are out at night they look like they are covered in a veil of stars though I am
yet to witness it.

Calm Sunday

The following morning the wind had dropped back down to around 10 knots and the sun was feebly shining.

Finally we were able to get Chris on the helm once we were in clear water. It was perfect conditions for a sailing lesson on Lake King with plenty of deep water to work with.

We headed up northeast toward the mouth of the Tambo river. Dad had not been up before and while the charts showed the channel as an adequate depth he was keen to have a proper look at the entrance.

Chris and I got a few tacks in on our own with Dad’s supervision before we came to the start of the channel. We did not really have time to go up the river but it was clear it would not be too difficult a task another time and certainly very pretty.

The east side of Metung and up to Lakes Entrance and the bar also has some beautiful sailing but again we did not have time this trip.

On the way back towards Metung we ran into our friends from the day before who were also taking advantage of the gentle conditions and cruising along with both sails up. We sailed alongside for a while before waving goodbye and heading downwind back to King’s Cove Marina.

After lunch we packed up again and headed home for another delicious Easter roast.

While it serves to keep your charts close and depth sounder even closer there is definitely no shortage of beautiful sailing to be done for keelboats on the Gippsland Lakes.

Comprehensive information on the conditions of the bar, channels and navigational markers can be found at

Stephanie Baker

JPK August 2023
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