Sailing in the middle of the Australian desert

Driving hundreds of miles through the Australian Outback with a boat in tow to a regatta in the desert is not an adventure for the faint hearted. But that was exactly the challenge taken up by the 20 rugged yachting crews who competed in this month’s Outback Spirit Lake Eyre Yacht Club Regatta.

Club Commodore Bob Backway said just getting to the site of the regatta on the Warburton River and Poondulanna Lake near Mungerannie in Outback South Australia was a challenge in itself. “We only found this lake two weeks ago,” he said. “We had weather up to 37 degrees (Celcius) and not a lot of shade so you have to come prepared.”

Mungerannie is about 800km north of Adelaide, the South Australian capital, and is on the famous Birdsville Track. It is about 200km east of Lake Eyre, Australia’s biggest and the world’s 13th largest lake when full, which it hasn’t been since 1974.

The Lake Eyre Yacht Club has a membership of 220 people from all over Australia and some from the United Kingdom, the United States and Germany.

The club first hosted a regatta in the middle of Australia in 2010 but has not held an event since 2013 because of a lack of water.

For this year’s four-day regatta, 45 members packed their vehicles and 20 boats and travelled from South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales, Tasmania, Queensland and Western Australia.

South Australian sailor Darius Kubilius competed in the Lake Eyre Regatta for the third time but said it was “definitely not for everyone”.

“For most it would be too daunting – but there are always those adventure seekers like me who are willing to pack their cars and do the long drive to sail the Australian Outback,” he said. “That’s what brings me out here – my combined love of the Australian Outback and sailing.”

Kubilius said Lake Poondulanna was shallower than lakes used for previous regattas prompting some entrants to make last minute modifications to their boats by cutting down rudders. He said the most popular choice of boat for the April 4-7 event was a one or two person catamaran.

“Generally they handle better in shallow water and are easier to handle than the single hulls,” he said. “Logistics are the hardest part of this race. Not only are you traveling through the Australian Outback but you have no WiFi and it’s not like being in the city where you can just get to the closest mechanic if something goes wrong.

“You have to plan ahead as you could be out in the middle of nowhere for weeks. “It’s has the potential for disaster.”

The far north of South Australia is notoriously hot and dry for most of the year. Much of it is also below sea level, helping it attract flows from wet season rains in outback Queensland through a network of rivers that drain into a basin covering a sixth of Australia – about the size of Spain.

Backway said the stunning native birdlife and ever-changing desert country was always a huge draw card for members.

“Thursday was our best sailing day as a cool change brought strong winds in the afternoon and allowed us to race,” Backway said.

JPK August 2023
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