The sunlight of Western Australia is a bleached beam that strips colour from everything it touches; an Instagram filter in a steep, white cloudy sky. Meanwhile, out on the Indian Ocean, dark blue waves ride high above patches of green seaweed and yellow sand. Fat gulls ride the tide; not bothered about flying, they wait for an opportunity, a flash of silver below.
Sea and sky, sand dunes, beachfront mansions and gasping swimmers – that’s the hot idyllic coast for Perth. This narrow strip of reclaimed sand houses vast, thin suburbs facing west so the summer sun falls down their windows for half a day. The coast is the backyard – free and unbounded.
I grew up here and it has always seemed to me that Perth’s coastline – aside from all of the houses and surfers and swimmers – looks almost like it did when the first European explorers came and when the Aborigines made their camps in the dunes. The curving beaches, jagged rocks shaped by the wind, shifting sandbars; it all makes a timeless place with humans just passing through.
Hillarys Boat Harbour shatters the illusion though. This odd shopping mall lapped by the sea was built back in 1987 amid a frenzy to get Perth and Fremantle ready to host the America’s Cup, the world’s most prestigious yacht race – kind of like having to host the Queen in your student share house.
The harbour is a strange place. Its limestone rock groynes jut into the Indian Ocean to break the surf and create a still pond of seawater, all of it bordered by boardwalks and shops selling all manner of stuff. But it’s the place where our journey starts, and with the wind blowing a true, desert dry easterly, we’ll get away quickly.
“Hoist the new head sail,” says the captain, John Kirkman, a champion sailor, boat builder and architect from Zimbabwe who made a new home with his family in Australia 15 years ago. “I sewed her together this week so be careful.”
I take the new sail and creep forward into the bow where I clip on the halyard and attach the clips to the forestay; a metal wire pulled so tight you could play a tune on it with a violin bow.
The boat’s name is Kershi and she’s a 22-foot long sailing yacht with a one tonne keel and rough charm. Our goal is simple – launch her by 9am and get out into the clear blue ocean, as far away from the quarrels and stresses of the land as possible.
“Haul away there, Dave,” John calls and I let go of the Hillarys Boat Harbour jetty, giving the concrete bollard a shove to put Kershi into the wind.
There’s no engine, but John is an old salt, and uses the faintest breath of wind to fill the sails and build momentum, knot by knot, until we’re flying out of the channel and tacking across the wind, close hauled with our sails pulled tight for speed. The sharp bow splatters waves aside and sends sheets of spray flying into the wake, bubbling and boiling behind us.
On the left side, the port side, there’s the long coastline with the sun rising to its zenith. And to the right, the starboard side, there’s the trackless blue of the ocean. Then there’s us right in the middle, steering a little white yacht along the wind, aiming the bow for the distant shipping cranes at Fremantle, orange frames on the horizon misted by low lying clouds.
And just before we tack out to the deeper water, I look behind and see Hillarys Boat Harbour, blended perfectly with the coast. A safe place to return to.