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Seasoned local skipper JOHN ZAMMIT joins a crossing party to deliver the good oil on safely navigating the infamous Rip…


Port Phillip Heads, the narrow entrance to Victoria’s Port Phillip Bay, has a reputation as one of the most dangerous stretches of water in the world. As recently as last December, there was yet another tragedy. A fishing charter boat with 12 persons onboard came to grief and finished up overturned on the rocks near Point Nepean. One person drowned and a number were injured.

"The Rip", as the entrance is called, is the only access to Port Phillip from Bass Strait; the city of Melbourne situated at the northern most end of the Bay. One of the largest inland bays in Australia, with an area of 1930km²
and a shoreline stretching 14.25nm, Port Phillip is also the most densely populated catchment in Australia, with more three million people living around its shores.

The narrow entrance, between Point Lonsdale to the west and Point Nepean, is less than 1.9nm, with reefs projecting both sides, reducing the navigable width for ships to less than 0.6nm. As the only access to the busy ports of Melbourne and Geelong, more than 4000 commercial vessels pass through here every year.

Being so narrow and with an uneven seabed that drops away dramatically, the tidal flow in and out of the bay is severely restricted to the extent that at times there can be a substantial difference in the relative water levels between Port Phillip and Bass Strait. Consequently, the tides run very fast in both directions and, when you add strong winds, it creates precarious conditions that have earned this stretch of water its fearsome reputation.

At times you can find disturbed water for up to 3nm out and even large ships require expert local guidance, provided by the Port Phillip Sea Pilots service, to enter and exit the bay.

As dangerous as The Rip is, interestingly, it’s also one of the best signposted, that is, if you know how to read the signs! I was recently invited to join one of the Ocean Racing Club of Victoria’s (ORCV’s) famous Rip Tours, for a firsthand explanation of The Rip, it’s various hazards, the leads, transits, marks and navigation aids.

The ORCV conducts a series of ocean races through the year, as well as a Winter Series of races on Port Phillip. It also runs regular training and education courses for boaters, the Rip Tour one of their most popular. It’s a practical guide; an explanation of Port Phillip Heads; where and when to transit; the signs and aids for mariners; and, the hazards and pitfalls to be aware of when negotiating the heads.

I joined the tour at Queenscliff, boarding Moonraker, a 21m Conquest charter vessel that normally conducts Dolphin Watch tours, when she’s not chartered for the Rip Tour. On boarding, participants are provided with a detailed laminated map of the entrance with all of the transits, leads and navigation aids clearly marked, along with detailed sketches of the shoreline, lighthouses and marks that aid mariners as they make their way in and out of the bay.

Moonraker then cruises out to the heads with a running commentary provided by experienced yachtsmen and navigators, who cover details including underwater topography, points of interest, marks and navigation aids, radio protocols, lead lights and shipping channels, tides and tide signals, identification of safe conditions and/or dangers, pertinent historical facts and points of interest, and most importantly, how to perform a correct and safe passage in both directions.

On the day of our tour the commentary was provided by Robin Hewitt, an experienced sailor and ORCV member with more than 40 years experience traversing these heads.

While I’ve been through The Rip many times and like to think that I’m aware of the leads, transits, the ideal times to go through, and especially the times not to go through, I found the tour and the commentary interesting and informative and learned a few new things as well. I’ve always had a healthy respect for The Rip, after all, there are so many stories of experienced mariners coming to grief here.

The ORCV conduct their Rip Tours on a regular basis and I would suggest that if you’re contemplating going out of, or coming in, through these heads, or if your boating takes you down to the southern end of Port Phillip Bay, this tour is the perfect introduction to The Rip. In fact, I think anyone, including holidaymakers, would find this tour informative and an interesting day out.

For more information, visit

Tips for The Rip
The most dangerous conditions occur at Port Phillip Heads when an ebb tide is running against a strong southerly wind or a heavy swell, as this causes large, confused, breaking seas across the entrance.

The most favourable time to pass through the heads is ‘slack water’ or no tidal movement. Slack-water-flood occurs about three hours after high water at The Rip and slack-water-ebb occurs about three hours after low water. It is important to note that the maximum tidal flow occurs at times of high and low water when the tide can run at up to 8kts.

Slack water at the heads occurs around the time of high and low water at Williamstown (Melbourne). Tidal Streams and times of slack water at The Rip can be also found in the tide book published annually by the Port of Melbourne and available at most chandleries. I highly recommend this publication to anyone contemplating travelling through The Rip, or even if just going to nearby Queenscliff.

Mariners should also always check weather conditions (see and get real-time wave conditions at Point Lonsdale see You can also call Point Lonsdale Light on VHF channel 12 for the latest sea conditions at The Rip and information on any big ships that may be expected.

The four main leading lights are located on Shortland Bluff just south of Queenscliff Harbour and indicate the channels as follows:

1. The high light and low light in line indicates the centre of The Rip (the deepest water and strongest tides) and is the main shipping channel.
2. The High Light and the Murray Tower (white steel structure, green face) in line indicates the eastern channel. Yachts and low-powered boats should not use this channel during ebb as the tide sets strongly towards reefs at Point Nepean.
3. High Light and Hume Tower (white steel structure, red face) in line indicates the western channel
4. Four Fingers West — The four main beacons being equidistant starting with the high light to the left, then Hume Tower, Low Light, and Murray Tower. This is the preferred channel for small boats except in a strong flood tide. Less tide generally and no shipping, but stay on the leads as there are reefs just to the west.

If heading out through the heads plan to travel at slack-water-flood. It’s advisable to position your boat under Shortland Bluff and align yourself on the selected channel well before entering The Rip. Stay on the leads until well clear of Point Lonsdale, especially if intending to head east as tidal streams can set across The Rip.

Coming in through the heads, plan to enter at slack water ebb or the start of flood. Stay well outside of the entrance until you have clearly identified the leads. If approaching from the east stay well outside of the transit line between Clarkes Beacon and Marcus Hill (to the west of Shortland Bluff) to avoid Corsair Rock off Point Nepean.

When using channels west of the main shipping channel be aware of pilot boats that use their own channel along this side and watch for divers in the vicinity flying code flag A, they regularly operate in The Rip during good conditions.

Finally, if the weather and conditions aren’t right, then be prepared to wait. Remember, it’s not the weather that kills people, it’s impatience!

Photos: TT-Line's super-fast ropax ferry Spirit of Tasmani III pounds her way through The Rip on the Melbourne to Devonport run; The Rip lies between Point Lonsdale and Point Nepean at the entrance to Port Phillip Bay; The Rip has been claiming ships for years, here the SS Time aground on Point Nepean's Corsair Rock in 1949; Would-be skippers board Moonraker at Queenscliff. Onboard, they get educational material on the area's points of interest and dangers; Close-up of Four
Fingers West leads at Short Bluff, (L-R) High Light, Hume Tower, Low Light and Murray Tower; Reefs surround
The Rip, so make sure you check leads and tide times.


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