Merimbula, NSW – South Coast Havens

By: Chris Whitelaw, Photography by: Chris Whitelaw

Presented by
  • Trade-A-Boat

In part five of our series, discover what nautical niceties the picturesque township of Merimbula has to offer.



Watersports Holiday Mecca: Merimbula NSW

The Sapphire Coast that stretches from Bermagui to the Victorian border is aptly named for its golden beaches, crystal waters and sparkling marine environment. At its glittering heart lies the delightful holiday resort of Merimbula, 460km south of Sydney and almost the same distance from Melbourne. Reclining on the hills around Lake Merimbula and the mouth of the Merimbula River, the town is perfectly placed for aquatic activities like fishing, swimming, surfing, boating, lake cruising, scuba diving, sailboarding and canoeing.

Merimbula Lake and its estuary cover some 5.6 sq. km at an average depth of about 2.6m, giving an estimated volume equivalent of around 12,500 Olympic swimming pools. The entrance is permanently open, narrow at the ocean but increasing in width upstream to TopLake, which is 2km wide and up to 9m deep. The configuration of the waterway is conducive to very good tidal flushing and, while this promotes excellent water quality, it also produces dynamic currents (high ebb tide velocities) through the entrance, where it is constricted on the south bank by the top end of Merimbula Beach.


The northern arm of the estuary projects south-east into the bay toward the steep rocky headland of Merimbula Point, which provides a millpond-like anchorage in prolonged northerly weather but leaves the estuary’s entrance fully exposed to the dominant south-east swell. There is a lit green buoy close north-west of Merimbula Wharf, immediately beyond which is a bar that carries very little water at low tide. The NSW Maritime boating map for this estuary bears the ominous notation (in red capital letters) that "the entrance bars to both Merimbula and Pambula Lakes are dangerous at all times and should only be attempted by those possessing expert local knowledge". In this regard, it is fitting to relate the experience of one boating party that came unstuck when their boat capsized on the Merimbula bar in January, 2017.


The group of fishermen from Tumut (NSW) had been holidaying in Merimbula for a week when they decided to take their 4m open runabout into the bay for some angling. Being unfamiliar with the bar, the skipper sought advice from locals and friends who had crossed it many times before; he studied the conditions and spent time at the bar itself to see how the waves broke and how other boats navigated in and out.


In the days leading up to the incident, conditions were good (no wind and a 1.5m swell) and they crossed several times with no dramas. On each occasion they did the right thing, both going out and coming back in – they approached the bar cautiously, waited, watched and proceeded when the opportunity arose.

On the morning of the incident they successfully crossed the bar three times, with conditions very similar to those they'd experienced previously. But the tide was low when they headed back in around 10am and a considerable current was running through the channel; waves were breaking right across the bar to the rocky shoreline. They sat back waiting for an opportunity, checking behind to avoid following waves, then proceeded to follow one in, as they had done before. Suddenly, a sharp wave several feet high reared up astern, lifted the back of the boat and rolled it, tipping everyone into the water. According to the skipper, "the speed at which the incident occurred was mind boggling".


Fortunately, they were all wearing life jackets, which they deployed while waiting for help to arrive. The fisherman were rescued in a multi-agency operation that involved two vessels from the Roads and Maritime Services, Pambula Surf Lifesaving Club and Marine Rescue Merimbula, and delivered safely to shore.

This story had a happy ending and provides a few salutary lessons: bars can be dangerous and unpredictable; incidents like this can happen suddenly and without warning; they can overcome even the most prudent and experienced of mariners. And the skipper’s parting words of advice, "Never underestimate the power of the sea. Make sure you have all your safety gear on board, and wear your life jackets at all times".

After crossing the bar, the channel is well defined by port and starboard beacons that skirt the perimeter of oyster leases, massed adjacent to the southern bank. At low tide it snakes its way through and around drying sandbanks, making anchoring difficult to impossible.


Below the bridge, swing mooring is limited to the northern side of the channel or against the sand spit near Mitchies Jetty, just west of the entrance. Another small jetty is located next to the Marine Rescue base at Spencer Park, on the north bank of the channel about 800m from the entrance. A public T-jetty and pontoon are located off Market Street, about 350m downstream from the bridge. One end of the T accommodates the Merimbula Marina, the sole residents of which appear to be whale-watching and eco-tourism charters on 16m diesel-powered catamarans.


Top Lake is a hub for water-based recreation but, despite its popularity, there is limited access as far as boating is concerned. From the estuary’s lower reach, the size of vessel is restricted by the height of the bridge that crosses the channel about 1.5km upstream from the entrance. The main boat ramp (located off Arthur Kaine Drive, just upstream of the bridge) is shallow, and can be hazardous due to the proximity of oyster leases. Another launching ramp and jetty are located in the north-east corner of the lake at Top Lake BoatHire, off Lakewood Drive. Also, access to many of the lake foreshores is restricted by private ownership or dense bushland and fringing mangroves. 

Before concluding this brief sojourn to the Sapphire Coast, mention should be made of the Pambula River, which enters the bay about 10km south of Merimbula. The river mouth is bounded by the township of Pambula Beach to the west and the blood-red rocky headland of Ioala Point to the east. A sandy bar spans the river’s seaward entrance, which (as previously noted) can be dangerous and crossed only by those with local knowledge.


Nevertheless, George Bass found shelter from a gale in the lee of Ioala Point in 1797 and, on exploring the waterway, found it to be one of extraordinary beauty. In both respects, things haven’t changed much and mariners with drafts permitting deeper access to the river will discover delights such as the mooring opposite Severs Beach and, ultimately, Pambula Lake.

Key Contacts

Marine Rescue Merimbula
Main Street, Merimbula
P: (02) 6495 3331
VHF: Channels 16, 73, 81
27 MHz: Channels 88, 90

Merimbula Visitor Information Centre
2 Beach Street, Merimbula 
P: (02) 6495 1129
F: 1800 150 457

Merimbula Marina Public Jetty
Market Street, Merimbula 
P: (02) 6495 1686

This review was originally published in issue #509 of Trade-a-Boat magazine. Subscribe today for all the latest boat news, reviews and travel inspiration.


Want the latest stories delivered straight to your inbox? Sign up for the free TradeBoats e-newsletter.