"Ya gotta be jokin’ – No we’re not!" proclaims the Lake Eyre Yacht Club, the self-determined Worlds most exclusive Yacht Club, where only people who have actually skippered their own vessel on the lake surface can become full members. This is an extremely daunting task under the best of conditions that occur during brief windows maybe once every couple of years. The rest of the time it’s impossible.
Lake Eyre represents the lowest point of elevation in Australia at 15 metres (49 feet) below sea level. The larger Eyre Basin covers nearly one-sixth of the continent. It’s endorheic so water entering the basin does not have an outlet to the sea. Rather, it flows away from the sea and towards the Australian interior for this very large portion of the continent. The minuscule portion of drainage that doesn’t soak into the soil or evaporate into the harsh desert atmosphere will find its way eventually to Lake Eyre in South Australia.
SOURCE: Lake Eyre Basin, Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts, Australian Government
Lake Eyre is often nearly empty but it doesn’t dry completely. Most of the time it’s a series large mucky, briny puddles strewn amid the playa, the salt-encrusted mudflats stretching in every direction to the horizon. High salinity is typical for endorheic basins. The alkali salts eroding from the landscape have nowhere to flow except towards the lowest point of the watershed, which is not the sea. The salt deposits of Lake Eyre are appear quite visibly as massive white patches in the satellite image, below.
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But every once in awhile the stars align, the winds shift, the weather changes just enough, maybe a La Niña pattern kicks-in with particular ferocity, the lake begins to wake and it expands exponentially over the nearly flat terrain. It’s times like these when the sailors get excited.
The annual monsoons will sometimes dump unusually heavy rainfall on the intermittent rivers of the Queensland outback, too much to suck into the ground or yank back into the sky, and the waters may flow through the Channel Country all the way to Lake Eyre. Locally-heavy rains have less distance to travel and fewer opportunities to evaporate and that can also contribute. Lake Eyre may rise 3 to 6 metres as a result of these particularly rainy periods, and while that may not sound like a lot it’s enough to create a vast inland sea.
The Yacht Club swings into action during these special times, heading towards the waters from their clubhouse in Marree. Indeed, the Lake Eyre Yacht Club maintains a facility a hundred kilometres or so from its namesake, waiting patiently in the blazing heat and choking dust for those rare moments when they can demonstrate nautical their skills on open waters. I’m not sure whether I would call them as dedicated or deluded, perhaps a touch of both, but I applaud their enthusiasm.
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Their Yacht Club is somewhere near here. You can see what it actually looks from these images on Panoramio and Flicker. The Panoramio photo has a geo-tag that equals the Street View image displayed above, but as you can plainly see, it’s not here. I’m not sure if that’s because it hadn’t been built yet or whether the geo-tag was wrong (the Yacht Club website says it’s on Railway Terrace North so I think the image may be a block off, but hopefully someday a club member will find this entry and provide better information). Actually I’m surprised a Steet View image is even available because this is Marree:
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Sailing on Lake Eyre is not for the feint of heart. The sailing itself isn’t the trouble assuming one pays attention to the weather, it’s the extreme amount of effort required to launch a boat and later return to dry land that becomes an issue.
First, consider the terrain. It’s brutally rugged, lightly traversed and totally unforgiving. People can die when their vehicles break or bog down if they don’t have sufficient provisions for a protracted stay. Next, there are only three spots where boats can actually be launched and they’re not like the landings on a typical lake. Mariners need to pull their craft a kilometre or more to water’s edge unless they want to get stuck up to their axles in muck (see previous consideration). Finally prevailing winds change the nature and shape of the lake significantly because of its extreme shallowness. It is highly susceptible to seiches or "wind tides," a condition not unlike hurricane storm surges, that push great volumes of water from one part of the basin to another. A sudden wind shift can leave a boater quickly stranded on the wrong side of a newly emptied lakebed, now separated from the launch by several kilometres.
The "yachts" must be adapted to the unique topographical characteristics of the lake. Vessels need to have a shallow draft to avoid grounding in the flat waters and they need to be light enough to be pulled long distances across the mud as necessary. Fiberglass canoes with homemade outriggers and masts are a common choice.
The surface of Lake Eyre remains below sea level even during the rainiest of times. Yacht Club members beg to differ up to a point. As they say, "while this is obviously quite correct, as mariners, the LEYC members like to sail on the sea rather than below it and so refer to depth as such – the amount of water above the lowest point in each of the basins."
Nothing will stop these lakebed yachtsmen.
A Completely Different Subject
I saw an article in Smithsonian today that might interest some of you: Micronations of the World. "Explore these mock sovereign states fueled by local disputes, utopian idealism and the imaginations of a few eccentric individuals"