Perth is the most isolated city in the world. One-and-a-half million of Western Australia’s 2-million people live here, the remainder dispersed over an area roughly ten times the size of the UK. Just about every West Oz surf trip begins in Perth, ...
If you think Australia’s nothing but inhospitable desert, think again – little more than a quarter of its coastline has such a climate. Four types are broadly apparent: The north coast from the Fitzroy River to the Great Barrier Reef is tropical. In contrast, the west is ruled by the clichéd sunny steppe or dessert climate and it’s the same story on the Great Australian Bight. The extreme south and south-east has a damp temperate climate with alternating weather conditions similar to the Mediterranean. Finally, northwards up the sub-tropical east coast it’s progressively cloudier and rainier as it gets warmer.
During the Australian summertime (Nov-Mar), the Pacific equatorial low pressure zone extends down a ridge of low pressure over the north of the continent, while the south is influenced by the sub-tropical high pressure belt with dominant trade-like easterly winds. A third essential factor for the wind’s development is intense sunshine creating massive heat lows over the continent, accelerating the base winds inland off the coast.
In winter (May-Sep) the tropical low pressure zone drifts up to the northern hemisphere and the sub-tropical belt shifts to centre somewhere over the middle of Australia. Meanwhile on the south coast high pressure phases alternate with low pressure fronts from the westerly wind zone, which also slips northwards. Tasmania lies south of 40° South amidst the westerly wind drift in the cold winter period.
Looking at the wind stats alone, only Western Australia shows an obvious peak of windy days in summertime, while at first glance the remaining regions have a broadly similar wind quota the whole year round. Yet on balance, summer is the most attractive proposition for every region in this book, with the most suitable conditions and by far the better climate for windseekers.
During the day in Perth and along the West Coast of Western Australia (West Coast, WA), a reliable S-SW ‘sea breeze’ is drawn from the south-easterly ambient wind on the edge of a stable high pressure region over the southern Indian Ocean. The further north you go, the stronger the thermal from the heat inland and the earlier in the day the wind starts.
Margaret River also enjoys the sea breeze, except here on Australia’s southern cape frontal systems and depressions occasionally disrupt it in summer. The South Coast, WA drum beats when summertime high pressures shift further east into the Great Australian Bight. While the wind pauses on the west coast and the temperatures rise to over 40°C, the easterly wind on the northern edge of the high combines with a land thermal to deliver an E-SE sea breeze: with a trough over the interior it can blow SW. The weather here is also less consistent than the west as lows sweep rain and westerly winds through.
The southerly sea breeze is similar in principle – if practically a little less reliable – east of the Great Australian Bight in Adelaide, as well as Melbourne in the south-east. The further south you go, the greater the temperature difference between warm air and comparatively chilly water. The proximity of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current is noticeable. From Margaret River to Adelaide the water’s 18-21°C in summer, it’s 16-18°C in Melbourne and only 15-17°C in Tasmania's Northwest as prevailing south-west winds light up the legendary lefts.
All year round both the west and south coasts receive massive groundswell from storms that circle the Antarctic in the Roaring Forties and Furious Fifties. Tasmania actually sits in the middle of the Roaring Forties. Apart from Perth and Adelaide, all the regions are excellent wave destinations, even summer days regularly dawn with 2-4m swell providing world-class conditions on the reefs and sandbanks. Mountains of water roll in during winter, but only hardened big-wave hunters brave the relative cold for these massive conditions.
The east coast is more modest when it comes to windstrength and swell heights, and the reliability of the sea breeze diminishes too. In Sydney and on Queensland’s Gold Coast & Brisbane it’s predominantly NE off highs over the Tasmanian Sea but is frequently disrupted by low pressure fronts bringing S-SE winds. Summer sweeteners include the odd cyclone that builds up over the warm waters of the Pacific Jan-Mar then heads south-east from the Coral Sea. They deliver the best swell to the east coast and, given the right track, can occasionally bring useful wind too – typically with heavy rainfall. In the remaining months and during winter, the locals pick the best days when low pressures arrive from Victoria, via Sydney and up the east coast to spin over the ocean off the Gold Coast.
Many parts of Australia experience relatively modest tides ranging from under a metre to a maximum of two metres (2.5-6ft). Larger tides only occur on the continent’s north coast, the Spencer and Saint Vincent Gulfs near Adelaide, and the Bass Straight between Australia and Tasmania. Most of the beach-breaks are relatively unaffected by water depth, but even small tides can affect the quality and sailability of sensitive reefs and flat-water inlets. In a country as surf-crazed as Australia, tide tables are available on every corner and the UIextlinkBureau of Meteorology’s weather sites are excellent.