Southerly busters

Ron and Viv Moon — 21 May 2018

We were camped on a beach on the far west coast of South Australia enjoying a few wines and nibbles and enjoying the sunset when we noticed a bank of cloud moving pretty rapidly in our direction. Our mate, who has had his fair share of nautical experiences casually remarked that there was a 'blow' coming.

The resultant change was sudden and dramatic. One minute we were enjoying a balmy late afternoon, the sun sinking slowly to the horizon, the sea like a mirror with a low, low oily swell lifting gently onto and up the sandy beach. The cliffs had taken on the colour of burnished gold before plunging into dark grey as the cloud rolled closer — and then the wind hit. 

A vacant chairs took off, tumbling before the 'southerly buster' and an awning canvas began snapping in the breeze. The sea, so gentle a second before, became a turbulent expanse of battleship grey flecked by violent white-caps; tearing, piercing and now washed with cold spray from a sombre sea.

We rushed back to our campers, battened down the hatches and doors, seeking shelter from the storm. The worse passed in a few minutes and we came out of our abodes to a cooler and more subtle slate-coloured scene.

A few weeks later my mate was camped at Twilight Cove, one of my favourite beach camps in southern Australia when he and his camping companions noticed a plane flying low and waggling its wings in what was the first of a couple of low level passes before it turned and flew away. Just minutes later a 'Southerly Buster' hit with all its fury, ripping an awning off its mounting, lifting a camp table up and flinging it against the cliffs 200 metres away, rolling a pegged down camping gazebo hundreds of metres along the beach, while also tearing a couple of wind-out windows and vents on both of the slide-on campers off their hinges. 

Minutes later all was calm again and my mates counted the cost of the quick and sudden change.

While NSW people have long thought they were the sole recipients of what they thought were Southerly Busters, but during my youth, spent largely on the beaches of South Australia, proceedings were often punctuated by what we also called Southerly Busters. 

These dramatic weather events, also called 'backdoor fronts' in the USA and 'Spanish Plumes' in Europe, generally occur in summer and are characterised by a violent wind change and a plummet in temperature of up to 15°C, or more. But it's the wind change that can adversely and most dramatically affect us. Just earlier this year the Clipper Fleet, which was then sailing up the NSW coast was hit by a classical Southerly Buster, where the wind went from a 17 knot (32kph) north-easterly to a 55 knot (101kph) south-westerly in the matter of seconds. That is a bloody dramatic wind change when you consider wind gusts of 100kph can take roofs off houses, let alone tents out of their far less permanent moorings.

Such a wind change when you're camping on what are some pretty exposed beaches along our southern coastline can send the camp into turmoil, as we recently found out during the aforementioned episodes. My advice? Keep a lookout for such weather changes, batten down the hatches before it hits —and have the tent and camper canvas pegged down with some bloody good sand pegs!


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