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Why there is no ‘Harbour’ in Coffs Harbour any more
  |  First Published: August 2016



Notes: Pics 1-3 share a caption, 5-6 share a caption, 10-11 share a caption

Okay, it’s rant time.

At the start of June a massive east coast low that spun up along the Queensland/New South Wales border gave Coffs Harbour (and the rest of the coast all the way down to Tasmania) a nice old touch up. Lives were lost elsewhere, there were floods, beaches disappeared in the space of a weekend, and millions of dollars in coastal infrastructure was damaged.

Coffs Harbour’s actual harbour was badly hit, with waves overwhelming the northern breakwall for a couple of days straight. Waves and swell have been doing this ever since the wall was built back in the 1920s — often the result of east coast lows or ex-tropical cyclones — but this one was a doozy.

In a show of Dunkirk-like spirit, the rescue work conducted by the marina tenants over a pretty hairy 48 hours was magnificent. At times, they were literally risking life and limb to save their own boats, but also those of people they didn’t even know.

A couple of yachties described two terrifying waves in the middle of the night that were as high as the streetlights along the wall. When the white water cleared, a 100m stretch of boardwalk for accessing the marina arms was missing.

Predictably, the three levels of government all lobbed on a sunny Monday morning to get their faces on the news and to have their photos taken while looking suitably concerned. Shame they weren’t there on the weekend to get their hands dirty helping with the clean up and to see what their constituents had been through.

The irony of this disaster though, is that the $6.7 million north wall height extension project was due to commence on the Monday after the storm. While it was too late to make a difference, the start date was delayed because, get this, some rare algae was found growing on the breakwall rocks. Spare me! If it’s not a cure for cancer, well tough luck Mr Fungus. Instead, an essential piece of infrastructure was held up.

And of course the wall option chosen, which was the cheapest, and also the least effective. If more extreme weather events are on the cards, surely you’d choose the best option? No, not in this state or town.

Furthermore, anyone who has anything to do with the harbour scratches their heads in wonder why the Lands Department spent $19 million on raising the height of the south wall, which protects no infrastructure whatsoever, before the north wall? Bizarre priorities, alright.

Unfortunately, large sections of the marina simply crumbled under the 48-hour onslaught, but that’s what happens given that almost no maintenance has been done over the last five years. Nothing would have prevented damage given the magnitude of the storm, but this shameful neglect made a bad situation far, far worse.

From a fishing perspective there are three significant tournaments between August and March next year that are likely to be impacted. Additionally, the famous Pittwater To Coffs yacht race has been cancelled for the first time in its 34 year history because there’s nowhere for the competitors to tie up. In saying that, the on-water facilities have been in serious decline for a long time now and that was reportedly a contributing factor.

With traffic down to the marina reduced to a stop-go controlled single lane while the wall height is raised, no slip, half a marina and reduced parking, businesses down there are really going to do it tough for the next 12 months.

The only good news from down on the harbour-front in recent times was that the Deep Sea Club finally got a lease extension from the council. Lease wise, the yacht club will soon be in a similar situation, so will they be afforded the same courtesy? Council want the land, that’s for sure, and to hell with the club’s 40+ year history in the town. Their plans don’t involve having a yacht club anywhere nearby. (Why Coffs Harbour without a yacht club is about as unthinkable as not having a slipway…)

Then, just as I was finishing this column up, I heard that the Deep Sea Club had closed its doors yet again. Fantastic. Another kick in the guts for Coffs Harbour.

The rumour mill abounds with stories that there’s some great strategic plan for the harbour area. I suspect that it doesn’t exist and it’ll be the same old story with different levels of bureaucracy guarding their own patch of turf, rather than all working together for the betterment of the port. Nothing is ever done with any sense of coordination or planning. It’s all ad hoc, half-arsed and over-priced.

This brings us to the slipway. Despite reassurances that there would be minimal disruption to the working harbour while remediation works were undertaken, it’s now two years since we had a fully functioning slip.

It’s a given that the slipway soil was contaminated with Tributyltin, and sure it’s not great for the environment (I’m told some overseas shipping that enters Australian waters still use it), but it’s not nuclear waste either. The smart, logical and financially practical solution would’ve been to encase the thing in concrete and let the harbour as in Coffs Harbour, continue to function with a slipway.

If the slipway was still open, most of the boats that were damaged in the marina would be sitting up on the hard right now, being fixed or at least in the queue to be fixed. More importantly, the money would be staying right here in Coffs. Instead, a fortune is flowing to Port Macquarie, Yamba, Iluka and the Gold Coast. Many boat owners have vowed never to return, and who would blame them? For cruising vessels, Coffs Harbour has long been a destination best avoided. Posts on some of the blogs are pretty savage, albeit accurate.

On top of this, Customs are preparing to move operations to the Clarence, so Coffs won’t be a port of entry for yachts and other vessels arriving from overseas.

A few weeks before the storm, I got talking to a gent down at the harbour that had some impressive sounding biology qualifications, and he seemed quite knowledgeable about the slipway remediation work. He said the so-called silt barrier was totally ineffective and it’s just there for appearances sake. There was a substantial fish kill in the weeks leading up to the storm, and then the barrier went walkabout at the height of it anyway. Well the genie’s out of the bottle now folks, with plenty of contaminated soil washing back into the harbour. Over 260mm of rain in 48 hours will do that.

Funnily enough, the marina water itself is now as clean as I’ve ever seen it, and you can see the bottom in places that have been murky mysteries for years. This is no doubt due to missing chunks of rock and concrete along the wall allowing seawater to flow through.

This town. Fair dinkum.

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