On the south-western shores of Australia when the storm clouds of winter has passed
The sun rises high in a clear assure sky and summer is with us at last
You can fry an egg on the pavement or burn your feet on the sand
So we’ll wait for the breeze, the stiff summer breeze to cool the old city again
“The Fremantle Doctor” Words Patrick O’Leary, music Carmel Charlton from her 1993 Songs of the West Album
No matter where you are, you will experience strong winds. Southern France has the Mistral, North Africa the Sirrocco, the Rockies the Chinook, South America the Williwaw, and Antarctica has the Roaring Forties, Furious Fifties and the Screaming Sixties. Here in Australia, the Doctors torment Western Australia.
Of all the places we have visited in our travels around Australia, the southern half of Western Australia, the Nullarbor, and the Eyre Peninsula were the most persistently windiest places we visited. Although you can’t avoid wind, travelling in a caravan is a big deal mainly because you like to set up your awning to provide a nice living space in a limited area. And as any caravan owner knows, it doesn’t take too much strong wind to get you nervous about how the awning will cope, more so if strong wind gusts blow through in the middle of the night. I wrote about the infamous winds at Cooktown in a previous blog, but they were more of a one-off experience while in North Queensland.
The wind in Western Australia is world-beating. The world’s strongest recorded wind gust at Western Australia’s Barrow Island was 408 kilometres per hour and occurred during tropical cyclone Olivia on 10 April 1996. The strongest gust ever recorded on mainland Australia was also in Western Australia. It blew at 267 kilometres per hour and was recorded at a weather station at Learmonth, south of Exmouth, during tropical cyclone Vance on 22 March 1999.
But it is not just during cyclonic weather that Western Australia experiences strong winds. We first noticed the persistent and annoying westerly winds while at Geraldton during spring. I believe they were part of the Roaring Forties that rip across the Indian Ocean in spring and autumn. The Dutch pioneered a route from the Cape of Good Hope (South Africa) to Batavia (Java) using the winds of the Roaring Forties. The wind took ships well south and then east on what turned out to be a collision course with Australia for those ships that did not turn north early enough. For many years it deposited lost Dutch navigators like Hartog, Janszoon, de Houtman, Tasman and de Vlamingh on the shores of Western Australia willy-nilly. If they chanced upon the Australian coast at night, they were likely to run into a reef or smash up on cliffs.
During summer, however, Geraldton and other centres nearby experience a “beasterly easterly” which brings hot dry winds from the interior.
Perth is the third windiest city in the world after Chicago and Auckland. According to historical observations from the Bureau of Meteorology, the coastal town of Dunsborough, south of Perth, has the second-highest annual mean wind speed recorded at 3 pm – 30 kilometres per hour, behind Port Welshpool in Victoria at 32.6 kilometres per hour. Geraldton is at 40th, just ahead of Perth at 16.6 kilometres per hour. Click here to view the complete data.
South-west coastal areas of Western Australia are renowned for experiencing the Fremantle Doctor during the summer months, which provides a welcoming cooling afternoon sea breeze. The south-westerly occurs because of the significant temperature difference between the land and sea and starts between 10 am and 3 pm. It can penetrate as far inland as 100 kilometres, reaching York in the early evening.
The Fremantle Doctor often cools the Perth suburbs by several degrees, whilst nearer the coast, the wind can be quite strong, constantly blowing between 28 and 37 kilometres per hour. On days when the wind fails, the afternoon temperatures of Perth suburbs are considerably higher, often exceeding 40°C. However, this is also attributable to the influence of a strong easterly wind blowing in hot desert air from the state’s arid interior.
The Fremantle Doctor is strongest in December and January, when the temperature differential between the land and ocean is greatest. The breeze is not as strong in February and March because the sea is warmer. The wind is sometimes called the Fremantle Docker, allegedly because, in the days of sail, ships would lie offshore waiting for the afternoon wind to carry them into the Fremantle Dock.
Prevailing winds through the Wheatbelt are known as the Albany Doctor, which comes from the south-east in the mid-afternoon. At Katanning, the Albany Doctor is seen as weaker and very irregular by farmers these days. Burning used to be planned with great confidence in the 1980s around the arrival of the Albany Doctor, but now the locals claim you cannot rely on the strength of the doctor or when it will arrive.
We stayed in the Wheatbelt last Christmas and New Year, near Kenmare on top of Kenine Hill, at 371 metres above sea level. It had fantastic views in all directions over the Wheatbelt. But it was exposed to the unforgiving and infamous Albany Doctor, which roared over the hill from the south-east. It started most afternoons and continued throughout the night, but it is known to begin howling by 7:00 am. If we experienced a milder Albany Doctor, I would hate to feel it when it is strong!
These winds are called “Doctors” because they bring a cooling afternoon sea breeze at the end of a hot day, providing much-needed relief. And if you have ever been in the southern half of Western Australia during the summer, you welcome the cooling breeze. We certainly did on the Wheatbelt during the summer.
Albany is known for its strong winds and heavy rains. Since the 1960s, both are apparently no longer as frequent. However, we again noticed the winds while staying in the town. I asked a local hairdresser, who has lived her whole life in Albany if the area was windy. She responded she didn’t think so. I had a similar conversation with two other people after a windy day in Albany with gusts up to 70 kilometres per hour. After I said it was windy today, they both said, “what wind”?
Further east near Esperance, we saw sand dunes 50 to 60 metres high, driven to these fantastic heights by the Esperance Doctor. Wind is such a big part of life on the south coast of WA, that it is celebrated. Esperance holds a biennial Festival of the Wind over the the first weekend in October. In contrast with Sydney’s and Queensland’s Emu Bay annual Festival of the Winds, which only celebrate kite flying, each festival in Esperance has its own theme. It is the premier festival for the south coast region of Western Australia, celebrating all that is the Esperance lifestyle through live entertainment, music, art & culture. And of course there is kite flying.
I bet no matter where you live, you have a local wind pattern with a great name, but the question is, can it rival the notorious and persistent winds in Western Australia?