It should have been a moment of joy for Michael Campbell, as he brought his new boat, Paperboy, into Lake Macquarie in the spring of 2020.
But no sooner had Mr Campbell entered Swansea Channel than the joy foundered. The 55-foot cruiser, worth more than a million dollars, hit a sand bank near the southern entrance to Swan Bay.
"We could feel the back of the boat tip up as we hit the bank," Mr Campbell said.
Having spent his life by, and on, the lake, Michael Campbell knew he had to be careful heading along the channel. After all, the shifting sands in the entrance to Lake Macquarie had caused navigation problems for many years. Although Paperboy had only a 1.2-metre draught, there still wasn't enough water underneath the cruiser.
Paperboy managed to escape the sand, but the damage was done.
"I had to take the propellers off and get them rebalanced," he said.
By the time the boat was lifted from the water and the repair work done, the bill came to about $3000: "It's a costly exercise."
So Paperboy is moored off Coal Point, cruising nowhere.
"It's ridiculous, I can't believe it," Mr Campbell said. "We'd like to go on some weekend trips down to the Hawkesbury or Pittwater. But I wouldn't want to risk a $3000 to $4000 opportunity to get out of the channel."
Paperboy is but one in a fleet that has fallen foul of the channel in recent months, particularly in the area near the Swan Bay entrance, commonly known as the Dog Leg. For vessels with a keel - in other words, most sailboats - the channel has become perilously shallow.
According to Malcolm Druce, the commander of Marine Rescue Lake Macquarie, between January 1 and February 13, the unit's volunteer crews towed 11 vessels off the sand in the channel. That amounted to about 10 per cent of all the jobs done by the unit in that time.
Marine Rescue Lake Macquarie's boats are based just south of the Dog Leg at Pelican. Which means the crews have been close to the action.
As he guided the unit's boat, Lake Macquarie 30, towards the Dog Leg, coxswain Howard Elsey pointed out to the Newcastle Herald a sand trap just under the surface.
"You can see the smooth water, well, that's all sand under there, and the sand just shifts," said Mr Elsey.
The issue was played out on the boat's depth sounder, as the figure quickly shrank to 1.4 metres. And it was high tide. So what would those depths mean for a sailor?
"Trouble," he replied. "They will not get through if they draw more than 1.4 metres."
In his decade as a member of Marine Rescue Lake Macquarie, Howard Elsey said this season was the worst for sand build-up, and the busiest for towing stricken vessels.
"It's constant," he said. "The last one I did, they [the yacht crew] gave up. They said, 'We're fed up. We've grounded three times already, just getting to this point'. So they just wanted to go back into the lake."
That resignation of not being able to get in or out of the lake is widespread among sailors, according to Geoff Edman, the commodore of Lake Macquarie Yacht Club at Belmont. Mr Edman estimated about 70 per cent of keeled-vessels in the lake would not be able to get through the channel without assistance, such as being towed.
"We'd be looking at hundreds of boats that can't get in and out without assistance," he said.
Geoff Edman's yacht, Cardinal Syn, is one of them. It has not left the lake in a couple of years, much to Mr Edman's frustration, as he enjoys off-shore cruising.
Mr Edman cited a string of events that had been cancelled because of the channel. A visit by sailors from the Royal Prince Alfred Yacht Club in Pittwater planned for earlier this year, for instance, was called off.
In blocking visitors, the channel was constricting the flow of money.
As an example, he said, there were a few boats in the marina that had been sold and couldn't leave the lake to go to their new owner. What's more, cruising yachties were literally sailing past the lake's entrance, taking potential revenue for local businesses with them.
Mr Edman said it was difficult to put an amount on how much the lake communities had missed out on, but "if it's not in the millions of dollars a year, I'd be very surprised".
The recent Heaven Can Wait charity regatta, run by Royal Motor Yacht Club Toronto, was down on donations, organisers say, in part because of the shallow channel. Some yachts couldn't or wouldn't come into the lake to participate.
One is Wallop, which is usually berthed at Toronto. Each year, its owner Peter Hewson and crew raise about $5000 to go towards helping Hunter cancer patients. But this year, the yacht was stuck in Newcastle.
"I couldn't come back in, Newcastle boats couldn't come, Sydney boats couldn't come, Port Stephens boats wanted to come, a couple of Coffs Harbour boats were interested, so there's that loss of income for the Cancer Council," Mr Hewson said.
"But we also have people wanting to run state titles here. Can't do it."
While the channel remained so shallow, he said, "it means no more big yachting regattas in Lake Macquarie. And Lake Macquarie is known for its superb yachting and sailing."
It may be relatively short, being only a few kilometres, but Swansea Channel has a long history of being a battleground between Mother Nature and human ambitions. Since the 19th century, all manner of methods, from breakwaters to dredging, has been used to deepen and clear the channel, but the sand just keeps coming in and settling.
According to locals, some of the solutions have added to the problem. The Sand Islands at the channel's northern end have been effectively created over the years from spoil dredged out of the channel. While they may be a drawcard for visitors, those islands, locals say, not only mean the sand trickles back into the channel, they have also changed the flow of water.
"It's bloody annoying, to be quite honest," said Keith Jensen, whose son, Olympic gold medallist, Iain Jensen, learnt to sail on the lake.
"It needs a permanent solution."
In a written statement, Andrew Mogg, the acting executive director of NSW Maritime, explained what was done to keep the channel navigable. He said NSW Maritime boating safety officers monitored the level of shoaling in the channel and maintained the navigation markers, and hydrographic surveys were carried out every six months.
However, Mr Mogg reminded that, "It is always the responsibility of the skipper to check all conditions ... when planning a boating trip".
Dredging is the main means of clearing the channel.
Andrew Mogg said the area had been "the beneficiary of two packages of NSW Government funded dredging work last year to remove more than 25,000 cubic metres of sand from the Swansea Channel".
The dredging program for this past boating season was disrupted by tragedy, with the death of a contractor. The local state MP, Yasmin Catley, told parliament recently about the delays and shifting timetables, with the expected completion date pushed back to Australia Day.
"Yet here we are in mid-February, the dredge has sat idle in Swan Bay for months, and the dredging work has not been done, leaving Marine Rescue to pick up the pieces," she said on February 17.
Andrew Mogg said the dredging work was "expected to be completed on the channel before Easter, weather permitting".
Yasmin Catley has repeatedly called for the government to provide a permanent dredging solution for the channel. She recently tabled a petition with 2181 signatures, calling for a "proactive dredging schedule" rather than one that reacted to a growing problem.
Lake Macquarie Yacht Club's Geoff Edman shared that view of the need for regular maintenance.
"I look at dredging the channel as something like mowing the lawn," he said.
As he guided the Marine Rescue craft around the shoals, Howard Estley said, "The simple solution is a dredge based here in Lake Macquarie, whose sole job it is to maintain the channel."
Others believe dredging is just a stop-gap measure.
"Surely we can be smarter than that," said boat owner Michael Campbell, who proposed more studies of the channel's hydrology to find a long-term solution.
"We built the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and it works. Why can't we make a small channel work? I don't get it."
While Swansea Channel is the entrance to an extraordinary waterway, Yasmin Catley believes the area's potential is being choked.
"The lake, in my view, is our ultimate gem," she said. "Not to be able to showcase it because you can't navigate it is embarrassing."