Brisbane to the Whitsunday Islands

Arriving in Australia from Noumea, Scarborough Marina, just north of Brisbane was a very convenient place to check in. In an otherwise nice marina, we ended up parked next to the very ripe smelling local fishing boats that attracted flocks of birds looking for leftovers. Within two days, a combination of fallout from cane burning, dust from the adjacent boat yard and the birds using our decks for target practice, “Moonshadow” looked like something from the opening scene of “Captain Ron.” We decided to head 40 miles north to the beach resort town of Mooloolaba, touted my many a cruiser as the best spot on the Sunshine Coast.

We departed Scarborough on a dead calm morning. It was so quiet on the water that we motored the entire way, and didn’t even bother to pull off the mainsail cover. Even though the day was rather hazy, we still had a good view to the stunning Glass House Mountains on our port side as we made our way north out of Moreton Bay towards the Sunshine Coast. I managed to reserve the last marina berth in Mooloolaba, where we hung out for two lazy weeks.

Mooloolaba is situated where the Mooloolah River meets the Coral Sea. It is reminiscent of South Florida with its gorgeous beaches, high rise apartments and resort hotels, a lovely beach front esplanade and miles of inland waterways lined with million-plus dollar homes. Some of the largest homes were easily more than 10,000 square feet, with spectacular architecture, lush gardens, infinity pools, and, of course, a marina out back for the family yacht(s).

After two weeks I’d had enough of the city and throngs of tourists, and longed for a bit of “liquid out-back,” so decided to start moving north to warmer climes and to see some of the Coral Coast.

Departing Mooloolaba with an OK weather prognosis, the plan was to reach Pelican Bay, just inside the Wide Bay Bar at the south end of the Great Sandy Strait. The strait is a very narrow stretch of shallow water formed by the Australian mainland on the west side, and Fraser Island, the largest sand island in the world, to the east. By the time we had made it abeam Noosa Heads, about 20 miles north, I was getting a bit concerned. Seas had kicked up from barely a meter to more than 3-4 meters and winds had freshened from 10-15 to 20 gusting 30 knots. This is not so much of a worry for us in open water, but when crossing a river sand bar with a very thin 5 meters of water over it, the seas could easily mount up to half again the size and then break as they do on a beach. This is no place to be with anything but a surf board.

I rang the Coast Guard at Tin Can Bay, the station nearest the bar to get a report on its condition. The coastie who answered the phone told me that he had no report on the condition of the bar, but said wryly “based on the wind and sea state, I wouldn’t recommend crossing it in anything smaller than an aircraft carrier mate.” Plan B was to anchor at the south end of Wide Bay in the lee of Double Island Point, described by Alan Lucas in the “Cruising the Coral Coast” as “one of the most uncomfortable on the coast.” Plan C was to sail around the seaward side of Fraser Island, some 120 miles and make landfall in Bundaburg. Given the declining weather situation I opted for plan B, reckoning that we’d be safe, if not a bit uncomfortable.

The anchorage behind Double Island Point turned out to be reasonably comfortable considering we had sustained winds of 25-35 knots for more than two days, occasional driving rain showers and a refracting swell of nearly a meter coming around the point into the Bay. Going to shore was impossible, so all that we could do is eat, drink, read and sleep.

Two and a half days later, the weather began to moderate. I spoke to Coast Guard Tin Can Bay again and they had reports of “nothing but white water” in the area of the bar. Just when I thought we were in for another day of forced R&R, we heard on the radio of a small yacht that had made it safely over the bar and was reporting reasonable conditions. Within minutes, the chart plotter was on, the engine running, and the windlass was hoisting our anchor. Two hours later, we were safely at anchor again, inside the bar at Pelican Bay. The conditions at the bar as we crossed near the high tide were not too bad at all, and the short crossing was pretty much a non-event.

Our next challenge was to make it through the Great Sandy Strait. This a rather narrow estuary, mostly lined with mangroves, separating the Queensland mainland from Fraser Island. While there is lots of surface area of water in the Great Sandy Strait, it is quite tidal; much of it drying at low tide, and the navigable area for any sort of keel boat is restricted to a very narrow and winding channel.

The forty-mile long channel is well marked with more than 40 beacons. Various side channels branching from the main channel require one to be very diligent about navigation lest you end up on the sand. This requires constant concentration divided between the chart plotter, the depth sounder and the channel ahead of us. While the trip is very calm and scenic, I found myself with one hand on the binoculars and the other on the autopilot course change button for most of the day. It is also important to time the passage through shallowest part of the strait for half-tide and rising. At one point we had less than 12 inches of water beneath the keel! We managed to get it all right, and made the trip without touching bottom.

Departing Pelican Bay at mid-morning, we easily made it to and anchorage off the town of Urangan at the other end in daylight hours, passing a number of small backwater townships with Aboriginal names like Tinnanbar, Poona, Tuan, Boonaooroo and Maaroom.

With dolphins escorting us out of the anchorage the next morning, we motored on a windless sunny day to the town of Bundaberg, forty miles up the Hervey Bay coastline, and another ten miles inland up the Burnett River. The trip upstream to “Bundy” is another that must be undertaken with plenty of water on a rising tide. We took anchorage on the Town Reach in a scenic area characterized by the old sugar mill and the rickety docks of the local fishing fleet. Bundaberg is one of a number of ports along the Queensland Coast where sugar cane is harvested, refined and loaded on to ships for export. One of the byproducts of sugar refining process is molasses. It is usually made in to cattle feed or distilled into rum. In this case, the latter is true, with Bundaberg being Australia’s most popular tipple. During one of our two days there we took a tour of the refinery and had a sample or two of the local grog.

Later that afternoon, on the rising tide, we motored down stream to the mouth of the Burnett River and took anchorage for the night in the site of a future marina. With the forecasted return of the southeast trade winds we looked forward to a nice sail up to Lady Musgrave Island the next morning.

Once again, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology got it wrong. The 15 knot south easterlies ended up being ten knot southerlies which dropped to about five knots as we motor sailed our way fifty miles north. I suppose if they’re going to get it wrong, it might as well be light rather than heavy.

Lady Musgrave is a coral cay surrounding a small, low lying sand island, reminiscent of some of the formations we saw in the Tuamotus, Tonga, Fiji and New Caledonia. A well-marked pass allowed easy entry into the lagoon with plenty of water over most of the bommies to navigate and anchor easily. Lady Musgrave, in the Bunker Group of Islands, would be one of the southern most coral cays forming Australia’s massive Great Barrier Reef. As numerous boats made their way into the protective reef at Lady Musgrave, we enjoyed a relaxing afternoon then sundowners on the beach to a spectacular crimson Queensland sunset.

Early the next morning, we headed back to the Australian mainland and the port city of Gladstone. Gladstone is a very industrial town, with numerous plants for processing the various minerals mined in the outback of Queensland. Once processed, they are loaded on to ships for transport to various parts of the world. It is a fairly quiet little town that is mostly closed on Saturday, locked up and shut down on Sunday. The marina however is very nice, adjacent to a large park where the locals come for some R & R on the weekends.

From Gladstone, we made our way north inside of Curtis Island to Swan Creek. We were prevented by the tides from moving any further north, but were in a good position to be at “The Narrows,” the shallowest part of this inland passage, for the next morning’s high tide. At low tide, The Narrows dries to as much as +2 meters or about 6 feet above sea level, so unless one wants to literally be a stick in the mud, you must cross this area when the rising tide has enough water to allow passage of your keel.

By our departure time of 0900 the following morning, the dense fog had lifted enough for us to work our way north again. We got the timing pretty much right and only just kissed the soft mud bottom at the shallowest of points. Having made it through the Narrows on this crisp morning, we made our way through the estuaries toward Keppel Bay. Once again, we were besieged by fog, and found ourselves moving in near zero visibility with just bare steerageway, feeling our way along with the radar, chart plotter and depth sounder “flying on instruments” for more than an hour As the estuary opened up into Keppel Bay, the fog once again lifted, opening up the view to the Keppel Islands to the north.

We headed to Great Keppel Island, anchoring off the west-facing beach dotted with resorts, holiday homes and backpackers accommodation. We spent a day hiking on the island, and taking in some of the idyllic white-sand beaches that make this place a hit for vacationers from around the world.

Our next stop was a one afternoon/evening layover in Pearl Bay. This beautiful little bay on the Capricornia Coast is well protected from the east to southeasterly trade winds, has a long strip of white sand beach, and has steep, evergreen wooded hills that plunge to the sea. The mainland, along with the rocky islets just offshore, reminded me of the San Juan Islands in America’s Pacific Northwest.

We split up the next leg to the City of Mackay with an overnight stopover at Blunt Bay in North East Percy Island. The anchorage here was pretty average, but provided a good night’s rest.

With a fresh southerly blowing, we had a swift sail west to Mackay, spotting four migrating whales along the way. While the landfall in Mackay is not particularly notable, what is interesting are the literally dozens of huge tanker ships anchored for miles off the coast of this port city. In the last few years, Mackay has expanded its outer harbor, adding a small boat marina complex which berthing for hundreds of boats, high-rise apartments, pubs, restaurants, cafes, a yacht club and a boat yard. On the weekends, this area is a hub of activity, live music and appears to be the place to be in Mackay.

The marina offered us a nice deal, essentially three nights berthing for the price of two, so we took a bit of a break from our rather fast-paced movements to chill out and relax. Mackay City, about 6 km from the marina is reminiscent of Mid Western agricultural town, with wide streets, mostly low rise buildings, and lots of art deco and Spanish mission style architecture from the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s. We took a heritage walk through the city, checking out some of these well-maintained pieces of history.

Once again the wind Gods blessed us with a fresh southerly for our last leg of the trip to the Whitsundays. Departing Mackay at 0800, by the time we were out of the shipping channel, the breeze had filled into 15+ knots and we were enjoying a nice reach northward. As we sailed into the Whitsunday group, we could see why this is one of the premier sailing destinations of Australia. Gorgeous islands dotted with resorts, white sand beaches, warm blue waters, calm seas protected by the islands and the Great Barrier Reef to the east, a plethora of quiet remote anchorages-a sailor’s paradise. We worked our way through the Whitsunday Channel, past Hamilton, Whitsunday and Long Islands, into Pioneer Bay to the little resort town of Airlie. Airlie is the mainland gateway to the Whitsundays, and the venue for the annual Hog’s Breath Café’s “Hawaiian Shirt Regatta” sailing week. More on that later!

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