Queensland, Australia: The Whitsundays to Cape York


  Merima with cockatoo, Hamilton Island

I realize that I haven’t tapped out a “Sailor’s Log” for quite some time now, about six months to be exact, but for good reason. I’ve enjoyed the Queensland coast of Australia so much that, in my usual fashion, I got caught in the drift and decided to slow down and savor it a bit longer. With visas and cruising permits extended, we could cram a year of cruising into two years.

That said, I didn’t feel I wanted to be in Tropical North Queensland during the southern hemisphere summer or “wet” season. It’s bloody HOT, with daytime temperatures often reaching 35 deg. C or nearly 100 deg. F. If you don’t mind the heat, then maybe the high humidity and voracious mosquitoes will put you off. Take a dip in the nice cool ocean, you are probably thinking. But you don’t want to stick your big toe in the ocean without a full protection suit from November through March because there are numerous species of stinging jellyfish that can inflict seriously painful or even lethal stings (not to mention crocs and sharks). In fact, Australia’s land, sea and air have more critters that can kill or seriously injure you than probably the rest of the world combined (I have a 192-page book on the subject). On the other hand, for a country with such an inhospitable climate and treacherous inhabitants, it is one of the most fascinating and enchanting places I’ve visited, with some of the most hospitable and fun people I’ve ever met. I decided to wimp out, park Moonshadow in a safe marina with a caretaker, and spend a few months doing some air and land travel in more agreeable climates.

In one paragraph, during this time off I managed three trips “home” to New Zealand, two visits to Sydney, and a visit to the United States and Mexico for a fantastic family reunion on a cruise ship, all by air of course. I followed this up with five-week minor refit and haul out to Moonshadow in Mackay. The highlight of all these wanderings was that I met a wonderful Kiwi lady named Merima, who has joined me as permanent crew. Needless to say, life has been full-on, so it’s great to be ship-shape, back cruising again, with great company and on a more relaxed, one-day-at-a-time schedule.

Last season, I made it as far north as the quaint little tropical resort town of Port Douglas, about 35nm north of Cairns, or about the mid point of Australia’s incredible 2000 km/1200 mile long Great Barrier Reef. This before retracing my course south a bit to Hamilton Island in the Whitsunday Islands, where I left Moonshadow in a safe marina for the southern cyclone season.

Our plan this season was to head northwest along the Queensland Coast inside the Great Barrier Reef to Cape York, or “the Tip” as it is known here, which is the northernmost point of Continental Australia, situated approximately eleven degrees south of the Equator. From there, we planned to sail west across the Gulf of Carpenteria to Nhulunbuy, then “over the top” of the Northern Territory to Darwin, where we will join the annual Darwin-to-Kupang rally on our first leg to Indonesia and Southeast Asia.

George with spanish mackerel.  

Merima flew over to join me after the refit in Mackay for a five-week holiday, and to check out the cruising lifestyle. A seasoned traveler, fluent in four languages, she’s always had a dream of sailing the world. Well, after five weeks of leisurely cruising through the Whitsundays and up to Cairns, she was hooked. We both flew back to Auckland to attend the 80th birthday celebration of my good sailing mate Bill Miller the first week of June. Merima decided to grab the rest of her gear and join me as permanent “crew.” We landed back in Cairns, provisioned up, and made the short hop 35 nautical miles north to Port Douglas the following day. Here we will pick up thread from where we left off last season.

Port Douglas is a cool little town that has managed to maintain a bit of its laid-back, local flavor. While it is touristy, it doesn’t seem to get the throngs that inundate the towns on the Sunshine and Gold Coasts down in South Queensland. Situated where a crocodile-infested, mangrove-lined river meets the Coral Sea, it is reminiscent of a backwater bayou town in the deep south of the United States. The Court House Hotel, the main watering hole in town, posts a sight coaxing everyone to take it easy and knock off early with their “Friday session,” which means live music and cheap drinks from 4 pm. And of course there is a Saturday evening session and a Sunday afternoon session as well. The main drag, Macrossan Street, is lined with trendy cafes, shops, art galleries, bookstores, a couple of very trendy nightclubs, as well as a couple of old-time hotels (that’s Australian for pub).

Armed with some “local knowledge” from the Port Douglas Volunteer Coast Guard, we headed ten miles north to the Daintree River, which flows through one of the most pristine Rain Forests in the world, also called the Daintree. We were hoping to spend a day or two anchored up the river, taking in the beautiful scenery and wildlife. I should have known the information was questionable when the guy got confused and suggested I leave the green buoy to port when going over the river bar (bouyage is opposite here to the Americas – it’s port or red to port when returning to port). Anyway, over the bar there was way less water than the 3 meters purported by the coastie, and just past the first mark we were bouncing off the bottom in less than two meters of water. I executed a very quick back-and-fill U-turn and made for deeper water. Crikey!!

With the bottom of Moonshadow’s keel and rudder now very clean, we opted for a hastily made plan B, and sailed north/northwest to Lena Reef. It was a beautiful beam reach in 15 to 20 knots of southeast trade winds and we were gliding along at nearly 11 knots at times in the smooth water inside the protection of the Great Barrier Reef. We anchored just off a coral patch of the outer GBR (Great Barrier Reef).

The following morning we enjoyed a surprisingly beautiful dive on the coral reef just off the boat. The vis was easily 50 meters/160 feet and there was much there to please the eyes. The bottom was dotted with giant clams, some at least a meter across, and with beautiful variegated iridescent mantels. Merima lost her breath when she came face to face with a 3 meter/10 foot long tawny nurse shark napping on the bottom, and became a bit nervous when a large white tipped reef shark made a curious close swim-by. I told her not to worry as they are MAN-eaters. Other highlights were a two meter/6 foot long moray eel and numerous clownfish (Nemo?) It was a beautiful spot in the middle of nowhere and there wasn’t another boat in sight.

After the dive, we motored the short 6 miles north to Ribbon Reef #2. The Ribbon Reefs form the outer GBR, extending for about 100 miles, and offer an average of one world-class dive sites per mile. If you’re a diver, it just doesn’t get much better than this. We had a nice dive on a large bommie just a few boat lengths off our port beam. Vis was pretty good and we enjoyed swim-bys from a small gray reef shark and a large Spanish mackerel. Once again, we were the only ones there.

After a couple of nights anchored out on the GBR, we decided to pop into Cooktown, the last town on the east coast of Cape York heading north. It was the Queen’s Birthday holiday, a long weekend, and they had the Discovery Festival on, commemorating the visit by Captain James Cook during his epoch circumnavigation. We wanted to check it out, and top up on fresh fruits and veggies, as we would be in the “liquid outback” of North Queensland for the next few weeks.

Cooktown reminded us of something out of the Wild West. It is virtually the last real township on the west coast of Cape York until you get to the final outpost on Thursday Island, about 350 miles north/northwest. Some of the old buildings still had hitching posts and a number of the streets were unpaved. If the town is on the edge of civilization, some of its inhabitants appeared to be a bit over the edge. There were lots of dodgy characters hanging around, drinking, and eying Merima with questionable intent. I suppose they don’t see too many sheilas up in these parts. A bit uncomfortable with the vibe, we quickly did our shopping and headed straight back to Moonshadow.

The next drama was a charter sailboat full of guests that came into the harbor at low tide and ran hard aground. The skipper dropped his anchor and then came over in his tender to give me grief for “blocking the channel.” Well, I had entered the very compact harbor, dropped my anchor on the leeward edge of the three meter deep unmarked “channel” and drifted back to settle into water that was just two meters deep, leaving us the luxury of 8″ of water under the keel at low tide. Even though his draft was 2.6 meters, he insisted that I was in his way. I wasn’t in the mood to give Captain Wanker a mathematics lesson, so I apologized needlessly but under my breath suggested that, if he was in fact literate, that he might find some interesting reading in the local tide chart.

In defense of Cooktown, they had a very nice fireworks display that evening, fired from a barge in the middle of the harbor, and an excellent jazz band on the waterfront whose music wafted out to us anchored just offshore. Captain Wanker got off the putty at high tide about 8 PM that evening, and we escaped unscathed early the next morning.

With 13-15 knots of breeze from the east/southeast, we had a comfortable close reach to Wonderland Reef, about 32nm northeast of Cooktown. Wonderland Reef is a large circular coral patch rising out of 25 meters/80 feet of blue water just inside Ribbon Reef #9. We put out all 100 meters of chain and managed to hook the anchor solid in the lee of the reef.

Wonderland Reef is a diver’s wonderland of steep walls, caves, cutbacks and overhangs. There were plenty of colorful tropical fish, large reef fish, and a few pelagics who appeared to be window shopping for a meal. The vis was not as good as Lena Reef, but we could still easily see the bottom. It took us an hour to leisurely circumnavigate the reef, and once again, we had it all to ourselves.

We continued northward on the outer GBR towards a world famous (in Australia) dive site called the Cod Hole. Along the way, we hooked a very nice yellow-tailed kingfish, and brought him right up to the transom, but as I tried to lift him on board, he fell away, having just barely been hooked by the skin of his lucky little lip.

At Cod Hole we picked up a mooring just a few meters from the coral, in a very rolly pass through the reef from the Coral Sea. This was no place to spend a pleasant evening, as the rolling might spill our drinks, so we decided to immediately hop into the water to see what this place was famous for, and then make our way to a calm anchorage. Once in the water, we were descended upon by a family of very large potato cod, some well over a meter long. Their mouths were huge, and they looked as if they could easily nip off a human appendage if their normal food supplies ran low. They appeared quite tame, almost curious, and allowed us to get up close and personal to have a look and take some photos. There were a number of other large fish milling about, including a large maori wrasse and a school of silvery trevally. It was a very fun and interesting dive, and we were the only people in the water for miles around.

After a quick dive, we slipped the mooring at Cod Hole and sailed in light airs 14 nm west to Lizard Island, taking anchorage in the very well protected Watson’s Bay. Shortly after we anchored, our old mate Captain Wanker arrived and anchored next to us. In addition to being mathematically and navigationally challenged, it seems he had also missed the lesson on anchorage etiquette. He ran his rather loud diesel engine all night long while burning all of his deck lights. When I awoke at 0600 the next morning all was quiet and he was gone. Good riddance!!

Hankering for a bit of exercise, we took the tender ashore and walked up to Cook’s Lookout, the highest peak on Lizard Island at 300-ish meters or about 1000 feet. This is the lookout point were Captain James Cook, on his famous voyage, came in hopes of spotting a safe passage out of the Great Barrier Reef. He so named the island because of its population of very large lizards, related to Indonesia’s Komodo Dragons. It was a challenging but beautiful walk. The views were spectacular in all directions – mainland Australia to the west and the outer Great Barrier Reef to our east, and we even saw one of the large (about a meter long) lizards along the way.

Well, it’s not all play on board the Moonshadow, and that afternoon it was time to do laundry. We had quite a bundle and as we got stuck into it, the washer broke down. I quickly diagnosed the problem as a broken agitator drive belt. I was feeling quite smug, as I carry a spare in the parts inventory, and after a few minutes was able to put my hands on it. I played “Maytag Repair Man” and half an hour later the replacement belt was installed and our vintage 1985 Twin Tub washing machine was humming along once again. Well, the “new” belt that I purchased and placed in inventory about 9 years ago had become quite brittle. After one cycle, it also broke, so we were back to hand washing. Bugger!

With the laundry finally finished around sunset, we relaxed in the cockpit with a sundowner and were rewarded with a beautiful Australian sunset and the elusive “green flash.” We were enjoying a quiet moment and reflecting on the day when Captain Wanker came whistling into the anchorage again, dropping his hook next to us and, in typical form, running his engine and deck lights all night. I fantasized about stuffing a potato in his exhaust pipe and shooting out his deck lights with a pellet gun.

Departing Lizard Island the next morning, we found light winds, about 9-12 knots, well behind the beam, so we set the asymmetrical spinnaker. In flat seas we were moving along nicely at speeds from 6-9 knots and soon overtook a gaggle of yachts that had departed a half an hour before us. The winds gradually dropped off to the low single digits, so we gave up and motorsailed to the Pipon Islets. We had our first dolphin visit in ages, and at anchor that evening watched the sun set beautifully red over the Australian continent, finally enjoying a bit of peace and quiet.

On our way to Tijou Reef the next morning, we landed our first fish of the season. It was a Spanish mackerel and rather small at 5 kg, but we were happy to finally break the curse and have some fresh seafood for a change. Our catch was quickly and efficiently processed into sashimi, a batch of poisson cru, a dinner of pan-fried mackerel in a soy-bourbon-coriander sauce, with the remains marinated and to be dried into fish jerky.

From Tijou Reef, we had a quick spinnaker run to the remote outpost of Portland Roads. We hooked two fish, but with speeds of 10-12 knots over the water, we lost both of them. Portland Roads turned out to be a rather rolly anchorage in the east-southeasterly winds.

The following day, on the way to Shelburne Bay, we lost one lure and had another torn to shreds by whatever had struck it. We had a lovely day’s sail under spinnaker in light airs and flat seas. Approaching Shelbourne Bay sort of brings to mind what it must be like to make landfall on the Alaskan coastline in winter. There were lots of wooded areas with absolutely white patches on the hills and along the coast. The silica sand beach and dunes were literally so white, that they appeared to be covered in freshly fallen snow. Now I’ve seen a few “white sand” beaches in eleven years of cruising, but this one wins the Clorox award for whiteness.

From Shelburne Bay, we continued north to the Escape River, our last stop before reaching Cape York. The shoreline was a mixture of white sand beaches and deep red bauxite bluffs, quite a stark contrast, even for Australia. Our luck changing, we landed a very nice 10 kg/22 pound Spanish mackerel. Now we would actually have some meat for the freezer! The only bad news about these Spanish mackerels is that they have a very gnarly set of razor-sharp teeth. I had to be extremely cautious when handling them, wearing a pair of thick leather “gauntlet” gloves. And once we got one hooked, all the soft plastic bits of the lure were shredded. Inside the bar, the Escape River is a very lovely and calm anchorage. There is a massive cultured pearl farm operating there, leaving precious little space for boats to anchor. That evening during sundowners we had a nice chat with a few people working there who ventured by after a fishing excursion. They offered us a small snapper, but we politely declined, being flushed with mackerel.

It was Tuesday, and the big day. Setting sail from the Escape River, winds were light, so we motor-sailed in millpond-like seas. We took a shortcut between Albany Island and the Cape York Peninsula through Albany Pass. This narrow bit of seaway was a lovely green oasis, dotted with a few campgrounds, some excellent beaches and nice little island homestead. A few of the grassy patches of land had some massive ant hills, some easily as high as a tall man. A three+ knot tail current pushed us through too quickly, and soon we were rounding “the tip” or Cape York, the northernmost point of the Australian continent. There was a throng of tourists walking out on the tip, seemingly looking for a glimpse of Papua New Guinea, which lies some 80 miles to the north across the Torres Strait. At about noon, we adjusted our course to the west. The landscape became reminiscent of the South Pacific Islands, with palm trees and expansive beaches, and the color of the water changed dramatically from deep blue to a lighter aquamarine. We were now in the Torres Strait. We navigated through a myriad of reefs and islands along the coastline to the anchorage at Point Seisia.

Seisia is the final outpost on Cape York and consists of a jetty for the ferry to Thursday Island, a gas station, a church, a campground and takeaway shop, a grocery store and a few residences. Everything here is covered with a fine coating of deep red, almost oily dust which seems to be able to stick to or penetrate nearly everything but glass. It seems the main activity for the Seisians is fishing off of the jetty. At the end of the work day, there were easily 50 people with feet dangling off the jetty and lines in the water. When they’re not fishing off the jetty, they’re hanging out on the jetty and socializing over a few beers. We were able to get a few provisions at the well-stocked and comfortably air-conditioned grocery store that would carry us till we got to Gove. We’ll never forget Seisia – we can’t seem to get the red dust out of our thongs.

Reflecting back on the last year in Queensland, I would have to say that it has been some of the best cruising I’ve experienced to date. There are just a few rather minor negatives. The ones that stick out for me are:

  • Lots of shallow water and coral reef. One must extremely diligent about navigation, but I found the charts and cruising guides to be reasonably accurate, and there are plenty of nav aids.
  • The heat, humidity and stingers of summer. At least you can cruise the coast in one season, or else leave the boat in a marina and go somewhere else.
  • Poor availability of sailboat gear. While there are numerous small chandleries, getting any special parts was challenging.

The positives, on the other hand, are too numerous to list, but here are a few of the things that I really enjoyed:

  • An abundance of marinas and good anchorages. From Brisbane to Cape York, over 1200 miles of coastline, one can sail it all in daylight hours and be in a marina or snug anchorage every night. We never had to sail more than 80 miles in one day.
  • Good provisioning. There are various cities and towns along the way where you can get nearly everything you need. Prices for most items are reasonable if not inexpensive. Australian wine is excellent!
  • Plenty to do, in out and on the water. From hiking and cycling, swimming and diving, festivals and regattas to wining and dining, or just beach combing, Queensland is a giant playground.
  • Good weather. Winter weather is settled, pleasant and predictable, and there is plenty of weather information easily available to the mariner. The southeast trade winds are fairly reliable and usually from 10-20 knots. We did LOTS of spinnaker sailing.
  • Great people. Australians in general and Queenslanders in particular are friendly, helpful and usually have a quirky sense of humor unique to Australia. We met lots of wonderful people and made many good friends along the way.
  • There’s no language or cultural barriers, and the officialdom in Australia is easy to understand and work with. We’re going to miss this!
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