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River to reef

Jan 1, 2003

Glasses of wine in hand, we wrapped up in a blanket on the foredeck in the darkness and watched, bemused, as scores of boats jockeyed for position in the swift Brisbane River current. We were in town for the Riverfest, a yearly event that includes a boat parade, fireworks and music. We watched it all from our front-row seats on the foredeck.

The details we'd heard were sketchy, but the highlight — still to come — evidently involved a fighter jet and flames. Securely moored both fore and aft to large steel pilings, we could be smug, as local boaters learned the hard way that anchoring in swift-flowing rivers isn't easy. Large boats dragged down on smaller ones, and as anchors fouled, so did the language of the crews. Someone's radio blared into the night, but above the racket, we could hear a low but growing roar. This had to be it; looking upriver, we could see a small but quickly growing dot in the sky. The plane flew low, looking as if it would just clear the building alongside the river, a bright flame at its tail. Just as the thought was forming — this isn't so impressive after all — the plane banked sharply, and a massive fireball formed over the hundred-odd boats moored in the river. The pilot had just dumped and ignited a batch of fuel in a space hemmed in by office towers and bridges and jammed with thousands of people. We looked at each other, shaking our heads: "Only in Australia."

Though rarely as dramatic as the fireball that night in Brisbane, much of what we experienced in cruising Queensland's 1,300 miles of coast was unique. In the far south, we survived the insanity of Surfer's Paradise, where we dodged between amphibious biplanes, parasailors, power boats and jet skis as we dinghied to the market. In the far north, we relished in the isolation of the Cape York Peninsula, which has been continuously inhabited for more than 30,000 years, yet gives the impression of an empty wilderness. In between, we snorkeled along the world's largest coral reef, explored the largest sand island and climbed the highest sand dune. We also hiked in rain forests, ran aground in shallow estuaries, walked seemingly endless beaches and were enchanted by a host of remarkable animals. Eastern Australia, which had once struck us as a good provisioning and repair stop after several years in the island Pacific, is, in fact, in a class of its own as a voyaging destination.

Wind and weather

Fed by a procession of highs that move steadily from the Australian Bight through the Tasman Sea and on to New Zealand, Australia's east coast offers some of the most reliable trade winds we've encountered. Southeast trades dominate along the Queensland coast, often reaching 20 to 25 knots. These winds are a boon to those heading north, but southbound sailors will find it hard going. The southeasterlies tend to be more easterly in the north, near Torres Strait, and give way to lighter east and even northeast winds in the Australian spring (October through December). Even in the spring and summer months, however, a strong high-pressure system in the Australian Bight will bring southeasterlies.

Currents generally flow northward along the coast, although south of Sandy Cape, a south-setting current may be experienced. More noticeable to most coastal sailors will be the often-strong tidal currents, as well as the steep chop that builds quickly in coastal waters when the wind comes up. The Great Barrier Reef provides welcome protection from swell, but this benefit is intermittent until north of Cairns. South of this, the reef is broken and discontinuous, providing only limited shelter, and strong trade winds can bring swells of 6 feet and more.

Cyclones are a fact of life along the coast; the official season stretches from November through April, but the months of January through March typically have the highest incidence of cyclones. Many visiting boats stay well clear of the tropical coast during this season, but in reality, there are numerous secure cyclone holes in which to retreat, should a storm threaten. Weather forecasting along the coast is excellent and can be heard on both VHF and HF radio.

Many foreign sailors have limited time to spend along the coast, as they're either on their way to Southeast Asia or about to embark on an Indian Ocean crossing. But the many cyclone holes make it quite feasible to cruise the southern parts of the coast during cyclone season, a strategy that both extends one's voyaging time and almost guarantees empty, quiet anchorages.

City on the river

For many voyagers, a sail along Australia's tropical east coast begins in Brisbane, the state capital and a convenient clearance port for those arriving from New Caledonia or Fiji. Brisbane is situated 13 miles up the Brisbane River. The river, in turn, empties into Moreton Bay, a large (50-by-21-mile) estuarine bay enclosed by Bribie, Moreton and North Stradbroke islands. Protected, navigable waterways extend 30 miles south from the bay proper. The best entrances lie either to the north (the Northeast and Northwest channels) or the far south (the Gold Coast Seaway). The latter does have a bar, but can be crossed safely during the second half of a rising tide, even with a moderate swell.

Large ships frequently traverse Moreton Bay, and as a result, there are ample beacons, buoys and markers. When entering the bay, remember to keep red to port and green to starboard when bound for Brisbane, regardless of the direction you are entering from. There are many ship channels crisscrossing the bay, and following these will help the newcomer avoid the numerous shallow sandbars.

Clearance facilities are located in the suburb of Scarborough, which has a marina and haulout facilities. We encourage sailors to make the trip up the river, however, as Queensland's biggest city has lots to offer: an excellent state cultural center, including a museum, art gallery and library (all free); scenic river walks; a large botanical garden; and of course, restaurants, shopping and all the other trappings of civilization. This is the most convenient city we've visited by boat. Inexpensive fore-and-aft moorings (with access to shower and laundry facilities) are located in the city center, adjacent to the botanical gardens. Ferries ply the river, while an excellent train system provides access to the suburbs.

Sand islands

Back downriver, the barrier islands enclosing Moreton Bay are part of a unique system of islands and coastal dunes that stretches north for 200 miles from the Queensland/New South Wales border. Formed of sand eroded from the mountains of eastern Australia and then deposited over the past million years, the sand islands are massive. But they're anything but stark desert sand dunes devoid of life. Instead, they are densely wooded, with a rain forest that's home to all sorts of unique Down Under wildlife (from bandicoots to wombats) and a host of birdlife.

Among these sand islands, Fraser (the largest) offers the best opportunity to get out and do a bit of bush walking. Visiting by boat, one has the opportunity to explore the quietest and most remote areas of this National Park and World Heritage site. These designations have brought a stop to the sand mining and logging that previously plagued the island, but have helped bring Fraser to public attention, to the point where the island now receives some 350,000 visitors per year. There are no bridges to Fraser, but a barge service allows visitors to bring their four-wheel drives, and traffic on the eastern beaches has been described as "resembling suburban rush hour." Fortunately, you're unlikely to meet anyone but a few fellow boaters on the island's west coast, and the sheltered waterway that separates Fraser from the mainland &mdash known as the Great Sandy Strait &mdash offers a multitude of anchorages, superb fishing and very protected sailing. Hiking trails and old logging roads offer ample opportunity to explore the island's interior. If the weather is settled, Platypus Bay, off the island's northwest coast, is a superb anchorage off a part of the island that is closed to vehicular traffic. Humpback whales frequent these waters between July and October, and you may also see turtles and dugongs.

Rivers, reefs and islands

Queensland's rural rivers provide a very different type of voyaging, offering a glimpse of small-town rural life. Sheltering in the lee of Fraser are the Mary and Burnett rivers, home to the towns of Maryborough and Bundaberg, respectively. We've spent a few months in both and have developed a real affection for these backwaters, where the pace of life is slow and the people very friendly. You can catch fish and crab even when moored in town, and there are plenty of local experts to give you pointers.

The tropical coast begins north of Bundaberg and is neatly demarcated by Cape Capricorn. Here, you'll encounter the first outposts of the Great Barrier Reef. The name is actually not accurate, as it is not a true barrier reef, but a large reef system, made up of some 3000 individual reefs. The Great Barrier Reef sits on Australia's continental shelf, and the width and depth of the shelf largely determine how far offshore the reef extends in any given area. The southern section, made up of the Capricorn and Bunker Groups of reefs, lies some 40 miles offshore and features the largest gaps between the reefs and cays. This provides less protection from swell, but makes for easier navigation. Lady Musgrave Island offers some of the best anchorages of the reefs in this area.

You'll do well to avoid a Queensland icon that makes an appearance along the coast: the estuarine crocodile. Known locally as "salties," they can grow to 20 feet, and although it happens rarely, they have been known to attack people. They favor tidal rivers, but are occasionally seen on islands offshore and are found all the way north to Cape York. We've spent many months on this coast and seen only one salty, but make it a practice not to swim in any estuaries or areas with mangroves. Voyagers sailing the tropical coast during cyclone season should also be wary of the box jellyfish, which is the world's most poisonous. Severe stings can be fatal. The risk is highest along the mainland coast, and they are rarely encountered on offshore reefs and islands.

The tidal range increases as one heads north, reaching as much as 30 feet in Broad Sound. As a result, currents can be swift, and very nasty standing waves may be encountered when a strong wind opposes a swift current. We entered Island Head Creek in such conditions, and the experience is not one we're eager to repeat. We'd recommend heading offshore north of Island Head Creek, thereby avoiding Broad Sound's extreme tides and shallows and gaining the chance to explore the many offshore islands. This area, which includes the Northumberland and Cumberland islands, is one of the most attractive on the east coast. The topography is rugged, with hoop pines cloaking the slopes between rocky outcrops. Many of the islands are national parks, offering a safe haven for wildlife and unspoiled anchorages for sailors. For us, Prudhoe Island became Butterfly Island, in honor of the vast numbers of beautiful spotted butterflies that we saw while climbing to the island's 1,100-foot summit, from which we gained a wonderful view of the surrounding islands. Nearby Scawfell Island was notable for its birdlife; the kookaburra's monkey-like laughter echoed around the anchorage, as eagles soared over the steep slopes. The weather was a bit cool for snorkeling during our visit, but turtles swam nearby as we fished from the dinghy. From there, we sailed to Goldsmith Island, sharing the passage with dolphins and the anchorage, once again, with turtles.

The reef and islands along the coast are home to six species of sea turtles, including large breeding numbers of green, flatback, hawksbill and loggerhead turtles. Greens are vegetarians, feeding on seagrass and algae, and will be found on most reefs and many sandy inshore areas. The flatback dines on soft corals and will likely be seen in inter-reefal areas. The hawksbill prefers sponges, which are found on reefs, while the loggerhead has the most appealing diet: mollusk and crabs, which are concentrated in inshore bays, reefs with lagoons, and estuaries. You're likely to see quite a few turtles as you sail the coast, and with a sharp eye, you'll soon begin to notice differences between them.

North of Goldsmith lie the Whitsunday Islands, Australia's most popular island holiday and charter destination. The Whitsundays offer more protected anchorages than the islands to the south, but also attract far more visitors and development. Hundreds of charter boats ply these waters, but most do not venture south of about Shaw Island, something voyagers may want to take into account when they plan their passage through this area. We stopped in the town of Airlie Beach for fresh provisions and hot showers; the former were expensive, but the latter free at the Whitsunday Sailing Club.

Cruising the capes

North of the Whitsunday Islands we once again cruised the coast, sailing cape to cape, with stops at Cape Gloucester, Cape Upstart and Cape Bowling Green. The last had us confused. Lawn bowling is a popular sport in Australia, but neither grass nor the sport's white-clad enthusiasts were anywhere to be seen; for that matter, the cape was more akin to a sand spit. It's free from development, though, being a national park, and the seemingly endless beach will beckon the beachcombers of the crew. From Cape Bowling Green, Townsville &mdash the largest city on the coast north of Brisbane &mdash is a day's sail away. Townsville offers a full range of facilities and shopping, but lacks a secure, convenient anchorage, and most visitors either take a marina berth or make use of river pilings.

Beyond Townsville, the islands beckon once again. The Palm Isles offer a variety of anchorages, but many are controlled by the Aboriginal Council on Great Palm Island, and voyagers should seek permission before venturing ashore. We stopped at Orpheus Island, which is a national park. From Orpheus, it's a short sail to Hinchinbrook Island National Park, whose rugged slopes climb to more than 3,600 feet. Hinchinbrook receives more than 130 inches of rain per year, making it one of the wettest places in Australia and supporting a lush rain forest. The island has no roads and is undeveloped except for a small resort on the northern tip. While many boats choose to pass inside of Hinchinbrook, through protected Hinchinbrook Channel, we took advantage of the settled conditions to visit beautiful Zoe Bay on the east side. Forest trails, bordered by ferns and tree palms, lead to a freshwater creek and waterfall that are wonderfully refreshing on a hot day.

Cairns, some 50 miles north of Hinchinbrook, marks the beginning of the Great Barrier Reef's northern section, where the reef truly makes its presence known to the sailor. The reef is both more continuous and much closer to the coast than it is farther south, and the improvement in swell protection is quite noticeable. The reef's proximity tempts one to explore, but the voyager choosing to sail amongst the reef's small passes would do well to exercise caution. There are still large unsurveyed areas inside the reef, where a helpful cartographer has sketched in rough outlines of patch reefs, but omitted any depths. Those navigating in these areas should do so only in good visibility, with the sun high overhead.

Cook's tribulations

For the less intrepid, the major route north is very well marked, and in general, charts and markers are excellent. Cook would have given much to have had such navigational aids, for he was seeking a passage north when, on June 10, 1770, he struck the reef north of Cape Tribulation, seriously damaging his barque Endeavour in the process. Managing to heave the ship off the reef, Cook brought her in to a nearby river, now named the Endeavour River, for repairs. This snug but protected river anchorage is now the site of Cooktown, a small settlement that fittingly retains the feel of a frontier town; it is the last town on Cape York Peninsula's eastern side. Cook's voyage is the focus of Cooktown's small museum, and it's astounding to see how closely Cook's early surveys match our present charts. Lizard Island, some 50 miles north of Cooktown, is one of the northeast coast's most popular sailing destinations. Cook left his mark here as well, and the island's summit is known as Cook's Look; Cook climbed the peak in a successful attempt to find a passage through the reef to the north. Cook's visit was brief, but it's easy to spend days or even weeks here, and many Australian coastal cruisers do just that before sailing south on the northerlies.

The Cape York Peninsula north of Lizard Island is quite remote, and the only boats one is likely to encounter are fishing trawlers and long-distance voyagers. The choice of anchorages is limited, but by making use of islets and reef anchorages, overnight passages can be avoided. Cape Grenville was our favorite stop along this coast, offering both secure anchorage and fine tropical scenery. On the chart, you'll find interesting names that recall historic events, such as Bligh's boat journey. This is the reef pass through which William Bligh conned his 23-foot launch, after sailing some 2,500 miles from Tonga, following the mutiny on Bounty. Not far to the north lies Restoration Island, Bligh's first landfall off the Australian coast.

The northern tip of Cape York lies less than 100 miles from the island of New Guinea and is separated only by the shallow waters of the Torres Strait. The strait is actually a recent feature. For most of the last 200 million years, Australia and New Guinea have been joined by a land bridge extending north from Cape York. The present environment of reefs and islands has formed over the last 10,000 years, when glaciers melted and sea level rose, flooding the former forest landscape. Today's sailor will face strong winds and currents in the Torres Strait area, and it pays to plan ahead with respect to the tide when traversing the area. The strait offers a number of anchorages; one of the best is at Mt. Adolphus Island, some seven miles east of Cape York. n

Mark Smaalders and Kim des Rochers are the authors of Tropical Cruising Handbook, published by International Marine Publishing.

For more information about provisioning on the Queensland coast, including a list of marinas, visit www.OceanNavigator.com and click the Web Extras button.