Cruising Queensland

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We recently finished a trip up the Queensland coast from Southport to Townsville, across the Coral Sea to PNG and then from Port Moresby PNG back to Cairns and down the coast to Brisbane. This document is a collection of cruising-related information and opinion which was not available in any of the various cruising guides. Most of this information was current as of 2003/2004.

Queensland has got to be one of the best places in the world to cruise. Highlights include:

  • Spectacular scenery that is still quite untrammelled. Queensland is bigger than California yet there are only about 5 million residents, most around Brisbane. Huge segments of the coastline are roadless.
  • English-speaking civiliztion. If anything Australia is a little too comfortable for an American. Any imaginable boat repair can be handled and spares are easily available via air freight.
  • Weather is mostly benign and easily forecast.
  • You can spend as much or as little time in marinas as you like.
  • Nearly all of the Queensland coast can be daysailed from harbour to harbour.
  • Anchorages tend to be good holding sand or mud.
  • The Great Barrier Reef

Charts, Guides and Useful Publications

Charts

Australian charts are very good quality and at about A$ 30 a piece, they're a bargin. Not all use the WGS84 datum. Those that don't seem to have very small correction factors (for example 0.06nm) which we usually ignored. There are chart agents in most major ports: Brisbane, Townsville and Cairns to name a few. Boat Books is my favorite and can arrange delivery anywhere.

There are two sets of coastal charts, the 300-series and the more detailed large-scale 800-series. In addition there are very large scale harbour charts which usually have numbers in the 200s.

Generally, I find that 300-series charts work fine in combination with the cruising guides. The 800-series charts don't really show anchorages in useful detail so I only get them in places were the coast is convoluted. Aside from expense, the drawback to going with all 800-series is that passage planning can be a bit awkward.

In addition to the Australian Charts, the Queensland Department of Transport produces detailed charts of popular areas. At only A$ 15 each, these are well worth having. Where available, for example for the Gold Coast and Moreton Bay, I usually use them in place of the 800-series.

Cruising Guides

Generally, there are very few places that you'd want to go that haven't been written about, usually in some detail.

Cruising the Coral Coast Alan Lucas
Newly updated, this book is the one to buy if you want to buy just one.

Cruising the Curtis Coast Noel Patrick
Newly updated, we borrowed an earlier addition from a friend. It covers the southern end of the Queensland coast, sometimes in more detail than Lucas. It has good coverage of the southern barrier reef.

100 Magic Miles David Colfelt
The standard guide to the Whitsunday area, it has better coverage than Lucas for some islands.

Other Publications

The Official Tide Tables QLD Department of Transportation
Published yearly, this gives tide information for all the ports on the Queensland coast. It also contains a variety of general information such as VMR stations and VHF repeaters
Beacon to Beacon QLD Department of Transportation
A detailed guide to Queensland's two inside passages: the inside passage between Stradbroke Island and the mainland and the Great Sandy Straights between Frasier Island and the mainland as well as anchorages.
Ship2Shore
A free directory of marine-related services for the entire east coast of Australia. Among other things, this is the best source of marina phone numbers. Available at most marina offices and chandleries.

Weather

Queensland coastal weather seems predominantly influenced by the succession of highs and lows which move off the New South Wales coast. Each high will typically extend a ridge up the coast bringing on a vigorous "southerly change" packing SE winds of up to 30 knots. As the ridge weakens, the SE winds ease and become more E and then NE as the following low starts to move off the coast. As the low weakens, winds move N, then NW then SW in advance of the next high.

The prevailing wind is SE with exceptions in the summer, December - February, when and if the northerly monsoon flow kicks in. In some years the northerlies are quite pronounced, in others almost non-existent.

The general strategy for coastal cruising is to arrange to be in sheltered water during a southerly change as the first day or so of a sou' easter can bring strong winds. Once established, southerly winds tend to decrease gradually over several days.

Weather Forecasts

Australia provides excellent weather forecasts which are available on the internet at:

www.bom.gov.au

The forcasts are also broadcast on VHF by the local coast guard or weather bureau and on HF either via voice or weatherfax.

Schedules and channels for HF broadcasts are given at the Marine Weather Services web pages at the BOM.

You can also obtain the latest weather forecast by phoning 1300 360 426.

Tides

Tidal ranges along the Queensland Coast are generally quite large, ranging from a minimum of 2 metres to more than 9 in Shoalwater Bay. Aside from the obvious concerns about scope when anchoring, the tidal range causes tidal currents, some quite extreme.

Shoal Waters

Inside the barrier reef, north of the Whitsunday Islands waters are relatively shoal, 20 - 40 metres and the channel between the mainland and the reef is aligned with the prevailing SE breeze. Any sustained wind out of the SE or NW can produce very steep breaking seas in just a few hours. The sea state will be much worse than in the open ocean.

Cyclones

The Coral Sea Cyclone season is December through April but there on average just a couple of named storms a year and they seldom hit the coast. There are a lot of boats that spend the summer in north Queensland but, as it has been 50 years since the last big cyclone actually hit the coast, it is hard to tell if they should be considered reckless or not.

There are many good cyclone holes - almost every mangrove creek will work if your boat is shoal draft and can take the bottom. We just included cyclone holes in our passage planning, one north and one south so we could always run downwind.

The following links show cyclone occurrence probabilities for the months of November and December, the start of the Coral Sea cyclone season:

Cruising Season

A typical east coast itinerary might start from Brisbane in April or May, reach Cairns or a bit north in midwinter, August, and then return to Brisbane by November. Frequently, the trip south is postponed until the November or December when the start of the monsoon gives some relief from the SE trades. That's about 3000 miles of sailing in 6 - 9 months.

Visas may be a bit of a problem for a trip of that length, A problem best solved by getting an ETA + extension (9 months) and then taking a quick trip out of Australia (New Caledonia, New Zealand) for a new ETA.

Cruising during cyclone season is nice in that it is uncrowded but there are reasons for this. Aside from the danger of cyclones, it is hot (temperatures above 35° are common) and humid and swimming is dangerous due to the presence of various types of jellyfish.

Initially, we followed local custom and swam only in the offshore reefs and islands. The theory behind the custom is that the jellyfish breed in freshwater estuaries and are thus unlikely to be found more than a few miles offshore. Later we met a marine biologist who said that that theory was based on relatively scant evidence and that, among other things, researchers were going through previously unexplained diving fatalities to see if they could be explained by irukanji stings. That and the report of a chironex sting at Orpheus Island only a week before we'd snorkeled there kept us out of the water for the rest of the trip south.

Communications

Radio

VHF

VHF is used for all near shore communications. There are repeater channels set up along most of the Queensland coast allowing extended-range communications. Repeater channels are usually, 21, 80, 81, or 82.

Phone patches are available but we've never used them.

HF/SSB

In addition to voice weather broadcasts and weatherfax, there is at least one HF net, Sheila Net, which takes place at 7:00am EST on 8161 khz.

There are government run HF radio stations in Cairns and Gladstone (call "coast radio Cairns" or "coast radio Gladstone" respectively) which can provide weather forecasts on demand as well as pass on arrival details to Customs and Quarentine. They maintain a 24-hour listening watch on 4125, 6215, and 8291 khz.

Telephone

For A$100 or so one can purchase a mobile phone and subscribe to a prepaid plan with one of the two major carriers, Telstra or Optus. As per-minute rates are expensive (A$0.70 or so), we try and use the mobile phone only to receive calls and use calling cards and public telephones to place calls. For international calls, calling cards can be purchased that bring rates down to pennies a minute. We use a card issued by a company known as "Go Talk."

Internet

Public libaries often provide free internet access though none that I've found will let you plug in a laptop.

Internet cafes are ubiquitous and most of them are happy to let you plug in a laptop. The cost varies from A$3 - A$8 per hour. As broadband access means that a full load of email and a website update can be done in as little as half an hour, internet cafes are the most cost effective way to connect to the internet.

In some marinas there is wireless internet service available but it comes at a considerable premium over the cost of an internet cafe.

We maintained a an Australian ISP account (Telstra) for a while but cancelled it because we seldom used it. Most marinas will let you use a phone line for a nominal charge but the extra money for a broadband connection at an internet cafe is worth not having to camp out next to a phone line for a couple of hours while the web site uploads.

Ports & Places

Generally, cruising boats seem to be discovering the Queensland Coast at a pace that facilities can barely keep up with. While we never had a problem, getting a berth (particularly for a cat) can be difficult at the peak of the winter season.

Gold Coast

Las Vegas with a beach. However, every imaginable marine service (and some that are not imaginable) is available. For hauling out a cat, we'd recommend Gold Coast City Marina. At the time of our last haul-out the travel lift cost A$450 (for a 43' catamaran) and hardstanding ran A$50 per day. The yard is very professional. The only downside is that they're 8 miles up the Coomera river which is as close to the middle of nowhere as you can get on the Gold Coast. You'll need to rent a car to get anywhere.

The Southport Yacht Club Marina is very friendly. Note that if you get a berth on one of the outer fingers, you will take a huge pounding in northerly weather.

Movement about all of the marinas on the broadwater is complicated due to strong tidal currents. In particular, the fuel dock at Mariner's Cove can be quite exciting at mid tide.

The "Marine Stadium" anchorage just south of the Gold Coast Seaway, also know as "Mariner's Cove" or "the duck pond" is capacious, and good in nearly all winds. You can land a dingy on any of the surrounding beaches, or at the public ramp south of the Southport Yacht Club Marina.

The Australia Fair shopping centre, directly across the Broadwater from the Southport YC, is excellent for provisioning.

Manly

Manly has one of the largest yacht harbours on the East Coast. There are four or five marinas here, but most cruisers wind up in the East Coast Marina as the others are usually full with resident boats.

Moreton Bay

While very nice to sail on, Moreton Bay provides a paucity of all weather anchorages. In particular, Tangalooma Wrecks makes a nice lunch stop but provides little shelter in anything other than an Easterly wind.

Brisbane

The locals say "Brissie."

It is possible to motor up the river and stay in the very center of Brisbane. There are pile berths and a couple of small marinas. No room to anchor.

We planned to take the boat up to Brissie but never did because it was so easy to take the train in from Manly.

Mooloolaba

There are three different marinas in Mooloolaba as well as the traditional anchorage in the river just upstream of the Warf Marina. The two marinas closest to the beach (The Yacht Club, The Warf) are nicest for visiting the beach and the town, but Lawries, at the end of a mile or so of twisty little canals is the best for bulk provisioning as it is only a couple of blocks from a large shopping mall.

The beach is great for swimming and requires all of 100 metres of walking from a berth at the yacht club.

Noosa Heads

Noosa Heads provides an open roadstead anchorage that is reasonable (for a cat) if the swell is small and the winds S or SE.

Be careful of shark nets/fishing equipment off the beaches. When we visited, there was a gap in the line of floats right where Lucas indicated the anchorage. The anchorage is sand, just offshore off Little Cove. You'll need to row the tender ashore as outboards are not allowed near the beaches.

Tin Can Bay

After crossing the Wide Bay Bar, the first anchorage is just inside Tin Can Inlet, the first southerly opening after crossing the bar. For shoal draft craft, a much better alternative is to proceed east into Pelican Bay.

Tin Can Bay (the town) boasts a charming little marina. As you should expect when the word "charming" gets used, manoeuvering in the marina may be a little tight.

The yacht club restaurant is very good.

Aside from visiting the pub or feeding the dolphins, there's not much to do in the town of Tin Can Bay. There is a basic shopping center about 6 blocks from the marina.

Anchoring across the inlet off Carlo provides the easiest access to the town of Rainbow Beach but easiest is a relative term here, you're still looking at a long walk.

Sandy Straights

As it provides a free pool and shower, the Kingfisher resort is definitely worth a visit. It is possible to rent a jeep or book a tour at the resort and that is probably the best way to see Frasier island as it is far too big to explore on foot.

Urangan

Not much to recommend this place. Serious shopping will require a bus or taxi ride.

Currents just outside the marina entrance can be quite strong.

Bundaberg

While the Burnett river is navigable all the way to Bundaberg most yachts seem to stay at Bundaberg Port Marina (very friendly). The marina runs a free shuttle to and from downtown Bundaberg but provisioning is better at the Sugarland shopping center south of downtown.

At the marina there is a reasonable chandlery and a good restaurant, The Baltimore, but little else.

Gladstone

The harbour is quite long and subject to strong tidal currents. A little planning can shave hours off your trip.

The Gladstone marina is very nice but has the bad fortune to be located just east of a huge bulk coal loading facility. If the wind is from the west your boat will get unbelievably filthy.

Provisioning requires a bus or a taxi ride.

Keppel Bay

Keppel Bay Marina (in Rosslyn Boat Harbour) is very nice, inexpensive and low-key. There is excellent bus service to the town of Yeppoon where it is quite cheap to reprovision.

The fisherman's coop, on the opposite side of the harbour from the marina, is an excellent source of seafood.

Eight miles from the marina, Great Keppel Island is a very nice stop, particularly in northerly winds when the Long Breach anchorage is used. Trade wind anchorages off Svedson's Beach or Fisherman's Beach are not as nice.

The water is clearer and the snorkling better than anywhere along the coast until you get to Townsville. Snorkling is excellent along most of the southern coast of Great Keppel.

Ashore there are a number of hiking trails, most leading to or from the resorts along Fisherman's beach. There is a convenience store associated with the big resort and the GKI Holiday Village sometimes has basic victuals for sale.

South Percy Island

Unlike many of the islands further north, South Percy is relatively clear of jungle and thus easy to explore on foot.

Mackay

Aside from some surge with a developed northerly breeze, this is one of the nicer marinas on the coast. The facilities are very nice and there are several restaurants overlooking the marina, the local yacht club among them.

Access to town for provisioning is by bus or taxi.

Brampton & Carlisle Islands

The trade wind anchorage between the islands is something of a wind tunnel. In out experience the Carlisle side was the best, and the best was not very good. The anchorages for northerly conditions are supposed to be better.

Brampton Island does have very nice walking tracks and the view of the *smith islands from the top is spectacular.

The Whitsunday Islands

This is the most popular section of the Queensland coast with the northern islands bearing the brunt of a huge charter trade.

While there are moorings at many of the better snorkling areas, people tend to camp out on them so it can be very hard to get one. Legally, you're allowed two hours on the mooring unless you pick it up after 3pm in which case you may spend the night. Since the snorkling isn't that good, relative to the barrier reef I'd skip the hassle and spend my time in some of the more secluded anchorages.

Nara Inlet is probably the best anchorage in the Whitsundays and one of the only ones suitable for nighttime arrival as the entrance channel is lighted.

Hamilton Island

Hamilton Island is the most developed of the Whitsundays and the only one with a marina. Needless to say it is very popular. The drill for getting a berth is to put yourself on the waiting list for a particular day and then check in with them on that day to see if you actually got a berth. The price of the berth (dear, but not as expensive as Airlie Beach) gets you access to the resort pools and showers.

Unlike most of the other islands, there are some hiking trails on Hamilton.

Airlie Beach

Skip it. It is expensive, crowded, and pointless since it functions mostly as a booking office for various Whitsunday Islands cruises.

At A$88 per night for a berth on a partially finished pontoon about a kilometer from the facilities, it wins the prize as Queensland's most expensive and user-hostile marina (in our experience).

In southerly weather, it is possible to anchor in front of town and dingy ashore, but the anchorage is completely exposed to northerlies.

All the shopping is a few kilometers west of Arlie Beach in the town of Cannonvale.

Townsville

Townsville gets my vote as the nicest yachtie port on the Queensland coast. You're withing walking distance of downtown and right next to a fabulous swimming pool and The Strand which has been newly renovated with a public water park, barbecues and beaches.

There are always a good number of cruising yachties in the marina.

Port Hinchinbrook

The closest marina to Cardwell, it is entered via a dredged channel at the north end of the Hinchinbrook Channel. There is a nice swimming pool available to marina guests.

Available at the marina ofice is a free map giving very precise navigation detials for Hinchinbrook Island. The marina manager also runs a resort on the north end of Hinchinbrook and can provide lots of information about the island.

Aside from a nice restaurant, there is very little at the marina.

Cairns

A close second to Townsville. The setup is comparable but the town itself is much more touristy. The marina bustles with reef tourism operations. Dozens of fishing/diving/snorkling boats leave every morning.

The public library is an easy walk from the marina and offers air conditioned comfort. Transient library cards can be had if you're willing to put down a deposit. Free internet access.

Don't miss the bats which fly south from their downtown roosting trees every evening.

Port Douglas

We didn't sail here but did visit by car. A very pleasant spot, if a bit resorty - a more tropicl version of Noosa Heads.

The Great Barrier Reef

In terms of ease of access, the best place to see the reef is between Townsville and Cooktown. The reef is an easy daysail from the mainland and it is usually easy to anchor in the lee of one of the many Sand cays or the reef itself. High tide behind a reef will be a bit bouncy, but nothing like further south where the tidal range allows waves to come across the reef almost unimpeded. However, according to a marine biologist we met, the southern portion of the reef is in vastly better condition than then northern.

Stop by one of the marine parks offices and pick up maps showing usage restrictions and public mooring locations. Some portions of the reef are completely off limits and there are varying degrees of restriction on the remainder.

Formalities and Officials

While there are horror stories about overzealous quarantine officers picking through granola for various forbidden ingredients, all of our dealings with Australian officials have been very straight forward. There is an excellent booklet, Information for Yachts Travelling to Australia, put out by Customs which should provide all the information you need. It is probably available at an Australian High Commission (embassy) or via the internet.

From north to south customs ports on Queensland's East Coast are:

  • Thursday Island
  • Cairns
  • Townsville
  • Mackay
  • Gladstone
  • Bundaberg
  • Brisbane

All things being equal, the general feeling is that Bundaberg is one of the best places to check in: Easy navigation and minimal red tape.

When approaching Australia, Quarentine and Customs request that you provide 48 hours notice of your arrival. Not having a satelite phone, the only way I've figured out to do this is to call one of the coast radio stations on the HF radio.

When you get within about 100 miles of the coast, there is a good chance of being overflown by the Australian Coastwatch. They will usually buzz you a couple of times at low altitude before contacting you on the VHF.

There are two separate groups of officials that you will have to deal with when clearing in, Quarentine and Customs.

Quarantine

Quarantine is traditionally the difficult one as they are concerned with the importation of anything that might cause ecological or agricultural problems. They will want to see all of your food as well as any items capable of housing pests. Since you are paying for Quarentine, it behooves you to speed them on their way by having all stores ready to inspect.

The standard fee, which covers a 1-hour inspection is A$150. That rate is doubled if you check in on a weekend.

Customs

After Quarentine is finished with you, Customs comes aboard processes your passports/visas and issues a Cruising Permit.

A Cruising Permit allows you to sail around at will within certain limits. Without a cruising permit you are under "customs control" and are limited to the port of entry that you arrived at. A cruising permit is issued for a duration not longer than the master's visa and for a particular region of the coast demarcated by customs ports, for example from Cairns to Hobart. Once you have a cruising permit the only formalities required of you are a check-in (usually just a phone call) with the small craft officer at any port of entry you happen to visit.

I believe that there is an 18-month limit on the length of time a cruising boat may stay in Australia before having to post a bond for the customs duties but we haven't yet run into this problem.

Visas

Visas are required and must be obtained in advance. If you overstay your visa you may be banned from returning to Australia for two years.

The normal visa is known as an ETA, short for Electronic Travel Authority which is valid for a year of three month stays. You get one "automatically" when you purchase an airline ticket to Australia. For a fee, you can also obtain one via the internet, or walk in to any Australian High Commission and get one for free.

One option for extended cruising is thus to take an ETA and then make a quick trip out of the country (usually to New Zealand or New Caledonia) to gain an extra three months. Bargin airfares to NZ can usually be had for less than A$ 400.

The other alternative is to apply for a visa extension which can be up to six months. In addition to your passport you'll need to show proof of sufficient funds, usually reckoned as A$1000 per month per person. A recent bank statement is a satisfactory proof. ATM reciepts are not acceptable. At the Brisbane Immigration office the extension application was filed electronically and approved on the spot. In other locations it may be necessary to send your passport away with the application. The fee for a 6-month extension is A$ 195 per person.

Yachties will not be forced to leave during cyclone season, December - April, but people are exploiting this and the result is that it may be difficult to extend a visa into cyclone season.

There is also a "long stay visa" which entitles the bearer to stay in Australia for up to a year. The application requires a medical examination and can take several weeks to process.

Coast Guard

The Australian coast guard is an all volunteer organization which maintains coastal stations. They provide weather forecasts, notices to mariners and other local information via VHF radio. They also coordinate rescue and assistance efforts and sometimes

If you want to you can "log on" with the coast guard and they will keep track of you as you sail along the coast. We found this service comforting at first, irksome later as we'd sometimes change plans and forget to tell the coast guard log us off.

The law enforcement functions corresponding to what the US Coast guard does are handled by various separate agencies: water police, DOT, Fisheries, Park Service, Customs, Coastal Patrol etc.

Notable Regulations

Holding Tanks

Holding tanks are now mandatory in Queensland coastal waters. However, there are currently very few places to pump holding tanks out. We saw no evidence of either compliance with the law or enforcement of it. In fact, most Ozzie boats have no tanks at all.

EPIRBS

406 Mhz EPIRBS are required by law for all boats operating outside of sheltered waters.

Boarding

Theoretically, there are several different law enforcement entities which are entitled to board you. Ozzie cruisers seem to be quite irate about this state of affairs but we have yet to experience a boarding.