The Official Magazine of the Bluewater Cruising Association

Harlequin Explores East Coast Australia

Henk and Lisa Benckhuysen

Express 37 Sloop
February 19th, 2024

In November 2022, Harlequin sailed to Brisbane Australia from Opua, New Zealand, with a stop in Noumea, New Caledonia, for crew change, snorkeling, and French pastries. Although most Kiwi cruisers were returning south after a season in Fiji, we found conditions ideal for the passage north. Our goal had been to sail to Indonesia, but with the trade winds petering out and our passage crew only available for three weeks, we set our sights on Australia. The journey east went smoothly and after four days we came into Rivergate Marina at the mouth of the Brisbane River, where biosecurity officials carefully inspected our boat and belongings, and quickly processed our documents. No massive costs, no horror stories. No worries, mate.

Martin and Henk Benckhuysen on passage from New Zealand to New Caledonia

Now it was time for a trip up the river to enjoy the city. Here in Brisbane, we had our first taste of urban livability, Aussie style: extensive waterside public spaces including walking/biking trails; free museums and art galleries; beaches; markets; outdoor show venues; plus shops; restaurants and cafes; the university, and – oh joy – a swimming pool! All this was within walking distance of the dinghy dock at the Botanical Gardens anchorage.

Moving south from Brisbane, we travelled the inside waterway toward Gold Coast and Southport. As Harlequin draws nearly 3m, I found it a challenge to find the best route through the mangrove maze, and we had a white-knuckle moment passing the shallowest spot at high tide. We were rewarded with miles of walking and biking trails, public waterfront, cafés and eateries, and again, an outdoor pool right by the downtown anchorage. The miles of white sand beaches punctuated by red and yellow safe swimming flags, and guard towers decorated for Christmas, underlined the stunning blue of the Tasman Sea. On closer inspection, the beach was littered with wriggling Blue Angel nudibranchs. These fantastic little creatures ride the underside of the ocean surface tension and often get stranded on the sand by the surf. Of course they are potentially lethal, but most people on the beach were barefoot anyway.

Dolphins near Island Head Creek

With Christmas a few days away, we headed south toward Sydney. There are good harbours, allowing day hops all the way down. My favorites were Coff’s Harbour, where we surfed into the entrance and found the best no-frills hamburger joint anywhere; and Newcastle, where I fell in love with the ocean baths. Locals proudly informed me that the ocean baths at Merriwether are the largest of their kind in the southern hemisphere. The Bogey Hole, hollowed out by convicts at the bottom of a steep rock staircase right next to the surf, is surely the most spectacular swimming experience anywhere.

As with most pleasures, for me, cruising is better when it’s shared. One of the sweetest memories of the whole trip was rejoining our tribe of floating friends in Sydney for a potluck feast on Christmas Day. Ulla and Pelle Berg of Loupan produced fresh bugs (delicious little crustaceans), while I provided Christmas cake doused with custard and ancient Pineau cognac. The next day Mark and Jennifer Ullman took us out on Starlet, their 46-foot Nordhavn, to watch the start of the Sydney Hobart race. For New Year’s Eve, we found an anchorage by the zoo for the legendary fireworks display.

Fireworks in Sydney Harbour, New Year’s Eve.

Sydney harbour offers scores of excellent anchorages with different attractions. We looked for white seahorses under the pier at Manly, explored the historic quarantine station on the North Head, and found pink spotted orchids on the Watson’s Cove trail. The iconic yellow and green ferries provide quick access around the harbour, which is particularly handy for an evening expedition to the opera house. In the upper reaches of Middle Harbour, we were alone in mirror calm conditions, surrounded by mature eucalyptus forest, a world away from the busy modern city.

Our explorations beyond Sydney were limited. We did manage a trip by car and train up to Katoomba in the Blue Mountains, the erstwhile playground of the British Empire. Historic hiking trails here feature cliffs, waterfalls, and endemic wildflowers, as well as cockatoos, lyrebirds, and rainbow lorikeets. We bused out to the Hunter Valley with our folding bicycles and visited several wineries. (I’d recommend doing that one by car!) We also rented an Airbnb in Maroubra for a taste of city life and beach culture. By this point, Henk had a hernia that required surgery, so we returned home to Canada in March for recovery and to reconnect with family. I’d like to explore more of Australia with a camper van some day.

Our return trip up the coast included many of the stops already mentioned, so I’ll skip past Brisbane to Bundaberg. Moving north from Bundaberg in September, we had fabulous sailing conditions, with daily southeasterlies at 20-25 knots and some protection from the barrier reef. Our first stop was Lady Musgrave Island, where we celebrated our return to cruising with a day of snorkelling. The turtles, reef fish and corals did not disappoint – there’s a reason the tour boats come here.

Swimming with sea turtles at Lady Musgrove Island

Back underway, sightings of turtles, dolphins, and migrating humpback whales kept us on our toes; the thrill of seeing a breaching or tail-flapping whale never gets old! In the anchorage at Middle Percy Island one evening, we listened to a whale song concert, finally falling asleep as if to a lullaby. From the A-frame, we made the pilgrimage to the homestead where Leigh, our crew, put in a day of labour in the apiary. The Island caretaker, Kerry, thanked him with an enormous jar of Percy Island organic honey, fabulous with lime juice on crêpes!

Henk and Sean on watch, approaching Thursday Island

Two weeks out of Bundaberg, we stopped at Mackay to drop off Leigh and do some provisioning before heading out to the Whitsundays. There we enjoyed the snorkelling, hiking, and many protected anchorages. Further north, on Magnetic Island, there were some funky cafes, a nice hike to a WWII fort and, best of all, koalas dozing in the trees. After picking up new crew at Cairns, we pushed on to Lizard Island. Golden orchids and yellow kapok were in full and glorious bloom here and we saw several kinds of lizard on the walk up to Cook’s Lookout. Next to the anchorage, there were jewel-coloured giant clams over a meter across. Many local cruisers tarry here for days or weeks, going out to the reef when conditions permit, but we contented ourselves with snorkelling the healthy and colourful coral gardens at Mermaid Beach. We had the grandeur of this rugged coast to ourselves from Lizard Island north to Thursday Island, where we would clear out of Australia and set sail for Indonesia.

Koala at Magnetic Island

There are some safety points to consider when cruising Australia’s east coast. First, many of the coastal anchorages are barred river entries. Volunteer Marine Rescue is active all the way up the coast, with VHF reports on weather and bar conditions. Second, locals advised us to swim at offshore islands, in clear water only, as bull sharks and crocodiles favor murky water and estuaries. (At Escape River our crew sent up a drone and spotted a croc!) Third and last, we didn’t do any off-trail exploring because early on, I narrowly avoided a snake. Was it actually an eastern brown or something harmless?

Sunset at Escape River

Despite those notes of caution, our experience on Australia’s east coast was highly memorable and all too short. Aussie cruisers made us welcome at beaches and cafes along the way and I will never forget being welcomed to Percy Island like an old friend, by Fiona McCormick of Chance, a 47-foot Lidgard. We learned that their classic season is to sail north after May, to the Whitsundays or Lizard Island, and then wait for the northerlies to return home in October. With excellent boating services and anchorages all along the coast, there’s scope for many years of exciting sailing in magnificent surroundings. I’m so glad that circumstances detoured us to Australia’s east coast. Next stop, Saumlaki, Indonesia.


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