Cruising the Whitsundays

The Whitsundays group is a great cruising ground. It’s very easy to spend months here exploring the a multitude of anchorages, enjoying brisk sailing as well as walking in the national park walks taking in the panoramic views and the snorkelling.

Cyclone Debbie in 2017 did extensive damage to the reefs around the Whitsundays. Since we last sailed here nearly 20 years ago, mooring buoys and reef protection buoys have been installed in most of the popular anchorages, a great help for the slowly recovering coral and peace of mind for the many charter yachts.

While snorkelling here has been patchy we’ve found some great spots with lovely healthy coral. Other  places such as Blue Pearl Bay on Hayman Island is nothing like our memories of colourful coral and masses of fish when last diving here 20 yrs ago.

We were very keen to do some diving while here. It seems scuba diving is now only offered as an option on a 2 or 3 day trip on a sailing boat or by joining a group for a snorkel/dive/Whitehaven “fun experience” – not for us. 

I came across a perfect option – a “Reef Sleep”, staying in an underwater hotel room on a pontoon on Hardy’s reef. We could snorkel, dive, and stay on the reef. Once the day trippers left at 3pm, the guests (14 of us) had the pontoon and water to ourselves until 11am the next day. 

Very fancy ‘swags’ for those who slept on the deck

We had 2 dives, snorkelled, swam, had drinks and canapes on the deck at sunset and fabulous meals. The coral was wonderfully healthy and the fish prolific.

The only problem was sleeping – it was so exciting to keep waking to see the fish swimming by our window – especially the enormous grouper at 2am! 

View from the bathroom
Midnight viewing
Maggie, the grouper

We timed our visit to the reef perfectly – the weather was amazing and calm. The wind blew up and weather turned the day we left the reef- and blew strongly for the next few weeks.

Taking advantage of very strong southerlies we headed north to Cape Gloucester. The bar at Monte’s we remembered from years ago had just reopened after renovations post cyclone damage. A lovely sheltered spot for a cocktail.

We had planned to keep going north to Townsville, but looking at the very persistent strong south easterlies forecast for at least the next 10 days thought we might get ‘stuck’. We heard that there were 90 yachts anchored in Horseshoe bay, so that obviously did happen! 

We love our inflatable kayak! So easy to get ashore, especially with the tides around here.

We came back into Airlie as the Airlie Race Week was starting. Pioneer Bay just off Airlie is a great anchorage in the SE winds, as long as there isn’t an easterly swell. Access to the town is easy with safe spots to land the dinghy. Walking around the waterfront is very pleasant, either to Cannonvale and the shops or to Airlie with its markets, landscaped waterfront area, restaurants and bars. We’d remembered Airlie to be full of backpackers, but now there are far more grey nomads.

We set sail south to Long Island, to find ourself in the middle of the race fleet. Just off South Molle we spotted a couple of whales frolicking between us and the nearest race boats. Not an uncommon sight this season, we’ve seen whales a few times a week since sailing north of Fraser Island. Luckily, none too close.

We’ve ended up spending quite a bit of time anchored during extended blows at Happy Bay, on Long Island. It is another bay with a derelict resort. The bay has good protection in the SE, a sandy beach, walks. The next bay along is Palm Bay resort – a lovely spot for a cocktail.

Palm Bay – Long Island

With more windy weather predicted, we spent two lovely days at the marina in Hamilton Island.

Sea Cloud – the tiny yacht in the middle of the huge motorboats

We loved the walks, especially the views from Passage Peak

Whitsunday views

One Tree Hill – the place to go to watch the sunset and enjoy a cocktail. 

The winds dropped and we anchored at Whitehaven Beach for 3 gorgeous, calm nights – unusual for Whitehaven which can be rolly! The walks on Whitsunday Island are lovely – the views magnificent!

We even swam! A rarity this season which has been surprisingly windy and cool.

We anchored off Betty’s beach took the dinghy up Hill Inlet. The new from the top across Hill Inlet and along Whitehaven must be one of the best views anywhere.

You know you are at Whitehaven when a sea plane crosses your  bows in the anchorage, and there are 3 helicopters on the beach who’ve brought  couples across for a picnic.

More wind! Happy Bay was a good spot to sit out 25-35knots for 5 days. Lots of jobs completed, finally got to the winches!

We’d been watching swallows busily building a nest inside our boom… not good. Fortunately we removed the nest before eggs were laid. 

South Molle Island – another island with lovely walks and views.

Bauer Bay

Back to Coral Sea Marina in Airle for our last big shop before heading south. We really enjoyed our second dinner at the terrific La Tabella.

Our visit coincided with the Whitsunday Arts Festival, a weekend of music, art, plays and markets. A welcome break from the varnishing and jobs on Sea Cloud.

With no space in the marina in Airlie, Cid Harbour was a logical anchorage for the strong southerly winds predicted. Although we estimated about 100 boats were anchored in Cid, it didn’t feel crowded at all. With 48 hours of winds gusting up to 45knots, it was a good place to be.

Once the wind dropped, the walk to Whitsunday Peak from Cid Harbour was steep but rewarding with its 360 degree views of the Whitsundays.

What a lovely place for a birthday. A walk, champagne on the back deck, BBQ fish (unfortunately not caught by us!) and the most beautiful sunset.

Sailing the Queensland Coast

Southport Yacht Club was a peaceful spot to spend the next 3 weeks repairing leaking portlights, drying out the boat, making numerous repairs and enjoying a break from the rigours of the Tasman crossing. The morning beach walks a must to get our legs back in shape; while the local cafes and restaurants were much appreciated when our appetites returned.

Tim introduced us to the Broadbeach Blues Festival, which he attends annually with a group of mates. Such a relaxed atmosphere with people of different ages enjoying the great music in the pubs, restaurants and streets of Broadbeach.

We celebrated with Andrew the opening of the restaurant at the Waterlea development, near Ipswich and on which he had been working for the past few years. 

Ali and Bron came to visit and a day on the water – Ali seeing Sea Cloud for the first time.

As the weather wasn’t the best for moving north, we spent a few lovely days at O’Reillys, in Lamington National Park. The weather was perfect for hiking, birdwatching and relaxing.

We finally left Southport on an overnight passage to Fraser Island rather than via the Inland Waterway between Southport and Moreton Bay. We knew Sea Cloud’s draft (& air draft) were going to limit us in Aus. 

The crossing of the notorious Wide Bay Bar into the Great Sandy Straits was fairly tense. Even though the swell was moderate, heading towards breaking waves and very shallow water kept us focussed!

We knew moving north inside Fraser Island may not be feasible with our 2.35m draft. However, once inside we discussed the depths and upcoming tides with a very informative Volunteer Marine Radio (VMR). A very helpful volunteer explained the combination of tides, current and wind determined the 2 hour window of opportunity to cross the tricky central section of Great Sandy Straights – but that we’d have to wait nearly a week to get the right spring tide to do it in daylight (a night time attempt was out of the question).

As we needed to get to Bundaberg quickly we took the alternate, much longer and rather unpleasant route outside of Fraser Island. Our conditions were good, but the effect of the south flowing current, the ebbing tide and the shallow reef extending 30 miles to the north of the island made for a very unpleasant overnight sail.

Inside Fraser Island -Elbow point anchorage

Safely into Bundy, I had a quick flight home to visit mum. A Covid breakout had just begun in Sydney, so I only stayed overnight. Ian was terrified I’d be stuck in Sydney and he’d have to manage Sea Cloud by himself.

Scotland Island from the air

Our great sailing buddies Alex and Diana (SY Enki) arrived just in time the next day, hours before the NSW-Qld border slammed shut at the end of June. The initial plan was to sail to the outer reef. Unfortunately, the weather and sea state didn’t cooperate, so we had a wonderful few weeks of brisk sailing up the very long Queensland coastline to Airlie Beach in strong SE winds.

We had long days of terrific sailing, some rather ordinary weather, great meals and lots of laughs.

departing Port Clinton
Alex our master trimmer

With strong winds predicted, we sheltered in Roslyn Bay Marina in Yeppoon, enjoying visiting the town and meeting other yachts heading north.

The Blue Tiger butterflies – Percy Islands (en route during their annual migration to New Guinea).

Finally some good weather! 

First snorkel – Scawfell Island

Walking on Middle Percy

Being close to Mackay and the big tides, St Bees was the first place we really experienced the current and its interplay with the winds – the mix makes or breaks a comfortable night at anchor.

Visit to Mackay Marina with its enormous piles and breakwater. Best fish and chips and a very lively pub.

Walks on Lindeman Island – magnificent 3600 views of the Whitsunday Islands from the peak.

Diana – chilling at Chalkies

Kayaking around Dumbell Island (remarkably sheltered anchorage for a tiny island)

We docked at Coral Sea Marina, our periodic base for the next few months.  The plan was to have friends and family spend time with us on Sea Cloud. Covid changed the plans for us and so many others. 

After we dropped Diana and Alex at the airport for their flight home to lockdown in Sydney we drove 150km to Mackay for our second AZ vaccination. Our plan was to enjoy the Whitsunday Islands, maybe going as far north as Magnetic Island and Townsville.

Crossing the Tasman

We, (especially Ian) said we’d never do it. We’d heard so many horror stories of friends crossing the Tasman, that we decided it really wasn’t something we needed to tick off our bucket list.

We’d flew to NZ as soon as Jacinda Adern opened the trans Tasman ‘bubble’ between NZ and Aus. Our intention was to sail north to Fiji. Unfortunately the Covid outbreak there changed our plans. Options were to either spend a few weeks in New Zealand cruising before winter set in and then leaving Sea Cloud, once again, until the weather warmed up in October. The alternative was to bring Sea Cloud home to Australia to cruise the Queensland Coast for the winter. We chose the latter as Sea Cloud had already had far too long on the hard in NZ to spend another winter in the yard.

After a frantic 10 days of preparation, sea trials (in little or no wind) in the Bay of Islands and a few precious days anchored in the beautiful bBay of Islands, we said goodbye to our good friends and to the Bay of Islands Marina. Bruce Buckley, our fabulous meteorologist/weather router from Perth identified a weather window to depart 8th May. The longer we stayed in NZ, the more tricky this crossing would become.

the Professor at work – passage planning

If crossing the Tasman isn’t hard enough, Covid-related logistics further complicated our departure plans.  We found out very quickly that the ‘bubble’ was in fact, only an air bubble. Despite flying in from Aus, spending 10 days in Covid free NZ and then spending 8 or 9 days at sea, we might not be exempt from quarantine.

Unfortunately, our first 100Nm out of NZ was sailing upwind giving treacherous Cape Reinga a very wide (40Nm) berth to the East. With much green water over the deck we discovered several hatches and portlights weren’t as water tight as we’d thought! It also Sea Cloud’s crew, who after nearly 2yrs away, had no sea legs and felt pretty seedy the first 2 days out. Thank goodness for Travacalm Original, Saltines and Vegemite! 

Departing the Bay of Islands to begin a 1,300Nm passage to Aus
Not quite shipshape below trying to dry out!

With Cape Reinga was safely behind us, we headed NW towards Norfolk Island giving us good speed and a comfortable beam reach. We duct taped up the offending leaking portlights – Sea Cloud was watertight again.  

The aim was to get north to 30 degrees South as quickly as possible so as to avoid a couple of rather nasty frontal systems working their way across the Tasman towards us. Using the waypoints Bruce had given us, we managed to squeeze north of the first front. Although we had a few hours of winds to 40kts with the “pre-frontal” winds, we passed just to the north of this frontal system with its embedded thunder storms.

We had a few days of relative calm and pleasant sailing.

Between us and our destination of Southport we had to first cross of string of sea mounts and just west of these mounts, the strong south setting (3kt) East Australian current. Both of these are fine in calm weather, but we knew another low would hit us bringing strong southerlies against the current on day 7. Although we knew the southerly would hit us, we really needed to skirt south of the sea mounts, try and get across the (50Nm wide) East Australian Current before the southerly hit and then ride it northwards to Southport. As predicted the system hit at 3am as we were still amidst the East Aust Current. The strong winds (max gusts 50kts) against the current predictably threw up a very confused steep sea which gave us a very uncomfortable night. With storm jib and heavily reefed main, Sea Cloud was coping well and reached 9kts at one stage with us sitting dry and (relatively) comfortable under the hard dodger while waves washed over the boat.


hove to off Byron

How good was it to see Cape Byron! Now out of the current, we hove to 40miles off Cape Byron for a rest. The big disappointment was that we had to wait off the coast for almost 20hours before we could safely cross the bar into Southport. An 8 day passage turned into 9.

The bar crossing was a breeze  (apart from dodging the surfboard riders and jet skis) and the Broadwater blissfully calm. We tied up at the friendly (and calm!!) Southport Yacht Club Marina for a very easy check into Aus. Border staff were welcoming and our request for quarantine exemption had been granted! Great news. 

Both of us experienced a serious case of jet lag – the lack of sleep, 9 days of 3hr watches and rocky seas had really disrupted our circadian rhythm. Our appetite slowly returned and we stopped rocking.

Would I do it again? NO!! However, we are loving having Sea Cloud in Aus!!

Now that the leaking portlights are fixed and everything finally dried out we are looking forward to sailing north to the Outer Reef followed by some relaxing weeks in the Whitsundays.