A blustery southerly blew us north from Sydney, so there was no turning back, even as the tired rigging on our ancient quarter-tonner groaned.

The Covid pandemic had prevented a refit and the forecast was favourable for a cruise north to enjoy the tropical Australian winter. So, my wife and I cast-off in early April 2021. Our pocket cruiser Skyebird, an Australianbuilt Contessa 25, was a former racer-cruiser that had known these waters well in her racing heyday. But that was nearly 50 years ago, prompting my mind to wander between skin fittings, rudder bearings and all the sundry items that kept her tired fibreglass hull afloat.

The east coast of Australia is the most popular boating area in that vast island and also the most populated, so compared with the rest of the country, boaters have access to services as they voyage north along the Pacific coast. Stretching from the edge of the Southern Ocean to the Torres Strait, along an island mass larger than Europe, it’s a long voyage I have enjoyed making several times. Best broken into two legs – Sydney to Brisbane and then the tropical leg north to Torres Strait and the Indian Ocean – the region offers pristine cruising with few other yachts. Our voyage would take us on the first leg for six weeks in day or overnight sections, according to the weather.

The region’s size means that there are two distinct weather zones – the more temperate southern half and the tropical northern section that is in the hurricane zone during the Australian summer. Cyclones can be fierce, such as Cyclone Debbie that destroyed much of the Whitsunday Islands yacht charter fleet in March 2017. The Whitsundays remind me of the Caribbean: a myriad of islands but with much quieter beaches and mostly deep anchorages. Offshore from the Whitsundays is where the Great Barrier Reef begins, creating a sheltered cruising ground all the way to the Torres Strait.


Back on board our yacht Skyebird, the day had worn on and the wind lightened, so I hanked-on the genoa instead of the working jib to help us reach our destination of Broken Bay before nightfall. Motoring was not really an option as we only had a 8hp outboard in the transom well. Broken Bay is the main cruising ground for the Sydney region, a network of estuaries, rivers and creeks that offer good shelter. As we sailed in, we passed the busy yachting area known as Pittwater, which is home to several prestigious yacht clubs and marinas.

Essential pilotage book by the famed Alan Lucas.

Preferring the quieter reaches of Broken Bay, we headed to our own favourite anchorage where we glided in as the sun fell below the western hills. Later, whiskies in hand and with fleeces on, we sat on deck enjoying the evensong of the kookaburra’s laughter, that larrikin bird that so reminds us of the Australian bush.

Sydney sailors spend their entire summer in this region, but we were following the winter sun north. Back on board, with the strong Australian sun having charged our battery from two solar panels, I used my laptop to check the weather for the next leg – a 50-miler to the major port of Newcastle. Hoisting sail next day before sunrise, we glided seaward, past the winking lighthouse at Barrenjoey Head. With safety in mind, I used my phone app to register our voyage with the Marine Safety authorities. At the tiller, Carole was enjoying the thrill of sailing Skyebird over the swells as the breeze filled in to about 15 knots; and white spume flew from the wave crests.


Pilotage on Australia’s east coast is relatively benign at first glance: short tidal range, stable weather and lots of sunshine. All good, but it also has hazards such as the strong south flowing East Australian Current (EAC). And being a lee shore when strong easterlies blow, many of the anchorages are guarded by shifting sandbars. So, Australian surfers become world champions for some good reasons.

Our day progressed well as the wind moderated until the famous southerly buster caught up with us about 10 miles south of Newcastle, and then backed easterly. On the foredeck I wrestled down the genoa for the working jib as we sped along at seven knots. Our inshore track was now dangerous in the conditions, so we took some offing as the gusts grew to 25 then 30 knots. A second reef was put into the mainsail.

Slab reefing, gooseneck bullhorns and a topping lift had been my major changes to the rig and they were all essential on this coastal voyage, along with using the heavy topping lift as a running backstay. Conditions worsened, so I worried about the east-facing entrance to Newcastle Harbour, a narrow gap known for cross-seas. Approaching it, we followed an arriving coal boat and surfed in on the breaking swells as night fell over the town.

Friendly marina manager Sally found us a berth at one of the Newcastle Yacht Club pontoons and we were aided by neighbour Bruce who congratulated us on having the smallest oceangoing vessel in the marina, beating his homebuilt Vertue 26 by a mere six inches. Next day Bruce kindly drove me to Whitworths, which is Australia’s main chandlery chain, and then Jaycar for electrical components. A few days later we headed north, sailing wing-on-wing along the seemingly endless beaches of the Stockton Bight, as light southerlies propelled us towards the towering headlands that marked the entrance to the next main cruising ground, Port Stephens.

Carole at the helm of Skyebird – our starting point, Sydney, is one of the world’s best deepwater ports.
The prevailing autumn southerlies on Australia’s east coast require a lot of square running.

Larger than Sydney Harbour, and with hidden estuaries and creeks, it attracts cruising and racing sailors. The main town, Nelson Bay, was once considered for Australia’s capital. However, it has one major setback – it’s a terribly shallow area where sandbars and rock await your keel, so channels must be followed religiously.

Approaching the heads at Port Stephens can only be done in mild conditions because of overfalls and shoals, so we skirted the southern headland below the lighthouse then studied our Raymarine echo-sounder as the numbers fell to six feet before finding a public mooring at Salamander Bay during low tide. These moorings are meant to be for 24 hours’ use only, but a couple of days can usually be spent on them.

After rowing ashore, we celebrated our arrival from the balcony of the Game Fish Club with some game fish on our plates. The black marlin is hunted from here by high-end angling boats. Next day a swim at the beach woke us, just in time to watch the race fleet pass. The four main marinas were packed for Sail Port Stephens and a grand prix division of TP52s scythed past while I considered joining one. As a fairly regular racer, my wife read my thoughts and reminded me I was in cruise mode for this trip, so I ignored the crew invitations and went shopping instead. Woolworths supplied our victuals, such as those handy packets of Pataks curry easily supplemented with some fried chicken.

Skyebird’s encapsulated keel


Our next destination, the Broughton Island archipelago, was only a 15-mile sail, but one of the most sublime. Guarded on all sides by shoals, some uncharted, its fortress-like exterior deters most yachties. But I know it well, so as we came under the lee of its north side the water became a patchwork of browns (shoals), sky blue (sand) and deep blue (clear water). A shark swam by as a mutton bird swooped in towards its burrow. A grey shark nursery, the region teams with them and other fish. Then sheer bliss as the engine was stopped, its drone replaced by the piping of sooty oyster catchers and the quizzical look of cormorants drying their wings on a nearby rock.

Now a national park, with no unauthorised camping allowed, Broughton Island used to be a fishing settlement for waves of immigrants. Old middens from the Gumbaynggirr tribe are to be found here. They would have paddled their bark canoes across the two-mile gap from the mainland when the surf was low. The coast here is a land of low scrub near the shore, and behind, towering gum and eucalyptus trees. The largest one in the entire state of New South Wales is nearby, along with the site of one of the worst white-aboriginal massacres in this blood-stained land. The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes is essential reading for those interested in the formation of white Australia.

The Brisbane River

On Skyebird the sweet scent from our meths stove told me Carole was preparing dinner, while I landed a few zebra fish with the rod. After a run ashore we knew lingering at Broughton while there was a usable southerly was not wise, so the following day we threaded through the reefs as a pod of 100 dolphins escorted us. Among them Carole spotted something and shouted, “Look a double-finned one!” This was a large grey nurse shark checking out our trailing lure, which I quickly retrieved. Just as well, because we were approaching one of the major headlands, Sugar Loaf Point, strewn with shoals where sudden swells broke. We could see them ahead but there were more hidden when I zoomed into my Navionics smartphone chart. I also used Blue Charts on my fixed Garmin plotter.

Despite the navigational aids and knowing the area well, we were shocked as a huge swell reared up right beside us, as another shoal or ‘bommie’, revealed itself. Chastened, we carefully sailed beyond the lighthouse. Just like when I’ve raced this coast, we kept in low to avoid the three-knot EAC, but it’s a dangerous game to rock-hop. Ahead, Skeleton Rocks bared their teeth at us in passing, just as the afternoon wind died. Avoiding drifting nearer required using the 8hp Mercury outboard and we were soon plodding along trailing a plume of two-stroke smoke. As the sun bit down on us, we chomped on egg sandwiches while I thought of a plan.

Enjoying time off the boat was important, too.


Motoring was not a long-term option on Skyebird, so I reluctantly resolved to put in at the river entrance of Foster, yet another sand-barred hamlet. However, with no easterly swell its bar was quiet as we motored over it against the strong ebb tide, dodging prawn trawlers. A channel only 50m wide in parts held our attention, as did the mere metre under our keel before we lassoed a piling and came to semi-gracious halt near the fisherman’s cooperative. Later, my worry about depth was realised as I watched the full moon semi-dry us out, causing me to leap off and secure the mast to a nearby power pole. Our slightly drooping bow revealed the one major flaw in the Contessa 25 design: a cut-away angled forefoot on the keel.

The next day, ANZAC Day, the town’s plentiful facilities – Woolworths, Chinese restaurant, petrol station and the Club where I enjoyed a draft VB, the most typical of Aussie beers ­were within easy walking distance. At the head of the ANZAC parade was a US Jeep, supplied to Australian forces when they fought in Vietnam, most famously in the notorious Long Tan Battle.

Navionics chart of the voyage and the East Australian current.


Leaving Foster with only a light southerly felt like déjà vu, so again we had to consider shortening our sea time, and like all diligent sailors, I did have a secondary port in mind. In fact, the only one, which was the commercial fishing harbour at Crowdy Head. This headland, like many with Anglo-Saxon names, was named by Captain James Cook when he surveyed this coast in 1770. Drifting windless would only mean the EAC sending us southward, so we carefully glided into the shallow harbour with only inches below our keel as we came alongside the disused jetty. Later, I threw out our smaller second anchor to work as a side-rope, an old technique from my commercial fishing days in Scotland when 10m tides required creative mooring.

Once moored, the view of the Three Brothers mountains to the north was enjoyed with a Dimple whisky. My son and I regularly surfed the beaches around here, using the farm of a family friend. Famously, the Australian author Kylie Tennant had a writing hut here and fondly wrote about some of that farming family in her book, The Man on the Headland.

Native wildlife for company

Next day saw us running north for our first overnight run of the trip, something that Carole was apprehensive about. With no ports of refuge on this leg, my weather planning had been careful. But it didn’t prevent strong winds and sail changes under the towering Smoky Cape, so we were glad to see the lights of Coffs Harbour town, an all-weather port with a good marina that’s­ about the cheapest on the coast. We stayed for 10 days, enjoying the restaurants and walks to nearby Mutton Bird Island to see nesting shearwaters.

With the departure of my lovely wife and crew, the next 200-mile leg was solo and began with big swells and strong wind as I caught the end of a gale to propel me northwards before the forecast lull set in. However, conditions were very heavy, breaking the Raymarine Tillerpilot linkage, so as I surfed down 3.5m swells with only the mainsail up, I considered my options. There was only one, North Solitary Island, where I’d heard about fishermen sheltering, so with night falling I closed its wild coast and turned sharply east into a tiny cove on its northern end.

This rocky perch in deep water afforded enough shelter to rebuild the shattered wooden linkage and allowed me some fitful rest before attempting the long passage to my final destination on Queensland’s Gold Coast.

The Gold Coast’s Broadwater
Enjoying a dram of Dimple whisky aboard Skyebird amid the fumes of the meths stove.


Contrary to the Bureau of Meteorology’s forecasts for the next day, conditions worsened considerably as I passed the only chance of shelter at the river mouth town of Yamba, dissuaded by the snarling breakers over its sandbar entrance. More sail changes ensued and then the ship traffic began. I’d been monitoring them via my Marine Traffic phone app – there’s good 4G mobile signal along the coast – but there is a delay in this system. And of course, it’s no substitute for proper shipboard AIS.

So, I found myself dodging coal ships and some unidentified vessels and one that I thought was a barge tow, which cause me real anxiety. Then the gale hit just as the autopilot batteries expired – the unit had been working really hard, burning a lot of amps. I’d prepared for this by catnapping steadily in preparation for helm time.

Coffs Harbour has a good marina and the town has many facilities.
A race fleet sails into Port Stephens, a popular cruising region two days sail north of Sydney.

The worst of the gale came 20 miles off Australia’s most easterly point, Cape Byron, an often-feared place where the East Australian Current is strongest. I battled to douse the mainsail in pitch darkness, then trimmed the jib enough to allow Skyebird to self-steer with the helm lashed. Gaining some respite down below with the hatch shut to keep out the occasional breaking swell, I caught my breath. Switching on the egg-timer I’d strapped to my neck for 15 minutes, I passed out. It seemed like the blink of an eye before I was awoken by the buzzing egg-timer – checking the chart, I knew the current had got us.

This forced me to tack inshore towards the Byron lighthouse beam and finally make some ground north, sailing past the river towns of Nambucca Heads, Tweed Heads and the final obstacle, the shoals on the southern Gold Coast. Then, with dawn, the towering skyscrapers of this Las-Vegas-by-the-sea shone in the morning sun, welcoming me shoreward with the promise of some blessed relief from the trials of King Neptune’s realm. BNZ

Carole enjoying the sunshine on our Contessa 25 in Broken Bay.