Sailing into Darwin, one of Australia?s most remote cities, can be a shock to the senses after a lengthy sea voyage. After cruising through some of the most isolated, sparsely populated coast in the country, a landfall celebration in Darwin – approximately 2600 nautical miles from Fremantle and over 1500 nautical miles from Cairns – was well in order. Convenient for thirsty sailors as the city boasts a boating regatta that worships the beer can. The annual Beer Can Regatta is the Holy Grail for beer drinkers in this tro
Darwin has come a long way from the outpost it has long been considered. It is a vibrant city undergoing rapid expansion: developers cranes dot the CBD skyline, with an exciting waterfront development and Convention Centre under construction. The city has a thriving arts community, including the highly acclaimed National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Island Art Award, plus a busy festival program to satisfy the most culturally challenged. It is indeed a colourful city filled with colourful characters.

The Top End, however, can be a dangerous place for sailors, particularly the unwary, the unprepared or just the foolish. Enormous tides, of up to eight metres, turning a tranquil bay into a dry mangrove grove mudflat twice a day, are the most obvious challenge. Throw in the crocodiles, wet season monsoons and a vast unpopulated coast and careful self-preservation becomes a necessity, not a luxury. For sailors accustomed to the facilities and services of southern states cruising, sailing to these low latitudes requires intensive planning. But for the courageous, well-organised sailors who make the effort, the rewards are many.

The coastline is predominantly sandy beaches and mangrove-fringed mudflats, with the occasional exception of dramatic cliffs like those in the English Company Islands. As with much of Australia, the Top End has a chequered history of European exploration, fraught with the challenges of dangerous wildlife and troublesome encounters with the Aboriginal inhabitants. Spanish Captain Luiz Baez de Torres was known to have been in the area as early as 1606, leaving his name on the strait that separates Australia from Papua New Guinea. Europeans subsequently tried settling in Port Essington, Raffles Bay and Croker Island before establishing the township of Palmerston in the 1860s. It was from this remote colonial outpost that the thriving city of Darwin eventually evolved.

Although out of date, and apparently also out of print, the 1986 published Northern Territory Coast ? A Cruising Guide by John Knight, is still one of the few handbooks devoted to the Top End, and is invaluable. Archaic it may be, obsolete it is not: there has been so little coastal development outside of Darwin that the rest of the coast is much the same as when the book was first published. Alan Lucas?s Cruising the Coral Coast also devotes a chapter to sailors heading west from Cape York.

Darwin Sailing Club, (www.dwnsail.com.au) in Fannie Bay welcomes visitors to use its waterfront club and enjoy the hospitality of the bar and restaurant beneath the palms. Although boasting no marina facilities, the off-lying anchorage is invariably well used. Although the shallow bay ensures that deep draft vessels may need to anchor half a mile or more offshore, making the dinghy trip somewhat tedious. A shore expedition is made even more tiresome if landing on the beach at high tide, followed by a low tide departure so many locals have attached wheels to ease the burden of dragging dinghies through the soft mud. A well-stocked chandlery is adjacent to the boatyard and careening piles on the beachfront are available by prior arrangement with the club.

Frances Bay is on the eastern side of the CBD and offers a few anchorage options, although it is exposed to the south-easterlies. Here you?ll find the charismatic Dinah Beach Yacht Club (www.dinahbeachcya.com.au) at the entrance to Sadgroves Creek. From humble beginnings, the original ?container bar? housed amid the jumble of a working boatyard has been replaced with a permanent waterfront bar with open sides. This is a genuinely friendly club and is perhaps the quintessential venue for socialising Territory style. It?s raw, it?s brash, and it?s ?shoes optional? great fun. It?s also the host of the long-running annual Darwin to Ambon yacht race.

Don?t expect to find an abundance of marinas on your Top End expedition: there simply aren?t any outside Darwin. To the west, the closest marina is Exmouth on North West Cape, and to the east, Port Douglas is the closest bastion of marina civility.

For sailors who haven?t had the pleasure of transiting a lock, the towering concrete-sided walls can be intimidating. It is also unavoidable, as they all have them. Because of the enormous tidal range, locks are the only way that marinas can operate. Don?t expect to be the only vessel in the lock either. Depending on the size of your vessel, you may find there are three or four craft rafted up, all rising or falling together.

These locks are an important agent in preventing aquatic pests entering confined waters, with strict controls in place to prevent marina contamination. Depending on your past ports of call, your vessel may require an underwater inspection by Fisheries Officers. If offending pests are found, you will need to remove them before being permitted to enter any marina. Inspections are free of charge and can be arranged by marina operators.

Cullen Bay Marina (www.cullenbaymarina.com.au)
This is the largest marina and definitely the liveliest. Surrounded by apartments and a diverse range of restaurants and bars, Cullen Bay has become a tourism destination in itself, with many tourist boats based here. Don?t miss the uniquely fitted out Buzz Bar at the end of the marina dock. Fuel is available outside the lock entrance.

Tipperary Waters Marina (Lockmaster 0407 075 077)
This marina is accessed on a rising tide via Sadgroves Creek, with local knowledge essential for safe transit: contact the Lockmaster for instructions before proceeding up the creek. The lock itself is just 6m wide and 22m long, making it too narrow for many multi-hull vessels. The marina is conveniently located, with a mini market, Dinah Beach Yacht Club just down the road, plus there?s a chandlery and the CBD a short walk away.

Bayview Waters Marina (www.bayviewmarina.com.au)
Described unkindly by some locals as Baygon Marina because of its location deep into what used to be a mangrove-lined creek, this marina is accessed also via Sadgroves Creek. A housing estate surrounds this modern marina, with the proposed dining precinct still under development at the time of this writer's visit.

Port of Darwin Mooring Basin (Ph 08 8999 3971)
Known ever since its construction as the Duck Pond, this is Darwin?s original marina and is generally utilised only by fishing and commercial vessels. Casual berthing can be available, particularly if your vessel is too large for the other marinas, but beware of the basic facilities.

Sailing east, it?s almost mandatory to stop at Gove (or Nhulunbuy). The Gove Yacht Club (www.goveyacht.org.au) is positioned on an idyllic, almost landlocked harbour. Well almost idyllic if you ignore the massive bauxite loading facility dominating the northern shore. Accommodation for thousands of workers is in such short supply that scores live aboard vessels moored in the bay. This hardworking, thirsty population dominates the Yacht Club membership, ensuring that while it has yacht club status, it actually functions more along the lines of a workers bar. Careening piles on the beach are the only option for haul out. Fuel and water can be taken on by prior arrangement at the service jetty.

Gulf of Carpentaria
Gove Harbour offers good holding for vessels waiting for the right conditions to make an eastward Gulf of Carpentaria crossing. Similarly, Weipa or Seisia, on the eastern side of the Gulf, offers a suitable anchorage if sitting out a blow before making a westerly passage. The anchorage at Weipa is tight, with room for just a dozen or so vessels out of the busy shipping channel. The town of Weipa is approx 5km along a mango tree shaded walkway. Woolworth?s supermarket provides all the longed-for luxuries (like chocolate!), often missing when cruising the northern wilderness. Also try the air-conditioned Albatross Hotel for great eye fillet steaks.

As with all remote coastal passaging, caution is required in these shoaling waters: emergency assistance is a long way away. The reward, however, is exhilarating sailing up the western side of Cape York Peninsula. With predominantly SE or E winds, it is possible to sail close inshore along the north-south running beach, with the offshore breeze providing classic, fast, flat-water reaching, making the anxiety seem a distant memory.

Situated just 25 miles SW of the tip of the Cape York Peninsula lies the little known community of Seisia. If Seisia was big enough to have a postcard industry, the most popular image would undoubtedly be of yachts anchored just metres from the white sand coconut-palm-lined beach. Reminiscent of far-flung Pacific Islands, Seisia is the kind of place where you could happily while away days in a hammock, lulled into oblivion by the swishing of palm fronds. Nothing much happens here and that is exactly its attraction. Cruising sailors not lulled into tro
Interestingly, this remote community is also accessible by those who don?t wish to captain their own vessel. The cargo vessel MV Trinity Bay voyages each week between Cairns, Thursday Island, Seisia and return, taking just 48 passengers. Gazing out to sea from the solid deck of this 80m freighter may just be the safest way for less adventurous sailors to experience Cape York. Perhaps it?s cheating, but it would sure take away the anxiety factor inherent in remote northern sailing.

Northern Territory Coast ? A Cruising Guide by John Knight
Cruising the Coral Coast – Alan Lucas

Darwin Sailing Club, (www.dwnsail.com.au)
Dinah Beach Yacht Club (www.dinahbeachcya.com.au)
Cullen Bay Marina (www.cullenbaymarina.com.au)
Tipperary Waters Marina (Lockmaster 0407 075 077)
Bayview Waters Marina (www.bayviewmarina.com.au)
Port of Darwin Mooring Basin (Ph 08 8999 3971)
The Gove Yacht Club (www.goveyacht.org.au)

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