Middle Harbour is just about perfect for cruising, Mark Cherrington discovers, as he explores Sydney's pocket playground and enjoys a hot contender for the city's best chocolate brownie.
Tucked in between Middle Head and Dobroyd Head is the entrance to a stunning mini cruising ground for local and visiting sailors looking to get away from the hustle and bustle of the main harbour.
Middle Harbour may take you only an hour or two to sail from one end to the other, but you can also spend days poking around its beautiful bays, bushwalking in its parks and reserves, eating at nearby restaurants and cafés, or simply lazing on your boat.
It makes for near-perfect cruising, whether you have a large cruising yacht or a small trailer-sailer. And at times it's hard to believe you've anchored in a waterway that's surrounded by a city of four million people – especially if you can manage to visit mid-week, when you are almost guaranteed to have the place to yourself.
If you are coming into Sydney Harbour by sea, the lighthouse on Grotto Point, at the entrance to Middle Harbour, provides one of the navigation points to guide you into the main harbour. Unless you have a trailer-sailer (and Middle Harbour has a couple of great launch ramps – but more on that later), you'll come into Middle Harbour between Middle Head (southern entrance) and Dobroyd Head. If there's a good swell running through The Heads, and you have a following breeze (both nor'easterlies and sou'easterlies seem to kick around through this east-facing entrance) you may have a fun ride into Middle Harbour, with a bit of a surf if you are lucky. But don't worry: there's plenty of depth here until you are well around the corner in flat water.
Once around Grotto Point (and giving it a wide berth of at least 70m is recommended) the water flattens right out ð and also shallows rapidly as you reach the bar, though never less than 2.5m, so all but the deepest-draught cruisers don't need to worry about playing the tides.
By the time you get to Clontarf Point, unless you know the waterway well (in which case, why are you reading this?) you should have dropped your sails and be motoring up to the Spit Bridge. The channel here is quite narrow, with lots of moored boats, and can get quite gusty in summer with NE bullets coming down the valley on your nose.
Getting into the main part of Middle Harbour involves the ritual of waiting for the Spit Bridge to open. This controversial bridge ð the bane of motorists and commuters living in Manly and Sydney's lower northern beaches and surrounding suburbs – opens up to eight times a day. Times vary between weekends and weekdays, and also between summer and winter.
State politicians have been promising for decades to replace it, but have never managed to find the will and the money. The big fear for sailors is that, one day, they'll simply announce the bridge will no longer open. About 12 months ago, bridge opening times were reduced, removing up to four opening times a day. So enjoy it while you can.
On the downstream side of the bridge are two courtesy moorings for yachts waiting for it to open. If they are taken by a couple of fishing boats, it's acceptable to politely ask them to leave (and in our experience, they will do so). If they are not available, you'll generally find a vacant mooring nearby you can hang off. We've quite often spent a relaxing hour or two here following a frenetic sail up the harbour, having just missed an opening: reading, having our lunch or dinner, or just watching the boats and traffic.
As the opening time approaches ð particularly on late weekend afternoons ð you'll also get to watch the Spit Bridge ritual, with yachts powering in, desperate to catch the bridge. The operators are very obliging ð up to a point. If you are still three or four minutes away, they are not going to hold up any more traffic for you, but a minute or so, and you may be lucky.
Lights on the bridge let you know when it's OK to go through, but be warned: there can be quite a press of boats. Up to three abreast can fit through, but if you're at all unsure, just hang back and take your time (within reason, of course). Through the bridge and you are in the main part of Middle Harbour.
Outer Middle Harbour
Before we move into inner Middle Harbour, here's a brief tour of some possible stopping spots around the outer harbour. As a rule, these are better for day or lunch-time spots, rather than overnighting, unless you don't mind some fairly frequent wash, especially on weekends.
Tucked just inside Middle Head is Cobblers Beach, named we believe for the male items on display on any reasonably warm day (that's right folks, you don't need to bring your cossie to swim here). It's well protected in a southerly or a westerly, with reasonable anchoring, and of course lovely swimming. However, there are some restricted anchoring zones close to here, as it abuts some Defence facilities, so just read the signs.
A bit farther and you come to Balmoral Beach, which offers some great restaurants and shops (including of the bottle variety). There are lots of moorings at the southern end, so you may be able to Farther north of Balmoral is Chinamans Beach, while opposite you'll find Flat Rock Beach and Clontarf Beach – all with beautiful white sandy bottoms, crystal-clear water and great swimming and snorkelling. Depending on the breeze and the traffic, they can make a great afternoon stopover after returning through the Spit Bridge on your way home.
Both Clontarf and Chinamans also have public toilets, so if you've been holding on after an overnight stay in the Harbour (again, more on that subject later).
Inner Middle Harbour
Once you are through the Spit Bridge, it's as if you've entered a whole new world. A no-wash zone from the bridge (actually from the bar) plus having made the bridge opening just seems to make everything step down a gear, and you can start relaxing.
To the south, you have (in order of appearance) Pearl Bay, Long Bay and Sailors Bay: all offering the possibility of anchoring (or For us, the true Middle Harbour is based around the northerly bays: Sugarloaf, Bantry and the upper reaches of the harbour towards Roseville Bridge.
Almost loved to death on summer weekends (and known to be crowded even in the depths of winter), Sugarloaf has two public moorings under the distinctive hill that gives it its name ð but on just about any weekend, you'll be lucky to find them free. But don't despair: do what most other visitors to this bush-lined bay do, and anchor or raft up with friends. Depths around the edges of the bay are 6-7m, with good holding in mud. We've rafted up with up to 20 other Compass owners here. It's well protected in most winds; nor'easterlies will whip around the corners, but they seem to have lost most of their bite by the time they get in here. Westerlies and southerlies have little impact.
At the southern end of the bay is Crag Cove, while to the north is Castle Cove, extending a little further, and offering plenty of depth to anchor well into its upper reaches. This bay also offers plenty of opportunities for off-boat activities, including bushwalking (there's a good 2-3 hour walk right around the shoreline, taking in a trail through the trees well above the water, down to mangroves and wetlands at the very tidal upper reaches of both coves) and kayaking.
At the head of Castle Cove is a tidal creek which is well worth exploring at mid-to high tide. It takes you up through mangrove swamps, with plenty of stingrays and other fish swimming on the sandy bottom. Swimming? Hmm, not so sure. Sydney Harbour's last fatal shark attack occurred in Sugarloaf, albeit in the early 1960s.
The main downside of Sugarloaf is because it's so popular, it can get terribly overcrowded. Most summer weekends, along with Easter, Labour Day, even Queens Birthday in the middle of winter, can see it packed with boats. Many are motor-cruisers, and while they are at least generally considerate enough to move around the bay without leaving large wakes, they all too frequently seem to believe that everyone else in the bay has the same taste in terrible '70s rock that they do.
But as I've said before, if you can get there mid-week ð even in school holidays (excluding January) ð you can just about be guaranteed to have the place to yourself.
This is surely the most beautiful bay in Sydney Harbour. It reminds me of some of those fantastic deep tree-lined bays you get in the Whitsundays, but here it's in the middle of a major city. Houses are almost invisible from the water, just a decrepit National Parks building and aging wharf (which hopefully will one day be repaired) on one side and the fascinating explosives magazine site on the other (currently closed to the public, but under repair). However, to stay here, it's almost essential to That means unless you can plan your weekend to be there by around lunchtime on Friday (we calculate), the moorings will almost certainly have been taken by large motor-cruisers (is this because they don't have to wait for the bridge opening?). But again, go there mid-week and you'll have it to yourself. We spent three days there one April school holidays, with temperatures still in the high 20s, and had at most two other boats in the bay.
Again, it's a great bay for exploring by kayak or dinghy, and with some lovely (and quite challenging) walks up to Seaforth Oval or even up to Forestville.
And having nearly lost our first-ever eating-sized bream here to the baby shark that followed it to the surface, we prefer not to swim here either.
The National Parks building and wharf on the eastern side of the bay give access to the walks ð and also include a couple of pit toilets. Be careful using the wharf, which is in poor condition and slippery, but provides a good place to tie up the tender or your vessel while you use the toilets or go for a walk.
Upper Middle Harbour
Between Sugarloaf and Bantry Bays, upper Middle Harbour continues for another mile or so towards the Roseville Bridge. Just on your right as you head up here is Flat Rock Beach, which can be a great spot (in the right weather) to pull a trailer-sailer or three up on the sand ð exposed at low tide, completely covered at high tide.
Keep going along this fantastic tree- and cliff-lined waterway, admiring some stunning Castle Cove homes, and eventually you'll spot the Roseville Bridge. To your right is a launch ramp and small jetty, while to the left is Grays Point and the Roseville Bridge Marina, where you can get fuel, water and food.
In fact, the marina is well worth a visit for the food. With a lovely outlook, it offers café-style breakfasts, as well as full lunches. It claims to have the best chocolate brownies in Sydney-and they're not far off. It gets very popular on weekends, so if you're thinking of going there for lunch you will have to book. It's rare to find an empty mooring here, and if you're leaving your boat ð but that's not advised anyway.
Anchoring just off Grays Point is the best option. Watch the depths because it shallows quickly, but it's good holding in clean sand. Also watch the tide as it moves into and out of Middle Harbour Creek. Up to a dozen boats can raft up off Grays Point, with stern lines secured to the solid trees on the shore.
If you have a trailer-sailer, kayak or an outboard on your tender, Middle Harbour Creek, which extends beyond the Roseville Bridge (11m height limit for the AUTHORS BIO. USE HCW 07 MHave 025.JPG
Mark Cherrington and his wife cruise and race Windchaser, their Van de Stadt 34 yacht, in and around Sydney and surrounding waterways. They like to visit Middle Harbour as often as they can. By the way, Mark insists he is not nearly as obsessed with toilets as this article may imply.
everything a cruiser could want
Middle Harbour has plenty of facilities, offering just about anything a cruiser could want.
Three marinas inside the harbour offer fuel and other services: D'Albora's just inside the Spit Bridge, Northbridge Marina in Sailors Bay, and Roseville Bridge Marina. Others are Lyons Boatshed and Cammeray Marina in Long Bay, and Castlecrag Boatshed and Sailors Bay Boatshed, both in Sailors Bay.
Outside the Spit Bridge are Clontarf Marina, Fergusons Boatshed (next to the Bridge) and Balmoral Boatshed.
If, like us when we had a trailer-sailer, you've had to get by with just a Porta-Potti, toilet location and planning can take on an almost obsessive status. Happily, Middle Harbour is well provided with toilets fairly handy to most areas. All the marinas have toilets, but you'll also find public toilets in Pearl Bay (rowing club pontoon) just south of the Spit, in Bantry Bay and at Grays Point above the marina (and probably the cleanest public toilets in Sydney ð always stocked with fresh soap and non-teflon-coated toilet paper)! A recent check of the internet tells us that Sugarloaf Bay also has public toilets in Harold Reid Reserve, which runs around The Sugarloaf itself. In outer Middle Harbour, Clontarf, Chinamans Beach and Balmoral also have good-quality, clean facilities.
Cafés, food etc
As mentioned, the Roseville Bridge Marina has long been a favourite of ours, while Balmoral has plenty of good eating. Other possibilities are around the Spit Bridge, and the restaurant in the middle of Clontarf Park. And if you just stay put on the weekends, the coffee boat will bring your cappuccinos, hot chocolates, ice creams etc to you. The friendly owner seems to work the length of the harbour, from Clontarf to Bantry Bay, and prices compare favourably with what you'd pay at any trendy inner-city café.
If you have a trailer-sailer, launch spots include Tunks Park, in Long Bay (but it gets very very crowded on weekends) and the ramp on the downstream (northern shore) side of the Roseville Bridge. Access to this ramp is off Warringah Road heading south. Note that National Park fees apply for parking here, and you may have to return every day to “top up” your ticket; check with the rangers about whether you can make alternative arrangements.
Consensus among fishers is that fish in Middle Harbour are OK to eat, as it doesn't have the industrial-area catchment of Sydney Harbour's Parramatta River. We caught our only eating-sized bream in Bantry Bay.
Up to you. Middle Harbour's always had a reputation for sharks, and most people we know won't swim there. Again, the consensus among fishers is that sharks are returning to the harbour with the bans on commercial fishing (and subsequent rise in fish populations). However, there are several swimming enclosures within Middle Harbour, including Balmoral, Clontarf, Northbridge Baths (Sailors Bay), Gurney Crescent Baths (opposite Sugarloaf Bay), Sangrado Park (just to the south of here) and Davidson Reserve (upstream of the Roseville Bridge).
Plenty of birdlife to see and hear, especially in the evenings and early mornings. We've also seen sharks, stingrays, decent-sized fish (in the rivers at the heads of bays) and dolphins (around Dobroyd Head, though others have seen them inside the Spit).
Weekdays 1015, 1130, 1300, 1400, 1445, 1930, 2030, 2130 (latest time is daylight saving time only). Weekends and public holidays 0830, 1000, 1130, 1430, 1630, 1830, 2030, 2130.
Guides and charts
The Waterways of Sydney Harbour, by Philip Mathews, has lots of background and historical information on Middle Harbour (as well as the rest of Sydney Harbour); Cruising the NSW Coast, by Alan Lucas (essential reference for anyone sailing anywhere in NSW); Spit Bridge opening times www.rta.nsw.gov.au/usingroads/spitbridge or www.maritime.nsw.gov.au/spitbridge.html (refer to these for the most up-to-date bridge opening times-or simply Google “Spit Bridge opening times”).