A northern New South Wales river better known for its temperamental entrance bar than the positives upstream, the Richmond empties into the Coral Sea at the town of Ballina, 45 miles south of the Queensland border.
Up-river from Ballina are the settlements of Wardell, Broadwater, Woodburn, Coraki and Casino, and if you turn right at Coraki into the Wilsons River, the large inland town of Lismore is accessible to displacement craft.
Most masted vessels are unable to venture upstream from Broadwater thanks to its 9-metre high bridge around which is woven a classic tale of bureaucratic illogic, the bridge, in fact, having an opening span.
On completion a few years ago a charge of $500 per opening was levied, guaranteeing there would be no demand. Then, due to lack of demand it was welded shut!
Meanwhile the settlement of Broadwater is easily reached after passing under the lift-span of Wardell Bridge, 8 miles upstream from Ballina. Call Roads and Maritime for operating details.
Returning to the Ballina Bar, its problem is in its frontal exposure to the dominant southeast swell, thus demanding more caution than any other bar on the coast. If in doubt, stay at sea.
However, if conditions are promising, cross the bar on a rising tide at least three hours old and obey the leading beacons that are best kept in line from outside the bar until close to the Marine Rescue tower from where the course crosses the steam towards leads on a half-tide training wall.
If seeking a snug bush anchorage with good walks look no further than Mobbs Bay under the southern headland, otherwise Ballina’s public pontoon-jetty is diagonally opposite where overnight berthing is usually tolerated.
Alternatively, one of the best river anchorages is off the trawler harbour from there the dinghy can be taken into Fishery Creek to a ramp and pontoon from where the walk into town is dreary but easy.
Once called ‘Bulloona’, today’s Ballina has lines of handy shops plus a huge satellite mall close to town. Marine hardware is not easy to find, however Emigrant Creek, beyond the South Ballina vehicular ferry, has most facilities including possible berths, moorings and a slipway with all services. And if you need to fly to Sydney or Brisbane, Ballina is served by Virgin Air.
The Richmond River was discovered by tall, gregarious, young and extremely competent, Captain Henry John Rous of the 530-ton frigate Rainbow. Anchoring off the river entrance in 1828 he and his boat crew took the pinnace upstream as far as Wardell.
Timber cutters soon followed and the town of Ballina was gazetted on 7 November 1856 just a few years before gold was discovered in beach sand near the river’s mouth. Preceding organised settlement, Australia’s beautiful red cedar forests attracted sawyers by the boatload to what became known as the ‘Big Scrub’.
Their tactics would give today’s Work Place Health and Safety bureaucrats apoplexy for the way they rode their logs downriver during floods to waiting barges.
And talking of rafts, unique to Ballina is a Las Balsas Expedition raft on display at the Maritime Museum. Led by Spaniard, Vital Alsar, his expedition of three rafts left Ecuador, South America, on 27 May 1973 to prove that early man could have migrated across the full width of the Pacific Ocean to Australia.
On 21 November the journey ended in Ballina after 178 days at sea, two of the rafts being towed into the Richmond River by a local trawler whilst the third raft was abandoned and left to drift south to Newcastle where vandals set it on fire. The best of the two remaining rafts were consolidated into the one now on display at the museum.
Also of considerable nautical interest is the defunct 115-year old Rileys Hill Dry Dock upstream from Broadwater. Once a busy repair and maintenance facility, it is now the passion of local volunteers who battled to have it heritage listed and now battle to afford its restoration.
The dock is easily accessed by tender or hire-car, and may eventually be open to visitors. Meanwhile it can be viewed from behind locked gates where it reminds us that Ballina was once a major shipbuilding and repair centre.
Returning to the upper reaches of the Richmond and Wilsons rivers, tenders can be taken upriver on sightseeing tours, and many motor cruisers will find bridge heights and depths adequate for reaching Lismore. Indeed, until recently Sydney’s ex-fire float Bennelong ran regular overnight cruises between Ballina and Lismore.
In clewing up, it must be emphasised that nothing justifies risk-taking on the Ballina Bar in unsuitable conditions, otherwise the area offers more than meets the eye including historical remnants of its maritime past, delightful river cruising and a good general boating scene.
The town of Ballina is at the mouth of the Richmond River, 45 miles south of the Queensland border. Being wide open to the dominant southeast swell, the bar is the trickiest on the coast but okay in the right conditions. West of Woodburn, bottom left, the river continues inland to Casino and its branch, Wilsons River, goes to Lismore.
About the author: Alan Lucas is one of Australia's most respected sailing writers. He was the original editor of Cruising Helmsman magazine and his cruising guides to Australia's east coast are carried are carried on almost every yacht that ventures into these waters. He and his wife Patricia spend most of their time on their yacht Soleares, updating the guides.
This article was first published in the October-November 2014 issue of Australian Sailing + Yachting.