Destinations: East Coast
Chris Dicker and wife Gilli enjoy some of the east coast's most popular stopovers when they head north in the classic Jock Muir sloop West Wind.
The sun went down in a benevolent glow over the high peaks of Flinders Island, the northeast swell still spending its force on the shores of Babel, five miles to the west of us. It had been a fine run down from Eden, thrilling really because it was my wife Gilli's and my first successful crossing of Bass Strait and the first time our timber classic 11m yacht, Westwind, had sailed these waters for 68 years.
Two years before, we had also left Sydney for the Wooden Boat Festival in Hobart, the boat having been in the water for only three weeks after an eight-year rebuild. The old girl had gently let us know she was not quite ready for such a voyage by springing a leak south of Eden. We sailed her back to Sydney, where I found and fixed the problem. We were a little disappointed at missing the festival but spent the rest of the year working and weekend sailing around Sydney.
The Hobart festival is on only every two years, so after our year of work we decided to enjoy ourselves and spend the winter in Queensland. We sold our old car and put our few excess possessions into storage.
The first stop after leaving Botany Bay was the Australian Classic and Wooden Boat Festival at the Australian Maritime Museum in Darling Harbour, which is well worth a look. We did not dally in Sydney but spent two enjoyable weeks exploring Pittwater. The next one was Heritage Afloat at Toronto on the western shores of Lake Macquarie. Flavour and atmosphere are what people remember and Heritage Afloat, held every Easter, has it all.
We were worried about the shallow entrance to Lake Macquarie, but got in without trouble and spent two weeks exploring the deeper parts. We touched once going out then we were on our way to Port Stephens. It's good to hear dredging is planned because it would be a shame if deep-keel yachts could not enter the channel and explore this delightful destination.
No visit to the Port Stephens region would be complete without a wander out to Broughton Island. We anchored in beautiful Providence Bay, sharing the anchorage with a yacht called Rebel. Ian and Janet were to become friends and travelling companions.
From Broughton, Sugarloaf Point can just be seen off to the north. The year before we had also been at Broughton looking eagerly at those distant landmarks, but we had commitments in Sydney and so had to head back south. However, this time we were free to head north.
With the wind in the east, we had quite a beat until Seal Rocks were cleared. The sheets were then eased for a glorious reach up to Tuncurry, where we arrived at the bottom of an outgoing tide. Wallis Lake is a large expanse of water that has to pass through a very narrow gap. The Coast Guard said the water was fine, but it really was a bit of a waterfall in reality. We had our 20hp diesel flat out, but Westwind was all but stationary. There were dolphins in our bow wave standing still! We have much to thank our 35-year-old Danish Bukh for. After what seemed like an eternity we inched our way into a berth on the Tuncurry side and bought Mr Bukh an ice-cream. Yes, yes, I know, we should have gone in on the last of the flood, not the last of the ebb. Close though!
I wonder how many cruising people have overnighted at Crowdy Head, 23nm north of Tuncurry? We spent the better part of a beautiful autumn day wandering around the area and the ensuing night. All the action is a few miles south at Harrington, where the inlet is not navigable for most yachts, so Crowdy is left a quiet little fishing village with spectacular panoramas. Every paradise has its price and the old jetty, coupled with a predominant surge, must surely be Crowdy's. I could see what we were in for, so I scrounged bits of wood for barge boards and old tyres for extra fenders. To add to the fun we had tied up near a tiny leak in the water supply pipe, which covered the aft end of the boat in a fine mist.
After a sleepless night, we coiled chafed lines and washed the dross of the wharf from our decks before a pleasant sail to Laurieton on the Camden Haven River. Here we spent a week, walking, socialising and provisioning. The track up North Brother Mountain is a stiff climb, but the view looking back is worth every drop of sweat.
The leg from Laurieton to Trial Bay began and ended very wet. All looked quite innocent as we crossed the Camden Haven bar, but a real curler developed after we were well and truly committed. The wave broke right over us, sending jets of water down below through every possible aperture, including our Aussie-made hurricane vent. The dinghy was severely damaged, the errant waves continuing over the dodger and half-filling the cockpit. We then enjoyed a fantastic sail to Trial Bay, despite 30kt squalls, torrential rain and three-metre seas, but on entering that open bay in the dark of night a terrific squall came over, obliterating all visibility and laying the yacht over even with her double-reefed main and tiny headsail. Ian and Janet on Rebel had arrived before us, and knew we were close, so switched their masthead strobe light on. Ah, the guiding light of a friend on a stormy night!
The next week we spent in Coffs Harbour marina drying out, repairing the dinghy, meeting new friends and exploring.
In the early hours of one chilly morning we joined a minor exodus from Coffs – the pilgrimage north now gaining some impetus. The fresh s'wester washed clean by all the rain drove us to the Clarence in fine style, where we dropped anchor at Iluka. The Clarence is a mighty river. One of its many pleasant peculiarities is that time seems to stand still there, which is the only way I can explain that almost a month passed before we were on our way again.
The timing was perfect for an early-morning bar crossing, which we now take very seriously. The SW turned SE and Westwind made a smart passage to Southport. Perhaps a fine, sunny Sunday was not the best time to intrude into such a mecca because the water folk here were a little more numerous and a little less considerate than we were used to. Many of their craft are not intended or used in a manner conducive to mutual enjoyment.
The channels behind North and South Stradbroke and Morton islands are shallow and running aground is never fun and can really spoil your day. Gilli, who is fairly new to sailing, must have thought she married a madman when – after taking the bottom at a notoriously shallow stretch near Jacobs Well – I ordered the dinghy over the side, whence I began furiously filling it with water. Time was of the essence because I thought we were at the top of the tide (wrongly as it turned out) and the business end of the mainsheet was attached to the dinghy and the boom swung out supported by the main halyard at top speed. We then hauled in the mainsheet and the 10-tonne yacht leaned to the weighted dinghy enough to free her, and we were off and quite chuffed at our independence.
At Manly, near Brisbane, we called in to see Ross Muir, son of Jock Muir, the legendary sailor and also builder and first owner of West Wind, and his large family, who invaded us early one Sunday morning. Ross and his son Jason, apart from being fine hosts, own and run a first-rate chandlery at Manly.
Next stop Mooloolaba
From Manly we had a pleasant sail along Moreton Bay to Mooloolaba. It was good to leave all the shallows behind and to be in deep blue sea again. However, this was short-lived because we crossed the notorious Wide Bay bar into the Great Sandy Strait then up the muddy Mary River to Maryborough. Here we caught up with Stan Field, the owner of Westward, which is the boat Jock Muir built after Westwind. Westward won the 1948 and 1949 Sydney to Hobart. She was built as a fishing boat for Tassie waters, so is immensely strong and obviously fast in the right hands. She went on to cover many international miles under the swashbuckling command of Stan.
The Mary River was covered in thick fog to about head height when we left, so I stood on the coachhouse in bright sunshine and conned the ship between the tree-lined river banks, taking special note of barking dogs. Twenty miles later the strong ebb spewed us out into the Great Sandy Strait in time to make North Whitecliffs, on the Fraser side before dark. It was June 21, only a few days before we were due to fly to Germany for a three-week family visit. At 6am we hoisted our anchor and had a fast sail across Hervey Bay in a steady 25kt westerly to yet another river. The Burnett led us to the bustling town of Bundaberg, where we left Westwind in the care of Midtown Marina.
Arriving back in country Queensland Bundaberg after a hectic tour from the Baltic to Bavaria was a great relief to us both; the smells of the river, burning cane and the rum distillery as we walked from the station to our dear old Westwind were a balm to our ravaged senses (nicely ravaged, I might add).
At 1.30am on a cool, starlit morning, we cleared Burnett Heads and with the wind over our port quarter had a dream sail to Lady Musgrave Island, 55nm north. We did not raise the island until only nine miles away because it is very low and covered with a low pisonia forest. This was our first tropical island complete with crystal-clear lagoon and surf breaking on the reef all around us.
The cool sandy floor of the pisonia forest made for relaxed barefoot walking and the lime-green canopy threw a dappled and enchanting light. It is a lovely place.
On the morning of our departure we found that our anchor chain had taken a turn around a coral head. Even in 10m of water we could clearly see the problem, and it was a simple matter of unwinding ourselves. We made for Pancake Creek, an interesting and peaceful anchorage just north of 1770. The climb up to Bustard Head is a must.
A few days later we headed for Gladstone, sighting the plumes of steam from the aluminium smelter and other heavy industries from some way off. As we got closer a mountain of bauxite became obvious with large ships loading and unloading at the wharves. Near the entrance to the marina a coal conveyer rattled and squealed, and we felt sure this would be a noisy, dirty, smelly harbour, but we were pleasantly surprised. The waters and anchorages around the Gladstone area are superb, and we would have liked to dally longer, but we were hungry for blue water and remote islands. We wound our way between Facing and Curtis islands and emerged into the great oyster that is formed between the land and the Great Barrier Reef. Our adventure was just beginning.
MORE ON THE WEST WIND
Built in Battery Point (1935-1937), West Wind is an 11m huon-pine double-ender, originally a ketch, but now a sleek and practical cutter-rigged sloop. Her builder and first owner was the famous Jock Muir, hence the connection with the Muir family, who visited the Dickers and the boat at Manly near Brisbane.
Chris fell in love with her in 1999, with an eight-year restoration project following.