Cruising in Australia



Once we arrived in Australia, we had about four weeks until the third week of January, when we were due to meet the Yacht Express ship in Brisbane, so Duet could travel safely home.  Our actual sailing date wouldn't be available until about a week before, so we targeted mid January as a good time to arrive. The Yacht Express loads at the commercial docks in Brisbane, so we made a reservation at Rivergate Marina, just upriver.

But, right then, Duet was still some 250 miles north of Brisbane, in Bundaberg. So, much as we enjoyed Bundaberg, we needed to get going. 

Ron, of course, did a little work while were in Bundaberg.  We also took some walks and attended functions at the cruisers' yacht club area.

Cleaning windlass parts

Rebuilding the gearbox

Removing the offending windlass switch on the flybridge, so Nancy can't hit the on switch while the windlass is locked, which, the last time she did it, caused a significant oil leak.  In her defense, the switch is easy to bump, even Ron has done it on occasion.  

 The walk along the headland from the marina into town

Bundaberg Yacht Club

The Bundaberg fishing fleet in port

First, though, we had a close encounter with Australia's unique ecosystem, via some dock neighbors who appeared late one evening. Actually, it all started with the late afternoon arrival of an Australian Coast Guard helicopter, which flew over the marina, very low, several times.

Helicopters at that altitude are extremely loud, so even Ron came up out of the engine room to see what was going on. Eventually, said helicopter landed at the head of our dock and a serious looking group of Coast Guard folks came down the dock. The leader was carrying what looked like a detector from the movie Ghostbusters, namely a TV antenna connected to a small box. They walked up to each boat, while the box beeped.

Ron figured it out first, "they are looking for an EPIRB (emergency signaling device) going off". Right he was, they eventually found it on a large tourist vessel at the end of the dock. The captain was summoned, the offending unit located and all quieted down. On their way back down the dock, however, the entire team stopped to chat with the crew of the boat next to us, which had pulled in about an hour earlier.

Nancy, as usual, was hanging out on the back deck and started talking to a teenager who had just disembarked. The teenager said, rather offhandedly, "yes, you've just seen us on television". Nancy, unexpectedly, said "no, we don't watch TV". So she got the whole story, the short version is that this vessel and it's companion, also docked near us, had run into the first box jellyfish of the season, just around the corner, on Fraser Island. Nine people went into the water, all were stung and all were evacuated by the same helicopter which had just noisily taken off from our dock. Two of the older adults died of shock, but the seven younger folks, including Nancy's informant, had survived.

Ron, when told about all this, morosely noted that he knew something in Australia was going to kill him, he just didn't know it would be so soon. He was actually not far off, conceptually, as we were pulling out for Fraser Island the next morning. Swimming, or even dipping a toe in the water, was definitely off the program.

So the next morning, Duet set off bravely for Fraser Island, some 20 miles to the East. This route had been chosen, after much debate, as the shorter of the two routes to Brisbane. It also allowed us to travel "inside" rather than do another overnight offshore run, but it did mean we would have to pick our way through the Great Sandy Straight, which is a challenging area for navigation, as it is prone to shoaling. To complicate matters further, once we survived the transit of the Straight, we would need to exit into the ocean via the Wide Bay Bar, where our sister ship, the Nordhavn 52 Dirona, had almost come to grief several years earlier.  Dirona was entering the Bar, which is more difficult than exiting, as you can't see the conditions well, and the weather was bad, which it wouldn't be on our journey.  Still, it was sobering to read about their experience. 

Nancy, needless to say, had not been a proponent of this route. Ron, on the other hand, thought it would be easier on our tired persons than going outside, and had spent quite a bit of time chatting up local captains to get the best information on how to make the trip. He was confident we could do it, and, since we departed on New Year's Eve, going through the Great Sandy Straight also meant we could spent New Year anchored with a nice bottle of wine and a decent meal, rather than crashing along in the ocean. Nancy was sold.

 The chosen route behind Fraser Island

So off we went, at the crack of dawn, back out the Bundaberg River entrance, and south across Hervey Bay to the entrance to the Great Sandy Straight. Unlike most other shallow places we have cruised, you can't see the bottom in the Straight, you just have a general feel, based on the color of the water, for how shallow it really is. Overall, the water is cloudy, as there is a lot of current whooshing in and out, which stirs up the sandy bottom.

Our initial challenge was the entrance buoys weren't on our charts. This was our first experience with Automated Identification System (AIS) buoys, which are small radio buoys which broadcast their GPS coordinates, just like Duet does with her AIS. The buoys are physically there and they are red and green, they just aren't charted, as it's a lot easier to change the radio signal than update a chart, every time you move a buoy.  These are used in many places along the Australian coast, where the channels change frequently due to shoaling. The buoys showed up just fine on our electronic chart, once Duet was near enough to receive their signals, but it took us a little time to get used to the whole concept.

Once we maneuvered past that, the trip was pretty uneventful, we anchored after a long day in the lee of Fraser Island, just off a local resort. The standard anchorage was crowded, it being New Year, so we went a little further north and found a spot all to ourselves. It was a beautiful sunset, and we saw a new kind of sea creature, at least for us. It was a dudong.  This picture was taken by Odyssea Dive, but it looks exactly like what we saw.  The dudong is native to Australia and the Indian Ocean. It looks like a manatee but has a forked tail. We toasted the success of our long journey, now almost over, and slept well.

The next day we set off with the rising tide to pick our way through the shallow section of the channel. We needed almost high tide or Duet would find herself stuck until the next high tide rolled around. This is not the first time we have cruised skinny waters, we often took our Nordhavn 46, with her 6 foot draft, into 8 foot waters in the Bahamas, but there, at least, you could see the bottom. Not so here, the bottom lurked somewhere down there, invisible, but hopefully at least sandy and forgiving, unlike the rocky reefs in Fiji.

Below is a sailboat that misjudged the tides.  This was New Year's Day, so possibly he started his celebration early. 

The best time to transit shallow areas is on mid tide rising, because then, if you run aground, the high tide soon comes around to lift you off. Also, if you are in an area with big tides, you don't run the risk of the boat tipping over when she is completely out of the water at low tide. The problem with this transit, though, was we needed all the water nature made available to shimmy Duet through, so we had to postpone our departure until later in the tide cycle than we would have liked.

Worse, everyone else had the same plan, so not only were we trying to find water in a skinny channel, we were trying to find it in a narrow passage full of other boats trying to do the same thing. We shoehorned Duet into the parade and we all chugged sedately south down the channel, which was growing ever narrower and shallower, until we hit the "really tricky part" as our friend Mark on N50 Panacea puts it, where depths at high tide are only about 2 feet deeper than Duet's heavy keel. Tidal swings in this area are about 12 feet. The channel at that point is about 100 feet wide, so there's not much room for error.

All went relatively well until we turned the key corner and saw the shallowest "S" bends laid out before us. Four sailboats were sailing serenely towards us, completely blocking the way. We couldn't go back, and, as one of Nancy's favorite mentors (Yoda) says, "there is no try", so forward we went. One of the major problems with sailboats sailing towards you is they often can't see you around their sails. So it was with our four companions, who glided gracefully onward, blissfully unaware of Duet's bulk bearing down on them. They all also seem to have chosen not to interrupt the magnificent silence of the occasion by turning on their radios, so none answered our hails.

The shallow section is shown inside the circle

Ron has seen this movie before, in the shallow waters of Florida's west coast, so he just continued straight down the middle. It helped to know that all the sailboats were catamarans, which have much shallower drafts than Duet, so we weren't forcing anyone into a difficult situation. Also, they were Australians, so they tended to be laid back anyway. They parted for us, no one yelled, and no one ran aground. All in all, it was the best outcome we could have hoped for, although it didn't do our blood pressures any good.

Once we cleared the "tricky bit" it was smooth sailing, so to speak, to Tin Can Inlet, where we sought refuge for the night. Again, Duet's draft dictated our behavior, we needed to exit the Wide Bay Bar around 05:30 the next morning, to travel outward on the end of the incoming tide. The Bar is shallow, so we needed all the water we could get, and we needed the calming influence of the incoming tide against the river current. Exiting river bars with an ebb tide isn't recommended, especially a narrow one with heavy swell like Wide Bay.

To quote the Tin Can Inlet Coast Guard "Coastal bars are dynamic in nature, and the Wide Bay Bar has a reputation for being one of the most dangerous on the Queensland coast because of the length of the crossing (over 3nm), its distance offshore, the length of time it takes for our rescue crews to reach the bar (up to 1 hour depending on conditions) and the effects weather conditions have on the seas thereabouts.”

The Tin Can Bay Coastguard recommend that vessels with drafts exceeding 1m (which is 3 foot 4 inches, Duet's draft is about 5 feet 6 inches) should cross the bar in the last two hours of the incoming tide, preferably at high tide

So, to exit the Bar at 05:30, we needed to start out from Tin Can Inlet around 0400, as Duet would be slow into the incoming current. That meant we didn't want to anchor inside Pelican Bay, which is the most sheltered anchorage near the exit, as it has a shallow entrance channel. We didn't want to run the risk of trying to get out of there in the dark, even with high water, as there are anchored boats and other local hazards. The plan, then, was to anchor right at the entrance to Tin Can Inlet, which is right next to Pelican Bay. Easy entrance, easy exit, how hard could it be?

Not too hard, actually, as long as you don't anchor on the river range. A range is a set of carefully aligned lights, designed to guide boats into or out of a channel after dark. There are two usually lighted markers, a short one in front and a taller one in back, when they align you are in the channel. Ranges can be used coming or going, when they are behind you a crew member looks backwards and tells the pilot which way to steer to stay on the range. We have done this many times on the Intercoastal Waterway, it's disorienting at first, but you get the hang of it.

Nautical range, courtesy of Wikipedia

Solar powered range, Finnish Archipelago, courtesy Wikipedia

Anyway, Nancy somehow missed the range when she carefully chose our anchoring spot, where we got settled just as the sun was setting. It had been a long, tiring day, and the next day was going to be even longer, so we just wanted to get the hook down and rest. We did figure out our mistake, however, when a fishing boat, exiting the river to fish for the night, made an abrupt course change about 200 yards astern of Duet, sitting serenely in the river. Obviously this wasn't going to work, so we hauled up the anchor again, in the gathering dark, and moved a little further downriver, and off the range. Fortunately, our big Rocna set on the first try and we settled down for dinner.

In the image below (aligned North up), the green line is the range, the red dot furthest south is where we first anchored and the red dot just above it is where we spent the night.  Pelican Bay is the bay just below the channel to the Wide Bay Bar, which sets off to the right.

Ron, before we went to bed, also decided to leave our all big deck lights on all night, to ensure that any other exiting or entering boats could see us clearly. We had the generator running anyway, for air conditioning, as it was hot and we wanted to get a decent night's sleep, so the power draw of the lights wasn't an issue. Off to sleep we went, with Duet lit up like a carnival.

Around 2AM Nancy woke up. This isn't uncommon, she often wakes in the middle of the night, visits the head, and then goes back to sleep. This time, however, she went up on deck to see how things were going. Duet was hanging peacefully on her hook and the stars were out.  Her deck lights had attracted a lot of little baitfish, which were schooling noisily all around her. In the middle of all this commotion was a large mother dolphin, accompanied by her baby, zooming around feeding. The mother saw Nancy on the deck, came up alongside, rolled over on her back and made a series of squeaking noises. The baby, learning from Mum, did the same.  

Nancy thought about waking Ron, as these moments don't happen often, but he had to get us safely out of the Bar in a few hours, so she let him sleep. She did try to take some pictures, which didn't come out. She also spent quite a bit of time just gazing over the side in wonder, while the mother and baby fed, splashed, sang and generally enjoyed themselves.

Too soon it was time to leave. The hook came up about 0400 and off we went. The tide was still coming in quite strongly, so Ron increased the throttle setting on Duet's big 300HP Lugger motor. Nordhavn 50s have a large (for Nordhavns) main engine, but one of the advantages is you can call on it in this type of situation. Duet's motor is continuous duty rated, which means we can run it at wide open throttle indefinitely, so there are no worries about working it hard when you need to.

Duet clawed her way to 6 knots to pass a sailboat doing about 4.5. Conditions then got really bumpy, even though we had wind and current running together, which usually means pretty calm conditions. This bar, however, has a reputation for swell and sure enough, we got swell. Seas were about 5 feet, climbing to 6-7 as we got closer to the exit, and very close together, so we were banging up and down quite a bit.

In these bumpy rides we usually slow down to soften the motion, but it's about 4.5 nautical miles from where we were anchored to the exit of the Wide Bay Bar, and Ron wanted to maintain enough speed to clear the inlet before the tide turned. The main was turning 1800-1900RPM, our normal cruising RPM is about 1700, which in calm conditions delivers 7.5-8 knots, so the combination of swell and incoming tide was slowing us down quite a bit. After about 5 minutes at this RPM, the main started to heat up. It wasn't overheating but it was definitely running hotter than it normally does at these RPM.

Given our situation, there wasn't much we could do about this, except hope the main didn't actually overheat while we were exiting, as there was no way our back up wing engine could keep us going in this situation. Ron's theory was that the rough sea conditions were overloading the propellor for that RPM. While we can't prove this, it seems a reasonable hypothesis, given the main cooled right down to normal, at the higher RPM, as soon as we got into the calmer waters beyond the bar.  We also ran it up to wide open throttle later in the day and it behaved normally. 

So there we were chugging along, getting closer and closer to the exit. The Wide Bay Bar has a lot of changing shoaling, so we had GPS coordinates of where to turn to cross it safely. Ron had entered these coordinates on both our PC navigation systems, the fixed Dell that serves as our main computer and our backup laptop, both of which are always running when we travel (this turned out to be a good thing later). Our local sources told us to ignore the range, as shoaling had made it inoperative.

To cross the Bar you make a hard starboard turn, between 6-8 foot seas breaking on the shoals to either side. It's almost impossible to see the turn until you are right on top of it. We were doing just fine, although conditions were worsening as we got closer to the exit, the main engine temperature was steady at about 8 degrees over normal and we were pretty comfortable. Nothing had come loose, and the boat was running quietly, except for the crashing as the bulbous bow hammered through the short seas. We hung on and trusted Duet to get us there.

Ron made the turn perfectly, and lined up between the shoals, where depths were about 11 feet, as expected. We could see the calm water beyond the exit and the shoaling. At that point the main navigation computer crashed, so the screen in front of him went blank. We could see outside, but it is easy to get disoriented when making a turn like this, as the channel is not really visible in all the sloshing water from the shoaling all around the exit.  There are no buoys on this Bar, the shoaling makes it impractical to use them. 

Ron was hand steering Duet at this point. Normally we let the autopilot handle the boat, as it can steer much straighter than we can (it takes into account currents which push the boat off course), but this was a tight, rolly, confused exit and the autopilot doesn't do so well with those, especially if the set course is very short, which this one was. It takes the autopilot some time to figure out it's not on track, and there wasn't enough time to allow it to do that here. 

Duet hand steers pretty well, once you get used to her, but it takes some practice to keep her going straight. Fortunately the seas were ahead and on her beam, rather than behind her, as stern seas make her harder to control.  Also, Ron has had a lot of practice guiding her in and out of tight entrances during our last two years, so he is pretty dialed into how she will behave in a given situation. 

Ron kept steering the compass course he had before the computer crashed, while Nancy rebooted the balky system and confirmed he was doing OK by following our course on the laptop, which was to his right. It's hard to steer straight while looking right, so he stuck with the compass (which is right in front of him) while Nancy watched our progress on the laptop. Thanks to Ron's forethought, the laptop also had the key GPS waypoints for the Bar on it, so Nancy could see that we were right where we were supposed to be. Duet only has one main screen in front of the wheel, which is something we would like to remedy one day, but now was not the time to be thinking about that.

The navigation PC failed inside the red circle, our approximate course is show by the red line.  The bigger shoal was to our starboard, but there wasn't much room for error on the port side either, although it did get deeper as we traveled further out of the Bar.

In the picture below, you can see the big screen of the system which failed, in front of the helm seat.  The laptop sits on the shelf in front of the two radars to the right, with it's screen facing the helm seat.  Ron normally stands when hand steering, he can see better.

The main system came back up relatively quickly, Ron confirmed we were still going the right way, and out we bashed, into calm waters off the Australia coast. This is the first time that this computer had crashed on our entire trip, it will be replaced when we return home. It is getting older and we don't need another experience like that. As previously noted, the main engine cooled right down as soon as we cleared the confused conditions, we had a big hug, and set a course for Mooloolaba.

The rest of our trip to Mooloolaba was, relatively speaking, uneventful. The entrance to Mooloolaba (and no Nancy still can't pronounce it, much to the amusement of our Australian friends) is a tight one, and shallow. Our friend Mark, on the Nordhavn 50 Panacea, came to our rescue again, as it is his home harbor, so he clued us in on how to approach it. Essentially, you approach it with the seas behind you, and, at the right moment, you make a turn across the swell and into the breakwater.

The direction of the swell is shown by the red arrow in the image below.  Obviously, the trick here is timing, too soon and you will be shoved off course by the swell, too late and you will bang into the entrance.  

There is significant shoaling to port when entering, so you need to hug the starboard breakwater. Of course, anyone coming out is trying to do the same thing, and there is limited visibility into the channel itself. Fortunately, Duet was the largest vessel in the vicinity, so we were able to enter as we wished, based on our sheer mass and limited maneuverability. Conditions were calm on our arrival and we slowly made our way through Mooloolaba Harbor, which was packed with boats of every description, to our slip at Mooloolaba Marina. Panacea was also there, but Mark and Carol were visiting family in New Zealand, so we didn't catch up with them until several weeks later.

We had a quiet evening, ate out at one of Mooloolaba's many fine dining establishments and slept late the next morning. At that point we found out that not only is Panacea based in Mooloolaba Marina, but so is the Nordhavn 46 Kanaloa. She is a bit of a legend in Nordhavn circles, she and her owners Heidi and Wolfgang have circumnavigated the world three and half times aboard Kanaloa, traveling over 100,00 nautical miles. 

Wolfgang stopped by to say hello, we dug out a decent bottle of wine and trotted over that evening to hear some incredible stories told by an incredible couple. Kanaloa looks showroom new, and Heidi and Wolfgang did their best to convince us to follow in their footsteps across the Indian Ocean. Not something we want to do, but it was fun to talk about.

We spent about a week in Mooloolaba and enjoyed it very much. We found we like Australia and Australians a lot, and look forward to spending more time there, although we shall probably arrive by plane, rather than aboard Duet, next time. Nancy summed it up in an email to a friend entitled "Just like Canada, but in a thong". She stole this headline from a timely New York Times opinion piece of the same name.

We walked a lot in Mooloolaba, there is a nice boardwalk right by the beach.  The scenery can't be beat and the people watching (one of Nancy's favorite activities) is superb.

This being Australia, there are also some interesting local animals, these Brush Turkeys were everywhere.  Apparently, they, like everyone else, like to spend winter at the beach, where it is warmer.

Soon enough the time came to move south to Brisbane. Our friends on Daybreak were in Auckland, New Zealand, and had been keeping us updated on when the Yacht Express was due to reach them, which meant it would reach us a week later. Once they had a confirmed loading date, we set off for Brisbane.

Exiting Mooloolaba, while not as exciting as the Wide Bay Bar, was an exercise in patience. When we were ready to leave, naturally, a tropical cyclone up north had generated significant swell, which found its way south to us. This meant that local surfers were hanging ten on the breaking waves in the inlet. While Duet is a good sea boat, she doesn't do breaking surf, so we spent a few more days eating out and generally enjoying ourselves in Mooloolaba, until things calmed down a bit. In a miracle of timing, we managed to leave at 7AM one morning, just before the yearly Mooloolaba Harbor dredging project started at 9AM. Dredges, as our regular readers know, aren't one of Team Duet's favorite things, so we were glad to just see this one on AIS, rather than in person.

The final leg of our long journey was uneventful, the weather was beautiful and conditions nearly flat calm. Brisbane is a busy harbor, so we picked our way carefully past the loading docks, passing where the Yacht Express would tie up, and trundled slowly upriver to our chosen marina. The competent team at Rivergate Marina got us all settled in record time, in a nice berth which would be easy to get out of when the time came. They also gave us the goody bag to end all goody bags, as it turns out the manager is a bit of a Nordhavn fan. They even provided shuttle service to the nearby markets and we stocked up with a few essentials.

Our neighbors at Rivergate.  We really enjoy watching tugs work, and there was plenty to watch on the Brisbane River. 

Cruise ship passing in the river

After several days aboard Duet at Rivergate, Nancy and Ron moved to downtown Brisbane. The boat was ready to be loaded and we wanted to see a little of the area before we flew home, which was scheduled about a week after the ship arrived, assuming it arrived generally when it was supposed to. Brisbane is a beautiful, livable, walkable city, with great dining.

Nancy studying a little Brisbane history during one of our walks.

Brisbane has an artificial beach with a large swimming area.  It's the first time we've seen such a thing in a city, we really liked it.

We stayed in a small apartment right in the center of town, with a kitchen and a washer/dryer, so Nancy chugged through endless loads of Duet laundry, rather than doing it on the boat. We ate out every night, walked all over town, Ubered to visit Duet and generally had a great time. 

Ron even managed to drive on the left hand side of the road for several days, when we went to visit Mark and Carol on Panacea, and made a memorable trip to the Australia Zoo, founded by Steve Irwin and home to a number of salt water crocodiles, which are Australia's apex predator. We learned a lot about the crocs, as the Zoo runs an extensive research program as well as has several dozen adult specimens on site, some of whom participate (using the word loosely) in educational programs at the zoo.

We watched several shows, during which time is spent explaining why the crocs do as they do, and why it is so important to learn to live among them.  The problems Australia has with the crocs are similar to issues we have with black bears in our home town, in any interaction with people the animal usually loses.

Pictures below are courtesy of the Australia Zoo

The crocs are amazingly fast, even when they know the chicken isn't going to run away.

Local volunteer at feeding time.

The picture below was taken during an annual Zoo research trip.

The Zoo also tracks crocodiles, it was fascinating to see where they have been and how far they travel.

Ron, getting to know a more friendly Australian creature, the Koala

Last, but definitely not least, we finally met face to face with Robbie and Jo, previous owners of Nordhavn 47 Southern Star.  They bought Southern Star in New Zealand, cruised her to Thailand, shipped her to Turkey, cruised the Med, crossed the Atlantic to the Caribbean and finally sold her in Florida.  We've corresponded with them for years, it was wonderful to finally meet them. 

Ron and Robbie discussing boats, with beverages.

Soon enough, the Yacht Express showed up and Duet headed home. We will cover shipping her in our next blog.








4 thoughts on “Cruising in Australia”

  1. Would like to ask you some questions about Duet, do you have an email I can contact you with?  Thank you, Mike.

  2. Hi there just wanted to give you a quick heads up. The words in your article seem to be running off the screen in Opera. I’m not sure if this is a formatting issue or something to do with browser compatibility but I figured I’d post to let you know. The layout look great though! Hope you get the issue solved soon. Many thanks

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