Monday, May 30, 2016

Lake Macquarie to Port Stephens
18/5/16 – 24/5/16

( Blog readers please note - by left clicking on  photos you will see them full size and a photo gallery below. The same applies for previous blog posts..see blog archives below.)

Planning a voyage such as this one has been made more complex by all that is involved in leaving Australian waters for another country, in our case, to New Caledonia and Vanuatu.  In our first post of this blog we spoke of journeying to these destinations on a “big ship”, in this case P&O’s Pacific Pearl as invaluable background for what we are soon to undertake. There have been many other things to investigate, before we consider ourselves remotely ready to go. Linking with others who have been to these places is invaluable, and in January this year our fine Port Lincoln sailing friends Jonathon and Wendy Newbury put us in touch with medical friends from Newcastle,  John and Ann Marley, who fortuitously sailed to this part of the south-west Pacific in 2015. Coincidentally, John and Ann, on their 37’ Beneteau Oceanis, Essex Girl have future plans to sail to PNG’s Louisiade Archipelago, a fabulous string of tropical isles that we have visited in 2008 and again in 2010. It was natural then that we have had things to share about these respective destinations, and before we set sail from SA we exchanged cruising notes, and marine charts with each other and resolved to try to meet when heading north, in the vicinity of Newcastle. When we found that Jonathon and Wendy planned to join John and Ann about the 23rd of May to jointly sail north in the direction of the Whitsundays, we decided to do our best to connect with them prior to their departure. We were very much looking forward to meeting John and Ann, and this was uppermost on our minds as we slipped from the mooring at the Swansea Bridge, and made our way down the channel on the short leg to the major port of Newcastle.  
Leaving Lake Macquarie entrance

Beyond Swansea a long sweep of coastal dunes hides the bustle of Belmont from those out at sea until the ruddy bulwark of Red Head marks the resumption of coastal cliffs and bays that end with Nobbys Beach and Nobby Island, which lie abeam of the breakwaters that shelter the entrance to Newcastle. Many will remember Nobbys beach as the scene of the stranding of the 76,000 tonne Pasha Bulker, in a gale in June 2007, and the remarkable efforts by all and sundry to re-float her and return her to the high seas before she broke up. Often these marine dramas are played out in remote places, away from the public gaze, but this incident took place not more than a short walk from Newcastle’s Town Hall, with the good folk of the city having front row seats. As we left Nobbys Beach to port it was in conditions that could hardly be more benign. We were grateful for this.
Nobbys Beach & Nobbys Head

The port of Newcastle is one of Australia’s busiest, and entering here often sees a small ship like ours sharing the channel with a steel monster and its clutch of tugs fussing in close attendance. Newcastle is in fact the world’s biggest coal export port although with growing concern about the role of burning coal and global warming, this may not be the point of pride that it used to be. Our first entrance here in 2010, saw us miss the last of daylight and having to squeeze past an immense coal ship in the entrance, complete with courtiers, heading seaward.  This time, using our AIS to assist, we were delighted to see a VBS, very big ship, depart the port and head south for the other side of the world. In drawing level with the breakwater “leads” we were relieved to see that, almost literally, the coast was clear.
On approach to the Newcastle Cruising Yacht Club Marina

After tying up at the Newcastle Marina and exchanging the requisite paperwork and payment – it costs $240 per week to stay at the Newcastle Cruising Yacht Club, with excellent facilities available either there or near at hand – we set about working on the endless lists of tasks that were underlined and in italics in Cookie’s notepad. Newcastle has long been a worker’s city, and we would be working here too, for much of our stay. What we needed though, was some mobility to get to places that were not close to hand, and we were fortunate in that, after meeting John and Ann over a coffee, and having them accept our invite to dine on board Calista, they let us know that we could make use of their daughter’s car whilst in port, given that she was currently overseas in London. This was a kind gesture from a fine couple of kindred sailors.
Nobbys Beach

Having transport also allowed us to “down tools” for parts of each day to see Newcastle, to make for Nobby’s Beach for a plunge in the surf and, predictably, to head for the Newcastle sea – baths to get in some daily laps to keep ourselves nimble. Our fondness for town “Baths” has grown on this voyage, with these seaside attractions dating from days before modern pool technology where clever engineering created shore-side pools that were filled and refreshed by the natural processes of swell and tide. Once built, these facilities largely ran themselves and provided a safe place for many people to go “sea bathing”. These were the days of striped jackets, straw boaters and ladies in parasols. With their ornate facades, baths like those at Newcastle have played a key role in creating a fondness for the sea in Australia that today we call “beach culture”. Certainly, plunging into the Newcastle 50m sea-pool was very different from the Olympic Pool in Homebush. Unlike the 26 degrees of Thorpie’s kingdom, the Newcastle pool had nudged down to 18 degrees and swimming 20 laps left one with a gathering chill. Although this pool has seen better days and many moons have passed since the cement steps of its amphitheatre have brimmed with spectators, the pool does have some remarkable features, such as the numbers of fish that have made their home there and look up with curiosity as you pass overhead. Amongst the fry was a trio of substantial Bream that looked as though they were doing just fine in their predator-free home. We have no idea how they got there.
The Ocean Baths, City Beach

 There were uplifting moments for us too, such as attending a program of evening lectures at the Newcastle Town Hall on Humpback Whales and Seahorses; by marine aficionados, around the theme of preservation of oceanic species. We were well aware of efforts in recent decades to restore the numbers of Humpbacks in Australian waters, but the compelling story of preserving populations of seahorses in Port Stephens to the north, was truly enlightening.  Beyond this though, to be able to head into town for a product or part, and to head to the shops to re-supply made life so much easier, especially, had we hired a car, it would have sat idly in the marina car park for much of the time whilst our heads were down in anchor wells, bilges, lockers and the like. At times on board our boat it looked as though we had been in a blender, with tools, gear, locker contents and equipment strewn in all directions.

We were saddened to see that central Newcastle, which suffered considerably from the serious earthquake that devastated the area in1989, killing 13 people and injuring many others, has left many buildings too costly or complex to repair. To us it seems as though by one means or another, locals have shifted their enterprise and their focus from the centre of town to the suburbs. Empty shops, faded facades, and businesses that struggle to make ends meet seemed to us to be a hallmark of the centre of Newcastle City, 2016.  Above all though, on passing by the grand Newcastle Railway Station, we were appalled to find that a recent “development” plan has seen the rail from Sydney terminated some way out of town, with plans to erect high rise properties on railway grounds, winning the day over strident opposition to the closure from locals. The power of money has won the day. At least just alongside the old station, where shuttle buses have replaced the trains, the legendary “Café d Wheels”, an iconic Pie Cart that has seen to the internal needs of locals and visitors since 1945, is still plying its gastronomic trade. Its gourmet piece de resistance is a pie – flavour of choice - topped with mashed potatoes, mushy peas and gravy. I can be now included amongst its converts and devotees. Cookie cannot. Should the developers place their grimy sights on the “Café d Wheels”, we think that the people of Newcastle will take to the streets, and march upon Town Hall. The tomato sauce will flow!
A very happy Colin!

With our “tasky” regime at the Marina, days skipped by and we were looking forward to seeing Jonathon and Wendy again before making ready for sea. Their time in Newcastle was to be fleeting, with John and Ann ready to head for Port Stephens and their imminent departure to the north. This left one opportunity for us all to dine at the Yacht Club; spend a little more time with John and Ann, catch up with some old friends from Lincoln, and chat - until the staff called time on our conviviality by pointedly clearing tables and shutting the doors. It had been a fine, but all too fleeting night in the Port of Newcastle.
Servicing the anchor winch

Oiling the teak Hungry Board
Dining at the Yacht Club with Jonathon, Wendy John, Ann & family

Back on board the fresh southerly change which had swept Newcastle’s dusty air to the north brought with it strong wind warnings to the Hunter Coast. Closer inspection though showed that whilst further out to sea the winds would be formidable, closer to the coast they were a little easier and would allow us to depart Newcastle with fresh airs on our stern quarter, providing us with the opportunity to sail the 32 nautical miles across the Stockton Bight to Port Stephens. There was another incentive as well. The BOM forecast for the Hunter and nearby coastal areas carried a “marine caution” for the next two days relating to a developing 3-5metre swell that would make conditions potentially hazardous for vessels entering or leaving ports. Because we had not entered Port Stephens before, we were wary about entering there in adverse swell conditions, in spite of cruising notes that suggested that due to the depth of water in the entrance channel, swell size should not be a concern.
7.5 knots!!

With Calista bearing a reefed sail pattern the next morning saw us make our way down the ship channel and out to sea. Ahead, the ocean appeared in profile like corrugated iron, and the sharp WSW streaming off the dunes of Stockton Beach threw up a top sea that ran contrary to the building ground swell, and caps of white were all about. Our prudent sail selection had us in good stead though, and after setting our headsail we romped away in the direction of Port Stephens. This was a sleigh ride with hand – steering ruling the waves. Times like this have been in short supply on this trip, with either too much or too little wind being the norm, but this time we shared the helm and allowed our Swanson 36 to show what she was capable of delivering. The swell had built to an extent that, when a “set” was upon us, the wind fell to a zephyr in the “valleys” and hit us with conviction up on the crests. In no time though, it seemed, the fans of spray off Fingal Point and Big Rocky Island had us scanning the coast in awe, and the lighthouse on Point Stephens signalled that the turn to port into Port Stephens was not far away. On rounding Point Stephens and with Tomaree Head, the entrance to Port Stephens closing, the swell was blunted and it was clear that our concerns about waves in the entrance channel were groundless. In fact, of more concern to us was the out-flowing tide backed by the wind, now on our bow, that with our sails furled, and motor engaged had our speed reduced to three knots. Getting in to Port Stephens would be a bash.

Approaching Tomaree Head and the entrance to  Port Stephens

In the calmer waters near Nelson Head, with our destination almost in view, the sight of a sleek cruising yacht hoisting sail and preparing for sea had us reaching for our binoculars. It was Essex Girl, with John, Ann, Jonathon and Wendy on board, making for the entrance and an overnight passage to Coffs Harbour. Instead of tying up alongside our friends at the Nelson Bay marina, we were about to wave some hasty farewells as our two ships passed, and we made our way to Essex Girl’s pen, which, by the kindness of John and Ann, might be our home for a time as we readied ourselves for our own passage to Coff’s Harbor. Our voyage to New Caledonia and Vanuatu was getting closer, but still there was a great deal to do before we would be ready to go. In the meantime, in Port Stephens we might get a chance to take in some of the highlights of this exquisite destination. As a premier drawcard for visitors, both afloat and on land, we had heard a lot about Port Stephens and now hoped to see some of it for ourselves.

Farewell Essex Girl

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Broken Bay to Lake Macquarie
13/5/16 – 17/5/16

( Blog readers please note - by left clicking on  photos you will see them full size and a photo gallery below. The same applies for previous blog posts..see blog archives below.)

The russet hues on the new day were apparent in eastern skies, but we had beaten the sun to it with our cabin lights radiating a warming glow below, the kettle simmering; and with a last check of the BOM website underway before we ventured outside to ready the ship for sea. Days were measurably shorter now and as the breeze had lost it purpose in the late evening, the settling airs off Little Patonga Beach had gifted their moisture to the decks of Calista which now glistened with dewdrops in the dawn. Bare feet gave way to ugg boots, and a warming windcheater was required to deflect the chill of the air and underfoot.

Another beautiful sunrise - Little Patonga Beach

We were far from the first up though, as across Broken Bay to Flint and Steel Point, a runabout with its ruby light to port was hurrying at pace in the direction of Pittwater. It had been good to anchor in Patonga Beach after the regimentation of moorings in Cowan Creek; undertaking the process of selecting an anchoring spot, considering the swing on the chain that could be required at night and the joint efforts of the bow and the helm in seeing the chain laid in accordance with the wind, and tackle set to provide reassurance through the dark hours. Picking up a mooring is secure we admit, but anchoring out is real cruising to us.

Lion Island

With our chain and anchor retrieved we rounded the port light at the entrance to the bay, and made for Lion Island and the entrance to Brisbane Water, before keeping a watch for East Reef, a shoal that might provide a challenge for an unwary crew making to the north. We reflected on the diverse and extraordinary experiences of recent times, of Port Hacking, Sydney Harbor, and now the waters accessed via Broken Bay: a trilogy of destinations too fulsome to see in one autumn, one year, and maybe in a lifetime on the water. You could live in this region from a callow youth to a seasoned salt and still be discovering special places.

First Second & Third points

These were fleeting thoughts though as upon rounding Third Point, and with Second and First Points in view, the sandstone cliffs so typical of the Sydney coast were duplicated, except where they had been breached by nature to gift us the beaches of Killcare, McMasters Beach, Avoca, Copacabana and Terrigal, and there was much to see. Sailing had been challenging to this point with some steady breezes from the WNW giving us the chance to hoist everything and romp along, followed by failing airs which saw us ignite our motor to assist, before, as the zephyrs tended northerly, we doused our headsail and made distance by motor and main alone.

Wonderful to be sailing!

Perched atop Norah Head, the major coastal feature before Lake Macquarie, is its impressive lighthouse and clutch of former light station cottages. Happily, like other lighthouse precincts elsewhere, Norah Head has a new life today, via “getaway” accommodation and functions, for weddings and the like. In the season, the headland is a popular whale-watching location as the Humpback whales make their annual migration from the Antarctic to tropical Queensland and return. Now fully protected, these leviathans are seen these days in ever increasing numbers. There is some similarity in the annual migration of the whales as far as the Whitsundays and the annual migration of cruisers and yachts from NSW and southern Queensland waters to tropical climes north of Fraser Island. Humans and cetaceans both prefer warmer seas to cold ones it would seem.
Norah Head lighthouse

It is not far from Norah Head to Moon Island off the entrance to Lake Macquarie where entrance to the Lake, for keelboats such as ours – we draw 1.8m – is governed by the tide, and gaining access to the Lake is via a pre-booked opening of the Swansea Bridge. The wind, that had been sluggish at best, had now disappeared and the last portion of our journey from Broken Bay required the motor for us to keep up our schedule. Bridge openings are arranged via Marine Rescue Lake Macquarie, and with a 1400hrs booking in place, we needed to arrive in time to pilot our way down the channel following the lead beacons between the breakwaters, and arrive in the basin out from the bridge for the opening. When last in the area, in 2010, we had hired a car and driven to see the entrance, and visit the Marine Rescue station which perches above the channel, in driving wind and gale force winds. Our arrival this time could not be a greater contrast, with a calm sea, azure skies and no swell to speak of. In no time at all it seemed, the wings of the bridge creaked open, and with dozens of cars with their disgruntled occupants banking up on either side, we slid through into the channel leading to Lake Macquarie.

On approach to the Swansea Bridge
Safely through the the channel & "The Drop-over"

So far, so good, we thought, but the greatest challenge still lay before us. Locals call it “the drop-over” which in truth is a nasty, shifting sand-bar further up the channel, that at low tide would prevent our passage, but now, with a rising tide nearing full, we should be able to scrape through. Understandably, this troublesome impediment requires frequent dredging, and sometimes sand accumulation closes off the lake for keelboats completely. We had been at pains to study the tides at the Lake Macquarie entrance in detail and although we came close to nudging Calista’s bottom in the shallowest part of the channel, soon “the drop-over” was behind us and the lead beacons deposited us into the broad expanse of the lake where depth was not an issue. Curiously, in spite of the tidal flow in the Swansea channel, such is the volume of water within the lake that there are hardly any tides in the lake to see. We could have literally headed in any direction because at 104 sq km, Lake Macquarie is Australia’s largest sea-water lake, and with a host of bays to choose from, the options were nearly endless. All of the vessels in the greater Sydney area could be accommodated in Lake Macquarie, although getting them all in would create great angst for those waiting at the Swansea Bridge!

Negotiating the well marked channel, keeping red to port ( left)

On our way up the coast we had considered our options upon entering the lake, and now it was but mid-afternoon and there was plenty of time to find our way across Lake Macquarie to the town of Wangi Wangi, blue-collar to its bootstraps and stridently parochial, even on a good day. Alan Lucas’ guidebook had referred to the fine anchorage available in the bay off Wangi Wangi, and that if one was lucky; a visiting yacht might tie up on the pier outside the Wangi Wangi Worker’s Club, the social and cultural hub of Wangi. Considering this, we crossed the Lake in good speed before feeling our way into Eraring Bay, where the worker’s club jetty was already accommodating a motley selection of vessels, some sleek and expensive, others modest and functional.  Our arrival saw a couple of blokes off a house-boat sit down their stubbies, and rally to catch our lines. Their cheery and easy going welcome was typical of Wangi Wangi. This is not to say that blue singlets totally ruled the day for nudging into the jetty was the opulent motor cruiser Debjohn, that we recalled taking pride of place in the Bobbin Head Marina, Cowan Creek. We had seen them earlier in the day, low down and heading north in torrents of spray, off Norah Head and would never have guessed that Wangi Wangi was where they were headed. It would have been Sanctuary Cove for them we thought. Not so.

Secure at the Wangi Wangi Jetty

After a stroll into town and making a $10 payment to the Club for our overnight berth, we dressed for dinner and made our way into the redoubtable WWWC. The Club was well patronised; “meat tray night” was how one local explained it, but for us the day had been a long one, and we settled into a fine meal with blue-collar prices, before wending our way back to our ship, to plan some excursions to the far reaches of Lake Macquarie in the coming day or two First though, we wanted to take the opportunity to catch up with some old friends who had urged us that next time we passed through these waters, we must come in and see Lake Macquarie.

In 2010, in the Coomera River, just upstream from Sanctuary Cove on the Gold Coast, we met Kel and Helga Korsman off the fine catamaran Mojo, who, like us were headed to take in the Sanctuary Cove Boat Show, and like us were headed north to Townsville and out to the Louisiade Archipelago, across the Coral Sea, in the waters SE of Papua New Guinea. We connected with Kel and Helga on a number of occasions up the Australian Coast, in the Louisiades, and on our return to Australia. We shared some wonderful and some challenging times, and came away liking Kel and Helga, both for their approach to life and the fine people we found them to be. Down on the southern portion of the NSW coast we had called them declaring our intention, weather permitting, to make good our declaration, that next time in waters north of Sydney, we would try to include Lake Macquarie in our list of destinations. They live overlooking a waterway, not far from the Swansea Bridge, and we arranged to head back across the Lake in the morning, following Kel’s directions, to anchor off the lakeside suburb of Belmont, and to spend some time reconnecting and reminiscing. It was great to see Kel and Helga again, and although we had not crossed paths since 2010, it was as though our shared experiences in a faraway place had happened only yesterday.
Kel & Helga's waterside home

Lake Macquarie has been home to Kel and Helga for many years, and because we have similar interests, we took the opportunity to have them mark a number of features on our map of the Lake, and quickly realised that, like in many places, we would only have time to take in some of the highlights. The good thing though was that the weather was holding at the stellar end of beautiful, and with blue skies and light winds Lake Macquarie was presenting herself in the finest possible light.

There are times, we will admit, when surrounded by fine vessels in different places, we think longingly of other yachts, that are different here, bigger there, grander there and so forth. This is not so much the grass is greener syndrome, as the water being bluer; on some other boat, in some other place. Mostly we feel this way when we come away from looking at other boats in marinas, which we routinely do, but we soon come back to our own faithful ship, feeling grateful for what we have. She is home to us, but in reality she far more than that. On the morning after seeing Kel and Helga, we came ashore at Belmont where dozens of yachts lie tethered in the anchorage, and were approached by a gent out walking his dog, who approached us saying… “Is that your yacht out there, the one with the black trim?” “Yes, she’s ours” was the easiest reply we could give. There were lots of yachts in the bay and we had anchored somewhat out from shore. We were surprised that he noticed Calista, amongst the rest. “Looks like a Swanson….yes they are fine sea boats…she looks great, one of the best I have seen….I was just admiring her. I wish I had a boat like her…” Then, just like that, responding to his errant hound, he was away, and we did not get the chance to tell him that Calista had indeed taken us across just on 20,000nm of ocean and that yes, we were very fond of her.

Public Jetty & anchorage area at Belmont

Anchored at Wangi Point

Back on board, it was an ideal day for a gentleman’s sail, which could be described as a drift down wind with headsail unfurled, and marine stressors at the lower end of tolerable. Crossing the lake again we made for Wangi Point where a reserve provided an opportunity to get ashore and stretch our legs on a wooded trail. The walk in the forest was passing pleasant, in spite of some contradictory signage that had had us making our way by guesswork. Contained on the end of the peninsula, though, with downtown Wangi on its western perimeter, we had to eventually find our way to our minor, then major boats. We were never in peril.

With the sun past the yard, we hoisted sail again and made our way past the forested Pulbah Island and leaving Fishery Point to starboard, make our way to a bay along Bird Cage Point, where a completely secure anchorage was available in the lee of the bush, and tranquillity was likely in that southern portion of Lake Macquarie. The night provided serenity and sanctuary, and in the morning, having glassed the wooded shoreline we made our way ashore to a walking trail that Kel assured us would be easy to find. Again our hours ashore were highly enjoyable, and provided a welcome opportunity to get some exercise, to avert a feeling of sloth, that would come from purely lounging on board. To us, a layabout life in the cockpit or below decks was more reserved for foul weather, than the fine that had been gifted to us on this extensive body of water.

Sunset at Bird Cage Point

By day’s end, with a light overnight northerly predicted, we made our way north again and found our way to Goonda Point on the southern side of Wangi Wangi where the NE to NW conditions would be easily deflected and we would ride easily on our chain. It would be fair to assume that we had developed a wry fondness for Wangi Wangi, for the next day had us again ashore in its modest retail precinct, with the lame excuse of needing some grocery items, although our plimsoll line was mostly awash, what with the tonnages of grocery items that we already have on board. Maybe it was the coffee milkshake at the popular Wangi Cafe that had drawn us out of the wilds of Bird Cage Point.

Our travels on Lake Macquarie could have continued for weeks with each night delivering a different vista, but weeks we did not have, and considering the state of the afternoon tides, and the weather that was forecast, we could delay in the lake no longer, although, following another recommendation from Kel and Helga, we would just have enough time for a third walk on the wild side, this time north of Belmont in the Green Point Foreshore Reserve. Having dallied a little ashore in Wangi, we made our way across the lake with some haste, dropping anchor south of the Reserve, not far from the Port Macquarie Yacht Club haul-out slipway. Kel and Helga, as it turned out were spot on and the walking trails through dappled forest, mangrove boardwalks, and to a lookout affording fine vistas of the lake was excellent from every respect.

Lovely forest walk at Green Point

Vista of Lake Macquarie from the lookout

We would later find that this reserve, the home of a diverse population of creatures in the lower story, and Kookaburras and Tawny Frogmouths, in the rainforest above was under threat from developers who eyed the land, not as a home for a raft of creatures without a say in the “planning process”, but as an opportunity to cash in on the population squeeze pushing north from Sydney. To us the remnants of Port Macquarie hinterland in its natural state were now hard enough to find and in years to come areas of natural vegetation, there to be enjoyed by all, would become priceless assets, if they are not already Happily, public agitation to save the Green Point Foreshore has deflected the bulldozers for now and the Kookaburras and Frogmouths can rest in peace in the forest. We left this delightful place, thankful that we had seen it whilst it remains. Back on board, on the starboard side of our companionway is pinned a memento, drawn from an old Cree Indian proverb. It reads…

          Only when the last tree has died

and the last river has been poisoned

and the last fish has been caught

will we realise that we cannot eat money.

At least in Lake Macquarie waterways,at least, the importance of sustaining populations has taken hold. Locals tell us that with fish stocks plummeting a few years ago, netting in Lake Macquarie was banned and now, many areas teem with fish. Maybe “developers” need banning too.

Farewell Lake Macquarie

With the tide brimming in the late afternoon, we took the opportunity to book a five o’clock “bridge”; and make our way back to the leads in the Swansea Channel, to pass through to courtesy moorings beyond the bridge in fading light. These moorings are just abeam of the Swansea RSL Club, and heading there involved little more than a short duck ride and a tie-up at the courtesy jetty. Kel and Helga joined us at the Club and were keen to hear of our travels on Lake Macquarie. It was great to see them again and to share the many things that we have as common interests. Soon though, it was time to go, to prepare for the short haul to Newcastle in the morning, where at the Yacht Club we could meet some fine people who had already been of invaluable assistance to us in our plans to sail to New Caledonia and Vanuatu. We looked forward to meeting them after contacting them some months ago, and with the weather still presenting a sanguine face, we looked forward to the short trip up the coast, and entering one of Australia’s most important ports in the new day. Yes, our visit to Lake Macquarie had been all that that Kel and Helga had promised.

Secure on the mooring with the Swansea RSL in the background


Monday, May 16, 2016

Sydney to Broken Bay (Pittwater)
7/5/16 – 12/5/16

( Blog readers please note - by left clicking on  photos you will see them full size and a photo gallery below. The same applies for previous blog posts..see blog archives below.)

Having left Brian and Maree on Urchin, we retired to our on-board accommodation in the expectation of a sparkling morning for leaving Sydney Harbor rounding North Head, and, with the forecast being fine for the morning before an afternoon nor-aster, enjoying a “tourist sail” up Sydney’s northern beaches, to compliment the voyage we had enjoyed immensely up the southern beaches from Port Hacking. We thought that in the morning, with an alarm set, we would see ferries busying their way across the Heads, in the golden light of dawn. How wrong we were.
Dawn farewell to Urchin

Peering out the cockpit at first light was to look upon the world as through one was seeing it through one of Grandma’s frosted sherry glasses.  Spring Cove was obscured by a bronze haze with visibility down to a hundred metres or so. It was a smoky pea-souper, with the hint of burnt eucalypt in the air. The day before, environmental authorities had advised that up to 40 “fuel reduction” fires were to be lit in the Blue Mountains, but with the cool of the evening, the smoky air had slithered down from the hills and over the city like a carpet snake, oozing down the valley of the Parramatta, to where it now squatted, over Sydney. It was a classic temperature inversion, and it might take hours to clear. Yuk.

Hazy vista beyond North Head

Hoping for better out to sea and to the north, we hoisted anchor and made our way out of the harbour and around North Head. Abeam of Manly Beach, we knew it was there because of our chart plotter, but, not a glimpse of the land could we see. Luckily we could set a course parallel to the coast and monitor our progress on our instrumentation. The great northern beaches including Freshwater, Curl Curl, Dee Why, Long Reef and Collaroy passed by unseen although off Long Reef, we were able to see an airborne view of this potential hazard courtesy of a function on our chart plotter. The C-Map program has thousands of aerial views of Australia’s coastline and its islands in its system, and to access these we merely have to click on one of the camera icons and the view of that spot from aloft is there to be enjoyed. The practical value of this function is enormous, particularly when approaching an unfamiliar coastline. At night on watch, we often take ourselves on a “tour” of relevant sections of the coast, sometimes to prepare for what is to come, and sometimes, purely for entertainment. Now, off Long Reef, a click of the cursor has us seeing from above, on a clear day, that which lay unseen, only a mile away.

Image of Long Reef on the Chart Plotter

Off Narrabeen Beach, the air at last cleared and we emerged into a bright and sunny day with a cloud of boot-polish brown obscuring the horizon and disappearing astern. The evening news that night made much of the blanket of “smog” that had frustrated tourists viewing the Sydney Harbor Bridge and the Opera House, and had been a genuine irritant to those managing chest conditions.  With Bungan Head ahead, Warriewood, Mona Vale and Bungan Head beaches were passed before we reached it and, then, we made for Newport, Bilgola, Avalon, Whale, and Palm Beaches, before the exclusive northern suburbs gave way to the prominent buttress that is Barrenjoey Head.

There is a coastline here!

Coastal beach shacks near Palm beach

Broken Bay opens up once Barrenjoey Head is cleared, and it is the gateway to a remarkable set of waterways that are diverse, divine and impossible to ignore. Immediately to port once Barrenjoey is rounded, is the famous marine playground of Pittwater, a five mile finger of boat-mania, with a thicket of masts, like a Sumatran bamboo forest.  We had been into Pittwater in 2010 and at the Prince Alfred Yacht Club, and the Royal Motor Boat Club, we had ooooh and aaah’ed enough for twenty voyages (see our blog –, posts May and November). Whereas we cruise the coast on a budget, it was apparent that in Pittwater money rules the waves. Having stocked our larder, we had no need to divert to the south, and besides, we could ill afford to make an error and hit anything in Pittwater.

Barrenjoey Head

On the northern side of Broken Bay, Lion Island, crouches like an Egyptian hieroglyph, and watches over the entrance to Brisbane Water. Here the marked channel leads to the broad bay that is the actual Brisbane Water, ending on the shores of Gosford, miles away.

By heading west and into Broken Bay, the wide entrance to the Hawkesbury River opens to the north-west where entrance for cruising yachts is soon thwarted by the Sydney-Newcastle railway bridge, although power craft make the waters above the bridge their own and they are able to ply the waters of this system for almost 70nm, reaching as far as Sydney’s western suburb of Windsor. This is a watery playground in its own right, complete with marinas, designated jetties and courtesy moorings: and enough towns, shops, pubs tourist attractions and waterside facilities to last a lifetime; without ever feeling an ocean swell. 

As we burbled our way into broken Bay we eschewed all of these, heading for the unremarkably named Cowan Creek, which fingers its way deep into New South Wales’ second oldest reserve, the Ku-Ring-Gai Chase National park. Since briefly entering this waterway in 2010, we had Cowan Creek listed as one of our “must see” destinations this time around. Cowan Creek bears many similarities to its famous neighbour to the south, Sydney Harbour, and is a drowned river valley, of recent geologic standing, just like Sydney. Unlike Sydney, whilst Cowan Creek and its offshoots, Coal and Candle, and Smith Creeks, are immensely popular waterways that can be navigated for miles, the uplands and spurs between, being part of the Ku-Ring-Gai Chase National Park, are natural bushland and forest, and not part of suburbia. These waterways carry the name ‘creek’, but their dimensions, and everything else about them make them unlike any other creek we have ever seen. Like South West Arm in Port Hacking, but on a grander scale, once you round the entrance into Cowan Creek, the frenetic world just over the horizon is left behind, and the surrounds are much as they have been for an eternity.

View back to Barrenjoey  from Fishermans Beach

In response to the popularity of Cowan Creek and its offshoots, National Park authorities have installed courtesy moorings in 14 of the bays and coves, so that visiting there can be an easy steam between moorings of preference, according to the wind and fancy. The first bays off Cowan Creek, the joint America Bay and Refuge Bay inlet lie before the National Park zone, and because of its proximity to Pittwater, its all-round shelter, and that it has a plethora of moorings as thick as hundreds and thousands on a tot’s cup-cake, it is impossibly popular. This was our sole Cowan Creek visitation in 2010, and we must have been there in mid-week, for now it was crammed with boats and we quickly voted to move on upstream, where to be on a boat was less like being at the Royal Show.  We selected Fisherman’s Beach on the northern shore of the creek for lunch and later shifted to the lee of Little Shark Rock Point, where we felt we could gain excellent shelter from a predicted northerly, and take the chance to go ashore and explore.

Little Shark Rock Point

Beaches are few in this region owing to its steep-sided topography, but at this point, a small patch of sand emerged, periodically, at low tide, enough for us to haul up our duck while ashore. From the beach, a challenging clamber across jagged and oyster clad rocks along the shoreline was possible, but going far was out of the question. Taking what appeared to be a path of sorts heading up and away from the cove, soon had us in thickets of scrub under towering eucalypts, where a machete might have been handy and every gap in the foliage had golden orb spiders dangling malevolently from intricate webs. Not seeing one of these webs and having it tangle on your face alongside a cranky arachnid would be enough to bring on a phobia. To head deeper into the forest was out of the question and we returned, defeated, to the beach. It was not hard to understand why the first settlers of Sydney were thwarted in their attempts to blaze a trail across the Blue Mountains, and it was not until 1813 that Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth finally got there by following the ridges and not the valleys, into the unknown.

Successful landing on low tide at Little Shark Rock Point

Back on the beach we noted that our footprints of only minutes earlier had been crossed by a creature of sorts, and given its drag and claw markings, we suspected that our progress up the beach had been monitored as it were, and sure enough, not far away there it was, a black Goanna, lying as still as a stick with flickering tongue and bead-like eyes. It eyed us curiously and we left it in peace, content in the autumnal sun. Aloft, a juvenile Sea Eagle wheeled effortlessly before alighting on a tree on the point, eyeing speculatively the shoals of fry flitting in the cove, oblivious to the fine line that they were drawing between swimmer and dinner. It was hard to comprehend that earlier the same day we were in suburban Manly.
Wonderful wildlife

Given the beauty of the forest all about, we yearned to explore a walking trail in the area, but realised that many of the trails into the Chase from suburbs to the south made their way along the ridges far above but did not wend their way down as far as the water. Given our experience, we could understand why. Weekends attract hordes of craft into these waterways; gleaming motor cruisers, sleek yachts, fishing runabouts sprouting rods like antlers, houseboats like eskies afloat, and the odd jet ski, as irritating as a blowfly around a carved joint. For those on a mooring the palatial motor cruisers - we are like many sailors and dub them “stink boats” - are the worst, growling their way past like a highway b-double, furrowing the water like a mallee plough and leaving us to dance and heave in their wake. We were happy to see the end of the weekend, and we suspect that the sea eagles were happy too.

The return of tranquillity saw us embark on our own exploration of the waterways. Out at sea, there were strong wind warnings for nearby waters, but here in Cowan Creek the winds passed harmlessly overhead with only the scudding clouds giving hint to the difference between the outside world and the peace for us deep in the forest. There are three marinas in these waterways, Akuna Bay on Coal and Candle Creek, Cottage Point where this creek meets Cowan Creek, and Bobbin Head, located as far down Cowan Creek as it is possible for boats to go. In between, yellow courtesy moorings strategically dot the waters, and we opted to see how much of this remarkable system of bays and inlets we could take in whilst we were there.
Cottage Point and all the boats moored at the Royal Motor Yacht Club

Many years ago we sashayed through Sydney on holidays and apart from traversing the Bridge, checking out the Opera House and catching the Manly ferry, we took a self- guided drive up into Ku-Ring-Gai Chase National Park, out of innocent curiosity and our clear preference for wilderness over suburbia. Entering the Park, the road took us down into a valley where to our utter astonishment we came upon a marina complete with svelte cruisers, an up-market café and a multi-layered storage shed for runabouts, all snuggling into a cove deep in the bush. It was hard to comprehend that here, miles from anywhere, was an offshoot of the sea complete with tides, fish, and water that was salt to the taste. To us this was boating for the rich and famous, aeons away from the tinny we had at home, and a place that we were certain, we would never enter from out at sea. This marina was Akuna Bay, and now, although we were neither rich nor famous, we planned to make our way down Coal and Candle Creek to Akuna Bay, in Calista, just because we could.

Calista (centre )in the crowded Akuna Bay Marina

On approach this time to Akuna Bay Marina, although seeming as delicious as our memories told us, we were seeing the facility through different eyes, via those in on board a cruising yacht and not as visitors by road. What we saw this time, in spite of the welcoming entreaties of management over the phone, was a cramped marina where the bow-thrusters often seen on motor cruisers (this is a small propeller inserted into a horizontal tunnel below the waterline in the bow, giving “push” to port or starboard when docking) would be invaluable, but for us to get into a visiting “pen” deep in Row B would require careful piloting and docking by our crew. Not quite close your eyes and breathe in, but close. Ashore, and with a stabilising cappuccino under our belts, in spite of ticking the “getting there” box, Akuna Bay was just not a place where we wanted to stay. Give us a forested bay over the glitz, the gold shoes and canapés any day. Yes, our revisit to Akuna Bay would be a brief one, and now came the hard part, getting back out of the marina in a boat that was reluctant to reverse in the direction that we desired. We felt like a porcupine trying to back out of a burrow.

On our way to Akuna Bay, we had noted, off Yeoman’s Bay, a further offshoot called Castle Lagoon that was cosy and as close to idyllic as any place one could imagine. Yes, there were two other boats in this secluded spot, but we could easily understand why this haven was a local favourite. A hurricane could rage hereabouts and one could lay in tranquillity in Castle Lagoon. We noted that although the rules for moorings state that only 24hour stays are permitted, in Castle lagoon, the other boats there made rules of their own, probably knowing that intervention by National Parks officials was less than likely.  Yes, Castle Lagoon lived up to its billing and for an extra treat we had a cove – side sunset that held us in the cockpit until the last rays receded in the west. It was spectacular.

Stunning sunset at Castle Lagoon

In the new day we resolved to follow Cowan Creek as far as we could go, as far as the Bobbin Head Marina. Close by was the Cottage Point Marina with a lower-key appearance compared with Akuna Bay, and with a fleet of boats tethered to Marina moorings bobbing in the stream out from the jetty. Landing here did not grip our imagination, so we continued, upstream, on our way.  Along the way we spied numerous mooring locations of great beauty, but we thought it time that we got off the boat seeking a closer look at the local environment. Many cruisers would be happy to pick up a mooring and spend the day relaxing, fishing or imbibing it would seem, but we weary of just looking at places; we want to experience them too.

One of the many mooring areas enroute to Bobbin Head

On arrival at Bobbin Head, although there were far too many expensive motor cruisers to count, there was a distinctly different feel to the place that for some reason we warmed to. For one, just across the bridge over Cockle Creek, at the National Park Information Centre, we discovered that a loop walking track originating at Bobbin Head was literally waiting for us to don our walkers and head off into the wilderness. Great!

The Bobbin Head – Sphinx Memorial – Bobbin Head track of about 12km was just the ticket, offering a fascinating shoreline tramp amongst the mangroves, followed by a climb through the forest to the Sphinx, before a ridge-top return to Bobbin Head where elevated views of the Park were a panoramic delight. The Sphinx is a post - World War One memorial, a scaled down version of Egypt’s famous monument, carved from stone by an ex-digger who in spite of lungs that had been scarred by gassing on the Western Front, completed this remarkable sculpture in the 1920’s. The Sphinx was truly a noble memorial to this awful time in our history, and seeing it was well worth the effort that it took to get there.

Wonderful forest walks

Back at Bobbin Head, our original intention was to head out to one of the anchorages we had spotted on our way down Cowan Creek, but the views of the waterways on our bushwalk, lined with mangroves and sandstone cliffs, had been so enticing that we resolved to stay another night and via our inflatable kayaks, to explore the area more fully. There were other benefits too, including the opportunity to launder both some clothes and the crew, and to take a longer look at some of the fine vessels that called Bobbin Creek home. On one of the fingers we spotted a cruising yacht of exquisite beauty, a Cabo Rico 38’ called Resolution. With her sleek lines, classy timberwork and immaculate presentation she was as beautiful a yacht as we had seen. There were many motor cruisers at Bobbin Head that would have been far more expensive to purchase, but for sheer class, and appeal to the crew of Calista, Resolution had our attention.

Beautiful Cabo Rico 38 "Resolution"

At Bobbin Head, the last outpost of Cowan Creek, the creek divides into Cockle Creek and Cowan Creek proper. With kayaks inflated, we resolved to follow both waterways as far as we could go. They were superb. At once our Kayaks took us away from all trace of humanity, and we glided over the ever diminishing creeks until they disappeared into streams trickling over moss-clad boulders. Fish dashed hither and yon, including on one sand bar a flathead as large as I have ever seen. Flooding tidal waters from a distant sea slid amongst the mangrove shoots, drawing crabs from their holes, whilst above, canyon walls of stone presented ochre coloured caverns, and all about, ferns and sturdy forest giants lorded overhead. No motorised craft are allowed on these waters and we were transported back to a landscape that has been much like this for centuries. It was hard to comprehend that just beyond the ridge-tops beetling above us, were the bustling suburbs of Sydney. This was a fabulous experience, a genuine highlight of our time in Ku-Ring-Gai Chase National Park.

Exploring Cockle Creek on our kayaks

Our track out of Cowan Creek left but one tributary of the main stream to explore. This is the mildly-termed Smith’s Creek, which duplicates the grandeur of Cowan Creek, and is especially attractive in the Twilight Inlet and Spirit Cove portions of the waterway.
Returning to Cowan Creek, with shadows lengthening, we thought to select a northerly aspect cove and pick up a final mooring, but a closer inspection of our chart showed that across the mouth of the Hawkesbury lay Little Patonga Beach, and if we hastened, we could drop anchor there before darkness fell. From there we could easily make our way seaward at first light on the 40 miles at sea to Swansea, to cross the bar into Lake Macquarie. As we settled on our chain and dinner was on the make, we reflected on our days in the Cowan Creek waterways. We found them visually stunning and just perfect for those who love boating but without the challenges of the open sea. For us, though, the open sea beckoned, and in the dawn of the new day, we would set a course out of Broken Bay, turning beyond Box Head to the North in weather that was forecast to be near-perfect for the purpose.

Our extensive exploration of Cowan Creek recorded on our Chart Plotter!