Rod Heikell's very informal site on sailing around bits of the world and an eclectic collection of things nautical or nearly so.

Sailing the Australian Coral Coast

A page of general bits and pieces on sailing the Australian coral coast. Some of it is from the Skylax blog, some from talking to fellow cruisers, and some from my own past articles and musings.




'Crossing an ocean in a small yacht is a bit like living your life backwards. At the beginning you die, then you get fitter and younger, and then when you arrive you have an orgasmic celebration and the idea that life is just beginning.'

Douglas Graeme

Vanuatu to Cairns
Clearing into Australia
Cruising the Coral Coast

Vanuatu to Cairns


The Coral Sea crossing can be a windy and bumpy old affair. The Trades often get reinforced by highs coming off Australia and the fifteen to twenties become thirties and more. So it was.

We left Luganville in comparatively calm weather and had a light wind sail for the first couple of days. We even had to motor for six hours when the wind died away altogether. But we knew from the gribs and especially from a nasty little bump in a nearby isobar on the weatherfaxes that there was a lot more to come.

For the passage to Cairns you need to get north a bit to avoid a whole jig-saw puzzle of reefs and then drop down to the Grafton Passage through the Barrier Reef and into Cairns. Remember you also have to give 96 hours warning of your arrival to Australian customs as well.

From Ocean Passages & Landfalls: From Vanuatu (Vila or Luganville) yachts heading for Cairns will sail to a point N of Sand Cay (around 15°20’S 149°40’E) to clear the reefs S of here. You can then angle down under Bougainville Reef to the Grafton Passage. The alternative of wending your way through the reefs S of Sand Cay has tripped up numbers of boats and electronic charts should not be relied on in this area. Last year several yachts were lost here when relying on electronic charts to get them through.

Surely enough the bump in the isobar on the weatherfax produced a little more than the 25-28 knots the gribs were predicting. By the end of day two we were down to 3rd reef in the main and a patch of jib. It was enough to do 180-190 mile days for the rest of the trip and we arrived in Grafton Passage a week out from Luganville even after a slow start. Perversely the Trades get deflected up the Australian coast from a more southerly direction by the time you arrive and as the Grafton Passage is on a SW course that means you have to beat down the passage to get in.

It wasn’t so much the wind as the seas that were a bitch, although we recorded a top wind speed of 46 knots. There was a wicked cross sea with up to 4 metre breaking crests, usually just where Skylax was, and we had more water in the cockpit than we have had for a long time. Nothing dangerous but very annoying chunks of water sloshing around the cockpit before they drained out. For some reason we had stowed the lifejacket/harnesses in one of the cave lockers in the cockpit and with one spectacular slosh of water the cave locker must have filled. It was enough water to set off the Hanmer immersion mechanisms which meant I had two inflated lifejackets trying to get out the cave locker like a couple of demented blow-up dolls. Well at least they worked and Lu fixed them the next day with the spare cylinders and immersion mechanisms we carry. Everything was salty and we changed clothes twice a day to keep the dreaded saltwater itch from driving us crazy.

We also had a persistent visitor. Every evening a big red footed booby would circle the boat and unlike other boobies that have tried to land, this one was an aerial artiste. I mean he had a wingspan of over a metre (can be up to 1.5 metres my bird book tells me) and still managed to duck and dive between sails and rigging without once getting it wrong. The first night he tucked up on the spinnaker pole. The second night he perched on the back of the bimini and wouldn’t move. Have you seen the size of those beaks up close? The third night he decided the foredeck was home. Now I’m all for boobies, amazing birds, but fishy large booby poop is just a pain and moreover seems to burn through canvas and discolour teak with whatever acid these guys have in their gastric system.

So it was fast. Personally I like it a bit slower and more relaxed, but nothing broke and really we just held on while Skylax and Mole (remember him, Pacific Mole dude the autopilot) did the business. Ahh where would we be without a boat to look after us.

The mad lifejackets coralled down below


Clearing into Australia

From the Skylax blog 19-08-09

A lot has been written vilifying Australian customs and quarantine officials. Well they have been to charm school and my experience of customs and quarantine in Cairns and lots of other peoples’ experiences in other Australian ports of entry is that they are affable and helpful with the whole process of clearing in.

They are still thorough. You need to have given 96 hours advance warning, preferably by email to email to . For more information go to .

From the website the information required is:

There are several agencies interested in your arrival - principally Customs, Quarantine and Immigration.

96 hours notice may be given by either;

* Sending an email to

* Sending a fax to +61 2 6275 5078

* Phoning the Australian Customs National Communications Centre on +61 3 9244 8973

You will need to provide the following information

* The name of your craft

* Craft's Country and Port of Registration

* Your intended first port of arrival

* Your estimated arrival time

* Your last four ports

* The details of people on board including name, date of birth, nationality and passport number

* Details of any illness or disease recently encountered

* If you have any animals on board

* If you have any firearms on board

On Skylax customs knew we were coming and had all the forms already printed off. Quarantine searched the boat from stem to stern, but in the nicest possible way. The cost of clearing in is now $AU330 which you can pay by credit card.


Cruising the Coral Coast



Flinders Islands along the Coral Coast

The Coral Coast

Alan Lucas in his Cruising the Coral Coast (a book everyone should have on board) says of the coast that it �rivals some of the world�s great tropical beauty spots such as the Marquesas of the Central Pacific and the Grenadines of the West Indies�. He is right. This coast is stunningly beautiful with mainland Australia on one side, a great long tract of coast virtually uninhabited once you are past Cooktown, and the reefs and sandy cays along the Barrier Reef on the seaward side providing protection from the trade wind swell and wonderful anchorages as well.

It is a huge cruising area away from it all with just one drawback. The saltwater crocodile inhabits these waters, can grow up to seven metres and weigh up to a ton, and is a stealthy and cunning hunter by all accounts. Alan Lucas reports that three people are known to have been killed by saltwater crocodiles between 1975 and 2000. Personally it put me off swimming and even on a sand cay like Morris Island there was a resident croc swimming around the anchorage.

On your own

Once you set off from Cairns you are pretty much on your own with the exception of Cooktown some 75 miles north of Cairns. You need to be self sufficient in food, water and fuel until you get to either Thursday Island in the Torres Strait or more usefully Gove or Darwin in the Northern Territory. Apart from any fish you catch along the way there are no shops or even a bar or restaurant except for Lizard Island, so you need to make your own fun. There are enough Aussie boats cruising the coast to make it convivial and they are a great lot. We were given fresh oysters and a sweetlips fish and managed to catch a nice blue tuna off the top of Australia.

Sailing strategies

The SE trades are the prevailing winds blowing at 10-20 knots and occasionally a bit more. Tucked behind the Barrier Reef there is virtually no sea and this is champagne sailing. After some of the passages in the last few months we loved it and this is one of those coasts I�d cruise again. The flood tide goes north up the coast and the ebb south, but with the trades blowing most of the effect of the ebb is cancelled out and so you either have a favourable tide or a negligible amount against you. Not until up around Cape York where the tidal streams are stronger do you need to think about tide tables.

Anchorages around the coral coast mostly fall into two categories. You are either anchoring off behind sandy cays with a fringing reef or tucking behind a cape with sticky mud on the bottom to keep you there. The comfort of most of these anchorages depends on the strength of the trades and with 15-20 knots we found most of them just fine with only a minimal amount of rolling. In stronger trades I suspect some of them could be a bit more uncomfortable though still perfectly tenable.

Going south down the coast would be a bit of a chore. I talked to several boats who were waiting for the northerlies that come with the spring weather, though others I talked to reckoned that northerlies were few and far between even in spring and that you needed to make whatever southing you could when the weather went light.


All up and down the coast customs aircraft or the Australian Air Force patrol the coast and you will be called up on VHF on most days for your boat name, POB�s and sometimes the number of your cruising permit. There are also a customs patrol boat and a police patrol boat who may well call you up as well. It�s all very friendly and after a while you get quite used to it.

Shipping Channel

Inside the Barrier Reef there is a shipping channel marked by beacons and buoys and for some of the time you will be traversing in the channel. It is used by big ships although on average we only saw 2 or 3 a day. Foreign flagged ships take on a pilot for the channel and you can either call them up or they will call you up to enquire about which side to pass or to ask you to change course a little. It�s not as scary as it sounds and there is often plenty of water outside the channel so you can keep out of their way. AIS is useful to get a ships name and give you a bit of warning as visibility can be poor at times when a haze or rain obscures things.


There are crocs. Most Australians don�t swim here and even off some of the little sand cays there have been sightings of crocs. We nearly dropped our anchor on a 10 footer off Morris Island.

Cape York to Darwin

Most yachts will sail direct from Cape York (or one of the anchorages nearby like Simpson Bay) through the Endeavour Passage to Darwin if they are not going up to the Torres Islands. You need to get the tides right for this as they can run at 3-4 knots and whooshing out of the Endeavour Channel as opposed to plugging away against the tide has much to recommend it. Once out of the Endeavour Passage tides are less although you can still have up to a knot with you or a'gin you.

The winds across the Gulf of Carpenteria and on down to the Dundas Passage are lighter than those up the coast and at times you may need to do a bit of motoring. Its time to think about light weather sails as up through Indonesia winds are light again.


Some care is needed entering Van Diemen Gulf because of strong tidal currents, and negotiating Clarence Strait through the Vernon Islands. The strait is well marked but also subject to strong tides. Once through the Clarence Strait the approach is straightforward. A night approach through Clarence Strait is possible with care.

At springs the tidal streams run at up to 3.5kn through the Dundas Passage and the Clarence Strait, so it is worth timing your passage through here. Approaching Cape Don at around 4.5 hours before HW Darwin will give you 4 hours of S-going current down into the gulf. Faster yachts can make it through the light adverse stream to Cape Hotham (at the E end of Clarence Strait) in time to pick up the start of the W-going stream through the strait. This W-going stream begins at Cape Hotham at 4 hours after HW Darwin, and this flood tide will carry all the way around and into Darwin harbour for the next 8 hours.


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