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The Coral Coast: an introduction

By webmaster last modified Aug 19, 2002 12:50 AM

Published: 2002-08-19 00:50:52
Countries: Australia

One of the most idyllic cruising areas in the world is Queensland's Coral Coast with its brilliant blue waters protected by Australia's Great Barrier Reef. Convenient Ports of Entry are Mackay, Townsville and Cairns. Coal and sugar loading facilities such as Abbot Point and Mourilyan offer clearance as well, but cater to commercial vessels and should be avoided. For those yachts arriving in Queensland from Fiji or Vanuatu: Do not stop at any of the Australian reefs before you have received clearance. Coastwatch planes patrol the Coral Sea on their rounds to stop vessels entering Australian waters illegally and it is prohibited to stop anywhere other than an official port of entry. Give your details and your ETA to the Coastwatch plane via VHF and you will be expected at your port of entry and the clearance will be done efficiently and fast with a minimum of fuss. An overtime surcharge will unfortunately apply should you require clearance during the weekend.

The Coral Coast is not widely known as a cruising ground among yachts making their way around the world. Most yachts leave Fiji or Vanuatu in October for the voyage down to New Zealand or to Brisbane and other ports further south in Australia. They stay south of the tropics because of the threat of cyclones between December and April. When the cyclone season is over they are under time pressure and have to make their way north and then across the Indian Ocean. Unfortunately this leaves them very little time to explore the Coral Coast. This is a pity because the Coral Coast can be explored with a minimum of risk even in the cyclone season.

The Great Barrier Reef is the world's largest Coral Reef and most of it has been placed under the protection of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. It is 2000 kilometers long and covers roughly 350 000 square kilometers. Snorkeling and diving on the Great Barrier Reef is superb. There are thousands of individual reefs to explore. They range from the more sheltered inner reefs to the spectacular pristine outer reefs at the edge of the Pacific Ocean. Once you have left port and sailed out to the Great Barrier Reef chances are that you will not see any other vessels in your area. The reef is huge and stretches from Gladstone all the way north to New Guinea. There are very few islands to be found on the reef itself. Most likely you will anchor in lee of a reef with no land in sight. The winter months can be blustery here and they often bring weeks of South-Easterlies with 25 knots. At high tide your reef anchorage can be rolly. The best time of the year here is between early September and mid November. Winter winds have normally died down, the temperatures are mild, the water is warming up and no cyclones have to be feared as yet. This is the perfect time of the year to explore and to hop from reef to reef. But boating does not stop for the locals in December. It just requires prudence and advance planning. If you are on the water in Queensland's tropics during the cyclone season you have to listen to the weather forecast regularly and you must have an emergency plan. If you know the safe port closest to your current position you will be able to make your way there in time. The element of risk is always there and can never be eliminated completely but once you have observed these precautions you have minimized it and you should be able to enjoy cruising the Coral Coast between December and April as well.

Those of you who prefer a sandy beach in the lee of a tropical island to a reef anchorage out in the open sea will find very tempting cruising grounds in the well known Whitsundays with their dozens of islands. Further North Magnetic Island lies only 8 miles from Townsville, North Queensland's capital. Townsville is a city with the charm of times gone by. Castle Hill is the rocky landmark in the city centre and kilometres of golden beaches invite the visitor to cool off. The Palm Islands north of Townsville are another cruising ground. From here you can enter the 25nm long Hinchinbrook Channel that separates Hinchinbrook Island from the mainland. Cruising yachts can safely navigate the Hinchinbrook Channel. It is the most scenic waterway on the East Coast of Australia with Hinchinbrook Island and its rugged peaks on the eastern side and the mainland with the Cardwell Ranges on the western side. A maze of secondary channels and wetlands are a paradise for wildlife including dugongs and crocodiles. North of the Hinchinbrook Channel lie the Brooks Islands, Dunk Island, the Barnards, Franklin Island and Fitzroy Island. Large portions of these islands are National Parks. Cairns is situated at the end of Trinity Inlet. Cairns is the centre for tourism in the north with its own international airport. Many dive and snorkeling tours depart Cairns every day to the reef. Cable cars and a scenic railway can take you up into the rainforest. North of Cairns two marinas offer berthing at Yorkey's Knob and Port Douglas while berths in Cairns itself are limited or - as is the case with the pile berths on the eastern bank of the creek - they are not very convenient and subject to swell. Cooktown is the last place where provisions and fuel can easily be obtained before the long run up to Thursday Island. The Cape York Peninsula is mostly uninhabited and offers endless beaches and reefs that can be explored.

Looking at the Coral Coast from the sea it is surprising how little impact man has made here. The coastal ranges rise densely green in the background and the few towns and cities seem to blend into the tropical backdrop.

On the other hand provisioning is easy and all services that a cruising yacht requires can be easily found in places like Mackay, Townsville and Cairns.