Sailing Back to the Australian East Coast from South East Asia

Having cruised from Borneo to Brisbane twice, Dave Bowden offers some tips and recommendations for those planning this route.

Published 12 years ago, updated 4 years ago


The trade-off in a return to Australia from South East Asia is getting to the east coast of Queensland late enough in the year that the southeast trades have lessened but before the cyclone season picks up. Rounding Cape York in mid to late November is a suitable compromise while as late as December can still be OK but early tropical depressions and cyclones can develop at that time.  The passage down the Queensland coast always involves waiting for a suitable lessening of the prevailing southeast winds of 20-25 kts.   A southeast wind at 15-20 kts is about standard conditions for November but periods of lesser winds or with more easterly component can occur if the ridge of high pressure along the coast is modified.

There are four basic routes that can be considered but not all involve crossing the Gulf of Carpentaria.  A review of is recommended as there are excellent cruising notes on Indonesia, weather and routing discussion.

The following information and recommendations are based on personal experience of two trips from Borneo to Brisbane in 2010 and 2011 as well as information from numerous yachts that have returned by the other routes.  The passage in 2010 was a fast yacht delivery trip.  The 2011 passage was organized as a cruise in loose company with 9 yachts based on the experience gained in 2010.  The absence of an overarching formal Rally organization was a benefit as villages and authorities did not ramp up for events with inflated expectations, prices for fuel and services etc.

Navigation using OpenCPN and Cmap charts was used and the GPX routes are held by noonsite. E-mail [email protected] to request these.  Cmap charts were reasonably good but with limited detailed coverage of bays and anchorages.

Option 1 (to Darwin)

Many yachts have returned in the past by retracing the westbound Sail Indonesia route back through Bali and clearing out at Kupang then heading to Darwin to clear into Australia. You can either head directly from Kupang to Darwin or track along the north coast of Timor until you reach the eastern end of the island before heading south. Other yachting events use Saumlaki as a point of departure but it is not normally a clearance port.  The currents in this area and around the north tip of Timor are fierce. This route gives you a better sailing angle into the southeast trades while the direct route from Kupang is almost head to wind and will involve tacking. If you have cleared out of Indonesia and wish to take a break on your passage east you can stopover in Dili in Timor Leste, please see the Sail Timor Leste web site for details about visiting Timor Leste with your yacht.  However, once you have reached Darwin, the route to Gove is all upwind unless you are very lucky with the weather pattern.  The first challenge is getting out of Van Diemen Gulf and past Cape Don.  Then head upwind to the Hole in the Wall and on to Gove. From there it is across the Gulf of Carpentaria then down the east coast of Queensland, all of this is upwind during October and November.  Experienced local sailors say that by leaving Darwin in late November better winds are more likely to be experienced.

Option 2 (to Gove)

Depart from Borneo (Sandakan or Tawau) and sail over the top of Sulawesi and down past Ambon to clear Indonesian authorities at Tual (Kai Islands) then head for Gove.  While Thursday Island is a possible entry port for Australia the wind conditions in Torres Strait are likely to be worse than at Seisia.  In past years yachts have reported that sailing to Thursday Island was very tough unless unusually light wind conditions occur.  One yacht spent 3 weeks in Horn Island waiting for a break in the winds after it used an unusually light wind opportunity to clear in at Thursday Island.

Option 3 (via Palau or Helens Reef north of equator)

This option involves heading east from Borneo or the Philippines and sail over the top of PNG staying north of the equator till far enough east that you can turn SW and sail against the southeast trades. The aim here is to find the east running counter equatorial current on the north side of the equator.  Some yachts sail as far north as Palau but Helens Reef is nearer and may be used as a stop but there is only a Palau government outpost here – no fuel or food.  This route may require you to sail a long way east past Bougainville Island as once you come south of the equator, the trade winds hit you together with an adverse current and it is hard yards.  Sailing through PNG has security implications although there is a trade-off between how much continuous sailing you wish to do versus island hopping along the north coast. This option could involve almost a month of continuous sailing if you do not wish to stop at PNG islands but it avoids the need to cross the Gulf of Carpentaria and face the southeast trades down the north Queensland coast.

Option 4 (over PNG via Louisiades)

The final option is to depart from Borneo and cruise along the northern islands of Indonesia and clear out of Indonesia at Jayapura and enter PNG at Vanimo or some suitable PNG port.  Again there are security issues when island hopping along the north PNG coast.  This route will require an Indonesian CAIT and two sets of Visas.  The best time to travel this route is early to mid-year but even so, there are likely to be strong adverse currents and headwinds encountered.  Starting later in the year (eg October) is probably worse and can be most difficult encountering strong headwinds and adverse currents till turning south towards the Louisiades.  2010 was a particularly bad year and all yachts reported it as the trip from hell with motoring into strong winds and current for weeks on end without any chance of getting an angle on the wind.


If there are no other objectives apart from an easy, safe return to the east coast of Australia with minimum overnight passages, Option 2 is the recommended route.  A clearance and departure from Sandakan or Tawau is fairly routine but Tawau is recommended as there is an excellent Indonesian Consulate there which will issue a 2 month Social Visa in less than a day (2011 experience).  Additionally, the Malaysian port clearance and immigration offices are within walking distance of the anchorage outside the Tawau Yacht Club.  International yacht clearances in Sandakan require a taxi to the main port centre about 11 km out of town.  Both ports have good support services, fuel, markets and supermarkets as well as a yacht club.  While a direct track to the north tip of Sulawesi is straight forward and involves about a 4-night sail, there are many steel ‘torpedo’ mooring buoys located across the Celebes Sea.  These FADS are regularly found in over 4000 m depths and occasional fishing boats may be seen attached to these buoys.  They are moored to a 200 litre drum of concrete – amazing.   Departure from Tawau heading for the nearest north-west corner of Sulawesi (crossing Selat Makasar) minimizes exposure to these hazards and involves a passage of about 2 nights but some mooring buoys will still be encountered.  The additional benefit of this route is the opportunity to day-hop along the north coast of Sulawesi.  While winds through Indonesia are generally light (less than 10 kts), squalls with rain and stronger winds should be expected particularly while the crossing to Sulawesi.

There two basic ways to transit through Indonesian waters along this route.

The fastest and most direct route but involving continuous motor sailing between refueling stops, is via Kima Bajo (just north of Manado as anchorage at Manado is virtually impossible because of depths and exposure) or Bitung (well-protected anchorage in good depths and a clearance port), then southeast past Ambon (unless stopping for fuel and provisions) to Banda (a delightful group of islands), Tual (clearance out of Indonesia) and on to Gove.  Saumlaki has no clearance facilities (in 2011) but all locations have fuel, markets and basic to very good services.  Manado is a very large and congested city, Bitung is smaller but a major port, Ambon is big but unattractive for yachties and Tual is basic but is the only clearance port after Ambon.

The more enjoyable route is today hop along the above route to Tual and on to the islands of Aru before departing for Gove.  All the villages along this route had fresh markets, fuel and some basic services.  There is a need to do a few overnight passages.  Anchorages will be found on average about 50 nm apart but some legs will involve longer days.

Fuel and Provisions

Regardless of the route, fuel and provisions are readily available at most villages and certainly the bigger towns.  Fuel for yachts is not generally available from service stations but good reasonably clean fuel was available at most villages.  Transfer to jerry cans is via an open 200-litre drum using a dipper.  Filtering is recommended.  Fuel biocide treatment is not generally used in Asia so ensure you have obtained plenty from Australia before starting on this voyage.  Only one yacht claimed to have been given bad fuel.


A departure from Borneo in mid to late September with a 6-8 week cruise through Indonesia should position you at Aru in late October or early November for the crossing to Gove via the Hole in the Wall or possibly north of Cape Wessel.  The Arafura Sea crossing involves a 2-3 overnight passage and if good conditions are encountered it is an enjoyable port tack trip all the way.  The most easterly comfortable anchorage in Indonesia to start this passage was Pulau Enu on the southeast corner of Aru.  Dobo (northwest coast of Aru) is the last town of any significance where provisions and fuel are available.  Some fuel (at a premium) may be had at the abandoned Naval Base on the inlet at the southwest corner of Aru.  There seems to be no village or habitation on Pulau Enu apart from itinerant fishermen and their boats..


Wind conditions in Indonesia will gradually lighten through October and November but motor sailing will be the norm.  However, the Arafura Sea is affected by pressure patterns in Australia and southeast trades prevail and strengthen as you approach Aru.  Ideal conditions for the crossing to Gove are likely when there is no high-pressure system in southern or eastern Australia, a large trough or front has passed through northeastern Australia and/or a low pressure system is established in the Kimberleys.  All these systems help to stem the prevailing southeast trades and generate a weaker more east/northeast wind.  The Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) regularly transmits (by HF voice and weather FAX) forecasts and prognostic charts.  If internet is available interactive weather patterns of many Australian and Asian areas can be viewed through the BOM site.

Spares and yacht maintenance

It is important to have your yacht in good condition with a suitable range of spare parts on board plus oils, filters and other consumables.  There are no facilities for sail repairs on this route so if you have doubts about your sails’ robustness, ensure you carry a good supply of contact glue, Dacron, webbing etc to effect repairs. Gluing seams may not be pretty but the result is strong and should get you home.  Likewise, adhesives such as Sikka are worth their weight and space when the need arises.


The return to Australia passage along the recommended route outlined above can be a pleasant and enjoyable trip.  By traveling in company using HF skeds to maintain contact and exchange information, maximum support can be obtained.  In 2011 almost every yacht experienced some event which was resolved by tools, equipment, information or assistance from one of the group.  There are no yacht services along this route so self-sufficiency is required.  Typical events requiring group assistance involved sharing information, communications backup, sail repairs, anchor winch failures, fibre glass repair, plumbing and water maker repairs, fouled anchors, holed dinghy, propeller problems etc.  These were the additional benefits flowing from a wide range of sailing experience as well as contributing to the selection of anchorages and safe routes through reef areas to match the weather, current and other conditions.  The day-hopping route minimized the number of overnight passages but naturally took a bit longer.

The people in the villages, towns and cities along the way were invariably helpful, interested in our activity and hospitable.  As few yachts visited these areas, we were always a major attraction and although often overcome by the number of canoes and visitors, they were mostly delightful and polite.  We had no incidents of theft in Indonesia but several brazen night boardings with serious theft occurred in Kudat and Sandakan.  The lesson is to have external alarms fitted if possible, do not leave items on deck or unsecured and lock the doors and hatches at night.

Dave Bowden


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