on 7 Feb 2022
Australia’s southern shores offer rugged conditions – and unspoiled beauty for those who dare
Filled with awe-inspiring landscapes and a rich heritage, Australia is a destination that still offers the prospect of genuine adventure. The country stretches from the edge of the Southern Ocean at 43 degrees south, to north at the Torres Strait, where tropical Australia is only a few nautical miles from Indonesia. A varied, generally mild climate allows year-round water sports, so it is a boater’s dream. My sailing adventures have taken me all around it.
Australia’s eastern shores are the most popular boating area in this vast nation, meaning boaters can access the most services when voyaging along the Pacific coast. However, southern Australia – which can feel the full force of the Southern Ocean slamming into its rugged coasts – has some of the most beautiful and wild scenery in the entire country.
Chief among those destinations is Tasmania.
Tasmania was once connected to the Australian mainland. The Bass Strait, which now separates Melbourne from Tasmania’s northern shores, is just 60m deep on average. These shallows make this waterway one of the most hazardous in the Southern Hemisphere.
Dotted with shoals and islands remaining from that ancient land bridge, only the most adventurous boaters and tough racing yachts make the 100-nautical-mile crossing. As a longstanding racing sailor, some of my toughest sailing has been here; a place yachties fondly call The Paddock.
The Paddock is the main testing ground for the annual 640nm Rolex Sydney-Hobart Race on Boxing Day, one of the world’s three great bluewater races, ranking alongside the Fastnet Race and the Bermuda Race.
Port Phillip has dozens of marinas, boating clubs and motorboat dealerships. The Royal Victorian Motor Yacht Club, just west of the city, where the Yarra River flows, is an ideal city mooring
Melbourne and environs
Overlooking The Paddock is Australia’s second city of Melbourne, whose skyscrapers cluster around the large bay of Port Phillip, with only a feared narrow exit to the sea, via what is known as The Rip or The Gap. A real marine drawcard is Melbourne’s historic location. It’s on the great circle sailing route used by the old square-rig sailing ships that would ‘run their easting’ from the Cape of Good Hope until they landed in Port Melbourne. It remains Australia’s largest port.
A much newer city than its brasher cousin Sydney or the maritime Tasmanian capital port of Hobart, Melbourne came of age during the 1851 gold rush, attracting an immigrant population that for a short time eclipsed Sydney’s cosmopolitanism. As a result, modern Melbourne is a sophisticated European-styled city with sizeable Greek, Italian and Asian communities.
Often voted one of the world’s most liveable cities because of its organised urban layout and its myriad of restaurants and cafés, Melbourne’s bars and nightclubs make it the nightlife capital of Australia. Nearby, Yarra Valley vineyards produce world-class wines.
Port Phillip has dozens of marinas, boating clubs and motorboat dealerships. The Royal Victorian Motor Yacht Club, just west of the city, where the Yarra River flows, is an ideal city mooring. The club organises competitive and cruising events. Picnic flotillas motor around the bay to places such as the Docklands with its shopping and restaurants and to more secluded spots like the wild Mornington Peninsula near the seaward end. Cruising up the Yarra River to the famed wineries is another attraction, should the bay be rough, as regularly happens when the southerlies blow.
Among the many motorboat dealerships are Australia’s premium brands: Riviera and Maritimo. Riviera dealer R Marine Jacksons is a family-owned marine business of 60 years, based at the Sandringham Yacht Club. The club co-hosts Australia’s largest regatta, the Festival of Sails (January 22-26, 2022), when hundreds of yachts compete.
Riviera’s offshore-ready hulls are ideal for this rugged region, so R Marine Jacksons regularly organise cruise-in-company fleets that circumnavigate the bay and beyond. Beyond Port Phillip, 95nm to the east, is the maritime park of Wilsons Promontory, where there are secluded anchorages. This is also a jump-off point for the more adventurous to cross the Bass Strait to Tasmania for summer cruising.
Crossing the Bass Strait to Tasmania is done in the summer months (November to February). Even then, fast-moving weather fronts make this a challenging-to-perilous journey for recreational boaters. Yet it’s achievable for seaworthy craft and experienced skippers.
The voyage is a worthwhile one because of the interesting islands along the way, and the major archipelago on the northeastern corner of Tasmania: the Furneaux Group. This rocky archipelago has required my best level of navigation to prevent our catamaran from grounding on the many surrounding shallows.
Tasmania has a bloody colonial history. Some of its population are descended from refugees from the Black Line of 1830 – when British colonists formed human chains in settled areas to catch Aboriginal Tasmanians and try to forcibly remove them to the Tasman Peninsula; a campaign some historians have termed genocide.
Voyaging south beyond Hobart can be done within the shelter of the picturesque Bruny Island, with several marinas and yacht clubs to visit
Today, Tasmania offers visitors unspoiled natural beauty and impressive cultural attractions. Mooring at the pier in Cape Barren Island is a friendly experience, where fuel, fresh seafood and water can be found.
South of here is mainland Tasmania, the heart-shaped island about 275km wide with a narrow southern point that is a mere 2,090km from Antarctica and with nothing between. Cruising is mostly done on the sheltered east coast. Departing from the Furneaux Group usually shelters boaters from the prevailing westerlies. Tasmania is a land of towering sea cliffs, moorland and high mountains. It is one of the world’s last remaining true wilderness areas – especially around its sparsely populated southwest.
The island is home to one of the world’s toughest offshore sailing events: The Australian Three Peaks Race. This involves sailing short-handed between three points and then racing on foot up and down mountains for a week, throughout days and nights. It’s an event I’ve done several times, placing second once – it’s a true test of both man and machine.
But for the cruiser, it’s also a wild paradise that begins by heading for the first major anchorage while voyaging south – Wineglass Bay. The white-sand beach here is surrounded by towering mountains and a string of pristine beaches. With vineyards, distilleries and cottage industries in its hinterland, this is a fine introduction to the place some call Apple Isle (on account of Tasmania’s fine reputation for fruit orchards).
The seafarers’ city
Further south, sailors pass the towering cliffs and growing swells at famous surf beaches such as Ship Stern Bluff on the tip of the Tasman Peninsula. Alternatively, the sheltered route south is behind the Tasman Peninsula and Maria Island via the Denison canal at Dunalley (at high tide), leading to serene bays near Hobart. This is just north of the capital, which often involves a mad dash up Storm Bay while the weather remains good.
Hobart has several marinas and yacht clubs that welcome visitors. The Royal Yacht Club of Tasmania at Sandy Bay co-hosts (in association with the Royal Geelong Yacht Club in Victoria) the friendly spirited Van Diemen’s Land Circumnavigation Cruise (VDL), which is steadily getting more international interest. Every two years, 45 yachts take part in the month-long, 800nm event – the 2021 edition was postponed during the pandemic until this year. Entries for each VDL cruise are accepted from appropriately equipped, ocean-going yachts, motoryachts, motor cruisers, charter vessels, professional fishing vessels and tall ships.
Dotted with shoals and islands remaining from that ancient land-bridge, only the most adventurous boaters and tough racing yachts make the 100-nautical-mile crossing
The delights of Hobart are many, especially for mariners. Home to Australia’s Antarctic Division (a government agency that undertakes science programmes and research projects to contribute to a better understanding of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean), the Australian Wooden Boat Festival and a fascinating maritime museum, there is plenty to do when clouds gather around nearby Mount Wellington (1,270 metres).
Local cultural attractions include the world-class Museum of Old and New Art (Mona) Gallery, Hobart’s annual food festival – called Tasmania’s Taste of Summer – and Salamanca Market, featuring outdoor and indoor stalls focusing on food and drink. In the unlikely event of being here in winter, the Dark Mofo Festival (June 22, 2022) is a must-see – a music and arts extravaganza celebrating the southern winter solstice.
Hobart is also home to many artists, including Man Booker Prize-winner Richard Flanagan – a writer who confronts the island’s bloody colonial past. But most of all, Tasmanians really know about the sea and boats. Their vast forests have fed the island’s long-established boatbuilding industry while also sparking Australia’s environmental movement, which took a foothold in the early 1980s when locals began opposing the damming of its great rivers and the felling of its primary forests.
Voyaging south beyond Hobart can be done within the shelter of the picturesque Bruny Island, with several marinas and yacht clubs to visit. Major centres such as Kettering and Cygnet have plenty of facilities, including authentic restaurants to try the island’s famed cheeses, lamb and other produce. Beyond this channel is the uninhabited and wild west coast where giant kelp forests reach up to your keel, and the last lighthouse on Maatsuyker Island – the southernmost point in Australia – winks goodbye and (perhaps) good luck to you.
Various books on boating in Tasmania have described this remote and beautiful voyage as the “Ultima Thule” of Australian cruising. Exposed to the weather and swells directly from Antarctica, it’s the most challenging cruising in Australia.
My cousin Christian and I spent a year planning a three-week voyage of 300nm a few years ago. At 43 degrees south, our latitude equated to Patagonia in South America and far south of Africa’s Cape of Good Hope. As we sailed round the South West Cape, we met swells larger than I’d ever seen in Australia, and I sighted my first albatross gliding by our steel-hulled yacht. Our destination was the only shelter on this cliff-strewn coast: the World Heritage-listed Port Davey, a wilderness of bays and rivers with the bones of many shipwrecks strewn along its shores.
First surveyed in 1820 by John Oxley, who concluded “the whole navy of Europe might ride in safety from every wind”, Port Davey is now a wildlife haven after the loggers and tin miners took their fill. Here we spent weeks climbing its peaks, including 762m Mount Rugby, dinghying up its rivers and sheltering from 70-knot storms.
It was a memorable voyage to a most special place in this great southern land.
For more information on Melbourne:
www.bom.gov.au Australian marine weather
www.navionics.com Chart Port Phillip
www.deckee.com Boating app for the region
www.discoverboating.com.au General information
www.rvmyc.com.au Melbourne motorboat club
www.promcruises.com.au Organised cruises
www.festivalofsails.com.au Australia’s largest regatta in January
www.mast.tas.gov.au Informative government website
www.motoryachtclub.org Hobart motorboat club
www.margatemarina.com.au New east coast marina
www.tasmanianboatcharters.com.au Adventure cruise
Sailing Directions for Port Davey
Best time to go: January/February (summer in the southern hemisphere)
Weather: Tas Maritime (VHF ch68 and SSB from Charleville QLD)
www.bom.gov.au (Bureau of meteorology that has free Grib files)
Charts: Admiralty Paper Chart 5011 (and others)
Electronic charts: Navionics, AMSA ECDIS (on laptop)
Pilot books used:
Australian Mainland: East Coast Australia (2 books) by Alan Lucas and Admiralty Pilot Guides (Australia).
RYCT Tasmanian Anchorage Guide
Australia Pilot Volume II
www.jackandjude.com Tasmania Sailing Guide Internet
Ian Johnston Tasmania (mud map pilot guide)