Great Sandy Straits (Qld)

The Great Sandy Straits separate Fraser Island from the mainland. They range in width from around 3 nautical miles to less than a mile in places and contain numerous low lying islands. Navigating the straits is relatively easy because the channels are very well marked and beautifully documented in the excellent publication, "Beacon to Beacon Directory", Maritime Safety Queensland.

We launched in Tin Can Bay and sailed north to Porpoise Bay, before returning south along the same route.

Friday 1 August

Our exploration of the Great Sandy Straits began to day with a launch at Crab Creek near the little fishing/tourism hamlet of Tin Can Bay. The town has a ramp near the Fisherman's Cooperative but it didn't look very suitable and the northerly wind was blowing straight into it. They are working on a new one there so things may improve. The Crab Creek ramp was better, although we had to wait until a 80% high tide and even then had difficulty getting Sandpiper off the trailer. On advice from a local, we parked the car and trailer just around the corner about 200m down, where most long term departures tend to park.

Once in the water, we had little problem finding the narrow channel out to the deeper water and on further towards Fraser Island. A little way past the entrance to Snapper Creek, we dropped anchor and had a bite to eat. As we prepared to weight anchor, a small Tahitian rigged cat sailed past us and we ended up following all the way to Pelican Bay, our overnight stop. We have bought a copy of “Beacon to Beacon”, one of the best coastal maritime resources I have seen, and we were prepared to navigate the twisting winding channels using the excellent guide but found that all we had to do was follow the cat. He knew what he was doing and was headed to the same place as us.

The tide was ebbing into a northerly wind, producing a nasty short chop in water over 20 foot deep so we followed the cat's lead by hugging the edge of the bank where the tide had less influence. Vigilance was required because the bank rises almost vertically from 20' to 2'. The trip was comfortable and interesting and it was so good to be back on the water once again. By 3pm, we had arrived at Pelican Bay, near Inskip Point. It is from here that the car ferry crosses to Fraser Island and we could see a line of 6 or 7 cars waiting on the beach for the ferry to arrive. We anchored for the night at Anchorage #50 from “Beacon to Beacon”.

We set up the porta bote and launched it over the side, pleased to see that the leak repairs we had done back in Shellharbour appear to have worked. Once set up, we tested it by going ashore to the camping area, where we talked for a while to a couple from Gympie who had come down for the weekend to trial a friend's new camper trailer.

Saturday 2nd August

The wind of the previous evening had eased to 5-10 knots ESE. We raised anchor, spending a good 15 minutes getting the chain, anchor and foredeck clean of the thick black clinging mud. If was the worst mud ball we have ever encountered and affected at least 10 metres of chain as well.

From Pelican Bay, we motor sailed out through the marks, losing water depth a couple of times before finally reaching deeper water. The marks through the Great Sandy Straits need to be read as travelling downstream when heading north because they are set from Urangan. However, those leading into Tin Can Bay are the opposite. I misjudged at which set of marks the direction changes and once again ran out of water. Fortunately, it is all sand and mud so there was no harm done.

We enjoyed a very pleasurable motor sail along the western shore of Fraser Island, the wind steadily increasing but not quite strong enough to proceed under sail alone. Another sail followed behind, larger than us (most are) and over the next couple of hours we were slowly overhauled by a beautiful 40-45 foot monohull. There are so many lovely cruising boats here, each anchorage having its share of both cats and monos. We have been dwarfed at times. Unfortunately, everywhere has its cowboys and we came across one in a very narrow part of the channel leading towards Garry's Anchorage. A very large fly bridge cruiser came towards us at around 20 knots pushing up a really awful wake. He passed the yacht in front and us without a care and both boats were forced to quickly round up to deal with the big waves coming towards us. The next yacht behind was affected as well, yet there was no change in his speed or attitude. As one who skippers both sail and power boats I can at least take pride in the fact that not all power boat skippers are as bad as that one.

We arrived at Garry's Anchorage for lunch and joined a group of five or six other boats, most with washing drying, tenders ashore or other signs that they were well settled. The outgoing tide hung most boats into the gentle SE breeze. As usual, we hung with the breeze rather than tide, the keel being fully raised. We always seem to be the odd ones out.

A quick trip ashore gave us all the information about dingo dangers, habitat protection and crocodile precautions that one expects in a National Park. The camp grounds were empty of campers but looked like a pleasant place for those exploring the island. Later, I tried a spot of fishing from the dinghy but only managed a small whiting and tiny flathead so the seafood dinner was cancelled and it was into the freezer for other fare.

Sunday 3rd August

We slept late, even by our standards, with the chilly SE breeze keeping the temperature down. It seems the beautiful weather we have enjoyed over the last week is at an end with even worse to come according to the forecast. A couple of boats left during the course of the day but most stayed, meaning that we will probably all be here for a while, given the likelihood of 20-30 knot winds over the next few days.

The crab pots went in without success and a concerted effort at fishing produced a flathead, a bream and a tailor, all of a reasonable size so at least a fish meal is assured. While sitting in the dinghy fishing, I watched a sea eagle go into a full stoop and plunge into the ocean, coming up with a mullet. It had taken him three goes to get one but I still had to admire the coordination and skill required to actually perform such a feat. Other wise, things were rather quiet. Sunset saw some decent rain all around us but we only got one brief shower. The wind dropped too, but we know it will return with a vengeance soon after midnight.

The forecast is quite a dilemma. If it is correct, there will be little opportunity to move until Wednesday afternoon, followed by a nice day Thursday, before the strong winds return Friday through Sunday. It looks like too much sitting around!

Monday 4th August

As forecast, it did blow during the night but the anchorage was calm, except for the banging of the porta bote up against the hull. When the wind drops, the tide takes over and the tender has a mind of its own, defying all attempts to control it. I have tried tying long, short, alongside etc but nothing is foolproof.

By daylight, it was quite calm again, but the wind was expected to return later. We joined other yachties on deck to watch the antics of a tiny seal, probably a pup. It drifted down the tide past all the anchored yachts, floating largely on its back and waving both front flippers in the air. Sometimes it would hang head down and wave its hind flippers above water. It was reminiscent of the sea otters in the kelp off the coast of California. Richard Attenborough would have been able to tell us all about it. Eventually, it drifted beyond the anchorage and was lost to sight, until I later picked it up with binoculars on a beach well down. In hindsight, its movements didn't look quite right and there was no sign of a mother, so we cranked up the porta bote and went in search of it, armed with a number to call to alert the National Park Rangers. However, it had disappeared.

On the way back to Sandpiper, we stopped alongside a catamaran to compare notes on the seal pup. The Brisbane couple aboard the cat had also thought there was something strange but hadn't seen any line or cord tangling the creature. With not much more we could do, we went aboard for a cup of coffee and a good long chat about cruising boats.

Later, I tried fishing again, finding some likely looking structure that should hold something of interest. It did, with a school of tasty Moses Perch in residence. I had some good fun on light tackle, catching six to keep us in fish for a couple of meals. Unfortunately, the fish proved expensive because there was no way I could pull up the anchor and eventually had to cut it free. Strange that the only two anchors I have had to abandon in the last ten years have both been with the Porta Bote.

Returning to the Sandpiper, a woman on another boat enquired as to how I went and I showed her. She was impressed because she had only managed one whiting and was most grateful when I told her where I had been fishing.

The rest of the day past without incident, the wind rising on occasions and the odd shower scudding across the anchorage. However, the weather did not really justify staying put, despite the forecast strong winds. We decided to move on the next day to Kingfisher Bay.

On sunset, a flotilla of four small sailing dinghies appeared and camped in the shore camping area. They certainly were out of luck weather wise.

Tuesday 5th August

We rose much earlier than usual to make the most of the calmer morning weather. Wind was a gentle SE and we motor sailed with a jib, making a steady 5 knots with the tide with the engine just ticking over. Once in the deeper water and away from the land, the wind rose to 10 knots and we picked up the pace to 6 knots. The trip to Kingfisher Bay was 18 nautical miles, of which we motor sailed a third, sailed a third (making 7 knots with the tide) and straight motored a third. The wind was very variable, suddenly rising as a rain squall came through and disappearing just as quickly.

Twice, we had to drop the main and lay up against a bank to take shelter from some very heavy rain and strong winds. The run into the resort was also rather wet, but by this time the wind had gone so the rain was not so hard to work in. We tried three spots to anchor before we settled on one on the north side of the jetty, where the sloppy rolling swell was less. South of the jetty, the tide hung us across the swell and we rolled a bit.

By mid afternoon, the rain had eased and we took a run ashore, to have a beer at the Tide Bar and visit the small shopping village at the resort. It is definitely low season and things are rather quiet but the staff were all cheerful and welcoming. The place is certainly beautiful, although probably beyond our travelling budget. It useful to note that the resort sells fuel, although at $2.18 a litre it is for an emergency only.

The car ferry came and went a couple of times during the afternoon, disgorging its cargo of cars, trucks and pedestrians. The other two ferries further south operate straight off the beach but this one has a jetty with an interesting barge landing half way along, constructed from a pile of rocks. It appears to work well.

A bit of unsuccessful trolling finished the day before we settled in for the evening.

Wednesday 6th August

The forecast was for the chance of a shower, light SE winds early, followed by moderate to fresh S winds during the day and early afternoon. I got up at 6:30am to find the forecast in tatters, with complete black and grey skies, rain and a moderate southerly wind. The plan was to go ashore, hire a 4WD for the day and explore Fraser Island. The plan had to be modified, with the tide dropping rapidly. We moved the boat out to deeper water, getting a soaking in the process, and retired to the comfort of the cabin. The rain continued relentlessly for most of the morning and the tide went out to a point when going ashore meant dragging the Porta Bote across 100 meters of mud flats. We modified our plans.

By the afternoon, the rain had eased to the odd light shower and the tide had risen sufficiently to allow going ashore. We decided to take a half day hire and do a quick drive around a few of the main features on the island.

We picked up a Land Cruiser, a map and a permit for island access and set off across the sand tracks that criss cross the island. The track went through some beautiful stands of hardwood forest, mostly logged at some point in the past, but showing excellent signs of regrowth. The diversity of trees was amazing, with black butt, cyprus, kauri pine, blue gum, scribbly gum, banksia and many more. When the track traversed a valley, the forest changed to dense rainforest, with palms, ferns, giant figs, lanier creepers and orchids in abundance. The track was rough but easy driving after the rains.

Eventually, we emerged onto the Eastern Beach, the vast stretch of iconic sand beach that runs the length of the eastern shore of Fraser Island. The sea was in turmoil, with at least three lines of breakers and white water everywhere. Not a day for either swimming or fishing. We had a limited time on the beach, with high tide being due at 4:40 and cars to be off the beach 2 hours beforehand, so we ignored the sights to the north and headed south to Eurong camping and accommodation area. With the tide rising rapidly, we had to drive high on the beach, crossing numerous fresh water rivulets, a result of all the rain. Some had dug down in the beach quite sharply, requiring care when dropping down into them.

We made Eurong without incident and stopped to pick up a few supplies, the store there being a little better stocked than the one at Kingfisher Bay. Then it was back into the forest and up into the hills to Lake Birabeen, one of many fresh water lakes nestled amongst the forested sand hills. It was a nice spot to stop and make a coffee and have a snack. We huddled at the picnic table in the icy wind until the coffee was down, packed up and left. The cold weather is getting quite annoying.

Driving on, we wondered out loud about the logging operations on Fraser, the extent of logging, when it stopped, how the wood was removed from the island etc. The next stop answered all our questions. The strangely name Central Station, which I assumed to be just a ranger station, proved to be the site of a small town and saw mill, operating in some form right up until 1992, when all logging ceased. There were alot of very interesting displays, that showed the history of saw milling and logging on the island. The kauri pines and cyprus could be rafted out along the creeks and towed to the mainland, but the hard woods needed to be barged out. McKenzies Jetty, the ruins of which we had sailed past earlier, was built for just such a purpose.

From Central Station, there are a number of walk trails of varying length, but time was short and we had to content ourselves with a short walk along a wonderful wooden boardwalk built along the valley formed by Wanggoolba Creek. The vegetation was breath taking, with the most amazing birds-nest ferns clinging to the trunks of the towering trees and long streaming arboreal orchids in abundance. The creek itself was crystal clear, even after the heavy rain, the water having been thoroughly filtered through all the sand.

The light was fading rapidly so we hit the track once again, regretfully by-passing McKenzies Lake and pushing on back to Kingfisher Bay. We jut had enough time to fill up the car, return it and motor out to Sandpiper before darkness set in, along with exhaustion.

Thursday 7th August

We were really looking forward to the forecast sunny day but the rain on the cabin roof around dawn suggested otherwise. Things did improve, however, and by 8am, we were set to up anchor and motor sail north, with a light southerly behind us. We chose to pass to the east of Little Woody Island and found good depth all the way, although at one point where the channel narrowed the tide raced and swirled. When the wind rose to around 10 knots, we were making a good 7 knots over ground, even towing a dinghy. The tide carried north up and around Sandy Point and Moon Point. A very narrow deep channel lies right along the beach going NE from Moon Point for about two miles. It is protected by a sand bank, which rises out of the water in places. Unfortunately, we missed the entrance and found ourselves outside the bank, with no way of getting inside for two miles. We sailed along the edge of the bank in deep water, keeping an eye out for whales. The radio had reported a lot of whales right in close along this stretch and we could see three whale watch boat not far away. Alas, we didn't come across any, except some blows seen way out on the horizon, too far away to go in search.

After a couple of miles, we found a spot to cross the sands and enter the beach gutter, deciding at that point to sail back to overnight in the creeks near Moon Point, rather than push on all the way up to Wathunga Creek, another 15 miles NE. The sail back through the gutter along Hawk's Nest Beach was easy, as the tide had turned and once again we took advantage of it, sailing hard on the wind but still making a steady 5 knots. The water around Moon Point and Sandy Point was disturbed as the tide ran into the now fresh southerly. We had to drop the sails and ease through the lumpy seas until we made the creek entrance and motored down to Bridge Gutter. With the tide still low, there was a lot of protection from sand banks but this would disappear as the tide rose so we pushed on down the creek, stopping twice to wait on the tide, until we made a final anchor not far off the line of mangroves. The wind was blowing 15-18 knots but we had a reasonably protected spot in around a metre of water. Calculations suggested we would have until around 9am the next morning to get out.

The lack of whales was a disappointment. We have seen our share of humpbacks on the West Coast but it was one of our aims in coming to Hervey Bay. It matches the lack of dingoes. We still haven't seen one on Fraser Island.

Friday 8th August

An interesting night. We dried out around midnight, floated again around 2am, repositioned the tender at 3am because it was banging into the boat, began rocking and rolling around 4am and finally got up at 6:30am. The anchorage was glassy, but there was a low remnant chop coming from the south and the tide was holding us across it, making it quite uncomfortable. The tide was dropping so it was also time to head for deeper water.

As we motored out through the creek channel, the wind rose, so rapidly that by the time we reached the head of the channel near Sandy Point, we had a 15 knot southerly, producing a terrible steep chop for the last half mile of the creek. A couple of boats were anchored there and both were bouncing quite alarmingly.

Once out of the creek, thing settled down, with the outgoing tide working with the wind to flatten things down a bit. We made very slow progress motoring into the wind and tide, struggling to make 4 knots. At times, we could bear off enough to make use of a jib, which gave us 4.8 knots but mostly it was slow going until we finally reached the shelter of Little Woody Island. This gave us a chance to have breakfast. We recorded the wind at 17 knots south.

Emerging from the cabin, it appeared that the wind had dropped almost completely, but the lull was short lived because it signalled a swing to ESE, quickly rising to 20 knots, gusting to 25knots. The land did give us some protection so we worked our way over and hugged the shore all the way to Kingfisher Bay Resort at 3.5 to 4 knots. It was such slow going that we decided to stop in and pick up a little more fuel, just to be sure.

The tide was nearly low and we ended up with 40 metres of gooey mud to cross from the dinghy to the hard sand. Thankfully, the resort provides a tap for people to hose their feet off at the top of the beach so we didn't have to walk to the shop covered in black mud.

Once stocked up again, we set off, still into the tide, motoring south for a mile or so to the ruins of McKenzies Jetty. I was keen to go ashore and inspect the site of the old sawmill and another site which was a commando training centre in WWII. However, when we got to the shore we found the same oozing mud awaiting us and we decided to leave the shore excursion. In the short time we'd been away from the boat, the tide turned, giving us a much better run as we continued south, making 5 to 6 knots. With the wind and tide opposed, the waves lumped up but we kept out of the main flows, working the shallower water, and we had a very comfortable run down to Ungowa, the site of another old mill.

The wreck of the Ceratodus lies at the head of one creek, a ruined jetty nearby, with another jetty in Deep Creek. I motored around in the Porta Bote to get a closer look and try a spot of fishing (unsuccessfully). During the 1940s the Ceratodus (which is the scientific name of the Queensland Lungfish) carried fine white sand from Deep Creek and Bun Bun Creek to Maryborough where it was used as an excellent moulding sand in iron casting. Another hulk, the Palmer, can be seen a few hundred metres up Deep Creek. In its heyday, the Palmer was a coastal sugar steamer. A third wreck, that of the Swordfish – or what’s left of it – lies in deep water south of Buff Creek. This was one of the many logging vessels used during the forestry era.

While ashore near the wreck of the Ceratodus, I attracted the attention of a dingo. She came down to have a sniff about in the spot that I had been fishing but I'd been careful not to leave any bait. At least I have finally seen a dingo on Fraser Island. This is a really pretty anchorage and 30 to 40 feet deep, even right in near the creek. There is an anchorage about a mile further south called yankee Jacks Creek that housed six boats by sundown.

Saturday 9th August

Once again, we awoke to the sound of rain on the cabin roof, although the shower was thankfully short. More rain was visible on the radar and we resigned ourselves to another wet day. The tide was against us but we figured we didn't have too far to travel through the straits before a falling tide would be in our favour. Exactly where the tide changes direction, flowing out or in through the other end, I'm not sure, but we seemed to be near the half way mark.

As predicted, we soon reached the point where we were travelling with the tide, marked by the fact that the waves began to stand up with a wind/tide opposed scenario. Traffic through the straits was quite heavy and we were envious of those heading north with sails up, while we could only motor.

At the northern entrance to Garry's Anchorage, we stopped for a while to have coffee and let the tide fall. The conditions in the deeper water had become quite uncomfortable but allowing the tide to fall further gave us greater protection from drying banks.

Resuming our journey an hour later, it was much more comfortable, until we reached the southern entrance to Garry's and saw a looming wall of black coming at us. The wind had freshened to 25 knots and the thought of rain in that strength wind made us anchor up near a sand bank and retire below. The squall came and went, easing back to a steady 10 knots but with more rain on the way. We had had enough, and motored into Garry's Anchorage to stay for the night.

I fished again, catching three tasty moses perch that would make an excellent lunch. The anchorage was busy with cruisers and fisher folk alike. Later, as the sun set, we had the heaviest rain we have yet encountered on the straits. It looks set to continue into next week.

Sunday 10 August

After more rain during the night, we awoke to the nicest day we have yet experienced in the Great Sandy Straits. It was calm, warmer than it has been, and the skies were mostly clear. One could have guessed that it would be the case because we are going back to port to pull out. Food and water needs are driving us, plus the fact that next week is forecast to be windy and wet.

After a quick cleanup and scrapped together breakfast (choices are getting limited), we motored off, initially into the tide but soon running with an outgoing tide. This saw us moving along easily at 6 to 7 knots on the motor. There was not a breath of wind until we had passed Wide Bay and were headed up into Tin Can Bay, and then it was not enough to get excited about sailing. The tide was against us going into Tin Can Bay so we dropped back to 3 to 4 knots and had a very slow 7 mile motor up to Crab Creek. We arrived shortly before low tide and anchored off, facing a long wait before we could get the dinghy to shore to buy a few things for dinner. We would wait for the morning high tide to take Sandpiper down the narrow winding channel to the ramp. The tide turned at 1:48 in the afternoon.

Around 3pm, we attempted to navigate the channel with the porta-bote but couldn't manage, even dragging it through the shallows. We went back to Sandpiper to wait and tried again at 4pm, just managing to get in with a few sections of walking. It was good to see the car and trailer were safe and sound and we unhitched to drive in to the IGA for some much needed supplies. Returning to the ramp, we found a trailer sailer preparing to launch. The porta-bote was only just afloat. There was no way they would manage a 7.3m trailer sailer. I described the difficulties we had on a 80% tide and they decided to rethink. The owner was demonstrating a wonderful winch system to raise and lower his swing rudder. It wound the rudder both up and down. I wanted to spend some time chatting and taking a few photos but the sun was already setting and we had to get back out to Sandpiper while there was still light. The rudder winch will certainly get me thinking.

Monday 11 August

Navigating the tiny channel to the Crab Creek ramp was easy with the morning high tide. It creates quite a cross current at the ramp itself but we were prepared for that and the boat came on to the trailer quite easily. However, there was a thick oozy mud slick on the water around the ramp and we had to take some time cleaning the slush off the hul before fully pulling out. We de-rigged slowly, before driving on to find a spot at the Ace Caravan park in Tin Can Bay.