The Stewart family buy a boat, jack it all in and go sailing!

Gladstone to Hervey Bay: The Last Leg

The last little bit of our 2017 journey was from Gladstone to Hervey Bay. Matt is originally from Hervey Bay and has lots of family there, so we decided it would be a great place to spend Christmas. It’s also south of the tropical cyclone zone (only just, but still) and is still sheltered by the Great Barrier Reef so is slightly less exposed than the rest of the Australian coast. There is also the fabulous Fraser Island right there on the doorstep. Perfect cruising grounds for the cyclone season.

So, several months ago we booked a marina berth for a week at Boat Club marina, Urangan, for Thursday 21st December. This goes completely against our family sailing credo of never agreeing to be anywhere at a certain time (Matt and I have a theory that passages should only be planned according to the weather gods and not calendars). But we knew the marina would get booked up and there’s no anchorage there, so we had to bite the bullet.

We’d enjoyed Gladstone. Some cruisers are dismissive of it, saying it takes too long to “get in” from the seaway and that it’s just an industrial port, which is certainly it. But we also found a pleasant marina, set in extensive parkland with playgrounds, and a town with plenty to keep us busy is the run up to Christmas. Old friends from our home port of Airlie Beach had moved there exactly one year before, and visiting them was one of our primary motivations in going to the town.

All four kids were delighted to be reunited. Their parents, our friends, both worked in the marina area, so there were happy days spent running around the parkland, and between parental offices and Iron Will. We enjoyed the opportunity to get boat jobs done – and we had plenty of time to do them, because the weather closed in again and we ended up staying in Gladstone for 11 nights!

Our friends kindly lent us a car and we got our final bits of Christmas shopping done, enjoyed the waterpark, caught up with other friends who had moved to the area or were on holiday, went to a Christmas street party with carols, bouncy castles and petting zoo and spent quite a bit of time at the local library.

The library at Gladstone is a good one and also had lots of school holiday activities organized, so we loved spending time there – plus it’s air conditioned! Instead of a loans desk, it has a couple of self-checkout stations. The welcome screen has the instructions plus a list of flags for you to choose which language you’d like to view them in. We noticed, amid the Greek, Japanese etc flags, a skull and crossbones. When you chose that particular “language”, the instructions were displayed in Piratese! “Scan yer membership card, Matey!”.

Finally, the weather change came through and it looked fair for a run to Hervey Bay. We were sad to say goodbye but excited to get going on our last leg. We provisioned, took on water and said our farewells.

OTuesday 19th December we dropped the lines at dawn and navigated our way out of massive Gladstone Harbour. It’s so big and has such huge ships coming and going in narrow channels, you have to call up Gladstone Vessel Traffic Services on the VHS and check for shipping movements. We were given the all clear and followed the markers until we were finally clear of the harbor an hour after leaving the marina, then pointed the bow south-east and set sail for Pancake Creek.

We’d heard lots about Pancake Creek: quiet and pretty, with sandblows you can boogie board down, good walks and an old lighthouse. Sadly we saw almost none of it. We arrived just before lunch after an uneventful morning motorsailing in light airs, and had a slightly nail-biting time coming in through the channel and avoiding the shallows. We decided not to go too far down the creek as we had another early start the next morning, and found a good spot to anchor with only one other boat.

We wanted to walk to the lighthouse, but it was middle-of-the-day-hot and the walk was about 2km without much shade. We hoped to go in the cooler afternoon instead, but the tide was dropping and exposing big rocks where the beach (and our landing) used to be, so we wouldn’t be able to get ashore. We love lighthouses, and this one was the first one to be built on the Queensland coast (we would see why when we departed the next day!) but we sadly decided to leave a visit until our migration north next year, when we wouldn’t have such a limited weather window.

This had been a repeated feature of our trip south: finding the most lovely remote places, wanting to stay and explore – but having to press on while we still had the Northerlies.

The east coast of Australia has prevalent winds of south-easterlies, which blow hard and consistently most of the year. The coast actually runs from the north-west to the south-east, not simply north to south, so when you want to head south, you’re battling into south-easterlies, which (in a small boat at least) makes it rough and uncomfortable. These winds change for a few months each year, usually around the October til March period, when the north-west Monsoon comes in, and the winds blow from – yup, north-west.

This is when all the cruisers, who have been hopping slowly up the coast and enjoying the tropical winter, turn round and charge south again, back to Brisbane or Sydney or Melbourne. However, this year, the monsoon had been fickle to non-existent before Christmas, making it very hard for people to get south. We met a lot of sailors who were “stuck”, twiddling their thumbs and waiting for Northerlies.

In Pancake Creek that afternoon, we very soon didn’t mind not being able to go ashore. We had a visit from a beautiful dugong mum and her very young calf. The first we knew of it was a blowing sound next to the boat, a sort of snort, a bit like a turtle when they come up for air but louder. We were all in the cockpit at the time, and when we looked over the side, we saw the dugong and her calf right next to the boat, close enough to touch. We were all stunned and excited, and rushed for our cameras. She came up on the other side next, gently pushing her calf upwards by rising up underneath him or her. I’ve never seen one so close before and can tell you that they have sweet whiskery faces with big eyes, like seals, and surprisingly big round nostrils. They swam close to the boat for a while, then went and visited the boat anchored close by. They spent the whole afternoon swimming around our anchorage, coming up close to the boats, much to our delight.

Matt took Sasha fishing on a little sandbar later in the afternoon. Well, he went fishing; she mucked around with her rod for a while then splashed around in the shallows in her knickers for hours, singing. She loves to sing.

Later that day, as the sun set, we lay on the aft deck on the massive beanbag, watching the stars come out. There’s no light pollution for miles around, so it’s one of those places where the night sky seems more pinpricks of light than black, and the Milky Way looks like a city you could go and visit. The loom of the lighthouse could just be seen looping around on the other side of the hill. It’s a magical place, and another one where we’d like to spend more time in the future.

However, we were on a mission, so the next morning we were up again just before dawn. Matt went up on deck and said “Wow! We’re the last to go. Come and look at this.’

I joined him on deck and we watched a steady stream of boats negotiating their way through the passage and out to the open water. We didn’t even know there were so many boats anchored further up! We hauled the anchor up, as the kids slept resolutely on, and joined the line of boats heading south.

As we came out into open water, it was rough and choppy again. It was shallow, the waves bounced up; the same uncomfortable story!


I was amazed at the number of random jagged rocks sticking up out of the sea, even as we got further out into the seaway. Matt kept a careful eye on them and gave me a course to steer to take us safely through them. Some of the boats in front were going even further out than us before turning right, but some of the cats behind came out of the entrance and hugged the coast as they headed south.

We all had to stand off an area near Round Hill Head; the coastguard were repeating their message every hour on the VHF and we had been hearing it for weeks now. It was the area of sea where a beche de mer fishing boat had tragically gone down back in October, with a loss of six lives.

We set the mizzen and foresail (jib ‘n’ jiggers) and flew along as the sun grew higher and small sleepy people with bedhair came and joined us in the cockpit. It was a good morning’s sail; the wind blew, the sun shone and the sea sparkled.

We had 65 nm to cover, and after 8 hours we were approaching Burnett River heads, the port entrance to Bundaberg. We motored up the river, the banks covered in cane paddocks, and enjoyed the calm waters. After nearly an hour we reached the Yacht Club and dropped anchor.

Matt launched the tender and went ashore to pick up some friends, who’d come down to see us bearing fish and chips! It was lovely to have them aboard and we enjoyed catching up on each others news as the sun set and the stars came out.

Matt dropped them back ashore before it got too late, and we got ready for an early start in the morning.

The alarm went off at 4.45 and I stuck my head out of the hatch into the predawn gloom. Very few of the boats at anchor had anchor lights on; I couldn’t see them and it took me a while to get my bearings. We moved quietly around on deck, preparing for departure, then lifted the anchor, thick with black sticky Bundy River mud. We washed it off as best we could with buckets of water, so that the stinky gloop wouldn’t go down into the anchor locker – which is basically a cupboard Tilly and Sasha’s bedroom.

The river was quiet and still as we motored down through the cane fields and past the sugar wharf again, joining another procession of boats all keen to make the most of the Northerlies. Matt helmed and I went below and closed up all the portholes and hatches, knowing that when things get rough, there’s no time for such things.

As we left the river mouth the water grew confused and choppy, and Iron Will started to lurch and crash about. Bloody shoals again. The motion got progressively more alarming, then Matt shouted “Watch out!” as Iron Will slid down a particularly big trough and submarined her bow at the bottom. Green water cascaded down the length of the boat, over the coachroof and windscreen and up over the pilot house. I was safe and dry but Matt, at the helm, had gallons poured over him.

I hastily found towels and mopped him up as he steered the boat as best he could through the short steep chop. Everything down below was fine. It was the most water we’d had over the deck, even compared to the awful passage from Brampton to Mackay.

Once we reached open water the motion didn’t improve much. The boat was still lurching and plunging uncomfortably, and sounds of clinking and clanking came from down below, despite my careful stowing. I couldn’t believe the kids slept on through it all, I thought they would have been thrown from their bunks. I braced myself miserably in the cockpit and thought hard about Christmas.

The weather did improve as the day went on. Thankfully. We were almost flying along with the wind on the port quarter, comfortably doing 7 knots and flicking into the 8s. It reminded me of an Atlantic crossing; the wide-spaced rhythm to the fetch, the big swell and the regular foam and hiss as the boat surfs down a wave.

Finally, after sailing all day, the line of land came closer and closer and Hervey Bay took shape on the horizon. We dropped the sails and motored in through the sandbanks and channels, and checked our booking with the marina. It took longer than I expected, picking our way from beacon to beacon and watching the depth-sounder, but finally, just after noon, we were tied up to our allocated pontoon at Boat Club Marina, Urangan.

We’d made it! We had covered the 500nm from the Whitsundays to Urangan in 35 days. We’d seen sunshine and showers, azure seas and howling winds, wild islands and teeming cities, dolphins and dugongs, met up with old friends and made fabulous new ones.

We toasted ourselves with icy poles and went off to find Nana and Poppy. And our Larnie Dog.