Escape from Moreton Bay

We’d been in two minds about going into Mooloolaba, which was the next stop before Fraser Island. We were keen to see it, but the official charts said that it was too shallow for us to reach the area marked off for anchorage, and we preferred not to pay for a marina berth. Our cruising guide stated that depths were good, but the accompanying printed chart told a different story. We knew that Pelagic had been there before so we checked with them. Not only did they say that it was plenty deep enough, but in fact they were anchored there right now, having made a fast 33-hour trip up from Iluka while we were in Brisbane.

The forecast for the next day was for very little wind, and since we wanted to arrive in Mooloolaba before sunset we worked out our passage plan for an average speed of 4 knots. This entailed a dawn start, but in the event we lazily emerged blinking into the sunlight after a long, comfortable sleep and finally hoisted the anchor at around half past eight.

Stretching before us were the hundred square miles of shoals and sand banks that had caused us so much stress on the way in. The dangers were, of course, completely invisible, lurking just below the surface of the innocently sparkling blue sea. In the pleasant sunshine, they seemed to taunt us.

Armed once more with our slightly unreliable chart, we took up the challenge. Rather than mix it with the large ships that were streaming out of the Brisbane docks and up the dredged channel, we chose to take an older, unmarked portion of the Main Channel for as long as possible, before joining them on the marked shipping route out to sea. Although requiring some more blind navigation, this had the advantage of giving us a fast beam reach in what turned out to be a rather decent southerly. Before long we were creaming along at 8 knots between the lurking sand banks and briefly considered reefing the main, but “damn the torpedoes!” we put up with a bit of weather helm because we’d probably need every inch of sail when we turned into the northerly-running shipping channel.

During the morning, we saw a number of large tankers and freighters rumbling by ahead of us, but when we actually made the final turn there was only one left in sight, and that one far ahead of us in the haze. Despite our concerns, we had the channel to ourselves for the rest of the morning.

By early afternoon, we were almost out of the clutches of Moreton Bay. Rather than follow the final couple of doglegs in the marked channel, we cut the last corner across some 6 metre deep sand banks, which made life very interesting for a while because the shallow water amplified the swell on the beam and gave us an entertaining but very rocky ride. I believe that it was at this point that the coffee thermos emptied itself over Bronwyn’s school books.

The wind was forecast to drop in the afternoon, but if anything it got a little stronger, and when we finally made it into the open sea and pointed our nose at Mooloolaba, we were running at 7-8 knots before 20-30 knots of breeze. Despite the late start, we dropped the sails and crossed the Mooloolaba bar just as the sun was setting. The bar itself presented no problems, but the school of fledgling outrigger-paddlers who straggled unheedingly across the entrance in front of us did cause us a few heart-in-mouth moments. In the end they sorted themselves out and got out of our way in good time, which was just as well because by then we were nigh-on unstoppable, lined up with the channel leads and being sucked in by the tide.

We chugged our way gently through the deepening dusk, and dropped our anchor in a few metres of water just a few boat-lengths away from Pelagic.

Mud Island

We were intending to head back to our old anchorage by the Sandhills dunes, but in order to get there we had to first round Mud Island, a long flat sandbank close to the Brisbane River shipping channel. As we came out of the lee of the island we got into some swell that had been building up as the wind crossed the bay from the other side.

The Sandhills anchorage is very picturesque, but it is rather exposed and does suffer rather from swell, particularly when the tide changes. Not only was Mud Island acting as a buffer for the south easterly swell, but it was also closer to the Main Channel that we would be taking in the morning, so we tucked in behind it and dropped the anchor.

The dinghy was absolutely filthy from its continual dunkings in the swamp mud at the Botanical Gardens, so I took advantage of our early stop to haul it up on a halyard and scrub it out.


The shallow anchorage also meant that most of our chain was still in the anchor locker. I’d been waiting for a chance to work on it, so I sat on the bow and hauled it out onto the deck. Pindimara’s original chain had been marked every 5 metres by coloured spray-paint, but this had quietly eaten away the galvanisation on the chain and suddenly, one day, it rusted into a big knot and we’d had to replace the whole thing.


Not wanting to destroy our new chain with the same problem, we had marked the lengths with cable ties instead of spray paint, but were finding that these interfered with the smooth progress of the chain over the winch. In fact, while anchoring in the Brisbane River, the chain jumped completely off the gypsy and the whole seventy metres plummeted uncontrollably to the bottom. This was pretty alarming. Not only is there a lot of metal moving very fast alongside your feet, but the total stationary weight is about 100 kg and when it reaches the end, it can tear the D-ring right out so that you lose anchor, chain, and possibly quite a lot of hull. Only a couple of weeks previously I’d taken the precaution of adding a loop of tripled springy silver rope to the end of our chain, so all I could do was stand there and keep my toes clear and wait to see whether it would bounce or snap.

Luckily it held, but it was time to get rid of the cable ties. To this end I obtained some water-based acrylic paint, reasoning that it might not contain quite as many noxious chemicals as the spray variety. As the sun set behind and the moon rose over Mud Island in front, I sat on the fore-deck and painstakingly brushed on two coats of primer and two coats of colour, while trying very hard not to spill any paint. This started to get quite difficult when a surprise wind blew up, thrashing the boat around and splashing me with spray. I clumsily tied down the wet and sticky chain so that it wouldn’t fall over the side, and went below for dinner.


The sea started to get pretty sloppy. As we climbed into bed later that night, we were very glad that we were not in the open water on the other side of the bay.

Urban Life

It was nice to catch up with friends, but the attractions of the bright lights wore off pretty quickly. I hadn’t really noticed before, but it’s hard to buy anything useful inside a city. I needed some plumbing parts and miscellaneous chandlery. Bronwyn wanted a shower and a laundry. We found some inexpensive toilet rolls, a haircut and some discounted novels, but otherwise there was precious little of value to the visiting cruiser.

It’s been less than two months since we quit our careers and started sailing, but I was surprised to find how hard it was to relate to urban life. I was being bombarded with solutions that I didn’t need to problems that I didn’t have. Even the process of going out for a meal or a beer seemed needlessly over-complicated, and it was always a relief to return to the boat where she bobbed quietly on the edge of the swamp at the Botanical Gardens.

We’d been in Brisbane for a week, and we’d seen everybody who wanted to visit us, so it was time to move on. Unfortunately we were almost completely out of both fuel and water, and we hadn’t found anywhere where we could obtain either of those two essentials. Luckily we remembered that we’d seen a fuel bowser downriver at the city limits, so hoping that (a) it was open on Sunday, and (b) that it had drinking water, we hauled up the anchor and set off. We figured that we had enough fuel to make it that far, and if it was closed, then we’d tie up and go to sleep until it opened on Monday.

It was great to be moving again. The sun was shining and we got to see a lot of details that we’d missed on our arrival, when we’d been more concerned about lining up the leading lights in the gathering dusk. The great wool stores from the early 1900s were particularly impressive, enormous blocky brick buildings that seemed to run for miles. Presumably these used to be dockside facilities, but a great many slender modern houses have been squeezed onto what must be a new, reclaimed waterline, each with its own personal dock, although the docks were usually empty.

The fuel dock under the Gateway Bridge not only had water, but also very cheap diesel, which was quite a surprise especially when the attendant confirmed that this was now the only fuel dock left in the Brisbane area. On our travels we’ve come across dockside diesel that is almost twice the price of its roadside equivalent. I began to relax, and spent a happy half hour chatting to the attendant while Bronwyn filled the water tanks.

Fuelled and watered, we let the tide suck us down the shipping channel and out into Moreton Bay. The heat of the sun, the direction of the wind, the depth of the water, the course of the yacht ahead of us; these were important, these were reality. I felt the gritty crowded feel of the city slip away, and danced a little jig at the helm while Bronwyn rustled up some fresh home-made won-ton soup in the galley. When she brought the steaming aromatic bowls up into the cockpit, she remarked that this was the first time that she’d seen me properly smiling all week. I don’t think that she was joking.


We remained anchored in Moreton Bay for a few more days until all the weekend visitors had gone, and then hoisted our sails and headed across to the mouth of the Brisbane River. We had a nice beam reach at a consistent eight knots. Pindimara never used to go this fast. Either the boat’s changed, or we have.

We’d been keeping half an eye on some distant rain clouds which were scudding past out to sea, and about half way across the bay we noticed a twister dropping down from the cloud base. We double-checked and it was definitely passing by outside the bay, but it was quite a fascinating sight. Neither of us had ever seen one before.


We have been following the blogged exploits of another cruiser, Bob on Capricorn, who is also circumnavigating in a Bavaria but quite a few months ahead of us. In fact he had been coming up the NSW coast behind us, and when the waterspout formed, he was unlucky enough to be on the other side of Moreton Island and directly beneath it. His furler jammed and he got very wet, but luckily survived the experience without injury.

We arrived at the main Brisbane shipping channel and dropped sails for the long motor up the river to the city centre. We were sharing the relatively narrow lane with some seriously large commercial shipping, although they were travelling slowly to minimise their bow waves and some had time to wave cheerfully from the flying bridge.

Much of the first part of the Brisbane River is taken up by LPG tanker facilities, and the smell of leaking gas was pretty strong. On the other hand, there was lots to see and the depths and leading lights were uniformly excellent. Several hours later we found ourselves chugging underneath the girders of Story Bridge and into the heart of Brisbane itself.


Many cruising guides mention the cheap pile berths by the Botanical Gardens, but we were aware of a lot of discussion in blogs and fora that suggested that they were permanently clogged with old hulks. We telephoned the Port Authority who run the pile berths, and they were quite definite that not only were the berths only for short term transient cruisers, but that there were currently a number of berths free, and gave us a list of berth numbers.

On our arrival, though, it was quite clear that not only were there no free berths, but that quite a number of boats didn’t look like they had been capable of moving for some years.


We dropped anchor around the bend and found good holding close to some mangroves, and when we later investigated the pile berths on foot, we found a large sign stating that the berths were available for a monthly rate, directly contradicting our Port Authority spokesperson.

It’s all worked out well because we’re very happy with our anchorage, which is only a short row from a Botanical Gardens piling where, with a little acrobatic effort at low tide, we can tie up our dinghy in safety and stroll into town, where we’ve been meeting up with various friends, and have drunk far too much expensive Belgian beer for our budget.


The city’s been a bit of a shock to the system. Each morning the joggers sprint past as fast as they can with a desperate look in their eyes and headphones jacked into their ears. In the streets, everybody is hurrying around without paying any attention to anything. When we sit down in a cafe, waitresses rush up before we have a chance to get comfortable, and we find that we are infringing rules about who can sit where and when. We’re finding it all a bit manic, even Bronwyn who is a self-avowed city kid and was looking forward to some bright lights. It is strange to think that only a few short months ago we were part of this same madding crowd, but already that whole life seems impossibly remote.

Sand surfing on Moreton Island

Anchored just off the ‘Sandhills’ dunes of Moreton Island, we grabbed our boogie boards and decided to try our hand at sand-surfing.


After a great deal of hilarity, Bronwyn reckoned that I finally made the transition from computer geek to surfer boy, and posted this video of my biggest ride:

Digitally signed by the puppeteer:

Running Blind

The official Hydrographic chart of Moreton Bay shows two beaconed channels that lead from the sea and through the shifting sand shoals to the bay itself. The biggest is the North West Channel, which is dredged to at least 15 metres and carries large cargo and cruise liner traffic to Brisbane. This can only be accessed from the far north of the entrance, some five hours away from our current position as we bobbed around in the rain, swell and darkness. Much closer to us was the North East Channel, and connecting us to it were two unmarked but still navigable channels known as the Inner and Outer Freeman. The Inner Freeman was far too shallow and had a notorious bar, but the Outer Freeman seemed to offer us good depths all the way across, apart from a bit at the far end where it dropped to six metres of shifting sands at either of two spurs that lead onto the North East Passage. With our 2 metre keel, this still gave us at least 4 metres of clear water even at the lowest tide.

The downside of this plan, of course, was that it was pitch dark and pouring with rain, and we were tired and had never been here before. On the other hand, our chart was only a month old and we had practised navigating with GPS at close quarters in the Solitary Islands. We really needed to get out of the swell, which was making us sick. We decided to go for it.

Navigating Pindimara by instruments requires co-ordinated teamwork and perfect trust. At the helm, Bronwyn was driving completely blind, focussed on steering a course by compass alone. This is very difficult. Usually you pick a distant object on the required bearing and aim for it, but Moreton Bay at night is a very confusing place. The shoaling area alone covers over a hundred square miles and is criss-crossed with channel markers and scattered with warning beacons both far and near, providing the helm with a shifting landscape of colour with few stable markers. Bronwyn’s only option was to stare eagle-eyed at the red glow of the compass and to try to compensate for drift and windage.

Down below, my whole world consisted of a small blinking cursor that represented our GPS position on the chart, and the shouted depth soundings from the helm. I had to judge from the cursor’s continually updated orientation and position how we were being affected by any currents or rips, and to call up course amendments as required, as well as trying to interpret Bronwyn’s depth soundings in the light of the chart contours in front of me. Every few minutes I would pop my head out of the companionway and take a compass bearing on one of the few static lighthouses as backup; electronics can fail, and charts can be wrong.

At first (after a short break when I had to run up on deck and lose my dinner over the side) it all went well, with the depth soundings corresponding well to the chart. We successfully negotiated a couple of unseen shoals, and were approaching the zone of 6 metre shifting sands. It was time to decide whether to take the relatively wide northerly passage, or the more southerly gutter. The latter was two miles long and only 500 metres wide, but would cut an hour off our journey time. It was already midnight. The currents were manageable. We headed south.

The bottom rose rapidly as the sides of the gutter closed in. Just as we passed the 6 metre contour, Bronwyn called out “four”, which was perfect because the sounder measures depth from the bottom of our 2 metre keel. I breathed a sigh of relief. The gutter was where it was supposed to be.

A following current began to push us along. Bronwyn called out “Three” and then “Two”. I stared at the chart, which showed us perfectly centred in the six-metre gutter. The sand must have shifted. We had a hasty discussion and agreed that if we came too close to bottoming out – or indeed hit – then Bronwyn would turn sharply to port and try to retrace her course, although this was going to be increasingly difficult as the current continued to sweep us along. We knew that on either side of us, invisible in the darkness, were the two large and impenetrable Venus Banks. Presumably either one or both had been leaking or drifting into the gutter. Bronwyn called out “One point eight!”

We were one mile in, with another mile to go. If we made it through, then we would emerge right on top of a flashing red channel marker delineating the edge of the North East Channel. I called up the bearing, and Bronwyn said that she couldn’t see the light. I ran up on deck with a couple of check bearings on surrounding lighthouses, but we seemed to be exactly where we were supposed to be, albeit in scarily shallow water. Perhaps the red beacon was somehow hidden behind a sand bank. Perhaps.

How deep were we now? One point six metres. This wasn’t so good. We were running blind deep in a maze of continually shifting channels, in the pitch dark in the middle of the night; our gutter was steadily disappearing from under us and the channel that we were heading for had gone missing.

I know how scary it is to be driving blind when you know that you’re lost, so summoning my best confident voice I called up course corrections to port and to starboard to see if by some miracle I could find deeper water. Bronwyn, on the other hand, knows how scary it is to be sitting there extemporising when your tools have failed and everything depends on you, so she omitted to mention that we now only had 60 centimetres under the keel. The minutes passed as we quested back and forth, sometimes a bit deeper and sometimes a bit shallower, never quite hitting the bottom but never quite gaining any depth. Then at about 1 am Bronwyn called “Two metres! Three!” and we were through.

There was still no sign of the beacon, even though it was supposed to be only 500 metres away, so I called a course change that would bring us out right on top of it. We arrived, and there was nothing there. Where was the channel?

We put the motor into neutral and drifted under our triple-reefed main in what the chart said was the middle of the North East Channel. There should have been a line of coloured beacons stretching out to the north, but although the far horizon sparkled with other lights, our channel was nowhere to be seen. The Port Authority must have removed the markers without informing the Hydrographic Survey, because our chart had only been updated a month before.


Here and there in the darkness we could make out the riding lights of tinnies and small fishing boats, and occasionally one would shine a torch at us in apparent disbelief. What on earth is that great big yacht doing out here?

We couldn’t drift forever in these conflicting currents, so we went back to our instruments. Luckily the southernmost end of the North Eastern Channel was originally marked not by a navigation marker but by a westerly danger light, which was still in place. This gave us a friendly flashing point to aim for, and within half an hour we had squeezed between the danger marker and Moreton Island and were within clear sight of the main, North Western Channel.

The main channel was packed with seriously large container ships and cruise liners, edging slowly through the darkness and probably terrified of running down a fisherman. We chose to stay well away, and went looking for somewhere to anchor.

The obvious places were along the edge of Moreton Island, but first we needed to pass over a dumping ground for unexploded military ordinance. After that we tried for Sholl Bank at Tangalooma, but the anchor bounced off impenetrable gravel. At least it gave us a chance to drop the mainsail. It was three o’clock in the morning and we were very, very tired.

We pored over the chart, and settled on a remote and fairly sheltered bay about eight miles away. We worked our way through the last of the shoals and into Moreton Bay proper, where we found ourselves bashing into enormous head-on swells. We were so tired now that we were motoring in thirty-minute shifts, grabbing alternate naps in the cockpit in between.

The first tinges of dawn touched the horizon ahead, and I simultaneously spotted the shore-based navigation light at Kounungai which marked our chosen anchorage. This piece of Moreton Island was supposed to be uninhabited, so what were all those extra white lights along the shore?

The dawn light grew stronger and I started to laugh out loud. They were the mast-head anchor lights of other boats! Obviously the holding was good. We dropped the pick in ten metres and, ignoring the bouncing swell, fell into a long, deep and exhausted sleep.

Having a Swell Time

We left the Gold Coast on the dawn tide.

I just love that expression. It sounds like something out of an old pirate movie. In actual fact, with the tide turning at dawn, and wanting to wait for at least the third hour of flood before crossing the bar, what it really meant is that we had a leisurely breakfast, prepared the boat for sea, and were lifting anchor at about ten o’clock. But “leaving on the dawn tide” sounds so much more impressive.

We had no problems going out of the Gold Coast Seaway, apart from… “…are those people in the water?”. A quick check with the binoculars revealed that there were indeed a number of surfers swimming across the bar entrance, in amongst the continual trawler, fishing and yacht traffic. Crazy. But a passing police launch manoeuvred politely around one pair who were doggedly paddling down the main channel, so I suppose that this must be normal Surfers Paradise behaviour.

Despite our careful timing of the tide, there was still a bit of an incoming rip, presumably due to some kind of tidal overrun. Bronwyn kept the power on hard coming out of the bar (no smoke! A change of oil and cleaning the air filter seemed to have fixed that one) while I went down into the saloon to check on the location of the nearby shoaling reefs. Once out on the open sea, Bronwyn kept powering directly into incoming the swell, running up each wave and launching off the top to drop into the face of the next one. Down below, I was trying to stay on the chart table seat while juggling a pile of eIectronics and paperwork, and I had some idea of what it must be like to go over the Niagara Falls in a barrel.

I was feeling a bit battered when I emerged blinking into the sunlight, as we rounded the shoals and set off northward, heading for Moreton Bay and Brisbane. It was a beautiful day and we had a perfect light following wind. We experimented for a bit with flying the jib only, just to see what it was like, but quickly switched to the main and found ourselves running at six to eight knots. The only slight difficulty was a quartering swell which made steering quite an energetic task. When the swell approaches the boat on a diagonal, you have to corkscrew up and down each face as it passes under the boat. Still, we were fresh and rested and I enjoyed the exercise for a while before turning control over to the tireless Harriet.

Being used to the NSW forecasts which only try to predict swell heights to within the nearest metre or so and are often wildly inaccurate (eg “Swell: SE 1 to 2 metres” may well turn out to be more than 3), we were quite amused to see that the Queensland forecast was a bit more precise; apparently we could expect to be sailing in exactly 1.7 metres of swell.


There were very few marine hazards shown on the charts, so we just concentrated on sailing as straight a line as possible. The Eastern Australian Current did have one last go at us around one headland, but after that it seemed to give up. Cashing in on this bonus, we decided to head straight across one large bay instead of hugging the coast, because that would put the swell directly behind us and to tell the truth we were getting a bit tired of the constant pounding. As we got into deeper water, a combination of fair winds and following surf got us up to eight knots, and we had to revise our timetable. We had planned to sail through the night so that we would arrive at Moreton Bay in daylight to negotiate the shoals across the entrance, but it looked like we were going to arrive much earlier, in the middle of the night.

Keeping a lookout, I saw a squall racing towards us and shouted to Bronwyn, who was preparing a meal in the galley. She calmly asked me for a time check for her rice. Exactly seven minutes later we were triple-reefed and back on track, and Bronwyn went back down and took the rice off the stove just as the squall hit us with 35 knots and a flurry of rain. As soon as it had passed, dinner was served.


The rain and the swell kept on harrying us but Pindimara was flying, and by late evening we were approaching the notorious Moreton Bay shoals in pitch darkness and zero visibility. One option would be to stand out to sea and wait for dawn, but we were feeling battered and bruised and just wanted to get out of the swell, so we hove to and got out the charts.