Hervey Bay, Great Sandy Strait and the Mad Mile

Category: Ships Log
  GreatSandy 01 150x  

November 20th - November 23rd

Great sailing, shallow spots, strong tidal currents, great beaches at Fraser Island, crossing the Sandy Bar, Moolooloba, and the Brisbane river


The wind and waves were against us again when we left our anchorage across from the Bundaberg Port Marina in the Burnett river and made our way through the 4 mile long channel. This time, however, our engine was running which made the trip so much easier. And since we knew that it was deep enough outside the channel we took a right turn and cut off the last two channel markers. This way we could switch from beating into the waves under engine to sailing on a beam reach. And what great sail it was. Mostly sunny, about 15kts on the beam and little to no swell on our way south. We were sailing through Hervey Bay between Fraser island and the mainland and were closing in on the Great Sandy Strait. The Sandy Strait is a shallow area with lots of anchorages and countless ever-shifting sandbars. The most important thing to avoid hitting the bottom and to allow for a fast passage is to watch the tides. We timed it right and entered the Strait with the rising tide and saw our speed increase to about 7 kts, despite the winds calming down. Wouldn't it be great if we could always travel with 6 to 7 kts instead of 4 to 5 kts! Anyway we had to keep a good watch because some of the red and green makers on the charts turned out to be imaginary, and other real markers were not on the chart at all. Due to our increased speed we reached our anchorage behind Woody Island (also known as Tooliewah) around 5pm. This gave Alena enough time to make a potato soup and fried fish and me to plot the course for the next day through the really shallow areas of the Strait. We hit the hay early and set the alarm for 04:55 the next morning.

GreatSandy 02b GP under Sail2
Green Panther sailing through Hervey Bay. Image by Bele on s/v Pandana.

GreatSandy 03b WoodyIslandSunrise
Anchored at Woody island in the Great Sandy Strait

The alarm was brutal, but only the early sailor catches the tide. We were finished with breakfast and had the anchor hoisted with our manual windlass by 05:45, and were motoring back into the main channel shortly after. The incoming tide was on our side again and we sped up to over 6 kts. We also knew soon that we had done something right since two other sailboats joined us on our ride south. One of them was Pandana with Belle and Derek (Austria/Australia) on board. We met them in Bundaberg and they gave us some tips for the Strait and took some great shots of Green Panther when sailing south in Hervey Bay. The marked channels were narrower now and the depth decreased to 12ft (4m) while the tide was still pushing us with over 6 kts. Red marker to the left, green marker to the right, we were speeding through the channel like a downhill racer. And a downhill race it was. The Sandy Strait is open to the ocean on both sides and we just passed the midway point so now the outgoing tide was sucking us towards the southern exit. Exactly where we wanted to go. A little bit below Dream island was where the nightmare almost happened. We were a bit off the mark and the depth decreased to under 10 ft (3.3m) but luckily bottomed out at 9ft (3m) and so we still had over 3ft (1m) under our keel. We didn't know it then but this was the shallowest part we would see while transiting the Sandy Strait. Plus, it was still close to high tide; at low tide the water drops about 9ft (3m) which means no water at all in some places (a much larger tidal shift here than we see along the US west coast!). Anyway we made it safe to the Coolooloi Creek anchorage before noon which gave us enough time for a good lunch of nachos and a shore excursion in Lil' Panther. The vegetation of Fraser Island presented itself as an interesting mix between eucalyptus and palm trees stuffed with lots of insects. We didn't see anything harmful but there was a sign warning of dingos.


GreatSandy 04 FraiserIsland Beach
The anchorage at Coolooloi Creek features a great beach at low tide.


GreatSandy 05 FraiserIsland Crabs
Hordes of ghost crabs inhabit the beach and bury themselves into the sand if they "smell" danger.


GreatSandy 06b FraiserIsland Ecalyptus Palms2
The vegetation on Fraser island is a mixture of eucalyptus and palm trees.

After dinner I plotted a route across the treacherous Wide Bay Bar, a large shallow area with breaking waves, which we have to cross to get back into the open ocean. The last part of this bar crossing is known as the Mad Mile since it's about one nautical mile long and seas are breaking right and left. Well, if you are on the correct course that is. Otherwise they break right where you are and several vessels have come to grief on the Mad Mile. We had some older waypoints and just before sunset Belle and Derek stopped by with some updated ones from the coast guard. However a catamaran which had crossed the bar earlier that day told them the waypoints weren't so great because at some point they only had 2.5 m of water depth shortly after high tide. The final advice was, don't go where the waves break. Well, so we decided to plot a course between the old and new waypoints and have a good lookout for breaking waves which mark the super shallow spots at the bar. Also there should be several boats crossing the bar so we can go with the group and should be fine.

Next morning we got up early and left for the bar at 06:30am. However we were the only boat going for it. Pandana decided to stay another day, and the other boats in the anchorage went for a different destination or stayed put. So there we went, making our way close to Fraser island where the still incoming tidal current wasn't as strong. The first part of the bar crossing was easy since the channel between the breaking waves on both sides was wide and deep. At this point we also saw a large catamaran appear behind us and heard some VHF radio traffic about a power boat, the "Blue Monkey" heading for the bar. This reassured us that the conditions for crossing the bar were as good as we thought. After an hour we closed in on the point where you are supposed to turn further south and go over the shallow area called the "Mad Mile." First we aimed for a course close to our old waypoints but Alena quickly pointed out the breaking waves directly on our right (towards the south) thus we waited a few minutes longer before we turned Green Panther's bow further south. The tide had shifted by now and we had a fast ride over shallow water. Keeping the breaking waves to our right we went over a few shallow spots with over 5 kts. The scariest moment was when we went down into a wave trough and had only 8.5 ft (xxm) water depth, which translates to less than 3ft (1m) of water between Green Panther's keel and the sand bar. However we corrected our course to go a bit more east and it indeed got a bit deeper. Finally the water color changed from a light brown to a dark blue and we had made it across the bar and crossed the "Mad Mile."

GreatSandy 07b SandyBar MadMile breaking waves2
The breaking waves (red arrows) mark the shallow spots on the Sandy Bar .

The rest of the day was great sailing with the wind, the waves and the current pushing us at eventually over 6 kts towards our destination of the resort town of Moolooloba (You gotta love the Australian names :-) ). The wind, however, picked up to about 20 kts with gusts over 25 kts in the late afternoon and when we approached the two jetties protecting the channel into the Moolooloba harbor the waves were about 6ft (2m). The problem was the waves were running at a 90 degree angle to the channel, the entrance was narrow, and if you miss it you end up on the beach. So we decided to come in close to the north jetty and then make a sharp left turn .With the engine running and the sails up we went for it. We approached the north jetty and started our turn into the channel when a wave picked us up and pushed us a bit too close for comfort to the jetty. We corrected course and then the next wave pushed us right into the middle of the channel. We sped up before another wave could move us towards the south jetty and made it into the calm water. The scene in here was of course so much different than in the wild seas outside. All sizes of boats including sailing, power, and fishing boats were tied up or moored in peaceful calm water. Except for the occasional strong wind gusts you wouldn't know what was going on out there. We made our way through the labyrinth of waterways lined by luxury waterfront houses and super yachts towards an area marked as an anchorage on our charts. Our first attempt to anchor ended with Green Panther getting stuck in the mud. The fact that all boats anchored there were catamarans, trimarans or smaller sailboats (all which have a low draft), should have been a warning. We gunned the engine in reverse and slowly freed ourselves from the mud. Seeking a spot between two larger sailboats we had a calm night anchored over 10ft of mud. Well, a crow landed on our wind indicator on the mast top and was hoping to stay there for the night, but I could convince it to do otherwise. We lost our bird proof spike on top of the wind indicator as soon as we arrived in Australia. The conversation went most likely like this:
Bird 1: Good day mate, how are ya doing?
Bird 2: Oh, I am just relaxing after the lovely fishing this morning.
Bird 1: Did you see the new arrival?
Bird 2: Oh ya mate, the boat from Austria. Nice wind indicator they have (bird giggles).
Bird 1: Yeah mate, and did you see the bird proof spike, wohahahahahaha (both birds burst out laughing hard)
Bird 2 (catches its breath): How do you wanna do it? A slow bend and break or a fast attack and crack?
Bird 1: Let's go for a fast one! (Both birds fly off and the noise of cracking plastic can be heard soon after)


GreatSandy 09b 2birdsZoom Mexico
This image, taken at an earlier time point on our voyage, shows how the birds might have done it.

GreatSandy 08 Moololoba Anchorage
Our anchorage in Moolooloba

GreatSandy 09 Moololoba Australia Walking Dog
Walking the dog along the waterfront homes in Moolooloba.


Next morning, guess what, yes we forced ourselves to get up early again and dragged our worn out bodies on deck to lift the anchor and set sail. This time the sea was much calmer when we left the jetty and rounded the Moolooloba head before we set a course straight south towards Brisbane. The town of Brisbane lies on the Brisbane river which flows into Moreton Bay, which is a large area with shallows and sandbars. These shallows seem to be a recurring theme around here. We followed the long main shipping channel towards the mouth of the river and took shortcuts whenever the charts suggested it was deep enough to do so. We had a good run until the tides changed. The now outgoing ebb tide slowed us down to below 3 kts and the charts noted a maximum tidal stream of 4 kts which would mean we would barely move at all. The solution was another shortcut over shallow water which kept us away from the deep shipping channel with the strong current. We made it over the shallows alright and hit the river mouth at the low slack tide. The wind had picked up to 15 to 20 kts again and pushed us right into the channel leading to the river. We kept a close lookout for large cargo vessels but luckily the only one was far behind us so we had the channel for ourselves, surfing down the waves. In the river, we first traveled through an industrial area and decided to skip our intended anchorage since it was exposed to the NE winds and surrounded by large, ugly factories. Continuing up the river we finally found some boats anchored just past the Rivergate Bridge so we sneaked in among them and dropped anchor.


GreatSandy 10 Entering Brisbane River Australia Cruising Sailboat
Winds up to 20kts are pushing us into the Brisbane river - with Alena at the helm.


GreatSandy 11 Brisbane Rivergate Bridge night Australia Cruising Sailboat
Anchored just upstream of the Rivergate Marina and the Gateway Bridge at night.


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