When the wind settles, dive in
Calm autumn conditions provide the backdrop for lazy days on the water, writes David Lockwood.
Huey provided inspiration for last week's boating column. We were pinned down in The Basin for more than a week, amid an extreme weather event, with two equally extreme kids climbing the cabin walls, more handprints than a crime scene, a wallet of scratchy DVDs and a quickly vanishing larder.
But the experience made us realise things aren't that bad in Sydney in a storm. And, as is wont to happen, the weather changes fast.
Imagine, then, the joy when the sun does shine. Inspired by nature's alter ego, we're back aboard to even the score. We've reprovisioned the boat at the Royal Motor Yacht Club, Broken Bay, the home-cooked meals are piled high, the kids have upgraded their toys and libraries and, with the promise of perfectly flat weather, we're casting the lines for our "final" family fling before the children go back to school.
Fittingly, here are our top 10 places to train the bow when the weather is just heavenly. Enjoy an ocean passage, explore an offshore island, comb your own magic beach, wet a line and dive in. Make the most of the zenithal forces of nature. Carpe diem.
For as sure as night follows day, the wind and waves will return in winter.
Rite of passage
This is the season for passage making. Chamois the dew from the windows, weigh anchor and ride the light, morning westerly winds northward. Or set off at noon when the weak sea breeze fills in. Either way, calm autumn days tend to favour motoring more than sailing. Once clear of the Heads, set your course with the chart plotter and autopilot, travelling hands-free while reeling in the sea miles and avoiding obstacles in your path. Keep an eye out for fish-trap floats, fishing craft, the fleet of ships on the anchor off Newcastle and, before long, whales. Within four hours in a fast motor cruiser, following a daybreak departure, you will be tying up for brunch in Port Stephens without the holiday crowds.
When calm seas prevail, offshore islands beckon. In NSW, none comes close to Broughton Island, eight nautical miles north-east of Port Stephens. Esmeralda Cove has fisherman's shacks and camping by arrangement, Coal Shaft Bay faces due south but it's a good hold over sand, while North Beach is the pick providing northerlies aren't forecast. Clear water, abundant fish and squid, unspoilt beaches and heathland walks add to the splendour. The sunsets back over the mainland and Myall Lakes National Park are spectacular. And there's not a house to be seen.
A warning: you can easily pull anchor over the hard shale or clay bottom. But when the wind is weak, you'll hold fast with plenty of chain out (the public mooring buoy is a clanger). Typically, we fish our way up from Broken Bay, drop in, feed fish frames to the pet stingrays, snorkel, paddle ashore, collect hermit crabs, do fish and chips, while making a tank of nice clean water with the desalinator. Not somewhere you want to sleep, but the Haven is good for a day trip and lunch in the right weather. It faces north.
What's left of the namesake iron steamer that foundered here stands as a reminder that this can be a treacherous anchorage. The bay once known as Boat Harbour cops the full brunt of a southerly buster and swell from the south. But when the Pacific is true to its name, the beautiful beach and its surrounds come into their own.
It's not often you can stay overnight with confidence at this oceanic anchorage in Broken Bay, but such was the weather that a few footloose cruising boaters including yours truly pulled it off last weekend. Of course, Pearl has a great general store, coffee shop and a fine-dining establishment. There's a small lagoon for the kiddies to splash in, a popular playground and the arboretum up the road. The walk or jog to the far end of the beach and back is more rousing, while the water is among the cleanest on the central coast. An all-round fantastic family day-boating hang-out when calm.
When Mother Nature is agreeable you can access all kinds of reefs that otherwise require a big swim, a wide berth and no visit at all. Anchor a safe distance off the south-western end off Newport Reef, don the mask, snorkel and speargun and work the washes to pluck a feed. Sydney's more adept spearfishers extract big kingfish and snapper from around the reef. Eastern rock lobsters are another reward.
Cabbage Tree Bay
Local activists don't like boat visitations here but the oceanic anchorage at the southern end of Manly Beach is certainly delightful mid-week on a warm autumn day. Make sure the swell isn't running at Fairy Bower and enjoy the sun beating down as you loll about on the anchor set in the sand patches between the reef. Lunch aboard, take the paddleboard to shore and enjoy the dive among the marine life. A great introductory ocean anchorage close to Sydney Heads.
Jibbon, Wattamolla and more
At the entrance to Port Hacking, Jibbon Beach is protected from all but the biggest north-east swells and wind. Thus, autumn's light winds are perfect for pulling up one of the courtesy moorings just a relaxed breaststroke from shore. Around the corner, Jibbon bombora is a great fishing and dive spot when seas allow. Ditto Osborne Shoals, Merries Reef and, for trailerboaters, Boat Harbour.
But in the right conditions, the natural amphitheatre at Wattamolla leaves them for dead. The Royal Motor Yacht Club in Port Hacking stages a cruise in company when the westerlies are blowing. It reckons there's room for 20 yachts to anchor.
It's almost leaving things a bit late, but the NSW south coast comes into its own in autumn. Cruise to Jibbon for the night to get your sea legs, then head to Jervis Bay in just three hours on a fast cruiser at low 20 knots. When it's time to return, cruising sailors can hook into a signature late-autumn south-westerly and reach home with wet sails.
Low swell, light winds, warm water - all the ingredients for heading out in search of fish. Troll or plumb the depths for some tasty reef fish. Start in the 40-metre to 50-metre depths around those areas on your chart with letter "g" denoting gravel. The 120-metre depth also offers great bottom fishing in autumn. But Browns Mountain, about 24 nautical miles east of Maroubra, is the bomb. Pull blue eye and gemfish from the bottom 220 metres below or troll the same area for yellowfin tuna and albacore. Now's the time to cast the lines.