Unexpected challenges pushed Saskia Stainer-Hutchins and husband to their limit while bluewater cruising in the capricious waters of the Australian east coast

When we tell people we’re bluewater cruising around the world, the first question is almost always the same: ‘What about storms?’

I’m hesitant to reinforce a Hollywood dramatised view of life at sea so keep a practised response to hand: ‘We plan ahead and use lots of forecasting tools to avoid bad weather, so see it rarely.’

But my answer to where we have experienced the most challenging weather – so far – may surprise you: Australia.

Saskia and Ross bracing themselves onboard. Spray is flying about.

Strong winds and driving rain were no fun north of Cairns. Photo: Saksia Stainer-Hutchins & Ross Rodrigues

I should caveat this with an observation: everyone sails their own course. Having met many cruisers in over two years as a liveaboard, I’ve realised that no experience is universal.

Sailing contains so many variables that every passage is different. I should stress that Australia was one of our favourite overall cruising destinations. Did it push us to our limit?

Absolutely. Would I encourage you to go? I would say that it cannot be missed.

Bluewater cruising around Australia

Firstly, Australia is massive. The Australian coastline is over 16,000 miles. You want to sail all of it? It would take years.

More than 85% of Australians live on the coast; it’s integral to their way of life. Australia is also a nation of sailors. There are modern marinas in nearly every town and every boat service you can imagine is easily accessible.

For us, this was a key draw; it was an important stop off on our bluewater cruising world trip to conduct some much-needed maintenance and repairs.

After almost a year sailing our Lagoon 46 Acushnet in the South Pacific, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to breathing a sigh of relief to be back in the modern world.

Luxuries like direct delivery, Uber and, best of all, crisp salad, made travel more enjoyable by relieving some of the stresses of bluewater cruising life and left us with more time for exploring.

Aerial shot of a sand bank with rivers running through it, mountains in the background, and blue sky.

Photo: Saksia Stainer-Hutchins & Ross Rodrigues

We sailed into Australia from New Caledonia at the start of the cyclone season in November 2022, and spent three months in a yard just south of Brisbane.

By February, we were itching to head back out to sea and explore but were hampered by our insurance which would not allow us to go higher than 27° south before the cyclone season broke in April.

As a result, we turned south, keen to view iconic Sydney Harbour from the bow of our own boat.

For anyone who’s had even a passing interest in the Rolex Sydney Hobart Race it’ll come as no surprise to learn that Australian weather can be unpredictable at best.

These challenging conditions are largely thanks to the currents of the Pacific and Southern Oceans, each of which have varying temperatures.

Where the waters meet, in the Tasman Sea, the waves swell, and storms develop quickly. As a result, these waters can be extremely rough and unpredictable.

This was our first lesson on leaving port. Despite a clean bill of health from a weather router, and every PredictWind model available, we hit bad weather mere minutes after pulling out to sea.

The worst lightning storm of our lives enveloped us instantly, with the closest strike around 60m from the boat – I saw it touch water.

Day two of our three-day bluewater cruising passage was spent ploughing into giant waves, churned up as wind opposed the famous East Australian Current.

The whole journey ended with an impressive finale; a sustained 45-knot storm, gusting over 50, that lasted six hours.

A lady wears a brown hat with a wide brim. She's holding a chunky camera and wears her curly hair down. There are sand dunes behind her.

Photo: Saksia Stainer-Hutchins & Ross Rodrigues

Our top boat speed, in our 22-ton catamaran, was 18 knots. Mercifully, the boat handled it all beautifully and nothing was damaged.

Once the weather had passed, we sailed into Sydney at 0400, and there was something eerily beautiful about slipping into such a busy port in its quietest hour after such a tempest. It felt like we were the only ones to see the city wake that morning.

Anchoring with big city life

I’d called no fewer than 68 marinas in Sydney and its surrounding area to try and secure a berth or a mooring ball, and eventually came up trumps with a sub-let slip (from a megayacht, no less) that overlooked Sydney Harbour Bridge.

We toasted our safe arrival with champagne bought at the fancy restaurant next door.

Looking back at the boat from the front. It has wrap-around windows and someone is steering it. The Sydney Harbour Bridge is behind.

Sailing under Sydney Harbour Bridge and past the Opera House. Photo: Saksia Stainer-Hutchins & Ross Rodrigues

We enjoyed the perks of big city life, from our own floating home, for a week. Australians are thalassophiles, so it was oddly comforting to find ourselves in a city of like-minded people.

It’s a place where the working day starts with a quick surf and childcare is often the local ocean swimmers club.

A real highlight was walking the Coogee to Bondi cliff path, which finished with a dip at the famous Bondi Icebergs saltwater pool, fed by waves that crash over its edges. It made for a deliciously cold dip after a long and sweaty walk.

We left Sydney in the middle of the day and finally got our ‘pinch me’ moment as we steered Acushnet under the Harbour Bridge and out past the Opera House.

It’s hard to describe the feeling of accomplishment we experienced in that moment. Back in Florida, Sydney felt impossibly far away and sailing there a pipe dream of epic proportions.

I can still hardly believe that we did it.

Sunset photo with five yachts sailing in a line. Sydney skyscrapers are behind.

Sailing under Sydney Harbour Bridge and past the Opera House. Photo: Saksia Stainer-Hutchins & Ross Rodrigues

Our next port of call was Pittwater, perhaps the most picturesque bluewater cruising destination in New South Wales. Only 20 miles or so north of Sydney, it’s a popular choice for the city’s sailors.

The area boasts several large yacht clubs and marinas, so this was where we planned to leave the boat while we also fitted in some land-based travel.

The bluewater cruising area was exceptional. One highlight was sailing into Refuge Bay, a beautiful anchorage topped with a gentle waterfall.

The 100 or so mooring balls were an indication that at weekends this spot would be packed, but midweek we had it all to ourselves.

We thrashed our way through undergrowth and climbed a vertical cliff, to be rewarded by a series of natural pools where we could bathe overlooking the anchorage. The area is part of a national park, and we also passed Aboriginal rock art.

Rectangular outside swimming pool next to the waves. The sun is shining and many people are swimming and lounging.

Bondi Icebergs Swimming Club, Sydney. Photo: Saksia Stainer-Hutchins & Ross Rodrigues

Quick-stop cruising

After crossing the South Pacific, it seemed to us an audacious luxury to be able to day-sail our way across Australia. We cruised over 2,000 miles up the coast from Sydney to the Torres Strait but made only a few overnight passages.

Along the way we discovered endless quirky towns and unique anchorages.

We found an island where a couple lived off grid, sharing their wild honey with passing sailors in exchange for any odds and ends they needed.

We spent three nights inside Fairfax atoll, which was completely covered at high tide, and with no wind felt like we were anchored in the middle of a flat ocean, totally alone.

We swam with minke whales while scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef.

We chased dingoes from a 4×4 on K’gari Island, snorkelled with more fish than I have ever seen in my life at Tangalooma wrecks, and rode jet skis up the swampy river of Cairns, spotting massive man-eating saltwater crocodiles along the way.

Aerial shot of the two-sail yacht in deep blue sea.

With careful weather routing Stainer-Hutchins and Acushnet are able to avoid most storms. Photo: Saksia Stainer-Hutchins & Ross Rodrigues

The sailing conditions were usually an extremely pleasant 15-20 knots on the beam or behind, giving us the chance to experiment with our methods.

On a typical day we’d play around with our light wind sails (a Code 0 and a Wingaker parasail), hoisting one after the other as conditions changed.

Knowing we didn’t have to race to port allowed us to simply saunter along with the sails up and no engine, even if we only made 3 knots.

Around Southern Queensland we found that the shifting sands made the Navionics maps unreliable, and nearly ran aground twice. These same conditions created some dangerous sandbars at the entrances to otherwise safe harbours.

On one memorable occasion, a volunteer in a lighthouse coached us on VHF into Mooloolaba Marina where surfers were riding breaking waves crossing the entrance channel.

The tactic was to count the sets and then gun it in. This part of Australia also had fairly high tidal range; the largest we saw just over 7m. This made dinghying to shore difficult at times and so tide tables often governed the rhythm of our days.

Whitsunday waters

After a month or more of bluewater cruising from Sydney, we finally made it to Australia’s most famous cruising ground, the Whitsunday Islands. Once there, it’s easy to see why it’s so popular.

There are 74 islands, and this densely packed archipelago lies between the north-east coast of Queensland and the Great Barrier Reef. Most islands are uninhabited, and characterised by dense rainforest and white sand beaches.

We have scuba gear on our boat and spent many happy hours simply jumping off the stern to explore the thriving ecosystem below.

Aerial shot of clear water with a curved line of rusty shipwrecks.

Wrecks at Tangalooma, scuttled in the 1960s and 70s to provide a breakwater, teem with marine life. Photo: Saksia Stainer-Hutchins & Ross Rodrigues

One day we dropped anchor behind the famous ‘hill inlet’, at the northern end of Whitehaven Beach.

The sheer number of tourist boats in Tongue Bay when we arrived was dream-crushing, but long before sunset each one departed, leaving us alone.

We seized the opportunity to take the hike up to the viewpoint and had the breathtaking sweep of landscape all to ourselves. As the crowds had gone, we even got to see the notoriously shy Proserpine rock-wallabies playing on the path.

Beyond the Whitsundays our next port of call was Cairns.

Here we had to make up some time by doing this as a three-day passage, skipping some favourites (such as Magnetic Island) on the way, as we were racing for a flight I needed to take to sort out my US visa.

In contrast to our earlier lazy island-hopping pace, with zero knots of true wind we found ourselves motoring the entire way: sailing on a schedule is not fun.

View from some craggy cliffs. There are a few tall trees in front of blue seas. A yacht is bobbing in the distance and the sun is shining.

The Whitsundays are arguably Australia’s most famous cruising grounds, with crystal clear water, densely packed islands and stunning wildlife. Photo: Saksia Stainer-Hutchins & Ross Rodrigues

Cairns, a city of only 150,000 people, was going to be our last major population centre until Singapore six months later.

Beyond here the Australian towns get smaller and finally peter out around Cooktown, 200 miles north, where the road stops. We used our time in Cairns to provision heavily, stuffing six months’ worth of oat milk in the hold.

It was also a last chance to lean on the services of trained boat professionals, with much of our time spent installing a brand-new set of high-performance sails. This, it turns out, was not a good idea.

Averting disaster

After Cairns we threaded our way up the coast, stopping at Port Douglas to see the Daintree rainforest, and some smaller coves to ease the run north.

We made it to Cooktown, a small frontier town in far north Queensland, in early July, and spent a memorable night in the local RSL club – which was certainly the liveliest spot in town (population: under 3,000).

After that, civilization stops. As we pulled out to sail the remaining 350 miles up the deserted coast of Far North Queensland, it felt like we were falling off the edge of the world.

This stretch of coastline is notorious for strong wind at that time of year, so we planned to only stop a few times on our ride up to Cape York, the tip of Australia, to make the most of a reasonable weather window.

For the first four days we made excellent time, bluewater cruising downwind in 25-35 knots.

But once when we were truly miles from any help, disaster struck. At about 0300, the shackle on our new jib failed.

As winds had been blowing for 25+ knots for over a week, the waves were massive.

It took nearly an hour in driving wind, rain, and darkness for the two of us to get the sail under control, by which time the clew board had shredded that corner of the sail as it thrashed around.

To make matters worse, we were in a narrow shipping lane with reefs on both sides and cargo ships passing.

Aerial shot of the yacht in between two sandbanks on a green-water river.

‘Tide tables often governed the rhythm of our days’. Photo: Saksia Stainer-Hutchins & Ross Rodrigues

As dawn started to leak across the moody horizon we scanned the charts, looking for a safe anchorage to pull in.

As luck would have it, there was a creek (croc-infested, of course) less than 50 miles further up the coast and we made our way in just before sunset.

Completely on our own, we spent the next three days repairing the sail before we were able to hoist again and tentatively poke Acushnet’s nose back out to sea.

The wind, utterly disinterested in any nerves we felt after our misadventure, continued to blow at a steady 28 knots.

It wasn’t until we finally turned around the lee of Cape York, two days later, that I could relax. I slept for 14 hours that night.

When people ask me about storms, I think they largely imagine the boat somewhere in the middle of the sea.

Having ridden out heavy weather on both the coast and the open ocean, where you are does not matter – at least, not with regards to the level of fear you feel in that moment.

The friendly lights of Sydney did not comfort me when we rode a storm exiting her harbour.

In far North Queensland, the proximity of the reef made our experience extra dangerous; if we’d lost control of the boat we could easily have been wrecked on rocks.

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To Torres and beyond

The second stage of our Australian adventure was a lesson in self-sufficiency.

During most of our trip we were within easy hailing distance of professional help should anything go wrong, and for months we’d made the most of this fact. But world cruising is mostly not like that.

Our own hands and a little YouTube research are all we have in most fix-it situations. Australia can truly deliver the full gamut of that bluewater cruising experience, offering both modern cities and remote wilderness all in one (very large) country.

Saskia sewing some fabrin in the cabin. She is wearing a t-shirt and her hair in a bun.

Fixing the jib after it blew out in far north Queensland, miles away from civilization. Photo: Saksia Stainer-Hutchins & Ross Rodrigues

Our last stop, before our jump to Indonesia, was the Torres Strait islands, half a day’s sail from the Cape.

This archipelago of over 270 islands dotted between northern Australia and Papua New Guinea bore a strong resemblance to the communities we met in the South Pacific, and I had to constantly remind myself that we were still in Australia.

The waters were a picture-perfect cyan blue and deceivingly inviting. However, given the numbers of crocodiles, locals advised that we should not even risk getting into the dinghy tender at dusk.

It was the season to cross to Indonesia and we were welcomed into Thursday Island by a large group of world cruisers. We’d not seen much of this community in Australia as many yachts circumnavigating had instead pulled down to New Zealand for the cyclone season.

But I wouldn’t have missed our Australian adventure. After 20,000 miles (and counting), it remains one of my favourite bluwater cruising grounds.

It was a delicious mix of modern convenience and truly isolated last-frontier-esque adventure. The wildlife was unique. The landscapes were breathtaking. And the sailing… well, the sailing was undeniably challenging.

But for us, this round the world voyage is about seeking the path less travelled and taking on challenges that will test us. Those are the experiences that will move us and the lessons that will shape us. Australia made us better sailors, and I cannot ask for a greater gift than that.

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