A leisurely cruise in Sydney Harbour

In all these years of cruising up and down the East Coast of Australia, visiting the Sydney Harbour was always reserved for special occasions: watching the start of the Sydney-Hobart race on Boxing Day, fireworks on NYE or the occasional trip to a shipyard that would fit in our larger vessels. We never really spent time exploring the harbour, largely because we always seemed to be on a schedule to meet people or our boats would be too large to anchor beyond the main harbour.

Our latest boat is a small Sport Motor Cruiser, the ideal size to quickly zoom up and down the coast, fit under bridges and into narrow inlets. For once we have the means to explore the nooks and crannies of the harbour but it has taken us months to find the time and most importantly, the weather window to do it.

The opportunity came earlier this summer. With a promise of a few days of windless and sunny days, we packed up on a whim and set off for a leisurely cruise in the Sydney Harbour. It was a bit of an impromptu decision, so much so that while I quickly rounded up enough food and wine for 3 days, Mr T forgot to load any beer on board. Needless to say it was going to be a challenge.
To add interest, we decided to stay away from marinas and while we are not afraid to drop anchor, we also wanted to take advantage of public moorings, thus enjoying a free mooring crawl of the best anchorages in the Harbour. That was the plan, anyway.

How did we fare? Read on to find out.

But first let’s get our names right. technically, we are cruising the waters of Port Jackson, which according to the Geographical Names Board of New South Wales, is “a harbour which comprises all the waters within an imaginary line joining North Head and South Head. Within this harbour lies North Harbour, Middle Harbour and Sydney Harbour.”

There are 52 courtesy or public moorings in Port Jackson, provided by Road and Maritime Services (RMS) NSW. Marked by a pink buoy, they allow a vessel up to 20 meters long and 20 tonnes to tie up for 24 hours. It sounds like a lot of moorings, and it is, however they are spread over an area of 55 square kilometers, stretching inland 21 km from the Heads to Ryde bridge ( from which point it becomes the Parramatta River). With a shoreline extending over 250 kms in length and made up of hundreds of bays and inlets, many including beaches, scoring a courtesy mooring is a bit of a sport. Most are in the most scenic and popular areas, thus often taken, while a few are located in pretty remote and average settings, only useful as a short break.

Day 1:

We start out early, leaving Cronulla at 7am to ensure we are inside Sydney Heads by 10am. Being the first Sunday of 2021 and in the thick of the summer holidays, the Harbour is teeming with activity: dozens of sailboats, cruisers and ferries criss cross the waterways, making for a busy and sometimes very rolly ride.

Deciding to head for smooth waters, we cruise to Bantry Bay in the northernmost reaches of Middle Harbour. A skinny strip of water, this deepwater bay is surrounded by the Garigal National Park and used to be an explosive storage site for the Australian Defence Force. Some of the old abandoned magazines remain on the western side, which access is prohibited, while the eastern shore managed by NPWS features a small landing wharf, a hiking trail and limited picnic facilities. Bantry Bay is said to be the last undeveloped deepwater bay in the Sydney region, probably due to difficult access and its isolation.

Bantry Bay

That feeling of seclusion is what makes it one of my favourite places and when I spot 2 courtesy moorings, I am very tempted to grab one for the day but it is too early to stop and we continue on until we reach shallow waters past the Roseville Bridge. We turn back and by now, the shores are filling up with picnic goers, trailer boats are queuing to splash at the Davidson Park boat ramp and at 11.45am there are no moorings left in Bantry Bay.


Mr T is not worried, he wants to spend the day cruising around anyway and is sure there will be plenty of moorings available later. I wish I’d share his confidence, as we explore every single bay in Middle Harbour, finding them fairly crowded with a distinct lack of room to anchor or tie up to. The whole place seems to be taken over by private and commercial moorings. At some point, in need of a quick break, we come close to using an emergency blue mooring but we push on, still searching for a free pink buoy, by now as elusive as the dream of home ownership in Sydney!

Castle Rock beach is a popular spot on this warm Sunday

In the end, we anchor in the shallow waters off Castle Rock beach, at the entrance of Middle Harbour. While it is a a great spot for people watching, it is awfully crowded with vessels rafted up for the day. The incessant traffic from dinghies and gin palaces racing at 20 knots in a 8 knots zone makes the anchorage very noisy and rolly. To the point where we end up pulling anchor late afternoon and try our luck again in Bantry Bay and neighbouring Sugarloaf Bay, but nada. We consider anchoring upriver but it is so muddy that mud floats to the top, and we’d much prefer to anchor in clean sand. So, we end up back at Castle Rock beach and find a great spot close to shore this time. It is 7pm by now, most boats have left to go home and we have the place nearly to ourselves. Time for sundowners looking over some of the most expensive real estate in Balmoral and Mosman, followed by a peaceful BBQ dinner once the traffic stops in the evening.

Overlooking Mosman and Balmoral
The ice cream boat comes for a sunset treat
Balmoral beach pavilion
Castle Rock beach on a Monday morning. So peaceful!

Castle Rock beach turns out to be a terrific overnight anchorage, not only is it protected from all weather except southerly winds ( non existent at the time of our visit ) but it is also out of the way from the ferry lines and only accessible by foot or boat. That means a reasonably quiet beach and smooth waters, from sunset till about 10am the next day, when traffic resumes and a few boats start to come in.

Day 2:

It is a glorious Monday morning, everyone seems to be back at work and we are very tempted to hang around but we want to explore the harbour and see how far west up the rivers we can go. We cruise past the bays off the Lower North Shore, ( Obelisk beach, Chowder Bay, Clifton Gardens, Taylors Bay ), and enter the harbour, obsessed with checking out every public moorings.


We start with a recon of Athol Bay, where all 5 buoys are already taken at 10.45am. Further on past the grinning mouth at the entrance of Luna Park and the bridge, we find a free buoy in Berry Bay, around Mac Mahon point and stop for a morning coffee and snacks. It is a lovely spot overlooking the CBD, the rows of wharves around Walsh Bay and Pyrmont, and Barangaroo precinct. I earmark it as a potential overnight mooring if only to enjoy the city lights.

An eerily quiet Opera House in these Covid days
Pre Covid, there would have been a massive cruise ship tied to the dock
Luna Park and its ferry wharf
View from the Berry Bay mooring, looking south to the city

As you cruise westward, past Balmain and Cockatoo island, that arm of the Sydney harbour splits between Lane Cove and Parramatta rivers. We decide to follow the Lane Cove river, where neither of us have ever been. What a surprise gem! Greenwich and Woolwich are lined with stunning waterfront properties. As you move further onto the leafy suburb of Hunters Hill, there is no mistaking the old school vibes with large houses set in landscaped gardens, boatshed-dotted foreshore, parkland and exclusive boarding schools ( one even has its own ferry wharf ).

We push past the Fig Tree bridge and Linley Point, until we are surrounded by mangroves and shallow waters, hints to turn around and cruise back down and try the “other arm”, the Parramatta river.

Woolwich dock
Abbotsford Cove Foreshore park and the house built in 1890

Like the Lane Cove river, there are no ocean going vessels to avoid or choppy waves to cut through. Just a lot of pretty waterside suburbs that we didn’t know existed. Low rise apartments blocks mix with old houses, mansions, rowing sheds and marinas…

Breakfast Point and its recent development
The older part of Concord Hospital
Mortlake Ferry
Vela restaurant off Cabarita Point

We find the furthest westward public mooring at Cabarita Point, not in the most inspiring surroundings ( the water is muddy, units developments are looking down on us ) but at least it is convenient for a quick lunch stop. There is a marina nearby, with a restaurant attached, Vela Dining and Bar, which I find out offers free docking if dining there. Only it opens Wednesday to Sunday, so I am filing this information for next time.

Before too long we reach Homebush Bay on the south bank of the Parramatta river. Once an industrial wasteland, avoided by Mr T ( and many others I am sure) the whole area was rejuvenated once part of it was chosen as the main site of the 2000 Olympic Games. Serviced by its own ferry wharf, The Homebush Olympic precinct is within walking distance and features many high rise buildings as well as parklands and recreational facilities alongside a series of boardwalks running thru a natural patch of mangroves. It is very much a matter of “ if you build it, people will come ” however it looks fairly quiet and certainly not as lived-in as I expected.

Olympic stadium on the distance
Train and road bridges crossing the Parramatta river

Beyond Homebush Bay, the river narrows and turns quite shallow, to the point where no power boats are allowed further than the Silverwater Bridge, other than the specially designed RiverCat ferry or otherwise authorised. So much for cruising all the way up to Parramatta under our own steam!

It takes half the time to cruise back the way we came, river traffic is literally non existent beside the odd row boat and the Rivercat gliding past.
We do call into Birkenhead Point marina to pick up some diesel fuel. Being part of the retail complex of the same name, I enquire about the possibility of staying overnight ( thus hoping to browse the shops and shake our legs on land a bit ) but as we are near office closing time, the staff advises it is too late to organise a berth. I am told they would be happy to accomodate us, should we come back in the morning…

It is 5pm by now, when we decide to head back into the Harbour. Berry Bay’s mooring turns out to be free still, so we grab it while we can. However, after 20 minutes of incessant rolling due to heavy traffic from ferries, tugs and other speed boats we up and leave for Athol Bay where we manage to nab a mooring, after stalking another boat and some quick grabbing of the buoy! What can I say, cruising can be brutal sometimes.

South of France? No, sunset at Athol Bay

Like all anchorages in the Harbour, this one is rolly from ferry wash. But the setting is certainly worth it. Below Taronga Zoo and with a small beach surrounded by rocky slopes, Athol Bay is our absolute favourite anchorage in Sydney. While the views across the Harbour are gorgeous during the day, they are just spectacular at sunset and when the city lights up. Do be prepared to have company though, as this spot is very popular and it can be quite noisy from party boats and the occasional floating night club ( encountered on previous visits ). It does get quite after midnight, once the party boats leave and the ferries stop running. Then the rolling starts again with the ferries, around 6am.

None of this deterred us from enjoying sundowners and nibbles ( no cooking because, you know, rocking and rolling! ) and confirm this as a must stop while cruising the Harbour.

Day 3:

By 9am, Athol Bay becomes untenable as a smooth anchorage, so we move around to the Eastern suburbs anchorages, hoping for better conditions.


We check every single bay, from Rose Bay to Watsons Bay, past Shark Bay, Vaucluse Bay and Camp Cove. 10 courtesy moorings are available between all of them, each offering different perspectives of the Harbour and its high class suburbs.

We stop in Hermit Bay for brunch, tucked away on the northern end of Rose Bay and overlooking Milk Beach. Like the Lower North Shore, this side of the Eastern Suburbs is home to some of the most exclusive and expensive neighbourhood. It makes for fascinating people watching/sightseeing but though the bays are fairly big and wide they are all subject to vessel wakes ( ferries in particular ) and open to N/NW winds.

Some of the moorings are located a long way from shore, ok if you have a dinghy in good order, otherwise a long row. We had planned to spend the day and possibly the night in Watsons Bay ( I looked forward to dinner at Doyles restaurant ) but the one and only courtesy mooring was taken and we didn’t really fancy another rolly night at anchor. So we kept going and once we reached the Heads, headed for home.

Shark Beach
Camp Cove beach
Watsons Bay

Our verdict:

Sydney Harbour is undoubtedly beautiful but not necessarily best if you want a peaceful anchorage to spend the night. Middle harbour is better suited for that, with its secluded bays surrounded by National Parks.The Harbour itself is best enjoyed while on the move, to show people around as we have done in the past, and be part of the action among the traffic of other boats.

Overall, we managed to tie up to 4 courtesy moorings in 2 1/2 days. Not a bad result considering the number of boats out there on the weekend. But my tip would be to arrive early to secure the buoy of your choice. Here is the rough map of our itinerary, covering over 100 kilometers and never setting foot ashore!


The location of courtesy moorings can found by downloading the RMS map on the following link:

https://maritime-nsw.maps.arcgis.com/apps/webappviewer/index.html?id=bb82273e94d348a48437c52500960af7

And as a bonus, here is a list of courtesy moorings in Sydney Harbour with my rough comments ( * visited by us ). I hope some of you find it of interest and should you make it to the harbour, feel free to let me know how you enjoy your visit!

East

Watsons bay – 1 – Rolly
Camp Cove – 1 – Rolly
Vaucluse Bay – 1 – Rolly and far from beach
Nielsen Park – 1 – Rolly and close to rocks
*Milk Beach – 2 – Rolly but out of the wind
Rose Bay – 4 – Rolly and in the path of sea planes

West
Chowder Bay – 1 – Rolly
Taylors Bay – 1 – Rolly
*Athol Bay – 5 – Rolly but terrific views of the harbour
*Mac Mahon Point West – 1 – Rolly but good views of the city
*France Bay ( Cabarita ) – 2 – Smooth and quiet, a bit boring though.

North
Balmoral Beach – 3
Chinamans Beach – 5
The Spit – 4 – Sailing yachts only, while waiting for bridge opening
Sugarloaf Point – 4 – Smooth and quiet
Bantry Bay – 8 – Smooth and quiet
Manly – 8

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