Skip to Content

What it’s like Sailing Up the East Coast of Australia

The Australian East Coast is one of the most scenic travel destinations in the world. It is also the place where I was lucky enough to grow up. With a keen interest in everything related to the ocean, I’ve always wondered what it would be like sailing up the East Coast of Australia.

This blog post was originally an account of my initial sailing experience from New South Wales to Queensland. However, we have recently spent a lot more time sailing the Aussie East Coast up to Cairns.

For that reason, I’ve updated this post as a quick guide that might hopefully help new cruisers and sailors wondering about what it’s like cruising up the East Coast of Australia.

Remember, I’m not a professional sailor, nor have I done extensive cruising in Australia. All of the content on this post is a reflection of my personal experiences and what I’ve learned sailing from Sydney to Cairns, which I hope will be helpful and/or inspiring for you.

Setting sun aerial photo of boats on the east coast of australia
Olly gaspar

By Olly Gaspar, traveler, travel blogger & photographer for 5+ years with 600+ published travel guides. I visit every place I write about & share real tips from what I learn.

Our Vessel: Malaika

During the early years, my family worked on a 10-year project of building a homemade, 15 m steel motor-sailor yacht from scratch. This was born out of my dad's crazy dream of truly self-sufficient sailing, we all surrendered to the cause and dedicated a lot of time into building Malaika.

After 10 years of hard labour and dedication, my dad's dream became a reality. In 2014, Malaika wet her keel for the first time in the channels of Gosford.  Consequently, the next few years would be spent exploring the surrounding coastline whilst teaching ourselves how to sail.

Malaika
Original film collage of our family building Malaika
Junk rig sailing
Malaika Junk-rigged and sailing at the GBR

Sailing Up The East Coast of Australia: Some Tips

Here are some general tips to help you out on your cruising journey. While I'm not an expert sailor or cruiser by any means, these simple things can help a lot.

If you're interested in following our journey, check out our weekly journal updates.

1. Take Your Time

This is probably the most important one. Heading out into dangerous seas just for the sake of moving to the next destination is counterproductive, and dangerous. Sailing teaches you patience. If conditions are bad, you're going to regret leaving port as soon as you get out.

Green island sailng yacht

2. Remember: Weather is King

Every sailor knows that they can't beat the sea. Make sure to always check weather conditions and forecasts before you leave port. It's also a good idea to recheck just before you leave, as conditions could have changed since the forecast during the night before.

While conditions might seem calm and relaxed in a quiet anchorage, winds might be howling and swell might be pumping just around the headland.

3. Buy Alan Lucas' Cruising Books

He's known as the Lord of the Sandflies. After you read some of his guides, you'll quickly understand why. He seems to love anchoring in creeks and rivers that are full of them. Still, his books are the best and most comprehensive guides you'll find for anchorage information and channel crossings.

The books are a little hard to find online, but you'll definitely want a copy onboard. Here are some links that I found to the copies.

If If these books aren't available on Amazon, try to find a second-hand copy of the latest edition at boating stores. You can also download free PDF updates on his website.

4. Invest in Electronic Equipment

There are plenty of good cruising books and online resources that go into detail about equipment. Therefore I won't go into detail about what kind of equipment you're going to need. However, here are some things that you'll definitely want to have.

  • Buy a good Chart Plotter
  • Autopilot - Unless you want to spend tireless days and nights at the helm
  • Solar + inverter charger and deep cycle batteries
  • Depth and Wind Gauges

5. Download Some Must-Have Cruising and Sailing Apps

Here are a few useful apps that you'll want to have for sailing up the East Coast of Australia.

  • ZULU WATERWAYS - This is a useful app that allows users to share data about waterways and anchorage locations.
  • NAVIONICS - Navionics is our go-to map provider. We use it on our chart plotter and apps on mobile and tablet. The apps also allow for user input to share information about anchorages and moorings, as well as other notable information. Their maps are about as accurate as you can get. In saying that, sometimes all maps can be completely off.
  • Willy Weather - Willy Weather uses up-to-date weather information from the Beurua of Meteorology. We use this app for wind, swell and tide data.

6. Buy Some Good Books

If you're thinking about sailing up the East Coast of Australia, then you'll have plenty of days doing absolutely nothing. I understand that this is appealing to many people, but still, you're going to want to keep yourself busy somehow.

Below I've listed some of my favourite books to read while sailing.

If you're running out of book space in the galley, I'd also recommend buying a Kindle, since you can save thousands of books, on the one device.

7 Avoid Cyclone Season in the North

In the Queensland region, tropical cyclones can form from lows within the monsoon trough. Sailing in Far North Queensland during the months between November and April is generally discouraged.

Many full-time cruisers instead choose to head south to NSW during this time of the year. This is convenient because the south-easterly trades die off during this time, making sailing south much easier.

Cairns sunset sailing

8. Avoid Sailing Against the Trade Winds

One of the biggest tips is to plan your trip sailing up the East Coast of Australia, especially in Queensland, to run with the trades. While it might not always be favourable, it's a much better idea to either put it off or go sooner in order to catch the right season.

The East Coast Trades, especially further up the coast are pretty reliable for running north.

Cruising Up the East Coast of Australia: Weather and Prevailing Winds

In Queensland, the trade winds blow in an east-to-southeast direction from April to November. During this time, it's a breeze sailing up the East Coast of Australia, as you'll be running most of the time.

On the New South Wales coast, the winds are fairly inconsistent. There are no prevailing winds or trade winds to rely on. Furthermore, wind patterns seem to change along the coast.

For a more in-depth guide, check out this PDF.

Sailing orpheus island, sailing hinchinbrook channel

What to Expect Sailing Up The East Coast of Australia

So, tips and technicalities aside, here are some of the great things that you might experience sailing up the East Coast of Australia.

Dolphin Greetings

Dolphins are an incredible animal. You'll often find them "playing" with your vessel by dancing and jumping along the wake and at the bow.

You'll probably meet many pods along the way. However, the highest concentration of dolphin populations tend to hang around the Newcastle Coast in NSW.

Dolphins splashing at the bow of the boat

Fishing and Trolling

When we sail and cruise, we generally always have a trolling line out. I'm probably not the best person to comment on fishing. However we caught plenty of Mackerel trolling with deep-diving lures, especially North of Brisbane.

It seems the further up the Aussie Coast you sail, the better the fishing gets.

Fishing at the great barrier reef

Humpback Whale Migration Period

It's known as Australia's Great Humpback Whale Migration. Every year, approximately 40,000-50,000 humpback whales leave Antarctica and make their own journeys north. It's the biggest mammal migration in the world which takes them three months to reach northern Australia. Here, they mate and nurture newborns in the warm tropical waters.

  • WHALES HEAD NORTH: July - September
  • WHALES HEAD SOUTH: September - January

If you're sailing up the East Coast of Australia during the whale migration, then you'll almost certainly come across more than a few. This can be a blessing and a curse.

Sailing at night time can be risky, as the huge mammals sleep on the surface, completely oblivious to cruising vessels. Many people have reported "bumping" whales when sailing up the East Coast of Australia.

Not a pleasant experience for you, and certainly not for the whales.

Humpback whales breaching alongside a boat sailing the east coast of australia

Cruising and Island Hopping

While rivers and creeks can provide some well-deserved calmness, island hopping it's where it's at. The best can be found in Queensland. Below are some links to my favourite islands on the East Coast of Australia, each with a guide and photos to inspire your sailing adventures.

Fitzroy island cairns 9972 5
Low island, low isles, port douglas
Dunk island sunsets queensland australia
Mound island queensland australia, aerial best things to do on dunk island
Orpheus island pioneer bay
Magnetic island sunsets at the bay track

General Access to Provisions, Water and Fuel

Cruisers will be able to have access to provisions, water, and fuel almost everywhere up the coast. Water is generally free, and safe to drink from the docks. Diesel and fuel is also readily available at most marinas. However, you'll pay a premium for refueling at the dock.

The best shop for food and provisions has to be Aldi. I've found they have the best prices on food and other necessary things. Sadly, once you reach north of Gladstone, you'll have to go to good old Woolies and Coles.

Abandoned Resorts

Beginning as far south as the Whitsundays are the relics of Australia's once-booming island tourism industry. Unfortunately, the vast majority of island resorts that you'll find sailing up the east coast of Australia are now abandoned.

This is due to the high cost of travel in Australia compared to overseas travel, as well as the threat of tropical cyclones in the north.

Regardless, for those sailing up the East Coast, you'll get to experience islands that have been cut off to the land-dwelling public for centuries.

Bauer bay sunrise

Sharks and Crocs

If there's saltwater, there'll be sharks. But, did you know that more people die each year in Australia from cows than sharks?

Generally speaking, sharks don't care for the taste of human flesh. When sailing, you'll probably see the occasional fin on the surface. There are also plenty of reef sharks further up north on the reef that are epic to snorkel with.

The only exception I found was at Cid Harbour, where several people have been attacked recently. This was the only place I saw where they didn't recommend swimming due to the threat of sharks.

When it comes to crocodiles, on the other hand, I don't share the same confidence.

We didn't see too many when sailing up the East Coast, but they can be seen as far south at Gladstone. Remember to always be croc safe. I wouldn't recommend swimming in any saltwater mangrove rivers in north Queensland.

Crocodile at port douglas
Black tip reef shark at low isles

Cost of Full-Time Cruising in Ausrtalia

Full-time cruising in Australia can get pretty expensive. However, if you catch your own fish, use the wind for momentum and anchor for free, then that cost is much less than living on land.

The main daily costs will be diesel and food and amounts will vary depending on your appetite and how much you run your engine.

In terms of docking and marina fees, expect to pay between $70 and $200 per night. For this reason, we stick to anchoring 99% of the time, since it's completely free.

The saying goes: the sailor who claims to never have boat problems has never left the harbour. Remember to always consider the risk of having to pay for repairs. Every boat has problems, from the engines to sails, to electronic equipment to leaks.

We had to have Malaika slipped for emergency mast repairs in Townsville, which wasn't cheap. You can read about it here.

Sailing log week 6 boat repairs in townsville malaika at rosshaven marine

Internet Service When Sailing up the East Coast of Australia

By far, the best reception you'll get when cruising the East Coast of Australia is with Telstra. In saying that, it's definitely going to be spotty. You'll generally have better connection closer to land and closer to major cities.

From Fraser Island to Mackay is a huge section where you'll get absolutely no service. Remember to plan ahead and get used to using the radio during this part of the sail.

My Favourite Anchorages and Sailing Destinations in Queensland

The best part about cruising on the East Coast of Australia is the places you stop to explore.

Below is a list of some of my favourite anchorages and mooring locations that we stopped at on the recent Queensland coast trip. I've linked the sailing logs from those locations if you're interested in learning about our experience and some general tips for each.

So, that's a wrap for my quick guide and tips for sailing the East Coast of Australia. I hope that this blog could help those considering making a lifestyle change or beginning the journey they've always dreamed off.

If you found the post helpful, or if you have any more tips or experiences you want to share, please drop a comment below.

More Photos from Our Time Sailing on Australia's East Coast

Michaelmas cay great barrier reef, sailing up the east coast of australia
Sailing log week 11 29 of 37
Sailing log week 11 25 of 37
Snorkeling at michaelmas cay
Junk rig sailing at michaelmas cay great barrier reef, sailing up the east coast of australia
Green island pier
Green island sailing boat
Sailing and cruising dunk island, australian east coast, sailing up the east coast of australia
Hiking on dunk island queensland australia
Hiking on dunk island queensland australia
Mound island queensland australia
Sailing and cruising dunk island, australian east coast, mound island aerial
Sailing log week 8 19 of 26
Hinchinbrook channel creeks
Magnetic island sailing, magnetic island attractions, magnetic island things to do, magnetic island sunsets, how to get to florence bay magnetic island
Rock wallabies at geoffrey bay magnetic island
Sailing magnetic island 7 of 37
Sailing up the east coast of australia,sailing magnetic island horseshoe bay
Sailing log week 5 mailaika
Dolphin porpoise double bay queensland
Sailing log week 5 airlie beach to townsville double bay anchorage, sailing up the east coast of australia
Cid harbour anchorage
Sailing to whitehaven beach, sailing up the east coast of australia
Sunsets on the water at airlie beach
Sailing whitsundays with a dog
Sailing up the east coast of australia
South molle island sunrise views lookout hiking guide in the whitsundays
South molle island beach
Sailing to south molle island in the whitsunday islands sailing log
Sailing log week 3 2 of 37
Sailing to airlie beach, sailing up the east coast of australia
Self sailing keswick island, sailing up the east coast of australia
Steel junk rig sailing boat sailing up the east coast of australia
What it’s like sailing up the east coast of australia 2019 2
Thanks for Reading

I'm Olly Gaspar, adventure travel blogger & photographer. Traveling non-stop since 2018, I've published over 600 travel guides on We Seek Travel. These draw on my personal experience to share unique itineraries, accommodation tips, & fun adventure guides covering hikes, viewpoints, beaches, waterfalls, & tours. Read my Publishing Ethics Statement.

Your feedback & updates are crucial to keep my guides factual & current. Got new info or updates? Drop a comment below or contact me directly.

we seek travel facebook icon we seek travel pinterest icon we seek travel instagram icon we seek travel youtube icon

I only make genuine, worthwhile recommendations based on my experience, expertise, & research. If you buy through my links, I may get a commission, supporting this website at no extra cost to you.

Tony

Saturday 30th of December 2023

Hey Olly... I am very much a beginner in the sailing world and the East Coast of Australia is definitely a goal. I found your website and was casting my normal sceptical eye over the content. Sometimes these blogs are written with a sales edge or tourist bias, etc. Happily, yours was not. You provided honest, humble and very helpful information. You didn't labour over any info with boring details... and you provided links to further info, if the reader wanted more. Personally, I loved the info and would have been happy with maybe 25-33% more on each topic?? You certainly helped me, and I'm grateful for that. I'll be bookmarking your page for future reference!! Thanks Olly!

Tony

DImas Perez

Saturday 7th of October 2023

Hi Olly, very nice blog. Amazing pictures and beautiful images from the building of your family vessel. I hope your dad is ok and very happy with all those nice memories.

Lincoln

Sunday 11th of June 2023

Excellent blog. I am planning a trip up the E Coast for next year in a classic yacht that we have just purchased.

Thanks for sharing and some terrific advice.

I hope you are still sailing somewhere.

Mason

Tuesday 20th of December 2022

Hey guys , thank you for your adventures , tips and advise on sailing - I recently bought a 40 Hartley - popped solar etc etc etc - and today was given a Furler/ with sail attached and a Aries windvane / self steering - lady musgrave will be the first adventure - I already have small treasure chests to bury for our daughter to find - will film her reaction - and hope there are waves possibly when there - You all have been a massive inspiration to me and mine - your humility , family ways and adventure has given me (at 54yr old) a new outlook on life - I’m 23 yrs drug/ alcohol free - and the ocean is my home - always was - Truly - Mason Rack Ph. 0406651186

Nicole

Wednesday 10th of August 2022

Thank you for sharing. It's very helpful.