Sydney Harbour is one of the most picturesque waterways in the world

Cruising the harbour is an experience that will always present something new and exciting. Sydney harbour is vibrant working harbour with ferries, cruise liners and navy ships (all of which have right of way so be sure to keep clear)

On weekends and summer weekday afternoons the harbour will be dotted with the sails and colourful spinnakers of sailors enjoying and afternoon of racing. Cruising boats as a courtesy always give way to racing vessels, after all unlike them you are in no hurry…but rather you are there to soak up the atmosphere and explore the many bays and coves around the harbour

Without doubt he best way to explore everything Sydney harbour has to offer is to set your own agenda and do it in your own time.

In the city to the west

You can cruise past the iconic Opera house and under the harbour bridge as you emerge on the western side of the bridge on your left will be Luna park and to the right the original Walsh bay wharfs. Further west are the sheltered waters of Balls Head Bay and a perfect spot to anchor. Continue on down the river and you pass Woolwich, Chiswick, Putney. You can call into Birkenhead marina or Cabarita Marina for coffee or lunch

Alternatively, after passing under the bridge and passing Walsh Bay wharf you can tur to port and explore Barangaroo on your left, Darling Harbour straight ahead. Be mindful that as you approach the maritime museum over to port are the charter and ferry wharfs and on water traffic can be quite busy- best to hang back

If you want to enjoy fish at its best head past White Bay terminal around to Blackwattle bay and the Sydney Fish markets.

And to the east

Return to the Harbour bridge as you emerge on the eastern side is Kirribilli House the Sydney residence of the Prime Minister and adjoining residence of the Governor General. Further East is Athol bay from where you can see Taronga Zoo and the cable car This is a great place to anchor for lunch with the backdrop of the Opera House and Harbour Bridge. Keep heading west past Bradleys head and you cruise past Taylors Bay, Chowder Bay , Obelisk beach before reaching Middle Head

Here you have choice.

Head North East across the bay and you will find the sheltered waters of Quarantine beach, Store beach and Little Manly crystal-clear sheltered waters ideal for anchoring tucked under North head

Head North and you can explore the sights of Manly Cove or drop anchor for lunch at Reef Beach

Or chose to round Middle head and head into Middle harbour.

Middle Harbour

Tucked in between Middle Head and Dobroyd Head is the entrance to a stunning mini cruising ground for local and visiting sailors looking to get away from the hustle and bustle of the main harbour.

Middle Harbour may take you only an hour or two to sail from one end to the other, but you can also spend days poking around its beautiful bays, bushwalking in its parks and reserves, eating at nearby restaurants and cafés, or simply lazing on your boat.

Getting there

If you are coming into Sydney Harbour by sea, the lighthouse on Grotto Point, at the entrance to Middle Harbour, provides one of the navigation points to guide you into the main harbour. Unless you have a trailer-sailer (and Middle Harbour has a couple of great launch ramps – but more on that later), you’ll come into Middle Harbour between Middle Head (southern entrance) and Dobroyd Head. If there’s a good swell running through The Heads, and you have a following breeze (both nor’easterlies and sou’easterlies seem to kick around through this east-facing entrance) you may have a fun ride into Middle Harbour, with a bit of a surf if you are lucky. But don’t worry: there’s plenty of depth here until you are well around the corner in flat water.

Once around Grotto Point (and giving it a wide berth of at least 70m is recommended) the water flattens right out — and also shallows rapidly as you reach the bar, though never less than 2.5m, so all but the deepest-draught cruisers don’t need to worry about playing the tides. By the time you get to Clontarf Point, unless you know the waterway well (in which case, why are you reading this?) you should have dropped your sails and be motoring up to the Spit Bridge. The channel here is quite narrow, with lots of moored boats, and can get quite gusty in summer with NE bullets coming down the valley on your nose.

The Bridge

Getting into the main part of Middle Harbour involves the ritual of waiting for the Spit Bridge to open. This controversial bridge — the bane of motorists and commuters living in Manly and Sydney’s lower northern beaches and surrounding suburbs — opens up to eight times a day. Times vary between weekends and weekdays, and also between summer and winter.

State politicians have been promising for decades to replace it, but have never managed to find the will and the money. The big fear for sailors is that, one day, they’ll simply announce the bridge will no longer open. About 12 months ago, bridge opening times were reduced, removing up to four opening times a day. So enjoy it while you can.

Courtesy moorings

On the downstream side of the bridge are two courtesy moorings for yachts waiting for it to open. If they are taken by a couple of fishing boats, it’s acceptable to politely ask them to leave (and in our experience, they will do so). If they are not available, you’ll generally find a vacant mooring nearby you can hang off. We’ve quite often spent a relaxing hour or two here following a frenetic sail up the harbour, having just missed an opening: reading, having our lunch or dinner, or just watching the boats and traffic.

As the opening time approaches — particularly on late weekend afternoons — you’ll also get to watch the Spit Bridge ritual, with yachts powering in, desperate to catch the bridge. The operators are very obliging — up to a point. If you are still three or four minutes away, they are not going to hold up any more traffic for you, but a minute or so, and you may be lucky.

Lights on the bridge let you know when it’s OK to go through, but be warned: there can be quite a press of boats. Up to three abreast can fit through, but if you’re at all unsure, just hang back and take your time (within reason, of course). Through the bridge and you are in the main part of Middle Harbour.

Outer Middle Harbour

Before we move into inner Middle Harbour, here’s a brief tour of some possible stopping spots around the outer harbour. As a rule, these are better for day or lunch-time spots, rather than overnighting, unless you don’t mind some fairly frequent wash, especially on weekends.

Tucked just inside Middle Head is Cobblers Beach, named we believe for the male items on display on any reasonably warm day (that’s right folks, you don’t need to bring your cossie to swim here). It’s well protected in a southerly or a westerly, with reasonable anchoring, and of course lovely swimming. However, there are some restricted anchoring zones close to here, as it abuts some Defence facilities, so just read the signs.

A bit farther and you come to Balmoral Beach, which offers some great restaurants and shops (including of the bottle variety). There are lots of moorings at the southern end, so you may be able to Farther north of Balmoral is Chinamans Beach, while opposite you’ll find Flat Rock Beach and Clontarf Beach – all with beautiful white sandy bottoms, crystal-clear water and great swimming and snorkelling. Depending on the breeze and the traffic, they can make a great afternoon stopover after returning through the Spit Bridge on your way home.

Both Clontarf and Chinamans also have public toilets, so if you’ve been holding on after an overnight stay in the Harbour (again, more on that subject later).

Inner Middle Harbour

Once you are through the Spit Bridge, it’s as if you’ve entered a whole new world. A no-wash zone from the bridge (actually from the bar) plus having made the bridge opening just seems to make everything step down a gear, and you can start relaxing.

To the south, you have (in order of appearance) Pearl Bay, Long Bay and Sailors Bay: all offering the possibility of anchoring (or For us, the true Middle Harbour is based around the northerly bays: Sugarloaf, Bantry and the upper reaches of the harbour towards Roseville Bridge.

Sugarloaf Bay

Almost loved to death on summer weekends (and known to be crowded even in the depths of winter), Sugarloaf has two public moorings under the distinctive hill that gives it its name — but on just about any weekend, you’ll be lucky to find them free. But don’t despair: do what most other visitors to this bush-lined bay do, and anchor or raft up with friends. Depths around the edges of the bay are 6-7m, with good holding in mud. We’ve rafted up with up to 20 other Compass owners here. It’s well protected in most winds; nor’easterlies will whip around the corners, but they seem to have lost most of their bite by the time they get in here. Westerlies and southerlies have little impact.

At the southern end of the bay is Crag Cove, while to the north is Castle Cove, extending a little further, and offering plenty of depth to anchor well into its upper reaches. This bay also offers plenty of opportunities for off-boat activities, including bushwalking (there’s a good 2-3 hour walk right around the shoreline, taking in a trail through the trees well above the water, down to mangroves and wetlands at the very tidal upper reaches of both coves) and kayaking.

At the head of Castle Cove is a tidal creek which is well worth exploring at mid-to high tide. It takes you up through mangrove swamps, with plenty of stingrays and other fish swimming on the sandy bottom. Swimming? Hmm, not so sure. Sydney Harbour’s last fatal shark attack occurred in Sugarloaf, albeit in the early 1960s.

The main downside of Sugarloaf is because it’s so popular, it can get terribly overcrowded. Most summer weekends, along with Easter, Labour Day, even Queens Birthday in the middle of winter, can see it packed with boats. Many are motor-cruisers, and while they are at least generally considerate enough to move around the bay without leaving large wakes, they all too frequently seem to believe that everyone else in the bay has the same taste in terrible ’70s rock that they do.

But as I’ve said before, if you can get there mid-week — even in school holidays (excluding January) — you can just about be guaranteed to have the place to yourself.

Bantry Bay

This is surely the most beautiful bay in Sydney Harbour. It reminds me of some of those fantastic deep tree-lined bays you get in the Whitsundays, but here it’s in the middle of a major city. Houses are almost invisible from the water, just a decrepit National Parks building and aging wharf (which hopefully will one day be repaired) on one side and the fascinating explosives magazine site on the other.

The National Parks building and wharf on the eastern side of the bay give access to the walks — and also include a couple of pit toilets. Be careful using the wharf, which is in poor condition and slippery, but provides a good place to tie up the tender or your vessel while you use the toilets or go for a walk.

Upper Middle Harbour

Between Sugarloaf and Bantry Bays, upper Middle Harbour continues for another mile or so towards the Roseville Bridge. Just on your right as you head up here is Flat Rock Beach, which can be a great spot (in the right weather) to pull a trailer-sailer or three up on the sand — exposed at low tide, completely covered at high tide.

Keep going along this fantastic tree- and cliff-lined waterway, admiring some stunning Castle Cove homes, and eventually you’ll spot the Roseville Bridge. To your right is a launch ramp and small jetty, while to the left is Grays Point and the Roseville Bridge Marina, where you can get fuel, water and food.

In fact, the marina is well worth a visit for the food. With a lovely outlook, it offers café-style breakfasts, as well as full lunches. It claims to have the best chocolate brownies in Sydney-and they’re not far off. It gets very popular on weekends, so if you’re thinking of going there for lunch you will have to book. It’s rare to find an empty mooring here, and if you’re leaving your boat — but that’s not advised anyway.

Anchoring just off Grays Point is the best option. Watch the depths because it shallows quickly, but it’s good holding in clean sand. Also watch the tide as it moves into and out of Middle Harbour Creek. Up to a dozen boats can raft up off Grays Point, with stern lines secured to the solid trees on the shore.


Three marinas inside the harbour offer fuel and other services: D’Albora’s just inside the Spit Bridge, Northbridge Marina in Sailors Bay, and Roseville Bridge Marina. Others are Lyons Boatshed and Cammeray Marina in Long Bay, and Castlecrag Boatshed and Sailors Bay Boatshed, both in Sailors Bay. Outside the Spit Bridge are Clontarf Marina, Fergusons Boatshed (next to the Bridge) and Balmoral Boatshed.

Content sourced from www.mysailing.com.au by Mark Cherrington

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