Destination: Sydney Harbour

By: John Ford, Photography by: John Ford

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  • Trade-A-Boat


Even Melburnians agree Sydney has long been acclaimed as one of the world’s great harbours.

Destination: Sydney Harbour

History tells us Sydney Harbour, or more correctly Port Jackson, became the home to the First Fleet back in 1788 by chance. Explorer James Cook had recommended Botany Bay for the establishment of the penal colony after sailing past Sydney Heads without recognising its potential — although he noted in his log "a harbour wherein there appeared to be a safe anchorage", which he named Port Jackson.

When the First Fleet of convicts arrived in 1788 the leader, capt Arthur Phillip, was less than impressed with Botany Bay and set forth to find something more suitable for the new colony. Within a few days he had moved north to the place he considered "the finest harbour in the world in which a thousand sail of the line may ride in the most perfect security".

These days anyone sailing in for the first time or flying into Mascot over the harbour cannot help but be stunned by the sprawling expanse of gleaming water, where every nook and cranny is filled to bursting with bobbing vessels of all sizes straining at their moorings.

For my own part, as a young boy who moved to the Eastern Suburbs from the bush, I have always found the harbour an alluring and magical place even if at times it can be frightening — especially onboard a little boat in a howling southerly.

Happily for our tour the weather was mostly a benign spring day with a typical blustery nor’wester to finish off. Our voyage was a more speedy expedition than Phillip’s whaleboat and being aboard a Brig Eagle 780 with a 300hp Yamaha we got to see in one day what would have taken him a week. Our mission was to seek out boat-friendly eateries and facilities that to my mind was an instruction to find the best fish and chips available from the water.

Standing sentry at the harbour’s entrance for thousands of years are the two majestic sandstone edifices, romantically named North and South Head, and laid out for 19km to the west are 55,000 hectares of boating playground. Geologically, Port Jackson is a drowned river valley with the old tributaries forming arms of the harbour and the hilltops its many islands. Three harbours — North Harbour, Middle Harbour and Sydney Harbour — make up Port Jackson, but most Sydneysiders simply refer to all these as the Harbour.


With a vast foreshore area of 317km to explore, there are dozens of friendly anchorages to settle into on a hot summer’s day and just as well, because on a weekend the place is chock-a-block with 14ft tinnies vying for the best spot with multimillion-dollar extravaganzas.

The entrance to the harbour is not too dissimilar to the landscape facing Governor Phillip, with the bush around Middle Head still largely wild. It’s not until you voyage into the Harbour proper that civilisation takes over and the towering high-rise buildings of the city come into view. Anyone seeing the start of the annual Sydney Hobart yacht race will attest that Phillip was right in his prediction that a thousand ships could shelter in security, although the sight of kamikaze powerboats among the racing fleet looks far from secure.

Along with the Boxing Day boat race, images of the Opera House and the famous bridge embed the Harbour as a truly iconic Australian scene to the world.


Newcomers to the harbour will do well to start their exploration on a weekday because on a weekend in summer dozens of sailing races and hundreds of speeding motorboats are seemingly intent on being rundown by ferries, seaplanes or each other. It’s mayhem.

So the first rule of the harbour is that ferries have right of way and their skipper will exercise that right like their life, not yours, depends on it. Equally, the sailing fleet has right of way over a motorboat and you will be shocked how fast a powered-up 18-footer will bridge the gap between you and them so be prepared for serious abuse if you get in their way.

Happily these days many boats, including the Brig, will be equipped with excellent navigation screens to show the way, while the harbour is well signposted for obstructions, the most devilish of which is the Sow and Pigs Reef at the entrance. Similarly, speed restrictions apply and it would be a good idea to familiarise oneself with these prior to setting out because some signs can be difficult to spot. The area either side of the Harbour Bridge is restricted to 15kts and is a no-drifting zone following a serious accident there a couple of years back when a ferry collided with a stationary cruiser.

Middle Harbour has 8kts speed restrictions either side of the Spit Bridge and in the upper reaches nearing Roseville, and like anywhere on the harbour you should assume NSW Maritime authorities vigorously enforce them.

In all there are more than 25 speed zones on the harbour so be on the lookout, but using common-sense around heavily trafficked areas you should be able to enjoy your trip without being fined.


Okay, I have to say it. The Harbour has more to see than any city in Australia. In Melbourne there’s, well, Melbourne. In Sydney there is no end of modern and historic sights you can visit on the harbour and never get blasé about its beauty and the enormity of the city. It’s a truly Aussie experience to take in the view of the island of Pinchgut — where convicts were treated to a ration of bread and water — with a background of The Bridge and Opera House bookcasing the sprawling cityscape.

Sydney is steeped in seagoing history and its working harbour has many wharfs and anchorages scattered around its secret inlets and bays. Our Navy still has a strong presence and holds tight to its facilities in many exclusive suburbs. The multimillion-dollar apartments at Woolloomooloo Wharf cosy-up to the naval base, so be aware of straying into those protected waters on your exploration lest you cop the wrath of the vigilant patrols.

National Parks control many historic buildings along the foreshore and oversee access to islands scattered across the harbour. It is possible to land passengers on Shark, Clarke and Rodd Islands with prior approval, but mooring is not permitted. Anchoring at places like Quarantine Beach is under review because of perceived damage to seagrass and marine life.

Accessing the harbour by trailerboat is pretty good if you know where to find the ramps (see box hereabouts), but there are a number of small ramps better suited to locals with small boats who are prepared to endure parking problems and limited facilities. There is no charge for ramp use however most will have a charge for parking. Owners should ensure their tanks are full of fuel because prices on the harbour will come as a shock to those used to filling-up at the local servo.


Cruising boats will find numerous casual berths at many marinas around the harbour, but phone ahead as many facilities are members-only. With such a vast waterway there are scores of options depending on the wind and how close to civilisation you want to be. Experience city living at Blackwattle Bay, sleep with the roar of lions from the zoo at Athol Bay or get away from it all in the sheltered waters of Bantry Bay well into Middle Harbour.


Provisioning your boat for meals will give you time to relax and enjoy life on the water, and if you want to strut your stuff along the shoreline there are eateries galore to show off your mooring skills to the assembled masses.

Favourite destinations are the Sydney Fish Market in Blackwattle Bay, Doyles at Watsons Bay and the Darling Harbour precinct — the first two are musts on the bucket list for any boatie worth his salt. The Sydney Fish Market has easy access pens for boats up to 10m, although weekend traffic can be chaotic and space is at a premium. We visited midweek and there were several vacant pens and nobody collecting fees, but on weekends they will want you to move along and will charge a nominal fee for a short stay. You won’t lack choice in the dozens of shops serving a mouth-watering display of fresh and cooked seafood.

With a number of other venues still on our agenda we took it easy on an order of flathead tails and scallops, settling down at the waterfront tables to admire the Brig and fight off the seagulls adept at swooping down to steal food from your plate and even between plate and mouth!

Not far from the Fish Market is Darling Harbour, where a leisurely cruise along the 8kt-zone puts you right in the heart of the CBD and views of towering office blocks. A casual mooring here is $25 an hour but you do have dozens of restaurants and the Harbourside Food Court to tempt the taste buds and the Maritime Museum for an entertaining visit.

Doyles is at the eastern end of the harbour and beach access was easy in the Brig and would be for smaller trailerboats. Patrons with bigger boats can take advantage of a limited number of stern-on moorings available inshore of the Sydney Game Fishing Club, but they can be problematical at low tide. Five generations of Doyles have been cooking fish since 1885 and seem to have the skill down pat. For a leisurely lunch there is a sit-down restaurant, where you can keep an eye on your boat, we though chose the takeaway from the bistro and enjoyed the mixed barbecue selection in the boat.

You can also try your luck at many of the clubs and marinas around the bay, though not all are as accessible as we might like. Many marinas have members-only signs and the public wharfs can be intimidating and unwelcoming. But plan ahead and take advantage of the many places that welcome you and your day on Port Jackson will be memorable and fun. Phone ahead for a mooring for meals at Cabarita Point, Plonk Café at the Spit, Roseville Marina, and Pier Restaurant at Rose bay. And the best seafood? Well, it was too close to call and to set the record straight we will really have to investigate the harbour further. It’s a tough job.


Rose Bay

The ramp at Rose Bay serves the Eastern Suburbs and is the closest significant ramp to the heads. Parking can be a problem, even during the week when commuters using the adjacent ferry wharf take up spaces. The ramp has two concrete lanes and recent improvements give good protection from ferry surge.

LOCATION Lynne Park, New South Head Road, Rose Bay

Five Dock

From the inner west a good option is Taplin Park ramp at Five Dock. Parking is ample and the three lanes and long jetty are in good condition.

LOCATION Bayswater Street, Five Dock


Farther west is the ramp at Kendall Park. Parking is plentiful but the ramp is basic and it’s a fair distance to the city.

LOCATION Cabarita Road, Cabarita


This two-lane ramp will give you a long run to the city, however, it does have good parking and coming from the far west it can be a good option. Watch for surge from passing river cats and check the speed zones on the way down Parramatta River.

LOCATION Wharf Road, Ermington


Good facilities and three lanes make this Northern Suburbs’ ramp a good option for access to Middle Harbour.

LOCATION Brothers Road, Cammeray


This ramp has been recently refurbished by National Parks and it’s a pleasant run down Middle Harbour. Fees apply for entry to the park and entrance is tricky being only from the southern side of Warringah Road.

LOCATION Healey Road, Garigal National Park, Roseville


Originally published in Trade-a-Boat #434, December 2012


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