Great Sandy Strait, QLD

By: Chris Whitelaw, Photography by: Chris Whitelaw; SUPPLIED

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A journey up the snaking great sandy strait reveals a world class waterway with opportunities for endless marine adventure and recreation.

06_Tinnies Moored Along The Shore Of Pelican Bay Near The Camping Area At Inskip PointQueensland’s Fraser Coast is a subtropical paradise that attracts around a million visitors annually for marine-based adventure and recreation. At its heart lies the Great Sandy Strait, a unique waterway that separates World Heritage Fraser Island from a mainland shore riven by inlets and tidal estuaries.

The strait’s serpentine passage stretches 70km (40nm) from Hervey Bay in the north to Tin Can Bay in the south, through a main channel up to 25m deep. It is more than 10km wide at its northern entrance and barely 1km wide at its southern limit, Inskip Point. Its western extremities reach along the Mary and Susan rivers and the estuaries of Kauri, Teebar and Snapper Creeks.

A few deep channels run the length of the strait and most are well marked with navigation aids. All main channel buoys and beacons are lit and laid red to port green to starboard when sailing south through the strait, as well as when ascending a river or entering an ancillary channel or inlet.

Despite the many shoals and sandbanks, the main channels are navigable by deep keels. Creeks are generally too shallow for the average displacement vessel, although Teebar and Kauri Creeks have useful depths just inside their entrances. The shallowest area of the strait is a ridge of sand west of South White Cliffs where depths have been known to reduce to one metre, changes being indicated by lateral mark buoys.

41_Town Reach On The Mary River At MaryboroughTides in the strait flood from both ends, meeting in the vicinity of Boonlye Point, south of Ungowa, from where they ebb in both directions. From either north or south, a favourable tidal stream can be enjoyed from one end of the strait to the other by timing your arrival at the tides’ meeting point (use Ungowa in the tide tables).

Calm water sailing aside, the beauty of the Great Sandy Strait from a boating perspective lies in its abundance of sheltered anchorages, numerous bolt holes and tranquil places to drop the pick.

28_A Mangrove Channel Provides A Sheltered Mooring At Boonooroo


When entering or exiting the Great Sandy Strait through its southern end, between Hook Point at the bottom of Fraser Island and the mainland at Inskip Point, sailors must cross the notorious Wide Bay Bar on the seaward side of the passage.

The bar has a reputation for being one of the most dangerous on the Queensland coast because of the length of the crossing (over 3nm), its distance offshore, the time it takes to cross "The Mad Mile" (up to one hour depending on conditions) and the changing weather and sea conditions during that time. As with any bar crossing, it should be treated with respect and mariners should attempt it only during favourable conditions.

Coastal bars are dynamic in nature and, in March 2017, a hydrographic survey of the bar confirmed that shifting sandbanks over recent years had encroached on the centre line bearing of the approach to the passage. As a result, Maritime Safety Queensland changed the line of the Hook Point directional light to ensure boaties are over the best water depth when crossing the bar. (Mariners should obtain the latest information and double check reference points with the Volunteer Coastguard at Tin Can Bay.)

The Tin Can Bay Coastguard recommend that vessels with drafts exceeding 1m should cross the bar in the last two hours of the incoming tide, preferably at high tide. And because of its east-west alignment, it’s best not to attempt the passage from seaward in the afternoon as the lowering sun may make the leading lights difficult to see.

Copy Of 59_A Spoonbill Strolls The Shore Of Woody Island In A Golden Dawn


After clearing The Mad Mile, and dodging the barge that ferries 4WDs between Inskip Point and Fraser Island, mariners enter the southern end of the strait at Tin Can Bay. After rounding Inskip Point, you can follow the channel markers to port into Pelican Bay and motor between Pannikin Island and Bullock Point with the tide up, or continue south along the main channel into Tin Can Inlet to anchorages near Carlo Point and the town of Tin Can Bay.

Inskip Point is the sandy projection of Rainbow Beach on a peninsula that acts as a natural breakwater, ensuring calm waters and safe anchorage in the western lee at Pelican Bay. While this may not be the most scenic anchorage in the strait, it is a good staging or finishing point for crossing Wide Bay Bar, and the ideal base camp for those wanting to explore the local area or visit Fraser short-term.

While there are no boat launching facilities at Inskip, you’ll have no trouble getting a tinnie from a trailer into Pelican Bay and, for bigger boats, council-managed boat ramps are located at nearby Bullock Point and Carlo Point and at Norman Point (Tin Can Bay).

 Copy Of 11_An Ebb Tide Leaves The Tin Can Bay Yacht Club High And Dry


The waterfront town of Tin Can Bay is a popular boating and fishing port on the peninsula between Snapper Creek and Tin Can Inlet. A fleet of prawn and scallop trawlers operates out of here on a seasonal basis, and there are good fishing and crabbing opportunities for amateur enthusiasts around the bay.

The public boat ramp at Norman Point is popular for its large trailer parking area and boat-washing facilities. An added attraction is the appearance each morning of rare Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins in front of Barnacle’s Café, which can be fed under free supervision.

Norman Point also accommodates the Tin Can Bay Yacht Club, a public jetty and fuel pontoon, houseboat hire, and the Volunteer Coastguard base. Further along the south-east bank of Snapper Creek there are slipways, trawler berths, a chandlery, Tin Can Bay Marina, a fishing cooperative and the local IGA for re-stocking supplies. Unsurprisingly, Snapper Creek is too crowded and busy for anchoring in the channel, although anchorage is sometimes possible south of Norman Point where a dinghy can be landed near a park at high tide.

Copy Of 14_The Boat Ramp To Kauri Creek At Hedleys Camp


Tin Can Inlet and Pelican Bay debouch onto the Great Sandy Strait at the green marker, known locally as "Big Mick", and for many kilometres northward the main channel is wide and handsome and easy to navigate.
The entrance to Kauri Creek soon appears on the port side as a break in the mangrove forest and opens into a navigable channel that allows penetration for several kilometres to the west. There is a bar at the entrance so check your tide chart first. The flats on both sides of the entrance are Go Slow Zones to protect the dugongs and turtles, and be aware of the signposted speed limitations in the creek itself – they are enforced.

Regarded by many as one of the best creeks in the strait, Kauri is a popular haven for fishermen, yachties and houseboat holidaymakers for the privacy of its extensive backwater, protection from the elements when the weather blows up and bush camping on the banks of the Tuan State Forest, at Log Dump and Hedley’s. Both camps have easy trailer access to the creek and boats up to 6m can be launched from firm, rubble banks. Shoal draft vessels may explore beyond the access points on a rising tide.

Copy Of 21_A Sign At Tinnanbar Boat Ramp Warns That Crocs May Be Present In These Waters

The Kauri Creek estuary is a wetland of international importance and the creek’s upper reaches are a Declared Fish Habitat Area, where restrictions on fishing apply to encourage sustainable use. Anglers should be aware of these and other fisheries regulations.


Immediately north of Kauri Creek, the secluded settlement of Tinnanbar lies on the mainland shore of Shark Inlet. Tinnanbar is the first in a series of delightfully quaint fishing villages on the western shore of the strait, followed by Poona, Tuan, Boonooroo and Maaroom.

Each of the villages has a small resident population that is joined on a regular basis by tourists towing vans and tinnies in search of the relaxed lifestyle and excellent fishing. Local facilities include bowls clubs, golf courses, tennis courts, bikes for hire and playgrounds for the kids. There are also plenty of accommodation options to suit all budgets, including friendly caravan parks with loads of amenities at Maaroom, Boonooroo and Poona.
Copy Of 23_Boat Samp Access To A Glassy Bay At Poona
Tinnanbar has a good boat ramp that is sheltered from prevailing winds and there are several creeks close by and good access to offshore fishing grounds with water depths to 27m. The Poona Palms Caravan Park has a convenience store and sits adjacent to the boat ramp and a park complete with barbecues and public toilets. North of Poona, the twin gems of Boonooroo and Tuan offer a range of general services, including boat ramps at Tuan Creek and Boonooroo Point.

Finally, the tiny village of Maaroom sits on a point overlooking the strait from a picturesque park next to an all-weather boat ramp and floating pontoon with tidal access for fishing. At low tide, Maaroom Creek contains minimum navigable water with exposed shoals and is recommended for small craft only, operating at slow speed.

Copy Of 36_Heading Out From Maaroom For A Day Of Fishing On The Strait


On the other side of the strait, beginning opposite the entrance to Kauri Creek, the western side of Fraser Island is dotted with several places of interest.

The first is Brown’s Gutter, a popular anchorage close to the island during south-easterly winds, but with a barred entrance and suitability for deep keels only on a rising tide. North of Brown’s is Snout Point, well known to yachties for some good camping spots and lovely white sand beaches. Next, Fig Tree Creek is a beautifully hospitable location being slightly more open to the breeze, with abundant birdlife and small armies of soldier and fiddler crabs marching across the mudflats at low tide.

At the end of this stretch of water, near red navigational marker S36, the main channel continues up the strait and the right arm enters Garry’s Anchorage, tucked in between Fraser and Stewart islands. This is one of the most popular anchorages in the strait for its sheltered, deep-water location, pleasant beach and national park campsite ashore.

Proceeding north from Garry’s is a little tricky and it’s crucial to navigate the extensive shoal area on a rising tide which, below Boonlye Point, floods to the north. The channel between the brace of islands and Boonlye Point is well marked with lit lateral beacons, but it’s not uncommon for keel yachts to touch the soft, sandy bottom here.

 02_The Manta Ray Barge Operates A Ferry Service Across The Strait At Inskip Point


Once past Boonlye Point the channel sweeps to the east between Turkey Island and Sheridan Flats, where the flood tides meet over the shallowest depths in a well-beaconed channel amid intertidal mudflats and mangrove islets. Beyond Sheridan Flats, the channel comes close up against Fraser Island in a series of delightful anchorages at South White Cliffs and Ungowa. All of these are snug if it’s blowing from the north-east through to south-west; if it’s fresh from the north, anchor in behind nearby Bookar Island or under Turkey. In this area, the stream floods south and ebbs north.

Part way along these sand cliffs is Buff Creek, in the mangroves south of which lie the remains of the Swordfish, one of the many logging vessels used during Fraser’s forestry era. Close to the wreck, a small waterfall provides a permanent source of excellent drinking water for topping up a vessel’s reserves. Nearby to the north, the hulk of the coastal sugar steamer Palmer can be seen a few hundred metres up the shallow mangrove-lined estuary of Deep Creek. North of Deep Creek, the wreck of the Ceratodus protrudes from the shoreline at the mouth of a small creek that bears its name, where she ended her days as a sand barge in the strait.

For more than 80 years Fraser Island was logged for its precious timbers and Ungowa was once the site of the forestry headquarters. An old jetty (now condemned and barricaded), a boatshed and ramp are relics of this bygone era, and the forestry residences are now used by the NPWS service.

 39_The Boat Ramp At River Heads Serves Barges To Fraser Island


Just north of Ungowa is the confluence of the Mary and Susan rivers, where they flow out from the west below the town of River Heads, the mainland departure point for vehicle and passenger ferries to Fraser Island. The Fraser Venture runs three services daily southward to Wanggoolba Creek and the Kingfisher Bay runs three services northward to the resort of that name.

There are two public boat ramps at North Head on the end of the peninsula: a narrow single-lane ramp on the eastern side of the car park and a dual-lane ramp on the more protected western side. It can prove a little tricky to launch and retrieve a boat on either ramp if a big tide is running due to their exposed positions; it is also very rocky with little room available for loading and unloading a boat either side of the ramps.

After rounding North Head, the Susan River is entered by passing a yellow mark beacon to port and following a series of red lateral marks westward to an anchorage above Separation Point. The tidal stream is swift and ebb tides make the anchorage uncomfortable during strong south-east winds. Shallow draft vessels may penetrate the Susan’s upper reaches on a full tide.

With muddy banks and a mostly sandy bottom, Mary River is navigable, with caution, all the way to Maryborough 30km upstream. A set of leading beacons at Beaver Rock show the best water over the shoals between Crab Island and Middle Bank. Anchorages just beyond Horseshoe Bank and at Beaver Rock are secure and comfortable in both northerly and south-east weather.

Since Fraser Coast Marina was swept away in the 2013 floods, there is room to anchor in the Town Reach towards the Granville Bridge, allowing for the flood-tidal stream when turning before the bridge. At Maryborough, tides produce a seven-hour ebb and a five-hour flood on the upper navigable reaches. During spring tides, the river can run at 3kts and a little more at the entrance.

A better anchorage is in the Lower Reach from which a powered dinghy can use flood tides up and ebb tides down when commuting to town. Dinghies may be left at the public jetty, or by arrangement at the Mary River Marina, where berths and moorings are available upstream from the city. Small berths and mooring are sometimes available at the Maryborough and Mary River slipways.51_Kingfisher Bay Is A Protected Mooring Off The West Coast Of Fraser Island


Back in the strait, North White Cliffs is on the western shore of Fraser Island, opposite the mouth of the Mary River. It is also known as McKenzie’s Jetty for the ruins on the shore, made conspicuous by a special mark beacon near their end. Depths here are around 12m and anchorage with good holding is possible off the intertidal ledge, or at a wider ledge in shallower water south-west of McKenzie’s at Bennett Creek. Both are untenable in moderate northerlies, when a better option is in behind Big Woody Island about 8km further up the strait.

Barely 3km up the coast lies the world-class Kingfisher Bay Resort, where there is good anchorage against south-east to north-east winds off a lovely sand beach either side of the barge ramp/jetty. The jetty must be left clear for commercial craft and dinghies are best taken ashore at half-tide to avoid the soft sand that exposes at the low.

The resort is boat-friendly and visiting yachties are welcome to use the pool, toilets, showers and bistro at the Sand Bar just behind the beach. At the resort centre there is a bakery, more restaurants and a basic general store with fuel, limited groceries, a bottle shop and other essentials. Tour bookings, car hire, internet and payphones are also found on site.

72_Entry Gate To The Great Sandy Straits Marina , Urangan Harbour


Above Kingfisher Bay, the strait’s main channel flows deep and wide between Big and Little Woody islands. There is an excellent northerly anchorage in the gutter behind South Point on Big Woody, while anchorages along that island’s eastern shore are only fair to middling.

Lying about 5km due east of Urangan, the two Woody’s together form an undeveloped section of the Great Sandy National Park. Big Woody is 8km long and 500m wide, with a heavily timbered terrain rising to about 80m. The twin Woody Island lighthouses were completed in 1870 to guide ships through the strait’s hazardous sandbanks on their way to the Mary River and Port of Maryborough. The lighthouses ceased operation in 1959 and 1987 and their remains, together with associated buildings, telegraph lines and several grave sites are heritage-listed.

A small undeveloped bush camping area (with no facilities) at Jefferies Beach on the south-east side of Big Woody Island provides a base to explore the island and its surrounds. Camping permits are required and fees apply. Due to its high conservation value, camping is not permitted on Little Woody Island, which lies within a marine park green zone (no fishing).

To the west of Big Woody are vast drying sandbanks, small reefs and narrow gutters that make navigation through this area difficult or impossible over the lower stages of the tide, and once past the north cardinal beacon, there are no navigation aids to guide you along the western shore.

Just north of Big Woody Island lies the Roy Rufus Artificial Reef, a sunken jumble of car bodies and tyres, concrete rubble and large vessels. It is the largest of its kind in the southern hemisphere and a popular site for scuba diving and fishing in the Great Sandy Strait.

Beyond the reef, the northern entrance to the Great Sandy Strait opens up and the water clarity and colour soon turns the shade of turquoise associated with a sand bottom. Here, the mariner’s choices are: proceed north into the wide-open waters of Hervey Bay; veer north-east through Moon Point Bank and Pelican Bank shoals and hug Fraser Island’s western shore to Platypus Bay and Sandy Cape; or yield to the temptations of civilisation that beckon from the west and head for Urangan Boat Harbour and the sprawling metropolis of Hervey Bay.

67_Sea Walls Protect The Navigation Channel Into Urangan Boat Harbour (1)


Urangan Boat Harbour is the largest boat launching facility in Hervey Bay, boasting two excellent four-lane boat ramps, two adjacent pontoons and a sizeable car park dedicated to cars with boat trailers.

The harbour is accessed from the north by a well-beaconed waterway and is protected on the eastern side by a substantial rock wall. Even so, strong south-east trade winds can over-top the wall during spring tides and in severe cyclonic conditions, as have sometimes occurred, the east-facing harbour can be seriously compromised. Urangan is a Standard Port in the official Tide Tables, its tides being a little later and higher than Bundaberg’s. A spring high tide of 4.2m is common with a potential range of 4m.

Anchorage within the harbour is not permitted but is possible outside the harbour, clear of the approach channel during calm weather. Dinghies can be taken to the public pontoon, which is handy to all facilities. Berths are available to casuals at three marinas within Urangan Harbour – Great Sandy Strait, Hervey Bay Boat Club and Fisherman’s Wharf – all with access to essential nautical services.


The Great Sandy Strait may be only 70km long but there is so much to see and do along this magnificent world-class waterway that it could take you days or weeks to experience the lot – the opportunities for marine adventure and recreation are endless. 

Check out the full feature in issue #504 of Trade-A-Boat magazine. Subscribe today for all the latest boating news, reviews and travel inspiration.


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