Renowned as one of the world’s great harbours, the vast and deep expanses of Australia’s iconic waterway is best enjoyed by boat.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel
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AS ONE OF THE FEW NATIONS to win the America’s Cup, Australia is a country of keen boaters and many are to be found in the largest city of Sydney. The sparkling crown in the centre of a city of five million people, the 240km shoreline of Sydney Harbour is best initially viewed from an incoming flight.

From the window of a jet you will see a vast body of water, nearly 20km long, spreading out into rivers and estuaries – along with more than 20 swimming beaches hidden among thousands of acres of gumtrees.

Sydney’s bushlands and hilly geography made it an abundant natural paradise for the indigenous peoples that included the Gadigal, Cammeraygal, Eora and Wangal tribes who gathered crustaceans and fished around its sheltered bays. Kangaroos, wallabies and dozens of other small mammals were speared among the bushes, where many of the world’s deadliest snakes also lurked.

Today, Sydney’s skyscrapers sit amid its compact central business district, as business people have one eye on work with the other casting a glance over the sparkling harbour waters.


Located on a similar latitude to Buenos Aires at 33 degrees South, Sydney has a temperate climate year round and is safely away from cyclones that reach the middle of Australia; so it is a popular wintering anchorage for Pacific cruising yachts.

Its many bays shelter thousands of yachts and the deep water right up to the shorelines with very few shallows means the harbour is an easy place for a visiting sailor to navigate. It welcomes glamorous superyachts, cruise ships and hundreds of visiting yachts annually in its warm waters (18-24 degrees Celsius) and the air temperature rarely falls to single digits.

White settlement began with British sailor Captain Cook’s 1770 arrival in Botany Bay, an estuary just south of Sydney Harbour. Penal settlement was to be Australia’s destiny, so the arrival of the infamous First Fleet in 1788 saw 1,000 convicted criminals populate Sydney. Eventually, others were sent to most of Australia as the decades passed.

Shortly after the First Fleet’s landing, two French ships under the command of Captain La Perouse arrived, much to the consternation of the British who hastily laid claim to the vast continent of Australia. That day, January 26, 1788, is celebrated as Australia Day, and a major national holiday when the harbour brims with festivities.

Despite having been given Captain Cook’s best compasses, the unfortunate La Perouse and his expedition disappeared among the Solomon Islands on the return voyage to France and he is only remembered in the name for an outer suburb.

The beautiful Camp Cove, the outermost bay in the harbour at South Head, was where the convicted men, women and children disembarked. It’s also the viewpoint from which arriving sailors see the entirety of the Harbour before them.

Dominated in the centre by the craggy Middle Head that splits the waterway in two, the main harbour is off to port, with the silhouette of the vast Harbour Bridge in the distance and the white sails of the Opera House nearby – it’s one of the most iconic scenes that quickens the pulse of arriving sailors from the Pacific Ocean.

Sailing the Harbour

The harbour is a scenic cruising ground thanks to its many bays, rivers and estuaries. Just like Hong Kong, Sydney’s ferries transport people all over the waterway. Fast moving jet cats, private hire ships, lumbering slow green ferries and a host of other craft. Unusually, sailing yachts must give them right of way.

Elsewhere, vast cruise ships follow the marked channel landward with the largest unable to pass under the 52.2m clearance of the Harbour Bridge, so these dock at the cruise terminal in the centre of the CBD at Circular Quay. This is the main ferry hub for water commuters.

Customs clearance is opposite here, at Neutral Bay (33° 50.6’S - 151° 12.95’E) and small craft can then anchor further west up the harbour at Balls Head or choose one of the many other anchorages – such as Blackwattle Bay near the CBD – where designated mooring buoys await. Swing moorings are available from NSW Maritime and worth considering for yachts staying beyond three months; New Year being a peak time when everyone wants to anchor within sight of the Bridge fireworks.

For a more accessible berth, there are dozens of marinas to choose from, including the Rushcutters Bay ones that witness the departure of the Rolex Sydney-Hobart yacht race on December 26.

On Boxing Day, the world media is focussed on Sydney Harbour as helicopters fill the sky and the fastest supermaxi yachts (100 footers) race out the Harbour and through the Heads for the 628nm bash southwards to the city of Hobart on the island of Tasmania, a remote location on the edge of the wild Southern Ocean.

For those seeking less adrenalin, there’s yacht hire and skippered charters are plentiful in the harbour, with companies such as Sydney By Sail offering romantic packages. Sail training companies such as the Pacific Sailing School, Flying Fish and East Sail are experienced operators who can take you out twilight racing or even train you to race the Rolex Sydney-Hobart.

Thrill seekers can book a jetboat ride to blast around the bays and sub-aqua types can enjoy diving with giant grouper. For cruising boats, services are plentiful with large boat yards such as Sydney City Marine and Noakes, plus an array of smaller yards along with specialist chandlers such as Whitworths.

Exploring the Harbour

Studying the chart, you will see 13 islands dotted throughout the 55 square kilometres of waterways, and one of the most important, Garden Island, is now attached the mainland and home to Australia’s navy. Nearby it is another reclaimed island, Bennelong where Danish architect Utzen built the Sydney Opera House.

Harking back to the turbulent and stormy history of white colonisation, it remembers aboriginal man Bennelong and the nearby headland is named after his wife Barangaroo; who were captured by the British to become interpreters. Nearby is the Martello tower on Fort Dennison Island that was used as a gun base but didn’t see action, even when Japanese midget submarines attacked shipping in the Harbour in 1942.

Those seeking tranquillity amid luscious scenery often head for the waters of Middle Harbour where a classy lunch can be had at the Middle Harbour Yacht club; perhaps while waiting for the Spit Bridge to open and allow access to this scenic cruising area. It leads to secluded anchorages such as Bantry Bay, amid the pristine Garigal National Park. Returning to the main harbour, passing the pristine Balmoral Beach takes you to the historic anchorage at Quarantine Bay under the towering North Head which recalls the early settlement. Here you can take a ghost tour or even stay in the historic apartments.

Yet more exploration can be done among the islands that are found in the inner harbour. The inner harbour is west of the Bridge and held a myriad of industry including ship building on Cockatoo Island. Cockatoo has museums and was recently used by Angelina Jolie to shoot part of her war Unbroken in 2013. It’s also a popular holiday spot for up-market camping (glamping).

For a thrilling voyage, take the jet cat from Circular Quay to speed at 30 knots up the narrow Parramatta River. You will pass some grand houses and the stadiums that hosted the 2000 Olympics. It’s hotels, stadiums and swimming pools are busy with visitors and its grounds and mangrove waterways are a haven for picnickers.

Beyond here the river narrows to the town of Parramatta which is one of the oldest settlements in Australia. Back on the main harbour, many other islands can be seen and not far from where the sea planes splash down is Shark Island, a popular wedding hire location and a reminder of the harbour’s abundant marine life.

Marine Life The harbour is blessed with about 586 species of fish – more than you would find off the entire coast of the United Kingdom – and there are 45 species of whales, dolphins and porpoises in the surrounding coasts. Whale watching boats ply their trade all winter long (May-Sept) as the Humpbacks, Southern Rights and others swim north to breed in tropical Australia.

Commercial fishing ceased in 2005 when dioxin levels were deemed too high in the prawn catches, but the Harbour is a major attraction for recreational fishermen (who landed about 74,000 tonnes in 2008). Shark species frequenting the harbour include Bronze Whalers and Bull Sharks particularly but thankfully, not the most dangerous predator: the saltwater crocodile, that is safely 1,500km north.

Shark attacks are very rare and many swimming competitions take place in the harbour but for those wary, nets protect several beaches and saltwater pools such as the iconic Dawn Fraser pool in the historic Balmain suburb.

Onshore Activities

As a global city, Sydney has a large airport and a vast transport system that can take you by train, light rail or road anywhere around this vast metropolis that stretches for hundreds of square kilometres to the foot of the tree-clad Blue Mountains to the west. To the north are the pristine cruising grounds of Broken Bay and the south has nearby Botany Bay and picturesque Port Hacking.

The city has world-class restaurants around the harbour, such as Tetsuya’s and Aria. Bistro fish eateries such as Doyles are famous and a big drawcard for Asian visitors is the Sydney Fish Markets, beside the anchorage at Blackwattle Bay on the edge of the CBD.

Movie stars and celebrities flock to the famous harbourside takeaway of Harry’s, where a pie floater can be enjoyed under the shadow of a modern naval destroyer. The portside suburbs of The Rocks and the old red light district of King’s Cross draw many visitors, while the young hipsters hang-out in Newtown.

Fine dining overlooking the Harbour Bridge is found in places such as the Customs House or for a sailor’s experience, the cosmopolitan pubs in the Rocks are favourites, including the Cumberland and the Australian Hotel where your pizza comes with crocodile and emu meat; just some of the many tastes that visiting sailors can enjoy around the colourful nightlife of Sydney Harbour.



Admiralty Chart AUS200 Port Jackson (Sydney)

Cruising the NSW Coast, by Alan Lucas

The Waterways of Sydney Harbour, by Philip Mathews

General information:

Currency: 1 Australian Dollar = 0.76 USD

Power: 240V

Timezone: UTC +10

Capital of Australia: Canberra

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