Through the GBR to the Cape 2012-2020

For more than a century, sailing ships worked their way across the top of Australia through Torres straight with only obscure charts, no motors, no depth sounders, no radar and worst of all, no GPS  —- how do you know where you are without a GPS position?

In particular, it must have been daunting coming from the east. Once they passed through the dense outer barrier, they needed to dodge uncharted reefs whilst often manoevering in swift currents and strong winds.

Finding a way through the reef and beyond.

The favoured route sailing ships took during the 1800s was Raine Island entrance just North of the Great Detached reef and then onward almost straight to Cape York.  Trade winds pushed them forward, and the currents and winds were lighter than further north. Whilst no longer used by merchant ships, it is still the easiest way to this part of Australia for Yachts and small vessels. For us, there were lots to enjoy apart from the history of the passage.

Great Detached Reef

The reef is known for several Impressive old ship anchors that are firmly embedded in coral along its western side, but for us, the attraction is a superb calm anchorage sitting in 3m over pure fine sand and a unique diving location. Snorkelling around the lagoon was ok, but with strong winds, scuba diving along the outer walls was a little hairy. However, the NE entrance is partially protected from the weather and has a small reef structure in the centre of it. When the very strong incoming current rush past on both sides it creates a dead spot of gently swirling water. So we anchored our vessel along the side of the passage. Then took the dinghy to the dead spot out of the current and had some amazing diving amongst beautiful coral covered in dancing Damsel fish. A resident giant groper, big wrasse, Manta rays, Dog tooth tuna, Barracouter, the odd turtle, and endless Grey Whalers kept parading past. It was a tricky but amazing dive spot that kept us returning for days.

Jukes reef and obscure places

Now we have started NW to the cape. No hurry, and we stopped at a couple of beautiful little reefs with tidal sand cays not far along the track. Jukes reef, only 15nm away, was the most fun. Pelagics were everywhere, thanks to a school of bait fish. We needed to be careful when planning our dive as there were plenty of ripping currents. After an exciting dive, I broke out my portraiture lens and coerced the first mate to row the dinghy to shore. While I sort off navigated from the back seat! She just happened to bump into a large coral rock; most unfortunate, well, I thought it was funny 🙂 We continued our photo session, meandering around the sand; what a splendid model she was, that was even more fun.

It was very unusual to find this large Milk Cowery during daylight at reef 11-093. In 2012 it was a magnificent coral garden stretching for 1-2 km. We dropped in to check it out again in 2020, and it was a pile of smashed dead coral. Bleaching had hit it hard, and a cyclone had finished it off 🙁

Monsoon Reef

We found this little gem of a reef about 1/2 way to the cape. Easy anchorage can be found on the NW right behind a beautiful little sand cay that shows itself at about 1/2 tide. What a wonderful place for a picnic and to play in the water. 

We enjoyed a dive here, but the visibility is nothing like the outer barrier areas. The most fun was taking pics around the cay. The wind had dropped, the colours really popped, and my model was in fine form.

The top end.

From Monsoon, we skipped to the Cape and over to our favoured anchorage at Horn Island.

This Great Detached reef back to the mainland path is very easy. Another fun way to move back to the mainland is to cross from Wishbone reef, stopping at beautiful Forbes Island. That’s another story, but at the moment, we are in the process of repowering Flash Dancer. All being well, we will cruise to Lihou reef in the spring. Australia’s biggest atoll is 350nm east of Cairns. That should be quite an adventure.

Cheers, Rob and Syl.

Further interesting sites

If you would like to browse all our cruising images, click here.

To see a beautiful web page relating to the Great Detached reef and further far north Queensland information, click

To cruise further south to wishbone reef, click here

To cruise further north to Ashmore reef, click here

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