Hooray - those crowds on and about the Hawkesbury have now thinned out, writes David Lockwood.
According to a study by the National Marine Safety Committee, the use of boats declines in the weeks following Easter. By June, just one-third of otherwise keen captains will launch their craft. Yet savvy skippers regard these autumn weeks as the best time to launch an assault. It's all about finding your own slice of heaven.
Autumn weather plays into the hands of the pleasure boater. You can hit the calm ocean road, play outdoors without being fried to a crisp, dive into the invitingly warm water, or cast a line. The fish and crabs are snapping. Then come sunsets with amazing colours and crisp nights that lull you to sleep in your cabin.
Best of all, you don't have to deal with the holiday crowds. As Tidelines discovered this past week, opportunity abounds in autumn. The bolt holes and bays are littered with empty moorings - take your pick - while mainstream anchorages otherwise rocked by the passing parade or summer winds are suddenly perfect for a day of lolling about.
Take a tip and cram in as much boating as you can. Here are some recent highlights from our autumn days in and around the Hawkesbury.
Maitland Bay: Providing there's no southerly swell and/or wind you can explore Maitland Bay on the Central Coast. The pick of the ocean anchorages between Sydney and Port Stephens, Maitland is in Bouddi National Park and the next beach north of Killcare. Due to marine reserve, fishing is off limits but the diving makes up for it. You need to steer well clear of West Reef and Maitland Bombora, both of which break in even calm seas, but once inside the bay there's a good hold over the sand bottom some 50 metres off the steeply sloping beach. Tucked in behind the craggy sandstone headland at the northern end is just delightful. Swim or paddle to shore for beachcombing, dive around the point at the southern end and see the groper and stingrays, or take the tender and board to Buggery, a powerful reef break on the point to the north. Maitland Bay is popular with naturists, families and bushwalkers, but the walk in means it's never that crowded. Not recommended as an overnighter. Head around the Hardys Bay in Brisbane Water for that.
Pearl Beach: Roaring sea breezes and onshore swells mean most of Broken Bay is a transit zone in summer. But on the dead-flat days you can anchor off Pearl Beach. Catch a flathead, frolic with the kiddies in the lagoon in the southern corner, do laps in the ocean pool, or hit the terrific playground in the front of the general store and cafe. We struck Pearl Beach during the annual food and wine fare at the Memorial Hall, scoring some first-rate homemade pickles. When it's truly flat you can also down anchor at Umina and Lobster beaches.
Patonga: Although it can be surgy and therefore is not the best for sleeping, Patonga is hard to beat for a day trip. Anchor in about 3m of water to the west of the moorings. The hold in the mud is good. Ferry-loads arrive for the fish and chips. The hand-cut chips and battered blue grenadier are terrific: salty, crunchy, with the right amount of oiliness. But look for the local specials. The netters were chasing mullet at the time of writing and a deep-fried fresh fillet went down a treat. Other times, you can buy leatherjacket, luderick, jewfish and whiting. The trawlers also fish for prawns and squid. Check that the former are local before you shell out. Nearby, the pub with America's Cup bar from the old Hilton beckons for breakfast, a cold drink and/or more upmarket lunch overlooking your boat. The beach itself is a pleasant stroll, has a dog-off-leash policy, and there's a camping ground at the local estuary. Patonga Creek ranges well upstream, but at low tide its mouth/bar is pretty much dry. Time your trip to avoid portage of your tender or kayak. The bay at the other end of the beach, Dark Corner, is anything but in the afternoon. Enjoy the lingering sunset, warm sand flats and calm water perfect for kiddies.
Hungry and Gunyah beaches: Often exposed, usually overlooked, these two great sandy beaches on the main river are crawling with crabs and loaded with hungry flathead. For the blue swimmer crabs, set nets in no more than 3m of water. If you have small fry, the lagoon in the eastern corner of Gunyah is safe for them to play. Without the wash from the summer traffic, you will enjoy a pleasant night at either beach. Take a gas barbecue ashore and cook lunch. But mind the goannas on Hungry as they are just that!
Dangar Island: Anchor or grab a mooring off the cafe near the ferry wharf on the northern side, take your tender or kayak to shore, and strike out on a hike. You can round the island with ease. There's a playground, bowling club that does lunch on weekends and dinner on Saturday nights, and the aforesaid cafe. Bradley's Beach on the eastern side has wonderful views to Broken Bay and is fair swimming at high tide. The fishing for bream, flathead and jewfish is great around the island.
Cowan Creek: Without the weekend traffic and yahoos, the anchorages on the mainstream call in autumn. Try Fishermans, Little Shark and Little Jerusalem bays for morning light, Cottage Rock and Cowan for afternoon swims, and Refuge for the waterfall and high-tide wallow. Hallets Beach is the place to do sundowners ashore in the lingering sunset.