The City by the Sea

Even on a windless day, plying the waters of Sydney Harbour may be the best way to pass four hours under the city sun.
Sydney sail
Sydney's Other Bridge: The Anzac (Leanne Mitchell)
Sydney by Jet Boat
If sailing is a slow and steady meander across Sydney Harbour, then a jet- boat excursion is a Carl Lewis sprint. Adrenaline addicts, this is for you. Don a full-body rain suit, climb aboard, and put fate and fun in the hands of your captain—though he may be more of a pilot considering the boats can reach speeds of nearly 50 miles per hour. The trip consists of three basic moves: full stops, where the engines are thrown into reverse after a rapid acceleration; a 270-degree spin; and countless banking turns. The overall effect? Pounding pulse rates, lots of splashing water, and loads of enthusiastic screams. You also get calmer moments, where cameras emerge from Ziploc bags so you can get your water-level shot of the Sydney Opera House. But this 35-minute ride is as much about speed as it is the scene, so consider yourself warned. Harbour Jet (+61-02-1300-88.73.73) operates out of Darling Harbour and offers a tantalizing promise: "Experience guaranteed or your money back."

When Captain Arthur Philips, commander of the first fleet sent to Australia, sailed into Sydney Harbour after heading north from Botany Bay, he wrote in his diary: "We had the satisfaction of finding the finest harbor in the world, in which a thousand ships…may ride in the most perfect security." Sydney has grown considerably since that day in January 1788 when Philips' band of colonists and convicts first touched solid ground, but what was then Port Jackson still stands today as a near-perfect template for what a harbor should be: Enter from the stormy South Pacific Ocean through the North and South heads, then turn a few degrees south and glide past the Middle Head near Obelisk Bay, and you enter a narrow, pockmarked coastline with sandy beach refuges, austere cliffs, and calm waters flowing from the Parramatta and Lane Cove rivers.

But had Captain Philips been with us that sunny afternoon in July, his pen might have hesitated before writing about those "riding ships" because the entire harbor was in a dead calm. We'd joined Sydney by Sail in Darling Harbour, motored out into Sydney Harbour, hoisted our sail and…nothing. There was no wind, bad enough for the four of us on board—five if you count captain Rob Iles, a round-faced Sydneysider with glasses and an easy smile. But we weren't really in a rush to get anywhere during our four-hour excursion. For nearly all the other sailboats in the harbor, however, it was a different story. Some 150 boats were in the first stages of the annual Sydney to Southport Yacht Race, a route that follows the northern coastline for three to four days.

All things considered, we were just happy to be out on the water. We'd made the trip down to the Sydney by Sail docks on three separate occasions, each time deterred from sailing out by the steady drizzle that'd plagued the first half of the trip. To Rob, who'd been sailing since he was eight, a little rain never hurt anybody. But he was endlessly accommodating, and on the tail end of my whirlwind stomp through a good chunk of Australia, the sun finally stopped hiding and we joined Rob and a married couple out celebrating the wife's birthday. Sure, more wind would've made our outing more exciting, but the silence that lingered when Rob killed the tiny motor and hoisted the sail was heavenly. Just the lapping of the waves, the occasional whirr of rope through pulleys as he pulled a sail taught. Occasionally the meditative silence would be broken by the whoosh of the adrenaline-crazed jet-boat tour, the roar of the Manly Ferry, or the low grumble of a speed boat cutting back in toward the mainland, its hull bristling with fishing rods…but those interruptions were few, refining the silence after the intrusion faded.

Ahead of us, the massive flotilla of racing yachts were in a kind of synchronized dance, every boat cutting and furling their sails in an effort to snag some sort of momentum from the nonexistent wind. Rob explained to us the finer points of the race, how teams worked in shifts, two hands sleeping below deck while others tended to the ship. He pointed out former Americas Cup winners; we scoffed at a yacht with a hideous bumblebee paint job, and collectively daydreamed about owning a small yacht of our own. Time passed in a lazy crawl to the tune of waves lapping against the ship's hull. And when, eventually, the first gust of wind stirred the flag hanging from our mast, we watched as every boat in the race exploded into a fury of movement. Ever the calm operator, Rob made a few adjustments and we gathered speed, heading out past Shark Island off Rose Bay, moving smooth and clean just behind the last boats in the race, until we reached Watson's Bay, where we turned around and started sailing back into the expansive central portion of Sydney Harbour.

The wind now literally behind our backs, we made good time, cruising past the ubiquitous Sydney landmark of the Opera House and underneath the Sydney Harbour Bridge, where ant-sized tourists in the requisite gray jumpsuits slowly climbed the bridge to reach the top for sunset. We lopped around Goat Island, swung near the opening of Darling Harbour, and just when I thought our outing had reached its conclusion, we angled west into Johnsons Bay and sailed under the Anzac Bridge, a stunning traverse crowned in twin, triangle-shaped wire supports anchored by two tall concrete struts.

After turning around on the other side of the Anzac, Rob pointed the boat back toward Darling Harbour and home, letting us each take a turn at the massive steering wheel. We'd extended our four-hour trip an additional half an hour, but the Sydneysider couple had dinner waiting on the Sydney by Sail docks, part two of the elaborate birthday present. After that, they'd board the largest yacht in the charter's fleet, on which they'd each get a professional massage and spend the night—the plush interior far more impressive than my one-bedroom apartment back home. For the rest of us, the day's sailing over, save for that undeniable urge to go into debt and get a sailboat all our own.

Access and Resources
Sydney by Sail (+02.9280.1110) is located in Darling Harbour, next to the Maritime Museum and the IMAX Theater, on the west side of Pyrmont Bridge. They offer a full complement of sailing options, from short Sydney Harbour cruises to learn-to-sail courses to multi-person yacht charters to overnight "B&B-style" packages, including gourmet meals and professional massages. They also handle bareboat charters and will customize outings according to your particular needs.

Nathan Borchelt is the lead editor for

Published: 12 Nov 2004 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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