With international borders to Australia being reopened shortly after the country changed rules for foreign-flagged charters, the Land of Oz is ripe and ready for exploration. BOAT discovers what that means for the region and gets the lowdown on the best places to visit by superyacht down under...
Australia may be the smallest of the world’s seven continents, but it’s what surrounds it that counts: 25,800 kilometres of stunning coastline and the world’s largest coral reef system. In addition, its tropical and temperate waters, prime surfing spots, world-class attractions, exotic wildlife and a largely unexplored rugged interior are ingredients that should signal “superyacht heaven”. But for years Australia was something of a closed book.
If you wanted to cruise down under you had either to charter locally, clamber aboard a cruise ship or take your own boat; for some owners, that distance equals half a circumnavigation. Now, seeking to promote its country’s extraordinary offerings, the Australian government has passed the Special Recreational Vessels Bill to allow foreign-owned and flagged superyachts to charter in Australian waters. It’s a move that Andrew Cannon, general manager of Rivergate Marina in Brisbane, calls “a defining moment in Australia’s marine industry history.”
The change is expected to lead to an increase in the number of foreign-flagged yachts in the region and the amount of time they spend there too. Chris Santon, head of Burgess Australia, says it will bring a 300 per cent increase in the economic impact of yachting. Peter Redford, director of Fraser Australia, says the change will “finally place Australia as a world-class charter destination for superyachts... and [put] us on a par in the Pacific with other destinations such as Fiji, Tahiti and New Zealand”.
“Australia has always been a desirable location for yacht owners and one for the bucket list,” says Santon. “However, the distances from common cruising grounds such as the Mediterranean and the Caribbean can seem daunting coupled with the obvious great expense involved with bringing yachts to this region. With these new laws making it simpler and more straightforward to be allowed to perform charters in Australia, there is suddenly one less argument to not come down to this region and all the surrounding cruising grounds, as costs can be offset in some way, which is always important for many yacht owners.”
Joscelyn O’Keefe, marketing and business development manager at Coral Sea Marina Resort in Queensland, which can berth yachts up to 80 metres and has a dedicated superyacht concierge, agrees. “For foreign-flagged vessels to be permitted to charter now provides additional incentives for owners to bear the costs of relocating their vessel to Australia for longer periods of time. They can enjoy [cruising] time themselves, get quality refit work at one of the many facilities available in Queensland, and then offset some of their costs by making their vessel available for charter.” In recent years, the marina has welcomed 73.3-metre Dragonfly, 57.5-metre Twizzle and 64.8-metre Adix.
The weather is undoubtedly a big draw. In the Whitsunday Islands and at the Great Barrier Reef, average temperatures rarely dip below 20 degrees Celsius, even in winter. “From November to March, when you are freezing to death [in Europe and America], it’s the middle of summer here,” says Jack Cowin, the Sydney-based owner of 43.8-metre Silver Dream and 60-metre Slipstream. “It’s an alternative winter destination to the Caribbean,” he says.
One welcome effect of the law change is that there will be bigger boats in the area, says Jonathan Beckett, CEO of Burgess. “There are not many big, quality superyachts in Australia. There are smaller yachts up to about 30 to 36 metres, but not superyachts as we know them. It will open up the market.” Yachts now available for charter in the region include the 36.6-metre Sahana, 38-metre Perle Bleue and 45-metre Big Fish.
Beckett imagines Australia will be a particular hit with West Coast Americans, perhaps a younger, tech-savvy crowd. “The younger generation are more dynamic and adventurous,” he says. “They are one flight away from Australia, can take a private plane straight into the Whitsundays and be on a yacht.”
Industry insiders divide Australia – and the people who will charter there – into three groups: those attracted to the culture and shopping of Sydney Harbour; those seeking the country’s natural appeal, who want to explore the Whitsundays’ crystal waters and the Great Barrier Reef’s diving opportunities; and those who Cowin deems the “adventurers... seeking something you can’t experience in old-world Europe”. After cruising in Australia, this latter group might travel onwards to Fiji or Vanuatu, he says.
There’s also the Kimberley in north-western Australia, which borders the Indian Ocean and the Timor Sea and faces Indonesia. Redford describes it as “a sparsely settled region known for large swathes of wilderness defined by rugged ranges, dramatic gorges, semi-arid savannah and a largely isolated coastline”. It is best visited from July to September, before temperatures get uncomfortably high. “The Kimberley is a very special area [offering] very different yachting,” adds Beckett. “It’s an incredible environment, up there as a real once- in-a-lifetime experience.”
Those who have cruised in Australia are passionate about it. Cowin’s Silver Dream, although built in Sydney, has been based in Europe for the past 19 years. Now he’s considering taking her to Australia and chartering there. He recommends cruising the Hawkesbury River, north of Sydney. “It comes in off the ocean. There are fantastic restaurants and nature parks there. You can only get there by seaplane or boat – it’s quite special.”
Captain Martin Debanks has lived in Cairns for 12 years and been in charge of the 35-metre wave piercer Spirit in the region since 2016. “My heart lies with the Great Barrier Reef,” he says. “The Whitsundays are truly a gem and the northern reaches of the reef are particularly unspoiled and remote. The cruising in the Kimberley is spectacular and not to be missed, as is Sydney Harbour, and, if you have time, a trip to Tasmania. Oh and did I mention the Northern Territories?”
He has a top tip for game fishermen: “Late September through to early December on the Great Barrier Reef from Cairns North to around Lizard Island is giant black marlin fishing season. It’s the time when these magnificent creatures return year after year to spawn. To experience this is truly unforgettable.”
Santon’s must-do is “a dive or snorkel trip at Osprey Reef on the Great Barrier Reef, an oval-shaped atoll rising 2,000 metres from the sea bottom with a 30-metre-deep lagoon of incredible water clarity and a magnitude of colourful corals and fish”. Or a beach set-up at Hyams Beach in Booderee National Park in Jervis Bay, south of Sydney. “The location is known for having the whitest sand in the world, making the water a stunning turquoise, and all this is surrounded by a national park where you might spot a kangaroo.” He also highlights the local food and drink: crayfish and rock lobsters in the Kimberley, Sydney rock oysters from Wallis Lake, and a Hunter Valley sémillon.
For Redford, a visit to Whitehaven Beach in the Whitsundays is “definitely a must”. This spectacular stretch of sand was ranked the number-one beach in Australia and the South Pacific in TripAdvisor’s Travellers’ Choice Beaches Awards 2020. “There is also the world-famous Heart Reef – when viewed from above it is the shape of a heart. It is perfect for snorkelling and discovering the wonders of the Great Barrier Reef up close,” says Redford.
Tom Hill, director of Rivergate Marina and Shipyard in Brisbane, mentions the “easy cruising” from Queensland down to Sydney and Melbourne, and recommends Lord Howe Island, 600 kilometres off the coast of New South Wales, an extinct volcano with fantastic diving and “thousands of unique species”. He calls it “a slice of Jurassic Park.”
“The number of foreign-flagged vessels visiting the marina has grown steadily over the last five years, peaking in 2019 at 22 per cent of our total superyacht visitation,” says O’Keefe. “While the current pandemic has definitely slowed the level of vessels entering the country, there is still solid interest across the sector from foreign-flagged vessels, and the industry is primed to act on this as soon as the international border restrictions ease.”
Owners, charter agents, tourism groups and marinas are all buoyant about a permanent uptick. Cowin, for one, sees tourism in the country as having a “terrific future”, and the infrastructure only growing, especially as more Chinese people have been visiting Australia.
As Santon says: “The incredible natural beauty and diversity of the Great Barrier Reef or the rugged topography of the Kimberley is something to behold and few charterers and yacht owners in the world have really experienced awesome spectacles like this. All in all, those wishing to come to Australia will do so because they want to try something unique and different; they are more adventurous and willing to try new parts of the world.”
Australia can certainly tick all those boxes. “It’s a beautiful area and Australians are fabulous people,” says Beckett. “It’s a unique experience. You will never see anything like it in the world. It’s not just a yachting holiday... it’s something else.”
This feature is taken from the December 2020 issue of BOAT International. Get this magazine sent straight to your door, or subscribe and never miss an issue.Shop now