Cape York Sailing Expedition Report - on a Boat in a Bag


By Alan Barlee
March 16, 2010

In August-September 2009, six adventurers came together for a three-week 900 km sailing and sea-kayaking adventure through the Great Barrier Reef in Far North Queensland - but an adventure with a difference!

Some members of the group had, in 2005, sailed from Hinchinbrook Island up to Cooktown in Hobiecats (in quite challenging weather). The logistics of getting the boats and gear from Sydney up to FNQ in shipping containers proved to be difficult and expensive, however, and this gave birth to the idea of using inflatable and collapsible boats for the 2009 northern leg - up to Thursday Island.

Three of the expeditioners decided on inflatable sea kayaks (a double and a single), and, to take advantage of the south-easterly trade winds that prevail in the northern winter, they successfully trialled 2-metre kite sails, which provided higher average boat speed and some relief for the paddlers.

Two members of the party conducted intensive research into possible design concepts and materials for a 'mother ship' - to be an 18 foot catamaran which could be dismantled to a few portable bags for low cost transport.

Unpacked cat. Copyright 2010 Alan Barlee. All Rights Reserved.

The additional specs were that it should be as light as possible; be capable of carrying (if necessary) all the expedition members plus all their gear, food and water; and that it should be able to sail upwind in the event of a possible kayak rescue.

Initially it was intended that the boats would be transported by air as accompanied baggage, but when Qantas changed its domestic baggage charging from a piece basis to weight early in 2009, the back-loading rate on a furniture van became the cheapest transport to FNQ.

In only six months we had designed, constructed and sailed a seaworthy expedition boat.

The two pontoons were fabricated in Sydney - 5.7m long x 0.6m diameter Hypalon tubes, tapering up at the bow and blunt at the stern.

A frame of stringers, cross-beams and pontoon cradles was constructed from 50mm x 4mm 6106-T6 aluminium tubing, and rolled bar and rod, all selected for stiffness and corrosion resistance, with section lengths not exceeding 2.5 metres. The joints were proprietary 'Keelite' aluminium fittings from the UK.

All aboard P. Charlotte Bay. Copyright 2010 Alan Barlee. All Rights Reserved.

A centrebox assembly was welded up from some scrap aluminium checker-plate and was mounted centrally below the mast-step, secured by four opposing 'Strongropes'.

The single centre-board was cut from 19 mm marine ply and surfaced with carbon fibre-reinforced epoxy resin for maximum stiffness and impact strength.

A single rudder was similarly fabricated and fitted to a Hobiecat rudder-box and tiller assembly, mounted centrally at the stern.

The fore and aft trampolines were stitched locally from conventional plastic mesh. The 20 foot mast, boom and spinnaker pole were made from purchased 2mm thick aluminium sections used by the 125 and Pacer dinghy classes, but with the much lighter 'Strongrope' being used in place of the conventional stainless steel stays.

To complete the rig a set of 125 dinghy sails were fitted, and a set of strong canvas or shade-cloth bags for transport were either stitched up or purchased.

While the kayakers and sailors were working on the skills and endurance needed, attention turned to detailed trip planning.

A mix of digital marine maps, tidal data and Google Earth was used to generate a sailing and camping plan; a provisions list was prepared; water needs were assessed; tools and spares were assembled; gear transport and EPIRB hire were arranged; advance airline bookings were made; and various authorities were notified.

The trip itself was a blast! Unlike our 2005 experience, the weather was generally mild, and the wind-strength was generally an ideal 15-20 knots, with maximum wave heights a comfortable 2-3 metres.

Our overnight camp spots comprised a wonderful variety of uninhabited coral islands and reefs, interspersed with isolated mainland beaches.

Sails down at Fife Island. Copyright 2010 Alan Barlee. All Rights Reserved.

Daily legs were typically 20-30 nautical miles (37-56 km), with navigation across some very wide expanses of sea proving to be quite precise, with the help of the excellent maps, a compass and a programmed GPS.

The wind had a more pronounced easterly tendency than we had expected, and the kayakers frequently hitched themselves to the Cat for a tow (or came aboard for the occasional long lunch) when the wind direction was unsuitable for the kite sails.

Kayaks under tow. Copyright 2010 Alan Barlee. All Rights Reserved.

Water proved not to be a problem, with some excellent sweet water sources refilling our 10-litre wine bladders in good time. Likewise, our dehydrated rations were supplemented with some very fresh rock oysters and some great catches from the stern of the Cat of tuna, mackerel and trevally, which we barbecued in our usual evening camp fire on the beach.

Lunch and fishing. Copyright 2010 Alan Barlee. All Rights Reserved.

Happily the crocodiles left us alone, although their presence on some of the beaches below our small tents was occasionally evident. Similarly, we had no problems with sharks, or with sharp coral and oyster shell - although we maintained a very close watch when sailing in shallow water, and when swimming.

The wildlife and the scenery was stunning, with large numbers of turtles and a variety of fish and bird-life, the occasional dugong, and flying fish fleeing underwater predators.

For much of the trip we had the Great Barrier Reef and its islands and beaches to ourselves. It was always a highlight however when we met kindred souls, such as when we spent a day and a night exchanging opinions and stories with Dave Glasheen on his island (Dave makes the best ice-cold beer in the entire world); and where a small crew from a visiting trawler joined us to swap yarns and to cook up the best barbecued prawns we'd ever tasted; and with Norm and Dawn, on board their boat one evening for a birthday celebration and a night of rum and Coke, guitars, harmonica and folk singing under the stars and a full moon, and on another occasion, near the end of out trip, at the end of a tow-line along which came – more ice-cold rum and Coke!

Kite off Cape Melville. Copyright 2010 Alan Barlee. All Rights Reserved.

This was a truly memorable expedition - accessible to any similar group with the necessary sense of adventure and with a reverence and respect for Australia's remote and largely unspoiled marine environment in our north.

For a 12 minute video of the trip, please visit

Our boat has since returned to Sydney without a scratch and is currently awaiting its next owner, who we are sure will have as much fun with it as we have had.

The author is Alan Barlee, from Bright in NE Victoria - a 68 y/o with an ongoing passion for outdoor adventure including bushwalking, remote area rafting and microlight flying.

Alan's son, Brett, is also an experienced adventure leader and paddler. Father and son have shared some good times on the Franklin River and on the Durack in the East Kimberley, as well as off-shore sailing trips in Far North Queensland.

Our other members were Brett’s paddling and life partner, Michelle Clark, a friend, Kevin Songberg, who is also an experienced adventure leader and paddler, Phil Sharples (who was the author’s boat-designing and building partner), and Alicia Ellul, Phil’s partner.

Any group who might be interested in becoming the Cat's next joint owner, with a view to undertaking a similar adventure, is welcome to contact Alan at, who would be pleased to share the planning details and the local knowledge gained during this once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Copyright © Alan Barlee. 03.16.2010. All Rights Reserved.