New Year’s Madness on Sydney Harbor (Bucket List Week, Part 2)

Photo from ABC News, Australia. Evenstar is too big to be allowed in that anchorage – it has a 15 meter limit, or we would have been right there.

First off, I’ve got to admit up front – I don’t have great photos or video from our New Year’s Eve on Sydney Harbor. So I’m going to have to borrow, link, and credit.

Warwick, RI. This one’s mine.

Good firework photography requires a few things – a long exposure time, a stable platform, and a tripod. While I do have a somewhat flimsy tripod, a boat is just not a good place take long exposure times since it’s always jiggling, swinging and moving. So a picture like the one on the right, which I took on the Fourth of July about thirteen years ago, takes a lot more care and trouble than you can do on a boat. It would be a blurry mess if I’d even bothered. Your best hope is to shoot video and hope for stills, but we don’t have great video equipment.

Setup and Positioning

When my parents told us they were planning to meet us in Australia my mother wanted to be in Sydney for New Year’s Eve. It would cost more to travel that week, so we needed to make it worth while.

Sydney Harbor has a well deserved reputation as a madhouse on New Year’s Eve. As it’s one of the first places to ring in the new year, they’ve gone out-of-the-way to make a big deal out of it, and do it up right. That there is such a gorgeous setting is a bonus – the harbor bridge and the opera house make a fantastic back drop.

Sydney Harbor is a big place, and a LOT of boats are out there on NYE. It’s not just the private boats like us that add to the madhouse feeling, there are commercial party boats on booze cruises, megayachts, and a parade of lights. The harbor fills up fast and gets busy in a hurry.

From the official NYE harbour management site. I’ve added in our rough location as a green dot, with the boat name in red over on the right.

New Years Eve this year was a Saturday. My parents were arriving on Friday, the 30th. Since we had zero interest in jockeying for position and hunting for an anchorage with the masses flocking out on Saturday, our plan was simple. Beat the crowds who had to work Friday. So I picked my parents up at the airport and brought them back to Middle Harbour Yacht Club, where we’d made arrangements to stay for the three weeks my parents would be visiting. After a relaxed lunch at the club restaurant, we cast of lines for Athol Bay. That’s on the far right side of the grayed out exclusion zone on the map above, to the North.

Athol Bay sometimes has a couple of boats anchored there. That’s typical every time we’d passed it. It’s pretty enough, but exposed to the South and it’s not so easy to get ashore. When we arrived on Friday afternoon there were already LOTS of boats there. Hundreds, where we’d never seen more than a dozen at once. We staked out a nice anchor spot near the edge of the exclusion zone. It wasn’t crowded at the time, and there was plenty of room around us. Of course, that changed over the next twenty-four hours.

The Hordes Descend

By the time we were moving about the boat on Saturday morning the picture of the anchorage was changing rapidly.

Any on-water spectacular always provides a lot of opportunities to watch the show as people try that once a year thing they never do otherwise: anchoring. And they are trying it close to other boats.

We’ve been in the midst of other spectacles/debacles like this, like the Quonset Air Show. I never blogged about that experience, but we did it a few times. The Anchoring Follies was always a highlight of the air show. With fenders near at hand, we watched people come in throughout the day and drop into tighter and tighter spaces.

Like everywhere, people approached it with various levels of skill, seriousness, attitude, and equanimity. Some zoomed up, cocktail in hand, dumped the anchor, cranked up the radio and started partying. Others came in and circled for several laps through the anchorage before settling on a spot.

Unfortunately, one mentality guy that anchored nearly on top of us could be politely described as rhyming with “butter bass pole.” He anchored on top of us, then swung REALLY close to another boat as he settled in. That boat had been there for hours, and the skipper was visibly upset and telling the new arrival he’d anchored too close. The new arrival said to him, and I quote exactly here, “If I’m making you uncomfortable then you should move.”

That is…not done…in the sailing world. At least, not by people who anchor more than once every year or two and have a modicum of courtesy for anyone around them. The rule of thumb anchoring is that new boats arriving in an anchorage anchor around the already present boats with courtesy and distance. If there is a dispute on this distance, the newcomer adjusts position. It’s more of a rule, or even a social more, than anything legally enforceable. From a legal perspective, if a skipper sees a threat to his boat he should mitigate it, even if the threat is from some bass pole that should know better and move his boat.

Without ranting too much, suffice to say that Captain Bass Pole isn’t someone I’d want to hang with. He had four friend boats show up – apparently his job, as the most brazen and obnoxious of the lot, was to ram his boat in a hole and make enough space for two more forty-foot sailboats to raft up to his. And a small powerboat that they hung off the back of the raft that swung almost under our bow. He did stop by and give me a beer and thank me for basically being the only boat near him that didn’t yell at him for anchoring like a schmuck. I’m insured, and I took pictures of his boat, so I took it. He certainly didn’t ruin the day, but he and his friends were one of those…annoyances…that will always stick in your mind for a long time, because I had to Be The Adult and make sure he didn’t smash into my home.

Bass poles aside, we spent a nice leisurely day on the boat. We had the grill and the blender going, producing an Australian style “sausage sizzle” and pitchers of Mudslides. The city of Sydney had planned a few things throughout the day, such as some military helicopter flyovers. There were more shows up by the bridge and the Opera House, but we anchored about a mile and a half from there so couldn’t really see those. Not to mind, we hadn’t planned to.

Night and Fireworks

After dark is when the real activity starts. Though boats were still arriving as the sun set, the Exclusion Zone was enforced from 8:00 p.m until 12:45 a.m., so boats would no longer be able to leave or arrive.

Two fireworks events were scheduled for the night. At 9:00 a “Family” display went off, early for the kids. It was spectacular, for just a “kiddie” display it would have made any city proud, and it was a fantastic teaser for things to come.

Shortly after the family fireworks display, the Harbour Light Parade started. Just about every commercial party cruiser, charter boat, and tall ship in the harbor has decked out in bright, beautiful lights. They spent the next hour or two cruising up and down the harbor. Small boats with lights, even kayaks paddling, worked their way through the anchorage. We grilled up some surf & turn, mixed some more beverages, and checked out watches.

Midnight

A cultural movie show on the pillars of the bridge preceded the fireworks. From our distance we couldn’t make sense out of it. There was a radio simulcast, but our FM radio situation on the boat is pretty poor. I tuned in with my handheld multi band amateur radio, but the signal wasn’t good enough. In hindsight, I should have gotten a small radio or something, since the music chosen for the display tied into the color themes, such as a tribute to Prince with a serious of gorgeous purple displays.

Describing the fireworks is where a good facility with descriptive language would be helpful. In theory, I’ve got one.

In practice, I’ve never seen a show like this one. From where we anchored we could clearly see four of the main display barges and the bridge. I don’t think there was any site on the bay we couldn’t at least glimpse the fireworks from. The whole bay lit up with gold, vermilion, green, purple, blue, yellow, orange and too many others to count. Every fireworks site was choreographed precisely, so the same types of displays and colors and themes were all synchronized across the harbor.

The bridge became a waterfall of light as the finale approached and all the displays crescendo-ed at once. Even from a mile away the bridge was spectacular.

I’ve included some of the better links to the displays for any interested. One is a summary of the highlights, the other is the entire show captured in montage from the land, air, and water.

Definitely a night to remember.

And for those that want to watch the whole thing…

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