01 January 2019 | Athol Bay off Bradley’s Head, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
Photo: New Year’s Eve fireworks on Sydney Harbour Bridge seen from Tregoning in Athol Bay
When we were gathered with the “Go West Rally” in Bundaberg, a recurring theme was how we would view the New Year’s Eve fireworks in Sydney. For those of us who had not previously been in Australia at the change of the year, this was one of our highest priorities, the only question being whether we would attend on our boats or on land. During the rally-seminar on cruising in Sydney, John warned that anchoring-out on New Year’s Eve was liable to be chaotic and nerve-wracking, suggesting that greatest peace-of-mind could be obtained by staying in Rose Bay, a location 2 km from the easternmost fireworks barge and 5 km east of the Harbour Bridge (just over 1 and 3 miles, respectively).
After Randall’s steely and heroic captaincy during the melee of the spectator-boat-charge-to-sea at the start of the Sydney to Hobart Race, Tregoning was not going to be cringing nervously in Rose Bay. No, our goal was a second-row position at Athol Bay, off the Tongaroa Zoo. Front-row positions would be in Farm Cove (just east of the Opera House) or Lavender Bay (just northwest of the Bridge). However, to get a good place in these anchorages would require arriving at least a day in advance and they were close enough to the Bridge to risk being subject to ash and obscured by smoke (depending upon the wind direction).
Many other boats would be aiming for Athol Bay, so we wanted to get there as early as possible on December 31st. Leaving the house at 7:35 am got us unloaded at Balmoral Boathouse at exactly 8 am, when the tender service started. By 9 am we had arrived at Athol Bay and selected a large open area about 100 m (330 feet) from the edge of the exclusion zone (clearly marked by yellow buoys) and about twice that distance from Bradley’s Head. We had a view of the Bridge that was unobstructed by land and our main hope was that no large boats would park in the way. With superyachts over 30 m (100 feet) and commercial boats confined to positions southeast of us, it was reasonable unlikely that our view would be badly blocked.
The view of the bridge from Tregoning in Athol Bay on the morning of New Year’s Eve
The fireworks would be released from the Bridge and from eight barges, four east and four west of the Bridge. We were within 500 m of the easternmost barge (south of Bradley’s Head), so we had a 90 degree field of view of fireworks from due south to due west.
Although with Martha, Jan, and Michael, we almost had a full boat, we had all agreed that it would be fun to invite Barb and Rob from SV Zoonie to join us. They took the ferry from Circular Wharf (by the Opera House) to the Taronga Zoo Wharf at the north end of Athol Bay, and we launched the dinghy to go to pick them up. Soon afterwards, Barb and I made a loop around the Bay to greet some of the other rally participants such as the crews of SVs Osprey, Elevation, Enchantress, and Endorphin. Some of the other familiar boats in the area were Charabia, Florence, Udder-Life, Sky Blue Eyes, Riverslea, and Enough. Other cruisers that we knew were ashore were the crews from Code Blue, Silhouette, Irie II, and Troubadour.
Many boats had spent the night in the bay, mostly nearer the shore where the water was calmer, and a steady stream of others poured-in around and after us. On the whole, everyone was in good spirits and polite. Our early arrival paid-off because we had a degree of primacy in our area and most other boats choosing to anchor nearby realized that in the 12m- (40 feet-) deep water, we would have a swinging circle of about 25 m (82 feet) radius. It was not difficult to identify which crews were used to anchoring and which boats probably only left the marina or mooring once or twice a year.
As the day wore on, the wind changed in both strength and direction so that the relative positions of boats kept changing. Two of the many boats that arrived after us, ended-up being too close. We took in a little anchor chain but finally had to ask one other sailing yacht, of similar size to Tregoning, to move away as they swung far too close to us and to their neighbor on the other side. This they did graciously and they seemed to find a good space not far away.
Clouds and boats gather in the early evening with two acrobatic planes flying overhead
A smaller powerboat that had needed several attempts to secure their anchor near us, however, was considerably less charming. When the wind direction changed and we had to fend them off our bow, their captain’s first reaction was to accuse us of dragging and pointing-out that our position relative to the other nearby big boats had changed. He clearly did not understand how boats move with an anchoring scope (ratio of anchor rode length to water-depth) greater than 1 (normally a scope of 3 is minimal and 7 is ideal).
After several such discussions with decreasing humor, Randall invited him aboard to see on our chart-plotter that we had not dragged and were exactly where we should be based on our minimal scope of just less than 3. This offer was rejected and over the following hours, the owner of the small boat pulled up his anchor (with a scope of apparently little more than 1) and repositioned several times within the same general area. Each time, as the wind and currents changed, he ended-up being too close to another boat. Our main fear was not that we would collide, not likely to be a damaging impact in those conditions, but that in his many efforts to reposition he would hook and lift someone else’s anchor or chain, causing them to drag or become entangled with another anchor.
Even this would have been fairly amusing if the other captain had remained cheerful. However, when at one point Randall noted that he needed to move because we had arrived there first (by an hour or so), he loudly muttered that we were foreign visitors and that he and the other Australians had been in Sydney first. (I am pretty sure that if challenged, he would have explained that he was only referring to other boating Australians of European-descent like himself.) When I relayed this conversation to Stephanie who was working in the nearby National Park on Bradley’s Head, she was absolutely horrified that someone would have said this to us. If she had had access to a boat, I think that Ranger Steph might have come down and given him a piece of her mind, which would have not been very sympathetic to his whining...
As forecast, the partly sunny morning had gradually clouded-over and by 6 pm we watched an air display by two acrobatic planes against an ominously darkening bank of clouds. Within minutes of their display ending, the rumble of thunder echoed through the bay and streaks of lightning were visible around the city. Over the next hour, our program told of a Fire Tug Water Display and a Smoking Ceremony (eucalyptus smoke cleansing the harbour of any bad spirits) and Welcome to Country from an Aboriginal Elder but the pouring rain and low clouds obscured any such events, if they still occurred.
After lightning and thunder, rain and low cloud obscure our view of the bridge around 7 pm
With the Bimini and side-panels keeping us dry in our cockpit, we felt very sorry for the crowds on shore who were getting drenched. However, we did not let the bad weather deter us from enjoying our delicious dinner of shrimp and chicken salads that Jan had kindly prepared, with a marvelous chocolate dessert provided by Barb. If anyone expressed doubt about whether the fireworks would be released or could be seen in such conditions, Little-Miss-Sunshine-Barb cheerfully assured us that the sky was becoming lighter to the south...and, of course, she was right.
By 8 pm, our views were restored, allowing us to admire the lights of many colors and sequences on the Bridge. Various patterns and images were projected onto the stone pylons (including, we subsequently gathered, last year’s date “Welcome to 2018”)
At 9 pm, was the Family Fireworks Display, a dramatic 8-minute show that was focused on four of the barges and the underside of the Bridge. It was a marvelous spectacle and included pyrotechnic formations that were new to us. We did not try to listen to the synchronized music provided on one of the radio stations because we would never have heard it over the chest-juddering booms that echoed from the nearest barge to Bradley’s Head and around the bowl of Athol Bay. It was so thrilling!
Part of the Family Fireworks from the barge closest to Tregoning
Red fireworks reflected off Tregoning’s guests: L to R, Michael, Jan, Barb, and Rob
Family Fireworks that remind me of the magical ones that look like people or creatures in the Harry Potter movies and look (to me) like two dancers (white heads, blue arms, red torsos, golden legs/skirts)...and I was the designated (minimal-drinking) captain!
Immediately after the Family Fireworks, was the Calling Country ceremony which “reflects our respect for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, their heritage and living cultures in spectacular images on the Sydney Harbour Bridge pylons.” We were just too far away to see this properly but we did see the subsequent “Harbour of Light Parade”. This consisted of large vessels (mostly commercial tour-boats or ferries) which were supposed to dazzle the crowds with changing colored lights “as they dance around the harbour.” All we could see were ships solemnly circling in the exclusion zone outlined in bright pink lights. The first few were impressive but after two hours with no color-changes their impact had rather fizzled.
Not to worry...we maintained our enthusiasm with naps or watching the surrounding boats (all pretty well-behaved as the wind decreased). Bottles of bubbly, including a very fancy bottle that Jan and Michael had brought all the way from France, were popped before midnight so that we could all have a glass ready for toasting the New Year. We then counted-down with the numbers projected on the Bridge plyons and on the stroke of midnight, we gazed in admiration at the amazing show of fireworks, especially on the Bridge.
Inaugurated in 1976 and first televised in 1995, the midnight fireworks now last for 12 minutes (representing the 12 months of year). Featuring 8.5 tonnes of pyrotechnics and 35,000 shooting comets this was the biggest show ever staged in Sydney. Although released in perfect synchrony from all barges, compared to the Family show there were many more fireworks on the Bridge at midnight. It was hard to know where to look and whether to just watch, take still photos, or shoot video. Luckily, I realized about half-way through that only video could do justice to the show and captured much of the display on the Bridge, along with our gasps and wows. For the finale, a beautiful two-minute sequence of Bridge fireworks concluded with the addition of a barrage of high-flying rockets piling into a magnificent crescendo of concussive booms, fizzes, shrieks, dazzling colors, and intricate dancing patterns across the sky. By all definitions of the word, it was absolutely awesome.
Beyond the anchored boats, New Year’s fireworks on the Bridge and surrounding barges greet 2019
Was it worth the long day at a rolly anchorage (ferries keep running until 8 pm), the angst of closely maneuvering and anchoring boats, and the subsequent short night (we did not get to sleep until 2 am and were awoken by bouncy wakes well before 7 am)?
Would we recommend the experience to other cruisers?
Absolutely...unless you are completely paranoid about other vessels being too close or the forecast calls for strong winds. Our anchor held perfectly but there were clearly a few areas (perhaps with seaweed) where other boats could not remain in place. Of course, these gaps just attract the late-arrivals but, luckily, by that time the wind had diminished.
Would we recommend taking other passengers?
Absolutely...it added greatly to the fun and the party atmosphere. It also made us feel much less anxious about the other boats having arrived early and knowing that we always had someone in the cockpit or on deck keeping an eye on our ever-moving neighbors (Randall nobly slept in the cockpit as all of our cabin berths were full).
Since many fireworks rise so high in the sky, is it still important to be able to see the Bridge and to stay for the midnight show?
Absolutely! The Bridge fireworks are what really distinguishes the Sydney show from others.
Could the fireworks budget of A$5.78 million (US$4.12 million) have been better spent on social welfare programs?
Of course, such a budget could be usefully spent elsewhere but does the show provide the city with value? With all of the structures needed for road closures (of the Bridge and City Center from 11 pm to 1:30 am), the total budget is considerably higher and this is all assigned by the Sydney City Council from their tax payers, for which, we thank them. It is estimated that 1.6 million people attend the associated events and view the fireworks live. Some people pay considerable sums for good views from the Opera House, Botanic Gardens, Taronga Zoo, Bradley’s Head National Park, commercial vessels, etc. These ticket-sales presumably benefit the host organization of the viewing site. Many other spectators, like us, do not pay directly for watching the shows. However, since most of these spectators come from outside the city, it has been estimated that about 20 times the City’s budget is generated as extra spending in Sydney during this period, including all of the hotels and rented-out houses and apartments with suitable harbour-views.
While the more than billion people around the world who watch these fireworks on TV do not pay anything for the privilege (but maybe the TV networks owe fees), the positive publicity generated for the city and country must contribute to future New Year’s Eve attendances and general spending by tourists. At least the seven people aboard Tregoning, were specifically in Sydney spending money over the New Year holidays because they wanted to be, and were, dazzled by the spectacular, world-famous Sydney Harbour Fireworks.