Cairns Can

John Ford — 13 August 2020
Cairns is one of the best ways to see the tropical north and the wonders of the Great Barrier Reef.

Tropical north Queensland in winter is as far removed from the dreary grey south of the country as you can get. Warm days, blue skies and fish filled waters are just the start, so it’s no wonder it’s home to a lucky bunch of tanned locals and a popular destination for thousands of tourists. 

Cairns is one of the main attractions here, and it’s a long haul from the big smoke — Brisbane is 1700km away by road — so towing a trailer boat or motoring north in a big cruiser is an effort, but one that’s well worth it if time is on your side.

As a regional centre, Cairns has grown into a sprawling belt of developments hugging the coast between the Great Dividing Range and the Coral Sea. Cairns regional council stretches from the village of Garradunga in the south up to the Macalister range, but the main city hugs the northern shore of Cairns Harbour and Trinity Inlet.


The region is home to Barada Barna Aboriginal people and today 15 clan groups make up nearly 10 per cent of local numbers. Europeans settled in the 1860s for the beche de mer fishing on nearby Green Island, which resulted in bloody conflicts with the local Indigenous group. 

Like many places in Australia, the discovery of gold put Cairns on the map, and the opening of the railway to Kuranda in 1890 made the town a stepping off point to the goldfields on the Atherton Tableland. Chinese and European settlers started farming and agriculture, particularly cane and fruit growing, which are important contributors to the local economy.

While the sugar industry might be doing fine, a product of an unfortunate experiment is doing even better. In 1935 the Bureau of Sugar Experiment Stations imported the South American cane toad and released a few at Gardenvale to see if they would help control beetles attacking the cane. The toads certainly killed off the beetles, but things got out of hand and they have been killing off local fauna ever since.

Growth was gradual and the region thrived as a tourist centre, but things really took off when an international airport was opened in 1984 — 45,000 foreign visitors landed there in the first year.  

Today, a population of some 150,000 residents swells with an annual influx of three million more, in a good year, including 1.3 million from overseas. The Great Barrier Reef, as one of the seven Natural Wonders of our world, is the highlight of course, but the nearby Daintree Rainforest adds to the attraction.

Partly thanks to the Great Barrier Reef, boating is a major pastime. Along with thousands of private trailer boats, dozens of tourist and game boats head seaward every day in the season and it’s said that Cairns has the highest rate of boat ownership per capita in Australia.


During World War II American servicemen were based in Cairns for leave and as a jumping off point to the Pacific. George Bransford was among them and being a keen angler, he learned marlin were considered a pest by commercial mackerel fishermen because they busted gear with their brute strength.

With his interest fired, he eventually returned to Cairns and took up game fishing as a skipper with a passion. Several charter boats fished the reefs after the war and there were plentiful catches of small blacks and any number of other pelagics, but George figured the big fish had to be there too.

 In 1966 he landed the first grander, or fish weighing over 1000lb (454kg), with angler Richard Obach. The black marlin tipped the scales at 1064lb (483kg) on 80lb (37kg) line. It was captured on Sea Baby 1, the first in a line of boats of that name, and it was the beginning of a $60m recreational fishing industry that lures thousands in the heavy tackle season, which usually runs from September to late November each year.


Not everyone wants to be chasing monster marlin, and they aren’t there all year round anyway. The Marine Park has limitations on where you can fish, but that still leaves plenty of offshore hotspots for smaller blacks and schools of spanish mackerel over winter, plus arm-stretching trevally, feisty queenfish or, my favourite bottom bouncing table fish, the coral trout. 

Estuaries reward with barramundi and bream and the freshwater Lake Tinaroo in the hinterland has delivered barra up to the world record 37kg mark. If dragging your own boat is too much of an effort, charters leave most days and the local fleet is world class.


If you’re heading north in your own boat, you’ve already acclimatised in the heat and humidity in the Whitsundays, 500km or so to the south. If you are arriving from overseas, Cairns is the first point of entry from the north-east if you bypass Thursday Island. Either way, Cairns will be a welcome port after a long voyage, so what’s in store?

As a major port, the entrance is well marked, and the seas are a usually calm. Cyclone season, though, can change everything. Leads mark a long-dredged channel into the port, with commercial fishing vessels moored to the west and a cyclone proof sea wall surrounding Marlin Marina, where 261 berths up to 140m are in year-round demand — book early in peak season and at least 48 hours at all times before you arrive. Facilities include a laundry, bathroom and a nearby supermarket. The bulk of the game fishing and sports charter fishing fleet live here and it’s also the main terminal for day boats to the reef.

Further inland, commercial wharfs cater to cruise ships, freighters and naval patrol boats on the western shore and visiting and permanent yachts and motor vessels take up pile moorings and anchorages in their hundreds.

Past these wharfs and in the channel alongside Admiralty Island, the laid-back Cairns Cruising Yacht Squadron has a 15-berth marina and 19 pile moorings. Temporary membership of $20 a week gives access to facilities, including bathrooms, the bar and bistro. 

Adjacent to club is The Big Boat Shed with a full range of engineering and mechanical services and a 35-tonne travel lift crane and hardstand facilities with room for 75 vessels.


For a town with so many boats, facilities seem limited because parking would be a problem when fish were running. Locals suggest taking care on the ramps, as they can be slippery, and that it’s not a good idea to clean fish near the water for fear of crocs — add that to the stingers, sharks, stonefish and sunburn and I can see why parking might not be a problem after all. 

All the ramps here lead to Trinity Inlet and out to sea, but they also access Cairns estuary, with miles of winding mangrove lined creeks that evoke a mystical feeling even though they are close to civilisation. 

Unless you like a walk, get to the main ramp in town, at Tingara Street Portsmith on Smiths Creek, early. With room for about 80 trailers, there’s a washdown, good lighting, a floating pontoon and a well-shaped three-car ramp. Another less formal parking area on the other side of Tingara Street has another hundred or so spaces a couple of hundred meters away.

Also in Portsmith, is the Fernley St ramp, with a floating a pontoon and parking on the street for 20 or so trailers. 

If estuary fishing is more your thing, the isolated ramp on Chinamans Creek might suit. Drive south from the city to Yarrabah road and the turn to Redbank Road will take you to the Packers Camp ramp. It’s a good, wide ramp with a pontoon, and an adjacent storage yard is a handy place to leave the boat if you are planning on exploring the mountains.

For access to the Coral Sea in a small boat, I’d try the east Trinity ramp at Second Beach off the Pine Creek Yarrabah Road about a half an hour drive from the city. 

Barron River, meanwhile, has a ramp at Machans Beach that can be found at the end of Greenback Rd, near the bridge on the Captain Cook Highway. 


Only a 15-minute drive from the Cairns CBD is the coastal village of Yorkeys Knob and the Yorkeys Knob Boating Club. Boasting the modern 197 berth Half Moon Bay Marina with sheltered access to the ocean, it has a relaxed atmosphere and views over sparkling blue waters and distant green mountains. The club has a restaurant and its own sports fishing and sailing divisions. Trailer boats are accommodated at the adjacent ramp with good shelter from the breakwall. It can be tricky for larger boats with the bottom silting up at times but parking good and close by.


The northern suburb of Palm Cove is a picturesque beachside village with a holiday vibe of golden sand, swaying coconut trees and a jetty jutting into crystal clear water — just the place to launch on the beach access ramp and casually push off towards the Coral Sea. If only every boating trip could be so ideal. 



Ph (07) 4052 3866

VHF C16 ‘Marlin Marina’

Rates Up to 10m — daily $51, weekly $330, plus power. Up to 15m — daily $76, weekly $508


Ph (07) 4035 5115

Rates Daily $5/m, weekly $21/m



Ph (07) 4055 7711 

Rates Up to 10m — daily $36, weekly $211. 

Up to 15m —daily $58, weekly $429.


35–37 Tingira St, Cairns City QLD 4870

Ph (07) 4035 4333

Rates see


Travel Destination Cairns Queensland Great Barrier Reef Coastal travel


John Ford