There was a palpable air of excitement as we boarded our Hamilton Island-bound flight on a cold and grey wintry Melbourne morning. We’d been looking forward to this trip with growing anticipation – we were off to cruise the Whitsundays on our own charter boat, an ambition that all three of us had harboured for some time. The expectant trio consisted of myself, and friends Michelle and Sarah. Between us we had a mix of sailing experience. Both Michelle and I are relative novices, with some limited racing experience on smaller craft, while Sarah is an accomplished all-rounder. But we were keen to put what knowledge we had to the test, and what better place to do it than the Whitsundays.
Landing at Hamilton Island airport, it seemed the weather had hitched a ride as we were greeted with grey skies and misty rain. I was assured this was unseasonable and sure enough it soon cleared for another typical day in paradise.
We weren’t due to board our charter boat until early the next morning, giving us the chance to spend a night at the Hamilton Island resort. It’s a pity we only had a one night stopover as there are so many attractions, activities, dining and accommodation options available to guests enjoying longer stays on the island. Nevertheless, the warmth and hospitality shown us at Hamilton Island prepared us well for the days ahead.
The following morning I was thankful we hadn’t overindulged in cocktails as we boarded the 8.20am ferry from Hamilton Island to Shute Harbour on the mainland, where we were greeted by our host, Claire Murray from Whitsunday Private Yacht Charters. A short drive later, we were all seated around a table covered in charts, for our charter briefing.
I’d have to say that, as relative sailing novices – despite Sarah’s wealth of experience – both Michelle and I were immediately set at ease by the professional and helpful attitude of Claire and the rest of the Whitsunday Private Yacht Charter staff. They instilled confidence in us right from the start and made it clear that support was always readily available. They ran through the charts and how to read them, where the best places to anchor or moor were, how to use the equipment on the boat and generally made us feel a lot more confident about the adventure ahead. My only real concerns were the various zones marked with a pink highlighter on the charts. It was explained that these were danger areas off limits to charter vessels. Although we were assured that it was virtually impossible to get into trouble, I couldn’t help but wonder if the $2000 security bond was enough to cover the unthinkable.
A quick visit to the dive shop saw us kitted out with wetsuits and snorkels and the dive centre manager excitedly informed us that we were the first all-female crew he has ever kitted out.
With a bag-full of snorkelling gear, we made our way to our new home for the next five days; a 35-foot Tasman catamaran named Rum & Coke. My immediate impression was of the vast amount of space available, both inside and out. Our vessel boasted three staterooms (with double beds), “a twin-hull craft was a great platform for cruising novices as it provided plenty of stability and comfort” two heads (one an ensuite), a TV with DVD player, a stereo, fresh water shower and a tender to get to all those out-of-the-way beaches.
We’d taken the option to have our boat fully provisioned in advance of our arrival, so we had everything – sans the rum and coke – already waiting for us when we stepped aboard. All that was left to do was to get the gist of how to drive this floating palace.
Pete Mosedale, our skipper for the next two hours, gave us the grand tour and a run-through of all the equipment on board, then it was time for a bit of hands-on action. After we motored out of Abel Point marina, Pete killed the engine and we hoisted the main. Then it was off on a leisurely cruise over to Daydream Island. Some two hours later, after safely depositing Pete at Daydream Island via the tender, we were on our own.
We decided that it would be prudent to spend our first night in nearby Cid Harbour, since we only had a couple of hours before our first ‘sched’ (yachtie-speak for scheduled radio communication) to advise Whitsunday Private Yacht Charters where we were anchoring for the night. With a south-easterly blowing in at around 20 knots, Cid Harbour is a reliable anchorage, as it is known not only for its pretty and secluded beaches, but for providing shelter in almost any weather.
On our way to Cid, we spotted a whale and her calf about 200 metres away. We immediately killed the motor and ran below to grab our cameras, but as is so often the case, they had other intentions and had disappeared before we could fire off a shot.
Cruising into Cid Harbour, we realised we would not be alone, with about a dozen or so boats – some charter, some privately owned – already anchored for the night.
With a watchful eye on the depth sounder, we found a spot and dropped anchor for the night. Phew! Then Sarah announced that she was going off to explore the harbour in our little tender. But the tender decided to be a little temperamental, which left Sarah somewhat more temperamental and about 100 metres from the mothership and yelling for help.
Fortunately, another tender from a nearby boat started making its way over to Sarah. There’s nothing quite like a damsel in distress! But just as the thoughtful gentleman reached her, the outboard sprang to life and Sarah was able to power her way back to the boat.
To truly immerse ourselves in the Whitsunday ambience, Sarah and I thought it only appropriate that we unwind on deck with a glass of bubbly and watch a spectacular pink sunset on the first night of our charter adventure.
Keen to get the most out of our trip, we poured over the charterer’s bible – 100 Magic Miles. This is the ultimate survival guide for chartering the Whitsundays, especially for first-timers as it not only provides information on the best diving spots and various fish species around, but also includes the best anchoring and mooring locations. There were plenty of handy ‘dos and don’ts’ and other information and I’d have to say 100 Magic Miles really is an absolutely indispensable resource for those wishing to explore the Whitsundays in confidence and safety.
We decided we wanted to see as much as possible and fit a few snorkelling sessions in along the way. Now, it should be pointed out that the Whitsundays are not made up entirely of countless sandy islands, as some glossy brochures and TV ads sometimes depict the area. Instead, it comprises 74 mostly green, tree-laden islands and occasional sandy atolls, which were formed when changing sea levels drowned a mountain range. And all sit like emerald gems in a spectacular turquoise sea.
The next day, following our morning sched, we made our way to Whitehaven Beach – that famous long stretch of white, sandy bay that so alluringly epitomises the Whitsunday experience. But first we had to get there and this initially looked to be a pretty daunting prospect. Our trusty chart told us that we would have to contend with a few “pink areas” en route to Whitehaven, so we eventually decided to take the safe passage – also known as the long way – because, after all, this wasn’t our boat and we didn’t want to be known as the first all-female crew to run aground!
Our safe passage took us past Hook Island, home to a modest resort and an underwater observatory. At 459 metres, Hook Peak is the island’s highest mountain and has a handful of walking tracks. One of these leads to picturesque Butterfly Bay, so-named for the butterflies that reportedly swarm around the shores.
A short time later we arrived at that famous long stretch of pristine natural silica sand, only to find it dotted with fellow holiday makers walking, sunbaking and playing cricket. We dropped the anchor, jumped in the tender and made our way over to join in the fun.
Whitehaven is located on the south-eastern corner of Whitsunday Island, which is a national park and therefore undeveloped. The beach stretches some six kilometres and provides a haven for those seeking shelter from the prevailing south-easterlies that visit the Whitsundays for much of the year.
After taking a stroll along the brilliant white sand, we jumped back in the tender and finished the day enjoying a cold beverage while watching the ferry take the daytrippers back to their hotels. Next on our itinerary was Butterfly Bay, on the northern tip of Hook Island. An excellent overnight anchorage with quality coral and fish life for snorkelling, it entailed a few hours cruising north from Whitehaven. Shortly after we picked up a mooring – actually we had to do it three times, but only because the marine park authorities wanted to repair the one we were on – we grabbed our snorkels and flippers and jumped off the back of the boat.
The coral and fish life in Butterfly Bay is truly amazing, providing a myriad of colours under neath the warm turquoise waters. We bobbed up and down, occasionally lifting our heads to see where the others were and to shout and signal excitedly to a new discovery below.
After we’d utilised the fresh water shower on the transom and dried off, we grabbed our chartering bible to find we’d just been swimming with surf parrotfish, moon wrasse, beaked coralfish, threadfin butterflyfish and five-banded and yellow damselfish.
Eager to fit another snorkelling session in, we decided we would make a pitstop at Maureen’s Cove (next door to Butterfly Bay) en route to Nara Inlet on the southern end of Hook Island, where we were once again treated to a spectacular display of fish and coral life.
Entering the still and peaceful waters of Nara Inlet, we almost felt as though we were intruding on this piece of paradise quietly tucked away. But we weren’t alone, as we found a few other charter boats and cruisers had slipped in and anchored for the evening. The only sounds to be heard were those of our neighbours enjoying a beer or chardy on deck and the occasional call of mountain goats!
Later we were joined by a local for dinner – a cheeky cockatoo – who perched himself on our transom barbecue and was certainly in no hurry to leave once he spotted our food. It’s worth noting that although it can be exciting to see these creatures up close, feeding the wildlife is not permitted by the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service (QPWS) as they run the risk of becoming reliant on tourists for food.
The QPWS has constructed a walking track on the eastern side of Nara Inlet for access to an Aboriginal cave site and paintings. According to 100 Magic Miles, anyone in reasonable health shouldn’t find the climb to the cave too daunting, providing they are wearing good footwear (and no, that doesn’t include thongs) and haven’t been sitting on a boat for four days straight…
We spent our last night parked back in our pen at Abel Point Marina, as we had an early start the next day to fly back to Melbourne. Upon our arrival, we proudly informed the charter staff that not only had we managed to come back in one piece, we had also only used one tank of fresh water – not bad for a group of girls!
On reflection, we all agreed that our Whitsunday adventure had been an unforgettable experience, made even better by the professional and supportive people at Whitsunday Private Yacht Charters. Despite our overall lack of cruising experience, the staff instilled confidence in us right from the start. They made it clear that help was always readily available, should we need it, and generally did all they could to make our tour through the Whitsundays a relaxing and thoroughly enjoyable experience. We were given a comprehensive briefing on the big cat and all its systems so that by the time we set sail we were comfortable in our ability to cruise safely and maintain control of the boat.
Speaking of which, everything onboard, from the sails, rigging, anchoring and mooring systems and electronics was automated or at the very least simple and easy to operate. Anyone with common sense and who pays attention during the initial briefing would have no trouble in finding their way around the boat – and the Whitsundays, for that matter. And if you encountered a problem, nine times out of ten it was simply a matter of refreshing your memory with the handy manual provided.
As Michelle pointed out, the fact that our vessel was a catamaran made life more pleasant. While we’d had quite a bit of prior experience on monohulls, a twin-hull craft was a great platform for cruising novices as it provided plenty of stability and comfort – keeping in mind that we were faced with mostly windy and choppy conditions during our visit.
The daily radio scheds were a great source of information, too. We’d make one call in the morning to let Claire and the staff know where we were headed, and another at 4pm to let them know we’d anchored for the day. But we’d also use the opportunity to listen into others out on the water as they discussed where they’d been and conditions and features in the area. It was a great way of getting additional information as we planned each day’s activities and destinations.
Overall, our Whitsunday sailing adventure left us feeling a lot more confident about our ability to cruise safely on our own. And the relaxed nature of cruising in the Whitsundays meant that each day could be as simple or as complex as we wanted it to be. As it turned out, due to the mostly blustery conditions, the sails didn’t get much of a workout. For the most part, we motored around the islands, as we experienced south/south-easterlies of around 20-25 knots consistently. We did, however, manage to hoist the sails up on a couple of occasions, but ultimately found it just as easy and, on occasion, a little more comfortable to just turn the key and push the levers forward.
Rum & Coke had a pleasant cruising speed of around 6-8 knots, all the mod cons and the latest that design and technology has to offer. But most importantly, it had plenty of room to sit back and take in the beautiful scenery that we southerners mostly only ever see plastered on billboards.
WHITSUNDAY CRUISE CLUES
Best times of year: August/September/October, weather permitting.
Whitsunday Private Yacht Charters has a wide range of vessels to choose from, ranging in size and price accordingly. Charter prices start from $480 per night for a mono-hull, $645 per night for a catamaran and motor cruisers are around $780 per night. A minimum of five nights per charter vessel applies. Look for specials throughout the year.
For more information, call Whitsunday Private Yacht Charters on: (07) 4946 6880, or try: www.whitsunday-yacht.com.au.