“Iam so sorry, I cry because eet ees all so bootifool. There ees nothing else like eet. I weel mees eet so much.”
These words still echo in my mind as I recall our time in the Whitsundays as guests of Queensland Yacht Charters.
At the time we were exploring Hill Inlet at the northern end of iconic Whitsundays destination, Whitehaven Beach. The sand glared a brilliant, eye-straining white and we were strolling in the crystal clear, lukewarm shallows, lapping up the pristine surrounds. A young lady with a deep ebony tan covered sparingly by a minute bikini was in quiet contemplation nearby. As we approached, I asked her if I could take her photo for the magazine – an evocative shot of beauty in a scene of natural splendour. But as I raised the camera, I noticed the tears running down her cheeks. I thought I might have intruded on a personal moment, but she gently dismissed my concerns, wiped away the tears then uttered the words that came to mind as I revisited my notes of our four-day adventure.
“I ‘ave been een Australia only a few months and everywhere ees so bootifool,” she continued, her words flavoured with an enchanting French accent. “But ‘ere ees the most bootifool, I cannot believe eet.”
It helped put our time in Australia’s premier marine playground into perspective. Everywhere we had been had, indeed, been most ‘bootifool’. Since leaving Abel Point Marina at Airlie Beach, we had fallen completely under the Whitsundays spell. It was as though we had closed a door and cruised into another world entirely. No mobile phones, traffic snarls, emails or other real world annoyances intruded once we left the marina and pointed our Seawind 1160 catamaran, Sea Change north-east for our first day’s destination of Butterfly Bay, on the northern tip of Hook Island. Ahead lay a horizon full of islands, beaches, reefs, dive spots, coves and caves, all to be explored and enjoyed over the next few days.
My companion, Kathryn, and I had individually spent a bit of time in the Whitsundays before. We had both done the resort thing, being pampered and preened in the comfort and luxury of the various hotels that serve tourists from all points of the globe. I had also been fortunate to attend the occasional Hamilton Island Race Week and had spent some time on the water exploring the main attractions within an hour or two of ‘Hammo’. But now we were free to explore further afield at our own pace and with our own wish-list of destinations.
Earlier, Christophe Vanek, managing director of QYC, had taken us through the ‘drill’, providing a thorough briefing on our home for the next four days. The briefing covered such things as navigation, mooring and anchoring procedures, safety gear and practical boat handling. We were also taken through the various onboard charts, GPS functions and handed a copy of David Colfelt’s ‘Whitsunday Bible’, the well-titled 100 Magic Miles of the Great Barrier Reef – The Whitsunday Islands. Now in its ninth edition, this excellent 256-page book contains over 100 pages of maps covering all anchorages, with all sorts of additional information of use to visiting boaties. A definite must-have for anyone navigating their way through the 74 islands of the Whitsundays, it became a well-thumbed companion during the remainder of our trip, with copious amounts of useful information on the islands, bays, anchorages and reefs we visited.
Our Seawind 1160 was probably overkill in terms of size for a typical couple, but Christophe wanted us to experience for ourselves a premier example of the boats available in the 27-strong QYC bareboat fleet. Two couples with kids, or a party of eight would have found this boat spacious enough for a week-long cruise. With three cabins with twin berths, a spacious galley and huge, open entertaining and dining area, this was easily more boat than we needed, but we were more than pleased to take possession of it for our coming voyage of discovery. Underway, it proved to be easily manageable for two people, took all seas in its stride and the utility of its stern area, with multiple storage options and twin helm stations, was most welcome.
Prior to departing Melbourne, we had received a comprehensive info pack from QYC, including a DVD with plenty of informative material on our coming adventure. We had also completed our provisioning forms using the services of Whitsunday Provisioning. We opted to select some provisions, meals and snacks to get us through the first day or so. A mix of fresh seafood and other delicious treats, these were delivered to the boat on the morning of our departure. I also visited the local supermarket once we arrived to stock the galley and ice chest with enough additional supplies to last the remaining days.
Mid-November is a bit outside the ideal time for Whitsunday cruising – the most popular time of year being between June and October, taking into account weather patterns and the ‘whale season’, during which hordes of humpback whales descend on north Queensland to give birth and rear their calves in the warm waters of the Great Barrier Reef. Though we timed our visit to be on the cusp of the cyclone season, the weather for our stay varied from brilliant to, well, even more brilliant. Winds were mostly moderate and only rose to the occasion when required to counter the mildly humid evenings.
One advantage to our late-season visit was the fact that we had large slabs of the Whitsundays mostly to ourselves. Rounding the point into Butterfly Bay at the end of our first two-hour leg from Airlie Beach, we were pleasantly surprised to see only one other boat moored. After radioing in our position to QYC, we donned our stinger-resistant swim suits and enjoyed our first snorkelling session amongst the local aquatic life.
The sizzle and succulent aromas of the transom-mounted barbecue were enhanced by a few glasses of chilled white as we savoured the serenity at the end of our first day aboard Sea Change.
Our destination for day two was Tongue Bay, on Whitsunday Island. Our course would take us clockwise around the top of Hook Island and down the eastern shore south towards Whitsunday, the largest island in the group. With light winds barely stirring the rigging, we opted to rely on the pair of Yanmar 30hp diesel engines for motive power. They propelled us at a leisurely 7 knot (13km/h) clip for the remainder of the voyage and proved to be impressively economical given the distance covered.
With plenty of time up our sleeves, we opted to visit Cateran Bay, on the northern side of Border Island, along the way. Here we had the bay entirely to ourselves and made the most of our midday interlude, snorkelling the surrounding reefs. As we floated over the brilliantly coloured coral formations, a wandering school of what I took to be blue puller adopted us as they meandered over the reef. They hardly seemed to notice the clumsy intruders as they went effortlessly about their daily business. Adding to the magic of the moment, a portly Maori wrasse lazily pulled into the local ‘gill wash’ facility operated by an energetic family of small fish, which darted in and out of the wrasse’s gills, snatching tiny morsels as they went.
Crossing open water as we headed south towards Tongue Bay, I noticed large schools of tuna breaking the surface in all directions. But try as I might – and using every lure in our arsenal – I couldn’t entice a bite out of any of them, eventually deciding that they must be of the genus Tourist Teaser Tuna, notorious for taking advantage of unsuspecting anglers.
Tongue Bay proved to be a more popular anchorage than our previous night’s stopover, with the bay full of visiting craft. With a freshening southerly stirring the trees, we dropped anchor and toasted the sunset. This turned out to be the quintessential Whitsundays night of the trip, with a sky full of stars providing a spectacular canopy as we lazed in the bow netting, cooled by a gentle breeze. With waves lapping lightly against the hull, the stereo provided fitting musical accompaniment to a magical starlit night.
By now the effects of a couple of days of liveaboard life, familiar to those who have spent time on the water in similar surroundings, were manifesting themselves. The sea air, lack of intrusion from any electronic media and the gentle rocking of the boat were having a therapeutic effect. We were already talking and walking slower, and our city-bred sense of urgency had all but abandoned us. Nothing to do but lay back and watch the world float by …
But there was still some exploring to be done, so next morning we untethered the tender and motored over to Tongue Point, which offers sweeping views south and access to Hill Inlet and Whitehaven Beach. It was here we encountered our tearful French friend, so overwhelmed by the natural beauty of the Whitsundays.
Back aboard Sea Change, we made plans to head further south through Solway Passage, separating Hazelwood and Whitsunday Islands, and from here westward past the glamour and glitz of Hamilton Island to Cid Harbour. But first we had to deal with further taunting from marauding schools of those teasing tuna. After toying with us for an hour or so, and haughtily ignoring every cast and lure, they went off in search of more victims.
Cid Harbour is located between Cid Island and Whitsunday Island. It provided tranquillity and shelter for our final night aboard Sea Change. We were rewarded with yet another perfect tropical sunset and balmy evening surrounded by the rolling hills of the western coastline of Whitsunday Island.
With only four days to explore the Whitsundays, we had barely scratched the surface of this incredible boating paradise. But we had seen enough above and below the water, not to mention the occasional excursion on land, to know that the lucky winners of our five-night Whitsunday Ultimate Island Escape are going to have a ‘bootifool’ time aboard their QYC charter boat.
The French connection
It’s very satisfying for us to see the positive effects a few days on a boat can have on families Christophe Vanek is eminently qualified to oversee the operations of Queensland Yacht Charters. In fact, he is arguably well over-qualified, based on a lifetime spent on the water.
An accomplished racing yachtsman with an armada of America’s Cup and Sydney Hobart campaigns under his belt – mostly as bowman, before age and wisdom relocated him towards the stern of the boat – there is not a lot the French businessman hasn’t seen or done on the water. His family ran a shipyard in France and he has lived and worked in the marine industry in various locations around the world.
Established in 1980, QYC has been a prominent operator in the Whitsundays bareboat charter game and today manages a fleet of 27 craft, spilt between sail (approximately 80 per cent of the fleet) and power boats.
Christophe joined the 12-strong QYC team in 2010 and oversaw the business’s absorption into the French-based international Dream Yacht Charters empire. The DYC group has 30 charter outlets across the globe. The world’s second-largest bareboat charter business, DYC operates in the Caribbean, Mediterranean, Indian Ocean, South-east Asia, and the South Pacific. It’s virtually a one-stop shop for anyone wanting to charter a boat in the world’s premier marine playgrounds.
With a lifetime of experience around the world, Christophe says Australia is spoilt when it comes to cruising, especially so in the Whitsundays.
“It really is a unique experience here,” he said as we looked out over the water from his Abel Point Marina office to Hook Island.
“Where else can you leave the mainland and be in a spectacular spot like Hook Island within two hours and then have four, five or even 10 days to explore such a fantastic area? Every day there is a different island, reef or beach to visit. There are not many places on the planet where you can do that safely and so easily.”
Christophe says QYC has developed a solid reputation for the quality of its boats and service in 22 years of operation.
“We have a very experienced group of people working here. All of our staff have been in the charter industry for a long time and they really know their jobs,” he said.
Christophe says the busiest time of year for QYC is the whale season, from June to September, but either side of this period is still good in terms of weather and water conditions.
Although formal qualifications are not a necessity for a QYC charter, some level of boating experience is required. Alternatively, QYC can arrange a saile guide to help charterers brush up on their skills, or even supply a full-time skipper for the duration of their time aboard.
Christophe says that, from a safety point of view, the Whitsundays is one of the best areas in the world for newcomers.
“It’s really all about understanding the tides, currents and winds,” he said. “Once people realise how things work around the islands, they can enjoy themselves without worrying about things too much.”
Christophe says the QYC team gets a lot of satisfaction from seeing families come together during their time on the water.
“They get here and everyone is excited, but sometimes a bit tense because they haven’t chartered a boat before. But after a week or so on the water, with nothing to do but spend quality time together, they come back full of smiles and wanting to do it all over again. It’s very satisfying for us to see the positive effects a few days on a boat can have on families.”
If you’d like to find out for yourself, contact Queensland Yacht Charters on (07) 4946 7400, www.yachtcharters.com.au.