It would be hard to imagine a more idyllic scene. There we were on an implausibly mirror-flat ocean, miles from land, sun beaming down with lines in the water expecting at any moment to reel in another fat red emperor, when alongside us a mother humpback and her calf lazily surfaced for a look at the puny intruders who had cruised into their territory. I lunged for the camera and fired off a few shots, all the while staring in wonder as the giant mammals checked us out while they basked in the sun. It was just another special Whitsundays moment to add to the many we’d already experienced over the previous few days.
The plan had been hatched a few months earlier during a visit to the Haines Signature factory near Brisbane. Then company boss, Greg Haines spoke of plans to visit the Whitsundays with one or two Signatures and put them through their paces around the islands. It seemed like an opportunity too good to refuse, so we selflessly offered to accompany him and his crew, in the process doing some homework for a feature on trailerboating in the Whitsundays. The die was cast and the deal was done.
Fast-forward a few months and there I was about to board a 48ft Maritimo luxury cruiser at Hamilton Island Marina, with nary a trailerboat in sight. Greg Haines greeted me and explained that our mission plan had changed a bit since we last spoke. It turned out that we would be combining a trailerboat safari of the Whitsundays with some filming for the popular Queensland Creek to Coast TV show. And we would have two Haines Signatures accompanying us – a 632 Queenslander and 600C – along with the Creek to Coast production crew. We would be towing the smaller boats behind the Maritimo so that refuelling wouldn’t be an issue during our travels.
So I have to state from the start that while my own intentions were pure, what transpired over the following few days wasn’t, strictly speaking, the definitive Whitsundays trailerboat trek. While we covered a lot of water and visited plenty of good diving and fishing spots along the way, our evenings were spent in rather more comfort than you’d expect to find on most trailerboats. Think The Hangover meets Discovery Channel, with a pair of Signatures trailing along in our wake – although they were untethered regularly for fishing, exploratory and filming purposes.
We ranged far and wide over the following four days, sampling the isolation and pristine habitat of Stucco Reef more than 100km to the north-east, the cosiness of Nara Inlet and Hill Inlets on Hook and Whitsunday Islands respectively, the boundless beauty of Whitehaven Beach and every now and then we sent a lure or bait overboard and dined on the results.
But I spent enough time aboard the smaller boats to reinforce the idea that the Whitsundays really is a largely untapped resource when it comes to trailerboating fun and adventure. In fact, it has so many possibilities I hardly knew where to start. Or not.
Once back on dry land, I put in a call to my good mate and all-round guru of all things boating and Whitsundays related, Captain Greg Alward. There is not too much about either subject that the Hamilton Island resident and charter skipper can’t fill a book with. Together with the good folks from Tourism Whitsundays, we discussed the many facets of Australia’s greatest boating playground that make it a great destination for those who tow their boats on a trailer.
Also drafted into the team were Geoff Fitzsimmons, President of the Whitsunday Volunteer Marine Rescue, along with fellow VMR member Bill Falconer. Both provided plenty of valuable input in terms of hazards and pitfalls for unwary visitors.
The fact is that, while many consider the Whitsundays to be exclusively the preserve of larger craft, the islands are just as user-friendly for people with smaller boats. In fact, from the point of view of safe and sheltered anchorages, it is probably one of Australia’s safest boating destinations. No matter which direction the weather or wind is approaching from, there are inlets and shelters available within a few minutes cruising on your average powerboat.
And on top of that, the islands offer some of the world’s most scenic and spectacular locations, great fishing and excellent scuba and snorkelling possibilities. And there is a virtually unlimited supply of sheltered bays and isolated beaches where you can have the world to yourself.
Most trailerboaters access the Whitsundays from Airlie Beach or Shute Harbour on the mainland, within easy reach of Hook, Whitsunday, Hamilton and Hayman Islands at the northern end of the island chain. As a Mecca for holidaymakers, Airlie Beach has all the resources needed, from a range of accommodation and camping options, to plenty of shops and restaurants. There is also a range of boat dealers, repairers and tackle shops for anyone wanting to stock up before they launch.
There are a few boat launching options in the area, the two main ones being the Abel Point Marina facility and the ramp at Shute Harbour. There is plenty of parking at both and the Shute Harbour facility also offers the option of secure lock-up parking. There are also a few other smaller ramps in the area.
For those intending to spend more than a couple of days out amongst the islands, some local campgrounds also offer parking for cars and trailers at varying rates.
Before you head out, make sure you have accurate charts – but even then you need to be a bit careful. Local knowledge is always better than relying on a few lines on a screen as there are plenty of tales of boats finding bommies and rocks that weren’t supposed to be there. Check with the local VMR people or boat dealers. Tell them where you intend going and what you planto do. If you’re buying supplies from them you’ll invariably find them more than willing to give you advice on things to look out for.
Tides, currents and winds can play havoc with some of the narrower waterways between the islands. What may have been a tranquil passage a couple of hours ago, can be a raging torrent with stand-up chop coming at you from all directions. In fact, the Whitsunday Passage, a relatively wide expanse of water separating the islands from the mainland, can become ugly with little notice, catching out the unwary. Wind-against-tide is the main culprit here, with large north-south tidal currents occasionally clashing with the prevailing south-easterly winds. When that happens, seas can resemble a washing machine and are best avoided.
Another spot to pay particular attention to is Solway Passage, between Whitsunday and Hazelbrook Islands. This narrow patch of water can exaggerate the wind-against-tide effect to alarming proportions and anyone intending to navigate it should ensure that weather and sea conditions are safe for the passage.
Generally these locations are not a problem on larger craft, but when you’re on a 5 or 6m boat, you need to keep your wits about you. Again, seek local advice on any areas that are tide or current affected and make sure you are not caught by surprise.
For such a great fishing destination, the Whitsundays is particularly underutilised by the sportsfishing community at large. While other parts of the Great Barrier Reef, particularly further to the north, receive the vast majority of attention, I’ve always found the waters of the Whitsundays to offer an abundance of fishing options.
One of my most memorable angling experiences was in a tiny patch of the ocean in the middle of nowhere around two hours east of Hamilton Island. It was a spot where hundreds of fathoms of ocean suddenly rose to within around 10m of the surface. Known as The Oval, it produced some of the most intense yellowfin tuna and Spanish mackerel action I’ve ever encountered. Other perennial targets include bluefin, queenfish, GTs and, of course, the granddaddy of them all, marlin. Generally, marlin tend to lurk closer to the outer islands and reefs, but there are reports of fish turning up close to the mainland as well.
At other times I’ve been kept busy bottom-bouncing for all manner of tropical targets, including red emperor, spangled emperor and coral trout, amongst countless ‘lesser’ species.
And there are plenty of options closer to shore, with barramundi and mangrove jack on offer around the mainland estuaries.
The main thing is to be prepared for any action and ensure you have the lures, bait and tackle on hand to handle any encounter. Again, speak to the locals and potentially save yourself a lot of lost opportunities and frustration.
Visitors need to appreciate that there are some not quite so pleasant creatures lurking in the local waters, too, most notoriously the irukandji family of marine stingers. While they are most prevalent between October and May, if you plan on spending time in the water, stinger suits or wet suits are your best defence year-round. They can be hired or purchased from retail outlets in Airlie Beach.
Marine national parks are dotted all over the Whitsundays so don’t hit the water without a guide telling you exactly where the green zones and other restrictions apply. Best to get a copy of the MPZ10 zoning map, which can be had from most tackle stores, service stations and tourism outlets in the area.
As far as boat equipment goes, ground tackle needs to be quality and suited to the various types of underwater terrain around the islands. You’ll need both reef and sand anchors and adding some extra chain is a good idea given the large tidal movements. It’s not uncommon to have tides of up to 4m, so make sure you know which way the tide is going if you plan on spending time in shallow water, or dragging the boat up onto a beach. The view might be nice, but you mightn’t want to spend half a day there waiting for the tide to re-float your boat …
Besides anchoring, there are also quite a few public moorings dotted about the place, but beware that in the more popular months of the year, most notably from May to September, the local charter boat fleets can provide stiff competition for places.
Fuel is available on-water at both Shute Harbour and Able Point Marina, while Hamilton Island also has refuelling facilities at its marina. It’s worthwhile taking jerry cans with you if you’re planning on going any great distances, just in case. Same goes for water. Always allow for the unexpected and carry more of everything you think you’ll need.
Radio coverage is pretty good throughout the Whitsundays and the local Volunteer Marine Rescue group provides a radio monitoring and rescue service covering most areas accessible out of Airlie Beach and Shute Harbour. Frequencies monitored are channels VHF 16, 81, 82, 67 and HF 2182 and 4124.
Speaking of the VMR, visiting boaters might want to consider signing up with the Whitsunday branch as, at $60 per year ($30 for pensioners) it’s great insurance if you need a call-out and it is an organisation well worth supporting.
Local charter operators also maintain a radio watch over their fleets so there are plenty of options should you need to seek assistance or advice over the airwaves.
And as anyone who has spent any time in the Whitsundays on boats will tell you, no matter what your size of craft, you shouldn’t leave home without a copy of the excellent 100 Magic Miles of the Great Barrier Reef – The Whitsunday Islands, compiled by David Colfelt. You can purchase it online or it’s available at most marine outlets in the area.
So if you’re thinking you’d like to take your trailerboating a little further afield and have a taste for adventure, tropical islands, large fish, pristine beaches and diving to die for, you might want to take a look at the Whitsundays next time you hit the road.
REFERENCE SOURCES: Tourism Whitsundays: www.tourismwhitsundays.com.au
Stinger safety: www.marinestingers.com.au
The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority: www.gbrmpa.gov.au
Marine Queensland: www.marineqld.com.au
Qld Department of National Parks,
Recreation, Sport and Racing: www.nprsr.qld.
Whitsunday Volunteer Marine Rescue: www.vmrwhitsunday.com.au.