THE POINT OF SAIL

Cathy Gowdie de­scribes the de­lights of a fam­ily yacht hol­i­day in the Whit­sun­days

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Holidays Afloat -

SI­MON says to ra­dio into base twice daily or there will be hell to pay: $2000, to be pre­cise. Si­mon says stay un­der 0.05 or be held re­spon­si­ble. Si­mon says to go easy on the toi­let pa­per or we’ll block the loo and re­ally be in strife.

The four of us are from Aus­tralia’s south, set for a Queens­land hol­i­day on a char­tered four-berth yacht. Si­mon is an em­ployee of the char­ter com­pany from which we are hir­ing a Catalina cruis­ing yacht. His job is to brief us on the care and man­age­ment of our bor­rowed lux­ury ves­sel and make sure we don’t trash it.

Si­mon shows us how to start our yacht’s en­gine and takes us out of Air­lie Beach’s Abel Point ma­rina. Now that we are out­side the boat pens, we have to show him we are ca­pa­ble of drop­ping and rais­ing the an­chor and do­ing the same with the sails.

‘‘ Good,’’ he says. Phew. We have passed. ‘‘ You’ll be fine. You’ve hired yachts up here be­fore?’’ We nod. My hus­band, Tony, and I are char­ter­ing a Whit­sun­day bare­boat for the first time in 10 years. We sailed here with friends, as a cou­ple, and now, af­ter a long break, we are here with our son, Ju­lian, 8, and daugh­ter, Kate, 6.

Dif­fer­ent char­ter com­pa­nies have par­tic­u­lar re­quire­ments but most are sat­is­fied if one per­son on board has some sail­ing ex­pe­ri­ence; fur­ther sail train­ing is of­fered as nec­es­sary.

‘‘ First time out with the kids?’’ asks Si­mon, a seago­ing fa­ther of four. ‘‘ It’ll be dif­fer­ent,’’ he adds, dead­pan, as he hops off the yacht, starts the out­board on his dinghy and buzzes back into shore.

‘‘ Mummy, I feel sick. I think I’m go­ing to vomit.’’

A decade ago, Tony and I were newly en­gaged, ly­ing in the sun on the fore­deck of our hired yacht and dream­ing of in­tro­duc­ing our chil­dren-to-be to the turquoise wa­ters and teem­ing sea life of the Whit­sun­day is­lands. Right now, the wa­ter is grey and choppy and there is no wildlife in sight. Spew­ing has been men­tioned. It is day one of our planned seven, and we’ve been on the wa­ter only an hour. Ju­lian and Kate de­clare them­selves bored and go be­low to read their books.

There are 74 is­lands in the Whit­sun­days. Most are na­tional parks and un­de­vel­oped, bar the odd re­sort. They are peaks of drowned moun­tains and their deeply in­dented val­leys have cre­ated sev­eral safe harbours. In most parts of the Whit­sun­day Pas­sage, off­shore haz­ards are few, and the many in­shore ones eas­ily spot­ted with vig­i­lance and com­mon sense. This, with the high level of ad­vice and su­per­vi­sion of­fered by the re­gion’s nu­mer­ous char­ter op­er­a­tors, make a self-crewed sail­ing hol­i­day ac­ces­si­ble even to rel­a­tive novices.

Now it is blow­ing 20 knots, not quite a gale but bumpy. Kate is peer­ing out of the hatch and look­ing queasy.

‘‘ I’ve got lol­lies,’’ I say. ‘‘ You have to come up here if you want some, though.’’

The prom­ise of lol­lies over­comes fear and she and her brother join us on deck. They hud­dle to­gether and chew mo­rosely on fruit jel­lies as we head into a grey mist drap­ing the moun­tains of Hook Is­land.

Nara In­let is a long, sub­trop­i­cal fjord the shape of a chef’s knife. Tow­er­ing cliffs to each side make it Hook Is­land’s safest all-weather anchorage. Be­cause of the weather, we have cho­sen to spend the night here. But so it seems has ev­ery other ves­sel in the Whit­sun­days. The next morn­ing a tiny, sandy beach is re­vealed by a lower tide. Af­ter break­fast the four of us jump into the yacht’s ten­der, a zippy in­flat­able, and go ex­plor­ing.

Around a rocky point there’s a trail to a cave high in the cliffs, dec­o­rated with Abo­rig­i­nal paint­ings and show­ing the smoke scars of an­cient camp­fires.

That af­ter­noon we sail to Stone­haven, a soar­ing gran­ite am­phithe­atre on the north coast of Hook Is­land, and head out in the dinghy to drop a fish­ing line. The yacht’s fridge and freezer are stocked with ev­ery­thing from steaks to prawns and quail (you can have the char­ter com­pany pro­vi­sion the yacht or do it your­self) but we are hop­ing for fish to cook on the on-deck bar­be­cue.

The weather im­proves on the day we choose to forgo some of Hook’s most beau­ti­ful north­ern an­chor­ages and in­stead sail south. We head for Cid Har­bour on the north­west side of moun­tain­ous Whit­sun­day Is­land. We take the ten­der into shore and Ju­lian and Kate feel pleas­ingly in­trepid as we make our way along a rock-strewn creek bed to find a mossy wa­ter­fall and rinse off the day’s sea spray in the creek wa­ter.

Cid Har­bour is one of the few Whit­sun­day an­chor­ages big enough to ac­com­mo­date the oc­ca­sional cruise ship (and even the odd whale). A mother and her calf ar­rive one morn­ing to play in the aqua­ma­rine wa­ter, de­light­ing the oc­cu­pants of ev­ery ves­sel in the har­bour. One yachtie af­ter an­other ra­dios into base to re­port on the whales’ an­tics: their sur­prise and plea­sure is au­di­ble through the static. We hear the news on the yacht’s ra­dio be­cause we have left Cid be­fore break­fast. We plan to an­chor at Thomas Is­land, in the far south of the Whit­sun­days, and with the wind against us it will be a long day’s sail­ing.

‘‘ Are we there yet?’’ come the voices from be­low. Ju­lian and Kate have yet to em­brace this sail­ing part of a sail­ing hol­i­day. Cruis­ing un­der sail bores them and is spiced only by ran­dom bouts of parental frenzy when Tony and I are grap­pling with sheets, winches and the wheel.

Fi­nally, Thomas Is­land is in view. The sun is shin­ing, the breeze is gen­tle and ours is one of only two yachts in sight. Three per­fect, cres­cent-shaped, sandy beaches dec­o­rate the lit­tle is­land’s north­ern shore: we an­chor off one of them, not far from the rocky out­crop known as Young Tom’s Is­land. Curious tur­tles pop up their heads around the yacht as we pre­pare the ten­der to land. Be­yond the beach there’s grass, gra­cious trees, ex­otic shrubs and a sandy path that leads to the is­land’s equally beau­ti­ful south side.

We stay for days. When we want to ex­plore, or go fish­ing, or check out the pris­tine coral fring­ing Young Tom’s Is­land, we take the dinghy. The chil­dren have be­come snorkelling fiends, emerg­ing from the wa­ter only when they are too cold to con­tinue.

At our fi­nal stop, Hamil­ton Is­land’s busy har­bour, a port em­ployee with a small craft and huge mus­cles helps steer us into our nar­row pen. We will spend a night and maybe grab a meal from one of sev­eral dock­side eateries be­fore re­lin­quish­ing our yacht and catch­ing a plane home to chilly Melbourne.

‘‘ Dad,’’ asks Ju­lian on the flight home, ‘‘ when I grow up, can I live on a boat?’’

Check­list

There are sev­eral com­pa­nies of­fer­ing bare­boat char­ters in the Whit­sun­days. Rates vary ac­cord­ing to sea­son. Sun­sail, based on Hamil­ton Is­land, has two-cabin yachts from $466 to $726 a night; a four­cabin cata­ma­ran runs from $925 to $1540 a night based on a min­i­mum of five nights. Spe­cial deals avail­able Jan­uary to March; crewed cruises also on of­fer. Whit­sun­day Es­cape, based at Air­lie Beach, charges from $510 to $540 a night for a five to six-berth cata­ma­ran; spe­cial deals for book­ings of more than five days. www.sun­sail­whit­sun­days.com.au www.whit­sun­dayescape.com

Pic­ture, top right: Cathy Gowdie

Just cruis­ing: The Whit­sun­days are a per­fect play­ground for yachties, main pic­ture; Ju­lian and Kate, top right; tak­ing a dive, bot­tom right

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