THE POINT OF SAIL
Cathy Gowdie describes the delights of a family yacht holiday in the Whitsundays
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?’’
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
Just cruising: The Whitsundays are a perfect playground for yachties, main picture; Julian and Kate, top right; taking a dive, bottom right