Hooked on this sail­ing life

Land­lub­bers get their sea legs in the Whit­sun­days

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Australia - ROB WOODBURN

FOR the first-time sailor there’s a be­wil­der­ing amount to learn. Two things im­me­di­ately spring to mind: a boat has no ropes, and don’t toast your yacht­ing skills too soon.

I dis­cover th­ese truths aboard a skip­pered char­ter in the Whit­sun­days. My crash course in sail­ing me­chan­ics and deck eti­quette starts as soon as wind be­gins buf­fet­ing the sails.

“Haul in that head­sail sheet,” or­ders the skip­per from be­hind the wheel. I cast my eyes fran­ti­cally around the deck. “Do you mean this blue rope,” I ask, mak­ing a wild guess. “That’s it,” he replies, “but there’s no such thing as a rope on a boat. Sheets, hal­yards, lines, yes, but no ropes.”

Sheep­ishly, I begin haul­ing but al­most im­me­di­ately am out of sorts, the penalty for fool­ishly sink­ing cel­e­bra­tory sparkling wine prior to de­par­ture. Se­cur­ing the sheet as in­structed, I col­lapse on deck gasp­ing for breath, much to the skip­per’s amuse­ment. “Rest easy, we’ll make a sailor of you yet,” he says.

That proves true. Be­fore too long we three land­lub­bers on board — my­self, Jeff and An­nika — have be­gun to mas­ter the sail­ing jar­gon, de­ci­pher the dif­fer­ence be­tween stays and shrouds, and are scam­per­ing nim­bly fore and aft with­out stub­bing toes on cleats and hatch cov­ers. We’ve learnt how to furl a sail and free taut hal­yards with a deft flick of the wrist.

At times I winch fu­ri­ously un­til it feels my eyes might pop and my arms snap. But such mo­ments of in­tense phys­i­cal pres­sure al­ter­nate with lengthy pas­sages of smooth, si­lent joy as we run be­fore the wind, our yacht heeled at an ex­hil­a­rat­ing an­gle as it pushes res­o­lutely through the swell, its sails tight and gi­gan­tic over­head.

I feel fan­tas­tic at hav­ing shed ur­ban sloth for this el­e­men­tal ex­is­tence on the Coral Sea, a life awash with sun­light on wa­ter with the taste of salt per­me­at­ing my lips and skin. And each day’s sail­ing ef­fort concludes in tran­quil­lity, sway­ing softly at an­chor and dining be­neath the stars.

The Whit­sun­days is per­haps the most be­guil­ing and ac­ces­si­ble hol­i­day des­ti­na­tion on Australia’s east coast. Di­rect flights to Whit­sun­day Coast Air­port and Hamil­ton Is­land from Bris­bane, Syd­ney and Mel­bourne mean that within hours of leav­ing home you can be en­joy­ing the wide blue yon­der on a pro­vi­sioned char­ter yacht.

Th­ese 74 is­lands are a haven for novice and ex­pe­ri­enced sailors. The Great Bar­rier Reef gives pro­tec­tion from the tem­per­a­men­tal ocean and the weather is mostly be­nign. There are nu­mer­ous places of shel­ter within easy sail­ing dis­tance of each other, glo­ri­ous beaches to visit, colour­ful coral gar­dens to snorkel or scuba dive, and se­cluded coves for peace­ful overnight moor­ing.

Our first night aboard is be­side Chalkies Beach on Hasle­wood Is­land. We eat prawns grilled on a gas plate clipped to the stern rail and drink chilled semil­lon. Skip­per Doug is con­tent know­ing this first day “shake­down” showed none of his crew is prone to sea­sick­ness.

The clat­ter of the an­chor chain wakes me at dawn. The an­chor has dragged dur­ing the night and the yacht is now float­ing rather close to coral. Doug deftly ma­noeu­vres away while re­buk­ing him­self for the in­ci­dent. It is a timely re­minder that even ex­pe­ri­enced sailors can some­times err and that, be­yond all the as­so­ci­ated glitz and glam­our, sail­ing is a se­ri­ous busi­ness.

We swim be­fore break­fast then sail across to White­haven’s 7km of flaw­less sand. It ranks among the world’s best beaches. Hav­ing cruised its length, we leap over­board, swim to shore and sink our toes into the squeaky white sand. Then it is back to earnest sail­ing.

Tack­ing leisurely north, we round the tip of Whit­sun­day Is­land and set a course south, ar­riv­ing in Cid Har­bour late af­ter­noon.

By now we feel like “old salts’’, ca­pa­ble of spring­ing into ac­tion with nau­ti­cal zest. Our yacht is now home and its me­chan­ics less in­tim­i­dat­ing. At Cid on sun­set, sur­rounded by the sil- hou­ettes of yachts moored nearby, we sip shi­raz and tuck into a spread of char­cu­terie, olives and cheese.

Early next morn­ing we sail north again, pass­ing be­tween Hay­man and Hook is­lands head­ing for Manta Ray Bay, where we grab masks and snorkels.

“Just want to make sure we’re in the per­fect spot,” says Doug, toss­ing bread on to the wa­ter.

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