Hooked on this sailing life
Landlubbers get their sea legs in the Whitsundays
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.