W for Whitsundays


In 2013 we travelled with friends Paul and Barbara around the Eastern Half of Australia.  In mid-May we left the caravans for a week at Airlie Beach to sail on a catamaran. Anyone who tells you sailing on the Whitsundays is relaxing hasn’t done it. We began with the most gruelling day of training and navigating you can imagine.

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Monday: The day began well. The maxi taxi arrived on time and transported us and assorted shopping and clothes bags to Abel Point Marina.
It took two trolleys to take all our luggage but we wheeled them along the pontoons between magnificent boats feeling like proper sailors. Geoff, our instructor, arrived earlier than expected.  He began by ordering us to clear the cabin of all the bags we had just carried in without introducing himself or asking our names.

Our boat Skedaddle

Geoff proved to be more of a character than we first imagined. His knowledge of sailing in the Whitsundays was superb and a sense of humour glimmered through his gruff exterior after a while. He had a way with words as in, “If you don’t see turtles in that bay then your eyes are painted on”.

I was amazed at how complicated everything was on the boat. For example, dropping the anchor looked simple. Just press a button. However, a yoke had to be attached after a certain amount of chain went out and removed when it came back in. This is because it is a catamaran and otherwise it swings around too much under anchor. We put up the mainsail and the furling genoa, examined the tender and how to put it in the water and start the motor. We learnt how to use the radio on which we have to contact base twice a day. The toilet is so complicated it requires considerable courage to use it. Hold lever on right five seconds, hold lever on left ten seconds, push arm at ninety degrees in a harbour, open when at sea.

Geoff finally left us at 1 o’clock although by this stage we offered to feed him for a week if he stayed with us, so confused were we with all the information we had been given. Boat instructions were mixed with warnings about box jellyfish, cone shells, stingers with four tentacles, butterfly cod! Barbara has decided only to enter the water in a pool at Hamilton Island and I can see her point of view.

Full marks to John and Paul.  They steered our huge boat across the water in strong winds and arrived at Nara Inlet where Barbara and I performed the dropping of the anchor ceremony followed by opening the champagne. The water is a lovely colour despite grey skies and the surrounding hills are covered in hoop pine trees. I’m looking forward to seeing it in the morning.
We informed base of our arrival at Nara Inlet and were amused to pick up a message from an American boatie asking how to cook crocodile. Someone suggested boiling up a heap of oil and throwing it in. The woman at base asked what part of the crocodile it was. Apparently, it was a “filet” from the tail and had been obtained from a butcher’s shop in Airlie and not on the end of a fishing line. The best recipe was to smear with butter and cook on the BBQ.

Today dawned cloudy, wet, sunny and windy, all together or in rapid succession. We dropped the tender into the water and clambered in with our backpacks and cameras. The Yamaha 6 started first kick and we were off to dry land to visit the Aboriginal cave at the top of a series of stone steps. The Ngaro people didn’t live permanently on Hook Island once the sea levels rose but visited there in their broad, seaworthy canoes, still a hazardous journey in most conditions. The paintings we saw in the cave, now fenced off from intruders, showed two hatched oval shapes which could have been turtles or nuts from the pandanus palm.

The exercise climbing to the cave was good for us boat bound people. We shared the walk with at least a dozen others arriving in tenders from other boats. The wind was coming up so we decided to motor to Butterfly Bay. Pulling up the anchor was a rather stressful as the chain kept looping under the pulley and as a result had to be pulled away by hand, a muddy job. When we stopped for lunch at Stonehaven Bay we found a free mooring, hooked it with a boat hook and attached it to the boat, a much easier way to stay in one place than anchoring. Everyone decided to stay for the rest of the day as the wind was blowing, the rain was squalling and we had all had interrupted sleep the night before. I finished reading my book while the others had a nap. We are planning an early start tomorrow and may even make Whitehaven Beach if the weather conditions are right.
Wednesday: It was an early start at 5.45am as we planned to motor around to the eastern side of Hook Island before the tide turned. The boat was crashing into quite large waves and more than one of us was looking a bit green around the gills. John decided we should turn around and sail to Cid Harbour between Cid Island and Whitsunday Island. This proved to be a very wise decision as we hoisted the sails for the first time, tacking into the wind in a sou-easterly gusting to 18 knots. We reached a speed of 7.9 knots while the boat remained flat and smooth. Barbara and I even made coffee and crumpets while sailing!

Posing for an action shot

After a long and enjoyable sail, with the weather improving by the minute, we reached Cid Harbour. Dropping the anchor was a simple task we thought as we had done it before. However, with the chain half out the remote control stopped working. The windlass trip switch had activated. Geoff had given me instructions on how to deactivate this above the port engine compartment. I tried but failed as it was necessary to put your head in the engine well while running the engine, depressing a red switch and pushing up a black lever. Paul was able to do it and again the chain was running freely. I was annoyed with myself for failing this simple task.

The water looked lovely although it was deep and dark green. John, Paul and I jumped off the boat for a brief swim and found it very refreshing. Afterwards, John and I took the rubber ducky ashore and explored Sawmill Beach. There used to be a sawmill there milling the hoop pines until the trees were too few to be viable. Now they proliferate on the hillsides once more. There is a four-hour walk to the top of Whitsunday Island or a one hour walk to Dugong Beach. While we ventured a little way up the track the tide was receding rapidly. The rubber ducky had been left some distance from shore but was already half out of the water. We quickly dragged it back into deeper water and returned to the boat for a rest and a read.
Thursday: We could hardly believe it when we woke to sunlight streaming through the cabin windows. There was a feeling of expectancy as we motored towards Hamilton Island as we had not seen civilisation for some time. We turned the radio to Channel 68 and called up Hamilton who answered promptly and asked us to enter the harbour and wait by the white marker, putting our fenders over the port side. A small boat came up alongside and directed us to our position at the end of one of the jetties. Soon we were plugged into electricity and water with a view of all boats entering and leaving the harbour.

Entering the harbour at Hamilton Island

After a reconnoitre of the marina area we had lunch on board before grabbing swimmers and cameras and catching the shuttle bus to the resort side of the island. We all enjoyed a swim in the large resort pool followed by another swim in the sea at Catseye Beach. I thought for a while how nice it would be to spend a week here but was happy to return to our boat, watching the setting sun from the cockpit, cold white wine in hand, before showering and heading out for dinner.

Catseye Beach, Hamilton Island

Friday: The day dawned bright and sunny with just a few tiny clouds in an otherwise clear blue sky. We planned to leave early but found the battery on the boat was still below 12 even though we had been plugged into power all night. Eventually, John flicked a switch deep in an engine well and the battery started charging. We decided to delay our departure to get as full a charge as possible so headed off for coffee and some fresh bread. Finally, at 10.30am, we were ready to go so called up Hamilton on the radio and requested a boatman to release the shorelines. Soon we were on the open water, heading for Whitehaven Beach. The big challenge was Solway Passage, known by some as the “washing machine”. The strong tides and prevailing wind churn the water into whirlpools and eddies that make steering the boat quite difficult. Also, there are shoals and submerged rocks to watch out for but having a sat nav next to the steering wheel is a big help. The charts on the chart table and the book, “100 Magic Miles” are also well used.

The much-used map of the Whitsundays

Gradually, as we cleared Solway Passage, the crescent of Whitehaven Beach appeared. With a backdrop of rugged islands and clear blue sky, the scenery was breathtaking. We dropped anchor without mishap and wasted no time changing into swimmers, jumping into the tender and motoring the short distance to the beach. The water was cold at first but lovely and refreshing. Eventually, we headed back to the boat for lunch and amused ourselves with sunbaking, reading or watching the other boats loading and unloading their passengers.

Whitehaven Beach Photo: Mercedes Ireland

John and I took the tender into the beach and went for a short walk along the shore. The sun was setting but groups were arriving and setting up camp. The beach is so long that one can still have complete privacy despite the day trippers.

Saturday: At about 2.00 am the tide turned and the wind strengthened. The many and varied noises on and around the boat were not conducive to a good night’s sleep so we were rather bleary-eyed when we woke in the morning. Again we had a cloudless day but the wind was gusting around 20 knots and we raised the cantankerous anchor chain with some difficulty.
With only the headsail up we sailed north with Whitsunday Island on our port and with wind gusts of 25 knots. Looking out the stern I noticed something strange. A rubber ducky was floating a hundred metres behind us. It took seconds before I realised it was ours.
“Drop the sail, start the engines, someone… don’t take your eyes off the boat”.
We turned around and were able to capture it with a boathook. The tow rope (in nautical terms, the painter) had snapped clean in the middle. With the tender winched up out of the water, we congratulated ourselves on a narrow escape from disaster.

Tender back on board safe and sound

Between Border Island and Whitsunday Island, there was a cry from John, “Whale ahead!”. We watched fascinated as the humpback breached and blew, travelling at great speed in a southerly direction past our boat. They are usually spotted in this area between May and September.
By this time the waves were huge and we surfed down each one as if we were on a surfboard. It was with great relief we rounded Pinnacle Point, with its tricky currents and big seas, into the comparative quiet of a mooring in Maureen’s Bay, just next to Butterfly Bay. Although the shore looks interesting with rock caves and pale yellow strips of coral beach we opted to stay on board, eat bacon and eggs for lunch and read, rest and write this afternoon. There is only so much excitement one can take in one day! This is also a good snorkelling spot and a number of tenders from other boats have taken stinger suited people to the dive spots. We have wimped out and decided to think about it tomorrow when/if the wind has dropped.
Sunday: Because today was the last whole day of our sailing holiday it was generally agreed that it should be spent sailing. The wind had dropped since yesterday so we raised the sails early in the day in case it became stronger later on. We motored out of Maureen’s Cove and took a peek into Butterfly Bay where we saw some spare moorings and about five yachts. Moorings are a mixed blessing. In a catamaran the mooring moves in between the hulls and bangs on the sides, making sleep impossible for the occupants. I even googled the best way to moor a catamaran and the consensus seems to be that it is better to anchor.

Around the top of Hayman Island we sailed, past Blue Pearl Bay where we snorkelled from Ragamuffin on an earlier day trip and then south, with several long tacks, to Bauer Bay off the South Molle Island Resort. The instruments showed the wind was blowing up to 27 knots and we were flying along at 8.1 knots. John and Paul were ready to break the rules and have a beer at lunchtime after their marathon sail. We ate leftover rissoles in wraps and the remaining salad.

Bauer Bay, South Molle Island, with a view of Spion Kop

At our 9.30 am schedule with Cumberland Yachts I asked about mooring at South Molle Island. Apparently, the resort is really run down and not even open for business at weekends. We were told there would be nobody there to take our money if we did try to pay so we have picked up a mooring in a peaceful, beautiful bay and hopefully will have a good night’s sleep.

It was an early start for us as the rising sun hit the tops of South Molle’s craggy peaks. We had to arrive at Abel Point Marina by ten o’clock and didn’t want to be late. As it turned out we were not the first and had to motor in circles near the entrance to the Cumberland Yacht base. A man came out in his rubber ducky to direct the boat into the marina. We were all impressed with his driving skills maneuvering what is basically a square bus into a parking bay. We unloaded all our luggage, leftover food and empty bottles into two trolleys, called a maxi taxi and were soon back at Island Gateway Caravan Park. Looking across the blue waters of Whitsunday Passage from our taxi I felt sad to think our time on Skedaddle was over but had already started looking forward to the next stage of our journey.

Footnote: The term Whitsunday is a misnomer as it is based on Captain Cook’s date for the naming of Whitsunday Passage, or as Cook spelled it in his HMS Endeavour journal, Whitsunday’s Passage. Based on his 1770 journal date, Cook believed that the passage was discovered on Whitsunday, the Sunday of the feast of Whitsun—Pentecost in the Christian liturgical year—which is observed 7 weeks after Easter. As the International Date Line had not yet been established, the day of discovery was actually Whit Monday. Wikipedia.


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