I was enjoying a sunset cocktail on Tutu, our chartered Lagoon 380, when a flock of birds descended, hoping for a handout. They perched on the grill, the lifelines, anywhere they could find a foothold. But these were not your ordinary sea birds: they were cockatoos, large white cockatoos, with bright yellow Mohawks—cockatoos like those kept as pets in the rest of the world. Welcome to sailing in Australia!
We had boarded Tutu a few days earlier for a seven-day charter in the Whitsunday archipelago, a group of more than 70 islands off the coast of Queensland, 30 miles west of the southern tip of the Great Barrier Reef. My first surprise, considering these are sub-tropical islands, was the complete absence of palms, sea grapes or other tropical vegetation. The Whitsundays are not atolls, but rather the tops of a mountain range that was flooded over 10,000 years ago—craggy, windswept hills covered by hoop pines, vine thickets and casuarina trees. The only things “tropical” are the coral reefs fringing some of the islands. We all agreed the area resembled Maine or Canada more closely than any of the tropical destinations we’d seen.
The first European sailor to set foot in the Whitsundays was Capt. James Cook, in 1770. Thanks to the large number of designated national parks with mooring fields, hiking trails and campsites, most of the islands remain in the same natural state as when he found them. Although there are plenty of safe anchorages in sheltered bays, there are also many “no anchorage” zones, both for reef protection and to prevent boats from anchoring at high tide and ending up aground. (The Whitsundays have a large tidal range—10 feet—and it definitely affects your ability to visit or overnight on many of the islands.)
Navigation throughout is line-of-sight, although we were warned not to rely too heavily on navigational markers, the GPS or the compass: some markers had been missing for decades, the GPS showed our correct location, but used old charts that sometimes put Tutu on land, and the compass was affected by a high concentration of iron ore in the makeup of the islands. 100 Magic Miles, the local cruising guide, became our reference bible, with charts, aerial photos and specific directions to each and every island.
We spent our first night in the lee of Cid Island, just off Whitsunday Island proper, then proceeded northward to Hook Island, a national park that is close to the Great Barrier Reef and therefore a choice destination for snorkelers. Stonehaven Bay, in the west side of the island, provides safe overnight moorings and a pretty beach, but beware the fringing reefs when approaching in your dinghy. Butterfly Bay also offers moorings for shore excursions or an overnight star. Just north of Hook is Hayman Island, a private luxury eco-resort undergoing renovations until April of 2014. Visits by Private boats had previously been restricted. Radio ahead to see if things have changed.
Heading southeast, Border Island has a lovely anchorage at Cateran Baywhich made for a nice stop on the way back to Whitsunday Island and the famed Whitehaven Beach, the jewel of the Whitsundays. There, you’ll find over three miles of soft white sand, a beautiful freshwater inlet at the north end and a safe anchorage in the south. Whitehaven is a must-see for anyone visiting the Whitsundays—including commercial catamarans that bring dozens of tourists in, with their loud music and beer aplenty. We found a quieter anchorage in Windy Bay on Haslewood Island, on the other side of the channel.
The following day took us through Fitzalan Passage, surfing with the wind and waves at our backs to Hamilton Island, the busiest and most developed of the islands. George Harrison of the Beatles used to have a home here, but I imagine that was before developers got hold of it and built their hotels, casino and restaurants. The good news is that the marina is very accommodating and has docking attendants, shore power, water, laundry and showers. While you’re on Hamilton, take a swim in Driftwood Bay. The long sands lead to a coral reef where I saw small giant clams, a variety of fish and a leatherback turtle as big as myself. This is also where we met the cockatoos.
Our last stop was the Long Island Resort on Long Island. Boats anchor well off the beach because low tide creates a sand flat between the hotel and the anchorage. The resort is pretty rundown, but has a beach bar where a flock of wild lorikeets arrive promptly at 1600 to be hand-fed fresh mango by locals and visitors alike.
My last surprise of the trip occurred during my way back to our dinghy on Long Island, when a kangaroo hopped past me on the beach without a second glance in my direction. Such is sailing in Australia.
Whitsunday Charter Contacts
Dream Yacht Charter: dreamyachtcharter.com
Cumberland Charter Yachts: ccy.com.au (Airlie Beach)
Queensland Yacht Charters: yachtcharters.com.au (Airlie Beach)
Sunsail:sunsail.com.au (Hamilton Island)
Whitsunday Rent a Yacht: rentayacht.com.au (Schute Charter)
Lifelong sailor and freelance writer
Vera Cole is alwas searching for new
places to explore under sail
Photos courtesy of Sunsail and Vera Cole