Sailing around the Whitsundays

Trip Start Jan 16, 2007
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Trip End Aug 20, 2007


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Flag of Australia  ,
Sunday, March 4, 2007

Despite warnings of an imminent cyclone, nothing more than a good bit of wind came along. Infact, the weather was absolutely fantastic, with clear sky for much of the trip (apart from a bit of cloud on the first day). There were a huge variety of boats to choose from for sailing round the Whitsunday Islands, and we chose to go on a Maxi yacht, rather than something that could have been a lot slower. Maxis are very fast, built-for-racing boats, and this one was no different. Called 'Matador', she had previously had numerous other names, and was made of carbon fibre, titanium, fibre glass and aluminium. In racing condition, she was 28 tonnes, but with all the kit for charter (beds, kitchen, dive tanks, etc) is now 40 tonnes. Even so, she was very quick when we got into some wind. Bit of history on the boat here - when built in 1990, she cost $20m. She contested 8 regattas and won all of them in 1990 and 1991 (including Miani Maxi Series (October 1990),St. Tropez Maxi Series (Sept. 1991) and Antibes Maxi Series (Oct. 1991)). Of the 50 races that comprised the regattas, she had a score of 31 wins, 5 seconds and 6 thirds. Quite impressive. She was also crowned Maxi World Champion in 1990 and 1991. She also contested the Sudney-Hobart race under the name of 'Fudge' before being placed into charter in 1997. Overall, not a bad boat to be on if you want to have a good time.

On the boat, we had to get involved in the sailing (to the extent of getting the various sails up with the grinders) as there was only a crew of 5. There weren't many of us though - the sleeping capacity is 25, but there were only 14 on our outing. This wasn't a problem though, as it gave us all more room on the boat, and felt more like a private charter than the 'pack 'em in' which happens on quite a few other boats.

There was a good amount of wind for all the times when we were sailing, none more so than on the initial voyage over to Whitehaven Beach on the main Whitsunday Island, as well as the final trip back to the harbour at Airlie Beach. The wind on both occasions was about 25 knots, and our speed was between 13-15 knots. What was quite cool about this was that we all had to sit on the high side of the boat to act as ballast, with the waves occasionally crashing over the side.

The Whitsunday Islands themselves are, for the most part, absolutely pristine and as Captain Cook would have found them (minus the natives) when he arrived in the 18th Century. The islands are basically the tops of mountain peaks that were submerged about 10,000 years ago when the last ice-age ended, so the terrain is pretty rugged. It reminded me of the coast by Italy and France, and when out at sea, you could almost be there (if you take out the sea-life and the azure colour of the water). One of the most famous parts of the Whistundays is Whitehaven beeach, a seven kilometre stretch of pure white sand. The sand here is one of the finest anywhere in the world, as it is 98% silica. Into context, the extremely fine sand on Lake Mackenzie on Fraser Island is on 75%. This means, though, that it gets into absolutely everything, and stays there for ages. We moored up here for the night, and once the remaining sea-planes had taken off, we had the entire beach and bay all to ourselves. This doesn't happen too often, so we were extremely fortunate.

The threat of killer stingers in the water at pretty much any time of year (though especially at the moment) means that you have to wear a head-to-toe 'stinger suit' whenever you go in the water, even for a quick dip. The lack of any fashion sense was worth it when you finally put your snorkel on though, as the sheer quantity and variety of life under the surface is astounding. As the islands are inland of the Great Barrier Reef, you get a large number of supremely psychadelic fish, some of which look as though they came straight out of the 60s. On the second day we headed up to Hayman Island, which is near Hook Island at the northern end of the group, and spent the best part of the afternoon there. The sailing up there was a lot calmer than the lot on the first day, and this was also helped by the southerly wind just blowing us up the islands, rather than having to tack all the time. We did have to do one jibe though, which was an extremely complicated affair with various different grinders having to move in different directions at different times.

We had a free dive included in the package, and though the visibility was not as good as it could have been, it was still a lot better than anything I had whilst doing my training in England! As we were diving on a relatively shallow reef (max 12 metres we went to) I found that you did not actually see much more when diving as opposed to snorkelling. However, we did get to do some extremely cool passes through canyons and overhangs, coming up through holes in the coral quite a few times. After we'd dived, we spent the rest of the afternoon snorkelling, and when you don't have the noise made by your breathing apparatus, you can really hear all the sounds of the ocean. The one that I heard the most was the scratching noise made by fish as they ate the coral. At times, I was following around groups of about 30 green, blue, pink and yellow fish as they went from one piece of coral to another. There was also an absolutely massive clan, at least 3 feet across, as well as a sea cucumber of about the same size, along with many smaller clams. Very little here had dull colours - the coral ranged from blue and yellow to different shades of orange and brown, whilst the fish seemed to keep coming in any combination of colours you could think of. Some of the coral was extremely close to the surface, and at times I was no more than a foot above it as I swan through.

The mooring of the second night was in a west-facing bay on Hook Island, and this meant we got to see one of the most fantastic sunsets I've ever seen. The water was like a mill-pond, and every minute the colours in the sky were changing, going from yellows and blues to an intense orange, pink and blue mix. Direclty behind the sunset, the moon was filling up the other portion of the sky, and at one point it was totally surrounded by a pink and blue mix. With all of this reflecting off the water, it was quite an incredible site.

On the third day we headed up to another reef af Luncheon Bay, and did some more snorkelling. The motor of the launch was not being extremely co-operative (it hadn't been very helpful the day before either), so we all just jumped off the side of the boat and swam over. The reef here was a lot deeper than that of the day before, but there was no less life. Apart from huge shoals of tropical fish, one of the coolest things I saw was a Maori Wrasse - a huge fish that was at least 3, if not 4 feet long, and at least a foot and a half in height. It was surrounded by an entourage of smaller fish, and as I lay on the surface these came up and started prodding my mask, presumably looking to see if I was a new piece of coral or whether I had anything for them. The Maori Wrasse are totally harmless, and look like a giant version of a soft toy. The one I saw was a female, as the males get over twice that size, and have a huge bulbous part on the front of their head. What is interesting about the Maori Wrasse is that they are all born female, and the dominant one of the crew turns into a male when the male of the group dies.

From Luncheon Bay we headed back to the marina at Airlie Beach, and had some of the best weather of the entire trip for the voyage - a good amount of wind (which meant the boat was tipping at 18 degrees or whatever the angle is) loads of sun, and a wind that took us straight into port. Absolutely fantastic, and not a sight of any cyclone. Next sea adventure will be in Cairns, doing a live-aboard dive trip, which should be ace.
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