Saturday, June 13, 2015

Sailing the Whitsunday Islands

As we came in for landing
My sisters and I starting talking about a girls’ reunion at the Great Barrier Reef pretty much the day I agreed to move to Australia. Time flew by as it always does, and during that time I had the opportunity to travel up to Port Douglas with my husband to both dive and snorkel the reef. Reporting on the degradation of the reef to my sisters resulted in the decision to move the destination for their visit elsewhere. Seeking something near the reef but uniquely Australian, we came up with the idea of sailing the Whitsunday Islands. Certainly I had never heard of them when living Stateside, but here it is quite the thing to do.

The Whitsundays are a group of 74 islands, most of them uninhabited parkland. There are quite a few wild goats, as it turns out. I suppose sailing the Whitsundays became such a thing because there is no other way to get between the islands, and the wind is fairly reliable in the area – as in, it is usually blowing. It was up to 24 knots when we were there, which means nothing to me, but I can tell you it was windy at times. Wikipedia describes the Whitsundays as “one of the most popular yachting destinations in the Southern Hemisphere”.  Bare-boating is fairly popular, but when we heard about the 12 foot tides and considered the responsibility of a 30 foot catamaran, we opted to bring aboard a skipper as well. This was a great decision, because not only did he allow us to benefit from his 25 years of experience sailing the area, but it also allowed us to sip wine and admire the sunset while he kept us safe and headed in the right direction. Our captain Chris was truly great: fabulous company, great stories and a terrific skipper. I highly recommend him if you rent with Whitsunday Escape. We chose the Seawind 1000 XL which was the right size for the 4 of us plus Chris.

First night in port
Because we really only had one time window where we could make all the calendars work, we headed up the coast of Queensland in mid-april. The major advantage of that timeframe is much of the heat has worn off and the rainy season is past; the major disadvantage is that it is still not safe to jump in the water without a stinger suit. Early june would have been much better temperature wise (it was still pretty hot in april) and the waters would have been ok for suit-free swimming. We spent the first night in the port aboard the Lulu, having flown up that day and done all the provision shopping. While the port was beautiful and peaceful, there was not a breeze to be found, and sleeping consisted of getting used to the fact that you were dripping with sweat. 

Lulu galley and view to my 'stateroom'
Yes, that tiny cubbyhole-looking-thing you see on the other side of the galley was where I slept. I never could decide if the narrow part was supposed to be for your feet or your head, and tried both on different occasions. Neither worked very well. The advantage to putting your feet in the narrow space, is that just above your head is a porthole. This is lovely for viewing the stars at night, but can also result in the moon shining straight in your eyes during the wee hours.

Dining area and main room

I slept little for any of the 4 nights we were on-board. The bed is simply too uncomfortable and the temperature too hot. Note the tiny plastic fan in the corner of the galley area. That's it when it comes to 'air conditioning' on the boat. Keep that in mind when picking dates. However, lack of sleep mattered little in the face of the beauty of the islands and the wonder of being out there with no access to 'civilization' for days.

Sunset - sitting docked for the night offshore
We had thought we would be able to stop in at stores and replenish ice, or maybe even take the dingy to shore and have dinner at a restaurant one night. Not so. Whatever provisions you put on the boat when you sail away, is what you've got while you are away. Fortunately, my younger sister had meal planning down to a science, and had exactly the right amount of food. This, even though that dinner of 'freshly caught fish'  never materialized. We enjoyed watching Chris fish, and he was a pro at it, but we never ended up with one that was right for eating. Nor did the mud-crab traps yield any of those tasty fellows, but it was great fun taking the dingy into the mangroves to set and retrieve the traps. We felt like real explorers and were completely alone, with just a few oyster-catchers to watch us motor slowly by. We surprised a big lovely green turtle when we were in the shallow water, and she moved so quickly she startled me. (I'm used to seeing them swim by at their leisurely, serene pace). 
We named this one butterfly island

One of the many deserted beaches we visited

Sunrise with the Lulu at anchor
We had a blast when Chris dropped us off on a spit of land called 'one foot island' for an hour (we were on our way to moor for the night at a different island). Nothing but us, seashells, the turtles swimming slowly by, and the gulls. 

In the long list of fabulous times (did I mention that I celebrated my birthday on the Lulu, sitting on the netting at the front of the boat, looking at the stars and drinking a wonderful champagne, or that we hiked up a deserted island to look at aboriginal cave paintings) my favorite has to have been when the dolphins swam into the cove where we were anchored.  Since it was completely dark except for the light from the stars, our first alert was a swooshing breath sound. (Here is an example of what it sounds like.) We wondered if perhaps a rarely seen dugong had decided to pay us visit. But actually the dolphins were so much better. They were hunting and must have been drawn to the small fish congregating near the boat. We ran off for flashlights and made a bunch of noise in our excitement, but this did not deter them. Since we could only spot them when they surfaced, we kept shining the lights on the water waiting to catch a glimpse of them. We saw many magical sightings, somehow made more special because of the dark and how they would appear out of nowhere. In the end, one of them gave us a clear message of annoyance at how he felt about the light shining in his eyes, and he smacked his tail on the water with a splash in our direction. Then slowly and quietly, one by one they vanished, swimming invisibly out of the dark waters of the cove and back to open water - leaving us with only the sound of water lapping gently on the hull and the glow of the stars.