Bareboat sailing in the Whitsundays


My wife and I both turned 50 this year, so to celebrate, we thought we’d do a combined birthday bash in the Whitsundays with the kids.

Bareboat sailing is exactly what it sounds like. You hire a bare boat and sail yourself around the Queensland Whitsunday islands.

As a close friend will attest, my previous sailing efforts during my teens resulted in capsizing and sinking a training yacht (something I probably should have disclosed to the rest of the family beforehand). In all seriousness, though, I undertook a basic sailing course a few months before our holiday, and we then opted for an additional half-a-day sailing refresher before heading out on our own (something I highly recommend).

We were sailing an 11 meter catamaran (36 feet), which had plenty of space for the six of us. Downstairs in the sleeping quarters, galley and toilets was cramped but comfortable, while the deck area in between was spacious and well sheltered, and quickly became the hub for our activity.

We flew in the day before, stayed in a local motel, and went shopping for groceries and beer. Our plan was to divide the trip in two, with a stop on Hamilton Island to restock supplies, which worked really well for us. There’s an IGA grocery there that’s reasonably priced considering everything’s shipped from the mainland.

At first, sailing was a bit stressful, but soon became comfortable, and by the end of the journey, we were quite competent with the catamaran. Cats are the Winnebagos of the sea. They’re easy to work with, very forgiving, and quite relaxed even in high winds. Our toughest day at sea was the second day when we crossed the main channel between the islands, where the seas were at 1.5 meters and winds gusted up to 28 km/hr (18 mph). In these conditions, the cat performed wonderful, riding the waves with ease.

The key sailing skills needed are:

  • Understanding tacking (into the wind) & jibing (away from the wind)
  • Confidence in raising & lowering sails in rough conditions
  • Map reading and understanding how winds/tides impact sailing
  • Checking your GPS and depth finder constantly when in shallow waters (entering bays, waiting outside Hamilton Island, etc)
  • Anchoring and mooring

The rigging was set so there were only a few lines we had to work, and once we became comfortable with that, sailing was smooth. There was no need to adjust the sails while tacking, with only a little work required when jibing, and we had a blast sailing along with the wind in our hair.

Early in the journey it was apparent to all of us that we weren’t old salts. We had a choice to make. We could madly sail around the Whitsundays trying to see all the key spots, or we could relax and enjoy ourselves. We opted for the latter, which was especially prudent as from weather forecasts we knew had at least 24 hrs of rain to deal with.

The hire company conducted ‘skids’ each morning and afternoon, where they provide information on weather, and ask about our plans, any challenges we had with the boat, etc, so we were always in contact with someone.

Each morning, we’d roll out the map, check the tides and catch the weather report, and then discuss our options and what could unfold that day and the next. We chose a conservative, relaxed holiday, and spent a lot of time snorkeling, kayaking, fishing, playing cards and drink a few brewskis.

Our itinerary was:

  • Day 1 – sailing training in the bay by Airlie Beach, anchoring in Funnel Bay (windy, but only light waves, no swell at night)
  • Day 2 – Up to Blue Pearl Bay on Hayman Island, then down to Nadia Inlet for the night (astonishingly calm anchorage)
  • Day 3 – Rainy, had to choose between heading East around Whitsunday Island (more scenic, but rough weather), or a short run to Cid Harbor (which turned out to be idllic even in a storm)
  • Day 4 – Short sail to Hamilton Island (showers and laundry day)
  • Day 5 – Whitehaven beach (stunning), and moored overnight in Tongue Bay (amazing snorkeling, great walk to Hill Inlet)
  • Day 6 – Esk Island. Moored offshore, took the inflatable in, walked around the island. Water was astonishingly clear. Would be beautiful to snorkel.
  • Day 7 – Spent the sixth night at Hamilton again, as one of the crew cut a finger with a knife and required a tetanus shot. No one complained about staying at Hamilton again as it’s very relaxed. Headed back to Airlie Beach via Daydream Island

Cyclone Debbie hit the Whitsundays back in March of this year, and the devastation was obvious. Hayman Island was covered in dead trees, as was Whitehaven Beach, and a lot of the corals were smashed. Although we missed sailing the eastern sides of Hook Island and Whitsunday Island, we heard from others they were pretty badly battered by the storm. Even so, there was a rugged beauty to the Whitsundays, something that can’t be manufactured. Seeing the Milky Way from pitch black darkness of Whitsunday Island was astonishing, and we even caught sight of a few meteorites.

If you want to snorkel, time your arrival at places like Blue Pearl Bay or Tongue Bay with a low tide as the tides vary by up to 3 meters (10 feet), putting the reefs out of clear sight.

If you get the chance to sail the Whitsundays, go for it.

10/10 from me.

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3 thoughts on “Bareboat sailing in the Whitsundays

  1. Sounds like a good time. An 11m Cat is a stable and safe vessel with lots of room. Your route was mostly protected waters too. Hopefully the Spring weather was favorable as well. Years ago, my wife and I took training for piloting ip to 15 meter sailboats. I wanted my wife to know how to sail in case I went overboard and she could come about to pick me up. Our plan was to sail the Leeward Isles but hurricanes made that seem less safe.

    To me, sailing is one of the best ways to soothe the explorer’s heart and commune with the elements at the same time. Moving through the seas without the sound and aid of an engine is the closest we can come to our explorer’s heritage. Perhaps space travel will be the step as flight through space will require little other than course correction once velocities are achieved. So I imagine that it will be a quiet passage between planets and stars as it once was between the continents. I wonder what songs those travelers will sing to pass those future times.

    • James, yes, we chose the time because it was the most likely to have favorable weather, and some days the weather was too good (no breeze at all)

      Sailing is soothing to the soul

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