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The whitsundays are they worth the hype?

Too crowded, too windy, and over-developed -- that's the way some long-term cruisers talk about the Whitsundays. But cruising sailor Phillip Thompson, returning to the fabled islands, finds they haven't lost their magic.

IF THERE IS ONE EAST COAST CRUISING MECCA WELL KNOWN IN BOTH SAILING CIRCLES AND THE GENERAL PUBLIC, THE WHITSUNDAYS would be it. Fuelled by a tourist industry and a background of cruisers coming home from the reef, the Whitsundays becomes a dream for many thinking about their first cruise. With the growth of its own bareboat charter industry and a growing backpacker trade all competing with the cruisers on their own boats, the Whitsundays has a lot to absorb and lots of dreams to fulfil.

When we headed up north last year I was a little concerned about the fate of the Whitsundays. It had been seven years since we had last cruised the coast and I was wary of our favourite island chain being changed by overdevelopment. As we headed up the coast we met some cruisers who weren't keen on spending too much time there.

"Too many bloody backpacker boats" we were told by one cruiser sitting on Percy Island. He told us about unseamanlike behaviour by charter skippers of the maxi boats and the perils of the bareboats who used his own boat as a guide for anchoring.

"We ended up anchoring in a spot we didn't like and then moving at 4pm when the bareboats are supposed to be anchored." Other long-term cruisers we met had similar thoughts and our expectations were subtly changed. "We'll just have a quick look and then head up north further, like Lizard or Hinchinbrook at least." we said.

As it was, we ended up staying in the Whitsundays almost three months, and never got further north than Bowen. For the Whitsundays still deserve their reputation as a great cruising area. Far better for some styles of cruising than many other areas, they are able to offer a wide range of experiences- from racing one design, being part of a floating community, to snorkelling on fine coral and the solitude of a skinny dip in your own anchorage. In the scatter of islands that stretches for almost 100 miles, there is still room for both all of the hype, and all of the dreams.

We did have some problems with bareboats anchoring too close (one occasion), a crewed charter boat being antisocial with its music (one occasion and only I was worried) but in three months I would say that was a fine price to pay for lovely cruising grounds.

The makeup of the Whitsundays is the reason I like cruising in them so much. Further up or down the coast there are lovely bays and islands. The difference between these areas and the Whitsundays is proximity and geography. The compact layout of the Whitsundays means that cruisers don't face the arduous task of 50 mile day passages, but rather easy ten or five mile trips between anchorages. Although the sea can get rough, the closeness of the islands means that some planning and tricky sailing can see you beating in tradewinds in smooth seas if you are flexible with your timetable. The state of the sea in most parts means that friends or family haven't got to be sea dogs to have fun. The shape of the island group means that the number of anchorages is incredible and almost impossible to exhaust.

Also the islands look good- the geology and climactic conditions conspire to give the Whitsundays many picture-postcard views with stands of Hoop Pine on the sides of rocky peaks and bold granite outcrops. It's a far cry from the low scrub of the islands in the Broadsounds which is not very tempting.


The Whitsundays encompass a group of islands stretching over almost 100 miles. However most people seriously cruise the middle section (around Hook and Whitsunday Islands) more than the top or bottom groups. For partaking in the idyllic dreams of cruising while having easy access to services, the middle group of islands are pretty hard to beat.

Depending on who you talk to, sailing the Whitsundays can be idyllic or traumatic. It depends upon your experience with the wind. During the main cruising season the predominant wind is the southeast trade which can blow with unrelenting force for a week or two- or so the story goes.

In fact, even the southeasters can be worked around if you have a little time or do some careful planning. A strict timetable may ruin your plans for great sailing. Heading north is usually fine but going south against a constant 20 knots can get very lumpy in certain areas in certain tides. For most harbour sailors, the idea of working tides in a blow is a little hard to accept but it does help markedly. What you are trying to do is not increase your VMG by catching windward-going tide, but waiting for slack tide or northerly going tide before crossing exposed waters. We often experienced an early morning lull that encouraged us to leave our anchorages after an early breakfast if we wanted to head southeast. Remember you may want to travel only eight or ten miles, so it is possible to be anchored before the wind builds again for the day.

This is not to say that the southeasters blow with ferocity every day. Light southeasters and easterlies are common as are northerlies. The problem is that a wind pattern can stay for weeks, giving the transient cruiser or charterer the impression that the wind is always the same. Strong southeasters day after day can get a little wearing for anyone but thankfully you can get away from them in the anchorages-well, almost! Even the anchorages suffer from the strong winds with the notorious Whitsunday "bullets"- gusts of wind, usually stronger than the wind outside the anchorage, that can make sailing near peaks and headlands very interesting. When sailing in the lee of a peak it is very prudent to keep an eye peeled to windward when the breeze is over 18 knots. The bullets can race down the hills and hit you from more than 45 degrees off the true wind with almost double the windspeed. They can ruin the impression of competence you are trying to give to the crew.

But don't get worried. Lots of people with very little experience sail the Whitsundays all the time in bareboats. For all the talk of bullets and strong southeasters the Whitsundays is still an easy place to sail. If the sailing becomes uncomfortable it is never very far to your destination, or to an alternative one. You can get all revved up for strong winds and then find your two weeks has none.

Unlike other areas of the coast, say behind Fraser or Moreton Bay, depth is not a problem. Although there are few patches of shoal water off areas like Whitehaven Beach most of the Whitsundays are hassle-free in terms of depth. The deepest anchoring spot is likely to be under 10 metres but over 4 metres.


The Whitsundays are under the governance of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authoriity (GBRMPA) who have instituted some rules about anchoring in the more vulnerable areas. Before this, some irresponsible cruisers were anchoring over the coral and even those who tried to minimise their impact could snag coral bommies and tear them up with their anchor chains. To make sure that the coral has a chance to be looked at by people to come, the GBRMPA has laid moorings and distance buoys. If the moorings are full you can anchor but only outside the areas designated by the distance buoys. The system works well enough with boats supposed to stay only two hours on the moorings. You can stay longer if no one else is around and some boats stay all day although this is not in the spirit of the rules.

The moorings are very beefy but some can be a little close to each other. We had a lot of trouble at Langford Island with the tide and wind sending us scooting around close to another moored boat, but for the most part they are fine. You have to pick up the right type for your boat with length restrictions plainly printed on the colour coded buoy. Be careful if you see a different type of buoy close in; -- I saw two boats over 10.5m (35 ft) tie onto dinghy moorings. Amazingly as a testament to the ruggedness of the moorings, they held. The bareboat charter boat let go when they were informed, but the cruiser stayed on - reversing the sterotype of who is more seamanlike.

Anchoring in the rest of the Whitsundays is "set and forget". If you put out four times scope and have 30 metres of chain you shouldn't have a problem. Any more chain would help in the deeper anchorages but rather than more chain, I would recommend a good anchor winch. Sailing in the Whitsundays can mean three or four different anchorages in the one day, so make sure your boat has something to pull the anchor up. On our last boat I hurt my back the first trip and after fitting the anchor winch found the second trip worry and back-pain free. For those racing boats worried by looks and weight, the low profile winches are small and not too heavy. Ours is manual although electric winches are the norm these days.

The holding in the Whitsundays is very good, which is comforting when anchored in a crowd. When we were heading up the coast I was a little concerned with different bottoms and how the chain would rumble before the anchor dug in. As soon as we were in the Whitsundays the anchor dug in so well each time we up anchored that we relaxed far more and never dragged. A few times when anchoring under sail we went too fast for the anchor to set, but after re-anchoring slowly we were fixed for the night. The lovely holding applies to most areas of the Whitsundays but may not be so true around the top of Hook Island (Butterfly Bay) and at Border Island. In these spots you can feel the chain skipping over some coral rubble before it sets, so either sleep light or try to get a mooring for the night.

One nice thing to do for your fellow anchorers, and this applies anywhere, is to make sure you let out four times the depth in chain and then pull back on the chain with quite some force. Applying reverse gradually but firmly will let everyone else know that you are well dug in, you are a competent seaman, and you have enough chain out. I watch the chain to see if it is skipping whilst the helmsman sights across to see if we are holding.

Watch when a bareboat comes in with little idea about how to anchor! Many of the experienced skippers of cruising boats will come into the cockpit and give them the stare - an involuntary response which lets you know that you are worrying someone. So anchor well and let them sleep. Sometimes you will give someone the stare and after a while you may feel worried about the other boat's proximity so you can ask them to move. I did only once this year and the other boat was gracious enough to do so. My concern was that due to the swirling nature of the bullets Cup to 180 degree change in wind direction) the newly anchored boat and our boat were likely to collide if we got different bullets, which was likely as they were very localised. So watch all the boats in the anchorage and if they are swinging different ways and the wind is swirling around, give more room than otherwise. Places like South Molle Island and Cid Harbour are prone to this problem.


The Whitsundays offer many things. For snorkelling, head to the top of Hook island and Border Island. You can feed the fish at Manta Ray Bay and see the huge Bump Headed Parrotfish swimming in schools of 20 at nearby Hayman island. For good anchorages when the wind is really hooting from the southeast head to Nara Inlet and go up the creek for half a kilometre to the swimming hole or head to Cid Harbour for a three hour walk to the top of Whitsunday peak and a stunning view.

For night life you can book into one of the resorts like Hamilton. For socialising and the beach experience Whitehaven has plenty to offer. If you like gunkholing, look into Hill Inlet and the top of Gulnare Inlet. If the crowds get to you, go to one of the lesser-known anchorages or head south to Lindeman, Shaw or beautiful Thomas and Goldsmith. All of these different experiences packed within a short distance is what makes the Whitsundays special for me. I can understand the concerns and reservations of less gregarious and more experienced cruisers- after a time the same experiences, as good as they are start to pale - but for those who haven't experienced them yet, the Whitsundays are the gem of the Queensland coast.


YEAR 2000 SAW MANY CHANGES FOR THE MOORINGS IN AUSTRALIA. Richard Ray, who has over twenty years experience in the charter industry and ten years with The Moorings, relocated from NZ to Australia in September 2000 to head up a new focus on growing the company's business in Australia. This began with relocating the operation from the southern side of Hamilton Island harbour, to new facilities under the Yacht Club on the Island's front street. The Moorings introduced five new vessels to their Hamilton Island fleet towards the end of 2000 and relocated two additional Beneteau 50s from New Zealand to meet the increasing demand for larger yachts. The company plans on adding a further five new yachts in 2001, which will bring the average age of the fleet to under 18 months.

The fleet comprises of Beneteau and Jeanneau monohulls and Fountaine Pajot catamarans including the new FP Bahia 46 which was introduced in October 2000. The FP 46 is the largest bareboat catamaran currently operating in the Whitsundays and has proven to be a very successful addition for the Moorings.

The company plans on introducing two South African built Robertson and Caine catamarans later this year as the new Moorings 4200. The first boat is close to completion and is due for launching in Capetown mid May. We expected the boat to be as successful as her bigger sister the Moorings 4500, also built by Robertson and Caine, which in 1998 was voted by "Cruising World Magazine", as Charter boat of the Year. The Moorings has consistently worked with leading yacht builders and designers for the past 30 years introducing new and innovative ideas to charter yacht design and this yacht is no exception. The yacht will be "spec'd" extensively and comes standard with air conditioning.
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Title Annotation:cruising the Whitsunday Islands
Author:Thompson, Phillip
Publication:Offshore Yachting
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Apr 1, 2001
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