Sailing the Whitsundays: The Great Barrier Reef

In January of 2011I begin the year with an extraordinary trip. Arriving at Airlie Beach north of Mackay after spending three months living on a tropical island was surreal to say the least after not seeing mainland for a long time.

Airlie Beach is situated on the NE coastal mainland of Australia. Off its coast lies one of the most breath- taking scenes on planet Earth; the Whitsundays on the Great Barrier Reef. A collection of islands discovered and first recorded by Captain James Cook in 1770.

After sailing small catamarans and dinghies I had always wanted to go on a large sailing yacht.  This was my chance…

What a more fitting trip than to follow in his footsteps and sail around these majestic islands on the Great Barrier Reef.

Lucky enough, that weekend an ex Sydney-Hobart Racing Yacht (Hammer) was chartered to sail around the islands. Sure enough we got booked onto the trip.

Leaving the marina at Airlie are a whole fleet of boats taking people out to the islands- yet on arrival at the marina none of the stood with the aura of our yacht. Sat with the dark blue waters beneath it- the clear blue of the sky and the reflection off is sky blue deck with the bold letters “Hammer” protruding. Its modern sleek design- perfect for cutting through the winds at high speed would have been a complete contrast to the ship originally sailed there by Cap. Cook. As we sat on deck the crew of five introduced themselves; all experienced in their own unique way and all representing different characters (obviously needed for the differing conditions that lay ahead.)

Slowly we left the docks- approximately 15 on deck (10 of us tourists). The captain shouted he was going to try and get us involved as much as possible, brilliant! Leaving Airlie behind us with the sails yet to go up the childish excitement grew within me (the one you get on Christmas Eve). Suddenly before our eyes we could literally see the conditions changing before us. Once motioning through calm waters the currents and swell began to change- the wind began picking up and we could see the clouds rolling towards the mainland coming our way. Noticing the glint in the Captains eyes he tells everybody that the conditions will be great for “fast sailing”. That childish excitement I mentioned soon turned into terror with the colossal sails rising into the sky blinking out the Sun just as the clouds began too.

With a humungous gust the sail caught the wind bringing the boat to a slight angle; the majority of the people on board sat against the deck rail on the opposite side to the sail position. Picking up speed greatly we had ‘set sail’ to the islands that sat on the horizon. Funny enough the song off “The Muppets Treasure Island” rang in my head… “Hey ho we’ll go anywhere the wind blows…”

Moving from the hot sun into petering showers created huge contrast in the conditions. Winds began to pick up resulting in the boat getting faster…meaning the angles got steeper with the sail at a 45degree angle to the sea awesome.

Soon arriving at the mass of Whitsunday islands they sheltered us from the wind and the seas got calmer. As the seas got calmer the sun dispersed of the clouds.  Sat on the Great Barrier Reef this was the perfect opportunity to snorkel. Coming to a holt behind one of the islands a small motor dingy drove us towards a reef system. We fell off backwards into the sea with a world reflecting that off “Finding Nemo”.

Swimming with the fish and the reef below us was majestic as if we were on another planet. Time slows down and you recognize every small intricate detail of everything around you. It was a world separated from a modern world manipulated by man and money. It was the real world and nature at its best. This was the first of two dives. The second on another reef system of which we had with us some unwanted guests. The deadliest of jellyfish and one of the deadliest animals in the world: the box- jelly fish. Luckily enough we had one of the famous “stinger suits” on.  When around Airlie one will notice signs for these deadly animals everywhere! I was with my girlfriend Beth- she was terrified.  After settling her nerves and reassuring her we were fine with the suits on a brave jelly-fish perched itself on her face/ snorkeling mask. She began screaming under water and all panic broke loose.  I did the general hand single for the boats man to come and “rescue” us. Yet to this day Beth is convinced it’s because he heard her screaming under water!

Back onto the ship to continue the sailing we made proceeded towards the famously beautiful; Whitehaven.  As we did so I helped the crew brings up the sails as the wind guided us towards this paradise.  However as the wind conditions rapidly deteriorated the captain decided it was unsafe for the ship to sail.  As the evening drew in the ship perched in the protective bay of an island.  As the stars came out the magnificence of the Milky Way Galaxy lit the ship up as the huge Green and Brown turtles swam around.

We set into the ships bunks for the night rocked to sleep by the gentle current of the sea.

With roaring gush water splashed into the sleeping quarters waking us dreary eyed up: it was 5. 30are and the captain had set sail for Whitehaven. So that we had chance to see it he decided to sail whilst conditions where good early in the morning as the forecast for the day was not promising. (We later found out this was because a cyclone was on its way!) Arriving in the glory of the sun with everybody still only just about managing to wake up we had arrived on the opposite side of the island. Again the small motor dingy drove us to shore and we darted to the other side. What was before us was a sight that will very rarely be beaten in a lifetime. A view of Whitehaven beach. A river estuary that leads into the sea surrounded by a flour like white sand and the lush green tropic of the island. There is nothing more I can say that I picture wont:

We left the island and spent the day heading back to Airlie. The wind caught the sails and we sailed around and through the Whitsunday islands all the way back to mainland.


2 responses to “Sailing the Whitsundays: The Great Barrier Reef

  1. Pingback: Get Outdoors: Top 5 Outdoor Activities « adventuretheworld·

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