Saturday, September 22, 2007

Sailing the Whitsundays

I used to dislike doing anything that involved much effort. I liked holidays that involved sunbathing and little else other than a wander to the local bistro or the beach.

Oh, how things have changed. Everything is action-packed at the moment and I'm loving every minute of it.

I decided to chill out at Airlie Beach for a day and check out the options for the sailing trips after the dizzying fun of the wreck dive.

I started looking into being a hostie on a trip, as I did in Cairns, but there seemed to be fewer options for people just passing through. After a bit of research and stress, I opted to go for a more expensive boat trip - but the one which was my gut instinct to join.

And so it was that last Sunday (Sept 16), I set sail on the Matador - the largest maxi yaught ever built and which was undefeated in the races it sailed around 10 years ago.

I say set sail. There was absolutely no wind. The sea was lake-like, glass-like, as flat as a pancake and all the other cliches for really no wind or waves.

The sun was scorching hot and we lay out on deck soaking up the rays and chatting to the crew. There was aussie Pete the skipper, kiwi Ferg as deckhand, Tom our dive instructor and our Canadian hostie Erin.

The first day, we pootled around and got used to the boat as it motored slowly through the 74 islands of the Whitsunday group. It is so called because when Captain Cook sailed past, he thought it was Whitsunday (it was actually Monday).

We moored up at a spot only accessible on days as calm as this and geared up for a 'free' dive. All the certified divers went down together to explore some caves. The coral was a bit lacklustre and it was all a bit rushed and lacking in fish. Being somewhat claustrophobic, the swimthroughs are not my favourite.

After a quick sunbake, I jumped in for a snorkel with Maltese Pete and we found that there was no need to dive. The brightly coloured corals and interesting fish were a metre or less from the surface.

The following day was just as beautifully hot. We motored to a bay on Whitsunday Island and walked through the bush to overlook Whitehaven beach. It has been named the third best beach in the world (who decides these things?) and it is stunning.

Pristine white sand bars swirl through turquoise waters of the bay with the mountains of Whitsunday Island as a backdrop. In the distance are other islands, the gully between two where the pure, immensely fine sand is created.

Down on the beach, the sand squeaked as we padded through it to the waters edge. The sun was scorching down, even at the early hour of the morning. We all ran into the warm, shallow waters and played frisbee.

When the novelty of that wore off, I took myselt back up the beach to sit and ponder and stare. I saw stingrays and mullet patrolling the pools of water left by the outgoing tide. I looked up and saw one of the most beautiful beaches I have seen and reflected on other wonderful beaches I've visited, other sights which have taken my breath away in the last 15 months of travelling. There have been so many and so many moments when I felt so grateful to get the chance to see them.

Back on the boat, we lunched at another bay and then snorkelled more brightly coloured corals - some vivid green, others deep purple. There were soft corals blowing in the gentle current and big boulder-like brain corals and dozens of fish all darting around.

That afternoon, the wind picked up enough to hoist the sails and turn off the motor. We all lent a hand, grinding up the heavy mainsail and the boys pulling up the front one. We leaned gently to the left and all scrambled to the right side of the boat and we were off - cruising gently in the late afternoon light until the sun began to set and we saw its spectacular colours highlight the sky over a mug of goon. And then it was dark and we ate our barbecue on deck, huddled in jumpers with the plates balanced on our laps. Giggling and finding out about each other.

I was lucky - the group were great. There were fellow loners Esther and Peter and French Olivier, Irish couple Anita and Fergal, Danny and Laura from Manchester with mates Liam and Pete, four English girls who had met at uni, a girl from Hong Kong and three Taiwanese.

Our last day was probably the highlight of the trip. Esther, Peter, Olivier and I snorkelled in the bay were we had slept where the area of coral was large and wonderful and hundreds of fish congregated. They included some huge Napolean maori wrasse (around 1m long) which were frightening to catch in the corner of your eye when out snorkelling alone.

Back on board, we began to motor away from the site (which was fast becoming peopled with other pleasure and charter boats)when we saw a mother whale and her calf edging along the shallows of the island. We followed them for a while, watching the bay breach again and again and the mother once throwing herself out joyfully, then overtook them and killed the motor.

Within a few minutes they were swimming our way, surfacing at the rear of the boat - the mother vast and barnacled - far huger than those I've seen anywhere else. She was a giant.

We followed them for some time and then set sail back to land. That day the wind had picked right up and we were able to stream along at a speed of around 12 knots - the boat tilting far over to the right so that the wire rails skimmed the water and we had to hang over the other side to balance.

My first introduction to sailing was an immense amount of fun. If anything, we just wanted to stay on the boat and swim and snorkel in the perfect weather for longer.

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