When traveling the backpackers’ circuit of the Australian east coast, one of the things one does is sail in the Whitsundays. It’s like taking the waters in Bath or catching a Broadway show in New York—you have to splash out a bit for it, but darling, you simply must. I did not know this was the case until I got to Australia, but I soon learned this was the general opinion, and I did a little research to see if it seemed worth the cost. I got a good deal by booking with the Oz Experience ticket (with the same woman who sent me to Magnetic Island), so then it was just a matter of “will the weather hold?” and “will I get seasick?”
The Condor in the waters of the Whitsundays, off the east coast of Australia
I am pleased to tell you, dearest fellow travelers, that it did hold and I did not feel ill. In fact, what with the wind in my hair and the sun on my face and the water sparkling on all sides, I felt fantastic. I spent two days and two nights on board a former racing sailboat with four crew and twenty-five fellow tourists. It was one of my favorite experiences in Australia, and I see now why darling, you simply must.
Sail’s up, let’s go!
The boat, called the Condor, had won races in its prime, and the crew was fond of mentioning this fact. They had fun taking us along the established route, but it was clear that they all aspired to work on a racing vessel someday. The boat is made of a material that was new at the time—Kevlar, the bulletproof armor cops wear. It’s a heavy steel, and they used a lot of it. Basically, we were all set if we got in a chase with gun-toting pirates.
Happily, our trip was much more tranquil than that. We boarded in the early afternoon, claimed spots to sleep, and then went back up top to watch the world float by. We didn’t sail for the whole time; in fact, quite a bit of the time, we were motoring to specific destinations. But when we did sail, oh man! The crew could have done it all themselves, but they let us pitch in. Some people pulled on the mainsail and the topsail, and the rest of us furiously turned some machinery to tighten up the rigging. Then we’d be told which side of the boat was safe to be on—called the “upwind” or “windward” side because that was the side tipping up in the air rather than down in the water, based on wind and our position in the water—and we’d hang out there as we sliced through the sea.
A sailor’s life for me
The first day, we sailed to Tongue Bay and put in anchor for the night. Several other boats had the same idea, and as the sun set, the lights from all the boats glowed brightly until the stars came out, and then they were brilliantly outshone. People wandered around the boat, drinking wine, watching a dolphin play in the light off the stern, lying back and stargazing. I bundled up and chatted with a couple friendly women as we stared up at the sky. I wanted to stay there all night, but it eventually became too cold, so we all went down below, and balanced on our little bunks as the ship rocked us to sleep.
We were up bright and early the next day, and after breakfast, we got in the dinghy we’d towed, and we were ferried over to the island nearest us. We went on a short bushwalk up to a lookout point, and voila! Whitehaven Beach spread out below us. This beach has some of the whitest, loveliest sand in the world. It’s 98% silica, so for some time, people took the sand to make glass products with. Now it’s protected, which is a very good thing, because the local rocks don’t have any silica, so the sand probably blew over here years ago and it’s likely more can’t be made. What you see is what you get, here.
Looking down at Whitehaven Beach
We walked down to the beach, dumped our things in a central pile, and spread out. Some people went to take jumping photos, the few couples with us wandered off for a romantic stroll, and I walked along the shore looking for stingrays. They float very near the shore, and although it’s hard to tell from my photos, I did see several of them. I walked almost all the way around the point (it was pretty big), and admired the brilliancy of the water, the sky, and the bright white sand. It was like a postcard of paradise had come to life, and just sparkled in the daylight.
Stingray, just floating along
Once we were back on the boat, we raised anchor and made our way toward Luncheon Bay. On the way, appropriately, we had lunch, and we watched the crew feed sea eagles. Once we got to the bay, we donned our stinger suits (because Australia is always trying to kill you) and grabbed snorkels and goggles. The dinghy took us close to the shore of this island, from which you can see the smallest lighthouse in Australia. Once we got to the reef, the crewmember cut the engine and we all fell with purpose straight into the water.
The reef here was the same Great Barrier Reef that I’d seen up in Cairns—it is 1,600 miles long, after all—but I preferred snorkeling in Cairns. The water was cloudier here, and there were way more people in the water with me. Also, importantly, the crew hadn’t briefed us on how to safely be near coral here, as they had in Cairns. I saw a man stand on coral while he adjusted his goggles. I told him he couldn’t do that, that he was causing irreparable damage to the reef, and he just looked annoyed with me. That’s why the crew needs to say these things, so they’ll get taken seriously and thus help protect the reef we’re all admiring.
The deck of the ship
After our snorkel, we sailed around to Langford Sandbar. The dinghy took us out to the sandbar, which only had one other large group, as well as a few couples who were probably highly annoyed at the intrusion. We brought nachos that the crew had made, and snacked on those while the sun started to set. (I say nachos, but please understand that these in no way resembled nachos that you might find in the United States, other than the base of tortilla chips and the addition of some sort of cheese. Still, they were fairly tasty.) We took some group photos and raised a glass of wine as the sun set.
That night was a party night. It’s a strange thing to drink a bit too much wine on a boat in the ocean. You still feel expansive and invulnerable, but a little less so, since two thin wires around the edge of the boat are all that keep you from falling into the black water and the nocturnal sharks therein. So we stayed in the middle of the boat and bonded over drinking games I haven’t played since college.
I may have tried to get a dance party going.
The next day some people did a morning snorkel, but others of us read and sunbathed in the already fierce morning light. Soon it was time to raise anchor for the last time, and the crew got excited because the wind was up in just the direction they wanted it. We set the sails and all sat upwind side, and only just in time, because that wind was strong. I hadn’t actually had a chance to fling my legs over the side, so for a good portion of the sail back I was bracing myself between something holding coiled rope and a rail bracing another length of rope, which was scary because the boat must have been at least at a 45 degree angle, and if I let go of either my hand or my foothold, I’d go straight down the boat and into the water.
Bracing myself against this for a good 30 minutes
Once I did get more securely settled, though, it was pure bliss. All we heard was the wind whipping the sails, the waves slapping the boat, and passengers occasionally screaming as the spray flew high. I felt free and peaceful. I can see how people structure their whole lives around this feeling.
I walked around with the sea sloshing about in my head for the next few days, and I was a bit shaky on my feet for a little bit, but I didn’t care. I even had to doze on an all-night bus ride that night rather than sleep in a proper bed, and I wasn’t bothered. I had sailed, and darling, I simply must do it again.