It doesn't take long after we've untied the ropes, pushed off from the marina and thrown caution to the wind, to feel like we've joined some kind of private club. The bareboating club that is. Sure, I'd seen the bareboating brigade before; tied up at marinas or anchored in secluded inlets – kids leaping into the water, yachties hanging up wet weather gear to dry – but I'd never given them more than a passing thought. Now we are one of them. For the uninitiated, bareboating is chartering a yacht, catamaran or launch, for a nautical adventure. And our destination is as good as it gets when it comes to boating – the 74 magical islands that make up the Whitsundays, stretching from Mackay to the south and Bowen to the north.
We head off on a blue sky day with a slight breeze. The kind of day you dream of when your destination is Langford Island, known locally as "Lara Bingle Island". I'm told this is where the famous Tourism Australia advertisement with model Lara Bingle was filmed, but after returning home I discover it was in fact filmed in NSW. When we arrive we find we have the perfect sand cay practically to ourselves and it's easy to see why people think this is where the infamous ad was filmed.
We suit up for a snorkel as we watch some of the other local charter boats head off from this tiny island, a stone's throw from Hayman. The water is warm and we have fun spotting tropical fish and looking out for green turtles. At one point I walk to the middle of the deserted beach, throw my arms wide, and yell at the top of my voice, "Where the bloody hell are you?". My eight-year-old daughter Ella, the reference completely going over her head, removes her snorkel and sternly tells me off for swearing. Grinning, we head back to our vessel Divocean, a powered catamaran patiently moored in the deep.
One of the many advantages to bareboating that quickly becomes apparent is that with considered planning, you can lose the crowds, or purposefully avoid them altogether. If you're feeling social however, or just want the comfort of other boats around, it's easy to work out where everyone is heading for the day, or planning to anchor at night. You can decide on a whim to change your plans depending on the weather, or how you're feeling. Your secret weapon is the VHF radio.
The radio lies at the heart of your nautical journey, with the various charter companies operating on a couple of local channels. It's kind of the equivalent of aviation's radio control tower, minus the need to report your position at every waypoint. It's easy and heaps of fun and you can ask whatever you want. We look forward to our morning scheduled calls (otherwise known as "scheds") with Charter Yachts Australia each day. "Charter Yachts Australia, Charter Yachts Australia, this is Divocean," we'd sign in. "Go ahead Divocean," the reply would come back from Abell Point Marina as we'd proceed to outline our plans for the day. Each time we wrapped up, we'd hear their familiar sign off, "You have a lovely day Divocean".
And we do have lovely days. Several times we lower our inflatable dinghy for a snorkel at secluded spots like Cid Reef. Other times we spot turtles bobbing in the azure seas, or take long walks along isolated beaches on uninhabited islands; ours the only footprints. My favourite times are the mornings when we make a plunger of coffee and savour it on the deck, the sea completely calm. Or at night when we enjoy sundowners and witness yet another spectacular sunset.
Naturally, it's not all smooth sailing, but Roosevelt's quote,"A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor", rings in my ears. I remind myself of this on our second day at sea as the skies turn a rather troublesome shade of grey, and a relentless rain starts falling with no sign of moving on. The heavy rain drenches everything: towels, bedding and even our spirits, but thankfully it's still warm in the tropics and it's easy to find shelter in the island's many protected bays and inlets.
During a break in the weather we decide to risk it with a walk from Sawmill to Dungog Beach on Whitsunday Island. We're about five minutes into the walk, along a meandering dirt track, when we're hit by a torrential downpour. Figuring we're already soaked, we push on. As we arrive at the deserted Dungog Beach, the clouds part and the sun comes out. We take a swim in the languid water, Ella builds a sandcastle, and we marvel at once again having the entire beach to ourselves.
The upside to the soggy weather is rainbows. Scores of them. We see our first as we pull up anchor at Nara Inlet. A glorious rainbow seemingly spans the entire bay, with a couple of boats looking as if they're sailing right beneath it. Another day, as Ella breakfasted on the front deck with a hungry mob of seagulls, a half rainbow appeared to land right on her head. "Look mum," she yelled exuberantly, raising her hands to the sky.
A good option when bareboating the Whitsundays if the weather's not much chop, or you'd prefer a bit more action, is to head to "Hammo" – Hamilton Island that is. You can even pick up your boat from there. We spend a couple of days enjoying the best the island offered: having dinner at Coca Chu, sunset drinks at One Tree Hill and tearing around in a golf buggy, the island's preferred mode of transport.
The Hamilton Island marina has 301 berths and berthing for up to 60-metre super yachts, right next to the Hamilton Island Yacht Club with its billowing sailed roof. Mooring here is a breeze with courtesy vessels on hand to guide you to your berth. Marina guests have access to hot showers, coin-operated washing machines, dryers and all resort facilities including restaurants, swimming pools and the beach. You can get a decent coffee at Marina Cafe. We even squeezed in a quick cuddle with a koala at the island's Wild Life park.
Our favourite memories are when we found ourselves completely alone, as we did on our last night at sea. We'd anchored at Long Island, just around the corner from Palm Bay, seeking shelter from a howling wind. That night after we'd made a pasta dinner on the stove top and had a game of cards, we headed out onto the deck and leaned down to stir the cool, dark water with our hands. As we did we watched mesmerised as bioluminescent plankton flashed like magic just beneath the surface, while overhead the sky was littered with twinkling stars. It was, as Ella rightly put it, like staying in a million-star hotel.
Charter Yachts Australia rentals starts from $460 per night in summer for a two-berth yacht; up to $1475 per night for premium catamaran that sleeps 10. Powered catamarans start from $755 per night. Rentals include fully equipped galley, four-hour briefing, linen, inflatable dinghy, snorkel gear and twice daily radio schedules and weather updates. See charteryachtsaustralia.com.au
For accommodation pre or post bareboating, Mantra Boathouse Apartments offers contemporary, two and three-bedroom apartments overlooking the Port of Airlie Marine and the Coral Sea, a five-minute walk from town. All apartments come equipped with a full kitchen and laundry facilities, which proves particularly useful after a week on a boat. Two-bedroom apartments are priced from $269 per night, cheaper for longer stays. See mantra.com.au/Boathouse
Fly to Whitsunday Coast Airport or Hamilton Island direct from Sydney, or via Brisbane from Melbourne, with Virgin Australia, see virginaustralia.com.au, Jetstar, see jetstar.com.au. Tiger Airways flies direct to Whitsunday Coast Airport from Sydney, see tigerair.com.au
FIVE THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT BAREBOATING IN THE WHITSUNDAYS
1 Before setting off you'll receive a half day briefing on your vessel and all its equipment covering safety, navigation and daily operation. You will also receive a detailed brief of the area you'll be sailing, utilising charts on board to better understand and safely navigate your cruising area.
2 You do not need a boat licence to charter a yacht or powered boat. You can choose to skipper your own vessel, or hire (at an additional cost) crew to attend to the daily chores of navigation, cooking and cleaning, leaving you free to relax and unwind.
3 You can self-cater by stocking up at a supermarket before you go, or do as we did and preorder your food and drinks online with Whitsundays Provisioning (whitprov.com.au), meaning the cupboards and fridge will be prestocked before you get on board. This saves a lot of hassle.
4 It's a good idea to stock up on more alcoholic beverages than you think you'll need (if you drink that is), because it's a long way to the nearest shop if you run out of wine. You can purchase alcohol at Abell Point Marina and on Hamilton Island but it's more expensive.
5 Budget an extra $30 per person for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and admin fees; between $290-$440 for your insurance waiver to reduce the excess to $500, and $25-$30 per day for fuel. You can hire stinger suits from Aqua Dive at Abell Point Marina for $30 per person, per week.
Sheriden Rhodes was a guest of Tourism and Events Queensland and Charter Yachts Australia.
See also: The world's best floating hideaways