Master and commander

With his crew well briefed and the champagne chilled, Robert Upe heads to a 'secret' Whitsundays anchorage.

Ahead of me, along the Hamilton Island jetty, are white yachts and catamarans with blue trim tied in rows to bollards, gently swaying with the sea. Ropes are coiled neatly on decks, sails folded meticulously away and everything is in perfect-world order. I pass by a lot of people who look like skippers and note that an unusually high proportion wear Bermuda shorts with ironed creases, polo shirts and those leather deck shoes.

There's none of the mess and mayhem we saw on Jessica Watson's yacht, Ella's Pink Lady, when she sailed into Sydney Harbour in May at the end of her 210-day around-the-world solo voyage, during which she was soaked, beaten up by the elements and rolled over.

I'm about to emulate Watson's feat but because of time constraints I've cut the journey to one day and one night in the Whitsunday Islands. I'm no sea dog, so I've hired a skipper. And to make things more comfortable, I have a host to help with deck and galley duties. You know, popping champagne corks, chilling chardonnay, serving oysters and holding the towel when I clamber onboard after a snorkelling session with pretty coloured damsel and angel fish.

I'm walking along the jetty into this perfect world just hours after flying out of the city and, of course, the sky is blue, the sun is shining and seagulls are squawking outside a fish and chippery.

With quick introductions and gourmet rolls for lunch under a shade canopy on our Sunsail charter catamaran, it's down to the serious business of casting off. I mean to help but by the time I've got my sunglasses on we're under way and passing a super-yacht rumoured to be Jamie Packer's. If he was on deck I'd give him one of those knowing waves that yachties do..

The skipper points the bow towards Whitsunday Island and a ''secret'' anchorage that he says provides one of the best vantage points for island sunset watching.

We motor along, then the skipper cuts the engines and hoists the jib and we're pushed along at five knots by a breeze.

There's only one other yacht anchored within sight of us in Mays Bay when the sun goes down and the only sounds are the water lapping on the hulls of the catamaran and turtles breaking the surface and gulping for breath.

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Some of the most famous celebrity-filled islands of the Whitsundays are not far from here, including exclusive Hayman Island, where they might be lining up in their Bermuda shorts about now at the cocktail bar. But out here it feels remote and removed.

I'm lying on the catamaran's forward-deck trampoline and I close my eyes and feel becalmed in every sense of the word.

That's until the host rouses us for curry under the stars, which are starting to flicker with increasing intensity, like Marilyn Monroe's eyelashes. After dinner, and by torchlight, the skipper throws a line in for squid and we see some rise to the bait. Occasionally a satellite cuts a swathe between those flickering stars, and the turtles keep gulping..

Yacht charters are big business in the Whitsunday Islands and you don't have to be an expert to do it. Charter companies such as Sunsail will let you take charge of a boat after some basic instruction; all of the sailing here is by line of sight, so you don't need the navigational skills of Francis Chichester.

Some yacht charter companies also have pre-charter sailing courses that you can do before taking your own boat into the sunset or you can go the whole hog, as I have, and have a skipper and host. If you want to step up even further in luxury there are private fully crewed yachts from Ocean Dynamics (oceandynamics.com.au) and DescaradA (descarada.com.au).

These luxury yachts may be roomier than the standard bareboat charter craft but my 11-metre nine-berth Sunsail 384 is cosy, rather than cramped. There are four cabins with double beds and the stylish wood-panelled galley-lounge area has soft sofas wrapping around a central table.

No matter which yachting option you choose, chances are you'll end up at world-renowned Whitehaven Beach, where the silica sand is as bright as snow and the swirling waters at the Hill Inlet end of the beach form sand patterns in the shallows, in which stingrays glide and small blue soldier crabs play.

Whitehaven is best in the early morning before the tourist boats, sea planes and helicopters make a daily beeline for the seven-kilometre-long beach for swimming, snorkelling and picnics.

After eggs benedict, passionfruit and cherries, we make good progress from our secret bay to Whitehaven with a stiffening breeze at our backs.

At Hill Inlet there is a boardwalk that rises into the rainforest, to a lookout that provides a panorama of the beach and the converging yachts.

This boardwalk connects with the Ngaro Sea Trail, a new walk that has tracks on Whitsunday, South Molle and Hook islands and requires boat transfers between each (derm.qld.gov.au). From the lookout we can see the shadows and outlines of stingrays and fish far below and in the tall pandanus trees next to us there are hundreds of butterflies hanging on tight.

The skipper says the wind is now blowing at 10 to 15 knots and there are two- to three-metre seas. It's a lumpy ride as we set off but I'm feeling like the sea dog in me is emerging - until a rogue wave washes over the stern where I'm hanging on as tight as those butterflies.

The soaking gives me a Jessica Watson moment but in a flash I'm below deck, changing into crisp and dry Bermudas.

Robert Upe travelled courtesy of Tourism Queensland and Tourism Whitsundays.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Jetstar flies non-stop to Hamilton Island from Melbourne (3hr) for $239 and from Sydney (2hr 30min) for $149. These fares are one-way including tax, for carry-on baggage only. Virgin Blue flies non-stop from Sydney only.

Sailing there

Sunsail yachts cost from $499 a night, based on a five-night charter on a Sunsail Oceanis 323, which sleeps six. There is also a $24 marine park fee a person. A skipper is $315 a night and a host $275. Gourmet provisioning can be arranged. See www.sunsail.com.au and www.whitprov.com.au. Sunsail is the only charter company at Hamilton Island but several operate from Airlie Beach, including Charter Yachts Australia, Cumberland Charter Yachts, Queensland Yacht Charters, Whitsunday Escape, Whitsunday Private Yacht Charters and Whitsunday Rent a Yacht.

Staying there

Hamilton Island Yacht Club's four-bedroom villas cost from $1350 a night. The new villas are next to the marina. See www.hamiltonislandyachtclubvillas.com.au.

When to go

Prime time for Whitsundays sailing is April to November; whales are migrating in August and September; the higher-risk period for stingers is October to May. See marinestingers.com.au.

Tip

It is more comfortable if you don't fill a yacht to maximum-passenger capacity. As a rough rule of thumb, a four-person yacht is ideal for two.

More information

See www.tourismwhitsundays.com.au.

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