I'm a Victorian freelance writer & photographer living in the Macedon Ranges north of Melbourne.
Published March 18th 2020
I think I've stumbled on the answer to self-isolation for wife Janet and I during the current corona virus crisis – fourteen days with just the two of us aboard a luxury yacht in tropical Queensland.
Airlie Beach is at the heart of the Whitsundays bareboat charter industry. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media
Bareboating, or sail yourself chartering, is the ultimate holiday for anyone who enjoys boats, the water and plenty of sunshine. With all these found in abundance in Queensland's Whitsunday Islands, it should come as no surprise to learn that the region is home to the largest bareboat charter fleet in the South Pacific.
With its infrastructure firmly established at Airlie Beach and nearby Schute Harbour, the Whitsunday's bareboat industry opens the door on this wonderland of over 100 islands and rocky islets. Here the flexibility of bareboat chartering makes it the ideal way to sample the whole range of delights on offer, while putting the world and Covid-19 behind you.
The Whitsundays are home to the largest fleet of bareboat charter vessels in the southern hemisphere. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media
Sailing, of course, is not a pursuit you jump headlong into with no training but you might be surprised at just how little experience is necessary before undertaking a charter. The boats are as fail-safe as modern technology can make them, with self-furling sails and all lines leading back to the cockpit. A very thorough pre-charter briefing covers the boat, local navigation and tides and is followed by a short sailing test. Add to this a good dose of common sense and respect for the elements and you should be well on the way to enjoying a great holiday. However, if you reach this point and feel you can't cope there is the option of hiring the services of a skipper for as long as it takes to gain the necessary confidence. Conversely, if the operator feels you're not up to it they may insist on a skipper accompanying you. For most though, with the theory out of the way, it's time to bite the bullet and go it alone. It can be a moment of mixed emotions as the security of the marina slowly disappears astern for the first time, but any misgivings are short-lived, overtaken by a sense of personal achievement and the desire to immerse yourself in this watery wonderland.
The Whitsunday operators provide exceptionally safe and luxurious vessels for visitors to enjoy. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media
We've sailed the Whitsunday's twice before, both times aboard a Beneteau Oceanis 351. At just under 35 feet or 10.6 metres, it was not only a beautiful looking yacht but, equipped with every conceivable convenience, was very comfortable and an absolute joy to sail. Boasting three double cabins, two saloon berths, galley, shower and head (that's nautical for toilet), and all finished in polished teak, it was nothing short of luxurious. Without a doubt though my favourite position below decks was the navigators station. Here the charts, tide tables, navigation instruments, radio and control panel for the ship's systems meant this really was the Captain's corner, a place where one's imagination could run riot.
Secluded, peaceful anchorages like this at Nara Inlet are just part of what makes cruising these waters so special. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media
A boat of this size is probably best suited to a maximum of four to six people. To my mind, four would be cosy, for two she was idyllic. Everything, including snorkelling and fishing gear, was provided and charterers have the option of providing their own food and drink or a full range of provisions can be mail ordered and delivered to the boat. An outboard-powered dinghy gives access to the shore and the means to explore the islands to your hears content.
Many bareboater's are more than happy with the relative solitude of the boat and exploring the uninhabited islands, and in the current pandemic atmosphere that would be a great choice, but it pays to remember that many of the Whitsunday resorts are open to passing yachties. At some, the landing fee entitles you to nothing more than picking up a mooring or dropping anchor for the night but at others it buys the key to the island, placing the resort and all its facilities at your disposal.
There are 74 islands in the Whitsundays with many of them providing safe anchorage for bareboat yachties. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media
But the sailing is what this holiday is all about and it's hard to imagine a better place for it. When God made the Whitsunday's he must surely have had yachts and yachtsmen in mind. The highlights were many. The magnificent scenery, our first dolphin encounter and riding out a tropical thunderstorm to name just a few. And there were some memorable mistakes like snagging the anchor at South Molle or almost demolishing the jetty trying to berth in front of an audience at Hamilton Island. Each day we learned something new about ourselves, the boat and the environment until, by the end of the holiday, increased confidence and awareness saw us tackling brisk winds and some lumpy seas for a long and invigorating sail before reluctantly returning "our" boat.
Catamarans are a popular choice of vessel with many .....
..... or, if sailing is not your thing you might have to make-do with a luxury cruiser. Photo's: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media
Our first steps were, like all beginners, tentative but believe me, you haven't lived until you've achieved the satisfaction of commanding your own little ship, made passage through one of the worlds great cruising grounds and cracked a bottle of Champaign under the stars in celebration of your first anchorage.
Now if I could just get the crew to belay her mutinous habits life really would be perfect.
If the idea of cruising the Whitsundays in relative solitude appeals to you check out these bareboat operators, six of the best who offer a range of luxury yachts, catamarans and cruisers for charter. And yes, there are bargains to be had in the current climate. One of these operators is currently offering discounts of up to 50% on some charters.