The peak boating season is winter. Warm weather and clear skies. Other times of the year can offer wonderful weather without the crowds, but the summer cyclone season is a lottery. Summer weather can be perfect but hot, so if humidity’s not your thing then aim for the cooler months.
Trailer boats allow swift and easy commute. You could launch in Mackay and navigate to Bowen, covering the entire Whitsundays. Regular long-haul buses will bring a driver back to collect the car and trailer.
Preparing the boat
It goes without saying that any boat undertaking coastal passages should be equipped and crewed adequately. Interstate skippers should be aware of Queensland’s pollution, registration and pending licensing regulations, as well as marine park zoning areas.
In addition to the usual seaworthiness requirements, there are many ways to make tropical cruising more comfortable.
Shade is essential for tropical boating. Most boats have a bimini over the cockpit. An awning over the main cabin area is handy at anchor in warmer weather.
Despite recommendations not to anchor over coral, in the Whitsundays, you’ll often anchor on a sandy/corally bottom. Because corals can chafe through anchor lines, it’s preferable to use an all-chain rode. Twenty-five metres is a minimum, attached to another 30m of rope. While you might aim to anchor in six to eight metres of water, it’s not always possible, and you need enough scope to cope with the wind gusts frequently encountered.
Use at least five times the depth at high tide. Don’t overdo the length, boats taking more than their share of the swinging room are unpopular. The danger of short chains is in lulls or at the turn of the tide. The chain slackens and drops to the bottom, taking the rope down to tangle among the coral. After a few gusts, the rope chafes through. One way to counter this is to attach a fender or float to the anchor line to keep it off the bottom. It’s a messy solution, which isn’t required with adequate chain.
The anchor should be a type which holds well in loose sand and can penetrate a hard bottom. The plough type is the most common anchor in the Whitsundays, although the newer Manson Supreme, Sarca and similar anchors have outstripped its performance in controlled testing. The once favoured Bruce anchor tends to skate along a firm surface.
Manual and electric winches both have their champions, manual being cheaper, lighter and less prone to malfunction. On the other hand, the electric option saves a lot of effort.
Backup anchors and rodes are essential, not only to guard against the possibility of losing one, but you may need to use two. Trailer boats should have at least one stern anchor as well.
Whitsunday anchorages can be crowded but observing anchoring etiquette goes a long way towards avoiding unpleasant confrontations. The basic rule is to anchor clear of other boats. If your new neighbour objects to your proximity, the right action is usually for the newcomer to shift farther away.
The Whitsundays is an area of strong tides, which rise towards the south and ebb northwards. Even bigger boats should plan to move with the tide. Boating across the main channels you’ll need to factor tidal flow into your course. Don’t simply steer towards a fixed point or the tide will set you way off track.
At a minimum, you should know how to plot a course allowing for the tidal set. Back-bearings and GPS are helpful, too.
Wind-against-tide conditions can kick up a nasty sea. Often a smoother passage can be made by travelling at slack water, or when wind and tide are together, even if that means pushing the tide.
You’ll need paper charts, preferably up-to-date ones. Relying on a GPS plotter recently helped one boat to hit rocks not shown on the plotter, but clearly marked on paper charts.
Distinguishing coral heads (bommies), shallow water and weed patches we recommend a pair of polarised sunglasses, reducing glare and reflections and allowing much clearer vision into the water than conventional sunnies.
An inconvenient fact not mentioned in the brochures on the Whitsundays is that the weather is not always perfect. Bring books, toys, videos, whatever you favour to ward off occasional boredom when the weather is not favourable and you need to stay in a sheltered anchorage.
Seasickness can affect any sailing holiday. Although most hops in the Whitsundays are short, I’d suggest potential sufferers try their medication before their trip. Some seasick pills can cause unwanted side effects like drowsiness, dry mouth, headaches and constipation.
If you’re sailing during the stinger season, October/November to May/June, bring a stinger suit to swim in. Although stings are rare, they are potentially fatal, and stingers have been recorded at all times of the year. Mesh suits are available at chemists in the area, while the UV-protective lycra “rashee” suits, available at sports stores, are a handy year-round alternative to a light wetsuit.
Have realistic expectations
Go prepared to boat in strong winds, you may have a few rolly nights at anchor, and some inclement weather. You’ll still have a great time!