Sailing the Whitsunday Islands

Sailboat at anchor off Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island, Australia, Sailing

Sailing the Whitsunday Islands

Australia has long been on my travel bucket list. When an opportunity came up to sail with friends in the Whitsunday Islands, I didn’t need much convincing. And boy, was it worth the trip!

Located off the northeast Queensland coast, the Whitsunday Islands are actually two drowned mountain ranges, separated from the Australian mainland at the end of the last ice age. Today, they consist of 74 islands in the clear aqua water of the Coral Sea. What’s truly unique about this area is that many of the islands are unspoiled, protected as part of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and Australia’s national parks system. Only a handful of islands in the Whitsundays are developed. Most offer pristine beaches and tropical forests, with no development at all – meaning no resorts, restaurants, or even marinas. This affects your provisioning for a charter sail, as you need to carry everything with you for the duration of the sail. And watch your fresh water usage!

100 Magic Miles, the bible for sailing the Whitsunday IslandsLuckily, there is a great resource for planning your trip. The bible for sailors visiting the area is 100 Magic Miles by David Colfelt. Seriously, it’s the best cruising guide I’ve ever used –  incredibly detailed maps of each anchorage and lots of other interesting background on the area.

We picked up our charter at Hamilton Island, a relatively short flight from Sydney (there are also connections to Melbourne, Brisbane and Cairns), but the other (more common) option is to charter from Airlie Beach on the mainland. The advantage of Hamilton Island over Airlie is that it’s closer to the islands you’ll likely visit, so you have more time exploring vs. sailing to and from your charter base. The disadvantage of Hamilton is that it’s a bit more expensive, as you have to pay to have your food provisions shipped over from Airlie, and alcohol is more much expensive than on the mainland.

Sunset at Hamilton Island Marina, Whitsunday Islands, Australia

Sun setting over the Hamilton Island Marina.

That being said, Hamilton Island is a compact, upscale resort island with no cars – you get around by golf cart. The main strip adjacent to the marina has several good restaurants and bars, with the imposing Hamilton Island Yacht Club (home of the annual Audi Hamilton Island Race Week) anchoring one end. The island is owned by Australia’s Oatley family, famous as both wine-makers and yachties. There are multiple resorts on the island, with options ranging from midscale to super luxury. The marina itself had a number of superyachts and luxury sailboats.

Our itinerary included stops on Hook Island, Hayman Island (just to snorkel for a few hours), and Whitsunday Island. Off Hook Island, we found good snorkeling in Maureen’s Cove, Luncheon Bay, and Manta Ray Bay, and Butterfly Bay provided an excellent mooring spot. We took the sea kayak out to explore the anchorage and saw many large sea turtles swimming gracefully in the bay. We also really enjoyed Tongue Bay on Whitsunday Island. We dinghied ashore and hiked up to the overlook for Hill Inlet – a must do. But more on Hill Inlet shortly.

Mooring Buoy in the Whitsunday Islands, Australia, Sailing

A public mooring in the Whitsundays.

Because the islands are part of the protected marine park, there is a unique system for mooring and anchoring. White reef protection markers provide boundaries for anchoring well away from coral beds. While most areas offer opportunities to anchor (clearly outlined in 100 Magic Miles), there are also public moorings available, maintained by the park authority. The mooring buoys are color coded indicating the size of vessel that can use them, and are restricted to 2 hours during the day (until 3pm). This ensures that multiple boats can access the mooring during the day – you are encouraged to explore, swim and snorkel – but then move on so others can enjoy the area. Moorings picked up after 3pm can be used overnight.

Another unique aspect of chartering in the Whitsundays is the daily (and in some cases, twice daily) check-ins with the charter company. At an appointed time, the charter companies hail each of their yachts to find out where you are and what you plan on doing for the day. It’s called “the scheds” – which sounds like “skids” to an American ear – and it took a little getting used to. We’ve chartered all over the world and have never encountered this; at first it felt like overkill. But once you realize there are no yacht facilities on most of these islands, you understand why the charter companies keep tabs. By the end of the week we looked forward to hearing what all the other charter yachts were planning for the day.

Whitsunday Island is the largest of the Whitsundays and home to two stunning attractions: Hill Inlet and Whitehaven Beach. Hill Inlet is a tidal estuary at the northern end of Whitehaven Beach. It’s best viewed from the overlook at Tongue Point – a short uphill hike, but well worth it. As the tides shift the sands below, they create a beautiful and ever-changing mosaic of blues and greens. In the estuary, there are rays and small lemon sharks and lots of small silver fish that flash in the sun. Beyond Hill Inlet lies Whitehaven Beach – 7km of almost pure white silica sand that’s as fine as sugar. Warm, gentle waves lap the shore, and while we were there the beach was blissfully empty. There were maybe 8 boats anchored there, and at one point we were the only people occupying the main beach. It was surreal and magical – and without a doubt, one of the most amazing places I’ve ever been. We stayed for 2 days, exploring the beach and estuary, and we left very reluctantly.

The best way to convey the majesty of this place is in pictures. I can only hope to go back soon, as there were many places we couldn’t reach in a short 7 day charter. Even with 20 hours of travel from the US, it would still be worth it.

Hill Inlet estuary, Whitsunday Island, Australia, Sailing

Magnificent mosaic of shifting sands at Hill Inlet.

Trail to Hill Inlet Lookout, Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Islands, Australia

The path up to Hill Inlet overlook on Tongue Point.


Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island, Australia, Sailing

Whitehaven Beach, all to ourselves.


Pure white sand of Whitehaven Beach.

Shallow water at Hill Inlet estuary, Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island, Australia, Sailing

The changing tides create beautiful sand patterns at Hill Inlet.

Dinghys beached on Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island, Australia, Sailing

Sun setting on a beautiful day at Whitehaven Beach on Whitsunday Island.