Swagman #18 – Whitsunday ‘Sailing’
Whitsunday Islands, Australia
“The sea was angry that day my friends, like an old man trying to send back soup in a deli.”
– George Costanza, Seinfeld
I couldn’t help working that quote into this entry, since the quote kept
going in and out of my head throughout our three days on the Krackerjack.
Tour companies throughout Australia try to lure backpackers with cheap
combination deals of Whitsunday sailing and Fraser Island. Needless to say
it works. For about $200 you get three days and two nights on a boat around
the Whitsundays, meals included, three days of dangerous 4WD around Fraser
Island, plus one free night accommodation along the way. Backpackers convene
like moths to a flame, and very often get burned.
But a good deal is completely irresistible to a backpacker. They could have
offered a $50 discount for those who were willing to swim 3k from the boat
to each island and I would have seriously considered it. Hostels and tour
groups make a fortune off us, and we willingly oblige for the sake of saving
a few bucks. A hostel could serve up ‘Mystery Slop – $2’ for dinner and the
line would be down the street.
So now we found ourselves at the Abel Point Marina with enough clothes for
three days and enough alcohol for a week. Strange how it always works out
that way. Naturally it had begun to rain when we stepped out onto the dock.
We were escorted on to the boat, gathered around in a semi-circle and
informed of the rules, which basically boiled down to how not to fall
overboard and how to maintain friendly relations with your fellow skippers
by always throwing up overboard with the wind at your back. Then we were
off, departing the marina at about 5:00pm, which basically meant that day
one of our three day trip would last about five hours.
The weather beat up on the sea which in turn took it out on our boat. To say
that we rocked back and forth would be a gross understatement. To say that
we had to grip anything that was bolted down to keep from flying off our
seat would be a bit more realistic. The crew, a middle aged captain and
three young mates, ran around the boat pulling ropes and dodging masts. It
was like being on the set of The Perfect Storm. Everyone looked out at the
horizon to avoid having to determine which side would be best to vomit over.
Eventually the sun descended beautifully through some holes in the clouds
and we dropped anchor for the night. They fed us a dinner that was
surprisingly good, which we supplemented with wine and beer before slowly
dropping below to our cabins for the night.
The engines awoke me at around 5:30, so I got up to use the bathroom and
then lay back down, where I quickly learned that the best way to get seasick
is to wake up, stand up, and then lay back down and try to go back to sleep.
I dealt with the dizziness and threatening nausea as long as I could
tolerate and then went up to the main deck. It seemed as though everyone
else was already up there, and had the same look on their face. So I
squeezed my way into a seat and stared off at the horizon to settle my
We pulled up to Whitsunday Island at around 8am, where the crew informed us
that we were having a water problem and therefore could not have any
breakfast. They would take us over to the Island in the dinghy, where we
would have an hour on Whitehaven Beach while they would work frantically to
get the problem solved so they could avoid mutiny. They brought us over to
the beach seven at a time. I didn’t care about the food since my stomach was
still settling. I was looking forward to solid land.
“If you look over into the water you can sometimes see a turtle,” said the
mate who was steering the dinghy. As if on cue a large turtle, about the
size of a dinner plate, came slowly to the surface to see what all the
commotion was about. He broke the surface briefly, close enough for me
touch, and then descended back into the sea.
We only had an hour on the beach, but were encouraged to make the hike up to
the lookout point. The round trip, including the dozens of pictures taken at
the top, took about a half hour. So we only had about 30 minutes to enjoy
what is arguably the most beautiful beach on the planet. The sand is so
white that it could easily be mistaken as snow and the water is actually
clearer than a swimming pool. The group spread out to explore on their own.
Some of the Germans spotted some sharks in the water and wisely ran in to
take pictures. The rest of us spread out like we were making snow angels and
enjoyed what little time we had. As most of these three day tours try to
incorporate as many of the islands as possible, you cannot fully enjoy one
island for more than an hour or two. It is an excellent (and cheap) way to
determine which island you like the best, whereupon you can later take a
longer day trip to the island of your choice through a different company.
Soon we were off the island and back on the boat, where we were pleased to
find that the breakfast situation had been resolved. And then we were off
again, this time to a different island. I fail to mention the names of most
of these islands because, truth be told, I have no idea where we went. On
the third day, as we pulled up to the dock, one of the mates gathered us
around and quickly ran off the numerous things we saw, but the info bounced
around in my head like a pinball before exiting.
At our next stop we were given wet suits, stinger helmets, fins, masks and
snorkels and taken to a beach that was completely covered in jagged rocks
and shells. It was so painful that the ten foot walk from sand to water took
about ten minutes. It was extremely uncomfortable in bare feet so most of us
donned our fins, which made it all the more amusing. Once in the water we
were welcomed by the gorgeous reef and the many colorful fish that feed off
of it. To see it is amazing – you can actually see them chewing little bits
of the coral. You could swim right down to them and they would look at you
and then go on eating. Another turtle appeared to take a few bites before
swimming off again. It would have been more amazing if I could have seen it
with both eyes, since the left side of my mask had given up and allowed
water to seep in continuously. I swam around with one eye open most of the
time, until Nikki took pity and we switched for a bit.
Back on the boat we compared notes on the different fish we saw. The captain
informed us that if we thought we would get sea sick we should take sea sick
tablets, although, he then added, they would be useless unless we took them
“Do you have any?” I asked.
“Of course not,” he said. He then leaned closer to me. “Bloody things are
useless if you ask me. They should make them suppositories, they’d do better
down there if you’re just going to puke them up!” He then let loose a laugh
that quickly deteriorated into a violent coughing fit.
That night was more gentle. The clouds had gone and there were the millions
of stars, interrupted only by the dim lights of nearby boats. We laid out on
the deck and talked in whispers, as though no one wanted to disturb the
silence. Sleep came much easier that night, as my stomach had given in to
We were up early again and brought to a new island, where they informed us
that the dinghy was broken.
“You can jump in from here and swim to the shore,” said the captain. “If you
can’t swim 20 meters than you shouldn’t be on a boat.”
An A+ for personality.
So we jumped off the back of the boat and swam to the reef off shore.
Although the reef wasn’t as nice as it had been the day before there were
plenty of fish. The captain of another dinghy was throwing bread bits into the
water, so when you put your face in the water you could see that you were
completely surrounded by many different types of fish. They were completely
unafraid of people, which is usually the case when any animal is fed by
humans. They would swim right up to your face, see if any food was coming,
and then swim off. Some of the girls in our group even claimed that some of
the fish had tried to take a nibble out of them. Of all the fish, though,
the most interesting was Elvis. Elvis is obviously not his scientific name,
which is so long and contains so many syllables that I can’t even write it
here. But this type of fish is very territorial – there is usually only one
male in the area. I guess this kind of makes him the king.
By the time we had finished up we were all exhausted. They fed us some pizza
and we rode silently back to Airlie Beach. The trip was short, but it felt
as though we had been out at sea for days. Nikki and I said goodbye to
everyone in the awkward way you do when you’ve just spent every waking
moment of several days with them, and then jumped in our car and pointed it