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Sailing in the Whitsunday Islands

whitehaven3Located scattered off the central Queensland coast, the Whitsunday islands are characterized by azure/turquoise blue waters, coral flowerbeds, sandy beaches and lush, green topped islands popping above the sea. With beautiful scenery, access to the southern portion of the Great Barrier Reef, and a tropical climate that’s pleasant and warm year-round, it is no wonder why sailing trips around the islands are popular among all kinds of travelers. In fact, the Whitsundays are home to the largest array of skippered and chartered sailing adventures in the entire Southern Hemisphere—and with a plethora of options with a wide range of pricing, no visitor to the Whitsundays should leave without going on an overnight sailing trip.

Not only are the Whitsundays totally spectacular, but sheltered warm waters and nicely blowing winds makes the islands a sailors paradise. The islands also offer a wide array of beauty—from the fine white sand at Whitehaven beach to amazingly colorful fields of coral. As you peer at brightly colored fish as you snorkel jade colored waters, see rainbows arching over green mountaintops and ocean and take in the sun setting, you will not regret shelling out the cash for one of the many amazing sailing excursions in the islands.

airliebeachBoats launch from the Airlie Beach harbor (which is actually the second busiest sailing harbor in Australia after Sydney). There are a wide variety of different types of sailing charters visitors to the Whitsundays can choose from:

Types of Sailing Trips in the Whitsundays

Learn to Sail

If you’ve always dreamed of being able to sail a boat, the Whitsundays could very well be the perfect place to learn how to do so. Sailing schools are available from the coast of Hamilton island and will teach those interested how to man a boat in some of the best beginner waters in the world.

Explore Whitsundays has a Sail Introduction Program, which is a 3-day, 2 night course with 7 students and 1 instructor that teaches you how to sail a 43-foot yacht.


sunsetsailIf you are a seasoned sailor (or not such a seasoned sailor), the Whitsundays are a perfect place to rent a boat and head out to the islands on your own. While some sailing experience is required to charter a yacht, there are no formal qualifications needed to become the captain of your very own ship. In fact, the Whitsunday are recognized as amongst the safest in the world for the beginner sailor. Bareboating charters companies will also give take you out on a trial run before you set sail.

If sailing isn’t so much your gig, but you’d still like to take out your own boat, you can also rent a motor cruiser that’ll allow you to cover more ground and prevents you from worrying about testing your sailing skills.

Private charters

If manning the helm of your own sailboat doesn’t exactly sounds like your thing, but you’d like the privacy to explore the islands with just yourself and your friends and/or family, then you can also hire privately chartered tours of the Whitsundays.

With a wide selection of types of boats to choose from, crewed sailing adventures provide a more relaxing alternative to bareboating. This way you can worry about taking in the sights and working on your tan on the deck of the boat as someone else worries about navigating the boat and cooking in the galley.

Organized group sailing adventures

If you are either short on time or want to meet new people from around the world, than an organized 2 or 3-night sailing trip could be perfect. Not only will you be taken to some of the best spots in the islands, but you’ll have someone doing the cooking and navigating for you.

There is a wide variety in types of group sailing trips that range from small, intimate luxury yachts to larger maxi sailing boats that hold 20 or more people and turn into essentially a floating party every night.

Maxi yachts

boomerangThese tend to be the most affordable of the sailing excursions to take. Not only is the sailing on these fast boats fun and exciting, but the larger group of backpacker types on these boats lends for a great time out on the water (though not entirely quiet).

During my sailing trip to the Whitsundays, I rode on the Boomerang, a former championship Maxi yacht with impressive racing history. The Boomerang takes a maximum of 28 passengers, with an average age group of 21-35 years of age. Boomerang is one of the most popular maxi yachts. Perfect for those wanting to give the crew a hand, meet new people or want an exciting and memorable holiday experience. Plus, as the skipper told us at the end of the first day off sailing, “once you drop the anchor, it’s time to get wankered” (please imagine in full Aussie accent).

The Matador, British Defender, Broomstick, Hammer and Siska are other Maxi yachts popular among the younger, backpacker crowd. Prices range from around $250-$450 for a 2.5 day sailing excursion (all food is included in the price).

Catamarans and luxury cruises

For those planning on heading to the Whitsundays with their honey, sailing out on a smaller, more intimate catamaran is the ideal way to go. There are several companies that carry far fewer passengers (usually 4 couples) and also offer private cabins for those looking for a little more privacy.

There are several smaller more intimate catamrans to choose from. The Whitsunday Dreamer, Blue, Getaway and Melissa are all popular smaller catamaran boats. Prices range from $600-$900 AUD.

Adventure Sailing

These boats adventure sailing yachts usually head out for 3 days (rather than 2) and have smaller groups (12 to 16) than the Maxi boats, but generally tend to cater towards the same crowd of 18-35 year olds. With more time at each location and more places visited with the extra days, these are the perfect sailing excursions for those who still want to have a good time, but want a slightly smaller group and more time at each location. Prices are around $500 AUD.

Tall ship sailing

tallshipIf you are looking to meet new people of a wider range of ages and traveler types than on the Maxis, tall ship cruises could be the best way to go. Plus, you’ll be sailing on a ship not unlike the one Captain Cook sailed when he first discovered the Whitsundays.

The Soloway Lass, which is one of the more popular tall ships sailing the Whitsundays, boasts 10 sails and offers exciting adventures for guests of all ages. Honeymooners, families and friends alike will all find themselves immersed in this tropical wonderland full of fun activities as well as plenty of restful relaxation while aboard this magnificent tall ship that offers quite an impressive sailing history.

Other tall ship cruises range from offering guests shared accommodations to private cabins and fewer people aboard for more intimate experiences. The Alexander Stewart, Coral Trekker, Derwent Hunter and Windjammer are all popular tall ships sailing in the Whitsundays. Prices range from $400-$900 AUD (all food is included in the price).

Sail and Dive

diveWhile you can have the opportunity to dive on many of the various types of boats, there are specific boats which cater to those who’d like to spend a ton of time under the water checking out the Great Barrier Reef up close and personal. There are scuba diving day-trips available. For those doing overnight excursions, you can also go aboard boats like the Whitsunday Magic, which as all gear and a dive team on the vessel. You can also dive from other boats, when a dive boat will meet with the other vessels.

Post-sail fun

beaches1After spending a few days on a boat with a group of people—drinking goon (the cheap boxed wine that’s a favorite among backpackers), soaking up the sun and snorkeling the jade waters—you feel like you’ve walked away with 20 new friends and feel a little sad when the ship docks and your new boat friends disperse.

That’s why I was so happy to find out that many of the boats have reserved tables at Beaches Hostel in Airlie Beach for the night after the boat docks. This way you know exactly where to find your new goon drinking buddies and catch up with more drinks and a night out in Airlie Beach.

How to Book your sailing trip

You can easily book your sailing excursion online before you head to the Whitsundays. Check out the Explore Whitsundays for more information and how to book.

You can also wait to book your sailing adventure until you arrive in Airlie Beach. A city that caters entirely to the tourism industry, you will have absolutely no problem finding a place to book your sailing trip through and figuring out which boat is best for you.

>>Check out the Explore Whitsundays web site for more information

Photo credits: Boomerang and dive photo by Mike Barish