Cruise the Whitsundays – the definitive where, when and how?

Cruise the Whitsundays – the definitive where, when and how?

Article by – Petrea McCarthy,

A trip to the Whitsundays instead of winter at home, the cruise of a lifetime, or part of a grander plan?

Whatever your motivation for sailing north this year, now is the time to prepare. The beauty of cruising is that whether it is your first or fortieth time up the coast, there is always something new to discover. Whether you have been to the Whitsundays before, or it is your first time, this is for you.

I am going to talk about planning and the Queensland section of the trip; getting out of Moreton Bay and over the Wide Bay bar; day-sailing up the coast and then about some of the best anchorages in the Whitsundays.

The first thing is to decide whether you will actually have time to get all the way to the Whitsundays, or would be better aiming for another beautiful area, the Capricorn Coast for instance.

Allow enough time to enjoy the trip

To ensure you enjoy your cruise to the Whitsundays, consider these different options. Allow enough time to day-sail there, spend some time in the area and sail home again. Or, make a delivery-style trip up and back, spending most of your time in the Whitsundays. This could involve different crews for each part of the trip and allow your family maximum time at the destination. A nice option if your kids are in school.

Maybe stage the boat up the coast before your holiday starts, then bring it home in stages afterwards.

The simplest option could be to charter a bareboat. Two weeks would give you time to take in most of the iconic spots, although obviously, more time is better. It may seem expensive, but if you tally the cost of taking your own boat north, you may be surprised.

Finally let us not forget trailer sailers have perhaps the best option, just drive up and launch at Airlie Beach. There are two good public ramps, one straight into Muddy Bay, the other within Abell Point Marina. Both offer reasonably secure parking. TSs also have the option of utilising one of the many caravan parks around Airlie as a base.

How much time do I need?

For a daysailing trip, you will not want to sail more than about eight hours a day, so multiply your average speed by eight to get the length of each hop. A twelve metre monohull might average six to seven knots, so a reasonable day’s run would be 50 to 60 nautical miles. The average cruising cat won’t be much faster.

Add in the time taken to leave the marina or overnight anchorage and the approach when you arrive and you have a very full day.

In 50 to 60nm hops the Queensland section of the trip is: Gold Coast to Brisbane area; Brisbane to Mooloolaba; Mooloolaba to the bar, up the Sandy Strait; Sandy Strait to Burnett Heads; Burnett Heads to Pancake Creek; and so on. Add in a few rest or exploration days and Brisbane to Gladstone will take more than a week.

That is without breakdowns, bad weather or stopping for crew changes.

So you are going to need three or four weeks just to get to the Whitsundays, unless you’re prepared to do a few overnighters and miss a lot of great anchorages along the coast.

When to go, when to come home

Going north is easy: anytime after the cyclone season is fine. Getting back down the coast requires intelligent timing. Cruisers do not sail to windward if they can help it so, if time is limited, work backwards from when the northerlies start to kick in, about October/November.

You will need to be aware of the annual military closure of the Shoalwater Bay area. Operation Talisman Sabre is a joint US/Australian training exercise held over three weeks around July/August. It usually closes anchorages from Port Clinton to Cape Townshend to private traffic.

Schedules, or not

Some people like to preplan each day. But that can lead to frustration if the weather does not cooperate, someone feels a bit off, or any number of other reasons including just wanting to spend another day somewhere. It may be better to set milestones, in the sense that by the end of each week you need to be approximately at a certain point. Then you can judge whether you are ahead of, or behind, schedule and either adjust the pace accordingly or expand the timeframe a little.

This flexibility will let you enjoy sailing a lot more. If the wind is light, sailing is pleasant but you may not make the scheduled anchorage unless you motor. Just stopping a little short, if an anchorage is available, lets you get through the day without resorting to the engine.

Seasickness fears

If you have never been outside sheltered waters you may not know whether seasickness will be an issue. A trial trip would be an excellent way to find out. The first day of your trip north is not the time to discover you get sick. Thank goodness these days seasickness sufferers have a range of options, from traditional drugs that make you drowsy, to ginger tablets and wristbands that press on your nausea point. Try them before you go, both to ensure they are effective and that you are not adversely affected.

How much navigation gear do you need?

Setting up the boat is outside the scope of this article. There is a wealth of opinion available on the necessary gear for a coastal trip, but I would like to point out that you can still cruise the coast without any electronics or instrumentation, it is just easier to have them if you can afford it.

I cruised for a long time with paper charts and a hand-held GPS and found them perfectly satisfactory. While it is debatable whether paper charts are a legal requirement, I feel they are an essential back up because they will still work even if all your electrics fail.

The one book I would definitely have on board is Alan Lucas’s ‘Cruising the Coral Coast’. You will find it useful for the whole trip, right up to Cape York if you are going that far. Noel Patrick’s ‘Curtis Coast’ zooms in on the section from Bundaberg to Mackay. Colfelt’s ‘100 magic miles’ is the Whitsunday bible. I would take them all, but on a very tight budget I would go for Lucas and Colfelt.

If you are buying ‘100 magic miles’ make sure you get the latest edition released late 2014. However, older versions of all these books will still be perfectly serviceable if you already have one.

Leaving but not leaving

If you have exhausted yourself with preparations, the best first day is just to leave home and anchor somewhere nearby. Or even leave home and spend the night on board in the marina.

Do not fight the weather, if it is not right for departure day just sail around locally for a few days. Be kind to yourself and your crew and let them settle in before tackling that first passage.

Getting out of Moreton Bay

Try to pick a good ebb tide to take you up along Bribie Island, at least to Caloundra. And yes, I would go out the north west channel, the NE gets you out of the bay sooner but can be fraught.

Buoys are often not where the channel actually is, who needs that kind of stress?

As the main shipping entry, the NW channel is accurately marked. There can be a parade of ships to avoid but hey, we only draw a couple of metres so we do not need to stick right in the channel. Sailing up the edge, or just outside the channel, is much less nerve-racking.

Entering Mooloolaba

Before leaving Brisbane you will need the latest information on the Mooloolah River entrance because it can be shallow.

Ideally the tide will be well on the rise by the time you get there, so you will have plenty of depth and a tide to carry you up the river. Although there are marinas in Mooloolaba, you can still anchor upstream of them if you like. Just check your chart for the anchorage limits and make sure you show an anchor light.

You do have a decent (legal) anchor light, don’t you? Garden lights do not qualify even if they are bright in the evening, by morning they can be pretty dim.

Next step is the Wide Bay bar. You can avoid it by sailing around the top of Fraser Island but that is a long and tiring passage, which denies access to the Sandy Strait and Burnett Heads region.

Realistically, if it is too rough to cross the bar it will be worse around Sandy Cape. If you are not into long passages, forget it. For those used to overnight passages, or in a hurry, it is of course a viable option.

Sandy Strait

Perhaps the second-most feared stretch of water for southern yachties.

Sandy Strait is a shallow, winding channel behind Fraser Island. If you are worried about grounding, travel on a rising tide so you will float off any skinny bits.

It is extremely well beaconed, the bottom is only sand and mud and you should not come to any harm even if you do go aground.

Like any such waterway the tides meet in the middle, so about halfway through the Strait you will find the tide reverses from rising north to rising to the south. A little planning and you can use this to your advantage by arriving at the shallow central bit at high tide, then carry the new ebb north.

There are some fabulous anchorages behind Fraser and of course access to the Great Sandy Island National Park. Amongst other wildlife, you will probably see some of Fraser’s dingoes prowling along the beach. Recognised as one of the purest strains of dingo left in Australia, their interaction with visitors has become a problem in some areas. Authorities urge visitors not to feed them, leave food scraps around or interact with them in any way. Keep any eye on your kids, walk in groups and photograph them from afar. Remember they are wild animals, not pet dogs.

If you have dogs aboard, they are not allowed ashore on Fraser. The whole island is a national park.

Sailing up the coast

The rest of the trip north is just a series of day hops with a few personal choices of route. Call at Gladstone and sail up the Narrows, or sail outside to the Keppels? Stop at Rosslyn Bay or continue without reprovisioning? How much time to spend at each place? It is all up to you. Let Lucas and Patrick be your guides. Both have a massive amount of experience in these waters and can answer most of your questions.

The major attractions north from the Fraser Island area are the Bunker Group of islands and reefs, the Keppel Islands and the Percy Islands.

Lady Musgrave, the main anchorage in the Bunkers, is well worth a visit in quiet weather. Depending on your boat speed leave from Burnett Heads, 1770 or even Pancake Creek, in time for a mid-afternoon arrival. This is a true coral cay with a beautiful islet to explore and a reasonably secure anchorage. It can be magic and it can be pretty rough in windy weather. If you are there when a blow is forecast, move somewhere more sheltered rather than riding it out. You may not be in danger by staying, but it will be uncomfortable.

Great Keppel Island has a range of anchorages suitable for winds from northerly round to southeast. All of them are animated in windy weather. In general, the closer to shore you can anchor the less rolly it will be. With gently shelving depths, this is a place to work the rule of twelfths, even to the extent of moving closer to shore towards neap tides for a quieter anchorage.

Middle Percy, one of the Northumberland Islands roughly southeast of Mackay, is an island of history and controversy. From pioneering times to the present day, it has always been a favourite stop for yachties, despite its often-lively anchorage in West Bay.

Site of the famed A-frame yachties hangout, there is a heap of yachting memorabilia on display, walking tracks and, of course, a visit to the island’s current caretakers to contemplate.Shoal draft boats can enter the lagoon and dry out in perfect comfort while keelboat sisters roll in West Bay.

From the Percy area the choice is to call at Mackay and reprovision for an extended stay in the southern Whitsunday area, or continue to the Whitsundays via the Cumberland Group. (Editor’s Note: If you want flavoursome, chemical-free fresh fruit, vegetables, meat and fish then call at the Farmers Market in Mackay which is held every Wednesday.)


The Whitsundays are within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (GBRMP). Most islands are national parks and much of the sea has restrictions on what you can do.

Free zoning maps are available from marine outlets all along the coast, or you can download them from the GBRMP Authority website.

An unfortunate result of all this regulation is that the Whitsundays are not pet-friendly. Domestic animals are not allowed ashore in most places and that is even below high water mark. If you have the option to leave Fido at home, please do so or be prepared to be creative in exercising.

Watch out for: charter boats. Bareboat skippers are mostly inexperienced and both bareboats and the passengers on crewed charter boats can be very noisy. The great thing is that bareboats must be anchored by 1600 and stay put for the night. They also announce their intentions on the morning radio sked, so you can get an idea of their probable movements. If you are uncomfortable with the proximity of a charter boat you can ask them to move but really, you are much better to do it yourself. Coming into anchor around 1600, after they have all parked for the night, helps to solve the problem. What charter boat? Bareboats are easy to pick because most of them tow large rigid inflatable dinghies. The exceptions are the big catamarans, which use davits. Note, nearly all bareboats have the name of the charter company emblazoned on the mainsail cover. The crewed charter boats are usually identifiable by the numbers of passengers on board.

Weather information is listed in ‘100 magic miles’. One of the easiest ways to get weather forecasts is by listening to a charter company sked. Morning and evening, the operators advise charterers of their best options considering the expected weather. Listen out and you might discover something new.


With dozens to choose from it would take years to see every anchorage the Whitsundays offers. These are my must-see picks: Lindeman Island: not such a great anchorage but worth it for the walks and views. Boat Port on the NW side is the best anchorage. Watch out for strong currents off S end, water can be murky.

Thomas Island: pretty, offers comparative solitude. Several beautiful beaches can be rolly in developed trade-wind conditions. Watch out for fringing reef SW of the island in the entrance to the SE anchorage, Calder Rock to the north.

Hamilton Island: natural and artificial attractions. Can be very handy with airport, full-service shipyard and travel lift, plus ferries to anywhere. Caters for varied interests and is spectacularly beautiful. Watch out for current across entrance to harbour.

Whitehaven/Hill Inlet: iconic destination, which means it is busy. Shoal draft boats can escape into the perfect shelter of Hill Inlet, others go over to Chalkies on Haslewood Island. Watch out for sandflies.

Nara Inlet: beautiful, sheltered, popular. Has cave paintings and a waterfall after rain. Watch out for strong currents and reef near entrance.

Border Island/Cateran Bay: great snorkelling. Can be rolly in strong winds. It has some public moorings. Snorkelling anywhere is best on neaps and in light weather. Watch out for stonefish, no-take zoning.

Reef Group: fabulous, scenic, isolated, no bareboats! Only in light, settled weather, neap tides. Waterfall into Hardy lagoon. Not for the inexperienced or nervous. Watch out for tidal influences, currents between reefs.

Cid Harbour: excellent shelter. Walks for any fitness level. Easy access, roomy anchorage. Watch out if it is raining at Cid, may be fine elsewhere.

South Molle: excellent bushwalks on national park tracks. Private resort off limits to yachties but moorings may be available. Watch out for wind gusts on NE point.

Airlie Beach: service centre for the Whitsundays. Excellent holding but can be rolly in developed weather. All yacht facilities available, at Abell Point Marina, which is just a short walk to the township of Airlie Beach where you can re-provision and enjoy a meal out.

That’s all for now. Sailing the Queensland coast is a worthwhile stand-alone cruise, but the Whitsundays are the jewel for most people.

Do not be in too much of a hurry to get north, but plan your trip around when you want to be home. Allow plenty of time to avoid travelling in adverse weather.

Be wary, but not afraid of the Wide Bay Bar. Be wary, but not afraid of running aground in shallows. Be flexible, choose anchorages according to the weather forecast rather than a rigid plan. Relax and enjoy.

The Whitsundays caters for all tastes, from nature lovers to party animals, budget cruising to mega yachts, children to retired folks.

Whether the Whitsundays is your destination or are just passing through, there is so much variety it would take a lifetime to see it all. Make a start on it.

Joscelyn O'Keefe

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