Destination: Whitsunday Islands

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Whitsunday Islands here we come! Pendana departed carrying enough fuel and spares to see her make landfall in Hawaii if the need should arise. As a nasty cold front was closing in on Sydney, her departure was not with clear blue skies overhead but rather dark, ominous clouds forming out to sea just to the south east of Sydney Heads. Realising they would be able to sneak ahead of a large cloud front and take advantage of the following seas she headed out, for what everyone aboard hoped to be, an adventure of a lifetime!

On board for the journey were Pendana’s owners James and Claire Ellingford, their two children Abi and Bianca aged 13yrs and 9yrs together with regular crew member and general all round nice guy, Captain Mark James. James Ellingford has always maintained that any run over twenty four hours requires three crew as being tired on watch is not a smart thing to do while at sea. With the appropriate crew you have the freedom of running a four hour on, eight hour off watch cycle which allows for all to remain well rested and alert for whatever situation may arise. Mistakes happen when people are tired.

Pendana’s first day at sea saw her humming along doing a steady 9.3kts, consuming a very respectable 18 litres of fuel an hour in what were far more reasonable conditions than had been forecasted. She faced 14kt winds, two meter following seas with a generous eleven second period. As some would know, June is the whale migration season where the whales from the Southern Ocean migrate north to warmer waters north along the east coast of Australia. By complete chance once Pendana was clear of the heads a very large barnacled humpback whale surfaced within about eight feet from Pendana’s starboard side amidships as if wishing us well on our journey north.

The First Leg

The first leg of our Pendana’s trip north from Sydney is to Lady Musgrave Island which is a large coral cay with, I might add, an alarmingly narrow entrance. From Lady Musgrave, Pendana will then head further north to the Percy Group of Islands on advice from a fellow mariner who said that Middle Percy is hands down the best of the Whitsundays! Following from the Percy Group Pendana will head further north to explore the more traditional islands of Hayman, Hamilton, Hook, Shaw and as many of the seventy islands in the Whitsunday group as possible.

The Whitsundays are comprised of 74 islands within a 40 nautical mile radius on Australia’s northeast coast, with Hamilton Island being the largest of the six islands that are inhabited. These tropical islands offer deserted, fine sand beaches, lush bushland, and remarkable flora, fauna and sea life. The Great Barrier Reef which is on the Whitsunday’s doorstep is, in fact, one of the world’s seven natural wonders stretching over 2,300 kilometres and covering some 350,000 square kilometres (nearly the size of Germany). It consists of a myriad of lagoons, atolls, sand cays and coral outcrops that simply must be experienced to be able to be fully appreciated.

After a little over three days at sea Pendana had arrived at Lady Musgrave Island and all any of us on board could say was, WOW! The lagoon’s amazing colours and beauty are world class. Boasting an abundance of coral, fish and turtles the lagoon water is very similar to that in the Bahamas or Nice, in the South of France. Crystal clear, deep turquoise blue, that is simply incredible. For snorkelling enthusiasts, Lady Musgrave Island is one of the most rewarding destinations in the Great Barrier Reef, with a diverse variety of fish and coral species creating the perfect underwater setting for those lucky enough to get to enjoy it!

The entrance into Lady Musgrove was narrow but well-marked with two starboard makers, one port marker and an isolated danger marker once inside. Any error in going through the coral walled entrance would be met with catastrophic consequences.

Middle Percy Island

Once we’d had enough of Lady Musgrave Island we departed and headed further north to Middle Percy Island where we arrived early morning. Middle Percy, without any doubt, was in a word, sensational and certainly a must-stop for all who find themselves in this area! First charted by Matthew Flinders, and named after the Duke of Northumberland, Middle Percy is the quintessential tropical island. Palm trees (complete with coconuts) white sand, crystal clear blue water, butterflies, starfish, seals and dolphins to boot.

Middle Percy was the last remaining leasehold island off the Queensland coast. However, this is no longer the case with a Queensland government department now managing the island and ensuring it is kept in its pristine state. The island is still bound to a tradition
of providing fresh water and supplies to passing seafarers. Past leaseholders have always helped mariners in trouble and assisted with emergency repairs over the many years and as such seafarers feel a real sense of home when stepping ashore.

Middle Percy also holds the tradition where seafarers young and old leave memorabilia from their boats under an old rustic A-Frame set just back from the beach. It is incredible to look at the variety of items left over the years by visitors to Middle Percy. Everything from messages in bottles, oars, clothing, barometers, flags, life buoys, engravings on wood and more, abound with vessel and crew names and years of those lucky enough to have spent time on this lovely island.

Spending more time than we should in paradise, which was Middle Percy Island we decided it was time to make a short, 160nm run north to Cid Harbour which was by all accounts a very safe, well protected anchorage on the west side of Whitsunday Island.

Most Beautiful Beach in the World?

One thing that has struck all of us is how un-Australian the Whitsunday Islands appear to be; we would all swear that when motoring around the islands that the appearance of them is more akin to cruising in Canada than Australia and while one would expect to see the islands littered with various species of gum trees (indigenous Australian tree) nothing could be further from the truth. Norfolk Pines is the order of the day! Islands with sheer cliff faces, steep hillsides slanting acutely down into the blue-green waters, covered in rich, dark green Norfolk Pines right down to the absolute edge making the whole experience rather surreal. We all thought that one would not be surprised to see a Canadian brown bear leaping from the land in search of lunch but alas, not to be. I must say that it is an incredibly beautiful part of the world and some of those attractions lie in its complete difference to the mainland.

After spending time exploring in and around Cid Harbour we decided to move Pendana to the very beautiful Whitehaven Beach so that we could drop anchor, have lunch and then go for a swim in the afternoon. Whitehaven Beach is on the east side of Whitsunday Island and with confidence building after successfully navigating the narrow entrance of Lady Musgrave, we decided to travel through the narrow passage between Hook and Whitsunday Islands. 

This is also the most convenient route to take paying particular attention to the effect of tides and current.

In this part of the world tides flood (incoming) to the south and ebb (out-going) to the north and can create strong currents up to 9kts in some parts so after checking with my new best friend, the Queensland tide table book, we were confident that our arrival in the passage between islands would be at almost slack tide making the effects of current null and void. With Claire at the helm, it was clear that while the current was not a problem there were certainly times when Pendana would yaw off course due to the current’s residual effects but as always, Pendana handled it with ease correcting as she went.

On arrival at Whitehaven Beach, we were amazed at not only its length but also its shining white sand. Whitehaven Beach runs a staggering four nautical miles and draws tourists and boaters as bees to honey. That being said, at three plus nautical miles in length there is plenty of room for everyone and everyone can have their own little piece of paradise for the day, week, month or year!

Whitehaven Beach claims to have the whitest sands of any beach in the world and while the claim that is held to be true I am not sure that there aren’t many more beaches in the world with white sand (the very beautiful Hyams Beach on the south coast of New South Wales with its pristine white sand springs easily to mind, for example), after-all surely white is white? In fact, the sand at Whitehaven is not sand but rather silica (quartz sand). Silica does not retain heat that makes walking on it a pleasurable experience. It is thought the incredibly fine silica sand on Whitehaven was brought to the beach via prevailing currents over millions of years as there is no silica present in any rocks which surround it.

Ancient History of the Whitsunday Islands

During our time in the Whitsunday Islands, we decided to take on some fuel in preparation for our return trip. I can attest that Shute Harbour has the cheapest fuel on the Whitsundays being almost $1.00 per gallon / 26 cents per litre cheaper than the rather pricey Abel Point Marina.

After plenty of relaxing at anchor, we decided to move once more and head for a place called Nara Inlet. Nara Inlet is described as being like the Fiords in Norway and while I see some resemblance we were missing the snow-capped mountains. Nara Inlet on Hook Island in the Whitsundays boasts some very old Aboriginal cave paintings.

In the steep wooded hills around the inlet there are a number of ‘caves’, rock overhangs, which show signs of Aboriginal habitation going back some eight thousand years and in one of these at the northern end of the inlet there are Aboriginal paintings. While there are locals who say these were painted as a hoax by early tourist operators, experts from the National Parks and Wildlife Service and the Office of Heritage and the Arts are satisfied they are genuine, though it is possible some touching-up has been done.

In 1987, the National Parks and Wildlife Service erected a fence and boardwalk to protect this particular cave and the paintings as much from the local goat population as well as human interference.

Once anchored safely in Nara Inlet, we decided that it was time to tender to the site where these cave painting were. As we motored towards the small beach which led to the caves we were in awe of the scenery we saw along the way, truly beautiful. Once at the beach we secured our tender and headed up towards the steps that led to the cave. Once we had climbed the 44 million steps (well, that is what it felt like!) the art was very impressive and made the journey well worth it. With storyboards and audio telling the story of the Ngaro people from long ago, we all felt as if we had stepped back in time.

Hamilton Island

With time ever marching on we decided to head for Hamilton Island. Hamilton Island is a truly remarkable place and as Pendana arrived at Dent Passage and turned to Port to line up with the entrance markers of the marina we were through the entrance and tied up on the end of “D” arm in what seemed like seconds. Orange juice and fresh coffee on the brew and helloooo Hamilton Island!!!

After relaxing a little, it was time to collect our electric buggy that we had leased for our stay. All of Hamilton Island is car free and other than the odd bus ferrying tourists around and council vehicles, the only other mode of transport is by foot or golf buggy.

After we had spent enough time on Hamilton Island, we decided to try our luck and head south for Shaw Island in the morning as we were all very keen to truly get away from it all after the high tourist numbers on Hamilton Island.

Shaw Island is well south of Hamilton Island and outside the area where hire yachts can travel so I for one was looking forward to a little less crowded anchorage. After a pleasant three hour run south, we arrived at what was a truly magnificent island which was away from it all. Shaw Island lies south of the famous Lindeman Island and is once again paradise on earth. Deserted beaches, fine white sand, calm crystal clear waters and a peacefulness that is hard to put into words. It reminded me of that lovely feeling I had as a child, wrapped up in bed all snug as a bug in a rug, listening the rain fall on our roof. A feeling of calm, safety and tranquillity was overwhelming and Shaw Island delivered in spades.

The beautiful Whitsundays are truly a place that all boaters should visit. It’s a remarkable place with words and photos only being able to convey a fraction of its beauty and sense of serenity. Pendana is now home in Sydney waters after a six month trip away, covering some 2,500nms/4,689klms or in other words the same distance as Sydney to Samoa, London to Nova Scotia (Canada) or New York to French Guiana (South America). I must say that the overall journey was a wonderful experience and one that we all enjoyed. Other than 24 hours of some pretty nasty weather off the Fraser Island coast (+5 metre seas) we did in the main have perfect conditions for the entire time we were away.

If you decide to head for the Whitsundays then I can highly recommend Hamilton Island Marina as it is the best marina for long or short stays without doubt. Shute Harbour is by far the cheapest for fuel and, however, much time you plan to spend in this part of the world, it would not be long enough. Both Claire and I commented that we could easily spend a few years in this area and not see it all. More information on Pendana can be found at

feature image by: Richard Rydge

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