Old salts and new sailors

A catamaran makes a beach stop.
A catamaran makes a beach stop.
Swimming with reef fish in the Whitsundays.

Swimming with reef fish in the Whitsundays.

Relaxing on the Descarada 2.

Relaxing on the Descarada 2.

Max Anderson explores the Whitsunday Islands from the comfort and freedom of key luxury vessels.

Go big

BEFORE the recession we had to have, Queensland properly understood the meaning of "luxury vessel": it was veneered with walnut, leafed with gold and carpeted with cream shag pile. It even had a name - Isis II, a 33-metre, 35-tonne motor launch that hosted guests such as Guns N' Roses and Greg Norman.

In 2012, it has a different name: Descarada 2. Descarada is Spanish for "shameless woman", but underneath she's the same Egyptian goddess, rescued from decay in the Gold Coast, rebuilt and given a $1.2 million fitout. Moored beside Whitehaven Beach in the Whitsundays, it looks as if it never left the warm waters off Australia's most glamorous beach.

We five guests sit in the white sand, polishing bits of jewellery with the super-pure silica and admiring Descarada's gleaming form. She dwarfs the backpacker boats and luxury charters and one of us 'fesses up he "feels like a Russian billionaire" - which is twice as funny because he's a former coal miner from Pontefract. But ours is the biggest boat in the Whitsundays and we're growing accustomed to other visitors looking on agape as they try to imagine how much we're worth. Actually, we're each worth $670 a night - which seems cheap given the tariff includes Ian the skipper and his sterling three-person crew, who mollycoddle us through three days of views (sublime) and wildlife (abundant).

Off Hook Island we see batfish so large and so laid back they poke their faces above the water to take food. At Blue Pearl Bay, north of Hayman, we snorkel in clear waters, going eye-to-glassy-eye with monster Maori Wrasse, giant turtles and a formidable manta that flies past eerily.

And at dawn on Dugong Beach, off Cid Harbour, we tramp a dewy track through fragrant subtropical forest, cleaving thick spiderwebs to emerge on another cusp of abandoned beach, our souls left a little tremulous by the mirror-still waters.

Descarada's guest list is small: usually four couples in four suites, though four kids can bunk in two of the rooms. The boat is so big it has been stratified into three layers, and everyone finds a place to call their own. One of our group loves to read on the fly deck, a place of beanbags, bubbles and royal blue sky. Another likes to join the skipper in his computerised pilot's room and pore over the charts. The Russian billionaire from Pontefract prefers to recline on white sofas among the nouveau-plush of the 12-metre lounge. (During the refit, the owners decided to preserve some of the Isis "white shoe" excess, including the gold leaf, the shag pile and the Egyptian sculptures. It's hard to know whether it's a tribute or just a bit of a giggle - but it's definitely a refreshing change from grey tones.)

My favourite spot is the ultra-wide rear deck, framing the view into a panoramic postcard of turquoise and green. It's where I come to properly appreciate the scale of the Whitsunday Islands - not palm-fringed bumps of sand, but craggy jungle-clad mountains rising to 450 metres. It's also where the toys are stashed: the high-speed tender, the canoes, the wetsuits and the fishing rods.

At night, both the deck and aft-waters are lit, attracting tiny electric-blue fish which in turn attract ferocious trevally, screaming in on their outstretched fins.

The trevally are impossible to hook but we dine out here anyway, on the likes of green prawns with strawberry salad, and rib-eye steak. When the stars are plump and silver, we go down circular staircases to bedrooms that are snug and sexy, complete with polished granite en suites and digital movie systems.

I'd love to report the bed is round and rotates, and that some spectacular G N'R partying ensues. Alas, the bed is a regular queen and the fresh sea air brings only sleep that is long and deep.

Descarada 2 has scheduled three-night cruises around the Whitsundays, departing from Abel Point Marina in Airlie Beach. It costs $2000 a person, twin share, minimum of four guests. Private charters cost $8400 for two nights for up to eight guests. Cost includes everything except alcohol (jet ski hire costs apply on scheduled cruises). Phone 1800 606 136, see descarada.com.au.

Go bare

THE only thing I've skippered is my bathtub, so I'm surprised to be sailing a million-dollar catamaran alongside Dent Island after just four hours of tuition. I'm even more surprised to be loving it, as in, "Gee, maybe I can give up my job, sell all my worldly possessions and sail around the world" loving it.

Queenslander Adrian Bram gave up a career in advertising to spend 15 years sailing the Mediterranean, Atlantic and Caribbean waters. "And I ended up back here," he says. "Why? Because it's the safest, most spectacular cruising ground in the world."

Spectacular as it is, Hook Island's rugged spine to starboard (a solitary green turtle to port), I have eyes only for the giant stainless-steel helm and the task of keeping a 15-metre boat on course for Hayman.

Properly called a Fontaine Peugeot Salina 48 but more easily called Serengeti, the twin-hulled cat can accommodate 10. It is one of Cumberland Charter's stable of 25 vessels and, costing from $1380 a day, is at the pricey end of boat hire. Had I wanted to command something more modest, a party of six could set sail for a day rate of $460.

"Bare boating gives people with limited or even zero experience the opportunity to enjoy proper sailing," says Bram, Cumberland's general manager. "That means choosing a vessel, putting a crew together, provisioning the vessel and running the boat.

"All we require is common sense."

The boat is "bare" because it's unprovisioned, not unlike a self-catering serviced apartment. You can fill 'er up at the local Coles in Airlie Beach (Cumberland is based at Abel Point Marina) or email your shopping list to the charter people who will do it for you. The average length of charter is seven to 10 days and after an obligatory four-hour briefing, there's really only one rule: you have to check in by radio twice daily to relay your position and your plans. (Break the rule and your trip will be scuttled.)

For an extra $195 you can take a sail guide like Bram with you for half a day. He'll show you the ropes and even remind you how nautical expressions such as "show you the ropes" have become common parlance.

"Sailing is an ancient body of knowledge," he says, switching to autopilot so I can hoist the mains'l. "We're teaching the same knowledge today as it was taught in the 16th century."

Bram uses humour, patience and physics to help me understand how things work. I learn, for instance, that a well-trimmed sail isn't a wall but a wing using dynamics of lift - and I get it.

Not that there's anything academic about making it happen - it's all action, urgency and noise, the ratchet of winch, the furious cracking of loose sail and then the passing of a big, cool shadow.

"You're sailing!" he calls in the sudden silence, only the hiss of water sounding on the hulls. "So where do you want to go?"

It's a good question, putting a fine point on what this is all about: 74 islands, one boat and an awful lot of freedom.

We snorkel Langford Reef and then pull into Nara Inlet, where I learn to drop anchor.

After a short putt-putt by tender, we step ashore to explore a flank of jungle and look at caves used by the Nara people for more than 2000 years. Then dusk arrives and corks are pulled. Light slants through the hoop pines and sulphur crested cockatoos take up residency in the rigging to clown and shriek.

Dinner is chicken kiev, whistled up in the galley and eaten sitting on the "trampoline" between the forward hulls. We watch shooting stars while Bram shares prize questions asked by novice sailors.

The setting is perfect ... but I expected that. It's the act of sailing that has caught me by surprise - involved, strangely intuitive and ever-so-slightly beautiful. Bram understands this. "Yeah, there are plenty of people who have a feeling they want to 'sail around the world'. And sitting here, you can understand why. But the beauty of bare boating is you get to try it for size. Without mortgaging the house."

The Salina 48 catamaran, Serengeti, costs from $1380 a day for a minimum five-night charter, shared by up to 10 people. Prices are seasonal and diminish for longer charter. The vessel is kitted out with linen, cutlery and so on. You will need to meet fuel costs (bank on $55 a day for Serengeti, but it depends on how much sailing you do) and extras can include cost of sail guide ($195 for half a day including transfers). Cumberland can provision your boat from $31 a person a day. Phone 1800 075 101, see ccy.com.au.

Max Anderson travelled courtesy of Tourism Queensland.

This story Old salts and new sailors first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.