Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Australia adventure: sailing the Whitsunday Islands on the Solway Lass

I am back from Australia! Yet still horribly jetlagged, even days after our 30-hour marathon of traveling. (30 hours on planes and in airports and yet it was always Wednesday. Eternally Wednesday.) I always forget how much worse jetlag is when traveling from Australia to the US, as opposed to the other direction. When we go TO Australia, I just feel tired for a day or two and then I'm fine. Coming this direction, I wake up in the middle of the night and no matter how tired I am, I can't get back to sleep until hours later. My seven year old has even worse of a time! Only way I've found to combat the problem is to try for plenty of fresh air and exercise during the day, but that's a tough prescription for an exhausted adult, let alone a cranky kiddo who's ready for a meltdown at the drop of a hat.

Our month spent down under was so worth our current pain, though. As proof, I plan on doing some posts sharing pics from our various adventures--starting with the biggest & best, our multi-day sailing adventure in the Whitsunday Islands.

I've been to northeastern Australia before: my husband and I spent our honeymoon on Bedarra Island, near the northern section of the Great Barrier Reef. Yet I'd never been to the Whitsundays, which are a collection of 74 islands and islets off the Queensland coast near the backpacker's town of Airlie Beach. The southern Great Barrier Reef is many miles further offshore (105km from the mainland), but the various Whitsunday islands have plenty of fringing coral and marine life, making for some very nice snorkeling.

I'd heard the area was best seen by sailing, and given how much our son had enjoyed an afternoon cruise on a tallship in Sydney Harbor on a previous Australia trip, we decided to sign on for a multi-day live-aboard trip on another "pirate ship." We chose to sign on with the 2-masted square-rigger Solway Lass, which has a really interesting history, having been captured as a prize of war and sunk twice since she was built in 1902. (Don't worry, the sailing company totally refurbished the boat since the last sinking.)

The trip was absolutely wonderful, despite some less-than-wonderful weather. June is winter in Australia, and is supposed to be the dry season in the tropical regions. We found the dry season to be, well...not so dry. We had an entire week of high winds and rain squalls; but in between the squalls, thankfully we did get some lovely intervals of sun! Check out these pics:

An omen of things to come: a rainbow over Airlie Beach on the day we began our sailing adventure
The passengers: Solway Lass can carry 30+ guests, but we had 21, plus 6 crew. The passengers comprised a whole mix of nationalities: Spanish, German, Canadian, Indonesian, Chinese, American, Australian, and more.

When the sun is out, the water is an incredible shade of blue

The kiddo and I hanging out in our favorite spot at the bow. Strong winds made for an exciting rollercoaster ride when crossing the open sea between islands. A few passengers got badly seasick, but we lucked out and had no issues. Except for the occasional drenching with spray when the bow plunged into a particularly huge wave, wooo! The islands had plenty of sheltered anchorages so we didn't have to worry about wave action at night.

The crew were very kind to our son, who was the only child on the trip. Here, Dan the bosun (on right) has dressed him up as Captain Jack Sparrow, while bartender Steve watches from his stool. (Yes, the ship has a bar. Plus we were fed very well, thanks to Tim the chef, who was great about making meals for our gluten-free kiddo.) 
We snorkeled in sheltered bays and off little islets like this one. I'd heard the Whitsunday reefs aren't as good as the outer reefs, but honestly I thought the snorkeling was incredible at some of the locations, with tons of gorgeous corals and fish. I don't have any pics of those because we didn't bring an underwater camera. In winter, the air temps are still nicely warm but the water is quite chilly. I brought an old 3mm diving wetsuit and was fine, but our son didn't have a wetsuit. On the boat they provided "stinger suits", which are lycra suits meant to protect against irukandji jellyfish stings, but they're too thin for any real insulation/warmth. The poor kiddo could only stay in the water for a few minutes before he was shivering too hard to snorkel. If we go again, I'm bringing wetsuits for all of us!

We got to do a little hiking as well as snorkeling--here we've been dropped off at a beach to do a walk up to an overlook of famously beautiful Whitehaven Beach.

View of Hill Inlet and Whitehaven Beach. Most of the island beaches have "sand" that's really chunks of broken coral--not so nice to walk on barefoot!--but Whitehaven has soft, powdery silica sand thanks to a quartz-laden ancient volcano caldera out in the bay.

The colors of the water were amazing

Father and son bonding time on Whitehaven Beach

Sand, sky, and waves: a perfect morning

In the shallows left at low tide, you might find rays and little lemon sharks

Our son loved helping with the sails

Sail ho!
The pirate flag flying proud

The ship had a Tarzan-style rope swing that provided much entertainment for all, especially our son.

The drop to the water is enough to fit in a back flip or two...though none of us but the crew managed that without bellyflopping


My turn on the swing

Hanging out in the bow net. You aren't allowed to climb in the nets while the ship is moving, but while anchored, they are fair game

Robert enjoying the view from the sun deck

Whitsunday sunset

The rope swing wasn't the only excitement at anchor. More fun was had by jumping off the bowsprit (which is a loooooong way above the water!). Even the captain came out to watch our kiddo take the leap.

Map of the Whitsundays in the ship saloon with our route and anchorages marked. Blue Pearl Bay and the Maureen Cove area had some of the best snorkeling. 

Our son the pirate captain. He can't wait to go sailing again. Neither can we, actually...we're signing up for sailing classes on our local reservoir to learn the basics. Maybe one day we'll rent & sail a ship ourselves to explore more of the Whitsundays! Although we'd also be very happy to go on the Solway Lass again.

We took the sting out of saying goodbye to our sailing adventure by splurging for a night afterward at the Coral Sea Resort in Airlie Beach. Our room had a terrific view and a very comfy hammock on the balcony.
Playing mega-chess at the marina

Our final Airlie Beach sunset
So yeah, one of our favorite adventures ever. If you ever have the chance to sail on the Solway Lass, don't hesitate. But that's not the only fun we had in the Whitsundays! Next post, I'll share some pics from Hamilton Island (and maybe the Barrier Reef, where I did have an underwater camera).


  1. That WAS quite an adventure. So jealous!

    1. I hope you get to visit Australia sometime, Paul--it's a photographer's heaven!