Sailing Aboard Matador Whitsundays: A Real Race Yacht Experience
Across unusually choppy waters British Defender, an ex-Royal Navy training yacht, sails parallel to our own speeding vessel; Matador Whitsundays. Once known as the largest ocean racing yacht, Matador’s owners now tip it as ‘the fastest yacht in the Whitsundays of its calibre’. Finn, our Tasmanian skipper, is about to put that title to the test in a spontaneous and undeclared race. He has a hint of competitiveness etched on his boyish face as we draw closer to the rival yacht. From behind one of two large red wheels, he calls, “raise the Genoa!”
Craig, the Matador deckhand, moves quickly. He circles the two metal handles of a winch clockwise, semi-dreadlocked hair whipping in the warm wind. At the bow, Luca, the third crewmember, heaves on a thick rope using the full force of his athletic body. A small white sail glides upwards and Matador soars towards the mainland, where our two-day-one-night tour of Australia’s Whitsunday Islands began.
“Ten point five knots!” Finn announces, his excitement infecting the twenty-one of us sitting portside on the wide white deck. Our bare feet dangle over the side for stability as the yacht tilts heavily to starboard. Excitedly, I peer across the waves, one hand shading my eyes from blinding white cloud cover. Matador is edging ahead of the competitor yacht, but only just.Spots of rain begin to drop, promising to break the pressure of humid air but unable to taint the sailing performance our crew is putting on. Tropical rainfall has been a common occurrence over the past forty-eight hours, which could have made our tour a dud if it were not for the enthusiasm of our three-man crew.
“Matador is edging ahead of the competitor yacht, but only just.”
From the moment Finn collected our group from Abell Point Marina the previous day, we have been treated to witty jokes and a wealth of information about the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, the seventy-four Whitsunday Islands, and the art of yachting.
The energetic crew haven’t just talked at us though. Soon after motoring off the dock, with rainforest-smothered hills as a backdrop, we were invited to volunteer as crewmembers ourselves. The first task was to raise the mainsail, which required four puffing men hoisting in sync at the front, six guys and girls, known as ‘grinders’, wheeling hand-winches as fast as possible, and the rest of the group cheerleading. After this, we’ve been able to steer the boat and help out whenever Craig yelled, “we need some volunteers!”Besides providing a hands-on yachting experience, our tour leaders have delivered us to some of the best snorkel spots in the area, including Luncheon Bay, Butterfly Bay, and Stonehaven, just off Hook Island.
Following the cyclone of March 2017, visibility in much of the twenty-seven-degree sea is poor. Yet, dressed in our mandatory stinger suits and using floats to effortlessly balance above the coral, we’ve been treated to plenty of marine life, including George the ginormous humphead wrasse, schools of yellowtail fusilier, parrotfish, batfish, and giant clams.
It just so happened that at each of these snorkel spots the grey clouds opened up to allow beaming sunshine. For the sun worshippers amongst us, this granted the luxury of sprawling out on deck with a yoga mat for comfort or hopping into one of the three green and blue striped hammocks dangling off the boom. For the thrillseekers, it allowed for diving off the yacht and into the ocean.
“Our tour leaders have delivered us to some of the best snorkel spots in the area.”
Watching vividly aqua water from the newly refurbished yacht, feeling utterly relaxed as chilled tunes like the Beatles’ ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ flowed out of the raised speakers, it was hard to believe we were only twenty-five miles from the bustle of Airlie Beach.
Of course, all of that snorkelling can work up a good appetite and the crew had us covered in the food remit too. In fact, the amount of food we were provided this past two days could have lasted the twenty-one of us for a week!
At the call for lunch, we’d clamber down a hatch into the low-ceilinged chamber below deck, which also functioned as the dormitory. Then, forming a huddled line alongside narrow bunk beds built into the sides of the yacht, we’d wait our turn to collect fresh bread rolls, handmade potato salad, cool coleslaw and Mediterranean-style meats. The dinner selection was just as tasty, with spaghetti bolognese and bread with garlic butter on the menu. In between meals, Luca would present us with biscuits and fresh fruit to snack on. The majority of the guests had seconds and thirds of everything, washed down with tea, coffee, or BYO alcohol.When dusk fell on us last night, Finn moored Matador offshore of Whitsunday Island, and our group of twenty-something-year-old backpackers admired the setting sun behind fluffy light grey clouds whilst getting to know each other over beer and wine served in tea mugs. Luca, the youngest of the crew, entertained the group by playing the ukulele, telling jokes, and initiating games. The new camaraderie continued until midnight, despite a howling wind and torrential downpour that meant we needed to shelter underneath awnings.
I imagine that the first night’s sleep on any sailboat is a restless one, given the strangeness of rocking back and forth and hearing the rumble of the ocean just inches from your pillow. Mine was broken but enough to give me energy for the following day’s main activity; a visit to Whitehaven Beach.
Rising with the sun at five thirty in the morning, the crew woke our group with the roar of the engine spluttering into life and the nosedive of the bow as it ploughed across turbulent waves. Making my way quickly above deck, a little nauseous from the movement so early in the day, I greeted those that stood with cameras, capturing a hazy yellow glow on the horizon. Together we assessed the mix of patchy grey clouds and blue sky, trying to determine whether the rain would hold off for the remainder of our tour.
It turned out luck was in our favour. Not only did the sun force its way through the grey, our early start also made us the very first people to arrive on Whitehaven Beach. Stretching seven kilometres and made up of 98% pure silica sand, Whitehaven Beach is the highlight of any Whitsundays trip. All sailing tours will have Whitehaven Beach on their itinerary, meaning three to four hundred visiting tourists per day. Thanks to Matador though, we had the unique opportunity to enjoy the award-winning beach before the crowds arrived – and what a spectacular beach it is.
After a few hours of stingray spotting in the shallow waters, admiring patterns created by moving sand as the tides changed, and hiking to the viewpoint of Hill Inlet, we returned to Matador by speedboat.
The last scheduled stop before beginning our journey back to shore was Nara Inlet, a secluded bay and the site of ancient Aboriginal paintings within caves. Taking a short walking trail up to the site of the paintings, we studied signs that told stories of the traditional owners of the land, the Ngaro people, and the history of the island once attached to the mainland. This cultural addition to the tour was unexpected but welcomed, given the importance of appreciating Australia’s indigenous history.
“Thanks to Matador though, we had the unique opportunity to enjoy the award-winning beach before the crowds arrived.”
Now, as Finn instructs his skilled men to, “raise the storm jib”, the previously relaxed atmosphere of the tour has become charged with thrilling anticipation. Most of the guests have wide grins on their sun-kissed faces as a luminous orange sail is raised and we easily swoop ahead of British Defender, celebrating a mini victory in our faux sailing careers.
Finn keeps his eyes on his speedometer and starts to count, “Eleven point seven… eleven point eight… eleven point nine…”
We watch him eagerly, as do the crew.
“C’mon…” he wills. Then suddenly, “Twelve knots!”
“Yew!” whoops Luca, offering high fives to his colleagues.
And as Matador glides effortlessly towards our destination, her sails gloriously white and the warm wind grazing our cheeks, I gaze into the soft mist in the distance and commit this experience to memory. The options for Whitsundays tours are numerous, but if a relaxed, informative, and real yachting experience is what you seek, Matador won’t disappoint.
When to go: September is recommended by many tour companies as the best time of year to visit the Whitsundays. The wet season runs January to March, whilst October through May is known as ‘stinger season’ due to the presence of jellyfish in the water. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t visit at this time, just that you’ll be required to wear a stinger suit when entering the sea. The above tour was taken in November. You can read more about the climate on the Tourism Whitsundays website.
Getting there: You can reach the Whitsunday Islands from multiple towns on Australia’s Queensland coast. The most popular jumping off point, though, is Airlie Beach, located approximately 600km south of Cairns. You can reach Airlie Beach by coach, plane, or self-drive.
Tour operator: Matador Whitsundays is a relatively new tour option. First launched in April 2017, the operator promises to sell tours directly to its customers, rather than through partner tourism organisations, making it one of the more affordable options for low budget backpackers and holidaymakers. Currently, the company runs a promotional price of $316 per person for the two-day-one-night tour. Learn more about Matador Whitsundays here.
Accommodation near to Whitsundays: Airlie Beach offers a range of accommodation options, from centrally located hostels to high-end hillside hotels. For campers, you can opt to stay the night on the grounds of Nomads and XBase hostels, at a cost of $15 per person, per night. A bed in a dormitory starts at $24 per night.
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Disclosure: Matador Whitsundays sponsored this post, which means I was invited to take the tour at a discounted or complimentary rate. However, my loyalty is to my readers and I will always provide you with authentic reviews, so you can be certain that everything written here genuinely echoes my true experience and opinion.