Iceberg Ahoy! Whitsunday Islands

Iceberg is an absurd name for a boat. The company owns another two, called Blizzard and On Ice, and they sail around the toasty warm Whitsunday Islands. Name aside, it’s a hell of yacht – a 52-foot racer that came 16th in the stormy Sydney-Hobart race in 1993 in which two-thirds of the entries failed to finish.

Sailing is kind of a big deal up here. Behind the coral reef the coast is protected from the size of swell that surfers like further south. Airlie Beach, “the heart of the reef”, is the jumping off point for all manner of sailing trips, from day-long island cruises to multi-night party boats on which the sailing is … not quite the point. For us Iceberg was a lucky pick from the many on offer, that happened to sail on the right dates.

We set off early on the Saturday morning, six guests, skipper and deckhand, and were immediately relieved of our shoes – “here in the Whitsundays we sail barefoot!”. We met Tim, a German backpacker living the dream, travelling and working, and his father Mikhael, a German ice road trucker whose English was less good but whose infectious enthusiasm and fluorescent green beanie were admired by all; Emilie, a French power line engineer living in a German-speaking part of Switzerland; and Mikhaela, an Austrian student about to qualify as a doctor. The skipper, Mark, was a spitting image of a grinning Patrick Stewart, big hat flaring in the wind as he leaned the boat over at 45 degrees. The deckhand, Dave, seemed to do a bit of everything; running around the deck rigging sails, steering from time to time over the bigger waves (“let’s make her surf!”), as well as being our tour guide, chef and cleaner.

We started with a briefing that touched on the usual catastrophic but unlikely emergencies (fire, man overboard, abandon ship) but made clear the problem they was most concerned about was having to deal with a blocked toilet! We were also introduced to stinger suits that you wear while swimming in these jellyfish-infested waters. On realising the number of German speakers he told us about his favourite German word – when we come back in from the water, “hang your stinger suit on the kleiderbügel!”, he said, brandishing a coat hanger.

After motoring out of the marina it wasn’t long before we set sail, and we were each given bits to do, whether manhandling sails, winching ropes or steering. There was a constant background of Mark and Dave reminiscing about various sailing adventures they’d had, much like the sailors at college used to do when you let them talk about boats, ranging from a gentle cruise across the bay to crewing in six-metre swells in ocean races. A common pasttime was to laugh at other boats we saw who were doing something wrong – there are a lot of bareboat charters in the area, yachts hired without any crew by (allegedly!) experienced sailors. We saw one that had managed to lose its tender, the little rubber inflatable motor boat dragged behind that gives access to the beach or the reef, only to see it pulling a different coloured tender the next day!

The first stop was the famous Whitehaven Beach on Whitsunday Island, the largest island of the area. On the short walk through the forest, from a lookout we saw a stingray in the water from afar, another addition to our list of cool animals! The sand is fine, white and smooth; we were told that the sand is such pure silica that some was mined to make the lens for the Hubble telescope[citation needed].

Back on Iceberg (after putting stinger suits on kleiderbügels) we sailed on around Whitsunday Island, directly downwind. Dave was clearly enjoying himself tweaking the sails to get that little extra speed but bemoaned not having the competent crew required to deploy a massive spinnaker sail off the front of the boat. Even so we were really moving, spray flying everywhere. Eventually we calmed down, found our mooring spot, dropped anchor and settled in for a big dinner and an evening of star-gazing and tall sailing tales.