With friendly whales, and intriguing coves and bays, self-skippering a catamaran on the Great Sandy Straits is a lot of fun, even if you have no experience on the water. Even though I have had some water-borne experiences on catamarans, yachts and even a sleek Sydney-to-Hobart racing vessel, I don’t know the first thing about skippering a boat. So cruising off on a Fraser Island catamaran charter with three others who are equally clueless about sailing is bound to be a recipe for some Fawlty Towers moments.
Fraser Island cruise
When I was offered the chance to self-skipper a 10m catamaran for the weekend, I immediately enlisted three other fellow sailors – none of which had any more sailing experience than I – and set off on a voyage on the Great Sandy Straits.
Armed with enough sustenance to feed a small army, we climbed on board the Capri-cat, a comfortable four-berth touring catamaran equipped with a fine galley, refrigerators, a stereo system and even a television.
There were four cabins, two with chest-high Queen-sized berths and ample cupboard space and two smaller ones that looked like they had been modelled after a Tokyo sleeping-pod hotel.
Our skipper for the afternoon was a weathered seaman and former P&O shipping Captain whom we affectionately named Popeye Pete.
As Popeye’s assistant steered us out of the harbour towards a mooring near Fraser Island’s Kingfisher Bay Resort, Popeye Pete gave us a lesson on the tides.
We discovered that the Great Sandy Straits was named such because the sheer volume of sand provides traps for unwitting sailors.
While the catamaran’s electronic depth-finder would provide us with accurate depth readings, it would be up to us to stay alert in order to avoid the shallow waters.
Next on the agenda was a meticulous run-down on how to handle all possible ship-board emergencies including fires in the galley, people falling overboard and maneuvering the boat off sandbanks.
“If all fails and the tide is rising, put on the kettle and have a cup of tea. Hopefully within 30 minutes you’ll be on your way again,” said Popeye helpfully.
We were also given a lesson on how to use the radio. “Maydays are only used in life-threatening circumstances,” said Popeye Pete sternly.
“You should call a pan, pan, pan if someone’s fallen overboard in calm waters and the light is fading. If the seas a rough and you have a man overboard, it’s definitely a mayday,” he said.
Charting a course
Our most experienced navigator, Roger, was nominated as the captain.
Pleased with his newfound status, Captain Roger took the helm as the craft arrived at the mooring spot. At that point, our trainers jumped off onto a waiting yacht.
Popeye did a little sailor’s jig, gleefully shouted out “good luck” and waved us goodbye.
Both excited and sightly bewildered, we broke out a bottle of wine, cooked up a barbeque and watched the sun sink slowly below the horizon.
Our only company was a lone dugong splashing gently around the boat. Sleeping on the catamaran was no problem and the gentle rocking of the boat put us into a deep slumber.
Our first crisis occurred when we couldn’t locate the toilet paper and for the rest of the journey the quip “mayday, mayday, mayday, we can’t find the toilet paper…” became a running joke.
The next morning, we plotted our course to Platypus Bay, on the western side of Fraser Island, where the 4WD’s along the shore appeared tiny against magnificent white cliffs that stood out like beacons beside the tree-covered mounds of golden sand.
We switched our radio to the channel used by the commercial whale watching operators and tuned into the banter. “There are whales everywhere today!” said one voice.
“We’ve got a couple of curious ones following us,” said another.
Heading towards the whale boats, we came across a pod of five whales circling a small speedboat. One whale swam towards us passing right under the Capri-cat.
Emerging on the other side, a dark shape released a flurry of bubbles then lifted one pectoral fin and rolled over, displaying its long white belly. It was one of the biggest whales I had ever seen.
A second whale joined it, baring its crusty barnacles as curious eyes peeped out at us. Just as I was wondering who was watching whom, in the distance, another whale launched out of the water into a magnificent breach.
At 2.30pm our captain had to drag us away from the show. Three hours later, after negotiating several shallow areas, we reached the sheltered waters of South Point near Big Woody Island and dropped the anchor.
In the morning, a call for help from another catamaran whose anchor had become lodged in a rock crackled over the radio. I grabbed the map to see where they were and found lots of intriguing looking coves and bays.
Our only potential disaster occurred as we were finishing our breakfast. Popeye Pete, who had moored nearby came roaring up in his dinghy.
“Turn your engines on,” he yelled out. It turns out that we had not let out enough of the anchor and as the tide began to rise, the catamaran had started to drift.
I looked out the window and was surprised to find that we were almost right on top of his boat, the Blackbird.
The run home was the choppiest we had experienced during the entire weekend.
We navigated our way to the Cardinal marker to find several boats coming in and out of the entrance to the harbour.
At the Cardinal marker, we radioed home base and were told to head for the U2 marker.
Gliding into the mooring area, I felt sorry that our adventure had come to an end.
With an almost guaranteed up-close and personal encounter with the whales as well as all those enticing coves and bays yet to be explored, I’ll most definitely be back.
The Capri Cat sleeps eight.
For more information see Fraser Coast and South Burnett Tourism.
There are plenty of other attractions in the region. Here are some posts you might like: Things to do Hervey Bay.
When to visit? Book your holiday when the Hervey Bay Ocean Festival is on for a fun time.
Looking for an attraction to remember? Read this post.