Boating in the Whitsundays

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For complete information about boating in the Whitsundays, refer to the essential sailing guide for the area, 100 Magic Miles of the Great Barrier Reef – The Whitsunday Islands.

windybayAustralia’s finest cruising grounds, the Whitsundays, offer scores of protected anchorages each within easy reach of the next. The area has the largest bareboat charter fleet (power and sail) in the South Pacific. For those trailing runabouts or trailer sailers, there are a number of launching ramps along the coast from Mackay in the southern Whitsundays to Bowen at the extreme northern end of the area, with several located conveniently in the heart of the area at Shute Harbour, Airlie Beach, Abel Point and Shingley Beach.

Sailing conditions

South-east trade winds fan the Queensland coast from March-April to September-October providing exhilarating sailing conditions, frequently 15-20 knots in strength. From October onwards milder easterlies and north-easterlies are more common. The islands themselves and the Great Barrier Reef to the east create a relatively protected stretch of water (European discoverer James Cook referred to the Whitsunday Passage as “one continued safe harbour”). But when the winds are piping in, the phenomenon of ‘bullets’ (sharp gusts) may be experienced in some anchorages, and good anchoring technique is essential.


The Whitsundays are subject to 3–4 metre tides which, during times of maximum flood and ebb, create currents that accelerate through the narrow passages between the islands, and when the direction of the wind and tidal currents oppose each other, Whitsunday waters can sometimes be turbulent. Yachts plan their movements to take advantage of currents and to avoid bumpy passage making. The large rise and fall of the water level needs to be considered when anchoring a yacht.

Boating facilities

The area has four marinas, with others under construction.

Entrance lat./Long.
Mackay 21° 063’S, 149° 14.0’E 479 berths; full marine services; launching ramp
Laguna Whitsundays 20° 35’S, 148° 41.5’E Current Status Unknown
Hamilton Island 20° 20.8’S, 148° 56.8’E 230 berths; full marine services
Abell Point 20° 15.6’S, 148° 42.6’E 507 berths; full marine services; launching ramp

Hayman Island has a private marina available to those who are also staying at the resort.

trailer_sailorLaunching ramps are available at: the Mackay marina; at Victor Creek (just north-west of Seaforth, for access to the Newry Group and southern Whitsunday islands); at Laguna Whitsundays marina (access to the south-central islands); Shute Harbour (access to the central and northern islands); Airlie Beach/Abell Point/Port of Airlie (3 ramps, for access to the northern and central islands) and at Dingo Beach (access to the northern islands).

Water is generally available only at marina facilities in the Whitsundays.

Skippering a boat in the Whitsundays

Navigation is quite simple among the islands because there are so many prominent landmarks. The ability to interpret a nautical chart is really all that’s required. Anchoring is the most demanding task, and someone in the crew needs to how to set an anchor properly. Good anchoring technique is the key to peaceful, worry-free nights, particularly if fresh trade winds are causing sharp gusts (locally referred to as ‘bullets) to rush over island peaks and down into the anchorages. Those bringing their own boat to the Whitsundays, who may be familiar only with estuary cruising, should be sure that their anchor tackle is suitable for coral cruising, with an adequate length of chain and an anchor rope sufficiently thick to be comfortable to pull on. A lot of scope is sometimes necessary in the Whitsundays, and retrieving the anchor can be hard on the hands.

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