Sailing through Queensland's Whitsunday Islands opens up a new world of salt-laden adventure, writes Paul Rush
Captain's mate Trish takes a turn on the wheel and announces, "I can make this baby fly at 11 knots!"
We respond to the "all hands on deck" call and haul on the sheets as the mainsail shudders under tension and the lively cat rears up like a rampant stallion. I revel in the exhilaration of the sizzling speed, salty tang of the sea, fresh breeze in my face and water dripping off my nose.
The Belize 43 catamaran's twin hulls glisten in their pristine whiteness. She can accommodate four couples in private en-suite cabins on a fully catered three-day sail-and-dive adventure around the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, visiting some of the untouched Whitsunday Islands.
Skipper Peter welcomes us aboard with a jovial request to call him "Captain Pete" and informs us there's crazy weather ahead.
"We'll get to go sailing, we'll wear sunscreen and possibly raincoats - so we're ticking all the adventure boxes, eh."
Sea conditions on the open water crossing to Hook Island Passage are euphemistically described as "lumpy". The fresh nor'easter is gusting 20 knots, creating an action-packed world of waves, straining sails and flying spray.
Sharing this exhilarating, rockin', rollin', slidin' ride across the bay with me are two couples from Zurich, Switzerland and a couple from Brisbane. They all chose this sailing trip as a way to experience the ultimate holiday freedom with a perfect balance of adventure, relaxation and fine dining.
Tongue Bay is our first anchorage, where Trish whisks us ashore in the inflatable dingy and we follow a well-worn forest track to a lookout point above Whitehaven Beach. Dazzling white silica sands stretch 7km along Australia's most photographed beach. The swirling sands of Hill Inlet have created a magnificent fusion of vivid colours, while the Coral Sea glistens in dreamy shades of turquoise.
Nosing into Mocona Inlet, we find a sheltered anchorage and enjoy a fine meal dining al fresco under a blanket of stars. Later I retire to my cabin, which boasts a queen-size bed, a compact en suite, a skylight hatch and a side window. The only sound in the night is a gentle lapping of water against the twin hulls. The almost imperceptible motion of the boat soon induces sleep.
Next morning we cruise into Pitstop Bay on Border Island for our first scuba dive and snorkel. Our hostess reinvents herself as "Hardcore Trish" the dive master, spelling out instructions including the prohibition of riding turtles and stingrays.
The coral reefs are a kaleidoscope of colour and the fish show no sign of fear. Multi-hued parrot fish graze contentedly, while bright orange clownfish dart in and out of waving anemones. Maori wrasse, fusiliers and harlequin tuskfish nose around in a dreamy feeding ritual, and a turtle swims lazily by.
Nearby Nara Inlet is our anchorage for the second night before the lazy sail back, during which we witness several "work-ups" of dense schools of baitfish; tuna, sharks and stingrays maraud through the schools in a feeding frenzy, while gulls and terns skim over the surface, beside themselves with excitement.
Skipper Pete and hostess Trish have done the hard yards and made the trip an enjoyable experience. Memories of those blue skies, white beaches and aquamarine seas will never fade.
Paul Rush travelled to the Whitsunday Islands courtesy of Tourism Queensland.