Life is made up of two types of people – the Haves and the Have Yachts. Boating is a great way to bring people together, because once you set sail, well, it’s impossible to get away from each other. Best of all, if anyone becomes too annoying you can make them walk the plank. If things get really bad, there’s even burial at sea.
One of my greatest regrets, apart from not being Dorothy Parker, is that I never learnt to skipper a boat. Once you hit middle age, it’s easy to lie at anchor in your safe, suburban harbour. But why not unfurl your sails? Neurologists maintain that learning new skills is the most sure-fire way to stay young, which is why, back in March, I press-ganged my three sisters aboard a catamaran in the Whitsundays – a World Heritage marine park, made up of 74 mostly uninhabited tropical islands in the Coral Sea.
I booked a skipper for a few days’ tuition but had no doubt I’d be promoted to Captain Kath, nay, Admiral Lette, before the sun was over the yardarm.
“So, you’ve had some nautical experience?” our salty sea dog asked, as we set sail from Airlie Beach on Australia’s north-east coast. I thought back to my one previous attempt at sailing, which ended in an unfortunate call to the marina to alert them that their wharf had hit my boat. “Oh, loads.”
My sisters ogled me. This was the most outrageous lie they’d heard since Elton John said he was straight. “Well, we’re already expert at jibing – we tease each other mercilessly,” I assured them. “Plus our convict ancestors sailed all the way from London to Botany Bay in a leaky bucket, so how hard can this be?”
Answer? Hard. The Whitsundays are among the world’s top sailing destinations. But if we’d entered a race that day, our handicap would have been, well, us. As we tacked across sparkling sapphire seas, I tried to master knots, ropes, halyard grinding, wind speeds and winching – but my brilliant sailing skills became strikingly evident when I leapt up with joy at the sight of a dolphin surfing the bow waves just as the boom swung back across the boat.
As I splattered, spread-eagled across the deck, two things became clear to me. First, I would never be a candidate for Mensa. Second, I had no more business wearing sailing gear than a dugong in a dinner jacket.
Our twinkly-eyed skipper tried to reassure me that he’d had far stupider deckhands. “One shipmate told me that the toothpaste made his eyes water… he was using a tube of zinc sunblock. Another swabbie wanted to know if there was water on the other side of the island,” he laughed. “His wife asked if the anchor went all the way to the bottom…”
This provided momentary cheer, but after yet more heaving and ho-ing, when we finally dropped anchor in Blue Pearl Bay, my first day at sea had only taught me one thing – why sailors drink so much rum.
My sisters made me face facts. The chances of me learning to sail were about as probable as the Pope releasing a rap album. Besides, we were far too busy to learn to sail. When we weren’t snorkelling over kaleidoscopic coral reefs with giant turtles, manta rays and dolphins, we were trekking through resinous rainforests to picnic on rocky outcrops overlooking crystal-clear lagoons, teeming with stingrays.
The hilarity of trying to get my sisters out of their wetsuits was also quite time-consuming. “Put your legs on my shoulder. Now push!…Look! She’s crowning!”
But best of all was exploring all those pristine, deserted beaches, stretching on forever beneath that big, blue, generous sky. At the world-famous Whitehaven Beach, the silica sand is so spectacularly fine, Nasa engineers used it to create the lens of the Hubble telescope.
My sisters and I took advantage of being the only vessel in the bay to execute some nude synchronised swimming, laughing cacophonously at the thought of being caught in a rip and ending up as history’s most embarrassing helicopter winch rescue ever.
In the evenings when the setting sun wrapped the lush, tropical islands in crimson gossamer, we’d throw in a line to tickle some trevally and make up bad boat names – The Codfather, Pier Pressure, Buoy Crazy, Cirrhosis of the River (I blamed the rum).
But one thing I couldn’t blame on the rum was my lack of nautical acumen. By day four I abandoned all ideas of achieving maritime credentials and admitted that when it came to sailing, I preferred to sit on deck, cocktail in hand, sunbathing and dreaming about what life would’ve been like had I fulfilled my ambition to be a Kylie Minogue backup singer.
But the sea had other ideas. On our last morning, as we reluctantly prepared to bid farewell to our exquisite, sun-soaked haven, we motored out of the sheltered cove. Rounding the wooded headland, a heavy swell rolled languidly towards the shore. Once we were in the open sea, the swell soon turned into a wall of waves.
“All hands on deck!” our captain called. “All?” I started to sweat more than a Russian athlete poised for a drug test. “Actually, I have plans for today,” I whimpered. “They include living a little longer.”
“Go help haul on the halyard!” the captain bellowed.
I looked towards the bow, where my sisters were struggling with the winch, the wind turning their coiffures into curious creations.
“Do boats like this sink very often?” I asked nervously.
“Nah. Not too often. Usually just the once,” the captain winked. “You came here to learn to sail, so go join your crew, shipmate.”
It was the last thing I wanted to do, but I couldn’t be shown up by my sisters. And so, as our boat dipped and dived through mountainous troughs, I crawled across the spray-soaked deck on my elbows like a commando dodging enemy fire.
The main sail was now up, set and flogging in the wind. “Now set the head sail!” At least I think that’s what the captain said, as my ears were now spritzed in sea spray. “OK, get ready to tack.”
This time I stayed down as the boom swung across the deck. The sails started to puff up like cheeks as our plucky little catamaran turned through the eye of the wind… and then we were flying. It was as though our boat had taken crystal meth. My thrilled sisters clung to the mast, whooping with delight.
The boat gave a sudden lurch as it heeled over. I squealed, convinced I was going to end up like Tom Hanks in the movie Castaway, conversing with a coconut, but just then a pod of dolphins torpedoed past before leaping into the air in perfect Busby Berkeley synchronicity. I instantly forgot my fear, grabbed hold of the mast and just surrendered my body and soul to the pure joy of nature.
Skimming over the shimmering silver sea, hauling sails and winding winches as the wind dictated, exhilarated by the rise and fall of the ocean, the range of sound effects available to me as a human seemed inadequate and I wished I were a kookaburra so I could tilt back my head and cackle with bliss.
As we docked at Hamilton Island, my sailing addiction was so strong I required a 12-step programme to wean me off my high seas habit. Plus, now that we’d learnt how to sail, all we had to do was stage a mutiny, tie our captain to the mast, run up the jolly roger and simply sail off into the sunset.
Except then we saw Qualia, our secluded five-star resort, nestled discreetly into the trees above the tranquil bay, and the Pebble Beach restaurant was beckoning us with the most enticing gourmet aromas. As the captain pointed out the luxurious spa, I caught a glimpse of my hair in the mirror. I looked as though I was auditioning for the The Witches of Eastwick. Yep, it was definitely time for some shore leave.
I’m so glad we did abandon ship. Qualia is not just a top Aussie resort but world-renowned, which is why Taylor Swift booked out the 60 sun-drenched pavilions for her 30th birthday. In fact, the hotel’s guest list is so starry – Oprah Winfrey, Chris Hemsworth, Nicole Kidman and Leonardo DiCaprio among many others – it outshines the dazzling Milky Way on glittering display above.
After a bit of spa pampering then cocktail sipping by our private plunge pool, my sisters and I were soon smiling so broadly it looked as though we’d had vitamin B shots. We’d ticked sailing lessons off our bucket list, without having to use said bucket to bail out any seawater.
I may not have become Captain Kath but I’d definitely found my sea legs. My advice, dear reader, is not to lie at anchor, but to throw off your bowlines. Catch the wind in your sails. If you’re stuck in the doldrums, the best cure is a hearty dose of vitamin sea – especially, when we can go once more, in the sublime Whitsundays.
Queensland Yacht Charters (yachtcharters.com.au) cost from £370 per day. One night at qualia (qualia.com.au) starts at £790. Return flights from London to Brisbane with Singapore Airlines (singaporeair.com) in 2021 cost from £645. For more information, see queensland.com
The FCO does not currently warn against travel to Australia (apart from to Victoria) but entry is limited; see gov.uk/guidance/coronavirus-covid-19-travel-corridors