Working holiday in the Whitsundays

What do you do when you have a few days up your sleeve before or after a bareboat holiday in the Whitsundays? Well, if you're a sailor who wants to improve their sailing, some sail training, of course!

While in the Whitsundays for a charter I decided to do just that and take an extra five days off to brush up on my skills. My charter ended in Airlie Beach and I discovered a local Royal Yachting Association school had vacancies in a five-day coastal trip starting only a day after the

charter finished, using a Swarbrick sloop in an adjacent berth.

“Let's do it,” and I jumped on the phone to book.

I expected to do some hard work in terms of full-on sail training, but thought there would be plenty of opportunity for play also. My phone call to Steve Watson of the Whitsunday Sailing School was a wake-up call. Not only did I not need snorkel gear, but he didn't even take a dinghy to go ashore on his trips.

“I find it distracts people too much,” he said.

“While our trips are enjoyable, the primary purpose is to learn as much as you can and make the most of your time improving your sailing skills.”

And you would be hard-put to find someone more qualified to learn from and to help you do just that. An RYA Yachtmaster Offshore instructor/examiner, Steve has more than 40 years' sailing experience and is a huge font of knowledge.

He takes a maximum of four on his trips to ensure plenty of individual attention, but I was even luckier in that when I went that two people had dropped out and on the five-day, four-night coastal and island hop down to Mackay there was just me and a young Englishman, Alec, who was doing the FastTrack Yachtmaster.


Hard but fun

Day followed day in one of the most enjoyable on-water experiences I have had, actually made all the better because I felt I was really using my brain and working on my skills rather than just sitting back and watching the scenery go past.

By the end of the 150nm my steering had improved, my docking had improved, and I had brushed up on my basic nav, even doing a course to steer, which I had never had to do before because my ex-husband was the navigator when we cruised. I also had an opportunity to see what was required at Yachtmaster level – I thought the “blind” navigation exercise a particularly good one, where you had to stay below and navigate the boat to a particular spot using only speed, depth and compass bearings.

And despite no snorkelling and no dinghy, we did have a little R&R in between the sailing, stopping to swim at Whitehaven Beach and overnighting at the marina in Mackay, where we had dinner at one of Steve's favourite restaurants.


Would I recommend it?

So would I recommend a course in the Whitsundays? Yes, once you get your head around the concept that you are not just there to relax, but to learn, you will enjoy it, and come away with some very useful skills that will stand you in good stead anywhere. Steve was extremely patient and at no time did I get that dumb-blonde feeling I get when someone overpowers me with information. Going by myself also really made me step up to the plate and think for myself rather than relying on a more knowledgeable partner.

Ideally, I think next time I'd do the sail-training before the bareboating, so you can use what you have just learned and chill out rather than going from ultra-relaxed mode to learning mode, but I'd do it again any which way round in a shot.

Other centres

There are a number of other RYA and Yachting Australia schools in the area.

The largest operation is Sunsail on Hamilton Island, a world-leading charterboat company, which offers some entry-level practical courses, but you do have to do the theory pre-requisite fo rthe Day Skipper and Coastal Skipper courses before you come because they do not offer shore-based theory courses.

Sunsail's Kim Lehmann told me that one of their biggest sources of pupils was those who want to improve skills for bareboating.”Some of our students do a sailing school course before taking a yacht out on a charter – our minimum bareboat prerequisite is five days' saling experience on a similar-sized vessel,” she said.

Sunsail's instructors' primary aim is to ensure that the course syllabus is completed, but since they focus on the entry-level courses there is still time for the odd bit of swimming and snorkelling.

“This depends though on whether progress Is being made according to the syllabus and also that the interests of all students on board are taken into account,” Kim said.

She said a sailing school course in the Whitsundays was the perfect opportunity to learn a new skill or improve existing ones (and formalise them with internationally recognised RYA or YA qualifications) in one of the most stunning sailing areas in the world.

  • Whitsunday Sailing School,, ph (07) 4946 4069, mobile 0417 703 817, email
  • Sunsail Hamilton Island,, ph 1800 803 988 or (07) 4948 9509, email
  • Yachting Australia centres – for a list of Yachting Australia centres in the Whitsundays visit and click on sail training.


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