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Explorer: Australia by Sail, Manning My Own Ship

And, I’ve got to  say, our captain didn’t seem up to the task. Veering off course, clinging to the ship’s wheel as though it were steering him, asking our sailing guide amateurish questions — he wasn’t exactly inspiring confidence in my new wife, Jen, who had signed on for eight days of this as part of our honeymoon.

“Everything O.K. there, Captain?” asked Wendy, our sail guide, as the captain fought to control a rudder that was suddenly half out of the water. Eventually we made it to the calm waters of Cid Harbour. I stumbled below and lay unmoving for a while as Jen brewed me a cup of tea, which I desperately needed to calm my nerves.

After all, I was the captain.

If you’re going to charter a bareboat for a weeklong cruise anywhere in the world (bare because only the boat and the gear are provided, not captain, crew or provisions), Australia’s Whitsunday Islands make a compelling case: steady tropical winds, postcard-turquoise waters that are part of the Great Barrier Reef ecosystem, and relaxed requirements that allow someone like myself, who knows how to sail but lacks formal qualifications to do so, to be Captain for a Week.

I had never helmed a boat as long as the 32-foot Catalina called RockStar, which was why we hired Wendy for our first 36 hours. We had flown into Airlie Beach the night before, stocked up on provisions, and by noon were practicing tacking and jibing in the bays near Airlie Beach.

By 4, we were safely anchored on the mainland side of the Whitsunday Passage, ready to make that challenging crossing to the islands the next morning. We sat down with Wendy and mapped out our week: our one must-see was Whitehaven Beach, a swirling sandbar of pure white silica said to be one of the most beautiful beaches on the planet. At our boat’s speed, it was a few days’ sail from Airlie Beach. Later, as I was barbecuing chicken on the deck grill and watching a mote of sunset sneak through the clouds, I asked Wendy about something that had been on our minds. “Sharks?” Wendy said with that particular breeziness Australians have on the subject of deadly wildlife, “You don’t need to worry about sharks. The crocs eat them all.”

On the second day, after we had dropped off Wendy at Hamilton Island (her parting wish: “I hope you’re still married in seven days!”) and returned to Cid Harbour for the night, the responsibilities and restrictions of our trip began to weigh on me. The charter companies are relaxed about whom they give their boats to, but strict on most everything else. We had to anchor or moor every day by 4 p.m. and check in with our charter company twice daily, which was actually kind of fun because we got to say things into the radio like “This is RockStar, RockStar, over.” More problematically, the whole ocean side of the archipelago was considered off-limits  in winds above 20 knots. Whitehaven was on the ocean side of Whitsunday Island, the biggest in the group. And the winds forecast for the next several days were 20 to 25 knots.

So we took the long way to Whitehaven, hoping the winds would calm. We sailed up and around the three-fingered crook of Hook Island with the wind and the tide joining forces to speed us on, the smooth ride Australians call Champagne sailing. At Butterfly Bay on the northern edge of the island, Jen snagged a mooring with the boat hook on our first try, and we set off with our dinghy and snorkel gear toward Maureens Cove, a rocky beach with a shallow reef.

It’s a very odd thing, bareboating. You feel as if you’re off on this great adventure, navigating boats, snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef on your own recognizance — and you are, except that dozens of others are out there doing it with you, people you see only from a distance either under sail or, occasionally, as you both explore the same beach. On this occasion, we had Maureens Cove all to ourselves, including what lay beneath its waves: fan coral filled with parrotfish, neon yellow gobies and giant clams.

On our trip to Maureens, we had noticed a dive boat called the Skybird moored in a nearby cove, so the next morning we raised it on the radio and booked a dive. The captain was a man named Neil, one of the Queenslanders Bill Bryson characterizes in his book “In a Sunburned Country” as “mad as cut snakes.” Neil had wild white hair and a peeling red chest. We asked him about jellyfish danger and he told us about his first job on a dive boat “brushing away the bluebottles with my bare arms” so that the tourists could swim safely. Bluebottles are the local term for the Portuguese Man -of -War.

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