SHUTE HARBOR, Australia — Leaving the North Queensland port of Shute Harbor, we cleared Mandalay Point aboard the brigantine Golden Plover for a week of sailing and camping among Australia's Whitsunday Islands.
The classic 103-foot hemp-and-tar Plover would serve as mother ship while we camped ashore on unspoiled beaches for seven days of windsurfing, diving and soaking up tropical sunshine in the waters of the Great Barrier Reef.
The windsurfing-brigantine expedition is the inspiration of Pieter and Marj Tolmsa, a delightful Dutch couple who recently emigrated to Australia to start this operation. The itinerary is completely ad-lib, depending on the winds and the preferences of the 10 to 16 participants (usually in their mid-20s to mid-30s).
My fellow sailors were mostly Aussie, including a dynamic trio of Sydney women. The character of the trip, though, turned out to be a jewelry merchant from New York City.
The working crew looks after meals, windsurfing instruction and planning scuba-diving expeditions in addition to tending the sails. A cabin on board can be booked but most prefer to spend the nights ashore in tented camps where you are free to go for moonlight strolls along the beach.
The stately square-rigger is authentic in every detail. Lovingly reconstructed, the 1903 hull was discovered in a tidal backwater by a pair of German millionaire brothers. The ship's joinery, brasswork and hemp rigging are a joy to the soul of any sailor. Since her reincarnation she has circled the globe twice and starred with Brooke Shields in "Blue Lagoon."
The first day's sail to Hook Island and indulgence in some "coolabah coolers" lulled us into a soporific state, which was crudely shattered by a clattering anchor chain running through the hawseholes and the dawning truth that we would be giving up the luxury of the ship's paneled cabins for tents on the beach.
Enthusiasm won out, and for a bunch of rookies we set up camp in record time. Some indulged in a warm sunset swim while others' priorities were on firing up the barbecue, or barbie as they call it in Oz. Soon the aroma of thick Aussie steaks was wafting out over the water.
"Hoo-Hoo Ha-Ka-Ka-Ka!" It was daybreak when the raucous kookaburra breakfast club flew into the gum trees overhanging the tents. Most of the campers were content to catch another 40 winks but the scuba divers were up and eager.
James, the dive master, had rashly promised us a morning dive only to discover that slack tide would be at the uncivilized hour of 6:30 a.m. He looked a little groggy as his obnoxiously keen divers, eager for their first Barrier Reef plunge, chased him out of bed.
We returned from the dive in time for a hearty breakfast, then out into the bay, skimming past numerous green sea turtles while windsurfing classes began on shore.
Speeding along on a windsurfer I had several close misses with basking sea turtles. Their protected status in the Whitsunday Islands Reserve seems to make the prolific marine life unusually tame.
Forty years ago these islands were refuge for ships of the U.S. Fleet as they lay disguised under huge camouflage nets, repairing battle scars after the Battle of the Coral Sea.
Repairing and maintaining a 100-foot brigantine is a full-time job even for a crew of six. I made myself less than popular one morning by windsurfing out to the anchored ship to find the crew at work with the brass and paint brushes.
Capt. John challenged me with typically Aussie directness as I climbed over the rail looking for a cold beer and dripping sea water.
"Drip on my taffrail and you're shark bait, mate!" A normal, human response for someone on his 11th gleaming coat of immaculate varnish.
Breaking camp every couple of days, the Golden Plover with its flotilla of windsurfers and diving tenders pokes its way around the idyllic channels and bays of the islands. At midweek we made a rendezvous with the amphibious Air-Whitsunday plane that flies to the outer Reef.
Chance Bay, with its squeaky white sands and floating black pumice, was the most memorable setting, though. From the door of my tent, pitched amid the sighing eucalyptus, I looked out on a moonlit silhouette of a ship at anchor. The ocean swells swished up and down the gleaming sands, a scene from "Mutiny on the Bounty."
Then there was the day that we took off on the windsurfers, chasing the Plover in 20 knots of wind for a screaming 10-mile downwind reach.
Michelle, the ship's cook, received rave reviews for her simple but hearty Aussie meals--huge helpings of tasty casseroles and the like. No champagne brunches, but after a day's activities (or non-activity, depending on your inclination), everything tastes superb. Freshly caught fish or rock oysters scavenged at low tide were doubly appreciated for the effort that went into the hunt for them.