How to sail the Great Barrier Reef for free

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If you’re convinced that sailing is solely the sport of kings and queens, the jet set and those with more money than sense, then think again.

Getting out on the water to explore castaway islands, hidden beaches and experience the tranquil, tropical waters of the Queensland coast needn’t cost you much more than a little research, some forward planning, a beaming smile…oh and maybe a bottle of rum for your new crew mates!

If you’re a salty sea dog, amateur boatie or a backpacker looking for your first marine adventure, there’s a boatload of ways to catch the trade winds in your sails that won’t leave you high and dry.

Race Week Regattas

The breeze hits your face, the sail fills with a crack and the boat beneath you takes off. There’s something excitingly scary about life on the ocean. Whether it’s the camaraderie of being part of a crew as you hang your feet over the side, your closeness to the water as the spray hits your face or the fact that you’re being powered by nothing more than the wind.

How to get on board

If you want to get on board one of the competing yachts, contact the local yacht club at least a month before the event to register your details. Each event has professional, amateur and family crews so you’ll easily find a space on-board. The racing season runs from March to September, but there are sailing opportunities all year-round.

Get there prior to the days sailing, wander down to the pontoons and have a chat – yachties are a friendly bunch! Expect to stay on board, feed yourself, work hard and have some seriously good fun!

  • Sail Paradise on the Gold Coast – March 15 – 17
  • Brisbane to Gladstone Yacht Race – March 29
  • Etchells Australasian Winter Championships – June 6 – 9
  • Brisbane to Keppel Yacht Race – August 2
  • Airlie Beach Race Week – August 8 – 15
  • Hamilton Island Race Week – August 17 – 24
  • Magnetic Island Race Week – Aug 29 – Sept 3

Twilight sailing across the state

If you want a simple way to get out on the water for free then get involved with a Twilight Race Series. A number of yacht clubs along the coast host these relaxed weekly events where yachts, owners and what can loosely be called ‘crews’ gather late in the afternoon, cast off their lines and head out to watch the sun go down whilst sipping on a cold drink…oh yes, and cruise around a preset course before heading back to port.

There’s no expectation of sailing experience as long as you’re willing to muck in and give it a go. You’ll meet some great people, learn a bit about sailing along the way and whet the appetite for future ocean endeavours.

How to get on board

Drop into one of the following clubs by midday on the day of sailing to register your interest, wear suitable shoes (non-marking soles and definitely no heels) and take a bottle along to be welcomed onboard! You should be back on dry land in time for dinner.

Help deliver a yacht

Visit one of the yacht clubs above or visit their website to find out if there’s any travelling yachts who require crew to complete their journey. It’s common for owners of boats to sail one way along the coast, finish their trip and fly home leaving the captain of their vessel to find a crew for the return leg.

It can be one of the best ways to cruise slowly from island to island visiting some of the most remote and beautiful locations on the Great Barrier Reef. It’s not a guaranteed means of travel at all, but if you happen to chance upon an empty berth it’s one of the most enjoyable ways to travel.

My top tip – make sure your skipper stops off at Middle Percy Island off Mackay. It’s my absolute favourite place to drop anchor, with a natural harbour, palm tree lined beach and an A-frame building that could be home to the original Robinson Crusoe.

  • Corrie Gardner

    This is all great advice and totally true…it’s easier than you think to get out on the water in the Whitsundays.

  • Caz

    This sounds like it could be a wonderful option. I will be in Australia and likely in the area during the Hamilton Island regatta. You say to contact the yacht club, if I make a call or email and reference a desire to register to get on board one of the boats, they’ll know what I’m talking about? Definitely considering this now, great article.