We're aboard a fine vessel called the Ghost, the official media yacht
of the Audi Race Week on Hamilton Island, and we're going nowhere. Some 500 meters
off the starboard bow, two unexpected guests have us in their sights and are steadily
powering their way towards the boat. So unexpected are they in fact that the race
itself fades into the background momentarily.
Our guests are a mother humpback whale and her calf, which go from leisurely drifting
in whatever patch of water they please to carving a path for themselves right next
to the race course. The race in question is the largest offshore yachting regatta
in Australia and involves many different classes of yachts. As of 2010, the organizers
have not created a division for whales so they are a bit of a diversion for the
moment. There are also reports of a pair of albino dolphins somewhere in the mix
but we don't see them, unfortunately.
Back aboard the Ghost, we are awaiting the start of proceedings. Given
that tomorrow is lay day, today is traditionally reserved for the Club Marine Classic
Long Race, with IRC Classes, the Coppersmith Rock Race, Performance Passage and
Around Islands all mixing it up. It's a very pleasant day, from a landlubber's perspective,
but we are told that the changing weather is holding up the start. The Long Race
has already been replaced by a shorter race, thanks to the peachy weather, and nature's
irascible fickleness is working towards changing the day yet again.
All around us are yachts of all persuasions, from behemoths such as Lang Walker's Kokomo and
Bob Oatley's Wild Oats XI to nimble players such as Manly Too.
The organizers put the number here at 200, with everyone out on the water in advance
of the lay day. We are told that somewhere in our midst is the recently famous Jessica
Watson, teen-solo-sailing-around-the-world sensation, and Australian sailing icon,
Iain Murray (at the helm of Wild Oats X) representing the other end of
the experience spectrum.
The race presses on, with yacht after yacht careening here to fro as they struggle
to come together as a group behind the mandated start line. Wind changes and delays
alike are playing havoc with everyone's concentration and the line breaks down a
couple of times. Once the boats get going though, they move with a speed that belies
their elegant profiles. On the day, Lahana is the big winner, at least
amongst the IRC Grand Prix contenders but the champion of the overall regatta, now
in its 27th year, is a mischievous boat called Loki.
The field at the Audi Race Week may be crowded but there are more than a few boats
with sterling reputations, including of course the Kokomo, Wild Oats
X and XI, Lahana and Loki(pictured above). Overall
race winner Loki for example is the second Reichel Pugh boat of the same
name for owner Stephen Ainsworth, the first having been abandoned off the coast
of Sicily in 2007, then lost through bad weather. The Audi Race Week has been eventful
for Loki, which won three of its IRC Grand Prix division events but was
whose eventual victory was by a mere hair's breadth.
The final day of racing says it all for Loki and Ainsworth, under intense
pressure from Harvey Milne's Aroona. Ainsworth believed the chance had
slipped by him and that the Aroona had won it. He even took the helm himself
on that fateful day, with his wife and friends aboard, settling in for a fun day.
Of course, Loki did indeed win and, as Uwe Hagen, Audi Australia's Managing
Director said, "the best and crew have been victorious."
Sitting pretty aboard the Ghost during the race itself, you can't escape
the impression that it's all about good fun though—whales notwithstanding. Lang
Walker, for example, is a billionaire property mogul who has a number of yachts,
all somewhat confusingly named Kokomo, so this is clearly about passion
not so much professional success. Similarly, Bob Oatley—called the pioneer of Australia's
wine export industry by Forbes magazine—has nothing really to prove, except
perhaps the success of Hamilton Island, on the whole. Oatley of course also owns
the island and is responsible for its upscale transformation in recent years, having
ploughed more than A$300 million into it.
Just how does a spirits entrepreneur and his family come to own a gem like Hamilton
Island, the largest inhabited island of the Whitsundays and scene of some celluloid
infamy in Muriel's Wedding? First of all, the island became a public company
in 1996 and the Oatleys won a bid to acquire 100% of the shares in 2003, via 21st
Century Resort Holdings Pty Ltd, which they control, and they operate most of the
businesses on the island via Hamilton Island Enterprises, which they own. Nearby
Dent Island, which features an excellent golf course is divided between federal,
state (Queensland) and private (the Oatley family) ownership. That said, Hamilton
Island itself has been in private hands since 1975, when Keith Williams and Bryan
Bryt began developing it.
Our guests are a mother humpback whale and her calf, who go from leisurely
drifting in whatever patch of water they please to carving a path for themselves
right next to the race course
Today, the island has infrastructure that would be the envy of many a nation,
with Hamilton Island Airport providing air links with the rest of Australia, including
direct flights to Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Cairns. It is the only island
in the Great Barrier Reef with its own commercial airport. The other way to get
to the island would be via ferry, from Shute Harbour on the mainland. If you have
your own yacht, then you'll be cruising into Hamilton Island Marina, which has 240
berths and normally has plenty of space (unless you visit during Race Week, when
it appears to be quite full.) Hamilton Island Enterprises puts the marina occupancy
at an average of 87% all year round.
Travelers who expect to be arriving via whale should take note that, aside from
the usual difficulties, there are no berthing services available at the present
While you can't drive to the island, the lack of bridges putting paid to that
idea, roads are aplenty on the 650 hectare island. Once you're on the island, you'll
notice that regular motor vehicles are largely limited to public shuttles. Apparently,
the way to get around the island is via golf buggy, which allows you to zip about
the place in relaxed style. Terrorizing bystanders is optional and not at all recommended.
Of course, for the duration of the Audi Race Week, the German automaker placed
a small fleet of Audis on the island, for the purpose of ferrying important folks
to important dinners—two with celebrity chefs Matt Moran and Shannon Bennett—and
for official guests at the top-of-the-line resort, qualia. Audi also provided an
A5 Cabriolet 2.0 TFSI quattro S tronic as a prize to the overall winner and an S5
Sportback to any crewman who managed to best their Motorsports Ambassador Brad Jones
in a driving challenge.
The drive challenge takes place on the lay day, the day after our frolics-with-whales
race, at the airport. With the sailors otherwise occupied, it seemed a good time
to check out the brand new A$85 million yacht club (pictured above), which opened
properly late 2009. Already dubbed the Opera House of Queensland, the yacht club
was designed by Australian architect Walter Barda and is meant to reflect the growing
prominence of Hamilton Island as a top-shelf yachting destination. It also reflects
on perhaps the most important reason the Oatley's came to the island in the first
Dubbed the Opera House of Queensland, the yacht club was designed by
Australian architect Walter Barda and is meant to reflect the growing prominence
of Hamilton Island
"The Oatley family was originally drawn to Hamilton Island through our passion
for sailing and it seems fitting to recognize the Whitsundays' reputation as one
of the world's great sailing regions with the building of this yacht club. We expect
the creation of the yacht club to further cement Hamilton Island's status as a center
of international boating excellence," said Sandy Oatley, Chairman of Hamilton Island,
on the occasion of the official public opening of the yacht club in December, 2009.
On our visit, Murray, Commodore of the Yacht Club, cheekily adds that Bob Oatley
simply wanted a yacht club that he could proudly say was his. Murray, also Regatta
Director for the 2013 America's Cup, collaborated on the design and construction
of the yacht club via his property development firm, Murlan.
While whale sightings and yacht racing are well and good, that's merely a teaser.
Hamilton Island also boasts Australia's only championship island golf course, which
is actually on another island, Dent Island. The par 71 course was designed by Peter
Thompson, measures 6,120 meters and is quite the challenge. With a series of holes
strung out along ridges and across steep valleys, the different elevations and constantly
changing breezes will see even the best golfer opting for a drop—more than once.
Other challenges you can take up, if so inclined, include various hiking trails
that are anything but a walk in the park. Of course, given that this is a sailing
paradise, you could find your own sea legs here. The island boasts a number of programs
related to sailing, for all levels of interest and competency.
Aside from its own attractions, Hamilton Island is also well positioned to be
a gateway to the pristine beaches of the Whitsundays and the incredible natural
wonder that is the Great Barrier Reef, for example. To be practical about it, Hamilton
Island is the only island boasting all the trappings of civilization, so to speak,
that serves as a launching pad for outward bound adventure.