Long, Hot Showers

Buckets of rain can't spoil the abstract beauty of Australia's Whitsunday Islands.

We had examined the Whitsunday Islands brochures. We had checked the daily weather report, which forecast sunny days with highs in the 80s. The wet season in northern Queensland starts in late December, and we felt safe planning our charter for mid-November. We packed our T-shirts and snorkel gear, hopped on the plane and made our way to Australia.

"You should have been here last week," we were told upon arrival.

The next morning, just outside the Airlie Beach marina, we huddled under the bimini on the 33-foot Seawind Catamaran Moonshadow. Solid water poured out of the sky, filling the cockpit drains and hissing back into the sea. There was no sailing on to our intended anchorage aboard the Queensland Yacht Charters cat; we could barely make out the beach a few cables to starboard.

My mind wandered back a few years, to when I'd first learned of the Whitsunday Islands and dreamed of returning to visit them. We had sailed our 55-foot Oyster Miss Molly through the Great Barrier Reef, using the Grafton Passage about 300 miles north. We were about 11 days from Fiji the night I read about Capt. Hook and his exploration of the Australian Coast. He named the Whitsunday Passage on the third of July, 1770, while sailing up through the island group.

It was that kind of exploration we'd come for, but the end-of-the-world squalls curtailed our plans. Despite the difficulties, we felt well taken care of by the folks at Queensland Yacht Charters. The operation is professional, with high standards for boats and gear. The attention to detail starts at the top, with owners Suzette and Adrian Pelt, retired bluewater sailors who know what makes a good sailing holiday.

For us, unfortunately, having a good time meant retiring to a cozy little resort to dry out. We waited a few days for a break in the clouds and took a seaplane to Hardy Reef, where we landed in what looked like 2 inches of water. There's no way to describe finning through the gin-clear water, taking in the incredible coral growths and playing amid the amazing variety of marine life. That one hour made all our difficulties with the weather entirely worthwhile.

Back on the mainland, we ventured again to Airlie Beach to meet the dark blue, 63-foot Dynamique Paounar. The sunshowers we weathered in her cockpit were followed by a superb candlelit dinner in the elegant saloon. Mahogany panels and brass fittings give her a gentleman's cruising-yacht feel.

Under way, Paounar's executive chef, Marcos Christian, swaps his apron for sailing gloves and proves he knows his halyards and sheets as well as his soufflés and timbales. Capt. Leslie Alexander will let you help sail the boat if you like, but we were content to sit back and finally enjoy the Whitsunday Islands.

There's almost always a quiet place to anchor in the Whitsundays, which are pretty much deserted. Only a few islands have tourist facilities, and though the area is compact and easily cruised in a week, few boats are about. Happily sitting under the dry bimini, we contemplated the two main resort islands, Hayman and Hamilton. Hayman, with its purpose-built harbor, is top-end luxury. Game fishing is a big attraction, as is diving the Great Barrier Reef. Hamilton, too, has a harbor, but it is much bigger and more like a full-service marina, with accommodations to suit all pocketbooks.

Me, I'll stick to sailing, and sailing in good weather, at that. The locals say we were unlucky, and David Colfelt, author of 100 Magic Miles (the bible for any Whitsundays sailor), says sailing is good any time of year.

We'll just have to try again.

Contact: Queensland Yacht Charters, (011) 61 7 49 467 400; fax (011) 61 7 49 467 698; qyc@whitsunday.net.au; www.yachtcharters.com.au. Paounar, (011) 61 7 49 466 038; fax (011) 61 7 49 480 188; theboss@seaquest.com.au;