We’re given lots of instructions during our sailing induction at Riviera Nautic’s marina in the quiet, lakeside hamlet of Metung. There are navigational rules to abide by, colour-coded ropes to remember and multiple sails to hoist. The problem is: none of our crew of five has ever skippered a yacht before.
For much of the induction, none of us has a clue as to what our instructor is talking about. All friends and relatives of mine – steal nervous glances at each other and hope like hell that someone is capable of soaking it all in.
In what seems like an immensely misplaced show of faith, we’ve been handed the sails to a cruiser racer that’s been christened with the name Halcyon – a word that means peaceful, or calm. It’s everything we’re not feeling right now.
At 37.5 feet long, our yacht is the largest in Riviera Nautic’s fleet, with bedding for up to nine crew. On paper, it sounds like an ideal vessel to cruise around Queensland’s Whitsunday Islands – only, we’re not in Queensland. Instead, we’re about to sail for three days around Victoria’s Gippsland Lakes, a tranquil network of interconnected waterways spread across 600sq km.
Sprinkled among all our instructions is jargon that muddles our minds. There was mention of biminis and dodgers, as well a saloon that at least sounded promising. But did I hear him call me a jib? And please remind me why we should urinate on someone’s head.
“You’ll be right,” chuckles instructor Geoff, who senses our angst. “Get the sails up, and even if the tip of the mast dips into the water, this boat will right itself.”
It’s meant to be reassuring. But all I can think of is being belly up, far from shore.
Jokes about the Titanic and the SS Minnow dart about the cockpit as an old school mate, Dols, gallantly steps behind the helm to steer us out of Bancroft Bay and into Lake King. With the sails bundled away, we could motor like this, stress-free, for the next three days.
For the remainder of the day, we sail – well, motor – across to various parts of the lake. First up is Duck Arm, a protected inlet whose placid waters make it a popular overnight moorage. From there we steer south, alternating in shifts behind the wheel while hot cups of tea and coffee are passed up from the galley below.
Numerous school groups paddle by in sea kayaks and we enviously spy billowing white sails in the distance as we cross the lake to a jetty off Sperm Whale Head. Embraced inside the boundaries of The Lakes National Park, the headland is said to be teeming with native wildlife and our plan is to tie up then go for a gentle stroll among the island’s native bushland. But those plans are deferred when aquatic creatures descend upon us unexpectedly.
“Dolphins,” yells Anthony from his perch near the bow. “They’re coming our way.”
So instead of hiking among kangaroos and echidnas on terra firma, we spend the next half hour being circled by acrobatic dolphins that seem hell-bent on filling vacancies at Sea World.
Turns out they’re not just any old dolphins either, for we learn days later that the Burrunan dolphins stalking us are remarkably rare – found in these lakes, in Port Phillip Bay and nowhere else.
We’re all reluctant to move on until the dolphins eventually make the decision for us by swimming away. So after a walk on land, we head towards our evening’s mooring at Steamer Landing, inside a narrow, dead-end inlet named Bunga Arm.
We couldn’t have picked a better spot. A little down the waterway, a hefty squadron of pelicans has settled in for the night on an island beach. Crested terns perch on bollards protruding from the shallows. And across the other side of an unbroken ridgeline of sand dunes is the wild stretch of coastline known as the Ninety Mile Beach.
Best of all? There’s no one else around, making this the perfect location for admiring the sunset while the on-deck barbecue grill sizzles in the background.
The same applies the following night when we motor up the glassy Tambo River as far as a vacant mooring beneath the Princes Highway bridge. After pouring a round of beers down our throats at the Swan Reach Hotel up the hill, we stumble back to the yacht to cook up a dinner of fettuccine marinara, accompanied by a bottle of Gippsland wine and a Czech aperitif.
Earlier that day, we’d pulled up at the Paynesville Marina for a bakery lunch before catching a four-minute ferry ride to Raymond Island. There, we’d met Ride the Koalas’ Robyn Peile, who handed over two jaunty Surrey bikes for us to pedal around the island spotting koalas, kangaroos and colourful rosellas.
We all agree that three days is too short a timeframe to experience this idyllic lifestyle. But there’s still a scratch we need to itch before we’re done and that comes on our final morning, when the winds pick up as we head back towards Metung.
“Shall we get these sails up then?” asks Craig.
“It would be a shame not to,” I reply, though it seems not everyone agrees.
After some spirited debate – and much confusion – we manage to fulfil instructor Geoff’s prophecy by getting both sails hoisted, then spend the next hour tacking aimlessly across Lake King.
“How’s our wake?” asks Greg.
“Churning madly,” says Anthony.
“We couldn’t motor this fast,” I add.
For the next hour or so, five novice sea dogs manage to navigate our yacht successfully under full sail, just a few nautical miles from the ocean. It isn’t without drama, with sudden wind gusts intermittently reminding us who’s in control. But make no mistake when I say that if we can make it back to harbour safely, anyone can.
The writer travelled as a guest of Destination Gippsland.
Getting there: Riviera Nautic yacht charters launch from Metung, three hours drive east of Melbourne.
Sailing there: Riviera Nautic offers yacht and motor cruiser charter and has Victoria’s largest and most diverse fleet. No licence is required. Training session is included before departure.
This article originally appeared on Escape and do not necessarily represent the views of australiaexploring.com