Bouncing back

One year on from the storm that made headlines all over the country, Brittany Cooper talks to key players in the Whitsundays about how the community has refreshed its world-class welcome.

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In late March 2017, Category 4 tropical cyclone Debbie tore towards the east coast of Queensland, generating wind gusts of up to 263 kilometres while tracking towards Hamilton Island and the Queensland mainland, where it caused vast damage to infrastructure, moored yachts, and houses; stripped palm trees bare; and even snapped coral into fragments in some parts of the fringing reef.

Flash flooding caused further chaos, and what followed was a media storm, with intense coverage of the destruction by various outlets, especially on television. Many millions of dollars were lost across the tourism industry from the impact on bookings. In total Debbie caused AU$2.4 billion in damage across Queensland. How did the region come back from such a severe weather event?

Just days after Debbie hit, and with insurance claims in full swing, local businesses began repair operations in challenging conditions. Many business owners seized the opportunity to upgrade and modernise their facilities. Only a couple of months later, most services were back on track.

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Meanwhile, local tourism businesses also banded together to launch the Welcome Back campaign to spread the message that the Whitsundays was back in business. In their experience, the key is to be honest about the extent of the damage, to communicate the plan for recovery and give the world and idea of what to expect in the interim. Today, although several resorts are still in redevelopment – Daydream Island Resort & Spa, for example, brought forward planned redevelopment and is due for reopening in August – Abell Point Marina, Port of Airlie and Shute Harbour are all fully functional.

Luke McCaul, Managing Director of Abell Point Marina, is proud of the marina’s new standard of excellence, having replaced 30-year-old pontoons with brand new, and launched its Ocean Club and Hemingway’s restaurant since the cyclone.

“It’s incredible to see the strength of business in the region and how well it has recovered in the last 12 months,” he said.

“With the edition of new moorings and national parks upgrades around the islands, the cruising experience for visiting yachties is certainly being enhanced. Whilst it will take time for the fringing reefs to regenerate, the islands are as beautiful as ever and the feedback from our customers indicates that the Whitsundays remains Australia’s premier cruising ground.”

Remarkably, Abell Point Marina’s occupancy was only down by one percent in the 12 months following the cyclone compared to the previous year. One customer who witnessed the recovery firsthand was visiting yachtie John McDonald. “We stayed [at Abell Point Marina] for two months and when we first arrived finishing touches were still underway after Cyclone Debbie. It was obvious that it really took a hit after looking at photos, but it was amazing how quickly it was put back together,” he said. “The addition of Hemingway’s was the icing on the cake for us – so nice to have an upmarket restaurant metres from our boat.”

Christophe Vanek, Dream Yacht Charter’s Managing Director for Australia/New Zealand, said, “The past 12 months have been quite challenging – there was a lot of damage on the islands and on the mainland and especially on boats that were not at marinas. But people worked together to rebuild. We have a fleet of 32 boats and employ 20 people, so of course we take our responsibility to get back on track seriously. Around five of the yachts sustained minor damage but with insurance we recovered. Business was a bit slow for six weeks and then it started up again.” And as for the next 12 months? “Forward bookings are looking good! We have the support of the whole community.”

There is very little evidence today that a major cyclone passed through the region, according to fellow charter industry stalwart Sharon McNally, General Manager of Cumberland Charter Yachts and Luxury Yachts Whitsundays. “The resilience and camaraderie of the local community after Cyclone Debbie is what helped get the town back on its feet and really highlighted how well we band together at times of need,” she said. “Cumberland Charter Yachts prepared as we always do for these events; fortunately we have an amazing team who found solutions. Since then, we have continued to grow. We have welcomed two new vessels into the fleet, with more to come. To top off the year, we won three tourism accolades at local, state and national levels so it was a sensational ending to a challenging year.”

The physical effect of Debbie on the vessels that were tied up in Abell Point Marina and Port of Airlie was quite minimal, considering the intensity of the cyclone. According to long-time Whitsundays resident and Whitsunday Sailing Club member Adrian Bram, “there was a lot of paint damage and bent stanchions. Getting the boats back together again after Debbie was a matter of getting into one of the boatyards and getting the paint done.”

While the Whitsundays’ bareboat fleet is the largest in the southern hemisphere, the region’s key appeal for sailors is not the extensive infrastructure – it’s the experiences.

Tourism Whitsundays CEO Craig Turner recognises that many sailors come for these major drawcards.

“We are highlighting the amazing natural attractions of the Whitsundays, such as sailing around the islands, Whitehaven Beach, new walking tracks, the reef and the fantastic snorkelling,” he said.

Since Debbie passed through, Queensland Parks and Wildlife has dedicated resources to redeveloping walking tracks and creating new ones. There is a new bushwalking track on Langford Island where walkers can enjoy vistas over nearby Black and Hook Islands, and the sand spit of Langford Island itself. There are also new walks coming on Border and Hazelwood Islands and a fantastic walk on the southern end of Whitehaven Beach which will provide a new perspective of Whitehaven Bay.

To aid the fringing reef’s recovery, 37 public moorings have been installed in anchorages where there were none. The new moorings will allow visiting vessels to keep visiting the marine park while relieving the impact of anchoring.

Bram, who is also Marketing Director of Airlie Beach Race Week, said the current closure of several resorts does not detract from the sailing experience: “For the ordinary visitor there are no ongoing effects of Debbie. Generally if you came here, you just wouldn’t be able to tell.

You come to the islands to experience the magnificence of the rainforest and the islands and the natural experiences. Virtually every day you can pick up a mooring and go swimming with turtles. It’s just what you do!”

As an experienced cruiser, Bram has sailed in most of the top destinations all over the world, but there’s good reason to stay in Airlie Beach. “I still feel that the cruising grounds here are the best in the world, for their protected waters, coral reefs and beaches, magnificent anchorages and unspoilt beauty. The fact is that you’ve got a plethora of islands within a 100-nautical- mile stretch. You never have to move more than a few miles to find another sheltered spot. What’s more, the sea state is rarely threatening, making the area Australia’s best spot for bareboat charters – it is tranquil, spectacular and safe.”

There are so many highlights for visitors to the planet’s largest living organism – the Great Barrier Reef. Kids love meeting Elvis, the curious Giant Maori Wrasse who lives in Blue Pearl Bay off Hayman Island. Other once-in-a-lifetime attractions include taking a stroll along the huge sand bar at low tide in the middle of the passage at the Langford Reef, visiting the waterfalls and cave paintings by the Nara Inlet, and of course 7-kilometre-long Whitehaven Beach, with its incredibly fine white sand composed of 98 percent silica.

The sheer beauty of the place, its reef and its wildlife, needs to be seen to be believed.

With three upcoming racing events – Airlie Beach Race Week, Hamilton Island Race Week and Magnetic Island Race Week – as well as humpback whale sightings from June to September, the Whitsundays are geared up for another brilliant, warm winter season.

And for those interested in the more laidback tempo of bareboat cruising, Bram has some interesting advice: “All you need is a good yacht, and a cruising partner – anyone with a good attitude and a six pack!”

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