There comes a time in life when you more or less accept the cruel division between the haves and the have-nots. Even then, there's the crueller discovery of a class called the have-yachts. The have-yachts are fit, tanned blokes with very large watches, radical eyewear and gadgets on dangling cords, and no apparent need to tell lies at work so they can go racing on Wednesdays. This privilege kindles a childish mischief often reflected in the names of their boats - names such as The Office and The Manly Ferry - so when the mobile rings they can say, "I'm at the office" or "I'm on the Manly ferry." This is regarded as a merry jape and is the cause of much clinking of glasses at some Royal Offshore Yacht Squadron or other.
The natural habitats of the luxury charter have-yachts are the Caribbean, the Mediterranean and the Aegean. But here we are in Emu Bay on Kangaroo Island. The happy circumstance that has brought luxury charter yachting from its global glamour hotspots to South Australia is that, occasionally, have-yachts return to settle in home waters.
This is the scenario that has provided South Australian tourism with Renée and Ashley Newman and their 75-foot ketch-rigged yacht, Lady Eugenie. After working on charter and mega-yachts around the world and clocking up more than 20,000 nautical miles together, the Newmans have returned to their home state to give birth to both a little deckhand and an exciting new luxury sailing venture called Kangaroo Island Sailing. It offers a crewed charter program that is a meeting point for haves, have-yachts, and have-nots in denial.
Emu Bay's pristine, four-kilometre-long white beach and high sandy dunes with a rocky outcrop backdrop mean it could be mistaken for the Dalmatian coast. "Except for one thing," says skipper Ashley. "If it were the Dalmatian coast, there'd be 40 yachts anchored here. And we've got it all to ourselves."
Emu Bay would be gobsmackingly beautiful if the gob was not already engaged in despatching huge gulf prawns wrapped in prosciutto with lime aïoli and a couple of cold McLaren Vale ales. So beautiful that there has to be a code of silence at work here. South Australians are mad about Kangaroo Island, but it is strangely underrated outside the Festival State. A case of keeping it to themselves? Well, no longer. The South Australian Tourism Commission is spending a bundle to promote the island's appeal to eastern-state tourists. The car ferry from Cape Jervis on the Fleurieu Peninsula is pricey at $280 return for vehicles, but Kangaroo Island has enough attractions to warrant at least a few days. (Most Australians are surprised to find that the island is the same size as Bali.)
Our Kangaroo Island Sailing cruise is a three-day experience with a one-day tour of the island and two days hoisting the mizzen, furling the genoa, splicing the mainbrace and generally enjoying that relentless camaraderie long known to rich people in Musto offshore jackets with roll-away fluorescent hoods. There's the thrill of taking on the elements in something that is essentially low-tech; the sense of freedom and adventure that comes from harnessing the natural energies of wind and water, the soft collision of breeze and soul, the romance of a mainsail silhouetted against the glow of an epic sunset. But that's nothing compared with the sheer exhilaration of elitism as your elegant, classic ketch cuts across the path of the Sealink ferry, which has all the architectural and demographic charm of a block of housing department flats.
For all the wind in the hair and spray in the face, Kangaroo Island Sailing is anything but the cramped and soggy extreme adventure that makes Sydney-to-Hobart the new benchmark for Aussie machismo. No sign here of an exhausted crew grinding the winches, just chef Simon Burr grinding the coffee. No one cheating death to trim the mainsail, just Burr trimming the rack of lamb. And as I monitor possible weather changes on the air conditioner remote control, I can't help thinking this offshore heroism thing is a bit of a hoax.
Lady Eugenie is one of fewer than 25 Scorpio 75 ketches ever built. They were designed by famed US yacht designer Robert Perry and built in Taiwan in the mid-1990s. Perry is regarded as the master of traditional-profile yacht design. The flared clipper-style bow and extended bowsprit of the Scorpio 75s recalls the days of the fast sailing ships built to carry high-value commodities for trade in the 19th century.
Ashley Newman talks of the grace and the charm of Lady Eugenie, and how the traditional nautical ambience of the yacht is built into its design and isn't just an overlay. She was built for carefree cruising and, at 16 feet wide, is stable, safe and comfortable. While no downwind flyer, she's a powerful boat and can reach speeds of 10 to 12 knots when cranked up.
The crossing from Marina St Vincent to Emu Bay can take anything from four to six-and-a-half hours depending on conditions. Seven of us are on deck - if that term also embraces the comfortable split cockpit with seating for 10. Below decks, chef Burr is wedged into his tiny but well-equipped galley preparing a lunch that showcases much of the artisan produce on which Kangaroo Island prides itself.
On reaching Emu Bay, Lady Eugenie's little Zodiac tender ferries a group ashore to walk the long beach before dinner on deck under a setting sun. The beautifully maintained teak decks and classic varnished handrails with hand-carved detail offer safe movement around the boat, plenty of space for soaking up sun and sights, and a romantic alfresco dining setting.
Below decks, a warm salon with plenty of natural light offers another dining location and a comfortable lounge. Think more than a million dollars in terms of Lady Eugenie's value, with much consideration going into optimising the salon and living quarters for comfortable charter cruising. Guest accommodation is in four double-berth staterooms with ensuites. Drawers and cupboards offer plenty of storage, and attractive brass portholes give the berths good ventilation and an airy feel. Bed linen, pillows, towels and organic essential-oil toiletries all say their bit for indulgence.
Days on board begin the way all days should: a coffee the moment you appear in the salon, a cold breakfast (cereals, fresh fruit, yoghurt, juices) at seven, and a hot breakfast at eight. It's my opinion that the ultimate test of any breakfast kitchen is eggs Benedict. I had it on our first morning. Everyone had it on our second.
From an alcove the size of a phone box, chef Burr turns a bit of cool professionalism into a showcase of local produce and global culinary sensibility. He braces himself against the movement of the boat like a Twister player from a Christmas past, conjuring up canapés such as green mango and prawn salad in pappadam baskets and mini oyster and skordalia pies. Entrées include beef salad with hot and sour dressing and seared ocean trout Niçoise, while main courses might be Willunga lamb with celeriac purée and five-mushroom ragoût or Burr's signature chicken with ratatouille salsa and blue cheese polenta. But I digress - this food is a confounded distraction.
Kangaroo Island plays an important support role in the success of this knockout product. Why don't we know it better? It's a great natural wildlife sanctuary: more than a third of the island has been declared conservation area or national park, and it has five significant wilderness protection areas. There's great local awareness of environmental protection and natural heritage issues, and those of us with any sort of respect for our planet will find Kangaroo Island a feel-good - almost to the point of spiritual - experience.
But this is no one-dimensional destination. Prominent Kangaroo Island tour operator Craig Wickham says international tourists come for the wildlife, interstate visitors come for the regional food and wine, and South Australians come for the beaches. With this in mind, be sure to state your island tour preference when booking Kangaroo Island Sailing's three-day cruise. About the only thing that can go wrong is that you might find yourself creeping through the casuarinas to catch a glimpse of a glossy black cockatoo when you'd rather be putting a dozen American River oysters and a Bay of Shoals riesling to the test.