A Boat on the Side
13Dec/102

Festival Follies on the Brisissippi

A word of caution . . . .  . . Before you continue please read the following disclaimer:-

You may get the impression from some of my stories that life on boats is an unrelenting series of miserable fun-sapping sorties but nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is that here in Queensland where the sky is an impossibly intense blue, the turquoise waters warm and clean, and the wind invariably a steady perfumed balm, sailing is an unalloyed joy. Of course there are not quite perfect days, especially when jet skis lurk in waiting but generally Queensland boating is a wonderful experience, especially in one of our beautiful boats. Now read on . . . .

The good Burghers of Brisbane City Council are not normally associated with frivolity but back in the ‘90s they threw caution to the wind and staged an event called the River Festival – a lighthearted celebration of all things associated with the city’s main artery.

In those days it was held in the delightful Newstead Park – the grounds of the graceful Newstead House, the governor’s former residence. This splendid mid 19th Century building had been mercifully spared the developers’ hit squads to stand, almost alone now, as mute testimony to an age of architectural eloquence. Soon, of course, all of Brisbane will showcase only the ugly collective outpourings of concrete angst from the current generation of aesthetically challenged “architects” – they who serve only their rapacious masters, men who bow before the great god Mynopia.

But I digress.

We took an active part in the proceedings, organizing the Scruffie Challenge – a fleet of Scruffie 16s helmed by local celebrities. First prize was the coveted “Golden Thong*” mounted on a polished red cedar pedestal. Good fun was had by all. Various socialites pretended they could sail and smiled for the cameras, a leading city councillor fell in the river and the mayor pouted and postulated.

We certainly enjoyed attending those early festivals, but soon the powers that be decided that the leafy bowers of Newstead Park were not good enough and the event was moved to the sterile expanse of the South Bank. So we joined in one last time, opting to launch our brand new Scintilla 24 at Newstead and enjoy a leisurely cruise up to the new venue, a round trip of about 20 klms – easy! We set off bright and early on a day that was to be etched into my consciousness as no other – a day so utterly vile that even now, after all these years, I can hardly summon the strength to write about it.

It started well enough, we motored off the ramp, under the low road bridge and out into the river, to moor at Newstead pontoon to raise the masts and await the crew. All aboard we were six in number – Annette and I, a customer who was about to order a boat, his wife who worried about him falling in, another owner and her teenage daughter. River calm, weather overcast but bright, wind light and variable, a flood tide running upriver at around 2 knots. We kept to starboard and began to make steady progress, the tide bore us along nicely. On a whim, the Potential Buyer – I’ll call him Bob – decided to take his ease on the foredeck. He took a step out but fate stepped in and back he fell. Without uttering a sound he gracefully slid into the river. For a split second we stared, his wife screamed. Up bobbed Bob, I put the boat smartly about and we dragged him back on board shocked, but none the worse for wear. Annette unpacked my dry set of clothes and he was hustled below to be dried and comforted by the womenfolk.

Meanwhile the fickle breeze died but the tide pushed us along nicely, all too nicely as it turned out. What with the man overboard incident, I realized we were now drifting perilously close to some smart new boats moored along the bank. I reached for the beautifully restored vintage outboard’s cord and pulled. Nothing. I checked the fuel tap and pulled again, not a squeak. The tide bore us relentlessly on, ever nearer to the gleaming white hull of a big shiny expensive motor yacht. The outboard spluttered, farted and yes!! No!! died. I tugged frantically at the stupid cord. We were headed straight for the big white one, no wind, no motor. I grabbed a paddle as Annette rushed frantically forward to fend off – whump! We rammed her head on. Not too hard mind but, shall I say, firmly enough to justify the torrent of verbal abuse that issued from one angry owner who appeared above us at the rail. I won’t repeat the worlds for fear of frightening the children. I apologized as best I could with feeble excuses of dramatic rescues and impotent outboards. Mercifully the tide bore us quickly away, the fading sounds of impending legal paintwork threats stinging our ears.

Subdued, embarrassed, chastened, mortified even, I tried the outboard again. It sprang immediately to life and settled into a steady smoky throb. “Look at me” it seemed to taunt. “Designed for commandos in World War II! Ever ready! Ever reliable! Just listen to my steady heartbeat!” I took it personally. We motor-sailed morosely on.

Under the Storey Bridge now and up the city reach. The outboard began to smell of hot oil and smoke even more than usual. It sounded as if it were straining  - it grew hotter and hotter, ominous grinding sounds issued from its ancient innards – it was as if the angry ghosts of commandos past were slowly throttling the life out of it. I turned the throttle lever down and it faltered, coughed and stopped dead, never to go again.

Meanwhile, the sun peeped through the cumulous blanket and a light breeze cheerfully piped up so we pressed on under canvas and soon we were moored at an allocated berth next to an old prawn trawler at the South Bank jetty. Question – when do you carry too many fenders? Answer – never. The battered, bloodied and barnacled trawler rolled hideously every time a city-cat went by. I fended off as the rust-streaked top-heavy abomination threatened to crush us like so much driftwood. The crew went ashore to sample seafood, listen to the band, drink wine, stroll around the stalls – that sort of thing. Another sleek new city-cat hurried past. I fended off the trawler, the rank odours of rotting fish assaulting me with every roll. The sun went behind a grey bank of cloud and the sullen river heaved. Now, the city-cat’s wash was specifically formulated to spread stealthily along the riverbed, gathering strength as it goes only to rise up near the banks to wreak havoc among innocently moored small boats. I fended off the iron monster as best I could. I re-set some fenders, checked the mooring lines and stepped ashore for a welcome break.

The Paddle Steamer's Captain Welcomes Passengers Aboard

But hardly had I taken two steps when a strident hooter announced a ship up river, a child shouted and pointed, I spun around and there she was - the magnificent paddle steamer Kookaburra, Queen of the mighty Brisissippi. Her multi-tiered gaily painted upperworks gleaming with bright enamels. Her brave pennants flying in the wind, her giant stern paddle wheel churning the brown waters to a creamy froth. She was headed our way! I leaped back on board, fearing the worst. Her skipper expertly eased her up to the wharf right next to us, bells rang, he gave her a mighty burst of raw reverse thrust. We were nearly sucked into those terrible vortices, such was the power of those chomping blades, but by now my fending skills were up to the task. She shuddered to a halt, lines were thrown, gangplanks run out. Ashore a motley crowd of poor share croppers in rageddy clothes gazed up at the magnificent machine. Bales of cotton, barrels of Bourbon and sundry cargoes were loaded on board to be stowed below by sweating barefoot stevedores in torn canvas trousers. Rich ladies, high and low in frothy crinolines and lacy bonnets boarded arm in arm with swaggering gamblers and gunslingers in fancy brocade waistcoats and big black hats. The piano started up, the roulette wheel clattered, the glasses clinked. Soon all the cotton was safely secured in the hold, the lines cast off, the whistle blew and she was away, quickly lost around a bend in the great river, bound for the delta and an appointment with fate.

With a sigh I fended off the trawler once more and the wharf fell silent. Somewhere ashore came the sounds of a deep dark basso profundo “Ol’ Man River, she just keeps rollin’ . . . . .” Eventually the crew, fed and watered, relaxed and refreshed, were welcomed pleasantly aboard and we cast off for the return trip. A cool breeze gave us just enough steerage and the tide, now ebbing, bore us along nicely so all was well. Well for a while, anyway.

Thoughtfully I steered a course closer to the Maritime Museum so the crew could get a good look at the ships there. Bad, bad move. The fickle wind failed and the remorseless tide drew us nearer and nearer to the museum’s imposing dry dock gates. We reached for the paddles and prepared to fend off but the current took us out again. Hooray! We smiled the smiles of those who cheat fate but no! We were being drawn back in some malevolent maelstrom – the black gates loomed ever closer, an Evil Eddy had us in its hooked claws! The gates towered above us, we paddled furiously to no avail, we fended off, we came around again, we paddled for our very lives. From behind the iron gates there seemed to come a sound of harsh mocking laughter. We were doomed to circle in this evil pirouette until the tide turned . . . . and then what? We took to the paddles with a frantic will – we had to break free.  Finally, finally we were out and into the stream again – we breathed a sigh of heartfelt relief, no-one looked back.

The Dock Gates - Innocent Enough from the Inside . . . . .

A lightish drizzle began. The crew retreated below. My flimsy summer shower-proof jacket was torn from my encounters with the trawler. The drizzle became a light rain, a persistent penetrating-every-nook-and-cranny kind of rain. I shivered, I ached, I was utterly demoralized and worn out. The grey gloom deepened, I was now soaked through. It was cold, unseasonably cold. “Queensland, beautiful one day, perfect the next” – bollocks! We drifted on interminably.

The crew were down below in the snug dry saloon, I could hear the occasional tinkle of laughter at some amusing anecdote. They were cosy and warm. Bob had all my dry clothes on.

A bit of breeze piped up, just enough to fill the sails and drive the rain into hitherto untouched body parts. Light rain became medium rain, I began to shiver uncontrollably

Eventually, miraculously, we docked at Newstead Wharf and lowered the masts. With no engine it was a superhuman effort to paddle the Scintilla even the short distance up Breakfast Creek to the ramp. I was utterly exhausted, numb with cold, bruised, battered and beaten.

We bumped ashore. I offered a pathetically grateful whimper of a prayer. It was nearly over. Oh no it wasn’t. I clambered over the side, the tide was nearly out and the steep ramp treacherous with slimy mud. Could this be the last straw? But I made it to the top without slipping once. NOW my troubles were over surely? What a day! What an absolute bastard of a day. I walked up to the car and trailer and stopped, frozen in horror. The entire front end was smashed in, the bonnet, bumper, grille and wings mangled seemingly beyond repair. For an eternity I could not move, I just gaped. Oh bloody wonderful! Oh bloody perfect! I was close to tears. There was a note on the windscreen “We saw a garbage truck reverse onto your car and drive off” the truck’s company and number were thoughtfully written down. Oh blessed be the bystanders!

We got the front doors open OK. We levered the grotesquely distorted wings away from the front wheels – they at least were free to go. One headlight, thankfully still worked. The engine started and I backed down to winch the boat on and strap her down. By chance one of the women had a bag of old clothes, destined for a charity shop. I dried myself as best I could with a small cable knit sweater and struggled into a pair of black skin-tight ladies’ leggings and a flower print poly-cotton top. Bliss! Warmth!

We bade farewell to the crew and started off on the road home to Tamborine Mountain, a mere hour and a half’s nerve racking drive away. Along the road we passed a parked police car, my spirits sank to previously uncharted depths. I pictured the scene. One distraught scruffy middle aged sailor in drag verging on hysteria and babbling on about black gates, one clearly unroadworthy wagon with only one headlight, towing one battered boat. “Look you won’t believe this officer but  . . . .” but at last the gods smiled, they stayed put and we drove on home.

It’s taken me over fifteen years to write about it but every word is true. We have witnesses.

Postscript

The garbage people were really good. They repaired our wagon promptly, hired a van for us and did their best to make it right. Bob bought a boat and I started wearing men’s clothes again.

All’s well that ends well.

* Thongs in Australia are not saucy G-strings, they are flip-flops in England and jandals in New Zealand, but the trendy folk now call them havaianas, whatever that means – probably some obscure reference to a South American state’s epic post cold war socialist struggle

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  1. What a day! I read your article with pleasure and much laughter. I bet you had a few “medicinal” beverages when you got home!

  2. Just a typical day on the water – but I can’t remember one QUITE as bad as this!


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