Project Canterbury

Thirty Years in Tropical Australia

By the Right Reverend Gilbert White, D.D.
Bishop of Willochra

London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1918.

Chapter XIV. Life on a Ketch (1906-1915)

THE first Mission vessel that we had in the Gulf was a ketch of twenty-one tons, named by the donor Francis Pritt, in memory of the much-loved Archdeacon of Townsville. She was an almost new pearling lugger called the Santa Cruz, and had cost over £600 a couple of years before. We were fortunately able to buy her for less than half that sum, and after five years of hard work to sell her again for £50 more than we gave for her, a proof of the staunchness of the little ship.

The ketch rig is almost universal among the pearling boats, and consists of a jib, or jib and staysail, a large fore-and-aft sail, with a high peak to catch light airs, called the main- or fore-sail, and a smaller sail set on an after mast and called the mizzen or jigger. It is a very handy rig, as in very rough weather or when traversing shoal or dangerous water the mainsail can be taken in altogether and the vessel worked under the jib and jigger alone.

The Francis Pritt was exceptionally deep, drawing seven feet six inches when unloaded, and this made her a splendid sea-boat in heavy weather, but very troublesome in shallow water, as she had a deep keel with a knack of catching on the bottom and digging a hole from which it was very difficult to get free. It was this defect that finally induced us to sell her, and our forethought was justified, as a month later she caught on the bar of a New Guinea river and became a total wreck. We were very sorry for the new owners, but could not resist a feeling of satisfaction that a boat which had done such splendid missionary service, and with which we had so many associations, was not destined to spend an ignoble old age as a copra carrier or beche-de-mer boat. These luggers are mostly built by the Japanese in Thursday Island, and are splendid boats for rough weather. The Japanese captains carry on with a most reckless disregard of danger, but accidents are not common. When they do occur it is usually through gross carelessness, as in the case of a lugger which capsized when trying to enter "The Rip" at Thursday Island one dark and stormy night with the jib sheet made fast. Several of the crew were drowned, the others escaped as by a miracle.

As long as one has good sails and rigging and plenty of sea room, one is far safer in a lugger than in a steamer of ten times her size. The buoyancy is marvellous, and if the boat is skilfully handled it will outride any gale. Unfortunately in the Torres Strait sea room is the very last thing that is available. The whole area of the Strait is sown thickly with coral reefs, while the water between is often too deep to anchor in; consequently, if it comes on to blow towards evening, your only chance is to sail up as close as possible to the lee side of a reef, drop your anchor on the reef, pay out your cable and hang on. This is all very well as long as the wind is steady, but if it shifts, your position is a very unpleasant one, and you are lucky if you scrape off with the loss of your anchor and do not bump on to another reef before morning. I know few more trying experiences than beating up on a dark wet night against a heavy wind and sea in what you hope is the right direction, uncertain, as you wait to go about, whether you are a mile or a few yards from the reefs which you know lie on each side of you. There is a momentary feeling of relief when you have got on the other tack, but you soon begin to wonder whether you did not go about too soon, and whether you are not getting too near the reef on the other side.

Never is morning so welcome, when, if the squalls are not too thick, you may hope to get the bearings of an island or two and form some kind of an idea where you are.

The navigation of the Gulf of Carpentaria is very different from that of the Strait, and on the whole is much safer and easier, but it has its own peculiar difficulties and dangers.

There are only one, or two coral reefs, but their place is taken by hidden sandbanks, which are even more unpleasant, as they sometimes shift their position, and the charts on which you have to depend are very incomplete and a hundred years old, being only the track of a small Government sloop which tacked along the coast and marked any obstructions which it happened to notice. For the most dangerous part of the coast, the twenty miles from Crab Island to Vrilya Point, there is no chart of any kind, however primitive. You are supposed either to go clear of all the banks outside the mouth of the Endeavour Strait, a long detour through very rough water, or to find out the dangers for yourself. The eastern coast of the Gulf, down which we had to run for three hundred miles to reach our Mission station on the Mitchell River, is of an extraordinary monotony. Except when the low red cliffs of Pera Head intervene for a short distance, nothing is to be seen but a sandy beach backed by low trees. For hundreds of miles there is not a single mark of any kind to tell you where you are, nor a single building or beacon, not even a conspicuous and unmistakable tree. In consequence of this fact, even the most experienced of us would constantly make mistakes as to the rate of progress or the exact position. This would not have mattered much if all had been clear to seaward, but unfortunately here and there were outlying sandbanks almost six miles from land, just in the natural track of a vessel. You could go inside these or outside, but it was not advisable to go on to them, and many were the anxious consultations as to where we were and whether or no we had passed one of these lurking dangers. In the day-time one could usually see them, if one could manage to keep the look-out awake, but at night they spoiled all the pleasure of slipping along with a steady breeze and the consciousness that there was no other boat in the Gulf to run into.

South of the Mitchell were tremendous flats off the Staaten and Gilbert Rivers, and one sometimes got a level bottom of one fathom six miles from land. The only thing to be done was to keep out of sight of land altogether. The great advantage of the Gulf was that for nine months of the year the wind was off the land, ensuring more or less calm weather, and when the strong south-east monsoon was not blowing there was always a light wind blowing off the cool land in the early morning, changing in the afternoon to a breeze off the sea on to the heated land.

During the north-west monsoon season from January to March it is madness to navigate the Gulf in a small sailing vessel. Furious gales drive huge rollers, with a run of five hundred miles behind them, far up on the beach, and the broken water extends miles to seaward, while there is no ha.rbour of refuge for vessels, small or great, from Mapoon southwards. At such seasons the level of the whole Gulf will sometimes rise twelve or fourteen feet above the normal high-water mark, sweeping away all marks and beacons.

We never ran our boat during"the north-west," though on one occasion she was rather late in the season and arrived off the mouth of the creek simultaneously with a howling on-shore gale. There were two ladies on board, and as there was no chance of landing them or otherwise saving the vessel, the skipper put her straight for the bar and drove over, crashing and bumping, amid clouds of spray. No vessel less strongly built would have stood it, but fortunately she arrived unhurt. Again, quite recently, the rule was broken in order to take a dying neighbour of the Mission in to the hospital at Normanton. The voyage down was safely accomplished, but in returning the vessel was driven ashore, fortunately on the top of an exceptionally high tide. She was tied up to a tree and her crew walked seventy miles home. Four or five months later she was safely got off with comparatively little damage.

Given a clear run and no banks the Francis Pritt did not mind weather, and I remember the present Chairman of the Australian Board of Missions arriving at Thursday Island full of enthusiasm over a two days' run from the Mission during the whole of which the water had been up to the lee skylight. I don't care for that kind of thing myself, and it is well that nature makes some of us able to enjoy it.

Personally I think that hardly any conditions can be so utterly miserable as those of a small vessel of, say, about ten tons (our Mission vessels ranged from eight to twenty tons) in really bad weather, if it contimies for several days. It is almost impossible to stay on deck, unless duty keeps you there, as if you tried to go to sleep you Avould go overboard; the cabin entrance is covered tightly with a tarpaulin, through which you make your way with difficulty, trying to keep out the wave which tries to enter with you. Below, the air is so thick that you could cut it with a knife and so foul that you feel suffocated, but there is no way of letting in air without water. It is too dark to read, and the lamp will not burn in the air which is supposed to keep you alive. You lie down, having nothing else to do, and hour after hour you are thrown hither and thither like a pea in a football. Every muscle of your body is impartially strained until you ache all over. You would give everything in the world to be still just for five minutes, just long enough to recall the fact that you are a human being and not a mere shuttlecock. Sea-sickness is nothing. It tends to deaden your sensations and make you drowsy, but this continual bucketing makes sleep impossible; a more terrible crash than usual, a shock as if the boat had come down on an iron plate, and you are flung clear of your bunk, and you land on the floor with a heavy bag on your stomach and a metal teapot in your eye, while you hear the steersman calling out that the compass has gone overboard and that he himself escaped by the skin of his teeth. Food is impossible, and you lie down again wearily, doggedly knowing that it may be two days or possibly more before the weather changes, that till it does you are not likely to see any port. You wonder why any man was such a fool as to invent a ship, and why you were such a fool as to go to sea in one.

On some occasions I had even more vivid experiences. Once I got into what was fortunately only a half-grown cyclone, and never want to meet a full-grown one.

We were sailing along about ten miles from land, and no refuge within two hundred miles, when we saw ahead of us a black wall of cloud stretching from horizon to horizon right across our path; as there was nothing else to be done we sailed right into it till the purple-black inky clouds hung like a pall right overhead; suddenly the wind went right round, and with sails reefed down all we could we plunged into a yeasty swirl of rain, lightning, and foam. A frightful jerk on the jib tore away the block, and while all hands strove to rcpla.ce it I took the tiller as the job for the least useful man to do. It was a queer scene, the great pillars of driving rain stalking out of the gloom like great ghosts with their heads in the sky, the quickly rising sea (providentially for us the wind was off the land), the dusky sailors clinging to the reeling mast, with the wind tearing great strips from their clothing, the whipping ropes, the growling howl of the wind, like some angry beast vexed that it could not immediately sweep us from its path, the calm stolid face of the skipper as he methodically directed the repairs without a glance at the furious turmoil around him, my own frantic efforts to get the unbalanced boat to steer in something approaching the right direction, all formed a scene which printed itself on one's memory. Fortunately the worst was over in a few hours, but being too busy to make much use of the cabin on this occasion I was wet through for the next three days.

On another occasion we were going through a passage between a series of sandbanks when it came on to blow fairly hard, and the water became the colour of pea-soup. It was no longer possible to distinguish the channel, and we soon found ourselves bumping heavily on the top of a bank, while the waves sent their spray over us in clouds. I think that bumping is one of the most unpleasant sensations one can experience at sea. You speculate as to how long you can hold together, as to whether you will dig a hole from which you will be unable to get out, and many other unpleasant things; and all the time you are shaken by the heavy bump with a maddening regularity. The skipper suggested that we should get up all the ballast and lay it on one side of the ship so as to try to float her on her side, but apart from the undignified nature of the proceeding I had grave doubts as to what she would 'do if she did float off. Might not the remedy be worse than the disease? I suggested as an alternative that he should get her bows round away from the wind, which was done by putting out the anchor and hauling on it, and then having ascertained by sounding from the dinghy that we were really on the top of the bank, we got up the sails and started to bump our way off. It was only when a wave lifted us a little that we could make a foot or so, but several hours of bumping brought us off at last with renewed confidence in the solidity of the Francis Pritt.

But sailing in the Gulf is by no means all storm and trouble. The weather is often perfect, and there is much to interest and delight one. To begin with, the sunsets are an unending source of delight during the winter months, when the western sky is nightly beautiful beyond all power of words adequately to describe.

I remember one sunset in particular. Imagine a huge Malay kris fashioned of cloud and lying parallel to the horizon, with the point of the blade just dipping into the water. The handle lay just above where the sun had disappeared, and was roughened with a thousand crinkles that seemed the reflex of the sea below ruffled by the evening breeze. Each little hollow was dark indigo, and each little prominence glowed with the incandescent light of incredible rubies. The flat curved blade was a dark steel-coloured cloud flecked with crimson drops like blood. The whole lay against a background of intensely clear duck-egg green, changing higher up into the lightest turquoise blue, and then again into the azure of the upper sky. As one watched the whole thing changed. The handle glowed with a yet intenser light, and the dark smooth blade broke into innumerable crimson folds and wrinkles like the heaving of a blood-red sea. Then the red grew darker and more purple, while underneath, above the hard blue-black line of the sea, shone a clear rose tint which blushed and glowed and faded as the water whitened under the light of the rising full moon.

In calm weather there was generally something to be seen. It might be a gull standing apparently fast asleep on the surface of the water, but on nearer approach you saw that he was standing on the back of a sleeping turtle. Sometimes one met a whole company of turtles, or a dugong roused the crew to eager preparations to spear him. On calm days one sometimes passed dozens of water-snakes, yellow prickly brutes about three feet long, with triangular heads and a wicked eye, or sometimes striped black and yellow like a tiger. Flying-fish would dart through the air like silver arrows and sometimes fall on deck to the great satisfaction of the cat.

If the boat was travelling fairly fast a bit of red or white rag tied to a hook and towed astern would generally secure a magnificent king-fish, white fish, or barramunda; while if one threw anything overboard the remora would dart out from underneath the vessel, seize its morsel, and return to its position of undesired passenger on the ship's bottom. When anchored, there were always a few sharks around, and when landing in the dinghy one might sometimes see underneath it a huge hammerhead shark, unpleasant reminder of what might happen if any of the rollers capsized the little cockle-shell. Once when we were sailing about a mile from the shore I drew the skipper's attention to a patch of dirty water about a hundred yards off, and while we were watching there emerged about thirty feet of the back of a big whale, which made off to sea undisturbed by us. On another occasion I saw two threshers leaping high into the air and descending with an ominous thud on their unfortunate victim below.

In spite of the vicinity of animal life there always seemed to me to be something inexpressibly mournful and lonely in the great vistas of the Gulf hardly ever lighted by any other sail than our own. Some people enthuse about the sea, but it always seemed to me unspeakably dreary to hear the wind moaning in the rigging as we would anchor for the night, rolling heavily in the swell, and though there was no danger of collision I would order the lantern to be lighted to give a little touch of human presence to the scene. Then the South Sea Island crew would get out their prayer and hymn books, and we would sing and pray to the accompaniment of the creaking cordage and the wash of the water till the sense of loneliness passed away, and one realized that, as Sir Humphrey Gilbert said, one was as near to Heaven by sea as by land, and one could gaze up into the great stars as they glowed overhead with a sense of companionship, for did they not shine on land?--and I had learnt to love them in the great plains of Central Australia.

No, I confess that I am no true seaman, for I think I was always glad to return to what seemed to me the fuller life ashore, though at times I thoroughly enjoyed the beauty and mystery of the sea.

On the Francis Pritt we had at various times five skippers, of whom two were white master mariners and three were South Sea men with no certificate beyond their own capacities. In no way, save their inability to understand the chart, were the coloured men inferior to the white, and I always felt at least as great confidence in them in an emergency. Once show them a course and point out the hidden dangers, and they never required to be told again. I lay no claim to seamanship, but on one occasion I confess to a glow of triumph.

I desired to visit the Albert River, and my skipper was a Fiji man named John Wesley, a man at that time of extraordinary strength and endurance, and a fine seaman, but he had never been down the Gulf before, and I had to tell him everything as to charts and sandbanks. I had only once visited the Albert before, and then merely as a passenger, so I asked the captain of the small steamer which acted as tender to the coast boat to tow me in on the next occasion on which he was towing in the lighter from the big steamer ten miles out in the bay. The bar is seven miles from the shore and the passage somewhat intricate. He demanded what seemed to me an unreasonable sum, and so, borrowing a chart from the Norman Bar pilot, we set off one evening to investigate. Fortune was with us. About 9 A.M. we happened to strike the fairway buoy, found that there was a fair wind and a good tide, so I took my courage in my hands and conned her from the bows with John at the helm, and we ran in without a break and had the pleasure of passing the steamer at the mouth of the river coming out. I confess to being somewhat uplifted.

On another occasion the white skipper took to his berth with malarial fever and the remark, "You must sail the ship as I am not able to do anything." The weather was bad, and I had a lively time for three days until I was able to get the skipper up on deck again and he resumed command.

On the whole I was not sorry when my work by sea came to an end. Yet I shall always have a warm place in my heart for the gallant little Francis Pritt No. I and her successor, Francis Pritt No. II, and for the many good comrades, white and brown, with whom for so many years I faced the stormy seas of the Far North.

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