Late afternoon, a trawler steamed into "our" bay and anchored directly astern, a positively displeasing act. After last night's encounters, we were in no moods to endure more of these ubiquitous fishermen's discourteous capers.
The San Michelle.
Directly, the skipper hollered to us, "We're having prawns and rice if you two would like to come join us for tea."
This gesture came unexpected; the man seemed friendly, and appeared atypical of the stereotyped, unrefined and roguish characters usually seen aboard the prawn trawlers. The sight of a woman aboard, apparently the fellow's wife, further lessened our suspicions.
Jim and Hannah Weir aboard the San Michelle.
Jim and Hannah Weir and their son Malcolm welcomed us aboard their San Michelle with cans of the coldest beer possible this side of not being frozen solid. And as the evening blossomed, Jim produced more of the same whenever the need arose by lifting a massive afterdeck hatch and climbing down into a cavernous reefer spewing clouds of sub-Arctic vapor. "Cold" to Suka's crew had become an ethereal entity, something remembered but no longer manifest. To us, San Michelle's quick freezer was a pit of genuine awe.
A call came over San Michelle's radio: "Hey Jim, where are you anyway?" And before long, two other trawlers had anchored nearby and their crews, man and wife teams each, climbed aboard for a convivial gathering. They showed themselves equally warm hearted and friendly.
Fervently clutching our nearly frozen stubbies, not relishing the beer inside the cans nearly so much as embracing their luxurious coldness, Jenny and I sat on the rail enjoying the conversation while the hours slipped by hardly noticed. None spoke profoundly; these were simple folks, but how they embraced life. The city of Cairns is the northernmost bastion of civilization along Australia's eastern seaboard, and the fishermen who ply these remote waters far to the north, by the circumstances had to be tough and individualistic. No doubt the harsh lifestyle refined and distilled their characters, and we were finding that at least these three crews had hides of bark but gilded hearts.
I wrote in my journal: No doubt our finding such an unrelenting occupation unfathomable is because Jenny and I are essentially soft-skinned city people. But we seem to be viewing life from an altered perspective these days; perhaps the sailing adventure is beginning to refine us.
That night, someone related that Stanley Island had wild pigs, wild goats, and numerous early aboriginal cave paintings. On nearby Flinders Island there were goats, cave paintings and mummies, but no pigs.
"Mummies?" I asked.
Yes, high on the flanks of Flinders Island, so the story went, is a certain cave that formerly contained seven mummies. Once, some unscrupulous matelot visited the cave and carried away one of the mummies as a souvenir. Why he did so, no one present could imagine, but any ten-year old, having spent the bulk of existence rooted before a television, could have easily predicted some of the bad luck that was to befall this despoiler. It was said that, first, his trawler sank during a storm. Subsequent misfortunes occurred, numerable and unpleasant, and in the end his wife ran away with one of his "deckies." Eventually, the poor fellow reputedly conceded and presented the mummy to the authorities. This act prompted the government, as a protective measure against further vandalism, to confiscate three more mummies from the cave. To this day many await with bated breath to see what ill luck shall befall the Australian government, and these Aussies were speculating, in jest, the relationships between the extorted artifacts and all manner of national woes.
Although none present had actually visited the grotto or even knew of its location, they related the common knowledge that three mummies remained ensconced within the cave.
As the gathering dispersed, Jim and Hannah had invited Jenny and I to accompany them on a prawning run aboard San Michelle the following night. This was a splendid opportunity.
The next morning after installing the kicker on the inflatable's transom-board we motored around the island toward Stokes Bay, where the otherwise profuse vegetation was less dense, such that one could go for a long walk. En route we stopped at the fuel barge anchored out in the bay. A friendly chap named Wayne lived with his wife and child in a tiny trailer, this perched amidst an assortment of large tanks mounted upon the barge. Wayne's job was to sell diesel, fresh water, and warm beer to the prawn fishermen. When the barge was empty, a tug would tow it back to Cairns, and after refitting it would then tow it back to here. Alongside the barge lay Wayne's trimaran, which he was generally refurbishing and preparing for cruising. However, the sailboat's decks were besmirched stem to stern with unsightly footprints of the black, gooey, petroleum crud that exuded inescapably from the barge's fuel tanks.
In an effort to promote her national exports the Aussie government subsidized the prawn fishing industry. Due to a special allotment, then, Wayne sold fuel at a price considerably lower than what could be had in Cairns. Yachtsmen were not excluded from resupplying from the barge, but Suka's tanks were nearly full. We did however, purchase a case of stubbies as a gift for San Michelle's reefer.
When asked about the mummy cave on Flinders Island, Wayne confirmed the story and related the method of locating the cave. According to him, no trail existed; one simply traipsed about the hillside until a solitary and distant isle to the east lined up with the prominent gun-sight notch on nearby Stanley Island. That was the cave's location. Jenny and I are not superstitious, even showing not the slightest compunction of departing port on a Friday, an act considered taboo by the majority of cruising yachtsmen. Yet this Flinders Island mummy cave was intriguing, in an eerie sort of way.
Late afternoon, the time came to join San Michelle's crew for a nighttime prawning excursion. Jim and Malcolm helped hoist aboard our inflatable, and lashed it inverted atop their cabin. Once again, the crew spread a sumptuous dinner: this time of roast lamb. The stubbies, however, remained in the cold hold, alcohol being strictly off the menu both preceding and during working hours.
The evening was windless, and upon seas remarkably calm the big trawler weighed and steamed out into the twilight. Soon the crew lowered the cumbersome nets into the water, then San Michelle's engines thundered at full power, struggling mightily to counteract the tremendous drag, while the vessel wallowed at a scant three knots. In a 100-foot wide swath, those big nets were now sweeping everything and anything from the sand bottom, some ten fathoms below.
A rare opportunity to work a prawning run.
Jim trimmed the auto pilot and adjusted the radar, scanning the black of night and identifying the vessel's position in relation to the far away land forms. Also it depicted two or three other trawlers in the vicinity. The depth sounder, a computer and monitor screen, displayed information about the bottom, and it was the watch person's duty to keep a sharp look out for any rocks, which could tear the nets.
For two hours the ship droned along, during which time every six minutes Malcolm would hoist aboard a small pilot net and inspect its samples, which indicated what the big nets might be catching. As with fishing anywhere, if the pilot net wasn't productive then we lumbered off on a different heading to try our luck somewhere else. Emptying the small net into a tub, Malcolm introduced Jenny and I to a fascinating menagerie of sea bottom creatures. The first verbal lesson was an adamant one: do not extend a hand (being sensitive to stings, punctures, bites and other traumas yet unimagined) into the tub.
Time to haul in the trawls, Jim idled the engine and switched on the big warp-winches. These commenced whining torturously as they reeled in the two massive nets, lifted them into the air, and swung them over a large sorting table for emptying. And when the table lay piled high in all manner of squiggly creatures, the crew again lowered the trawls and put them back into action, then the vessel resumed laboring ahead into the night, steering by auto pilot.
With a long handled rake, Jim removed from the table three deadly-poisonous sea snakes, each wrist-sized in diameter and about 3-1/2 feet in length. Tossed repulsively overboard, they slithered away from the hull, regaining their freedom. Snakes safely disposed of, we then attended a 300-pound turtle lying helplessly prostrate on the table. With a great deal of effort we heaved the reptile overboard, where it rejoined presumably its mate, swimming desperately alongside.
Using steel cleavers, Hannah and Jim sorted through the table's contents. Most of the spoil consisted of small "junk fish," by now largely deceased, and these they scooped into an open trough inclining overboard. Blue crabs, alive and edible but not meaty enough to warrant saving, were also shoved down the riddance trough, after expediently cleaver-severing any claw that happened to be pinching a valuable prawn. Then the numerous prawns they sorted as to size and kind, and placed in the appropriate bins for quick-freezing.
“San Michelle's wake boiled with the shiny black bodies and protruding dorsal fins of sharks.”
Piece after thousands of pieces of zoological "junk" sluiced overboard, and San Michelle's wake now boiled with shiny black bodies and protruding dorsal fins. A bevy of sharks were feasting on the despoils. Clearly, this would have been a most inopportune moment to slip and fall overboard, and one could only imagine the dangers of working on the slippery decks during rough weather. Contemplating the extensive numbers of trawlers working the Australian coastlines, one can also envisage how well fed and therefore prolific are the sharks hereabouts.
The presence of sharks in such numbers within the Great Barrier Reef had squelched my desire to skin dive in these waters, touted though the region is among the spear fishing genre. In actuality, though, the shark is not the region's greatest menace to the swimmer; rather, the box jellyfish, or sea wasp, which frequents the beaches during summer months. To quote the Lucas guide book, "total entanglement would most certainly cause death within minutes." Indeed, during our Queensland visit the newspapers occasionally reported a box jellyfish-induced death of some youngster.
Beyond any hazards posed by these various creatures, though, the strong wind and heavy chop churned the water to murkiness and the effluent mainland rivers further diminished the sea's clarity. The off-shore reefs reputedly offer superb scuba diving, but in truth these are largely inaccessible to the cruising yacht, generally being dangerous to approach without local knowledge.
As San Michelle droned into the black of night, her crew members slept in the forecastle berths, save for the watchkeeper who sat within the enclosed pilot house, keeping a sharp eye on the radar and the sounder screens. When the big winch began grinding, Jenny and I would jump-to and help with the sorting.
At dawn the nets were winched aboard for the final time that day, and the ship steamed at eight knots back to Stanley Island, to the quiet bay where we found Suka lying in tranquil seclusion.
Once the anchor was set, Hannah spread the table with a hearty breakfast, and after the meal Jim produced the family photo album. This depicted some of the more peculiar creatures captured in the nets during the previous seven years. There were pictures of huge sharks, and one of a manta ray, but the most curious was that of a crocodile, some eight feet in length. Loathe to kill the unfortunate beast, the crew found themselves at a loss as to the appropriate method of disposing of the creature. So the "crock" remained aboard, incredibly for five days, unable to climb the rail to escape. Eventually the crew managed to capture it in a sling, and after winching it aloft using a derrick they lowered it into the sea.
Before Jenny and I returned to Suka, Jim presented us with a sack of prawns, provender enough for the next five days. Also, he shelled out a big lobster from the night's catch and a block of ice at minus 60 degrees F. We shall never forget the crew of the San Michelle who reached out and enriched our cruising experience. And indeed herein was the essential quality in our global adventure: the meeting and becoming acquainted with some of the warm-hearted and exceptional people along the way.