MEMOIR: Messing About with Boats (Updates)


It was Dad and me and we were out off the coast on his 17-foot fibreglass cabin cruiser. It was a hot, sunny, Polaroid sort of day with a steady breeze and a gentle swell.

And Dad was trying to show me how to bait a fish-hook. It was the most revolting thing in the world–and I was a boy of about twelve or thirteen, and knew about revolting things, being one myself.

All I’ll say about the baiting of hooks is that it involves the eyes of the fortunately dead bait-fish, a benighted creature called a “mulie”, which came in big frozen blocks, the individual silver fish with their dead black eyes pressed up against each other as if on a very cold Japanese subway train. Everything about fishing has always caused me deep revulsion, and that revulsion has always started here, with baiting the hook, with cutting up bait. That and the stark contrast between the cold, visceral horror of fish-hooks in eyeballs and knives in fish-guts—and the jolly atmosphere of everyone present having a fun, relaxing time. I was never able to reconcile these two things. The thought, too, of fish circling the baited hook. The urge to warn them off, as if from a ticking bomb and you’re Bruce Willis. And then when the stupidly caught fish finds itself on the deck of the boat, flapping and flopping, gasping, desperate, knowing it’s in deep trouble, knowing it’s in the fish equivalent of outer space. You can sense the adrenaline rush it must be feeling, the panic. You want to help it. You can imagine the terrible pain in its whole head and face from the hook. The way it must be kicking itself, what the hell happened? Why did I bite that damn thing? What was I thinking? Starting to fade. Breathing slowing.

And then someone picks up the fish and slaps the head hard against the gunwale of the boat, to “put it out of its misery”, and you reel, unable to breathe, staring at it, motionless now, and you feel all outside yourself.

Since I’ve been working on this piece, I wondered if my historic difficulty with eating seafood (see my earlier posts about food) might have its roots in my constant sense of horror and disgust on these days. The smell was inescapable. And Dad’s fishing knife was never cleaned after use, nor even wiped. There were many years of accreted bits of fish guts on it. I hated to have anything to do with it, and didn’t, if I could help it.

Once, aged about 11, I caught a monster, a giant Jules Verne-worthy beast of a fish my dad told me was called a North-West Blowie. Regular-sized blowfish, or “blowies”, are the bane of the fishing life: worthless, ghastly, ugly fish that are also extremely common, and extremely undiscerning about tasty morsels that might contain deadly traps. When you go fishing and catch more blowies than anything else, you feel bitter. You’d be happier catching old boots, or clumps of seaweed.

But I caught a kind of blowie that was in fact remarkable. It was like a dinosaur blowie. It was almost as long as I was tall at the time–and I only remember this because somewhere there is a photograph of my young self, standing in front of my dad’s electric blue six-cylinder Torana (how he loved that car!), holding, with a certain look on my face, this mighty creature of the sea. You would be less astonished if you saw a photo of me holding up a whale shark, because whale sharks are supposed to be huge. But blowies are supposed to be small little bastards that puff up, “blow” up, if they get agitated. This thing was immense. To this day I have no notion of what became of it once this old photo was taken. It’s hard to believe it got flushed like a dead goldfish down the loo: I can only assume it was given some form of burial in the garden. Its monstrous nature might have found redemption nurturing some beautiful flowers.

My dad, in those days, always seemed to me a man who loved fishing. Or at least he said he did. My dad was the kind of Australian man who “liked to mess about with boats”. He was a motor mechanic by trade, and could fix anything with an engine in it. It was true. I’d seen him work magic. I’d seen him bring the dead back to rumbling roaring life, against all the odds (see “The Outboard Motor Incident”). He would buy old, dead-seeming outboards, machines resembling corpses as well as simply not working, and Dad would bang away at them all weekend, get them running (asking me to pass him tools), then sell them on at a nice profit. And of all the motored things in the world, he preferred boats. Boat motors didn’t make your hands as dirty, he said to me once when I asked him why the choice. With boat motors, you very often had to head down to Matilda Bay, on the river, or to some marina on the coast, or some equally lovely, scenic spot in the sun in which to work.

He even had a career, when I was a young boy and he was still just hanging on to his own youth, racing speedboats on the Swan River on Saturday afternoons. There was an organised club, with a program of races of different boat and engine classes each Saturday. There were big powerful sleek fast hoon boats that went a million miles an hour and kicked up huge rooster tails of spray and emitted unearthly insectile whines from their warp engines as the hurtled by on the steel-blue afternoon chop. Then there were the tiny “go-boats”, little things, not much more than curved bits of plywood with a seat and an outboard engine, and a mad bloody bastard at what passed for the controls. The power-to-weight ratio was astronomical since there was no significant weight, other than the engine itself, and the pilot. Then there were the midsize boats, which, if their class had a name I’ve since forgotten it. But those midsize boats were my dad’s thing.

Dad built his own boats out of marine plywood and fibreglass with the help of his best mate, a Scottish guy named Hugh who was a cabinetmaker and knew his way around a piece of wood. They’d get together in the evenings and build these boats, and on Saturdays Dad would race them, a beautiful shade of deep iridescent blue and white, called Kingfisher, around and around the course, a serious competitor, carving his way through the water, and he won often enough it stopped seeming so remarkable.

(At the time it meant less to me than it does now, decades later, and my dad is an 81-year old man still in reasonable condition but elderly and frail, with a heart, and forgetful, among other things. He’s still a restless soul, though. He can’t sit still for long. He has to be up, bustling about, looking for things, doing things, organising things, has just remembered something, and will be right back. He has a framed photo of the 17-foot cabin cruiser taken by a professional photographer back in the day of Dad at the controls of the boat, slicing through Perth Water at top speed. I’m in the picture, too, or the very top of my head, just visible through the cabin window.)

Mum was unhappy. She believed the whole speedboat racing thing was dangerous, and she had evidence on her side. Dad did not. He thought it was potentially dangerous and risky, but that experienced racers had skills and knew how to handle their boats. Mum would not be persuaded. She believed that sooner or later someone would be killed.

These Saturday afternoons at Coode Street Jetty in South Perth went on, seemingly, for days. It always took ages for Dad’s event to come around. I had little to no interest in the other races. I wandered about, up and down the beach, inspecting all the other boats pulled up on the coarse beige sand, their hulls bright and popping with colour. It wasn’t the sort of beach, the sort of sand, that invited or encouraged sandcastles. The sand was too young for that. It was still a work in progress. It was still too evidently fragments of shell that hadn’t yet been sufficiently smashed up. Instead I inspected the giant washed up pulsing horrors that were the big brown jellyfish. If there’s one thing about the Swan River, it’s that it’s lousy with jellyfish: two kinds, one a translucent white sort of flimsy disc-shaped thing, and the other was a stonking great big brown-domed Lovecraftian horror, with tentacles, and wafting bits, and stuff underneath the dome that looked like the inside of your lungs. These things had a way of washing up on the river shore and expiring. It was fascinating yet also revolting.

Meanwhile, one afternoon one racer was very nearly killed. The boat behind his briefly became airborne during a turn, and somehow one of the big inflatable buoys was involved, and next thing the airborne boat, engine still running, propeller still spinning so fast you couldn’t see it, came down on that man’s head. He was left badly brain-damaged. I can’t remember whether the man had been wearing a helmet. I think he may have been, and that might be the reason he wasn’t killed outright.

All those Super-8 afternoons by the river, while I studied grotesque jellyfish dying on the coarse sand, my mum, sitting nearby on a tartan picnic blanket with a Tupperware box of sandwiches, had been deathly afraid for my dad’s life. Even when he wasn’t racing, she was afraid for him. She was just afraid. Of losing everything. Dad gave up racing without a protest.

That thought, that my dad might have been risking his life, that he’d been risking our entire way of life, had never once occurred to me.

He took me out in one of his speedboats one afternoon, while waiting for his race. We pottered at a sedate pace, the engine making polite coughing noises, as we made our slow way around the course, turning at the big green inflatable buoys. It was marvellous! I remember the smell of petrol, the living smell of the river, the wind, the afternoon angle of the sun, the feeling of being with my dad in Dad’s pride and joy.

I only recently found out that Dad was never interested in fishing, as such. A troubled man, haunted by his own past, and in those days yet to undergo successful treatment for his bipolar disorder, being out on the river, or just off the coast, enjoying the breeze, waiting for a nibble, just quietly whiling away a few hours, riding the swell or the current, was as close as Dad got to pure bliss.

There were lots of weekend afternoons, often with his Scottish mate and me, out at sea in Dad’s 17-footer. They’d enjoy a few beers in the stern of the boat and not really care too much if they caught anything. They talked and laughed, and enjoyed each other’s company.

I was a bit of a third wheel. I obviously wasn’t drinking. In fact, I was often the designated driver. Aged 12 or 13, given the job of driving the boat back into port through heavy seas and back up the river to the launching ramp. I always felt proud and competent doing that, especially in heavy seas, where you had to be careful with the throttle and the rudder, where you could easily end up sideways and capsized or at least swamped. But we were always, despite some hairy moments, fine. It was something I could do, and I was pleased to do it.

When I was about eight, my dad had a wooden, clinker-built, dinghy-type boat, a rowboat. It looked picturesque in the water, but it was a heavy bloody bastard to lift out of the water and manoeuvre, upturned, onto the roof-rack of your dad’s car. There’s a reason aluminium caught on as the material of choice for boat-building.

Dad and I, and sometimes with his Scottish friend, would take this wooden boat out on the river at night, starting in the area around East Perth, when it was still a nasty, run-down industrial zone. We’d putter around on glass-flat waters. It was so quiet, but for the chuffing of a tiny few-horsepower motor that looked like it was made from toothpicks, and powered with rubber-bands. In those days, we knew about boats and outboard motors the way these days we know about computers and broadband.

My memories of this time in my life are infused with the smell of two-stroke petrol, often in a metal, red-painted tank for connection to an outboard motor, and the smell of the river. It was never quite the same as the smell of the ocean. There was a lot of salty water in the river, but there was a lot of something else as well. At least in theory you could say, well, that would be the fresh water coming down from out in the countryside, but freshwater wouldn’t smell like that. There was something alive, or living, biological, about Swan River water. When you smelled it, that miasma of sea and life and something possibly else, you knew you weren’t alone.

There were many nights, just us blokes out in this little boat on the river, fishing from hand-reels, my dad and his mate chatting ever so softly, because there was no need to speak any louder. We were in the quietest place in the world. The loudest thing might be an irritable seagull a few miles away having a squawk.

We often ended up in front of what used to be the old Swan Brewery. In those days, there were lights mounted on the outside of the building facing out over the water, coloured lights, that when lit would take the shape of a ship, a swan, and a sailing ship. Those nights we ended up parked out on the water in front of the Brewery, bathed in that silent electric light, were sublime. I had no staying power, eight-year-old me, and I would curl up, rocked to sleep, in the bottom of the boat, listening to the whispering talk, to the silence, to the light.

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