The Brisbane Floods Remind This Fool of His Nearly Fatal Adventure There.
Moreton Bay is now being rapidly built-up.
How we were nearly "Up the Creek" for real!
The catastrophic floods all over Queensland - and particularly Brisbane at the moment - deeply saddened me and reminded me of an adventure I had while living there many years ago, which nearly cost the lives of my three companions and myself.
I had moved up to Brisbane from Sydney with the intention of establishing a small office providing welding equipment and supplies, and rented a house a mile down the road running along Breakfast Creek and close to the Breakfast Creek Hotel.
I was living with a girl from Yorkshire at the time, Maggie, and my friend, Tom, who had come to Australia with me two years previously; he lived with Maggie's friend, Sandy, also from Bradford. We had moved around a bit in the last two years and this was to be the last place we enjoyed before the girls - who were on the Australian assisted passage scheme (alas, no more) - had finished their mandatory two years and would return to the UK.
Brisbane was a far smaller and more informal place back then than it is today - now a metropolis of skyscrapers and huge housing developments.
Living on the water as we did, I made a decision to buy an inexpensive used boat. Unwisely, I finally settled on an old launch with a large cabin and a two-stroke motor: it was dirt cheap and 34 feet of trouble awaiting a destination.
We puttered around locally on it: up the Creek and into the Brisbane River - the sinuous, muddy torrent that was quite placid back then, but is an enraged mud-gorged killer as I write in January, 2011, full of debris and powerful currents; it has about destroyed much of Brisbane over the last few days.
During this period, I had met a local fisherman, Bob Taylor, who must himself have fed the fishes long ago, as he was getting on in years back then. He had a small trawler called the "Naomi." By and by, we had become friends and he intended to refrigerate the boat and head up to Aranci Bay in New Guinea to trawl for prawns - said to be as big as lobsters and carpeting the sea bed. I would have a go at anything back then, so had agreed to put up the cost of installing the refrigeration; we would go up there together and share any and all profits. (This would not happen as it turned out, but that was for the future).
We decided one weekend to take our untrustworthy ship (I forget what its name was, SS Unreliable would have suited) for a longer voyage, down the Brisbane River, into Moreton Bay and cruise out to a couple of islands we found on the map. Experienced local seaman, my bud, Taylor, took one look at our ancient craft, sprung planks, cranky, underpowered engine and all and advised us to forget it. That was just the spur two young guys needed to say, “F--- that, we’re going!”
Tom had insisted before we left on Friday morning that we return Sunday afternoon, as he had an appointment with ICI (Imperial Chemicals) early on Monday for a sales job.
We assembled some sketchy supplies such as fishing gear, a .22 rifle, some canned food and a spare can of gas (little knowing what an important part the latter would play); other bits and pieces of food and a few basic tools, such as a screwdriver and pliers. I am an experienced seaman in that I had four years previously in the Royal Navy. Will some reader ask me then, did I have a death wish by motoring off into strange water, miles from dry land, without any form of life-saving equipment, not even a ship-to-shore radio?
It’s extraordinary how reckless the young can be, but when we set off that long ago and fateful morning, the furthest thoughts from our minds was danger, disaster or, perish the thought: death!
If we had only tuned in to the local weather forecast we would have seen that a hurricane was passing well to the south, but that “high tides, seas and some precipitation was expected in South Queensland this weekend.”
The Brisbane River flows through the town and on south, past mangroves and over sand and mud banks, veering right into Moreton Bay proper. The Bay is around 1500 square kilometres in extent and has more than 300 islands, few, if any, inhabited back then. We had picked one island, about 5 miles off land, where we would anchor, sunbathe, fish, shoot and party for the weekend. We were pleased to find we were the only boat in the lee of this tiny fragment of land: out came the beers and the barbie; the gang was going to have fun!!
After all the intervening years, I don’t have many memories of the what must have been idyllic couple of days we spent out on the then calm and sun-drenched Bay. The return journey was just about to begin, and that was to be a different kettle of fish!
About midday on Sunday, we tidied the ship, probably annoying the fickle finger of fate even more by chucking the beer cans overboard. (We had already had a good try at upsetting the gods by firing the .22 at buoys!). Up came the anchor covered in weed from the bottom of the shallow bay - a paradise for many forms of flora and fauna - including sharks!
As we motored out from the west of the island, to head back north- east to the shelter of the river, the wind, rain and choppy seas hit us. I remember saying to Tom, “We’ll have to go back to the anchorage in the lee and ride it out.” And I can recall his answer that would nearly end all our young lives, “Bob, I can’t, you know I have that interview, you promised we would be back in time...”
So we continued out into the open bay, the waves getting higher by the minute and...the water in the bilges beginning to slosh around our feet where the gappy planks - which I had meant to caulk - letting green sea water in by the gallon!
“Sandy, Maggie, we have to bail!!” We grabbed what we could and while one of us steered through the thick rain which obscured vision to a few feet, the others desperately bailed.
By then, this tiny old launch was rearing and sliding around like a rodeo bull and we had to try and hang on, steer and bail. Just barely managing all this until...with a wheeze, the engine quit on us! This meant, as the headway ceased, we were swung around sideways-on to the wind and waves. We were in imminent danger of capsizing; Sandy had given-up and was kneeling, holding her cross and saying Hail Mary, or whatever they do. Maggie, also a Catholic, remained staunch and why, I muse, thinking of this lovely, brave lady, why did I ever let you go?
Tom - then 23, and one of the bravest and coolest people under pressure I have ever met - had braced himself and actually taken apart the carburettor and was removing some gunk from it. Meanwhile, I pushed my head and shoulders through the forward hatch and attempted to pour petrol into the tank filler right up in the bow. (I had a black and blue bruised ring right around my body the next day from being thrown violently around inside the hatch coaming...just to give you and idea of how rough it was).
“Rattle...rattle, (Tom hand cranking the motor). “Bang, bang, clouds of blue smoke and the motor caught and the propellor bit!
Somehow we made it, furiously bailing, stripping the motor again; all cut and bruised and terrified, into the calm, muddy water of the entrance to the Brisbane River, leaving the maelstrom that had so nearly taken our lives behind. Had we capsized, we would have had no hope of swimming to land or being found in those conditions - but a few sharks would have been smiling.
I wish I could capture the real story of this two hours of terror and action in this simple article, but I cannot do more than give you an idea.
Our ordeal was not quite over. One of us had to jump over the side in the shallow water and push out valiant craft another couple of miles over the sand and mud to the start of the river proper. We grounded several times and nearly got stuck often. And who knows what was following me in that soupy, three-feet-deep water ready to snatch at my heels. In fact, I did step on a few slimy things that squirmed away under my shrinking feet. But compared to the ordeal we had survived, nothing under the sea could worry me - although I stayed prepared to leap aboard if necessary and save at least one appendage from a Tiger Shark!
Guess who was waiting for us as we turned left back into the river, our old motor still managing to chuff away for a few more minutes? (a later check showed we had one inch of petrol left in the tank). Yes, Bob Taylor had been so alarmed by the weather reports after we left, he had worried all weekend and finally brought the Naomi down to find us! Well, he would have been way too late, but we did allow him to tow us back to the Breakfast Creek and our moorings, lecturing an embarrassed ex Royal Naval rating on the dangers of going to sea like that.
To Maggie, Sandy and Tom, whom I have not seen of spoken to for many, many moons, I am sure I apologised for risking your lives like that: I was the eldest by a couple of years, the sailor, and I should have known better. Thank goodness we survived due to your young courage and strength.
I had had enough of rough seas after going out in the Naomi a few times and wrote off the money I had lost in refrigerating the trawler.
I do know that Sandy and Maggie are have both been married for many years; live in the UK and have kids and, I’m sure, grandkids, to tell of their adventures in the Antipodes. Of Tom. No word. I do know he continued as an adventurer by becoming a delivery captain for a large yachting company based in France. I’m sure his guts and determination carried him through life and I would love to meet up some day.
He is Thomas (Tom) Morris - born, Torquay, if anyone knows of his whereabouts and could pass on my feelings. I am sure he won’t mind me publishing his name in this obscure article.
Anyone going to sea could do well to take in the advice inherent in this nearly tragic account.