Photography and Narrative by Meredith Stephens
“What! A text message at this hour,” exclaimed Alex, reluctantly looking at his phone.
Then his expression turned to concern.
“Gregory, our boat neighbour in George Town, says the boat hatch is open.”
George Town, Tasmania, was a two-hour flight and a one-hour bus ride away from Adelaide. Who could have entered the boat from the hatch? They would have to be both slim and lithe. What could they have taken? Could they have taken the chartplotter – used to navigate, the Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) – used to aid search and rescue or the Automatic Identification System (AIS) – used to track other vessels? We couldn’t sail without them.
“I can’t really bring our flight to Hobart forward because all the seats are gone during the Easter break. We’ll just have to hope for the best.”
Meanwhile, Alex decided to text Gregory back and ask him to take a look through the hatch to determine what might have been stolen. Gregory kindly obliged, and sent Alex a photo of the interior of the boat. The equipment appeared to be in place.
Alex checked the location of the boat on the AIS. It should have been updated daily, but it had been inactive for a few days. That did not bode well.
We spent the next day packing our bags as carefully as possible to avoid excess charges. On Friday Alex, Verity, Katie and I caught the plane from Adelaide to Hobart, and then picked up our rental car. We drove north through the centre of the island to the lush agricultural lands of the Tamar River, passing through towns lined with Georgian buildings constructed with convict labour.
We were particularly looking forward to partaking of the best vanilla slices in the world, located in the township of Ross, and I confess that this distracted us from our concern for the safety of the boat equipment.
We sat outside the bakery savouring the vanilla slices as slowly as possible. Who knew whether we would ever be able to come back to Ross?
Then we continued our drive northward to George Town, Australia’s third-oldest settlement, meandering through other towns lined with Georgian buildings. As night fell, we arrived at George Town to our boat home. My fellow crew members were able to climb on the boat from the wharf unaided but I wasn’t tall enough to do this. Alex positioned an upside-down bucket on the wharf so that I could clamber on board. With trepidation we opened the door, now unlocked, and ventured inside. The equipment was still there but it had been unplugged. The lid of the clear plastic box under the monitor was open.
“They’ve taken the spare keys. The gold coins have gone too!” Alex observed.
Alex had prepared a collection of one and two dollar coins in a plastic bag in the clear box to be used for laundromats on shore. So this is what the thieves had been after!
Next Alex checked his wine collection in one of the bilges, “the boat cellar”. This was untouched. The thieves must have entered through the hatch and left through the door. Other than the keys, the only goods that had been stolen were the gold coins for the laundromat – or so we thought. Perhaps they were planning to return, next time through the door.
The theft of gold coins reminded me of advice I had received at the beginning of my teaching career in the 1980s in the city of Whyalla in South Australia. I had been assigned teacher housing by the education department. I was advised by a colleague that when I was away from home, I should leave gold coins in obvious places for youngsters who might break in.
Alex was relieved that they had not taken any navigational or safety equipment, and I was relieved that they had not taken my boat slippers. We were well into autumn and it was cold underfoot.
Despite the break-in we were very fond of George Town, not least due to the camaraderie of our boat neighbours.
On the day of departure, as always, Alex got up before the rest of us to commence the day’s sailing. We were due to head north across Bass Strait towards the mainland. The harbour was generously lit up by the lights in the supermarket carpark on the other side, facilitating the safe exit to the Tamar River.
One of our favourite boat meals was freshly caught fish. Only when looking for a rod one evening did we discover yet another item had been stolen — a heavy-duty tuna fishing rod. This time, rather than using the rod we trolled with a hand reel, and had no trouble catching smaller fish.
Meanwhile someone in George Town was enjoying spending our gold coins and fishing with Alex’s special rod. At least we had our technology to guide our decisions as we crossed Bass Strait, where identifying marine traffic and the right weather conditions was critical. We followed the course Alex had plotted, stopping at the offshore island of Badger Island overnight, East Kangaroo Island and Whitemark for a few hours the following day, then anchoring at Settlement Point for our second night. Based on the Predict Wind forecast, we decided to tuck in for shelter at Outer Sister Island for two nights to wait out a front bringing strong winds. The shore looked tantalisingly close. I asked Alex if we could take the dinghy ashore but, pointing to the shore break, he told me that if we did we would likely capsize. We stayed indoors for the day, reading, writing and longingly looking at the forbidden shore. My preferred pastime is writing, but every now and then I had to force myself to stop and fix my eyes on the horizon as the boat danced over the anchor, to recover from bouts of seasickness.
The forecast was for calmer conditions the following morning. We were ready for the long stint to the mainland, during which there would be no more coves in which to shelter. Alex got up first and departed Outer Sister Island at 6.38 am. We persevered sailing through both day and night. During the day we were rewarded by dolphin sightings as they played alongside and in front of us for about ten minutes a time, before suddenly veering away. During the night Alex and I roused ourselves at midnight to take our turn on the three hour shift until 3 am. Well, to be fair, Alex did the night watch while I forced myself to keep my eyes open.
We arrived at Eden, New South Wales, at 4.20 pm, and secured the boat on a public mooring. Too tired to venture ashore that evening, we relaxed on the boat, ready to explore Eden the following morning.
We had crossed Bass Strait availing ourselves of the technological support of the chartplotter and the AIS. Although the equipment did not spare us the trials of the night watch, it did help us avoid commercial trawlers and container ships in the shipping lanes. If it weren’t for our boat neighbour Gregory back in George Town, the thieves may have returned to steal the crucial equipment which made our crossing of Bass Strait safer. No less importantly, the notorious Bass Strait had been kind to us.
Meredith Stephens is an applied linguist from South Australia. Her work has appeared in Transnational Literature, The Muse, The Font – A Literary Journal for Language Teachers, The Journal of Literature in Language Teaching, The Writers’ and Readers’ Magazine, Reading in a Foreign Language, and in chapters in anthologies published by Demeter Press, Canada.
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