Meredith Stephens writes of sailing to Tasmania when the pandemic had just started loosening its grip
Neither the wind speed nor direction were favourable as we tacked our way upwind. It was my turn to make the soup. I headed into the kitchen, grabbing rails and fixed furniture to steady myself. With each wave the boat lurched violently. I opened the fridge and a bottle of drink torpedoed across the galley. Then, on my hands and knees, I opened a bilge compartment trying to find the root vegetables. As I stood up, another wave surged and I nearly fell into the bilge. As I was trying to find cutlery I heard Luke’s voice offering to help me. I gladly accepted and found refuge after retreating to my bed. Luke’s steady sea legs meant the soup was ready in minutes.
We were sailing from Granite Island to Robe, in South Australia, on our way south-east to Tasmania. A four-hour journey by road would turn out to be thirty-six-hours by sea. Alex and Luke took three hour shifts at the helm overnight. The waves lurched beneath us. The sails were disobedient. Alex attached the tether to his belt and the rails, and headed out to the foredeck to fix it. Luke was at the helm and I held a rope at the rear deck. They shouted directions to me to pull and then release the rope. Alex fixed the sail as the boat accelerated.
That night the bed in my cabin surged with every crashing wave. There was no relief in the morning when the harsh Australian sunshine pushed its way into the cabin and gave me a resounding migraine. Trying to find relief from the skylight above my bed I staggered up the stairs to the saloon, lay down on the sofa and hid from the sun under a hoodie and coat.
Alex entreated me to lift my gaze to the horizon and so I peeped out and reacquainted myself with the shoreline. My normally healthy appetite disappeared and I had an overwhelming desire to sleep. But Alex was an experienced sailor and never gave up on encouraging me, pushing me beyond what I imagined I could do. Rather than curling up into a ball and giving up, I heeded his encouragement, and my seasickness gradually dissipated. I was well enough by the evening to accompany Alex on the twelve am to three am shift, but noting my tired expression, Alex told me to take leave and go to bed at two thirty am. Luke took over the three to six am shift, and then Alex took over from six am. When I woke at eight the waters were calm. My seasickness had gone and my appetite returned. I enjoyed a hearty breakfast and we calmly motored on to Robe.
We had to sail continuously for two long days and nights on the voyage from Robe to King Island, Tasmania. Alex consulted the app Predict Wind for the weather forecast and assured me that there would be little wind. He, of course, was disappointed because he wanted to sail, but I was quite happy to motor on calm seas if it meant I could be spared from seasickness. He is a climate warrior and wanted to rely on natural sources of energy such as wind. I knew we shouldn’t use fossil fuels, but I decided to tease him, urging, ‘Let’s use diesel!’, knowing full well how it contradicted his principles. He put my needs first, foregoing his love of sailing to motor on calm waters instead.
I only knew about King Island because of its specialty cheese production, and looked forward to some cheese tastings. Alex asked me to do some research on King Island, and soon I learned that it had been the site of around 800 shipwrecks. This was not what I wanted to hear. I knew Bass Strait was notorious, but not that this single island in the strait had been the site of hundreds of shipwrecks. Nevertheless, Alex had equipped himself with state-of-the-art navigational equipment, and had the assistance of sailor Luke who had once sailed across the Atlantic, and he was unperturbed. I trusted Alex, and his confidence was contagious.
“It’s pretty shallow here,” I announced to Luke from the cockpit during my shift. “Only twenty-five metres.”
Luke and Alex guffawed. “That’s only because it’s too deep for the instruments to measure. It’s actually 1500 metres,” Alex explained.
I had a book ready to read for my three-hour shift but I left it unopened. I was enraptured by the milky and glassy surface and the ripples that glistened in the sun. I scanned the horizon for vessels, and tried to discover the ones that appeared in the monitor reported by Automatic Identification System (AIS). Unlike us, the other vessels on the monitor were container ships. Black birds perched on the surface of the water and took off as we approached.
“Where are the dolphins?” I quizzed Alex.
“It’s too deep for them here.”
We repeated the shifts. As Alex’s research had predicted the waters were calm. My seasickness had disappeared altogether.
Two days after leaving Robe, the township of Currie on King Island came into view. Anchoring took a while because of the many submerged rocks. Finally, Alex was satisfied with the anchorage, and we decided to hop into the dinghy and go ashore. First, we had to register online with the Tasmanian e-travel. I completed the documentation on my laptop and finally was required to receive a verification code by SMS on my phone. I kept requesting new codes but none came. It turned out that there was no reception on this remote island for my phone provider. I gave up.
The four of us lowered ourselves into the dinghy with our bags. Alex pulled the cord to start the outboard motor, and we weaved between the other berthed boats to the shore. A police vehicle was parked on the shore facing us. A barrel chested police officer in a fluorescent orange vest motioned where we should land. At the wharf he was accompanied by a biosecurity officer.
The police officer greeted us politely and asked whether we had the necessary paperwork for entry. Luke and Alex had theirs, but Verity and I did not. Despite numerous reminders from Alex I had procrastinated and now I was paying for it. We clambered out of the dinghy to the wharf, and the officers took down Verity’s and my details.
I had not been able to complete my application because my phone would not receive signals in this remote location. Alex tethered me to his phone, because his carrier had coverage. I fumbled around in the sunshine to download various apps to process my application. The phone screen was too small and the glare from the sunshine disturbed my vision even further. Even though I was traveling domestically, it was like trying to enter a foreign country without the right visa.
“I don’t want to hold you all up,” I said to the others. “Let me go back to the boat. I don’t care. I can read a book.”
Alex would have none of it. Then the biosecurity officer briefly disappeared, and reappeared with paper forms.
“You can fill these out instead,” he offered. “Then you will have to take Rapid Antigen Tests back in the boat and wait fifteen minutes for the result. If it is negative you are free to travel. I’m just going to make a detour to the airport to pick up the tests for you.”
The biosecurity officer made the eleven kilometre trip to the airport and back to retrieve the Rapid Antigen Tests. Meanwhile, Luke cleverly engaged the police officer in banter, trying to find out the best places for tourists to visit on the island.
“The races are on this afternoon,” he kindly informed us. “They are held four times a year over summer.”
If it weren’t for the banter with the police officer we could never have learned this. We scrambled back into the dinghy with the Rapid Antigen Tests. Or to be more precise, the others scrambled into the dinghy. I lost my footing on the tires on the way down and collapsed in a heap into the dinghy. The mask had obscured my downward vision and I couldn’t see where I was placing my feet. I was rattled after having been greeted by a police officer and a biosecurity officer on the shore of the quiet fishing cove nestling alongside Currie. The others gasped as I fell and then fussed over me and I soon recovered. We sped back towards the boat.
“What else did the police officer tell you, Luke?” we probed, once in the dinghy.
“He said that the other day another vessel had come here from interstate. They too had had trouble getting internet access on this remote island and did not know that the entry requirements for Tasmania had changed while they were on board. They were so upset at being greeted on the shore by a police officer and a biosecurity officer that they started an altercation and had to be locked up.”
Hearing this I felt grateful that we had been treated with such civility. Again we clambered back on to the boat. Exhausted but relieved that we had been able to go on land in Tasmania, we decided to celebrate with Luke’s bottle of Chardonnay. Then, we proceeded with the tests.
As expected, we all tested negative and we took the dinghy ashore to explore Currie. We followed the police officer’s advice and walked through the town to the races. Alex and I were sitting in the stands, enjoying not only the horses but the spectacle of the local crowd in their finery. Alex abruptly looked up to the end of the aisle.
“Is that the police officer?” he asked me.
I studied him chatting to other racegoers in full regalia of his flack jacket, guns in his holster and fluorescent orange vest.
Alex turned to me and quipped, “Maybe that is why he seemed to be in a hurry to process our entry? He wanted to be at the races.
I had been struck by the story that Luke had heard from the police officer that the other interstate visitors had acted defensively when they heard about the new complicated entry requirements to Tasmania. Why had we been treated so differently? We were simply sent back to the boat and the officers had trusted us to act appropriately on the basis of the results of the COVID test. The officers seemed to be in a bit of a hurry to let us get on our way. Now we had an inkling why.
*All the photographs have been supplied by Meredith Stephens.
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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