Narrative and photographs by Meredith Stephens
When I asked my mother why she called me ‘Meredith’, she told me that she had named me after one of the children in the class she had been teaching before she got married. Still curious, I looked up the meaning of my name and found that it meant ‘leader of the sea’. But it wasn’t until my seventh decade that I left the cloistered world of academia and became a seafarer. Then I was finally able to live up to my name, at least partially. Not only did I become a sailor, I also became a serious hiker, and learnt how to replace my daily shower for sporadic dunks in the ocean.
Alex, Luke, Verity and I were sailing south along the rugged western coast of Tasmania to Port Davey. The morning we arrived I ventured onto the deck and noticed that there was no beach, and the foliage was scrub rather than forests. As we entered Port Davey, we noticed still waters and jagged mountains. Several other yachts were anchored in the cove. Kayakers wove their way hugging the coast. I sat on the stern of the deck taking in the scenery that few people have the chance to observe. Port Davey is only accessible by small plane or boat, not by road.
Once anchored we decided to climb Balmoral Hill. Luke chose this because it promised the best rewards for the least effort; it would be a relatively easy climb with spectacular views. We made our way in the dinghy to the shore. We followed the wombat tracks, pushing our way through the bushes and native flowers, and reached the summit in under an hour. Balmoral Hill lived up to its promise. Views of Port Davey extended in all directions. The climb down was more challenging than the climb up, and I found myself lagging behind the others as usual.
We returned to the boat and it was still only 3 pm. We hadn’t been able to take regular showers because of the limited supply of fresh water on the boat. Luke and Alex decided to have a swim. Alex begged me to go in too.
“If you go in, I’ll give you a gin and tonic,” promised Alex.
He knew that was a sure-fire way to entice me in. I donned my swimsuit and secured my hair on the top of my head. I poked my feet into the water. Alex kept encouraging me to go in and finally I braved the cold brackish waters. I willed myself to stay in for a minute or two before climbing back up the ladder. Then Alex offered me a brief but hot shower on deck. True to his word, he brought me a gin and tonic with my favourite snack of hummous and seaweed crackers.
It was still early afternoon.
“Do you want to go ashore again?” Alex offered.
A narrow strip of white shore was enticing us. We made the 100metres trip to the shore in the dinghy. The shore consisted of white granite pebbles. We walked up and down the pebbles so that they could massage the soles of our feet, providing a shiatsu-like treatment.
The next morning Alex and Luke were looking forward to climbing Mt Rugby.
“How long does it take to climb?” I asked Luke.
“About six or seven hours.”
Alex had always encouraged me to go on daily hikes with him, and I was worried that I would have to undertake a six hour hike up Mt Rugby. Alex read my mind, and I realised that he was not expecting me to accompany them. He reminded me how to use the VHF [Very High Frequency] radio in case we needed to summon help. Verity and I stayed on the boat, working on our laptops in the saloon, gazing through a window at Mt Rugby, as the boat gently swayed back and forth. I went onto the deck periodically to scan Mt Rugby to try and sight Alex and Luke, but couldn’t find them. Before I knew it they had returned.
That evening, while positioning the dinghy, the rope became intertwined in the propellor. Alex donned his swimmers and dived quickly into the cold water to cut the rope. Every now and then he emerged from the water with his mask. His legs and feet were visible beneath the surface of the tannin filled water every time he dived back in. Eventually he cut the rope and returned to the boat.
The next morning we continued to Joe Page Bay to see the swans. After anchoring we hopped into the dinghy and headed for the lagoon. We noticed flocks of swans in the distance but as soon as they heard the engines of the dinghy they took off. The water was too shallow because it was low tide. We were at risk of hitting the river bottom, so we eventually turned around and returned to the boat.
It was another two days before we exited Port Davey. We headed back in the direction of the open ocean to anchor for the night, ready to leave the next day. Alex and Luke carefully chose the calmest spot in the north-west corner of Brambell Cove. Mt Millner was beckoning so we took the dinghy ashore and headed up the mountain.
“What if I can’t do it?” I asked Alex.
“You can rest on the beach if you like,” came the reply.
We entered a shady grove and found the path. Verity and Luke took the lead and Alex the rear, so I wouldn’t get left behind. The wombat track was studded in deep holes and it was hard to enjoy the view of the islands while being careful where I placed my feet. I thought we had nearly reached the summit, but it kept stretching ahead.
“You go ahead. I don’t need to get to the summit. I’ll rest here.” I pleaded.
Alex was having none of it.
“Look! We have reached the saddle. You can even go downhill for a bit before we ascend again. Not much further to go!” he encouraged me.
How could I disagree when Alex had so much confidence in me? I continued to clamber up the mountain. The bare surroundings turned to dense scrub and I had to push the branches away from my face to clear the way. Then in my haste I found myself falling backwards. My landing was cushioned by some thick undergrowth. My feet, bound up in my heavy hiking boots, stretched before me and I was tempted to rest a bit longer, but I worried about holding the others up, so I took a deep breath and summoned the effort to get up. No sooner had I reached the summit than I realised that it was another false summit. Rising before me was a steep incline to the sky.
“I can’t do it Alex!” I called behind me.
“You’re very nearly there. Then you can say that you climbed to the summit.”
I didn’t really care about being able to boast that I had reached the summit. Would anyone be impressed by that? But again, Alex’s enthusiasm pressed me on. With such encouragement it would be surly to refuse.
After climbing the steep incline I really did reach the summit. I caught a glimpse of the seascape below and the conical islands dotted in the bay. The fierce sun was oppressive and so I turned away, gratefully sat down on some heather, and pulled my hair away from my neck. Alex gave me some water.
“Do you want to walk to the other end of the summit?” Alex invited me.
If you walked to the other side you could look down on an ocean bay, but I could view it from my seated position and this time I really did decline.
After sitting there for twenty minutes I was cool enough to brave the descent. Luke and Verity climbed down quickly and waited on the shore. Alex took the rear and we trod along the wombat path trying to avoid the holes. Finally we reached Luke and Verity. We removed our hiking boots, hopped into the dinghy and motored back to the boat.
We had to ration fresh water and did not want to waste it taking a shower. I didn’t relish bathing in the ocean but I was both hot and perspiring so I felt I didn’t have a choice. I popped on my swimsuit, asked Alex to pull down the ladder, climbed down and immersed myself in the water. Finally, I was cool and clean. I couldn’t imagine being any more tired after the strain of the climb, the punishing sun and immersion in cold water. I am surprised I managed to mount the false summits and reach the real summit. It shows how encouragement can push you beyond the goal you set for yourself.
Alex prepared dinner. Behind the boat the sunset over the sea turned from an intense orange to purple. That night the boat was so still that we could have been excused for thinking we were on land. I was finally beginning to embrace my seafaring name.
Now that I had some sense of having earnt my first name, Meredith, I was ready to explore territory featuring the second part of my name, Stephens. My Great Aunt May, born around 1906, used to explain how her forebears had run a ‘Stephens’ shipping line in London in the late 1800s. Even my surname had a seafaring connection.
The next day we headed out to the open ocean past Bramwell Bay on our left and Breaksea Islands on our right. We anchored at Spain Bay, took the dinghy to shore, and then hiked to the other side of the peninsula. First the vegetation was low, and gradually gave way to bracken. We had to push the branches aside as we trudged through the mud. Then the path entered a forest with a canopy above the trail. Wooden stairs gave way to Stephens Bay. We sat on a rock to rest, and nibbled on some of the dry seaweed washed up on the beach, wondering what it would taste like if rehydrated in a misoshiru soup. I pondered whether I had an ancestral connection to this place as ships on their way from England to the east coast of Australia would have passed by this bay.
Back on board, despite the cold, I thought I would brave the waters again to refresh myself. I donned my swimsuit and tentatively climbed down the ladder into the sea. Alex dived in before me and I could tell from his expression that it was colder than we expected, as we were closer to the ocean. I held onto the ladder and vigorously moved my legs to warm myself up. I could only manage thirty seconds in the water despite resolving to last two minutes.
The next morning Alex entreated me to get up so as not to miss out on the spectacular scenery as we rounded southern Tasmania. The seas were as calm as they could possibly be. The boat was gently cantering in slow motion across the swell. South West Cape loomed in the distance, about an hour away. Luke was at the helm and Alex, Verity and I climbed carefully to the front of the boat holding onto the rails, and sat on the foredeck while we passed the cape, as the sun forced its way into view. Five hours later we rounded South East Cape, one of the five southernmost capes in the world, the others being West Cape Howe (Western Australia), South Cape (New Zealand), Cape Horn and the Cape of Good Hope.
After so many decades spent in libraries and classrooms, my life had taken a turn and I suddenly found myself surrounded by ocean. Of course, living on a boat did not mean I would abandon reading and writing. In fact, the long hours at sea afforded even more time for these pursuits. This was especially the case when at anchor waiting for rough seas to subside, out of internet range, when there was little else to do. Nevertheless, I think my mother would have been more than surprised had she known that I would spend weeks at sea in some of Australia’s most remote waters. Neither of us could have imagined how literally I would grow into my name.
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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