Thursday 20th Sep, 2018

THE SHIPPING LIFE: America’s Cup 1987

Lizard Island beach. Photo: Paulscf / Wikipedia
Lizard Island beach. Photo: Paulscf / Wikipedia

Captain Harry Mansson AM is a Master Mariner, a retired ship’s Captain, with a subsequent varied background as an international consultant to the United Nations/World Bank to a shipping management entrepreneur. He has enjoyed a stellar career at sea and onshore.

Starting with the Swedish Merchant Navy, he also served as an officer in the Swedish Royal Navy sweeping active mines. In 1972 he established Orient Shipping Services Pty Ltd as the general agent for the entry of the Orient Overseas Line (now OOCL) into the Asia/ Australia trade. In 1993 he was deservedly awarded the Order of Australia for services to shipping and international trade.

Our Executive Marketing: Sydney-Fremantle for America’s Cup 1987

WE NOTED much interest from our many clients about sailing, and the 1987 event was keenly anticipated by our customers from both Australia and the US. I had a 38 ft Riviera power boat “Julia” at the time, and I thought it would be good to park it at Fremantle during the races and invite about 10 customers visiting Fremantle to offshore day trips to watch them. The easy way would have been to place the boat on deck of our ships calling Fremantle and drop it off there.

However, I decided that the more “nautical” way was for me to bring the boat personally there by sailing it from Sydney, north over Cape York and then west and south to Fremantle over the Kimberleys and the northwest Australian corner.

Being no diesel engine expert, I had to hire mechanic Brian to accompany me, and he would stay on the boat with his girlfriend while in Fremantle and run the day trips for us after I returned to Sydney.

Fuel availability would be a permanent problem for the second part of the trip, but initially we availed ourselves of it e.g. at The Entrance, Coffs Harbour, Maryborough, Gold Coast, Bundaberg, Townsville and Cooktown before parking for a rest at Lizard Island, where Julia was awaiting me.

From the end of day one we had problems with water in the fuel, and this re-emerged from time to time until we reached a crisis point off Fraser Island in the pitch dark of the small hours and with a howling easterly gale, and both engines stopped. With only about 15 nautical miles between us and the beach (I had prudently kept the distance from Fraser just for such an eventuality as a breakdown) it would not take long for us to be wrecked, which could present mortal danger to Brian and myself, and I would not expose us to this. So I ordered him to, like myself, pack his gear in one of the watertight bags we carried for this purpose, and we readied the inflatable liferaft for launching. The boat was keeling over 20-30 degrees, and I worried that she would capsize from water intake.

Long story short, we got one engine going spittingly. The sandy slopes of Fraser didn’t show on the radar in all the rain, so it was a pleasant surprise to suddenly spot the large beacon buoy parked off the island’s northern Sandy Cape tip, inviting us to head south into Hervey Bay for R&R.

A day later we were anchoring at midnight off Hamilton Island to wait for a storm to pass, we found in the morning that the anchor had got stuck, so we had to cut the chain. Not a good situation. But we purchased (yes, boating is only money, isn’t it!) a new chain at Townsville and were back to safety standards.

Labouring up the coastline we spotted a 60ft white powerboat heading south nearer land, and how it made a large U-turn and started to follow us. We could see no markings or name in the binoculars. Anyway, he was bigger than us, so when he pulled up 10m away alongside us and called out to stop, we did so, but having no clue if we were to be pirated, melodramatically enough, we had our .22 rifle covered in the pit. A small wiry fellow in budgie smugglers with a totally tattooed body jumped on board and without even a greeting he demanded to see our “rego papers”.

I told him to show identification, and he borrowed our radio and called “Skipper, here is a bloody comedian who wants ID!”. The skipper then showed his person and we noticed the Customs uniform. He came on board, apologised for the intrusion, stated they were looking for drug smugglers and could he please have his guys take a look seeing they were already on board. A bit of a relief. Just doing their job, but in the Far North Queensland (FNQ) way.

Final stop before Lizard Island was Cooktown, where we cleaned the boat and ourselves and fuelled up for the last leg and beyond. The widely historical place had a long folklore history of alleged insanity being common, but we luckily spotted none of that with the few locals who we were in contact with (so the .22 was kept away).

It was a bliss to round the southwestern point of Lizard and the first thing we saw was Julia jubilantly running down the beach. We had the first civilized meal for a week at the good but overpriced establishment, and we spent a few days catching our own dinner coral cod inside the reef and generally resting.

The island is home to Cook’s Look, its highest peak, famous for Captain Cook’s climbing of it when his “Endeavour” was stranded for repairs. He needed to see for himself how to escape from the coral, and the peak gives a marvellous 360 degree view. It is a hard mission, but I climbed it daily to eventually get a spliced 360 degree photograph done.

Lizard also features Watson’s Bay, named in memory of a Mrs Watson, who escaped the invading aborigines with the use of a metal water tank, housing herself and her Chinese gardener drifting at sea until things settled down. We had a wonderful time, and Lizard is well worth a visit, more conveniently by air than with a 38-footer boat with water in the fuel.

From Lizard Island on northwards to Cape York and then for Darwin, on whose approaches we already had to begin worrying about the 8-10 m tides, their shallows risks and strong currents. We took onboard eight 44 gallon drums with diesel, stowed on the small stern deck and leaving little room for humanity to pass. But we had about 600nm ahead of us with no fuelling, so we had to drive on one engine only at the time, at slow speed of around 12 knots. It was stinking hot and humid.

Come to think of it, so far the trip hadn’t been totally pleasant, to put it mildly. But Lizard Island was the great cure, and we now had to look forward to the most dangerous part of the expedition.

To preserve fuel we had to take the short run inside the reefs. The whole reef area is poorly surveyed and charted, some going back to the Dutch In the 17th century, with charted survey lines running out in the form of diminishing dot. Nighttime travel was unthinkable, which meant anchoring safely each evening. Strong nightly westerly winds (uncles to the “Fremantle Doctor”) necessitated the search for lee of land from some island, so that the anchor wouldn’t drag.

But this would mean close to the land, which would expose us to the rages of the diminishing tides and could see us lying on the side like a tired seal on the bottom at low tide! So we anchored always well away and exposed to the howling winds, which together with the worry didn’t give me much sleep keeping watch on the flybridge.

The daytime navigation became increasingly and eventually totally based on visual impressions and guesses. GPS was not yet common or affordable, and our magnetic compass suddenly lost its comfort zone with the exposure to all the inherit magnetism from the nearby iron ore deposits.

Cooling off by evening swimming was a no-no due to the visible strong company of sharks, but the on-deck shower was a bliss. Food was mediocre often due to fatigue not giving us much energy or appetite for cooking. Nights at anchorage had to be on watch, so we took three hour turns resting. The daytime navigation was a two man job, Brian helping me to find landmarks matching the charts. But we made it okay to BHP’s Coolan Island, where we fuelled and got rid of the empty drums, before setting off for Fremantle.

Once there we set up the daily protocol for our customers: 0800 – boarding; 0900-1200 – at the races copping the increasing early afternoon Fremantle Doctor wind and risking the ladies getting seasick; 1200-1600 – anchored at Rottnest Island next to a friend’s lobster pots (yes, all with his permission), Aussie champagne, beer and wine flowing, very fresh lobster mornay being prepared, watching the races from an onboard TV-set. No seasickness and at 1600+ hours we would return to Fremantle full speed to watch the fleet coming back in. Then optional invite for dinner with us ashore. All in all not bad value or PR for customers not having to pay a cent! Called expensive Executive Marketing maybe, but it is all about demand and vision, and creating friendships,isn’t it?

South Africa here we come for a lion’s share

At one stage I received invitation to visit Cape Town for the purpose of studying its port. This brought back memories from my shipboard teenage apprentice days in the 1950s, which were forever darkened by the impact of the hideous Apartheid regime. Now, some 50 years later the country put up a more positive face, but still with huge problems in the form of corruption and poverty, as illustrated by their townships. The opportunity was then taken by wife Julia and myself to pass through Botswana and spend a few days at safari camp. At one time, it appeared to me that it could also be the finish of not only travel, but of my dear life!

Early morning in the camp of only four guest tents and one administration hut and I am walking to the main building to collect coffee for Julia and myself. I approach a bushy corner of the dirt track and stopped cold when I spotted a full size male lion walking towards the same corner at 90 degree angle from my own. He was six metres away! He walked looking straight ahead with swaying head, as is their style, and I took note of both his empty stomach and that the wind came from him towards me, so that if I could keep very still he hopefully wouldn’t see or scent me, which would have resulted in a quick death (mine, since I am no Tarzan, not his). Spotting me would have meant identification as a threat, and he would have killed me in self defence. I believe that I stopped breathing for two minutes until he took the next corner, and I slowly walked back to our tent, some 20m away. No video taken!

The South African manageress was dead scared of lions, and when she heard my story she had a predictable fit and called out the guns, but luckily the lion by then was far gone, and I certainly didn’t want to see him killed.

Oh, our Alaska

The business travel took me to many out of the regular places, many of whom were hoping to be not so much “out of” in the future. We waved goodbye to the port of Vancouver on embarking on the inland channel boat trip to Anchorage via a famous range of historical places. The beauty of the landscape and the fascination of their fauna were unforgettable.

What was also unforgettable was us running out of fuel with a small seaplane stalling over a half frozen river. The pilot managed to land, and we got the impression, maybe wrongly, that this wasn’t exactly the first time for such episodes. I have been in more aircraft crashes and scares than I like to remember and am not really afraid of glider-landing on the water, but not when it looks like the top of a rocky giant gin & tonic.

The visit to Anchorage was a dramatic eye opener, following its 1964 huge force 9.2 earthquake, the second one to ever be recorded in history. Much of the town was flattened, but by the 1980s it was all rebuilt, a symbol of American capacities when in dire need.

Polynesian business

We were invited to join a business colleague at Papeete, Tahiti, to discuss his service between the islands and Australia. The port was well known to me and, in fact, in my romantic lower 20s I had written to “His Excellency the Governor” asking for any opening for a job in their Harbour Master team. Amazingly, I received a reply politely declining the offer, but these jobs were all for the French (His Excellency kindly suggested I try for Christmas Island, and the next time around in Perth I went for an interview with the British Phosphate (BPC) people, who ran the port. And I was accepted as Deputy Harbour Master! Luckily, better senses were located and prevailed).

The Tahiti visit by Julia and myself saw us also joining a 3-master passenger schooner for a trip to Bora Bora, which involved 0600 AM uprisings to be standing in waist-deep water hand-feeding sharks!

My shipping experiences from the South Pacific cover all areas, Melanesian, Micronesian and Polynesian from PNG through the Solomons and on to the Frenchies in Tahiti and Hawaii. The South Pacific romance from movies is not readily spotted among the poverty, health problems and corruption in many areas, but for sure there are many spots well worth visiting safely and enjoyably. Most of the people are wonderfully friendly.

From the print edition August 24, 2017

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