I should have known better. Tradition says beginning a voyage on a Friday is a bad omen. Fuelling this ominous portent – our last shakedown started on Friday the 13th.
We had just spent weeks provisioning our vessel for two months in the Never-Never to search for a shipwreck, our plan requiring Banyandah to sail to the furthest reaches of Australian territorial waters, to a mini sand islet twice visited in our younger years, where we’d found a bronze ringbolt from a little known French frigate lost in 1856.
Flexi-cabs Dave arrived early from Brisbane, and we used his transport to hit the town for last-minute items: Dave needed shorts; we all needed booze, and Jude needed fresh veggies and other delicacies to tantalise our taste buds while we worked out our last sailing kinks.
By noon, Banyandah was free of her marina berth and on course for the first of three obstacles needed to be passed to reach Moon Point on the inland side of Fraser Island.
Fraser, the largest sand island in the entire world, is surprisingly thickly forested. But not so surprising, it is surrounded by sandbanks continually being shifted by fast tidal streams. These banks are vast and easily seen, but difficult to navigate, as the channels between them are quite shallow. Harry, our 73-year-old neighbour aboard a 39 foot Cavalier, primed me with local knowledge, then assured us we’d neatly clear the first sandbank at half tide. Nevertheless, as we approached the yellow cross, my bum hole began to tighten as Jude called decreasing water under our keel.
“Five feet,” came from the wheel, quickly followed by, “four….three!”
Desperately not wanting a reoccurrence of our last attempt to cross, when I’d driven Banyandah hard aground in front of a zillion townhouses, I scanned side to side hoping to perceive a darkening colour that would mark deeper water.
“Two feet,” called Jude, her voice steady, although now there was a constant pinging of alarm from our sounder.
And still that yellow cross lay several boat lengths ahead. At the front of our ship, I jerked my hand back as if physically moving the shift lever into neutral and we drifted forward under our own momentum. With skinny water all around, cool heads prevailed. Dave was stretched on the aft locker, calmly smoking a fag as if dockside aboard a luxury yacht. Jude, the professional she is, watched me intently for directions while the continuous pinging reminded her we had less than a mini swell under our keel. Still re-learning my old trade after years on the land, I remembered to remain calm in tight situations as tension only clouds my thinking. So I let Banyandah drift forward, my toes tingling, waiting for that first jolt of hitting bottom, which never came before Jude sang out, “Three feet,” as the yellow cross slipped past.
Later, when securely anchored close to an uninhabited shore backed by low forest, the day’s mini-adventures were toasted time and again, all onboard darn pleased to have had an experience worth recounting. And so, with one of Jude’s sumptuous curries warming our bellies and fine port warming our throats, we collectively called it a day, deeply satisfied our cruise had begun so auspiciously.
Upon first light, some thick heads and cottonmouths were soon cleared by a fresh breeze.
“Onwards to Rooney Point,” I called. A twenty-five-mile voyage across an increasing wind.
With the first reef tied in, but still flying her full headsail, Banyandah was soon barrelling along at top speed under Fraser’s lee. All was good. No! All was great! I was nearly in heaven when Jude offered round a yummy tray of tropical fruits. Strange – my first bite of banana tasted off. Saliva flooded my cavern, and swallowing it mouthful after mouthful, I knew what was coming next. From deep within, breakfast flew over the side. Odd, I have never been seasick in my life, but felt much better for the experience—until, minutes later, more salvia, followed by frothy white stuff jettisoned into the sea. Better again, I reassured my crew that their captain was okay, to be immediately debunked by another explosion of white foam. Concerned faces now watched my every move. So I casually took up a confident stance that was quickly reduced to white knuckles gripping the rail during dry retching.
Passing Rooney Point put an end to what all had thought was a bout of Mal-de-Mar, except it left me with a tight stitch up under my right ribcage. Probably from the violent retching, we deduced. But why the elevated temperature nurse Jude detected after removing her thermometer from under my armpit?
There was no party that night, only tired bodies and subdued supposition as to the captain’s health. Oh well, I thought, we’d had a big day. Let’s see what tomorrow brings.
Next day was Jude’s birthday. I was still running a mild fever after sweating profusely overnight, but took my part in the gift opening and photoshoot. Dave had a business to run, and as Banyandah was out of mobile phone range, I used that as an excuse to backtrack towards the mainland. This put our course hard on the wind. Sailing full and by, Banyandah performed like a racehorse, cutting swiftly through the calm sea, a mild headache my worst issue for most of that day. Until close to the anchorage when we tacked through the wind. Jude turned the helm up, the headsail backed. Then I let it fly. Dave, being on his first stress-free holiday in living memory, lay flat like a lizard, soaking up his umpteenth cleansing ale. He wouldn’t be taking any physical part in our sail training unless pressed into service, so I did my usual bit of winching in our large headsail. Job done, a bit out of breath, I took the helm to allow Jude to sort out her galley. When her foot just touched the threshold, a Nordic Viking drew his broad sword then ran it through my guts, pouring molten fire through my testicles. Not caring if my ship was about to go over Niagara Falls, I fell to the deck incapacitated while my hands, with the strength of Titan’s grip, crushed my poor Willy. And although praying for death had always been a ridiculous thought, I would have welcomed my God’s hand at that moment.
Gasping, a rush of bodies closed around me, and although what followed is somewhat blurred, I recall trying to calm the pain away in a technique I have used to get through other horrible moments. And I somewhat succeeded. Chills replaced the fear I’d crushed my testicles, and next, I was in bed under a mountain of blankets with Jude’s warm caresses containing my shakes. Sweat soon displaced the chills; pouring from me as if the sluice gates had been fully opened. What a party popper! Jude’s birthday and I was to have made her a chocolate cake.
Well, what to do now? Raise anchor and return to the mainland threading through sandbanks at night? Or flip open our phones to call for help? As quickly as the pain had come, it left. But what had caused it? A torn muscle? Bad prawns? Never one to call unnecessarily for help, against advice, I decided it would endanger all to shift in darkness. And what would it achieve? The emergency ward would be on standby. So, I sweated and slept remarkably well.
Morning found me feeling a bit sluggish. But that wasn’t as bad as the lump bulging out my right side. Uh oh, it was time for action, and off we went at full speed towards Hervey Bay. A passenger now, I lay on my bunk lamenting: Our search for the shipwreck would not go ahead.
How blessed I am to live in Australia. The noontime emergency room had ambulances arriving every ten minutes, but I was admitted and clinically checked within an hour. What I didn’t like so well was the painful prodding and pushing by the registrar, who at first thought my kidney had stones. A CAT scan threw this out, so I was admitted to the surgical ward for observations. Next morning, the head surgeon and his large multinational team prodded me some more then whispered amongst themselves with much nodding of heads. The head surgeon suggested he cut a hole in my abdomen to insert a camera, then they’d all have a better look around. Seemed a good idea to me, and in short order, after signing several consent slips for a myriad of surgical procedures, they wheeled me off to theatre. The last I remember was the good doctor asking me if I wanted him to put right anything else not on the list. A sucker for a bargain, I agreed.
“Fix me up Doc. I got a lot of life ahead.”