Home Page

 Back to Alan's articles


 Alan Lucas

Looking Back

By Alan Lucas, SY Soleares

From the first half of the last century, when crossing oceans in small boats made headline news, there came a plethora of books such as Sailing all Seas in the Idle Hour by Dwight Long, The Fight of the Firecrest by Alain Gerbault and, of course, the classic that started it all near the turn of the century, Sailing Alone Around the World by Joshua Slocum. Except for proving that small-boat voyaging was possible without the hi-tech trappings of today, their achievements were low-key by today's standards. However, as snap-shots of a recent past, their books give wonderful insights into how cruising was in those days.

Dwight Long's book of the 1930s is a good example. His Idle Hour was a gaff-headed ketch of thirty-two feet that sailed from Seattle late 1934 and reached Sydney a couple of years later to anchor in Watsons Bay for customs clearance. After basic clearance, final pratique was carried out in Rushcutters Bay, his ketch being escorted up-harbour by dozens of welcoming motorboats full of excited onlookers. The buzz of public acceptance aside, it seems that form-filling was more complex than it is now, Dwight referring to - "Square yards of forms: all that would have been required for a twenty thousand ton liner such as the Strathnaver or Strathaird. I wonder why Australia doesn't run short of paper".

His description of our world-famous 18-footers reminds us of their extraordinary statistics, referring as he does to 14-foot bowsprits, 30-foot booms, 25-foot telescoping poles for balloon jibs and crews of twelve. He marvelled that six ferries, all packed with enthusiasts, followed races contested by a fleet of 30-odd boats sailing an eleven-mile course. The day in question was squally with more than half the fleet succumbing to strong gusts that collectively tipped 150 men into the harbour. According to Dwight, "All the crews jumped into their sails, for the harbour is full of sharks, and only by swimming inside the canvas were they safe". The din of whistles, sirens and shouting at the finishing line reminded him of Armistice Day, 1918.

Typical of the days when voyaging yachts were far and few between, the enthusiastic generosity of the people and the favours offered by authorities were impressive: Captain Stringer of the Sydney Harbour Board, for example, allowed him to berth at a public facility to open his boat for public inspection. And Commander Stevens, of the Royal Navy Reserve told Dwight "his Base was at his disposal".

Innocent of their more sinister motives just a year or so before the outbreak of World War 11, Dwight refers to Japanese sampans fishing along the Great Barrier Reef. At long Island in the Whitsunday Group, he was shown 'acres and acres of tree stumps' by the island manager, Mr Tronson, who told him the Japanese use the timber to smoke-cure beche-de-mer and confirmed that they were a common sight in the area. It has long since been realised that Japanese 'fishing' in those days was probably as much about spying as it was about feeding the masses.

At Hayman Island, Dwight fell in with a British film company busily making a full-length movie with famous author and introducer of game fishing to Australia, Zane Grey in the leading role. Another star was Colonna, a former grand opera singer who had sung at Covent Gardens. Zane Grey played the part of a fanatical missionary and a group of aborigines in full war paint armed with spears performed a corroboree for the film.

As any history buff knows, the past comes alive when two writers refer to each other but each spin different yarns about the same incident. This was the case in C. Monckton's book, Some Experiences of a New Guinea Resident Magistrate and Captain Joshua Slocum's book, Sailing Alone Around the World. It appears the two men met off Port Macquarie, Monckton aboard an ex-racing yacht named Guinevere that he had just bought in Sydney for use in New Guinea waters, and Slocum on his beloved Spray.

Slocum refers to Monckton's yacht pseudonymously as Akbar and describes being hailed by her crew as he sailed past. Akbar, Slocum says, was anchored offshore with mainsail and jigger 'blown to ribbons' and 'her rigging flew at loose ends'. "Up anchor", Slocum called, "and let me tow you into Port Macquarie", to which the crew of Guinevvere, nee Akbar, declined the offer, saying "Report us with sails blown away, and that we don't care a dash and are not afraid".

Monckton's story of the same incident is different. After bad weather north of Sydney and some concerns regarding rig and pumps, he records only that, "At last we made Port Macquarie, telling a steamer that approached and wanted to tow us, to go to the devil, for we had awful visions before our eyes of claims for salvage". Guinevere then hailed the port's tug "and we were soon safely anchored in the river". A few paragraphs later, after leaving Port Macquarie, Monckton declares that, "We fell in on the way with the Spray and Captain Slocum, who hung on to us one night while he slept".

So who's telling the truth? Slocum, previously a captain of square rigged ships and then a lone hander, is scarcely going to 'hang on' to another vessels at sea while he sleeps. Yet Monkton had sailed pearling luggers and mother ships around New Guinea so it might be equally presumed he would not lie about a serious incident off Port Macquarie. I fear the truth of this remarkable moment must remain in limbo.

Returning to Dwight Long's Sailing all Seas in the Idle Hour, since leaving Sydney he had not called into any ports until Townsville, which, surprisingly, he compared to Hilo, Hawaii, "with its main street lined with coconut palms and a cosmopolitan population including Malays, Japanese, Chinese and aborigines sauntering along under the broad awnings and palms". It strikes me that good old Oz was more integrated then than it is now.

Dwight then sailed to Palm Island, which he described as "a compound for unruly aborigines of the great northern wastes of Australia" and that neighbouring Fantome Island (which he misspelt 'Fathom') "is used to harbour aborigines afflicted with various diseases". This is of particular interest to me because thirty-three years later, in 1971, as Palm Island's skipper, I was involved in the closure of Fantome's leper colony when authorities decided to place remnant patients in Palm Island Hospital. My most vivid memory is of my crew helping patients aboard from the workboat then rigging a cargo sling to bring aboard the seriously afflicted, one being an elderly lady who was blinded by the disease with hands and feet digit-less stumps. The only bright side of that sad event was that it might have been the last leper colony in Australia to close its doors, a stark reminder of how recently society beat that ghastly disease.

Old cruising books remind us how special long-distance sailors were in the days before fibreglass. By the mid 1960s, when production-line fibreglass boats were rolling out by the hundreds every year, allowing dreamers to become instant doers, all that changed. Suddenly we were a dime a dozen.

To those who enjoy such literature, there is no finer pastime than browsing second-hand bookshops or watching for classic reprints. They take the reader into an era that seems positively ancient yet much of it was within one person's lifespan.