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 Alan Lucas


By Alan Lucas, SY Soleares

As we all know, cockroaches are often unwanted guests aboard a cruising yacht, with most sailors able to spin at least one horror yarn about these orthopterous insects. Predictably, the same sailors have guaranteed methods of preventing cocky invasion, all of which fail dismally when the ultimate test comes: this being the night an army of occupation moves in and overwhelms your vessel in a matter of hours. Like the time in 1978 when we laid our recently built, cockroach-free schooner alongside the old Maryborough Public Wharf (the site of today's Mary River Marina) to celebrate her launching.

Later that night, after farewelling guests and returning to anchor, Patricia went into the galley to get a drink of water in the poor light of a quarter moon. In a sleepy stupor, she couldn't understand why the galley's light-coloured bench surface had turned brown. Touching the bench, she recoiled in horror as a thick carpet of cockroaches scattered in all directions. After a brief period of stunned disbelief, she brushed off those climbing her arm and urgently called for backup.

I have seen infestation of this magnitude on pearling luggers and other vessels involved in seafood, but never on a squeaky-clean, near new yacht whose owners fully understood the meaning of hygiene. Frankly, I was bereft of ideas as to how thousands of cockies could be eliminated without putting the crew ashore and bombing her. We settled for sticky mats and insecticide sprayed into every locker, shelf, bookcase, wardrobe, and even bilge and engine room. We then spent the night standing watch over our infant son lest he became the target of food-seeking vermin (as we will see, cockroaches will nibble humans under extreme conditions).

Rare though it is on a clean, well cared-for vessel, roach invasion of the above magnitude can nevertheless happen and there is plenty of historic evidence proving that it is far from new. Look at the well-documented case of the survey ship HMS Bramble back in the 1840s: she became so badly infested that her skipper, Lieut. Charles Yule of the Royal Navy, decided to sink her in Port Essington.

Port Essington, and its main settlement Victoria, was a short-lived attempt during the 1840s to establish a working port in the (now) Northern Territory. It lasted only a little over a decade, but in that time it gave welcome succour to many a ship, including HMS Bramble when she returned from a victualling exercise in Indonesia. She was loaded with nearly one hundred wild pigs, yams and other foodstuffs, and despite being smoked out and cleaned, cockroaches, quickly took control, becoming so bold as to nibble away at the extremities of the crew's bodies while they slept. Drastic measures were needed.

Lieut. Yule ordered everything moveable aboard to be taken ashore along with crew and officers who were obliged to camp in makeshift quarters behind the beach for the duration. The ship was then run aground at low tide, shores were placed under her bilges and a scuttle (large hole) was cut into her bottom to flood her to the waterline then freely admit the rising tide. At high water, only her masts and rigging were exposed by which time they had become a writhing mass of cockies desperately seeking higher ground. The crew happily vented their anger in what became a challenge to dispatch millions of cockroaches.

Bramble's cockroach numbers were estimated in gallons, 500 being the official figure for those floating ashore, with that many again drifting out to sea. In today's terms, that's around 4000 litres of vermin from one 165-ton vessel! The mind boggles, but only if you have never seen a real invasion. Patricia's and my experience in Maryborough leaves us in no doubt about the estimates. Happily though, modern chemicals eliminate the need to smoke and sink our vessel whilst poor old Bramble was obliged to repeat the process just a few months later when she arrived in Sydney Harbour, so quickly did the vermin return. And even after the second sinking, she became infested again soon after.

Most of us squirm at the thought of living with cockroaches, yet Mike Bailes, an intrepid cruising sailor of the 1970s, was quite comfortable with them. Despite a high intellect and a background in the Royal Navy, Mike had reduced cruising to its basics of minimum boat, minimum maintenance and an unbelievable anti-cockroach agenda. He lived and cruised internationally in a tiny, traditional Folkboat named Jellicle, which, he freely admitted was rotting in at him from both ends. A sentimentalist, his main boom was a polished mangrove pole given to him by a friend in Spain twenty years before and nothing would move him towards getting a 'proper' one.

But the most remarkable thing about Mike was his philosophical acceptance of 'his' cockroaches. Supping with him in his cramped heads-down-knees-up cabin took a little courage because the place was well endowed with cockies and when one of them came too close he calmly crushed it then chucked it into a corner. His theory was that if they eat their dead they wouldn't be hungry enough to attack his stores whilst controlling their population into the bargain.

As for the claim that some crewmembers had their extremities nibbled, I can also confirm this: not from personal experience but from a 1960s Cape York fisherman whose boat was a veritable pigsty. A lovely bloke, his attitude towards hygiene suggested he had never heard of it. His boat swarmed with cockies, so much so that the quicks around his fingernails were eaten away by, he frankly admitted, 'Cockroaches nibbling at me while I'm sleeping'.

If the idea of being eaten by cockies doesn't revolt you, try digesting this quote from the journal of Bramble's storeman, John Sweatman: "As the Bramble's cockroaches washed ashore in Port Essington, the natives gathered them up in handfuls to eat them!"

Cockroaches are a rich source of protein, I believe, and the idea of making them palatable for human consumption has been tossed around by food scientists for years: meanwhile I'm more than happy to stall the day with good hygiene and, if that ever fails again, with whatever chemicals it takes. When its all said and done, cockroach armies are like human armies: if they can't feed their troops, they won't occupy a clean vessel.

Well that's the beautiful theory anyway.

Oh, and by the way. Since becoming the basis of a marina, café and chandlery, Maryborough's old public wharf has never experienced a cocky invasion of such magnitude since that terrible night in 1978. To the contrary, I haven't heard one complaint about boat infestation from anyone who has berthed there since. Maybe we unwittingly blocked a rare migratory path of cockroaches rather than attracted an army of locals.