Beyond the Big Bend by Greg Barron
The slip and glide of the oars, and the flap of the sails soothes my heart as we sail and row down the Goolwa Channel, with Hindmarsh Island to port, and the isthmus of low sand, shearwater nests and spinifex that separates us from a raging sea to starboard. Six stout men on board and the whaleboat is filled to the gunnels with equipment. The sounds of quiet talk, and the cries of birds combine to sooth my soul, for I am in turmoil inside. I am angry, helplessly angry, for things in recent days have not gone my way.
That foolish boatbuilder, Henry Chowne, upon my arrival in Sydney, and after accepting my cheque for two thousand pounds – so hard won from my deal with the South Australian Government and through the agency of a Melbourne moneylender – showed me a glaringly incomplete Lady Augusta and admitted that we would have to delay the launch. God how I hate delays.
My dear Captain Cadell, he had said. I thank you for the receipt of the two-thousand-pound progress payment. Unfortunately, I have bad news. Men of all trades are deserting my employ and heading for the Australian goldfields and this is causing chaos in the yard. I’m sure you understand that this makes it difficult …
What fool of a man cannot keep his tradesmen from chasing dreams of millionairedom in far flung wildernesses? I hear also that Chowne is mixed up in business problems; lawsuits and such with his brothers. That kind of thing I have no patience for.
He attempted to talk me around to a launch date in April, but after a torrid argument we settled on March 24. Even then my new flagship will not be fully finished – the engines not installed at that stage and some of the fitout incomplete.
Forced to resume my duties as master of the Cleopatra, I steamed back to Adelaide via Melbourne with the usual cargoes and tedious passengers at the captain’s table. My problems worsened at Port Adelaide when the fool of a pilot, John Taylor by name, refused to let me take the Cleopatra ashore to have her hull scrubbed – a sorely needed procedure. Once he had been rowed off towards the shore I admit that my temper got the better of me.
I took it upon myself to take the steamer in, ordered forward revolutions and set off. It was then that the cockswain of a nearby boat called out that our screw had contacted a disused mooring chain (where I do not believe any mooring should have been) and had fouled.
I called on the mate to investigate, and after a glance over the stern he replied that he was not convinced that the screw was foul, and that we should try again. Thanks to this irresponsible report I ordered forward revolutions again, at which point the screw, but lightly wrapped at that stage became fully entangled. Oh, what embarrassment for a man such as I, with passengers, crew, and neighbouring boats all laughing at this misfortune.
I did, of course, protest directly to Governor Young of the incompetence of the port authorities in leaving a disused mooring hidden under the water. They, however, counter attacked by launching an inquiry. This kangaroo-court decided that by moving my ship, after she had been moored and secured by a licensed pilot, I had violated No. 2 Schedule A of the Ordinance No. 3 or some such rot, and thereby incurred a penalty of £20. You can imagine how the fires of my rage are burning at this.
Even now, heading down the Goolwa Channel, my face reddens with the memory. But like any man of action, I am determined that the delay while a team of divers from Feejee work to untangle the mess will be worthwhile, for with the Cleopatra going nowhere for several days I planned and executed a hurried trip down to the Goolwa.
Of all the things on my mind over the first four months of 1853, first and foremost is a murderous beast, capricious and capable of murder on a whimsy. Even I, Captain Cadell know a killer when I meet one, and the bar of the River Murray has killed ships and men before. We go forth to help ensure the Lady Augusta’s safe passage.
This will be my second attempt to scout out the treacherous and narrow channels hidden amongst the breaking surf and pressure waves. The first was undertaken in January, in a government skiff we carried overland from Encounter Bay, in the company of my agent William Younghusband, the pilot from Port Eliot and three stout oarsmen.
We ran out through the bar, taking white water over the bow, and showing our bravado, plying the ash blades like Hercules powered our left arms and Achilles the right. Safely we rode the swells back through to the calm, holding position, broaching down the face of several waves but this was easily corrected with the oars.
Fired with salt-lust and courage I decided to repeat the adventure, steering us again for the break. This time, meeting a much larger set of waves than before, we came unstuck.
Every true mariner has felt the gut swooping fear when he sees the green glassy slopes of the wave that he knows will bring mayhem and destruction on the boat in his charge. This knowledge comes long before the event, for in a seaman’s mind always is the capabilities of his vessel. After this realisation there is nothing but prayer and hope; that some quirk of the sea or the hand of God will intervene.
Not this time. Our skiff was grasped in the jaws of that wave as if in the fangs of some seaborne tiger. The boat rolled and all six aboard were dumped into the surf, cold water, and fully clothed as we were, a disaster. And the next wave, it seemed was even larger, picking me up bodily and twisting me around.
Thankfully we made it onto the beach alive, and to assuage my shame I told myself that in a well-found whaleboat (like the one I am in now), with a crew of scurvy fellows the capsize would not have happened, but it was true that I’d taken a knock to my pride, and for many nights I had nightmares of the Lady Augusta, my new riverboat rolling on that same wave, my hopes and dreams of a riverboat fleet on the Murray River torn asunder. And as the months passed I realised that the scant knowledge of the bar that I had gained in that disastrous foray were useless, for the channels change almost weekly.
Now, with the Cleopatra in Adelaide until the morrow, I have recruited men to camp on the beach here, study and mark the channels so that we will know the way in when I return with the Lady Augusta. At least then something good might come of these weeks of bad fortune.
Ahead we see the high ground of Barker’s Knoll and Observation Hill, and it is on the beach below this small peak, that tents will be pitched for my observers who will watch and buoy the mouth – that half-mile gape of the great river.
In several weeks’ time I must cross this terrible stretch of water with a river boat not made for such a place – a river boat has no vee in the hull – no grip on the water. But the paradox is that I must bring the Lady Augusta through or give up all hope of glory.
I hear that Randell is coming to Goolwa with his home-made steamer in less than one week, and dearly I would love to stay and view that odd little creation, But the Cleopatra must sail with tomorrow’s tide for Port Melbourne and then Sydney, just in time for our delayed launch date.
Now, as the stem of the whaleboat thumps into the beach, and we unload stores, pitch tents, and say our farewells to those who will stay behind, I can smell the inland borne on that river. For me it is the smell of future wealth. Dare I hope, an empire?
Continued next week …
©2021 Greg Barron