Beyond the Big Bend by Greg Barron
Like most of the passengers on board the Lady Augusta, Anne Finniss decided that the prospect of a race was a fine thing, and when the Mary Ann churned past them at dawn, a gust of excitement blew through the guests. The last few days had been interesting enough already. Captain Cadell had wakened the ships’ company at four am the previous morning to view a comet and its bright tail streaking across the sky. There had also been the introduction of dancing on the promenade deck after supper.
‘How in deuces did Randell manage to get past us?’ asked Governor Young, but Cadell was not on hand to answer, for he was already shouting orders, preparing to raise the anchors before the boilers reached full steam.
It was only when the Lady Augusta began chuffing upriver in close pursuit of her rival that Cadell shouted back from the helm station to the promenade deck, his voice fuelled with bravado. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, we have a race on our hands.’
Anne admired him so much; full of bravado and confidence, obviously relishing the challenge, but soon he was lost to sight as he went about the business of commanding the boat. For the next ten minutes she stood at the rail, half listening to Jamieson and Bright discussing the relative horsepowers and speeds of the two vessels.
‘The little Mary Ann has just one-fifth of our horsepower,’ said Jamieson, ‘but of course she’s not towing a barge.’
‘Exactly,’ replied Bright. ‘Her power-to-weight is possibly higher than ours, and she doesn’t have the windage.’
‘That boiler though … everyone knows it’s Randell’s Achilles’ heel.’
Travers appeared, his face shining with excitement. ‘I can’t wait to see the look on Captain Randell’s face when we catch up to them. Mister McAulay says that we might even ram them – he says that Captain Randell is angry enough to.’
Anne ruffled his hair, ‘Nonsense, the Chief Steward is getting carried away with himself. No one will be ramming anyone. It’s just two captains having fun, that’s all.’
‘I saw a sea eagle nest on a tree on the Victorian side just before, did you see it?’
Before Anne had a chance to answer, Lily Younghusband came up the ladder, and Anne saw her son’s attention wander, hurrying over to whisper something in the girl’s ear. Lily giggled and they ran together down to the main deck.
As the morning wore on, the general interest in catching up to the Mary Ann grew to fever pitch. Soon the rival steamer was visible ahead on the longer river straights, and her nimble hull was proving to be faster than anyone had expected.
The Lady Augusta had an insatiable need for wood, however, and at Nurang, a station owned by a Mr Hamilton, they stopped and loaded a cache of many tons, which had been organised by letter weeks earlier, and cut by station workers. The loading was done at break-neck pace, and not even the most social of the ladies insisted on stopping for morning tea or luncheon.
Further on, at Cuttnab they found the Mary Ann at anchor, for this was a dairy station, and supplies of buttermilk, butter and cheese were welcomed by the crews of both vessels, and reason enough for a cessation of hostilities. The Lady Augusta anchored ahead of her rival, and reciprocal visits followed.
William Randell, his brother Tom, the Reverend Davies and a crewman came aboard the Lady Augusta for a tour, and Anne liked them as people but as rivals to her Captain Cadell’s plans to dominate the river she despised them. Randell, to her, was a small man in the way of a big man, a sprat that was distracting from the glory of this first great river journey.
When a reciprocal visit was arranged, Anne demurred, but took a nap in the women’s cabin, only removing herself when she heard the Mary Ann’s engines start, and the smaller steamer passing by them, while Cadell finalised the stowing of goods and the readiness of passengers. The social visits, it seemed, had only intensified the passions of the two captains to race as far as Swan Hill.
Slowly, through the afternoon, the Lady Augusta crept up on the smaller steamer, until they could see her up ahead, her single stack trailing smoke, on all but the sharpest bends. No one remained below by then, and Anne’s hands gripped the rail, unable to understand why this race was suddenly so important to her.
The promenade deck was packed with guests craning their necks and exchanging encouragement – watching the river for a wide enough stretch for their captain to make his move. A cheer rang out as they came up on the right-hand bank, slowly starting to pull ahead. They could all see William Randell at the helm, giving them a disconsolate wave and his gloomy expression provoking laughter from the Lady Augusta’s guests.
As they moved into the lead position Captain Cadell’s voice rang out, rich with excitement. ‘We are again in first place, Ladies and Gentlemen.’
For the next hour the Mary Ann pressed closely from behind. The wind had shifted, blowing strongly downriver, and the Lady Augusta, with her towering accommodations, caught the wind like a racing yacht’s spinnaker. The smaller vessel was unburdened by the drag and windage of a much larger hull, and a hundred-foot-long barge.
There was suddenly a flurry of activity at the helm, and Anne soon saw the reason for this. A junction appeared ahead, both branches of equal stateliness and width. It was obvious that there was a moment of indecision, a flurry of looking at charts, and shouted orders.
Finally the order rang out to steer for the left branch, and indeed it seemed to be the greater of the two. Again the engines moved to full power and the paddlewheels churned the river surface to white. The decision to take that branch was borne out when the Mary Ann followed.
Yet, before long the channel narrowed, and the passengers began to mutter that their captain had made a mistake. Soon overhanging trees were threatening navigation on both sides. The mood changed to despair, especially as the Mary Ann must have realised that they had picked the wrong channel, and being small and manoeuvrable, backed up and disappeared.
It seemed inconceivable to Anne that Captain Cadell had made a mistake, but worse was to come. A vast river red gum on the right-hand bank had a branch that grew out over the river, a stately and massive shaft of hardwood, and they could all see that the Lady Augusta was about to pass underneath.
With a shouted roar Captain Cadell ordered the engines into reverse, and the promenade deck cleared. There was no order in the confusion, and no time to carry it out, for that mighty branch swept the decks, and many of the passengers simply fell flat on their faces – ladies and gentlemen alike.
Anne was one of the first to regain her feet, and when the Captain called back to ask if there were any problems it was she who replied in the negative. By then he was already engrossed in the task of turning the unwieldy vessels back the way they had come.
By the time the turn had been managed, and the Lady Augusta was steaming back towards the Murray, Jeray and Gylmore were already cleaning up the mess of leaves, sticks and gum nuts – and the passengers were back at the rail. Word arrived in the form of William Webb, the First Officer, that the channel they had just entered was called the Wakool, an anabranch of the Edward, and Captain Cadell had steamed into it purposefully, to discover its suitability for navigation. It was not, as some people might suppose, a mistake of navigation.
Any bad feelings or worry from this incident were dispelled when, a little down the channel, they came upon William Randell and his crew in the process of effecting repairs, for the Mary Ann had also had a run-in with an overhanging branch, and it had carried their mast clean away.
‘See you at Swan Hill,’ shouted one of the gentlemen from the rail, and even Anne felt as if the natural order of things had been restored, with the Lady Augusta in the lead. Life, it seemed to her, was very interesting indeed.
Continued next week …
©2021 Greg Barron
Image is of the PS Gem and another unidentified paddle steamer. State Library of South Australia.