My best buddy and frequent Write On! contributor Colin Gray almost came to grief last Tuesday when a family outing went horribly wrong.
Here is his account of his own personal Titanic, Portarlington style.
Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale,
A tale of a fateful trip
That started from this tropic port,
Aboard this tiny ship…
Allow me to tell you about a sea bound journey of adventure and rescue in a small dinghy off the shores of Portarlington on Victoria’s Port Phillip Bay.
Melbourne Cup Day 2007.
My wife Jo, 13 year old son Adam, 11 year old daughter Kathryn, my trusty dog Ella and I travelled to the family holiday home at Portarlington on the Bellarine Peninsula. The plan was to spend a relaxing long weekend of sightseeing, golfing, swimming, eating and…boating.
Following the torrential rain that kept us indoors for the entire Sunday – Carpet Bowls being the entertainment for much of the day, Monday’s miserable game of golf at Royal St. Leonards was abandoned after 12 holes. I had left my golf buggy handle at home and was lugging my clubs around the course with a golf umbrella as my makeshift buggy handle. I soon got tired of my buggy and bag falling over, the gale wind, searching for my ball in the scrub and my children arguing around the course. The last straw was when I swallowed a fly on the twelfth green.
We packed up and went home, vowing that Tuesday (Melbourne Cup Day) would be a much better day.
Cup Day was going to be great fun. The girls had picked flowers to put in their hair to get into the horse racing spirit. We ran a sweep for 20cents each per race and we really became involved in the excitement of watching Dad’s horses continually lose while everyone else cleaned up with monotonous regularity.
When Adam suggested we get the Sabot Yacht out of the garage and take her sailing, I jumped at the chance to get out on the water. The conditions were perfect, the bay as flat as glass, not a ripple in sight. We had sailed our yacht “Summerlea Jack” on a few occasions but I still had some repairs to do on the mast so today we decided to use her as a row boat.
Kathryn and I set off in the row boat while Adam went solo in the Kayak. It really was glorious out on the bay, even Kathryn who can be a bit cautious when it comes to adventure was quite relaxed sitting at the stern of the boat.
We hadn’t been out for long when Kathryn mentioned that the waves were starting to gather. I didn’t worry because the water was still relatively flat and we weren’t that far from shore anyway. I was keeping an eye on Adam in the kayak though but he is quite an accomplished rower and the kayak is easily maneuverable, unlike the somewhat clumsy row boat under our oars.
I started singing the theme to Gilligan’s Island,
“The weather started getting rough,
The tiny ship was tossed.
If not for the courage of the fearless crew,
The Minnow would be lost.”
Kathryn, beginning to get nervous, asked me to stop singing and head back for shore. [Editor note – her ears were probably hurting from your ‘singing’]
Looking at the turning tide I agreed that this was probably a good idea, not so much to return to shore but to get a little closer to the beach.
Since I was rowing with my back to the shore, I had no idea that all of a sudden my efforts at rowing were becoming futile. Each row I was taking, the rip was sending me further away. I glanced over my shoulder to find that by now my loyal dog on the beach waiting for us was a pin dot in the distance…
Still unaware of the danger we were in I got tired of rowing and called out to Adam to come to me with his Kayak. I tied a rope from our boat to his kayak with the brilliant idea of him towing us back to shore along with me rowing from behind. This of course didn’t work and I started to wonder how in fact I could get our vessel back to land. I sent Adam back to safety which he did with no problems but I soon found out that my oars were as useless as Paddle Pop sticks against the force of the tide.
The waves were now beginning to roll up and hit the side of the dinghy quite strongly. Adam fortunately was back on the sand. I soon found that my oars were no match for the power of nature and within seconds we were being sent out to sea with the houses on the shore now the pin dots in the distance.
In the words of HR Pufnstuf,
“The skies grew dark
The sea grew rough
And the boat sailed on and on and on and on and on and on….”
Kathryn by now was crying, telling me she didn’t want to die. I was trying to remain calm and assured her that I had the situation totally under control…
My efforts at rowing were useless but I had to show Kathryn I was making some sort of attempt to get her home. After all I am my little girl’s hero and I can’t let her down in our direst moment.
Secretly though I’ve never felt so useless in all my life.
My last chance to save the day was to rip off my shirt and cap and jump in the water with some faint hope of swimming back, pulling the boat behind me by rope. This of course also proved hopeless as again every stroke I tried I was advancing 1 forward and 2 backwards. [Editor note – this is also what happens when Colin tries to swim laps in a pool]
Kathryn was becoming frantic, so much so that she now wanted to try swimming back. I do know that the golden rule is to always stay with the boat [!] and although my little girl is quite accomplished at the 25m lap pool, 1.5kms in the choppy sea would be well beyond her.
I would be of no use to my daughter by becoming fatigued so after what seemed like forever trying to swim I gave up the idea of pulling the boat back. I could feel a cramp coming to my left calf and hung onto the side of the drifting boat for several minutes.
Kathryn thought she could see a sand bar way off in the distance. I knew it was useless (and probably some kind of a mirage) but to make her feel better I regained my strength and had another go at swimming to the imaginary sand bar. If I could only put my feet down it would be a huge victory but of course it was all to no avail.
I was really becoming exhausted and made half an attempt to climb back in the boat but my attempts to get my bulky frame on board almost caused the boat to tip over.
Bad idea thought I and resided myself to the fact that I would now have to stay in the water.
What was Adam doing all this time? He had run back to the house to get Mum. We could barely see them both now standing on the sand. Kathryn and I were waving madly and yelling out to them for help but neither Mum nor Adam seemed to be doing anything.
In fact as Kathryn described the moment
“I’m going to die and no one’s doing anything to help me…”
I don’t know what she thought I was doing in the water but I know what she meant.
They were so far away that I couldn’t tell which one was Jo and which was Adam but one of them went running along the beach towards the boat ramp which is 1km from our house. Hopefully they would find someone launching a boat to come and rescue us.
We then lost sight of both of them and all hope seemed lost again. I was still clinging to the side of the boat, getting frightfully sunburnt. I had swallowed an awful lot of sea water but I was still trying to reassure Kathryn that no matter what, even if we drifted we were in the bay and would have to hit land sooner or later. [Ed – Portsea? Tahiti? Hawaii?]
Eventually my heart lifted because in the distance I could see a fishing boat and it seemed to be heading our way. I made myself as tall as I could in the water and waved madly [Ed – not drowning, waving?] towards the approaching boat which was becoming larger than life the nearer it was emerging.
But Pufnstuf was watching too
And knew exactly what to do
Yes. There was no mistaking the fact that the fisherman had spotted us. He was heading straight for us, slowing down to negotiate the rescue. We first tied our dinghy to his boat, then with a great effort to get my fat guts on board his boat I nearly tipped all of us into the water.
The fisherman told me he would get to the stern of the boat to balance the weight while I was trying to climb aboard the bow.
We expressed our sincerest thanks and made the introductions. Our fisherman friend’s name was Brenton and he lived just up the road from us. I could tell by the way he was looking at me that he was thinking ‘what the hell are you doing out here?’.
I explained to him that we had been near the shore and it had taken just a matter of moments to get ourselves in trouble. Brenton had remarked that he had been out fishing and had noticed us earlier paddling around by the shore. He too had commented on how quickly the tide had changed.
Brenton said he could see a kid on the beach (Adam) frantically waving to him and pointing in our direction. He told me that he had a bite on his rod at the time and didn’t want to leave his fishing!
Brenton eventually caught on that something was amiss and thankfully motored his boat in our direction to see what Adam was pointing at.
I was very proud of Adam to think quickly under the circumstances and after a huge family hug we made it back to the house just in time to see the Melbourne Cup – 90 minutes after we had set sail.
The picture above was taken when we first set sail, on the calmest of waters –
Never underestimate the power of Port Phillip Bay.