The boat bobs, rocks and rolls in the chop. My wife and daughter look a little green, wave splash dampens us. H pulls his hat down over his ears. I wish mine fitted better. We sit at the boundary between air and water, at a state change frontier between two fluids. Gravity pulls and the water pushes back – we float. Despite knowing why it works, floating still seems vaguely unlikely, like some great cosmic mistake. The land recedes with surprising speed, the dull chug thud of the engine belies its power. Old fishing boats sit along the harbour wall, waiting on better times, waiting for the fish to come back, many simply waiting. Newer boats, leisure boats, gather in tight clusters around the chance of fish, around GPS locations bought from local tackle shops, around echoes on the fish finders.
(Summer 1984 – Sherkin Island – Republic of Ireland. We head out when the sun is still just a pale glow behind the row of damp harbour houses. Out past Clear Island, south towards Fastnet Rock, with its lighthouse and its reputation for storms and strong, contrary currents. We seem to have less navigation equipment than a Viking Longboat – at least they had lode stones and years of experience. We seem to have neither. We plot our position by guess work, glimpses of land and the unshakeable confidence of Matt’s son – we don’t really care where we are, we just want a few water temperature readings for a trip planned for the next day, or next week or maybe never. It’s my first experience of sea sickness. I don’t think I’m going to die, but I wish I could. After six hours we get back to shore. The first footfall on solid land is like a religious conversion, a re-birth into a world I want to live in.)
A net is lowered off the back of the boat. Behind its rectangular frame a mesh bag streams in the boat current. As the rope is let out, it sinks to the bottom, where it trawls through the weed. The boat operators call it an ‘eco-grab’ – but it’s still just a net really. For a little while we sit without talking. Even the kids seem to know that we are not in our normal place, and react with unaccustomed silence. The waves continue to splash against the hull of the boat, and the wind clatters through the canvas over the deck. But we don’t talk.
Buckets, bowls and wide plastic trays are spread across the raised deck of the boat. It looks like the preparation for a picnic feast, but one where all the crockery is plastic and second hand. Clean and utilitarian, but second hand. After a short while the net is pulled back to the boat. Its green, drip sparkle contents are moved to the trays and into the buckets. It looks like an exotic salad, dressed with a thin sheen of oil. The weed settles in the tray and is then spread by eager hands. Movement often catches the eye, the wave of a leg, the flip of a fin. I try to take some pictures, but the boat rolls in unpredictable ways and I struggle for balance. This seems to be a time for participation rather than record keeping, so I put the camera away. Crabs rattle through the weed and soon fish are found – sea horses a few inches long, pipe fish like living string and a Pygmy Leather Jacket, more like a festive postage stamp than a fish. Brittlestars and starfish wave long fingered arms. Some would cover the palm of your hand, others would struggle to hide a finger nail. The closer you look the more you find, but the limits of the human eye and a bouncing boat put a cap on things eventually. Our boat’s grand circular tour ends where it starts and the weed and its animal stowaways are returned to the water. They sink from sight as we move off to look for larger things.
(Spring 1991- River Lune - Lake District - UK. Where the river narrows we pull the kayaks to the bank and look at the boils and eddies of the water. Steep bankside edges push out into the middle of the river, cutting down to half its upstream size. I remember it being called ‘The Slot’ but I doubt that it is. On this day I am a guinea pig for a group of kayak instructors, being assessed for their competence and skill. I, on the other hand, was picked for my realistic level of incompetence and well known loathing of kayaks. More than half of me wants to carry my boat around this bit of river, a part of me wants to have a go and the rest is simply uncertain and subject to peer pressure. In the end I push my boat away from the bank and head for the top of the slot. The boat sinks a little into the cappuccino foam of turbulence and I start to paddle, paddle hard. It really is a straight run and a few seconds and half a lifetime later I swing the nose of the boat into a welcoming eddy. People are laughing – apparently I was so intent on staying upright and going forward I was actually not putting the blades of my paddle in the water at all – I was air paddling all the way down. At this point Keith drifts over and says ‘well done’. But then he says ‘at some time you are going to have to fall out of the boat; I need to see if these guys can rescue you!” So even if you win in a kayak you lose!)
Our boat plods on through the water. Here the lay of the land gives a little shelter to the water, the waves decrease, the splashing lessens. A bay dolphin shows a fin and disappears. A gull, held by the invisible string of possible food, hangs over the back of the boat. Another fluid traveller that seems to defy logic. What seems to be a garden hut or pergola takes shape on the horizon. It’s a round structure, with a steep pointed roof. It’s known, with a degree of cultural insensitivity and a good deal of accuracy, as Chinaman’s Hat. The boat arcs towards it and as we come down wind we all wrinkle our noses. Lying side by side, Australasian Fur Seals cover the floor of the Hat. Their diet of sea food seems to be responsible for the olfactory assault, and to make the point crystal clear a large male dumps yesterday’s food gracelessly into the ocean. Most people are breathing through their mouths by this point. The acrid stench seems implausibly strong – especially as we are out of doors! Later in the day, back at the house, as I am hanging up jackets and coats I catch a whiff of the same smell, burnt into the cloth. It’s disturbing to think how much of this we breathed in. As we circle and move upwind people breathe a sigh of relief, until, that is, we move downwind again. Some of the fur seals roll-fall off the platform and dive under the boat. It seems like play. Some lie on their backs and wave flippers. Most just lie on the platform and stink to high heaven.
We leave the seals to their own ends and thud away from the acrid stink. Soon we pull into the calmer waters of the Pope’s Eye – another place named with the insensitivity of the past. It’s a C shaped pile of rocks, built on an existing marine reef. Initially intended to be the site for guns to guard the shipping lanes of the Heads, its purpose was overtaken by better guns mounted on land. The raiders never came to steal Melbourne’s gold and now the rocks are home to a colony of Australian Gannets. Sharp billed and territorial they sit side by side, boundary battles temporarily put to one side, raising their ugly duckling chicks. The adults have fine, bone yellow heads, the colour fading down the neck. Wings, with dark ink dipped tips, taper down to points sharp enough to match their fish spear bills. Overhead the wings flutter snap at the air as they semi hover and position themselves for a landing. The chicks look skyward with seeming optimism, waiting for food, hoping for fish. On land and surface of the sea these birds look slightly awkward, feet too far back, wings too long. But in the fluid of the sky and the flash of the dive they come to life. A fish spear made living through the long ages of selection. Structure and function cut from the chance collision of change and environment. We leave the fishers to their fish; gannets, seals and the casters of lines, hooks and nets.
The boat turns away from the Eye and heads back towards the shore. Back towards Queenscliff, back towards the harbour. We bob in the slight swell of the falling tide. My kids are still quiet but their smiles speak volumes . It’s as much as I need to hear.