Sea Fever

I have happy boyhood memories of a tiny steamship called Marana. I was fascinated by the sea and thought perhaps, one day, I might join the Navy. Suddenly and surprisingly this was given a practical side when my Uncle Bill, a member of Marana's crew, asked me if I would like to come on an extended trip. The voyage was only for two days visiting the D'Entrecasteaux Channel ports south of Hobart but it sounded like an adventure and I jumped at the chance. This was the first of many dozens of trips aboard Marana.

Marana was one of a fleet of fine little steamers included Cartela, Excella, Breone, Bass, Melba and a few others. They carried passengers exclusively at times but their main job was moving cargo around the islands and waterways adjoining the River Derwent estuary. Cartela is the sole survivor.

The ship I got to know and love was Marana. She was 90-100 tons and had neat lines and was said to have been built with immaculate care. Marana was supposedly a better sailer than the larger Cartela which was reputed to roll excessively in a heavy sea but I never learnt if this was true.

Though I was only ten years old I thought of myself as a sailor already. For the next few years, my holidays, many weekends, and sometimes when I ought to have been at school were spent on board Marana. My uncle insisted I learn the ropes and something of the sea and these beautiful little vessels. He asked me to write down the name of every item about a ship, learn what it was, and be sure I could tell him if he asked what is a f'c's'le, a marlin spike, a binnacle, a spanker, a Plimsoll mark, or whatever. I didn't need any urging and searched dictionaries for rare words so as not to be caught out. I struck a problem with John Masefield's poem "Sea Fever" which has the line 'And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by'. What was 'a star to steer her by'? Was it another name for the wheel or the rudder or some other gadget to keep the ship on course? I never considered a star in the sky as a possibility until, after admitting my ignorance, Uncle Bill set me on course and taught me the first steps in celestial navigation! I have never forgotten the night sky since then and it led to a life‑long interest in astronomy, nor have I forgotten "Sea Fever"!

Marana was commanded by Captain Perc Chitty, a gentleman who treated me with utmost kindness. He, too, would pass on pieces of sea-lore and the law of the sea. I thought of myself as a member of his crew but probably surprised him when I first answered "Aye, aye, Captain" and saluted. Although nautical charts and the compass were rarely needed on these tiny voyages I was taught how to use them. My duties included a regular turn at the wheel to steer the ship. Leaving a port was always with the captain at the wheel, but a few minutes into the voyage, say when passing Battery Point on leaving Hobart, it was my turn to take the wheel to Dennes Point or Opossum Bay. I realise now the captain was probably keeping a close watch on me because he was always nearby particularly when we sailed passed Taroona where he lived. Captain Chitty was always whistling, like a canary, but his whistling has left a pleasant memory. When we sailed passed his home he would whistle a little louder than usual. Within a minute a blanket or sheet could be seen being draped over a balcony at one house. This was how his wife acknowledged his greeting.

We stayed overnight on Tuesdays and Thursdays at Dover. In this quiet spot, away from public view, I was sometimes allowed to drive the winch to move cargo between the ship's hold and the wharf. I recall operating the steam throttle valve with one hand while, with the other hand, I reversed the up/down lever when the order came.

One time I was sent down into the coal-bunker, supposedly to level out the coal. Within a minute, a bag of coal was dumped on top of me. When I emerged, as black as a chimney-sweep, to the laughter of the crew, I felt I had been given my initiation as a shipmate. My bunk was in the crew's quarters aft and there I heard, just as Masefield's poems says, many a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover.

On another occasion a southerly 'buster' drove a pod of whales to shelter in the haven of Great Taylor Bay. As we sailed passed, we left these relatively calm waters to confront the great swell of the Southern Ocean and Marana began rolling. "Have you seen whales before?" I was asked. "No!" I replied. "Go up the mast," I was ordered, "you'll see them better from up there." Was this another part of my initiation? I had wondered what climbing a swaying mast of a square-rigger was like, now I had some idea. I was never once seasick but this was one time I felt it, yet somehow avoided the embarrassment of publicly "feeding the fishes" from the masthead.

When Marana was out of the water and on the Domain slip for maintenance I was able to ponder the power in her massive four-bladed propellor and to study the fine lines of her hull. But this was not a time for idle musings. I was shown new things to do, such as making oakum and caulking the deck, and to the dozens of knots I had learned to tie was added the splicing of ropes.

Although races between these little ships had been banned many years before my time, I was on board Marana when she and Cartela had an unofficial race, or rather, a kind of a race. On this day both vessels had quite a load of passengers to take to Opossum Bay and South Arm. Cartela left Brooke St pier, stern first, turned and set off. On the other side of the pier, Marana went through the same manoeuvres and set off in pursuit. No race had been planned but Marana with a good head of steam gained on Cartela. The story quickly went around that Cartela was "Cock of the River" and not to be headed. As the gap closed our passengers got excited. They were in racing mood and so was Captain Chitty who called for more steam. Meanwhile, Cartela had not been idle. Her passengers were fired up too and her stokers worked harder but could not get up enough steam in time. When Marana inched passed Cartela a mighty cheer went up. With Marana tied up at Opposum Bay jetty first and Cartela having to wait for us to leave the cheering and jeering continued. I felt as proud as a peacock for my ship to have won.

The mutton-birds, in their millions, disappearing overnight to begin their long journey to the Arctic, the hordes of scallop-boats plundering the Channel, the albatrosses never flapping their wings and porpoises swimming at our bow, and much, much more, are childhood memories Mark Twain could not have bettered.

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