READER'S YARN - Rough Diamonds

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A <I>Trade-a-Boat</I> reader, JOHN TIMMERS, turns off the highway at Maryborough, Queensland, and finds a life on the water ticking to an old beat

READER'S YARN - Rough Diamonds
READER'S YARN — Rough Diamonds

Maryborough (QLD) was a city that blurred by every week for decades as I drove through for business in Hervey Bay, and it offered so little that stopping to explore was a waste of time. Like a lot of towns in Oz it makes claim to historic significance, and perhaps that’s all that’s left: a dowager on her death-bed remembering the good times; the rough pubs, the fights, the brothels, but with a diluted sense of decency.

We called into Maryborough to effect repairs on our trailersailer, and discovered the tourist attractions of well-presented old buildings. There’s also a beautifully restored little steam train with a vertical boiler that runs through the park. But to my eyes it’s just sanitised history that cuts the real personality away in favour of a cellophane, gift-wrapped yesteryear. History, too, is market driven.

When directed to a nearby steel worker, I found in contrast some rundown workshops with a weathered sign proclaiming, "Whites Welding Works… no job too big or too small". The workshops are the remnants of a huge boatyard located on the city side of the Mary River. They have operated for more than 100 years producing varieties of ships and boats.

I entered the first shed looking for Barry, who I was told would look after me and was one of nature’s gentlemen. Looking around, I saw thick timber poles carrying deep timber beams that still support riveted iron structures and travelling gantries some 25 feet above the uneven concrete floor. Steel working tools stood all around. Barry approached, dressed in aged-blue welder’s clothes, and introduced himself. Noting my interest he pointed up to the gantry, "That’s the height of the last flood. Happens most years around here," he said.

I looked up and noticed the dark underside of corrugated roofing with so many holes that it looked more like the night sky with a constellation of stars. And I had to be careful where I stood on a floor that was covered by wide sheets of muddy puddles. "Leaks a bit," I commented.

"Yeah. Gutters got holes in ’em," says Barry, who immediately embarked on a lengthy explanation of how the roof leaked.

I love old buildings, but had to move on, and Whisper my trailer-yacht needed a new cable to lift the keel. It’s a lovely little sailboat, a Botterill Explorer 16 and to my mind, quite collectable; my MGB on water. See TAB next issue for my profile on the yacht.

Barry kindly offered to attend to it right away. He set to work with a crane and slings to lift the boat onto an old metal frame that, like the rest of the place, seemed fit only for scrap metal. But Barry sees treasure in every corner. The frame served well and looked readymade for the task.

Barry, spritely, tall and wiry, with a full head of grey hair, is 72 years-old, and doesn’t know how to retire. Still comes to ‘work’ every day. He grabbed a ladder and set to work.

There were more improvements I wanted for my Explorer; little jobs that round-off the experience of owning a ‘collectable’ and towing it from ramp to ramp. I had noticed other sheds. Barry laughed, "There’s enough room for your little boat John, but I hope you don’t mind the scrap iron."

I wandered into the remaining sheds and tasted the maritime history firsthand. Every bay of posts held yet another high gantry. Roof sheets were full of holes or missing altogether, as were external walls. The floors had lengths of steel rails still visible.

The sheds went on forever and several large boats were set-up on frames and under construction or repair. The image of noise and men in overalls, of a shipbuilding industry in days gone by, crowded unbidden into my imagination. This, I realised, was a living museum, the scraps of cast-iron took on meaning, and I loved it to my soul.

Even the few men present seemed to leap out of the past. None was less than 60, and all had a deep connection with the sea. Doc was two years past 60 and he swore and struggled with his large undertaking. He told of sailing the 70-foot workboat singlehanded from Newcastle up the coast and around Fraser Island, then up the Mary to Maryborough. Every second word was an expletive and I have never heard rougher language.

The other men joined him in this rough camaraderie. Butch, big, tough, grey ponytail, old injuries now holding him back, laughed a broad welcome. Bazza, a quiet and gentle man, worked a set of new cupboards and offered to lend me his precious woodworking tools. Dickie, a big sea-farer, put his arm on my shoulder as a sign of friendship. And the expletives flowed very like the muddy Mary. Yet beneath the bluster and bravado, something far more sensitive struggled through.

Doc had taken time off to show me his favourite storm photos on his laptop. I saw huge freight and navy ships dwarfed by terrible seas. "I’m moving the old girl across to the f…ing slip." (The language was colourful, so use your imagination). He added brusquely, "But no f…ing passengers."

I ignored the grumbled rebuke. "If you need a hand," I offered, "give me a hoy." I walked to the riverbank over a new steel gangway, through the mangroves, and to a dilapidated wharf. The wharf, also from a past era, was made of age-darkened timber. Odd bits of flooring had been added where other parts had rotted or washed away in floods. The floor angled dangerously so I walked carefully, testing wet boards that glistened with slime.

Despite my care, my shoe slipped and my arms windmilled automatically. In slow-motion, I propelled to the side of a boat tied alongside and thumped gratefully against her massive dirty timber hull. Too big to flinch, the Aquilla loomed above me like a protective hen. So this was the 70-foot workboat that Doc had talked about.

Still a work in progress, she managed to look ready for sea. I glanced upwards at this capable vessel and everything about her spoke of rugged determination. I stretched and clambered up and over the rail and onto her timber deck. I wondered at the agility of Doc and his mates.

Aquilla’s bow pointed upstream and rose high above the water. The wheelhouse had been moved back to its original position at the canoe stern, and was painted white. To my inexperienced eyes she appeared well on the way to completion and despite the debris, ropes were neatly coiled on her wooden deck.

Butch had followed me aboard, "It’s not done for looks see, it’s so you don’t tangle with your feet, and the rope comes away without knotting." He nodded at Doc, who strutted about double checking and muttering to himself, "He’s bloody particular he is, but he bloody well knows what he’s doing.

The Aquilla was an honest vessel, accustomed to hard work she still maintained the work ethic she had been born to; a madam of the sea, proud, broad and stubborn.

Doc had explained she was built for the Navy and used as a munitions supply ship in the sixties. Something inside me reasoned for wooden boats to handle dangerous stuff like that — metal caused sparks and such? A question for later, perhaps?

Aquilla had been sold out of service, had her wheelhouse moved to the bow, and was converted to a trawler. She certainly looked capable of tackling a big sea. But at the end, after years of faithful work, the fishing crew had given up, tied her to the wharf, and walked away; water slowly seeping into her bilges. Doc had rescued her just in time.

On the big day of the move, Doc climbed down from Aquilla’s deck. "Reckon you can carry a weight?" he grumbled at me.

"Sure," I replied, following him into the sheds.

He grabbed one handle of a 3kVa generator and pointed to the other end. Doc doesn’t waste words. The machine weighed a ton, and Doc not much over five feet tall, made it look light. Or had he given me the heavy end? We hauled it onto the top of a pylon and Doc climbed aboard. He then grabbed the unit in both hands and heaved it, singlehanded, over the rail. I would have struggled with such a weight and commented to Butch, "He’s a strong little bastard."

I was living a remaining piece of Maryborough’s history. The Mary was once its lifeblood and this was just a tail end. I discovered, too, that people like Doc, Butch, Barry and Bazza, are the part of that same history; genuine people, a rough life, tough work, swearing and heavy drinking, and just like the Aquilla, rough diamonds of the sea.

Doc was still busy eyeing every detail, securing ropes and mumbling to himself, getting ready to leave on the height of the tide. Soon I would have to leave. And Doc’s opinion of pleasureboaters couldn’t be clearer. Yesterday, he had, pointing a crooked finger at my little fibreglass yacht. "That’s not a boat," he’d mumbled, "that’s just a piece of plastic. If god had wanted plastic boats, He’d have planted plastic f…ing trees!"

But now Doc looked me in the eye. "You wanna come along?"


1). Aquilla on the Mary River.

2). Doc checking the lines.

3 & 4). Our reader pulled into this Maryborough workshop for repairs to his trailersailer and stepped back in time.

5). Doc dessed for a friend's funeral. He's an old-time seaman who reckons fibreglass pleasureboats aren't boats but "just a piece of plastic".

& 7). Our reader John Timmers lends a hand, and his trailersailer Whisper at Fraser Island.


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