If you number yourselves amongst the U.S. sailors who watch the start of the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race on TV, you will be familiar with the topography, the spectacular scenery, of Sydney Heads. While they are certainly dramatic, they are not the only such highlights of suburban Sydney geography.
Some 30 miles north of ‘the heads’ lies the entrance to Broken Bay. This circular indent is the exit for several rivers and creeks, flowing from the hinterland of New South Wales to the open sea. On the north side the bay trends away to the northeast, and the southern Tasman Sea.
Further west is the mouth of the Hawkesbury River, along whose banks lie some of Australia’s more notable vineyards. Next to the west and a bit south is Cowan Creek, with many indents in which my father and I would roam, anchor, sail, swim, paddle, splash, smoke and drink (no, not me) and generally enjoy ourselves. One notable, well, refuge, is Refuge Bay, and its next-door neighbor, America Bay. We generally anchored in America Bay, largely because many of the yachts returning from the Hobart race would come to Broken Bay for a couple of weeks’ family vacation and with so many yachties all rafted up, well lubricated and telling sea stories, Refuge Bay was less serene than a dad and 6-year-old might prefer. Continuing the counterclockwise rotation, one comes to Pittwater.
Pittwater is a body of water with similarities to Narragansett Bay. Long and narrow, say seven miles by one to two miles wide at the most, full of indents, coves and odd spots where a father and son can get lost. Pittwater is divided from Cowan Creek by West Head and the whole area on the southwest side of Broken Bay was National Park, so all bush, wild and unexplored-looking. Rounding West Head, heading east, then south into Pittwater, one transited First, Second and Third Head, lesser indents on the western shore and under which, in westerlies, there was of course no wind, the Dill-Dolls to my dad, his iteration of the Doldrums. When sailing in the area he was adamant we keep away from the Dill-Dolls, lest we get drawn ashore by the surge, much of this area being exposed to the open ocean to the northeast.
Pittwater was the scene of the crime for my upbringing from the time before memory until my late teens. Coasters Retreat, The Basin, Soldiers Point, Portuguese Beach, Scotland Island, Long Nose Point, Church Point, Woody Point, Palm Beach, Avalon, Newport, Bayview and what seemed to be miles and miles of unimpeded sailing for a wonderstruck kid.
Guarding this entire wonderland of boyhood adventure is a headland that makes the impressiveness of Sydney Heads look like a pimple on an elephant’s transom. Barrenjoey Head is the southern landmark when making landfall in Broken Bay, from the south, as most do, sailing up from Sydney. It is visible well out to sea, the light upon its summit reported as 119 meters on the chart of the area. The light characteristics remain as my childhood days, Fl (4) 20s. I remember well, waking at first light and peeking out under the awning, counting the flashes and the 20 seconds, just to make sure they were right. They were.
Years ago, I purchased a copy of the governing chart, AUS204, of the area from the old Armchair Sailor, had it framed and this memorial to my childhood now hangs over the fireplace mantle at Chez Cooper. Barrenjoey’s impressiveness from the horizontal is great enough, but even more so when seen on a chart. It looks like a hammerhead shark. The south end is connected, by spine of sand dunes, at the southern end of which is Palm Beach. In the day a mildly ratty congregation of fisherman’s huts and cobbled together summer houses, cottages really. But there was one other claim to, my childhood fame, that PB, as Dad referred to it held for me: Palm Beach Marine Services.
Sited on the Pittwater side, Palm Beach Marine Services comprised a vast open boat shed, a railway, some parking and an office. Looking back through the telescope, reversed in my mind’s eye, I see this shed to be on the order of 100 feet long, 50 feet wide and 25 feet high. Open at the waterside, the railways went out of the shed, roughly parallel to the long jetty (wharf in Aussie), and petered out some 500 feet outside the shed. The local trawlers would come in here for work and rarely was there a time Dad and I alighted from the bus (we never had a car) and walked down to the yard’s offices, kit bag over my shoulder in the manner of the mariner in the Seagull outboard ad in Yachting World, that the shed was empty.
The office was a small structure, in the style of the rest of the hamlet’s buildings. Assorted samples of timber hopefully held together with a lot of nails, attached to the side of the boat shed. PBMS was run by a fellow, Chick Wichard by name, small, lean and wiry, with thin reddish hair gone to blondish, freckles, worn out shorts and a matching T-shirt. The shirt was a Jackson Pollock with a variety of paint, grease, something looking like blood, tea stains and other unidentifiable blotches, and shod with what Aussies, and other colonials, call thongs…flip-flops to Americans.
Dad would wander in, with me, on the end of my imaginary 6-foot painter, trailing astern, and exchange greetings with Chick. As they developed into the pleasantries and often a cuppa, I would loose my painter and drift sideways into the shed. It was just a fantastic, magical place. The smells are the strongest memories. Wood, wooden shavings, long curly shaving slivers, sometimes two feet long I reckon, all curled up on the floor, smelling like pine, is the most familiar.
The shed had a dirt floor and the years of assorted droppings from the boats: bottom paint, topsides paint, dregs of fouled bottoms, bits of fish, certainly the odd beer or three, scotch all combined, offered a smell that defined enchanting. There was varnish too and near the varnish, was usually a rusty, beat up one-gallon can of turps, and some rags. There would often be a pair of sculls, or maybe even the dinghy in which the sculls were used, propped up in a corner and you could almost see the varnish vapor lifting off the job, like the love aroma in the Pepé Le Pew cartoons, wafting gently away, out the window. It was all I could do to not waft out with it.
Running rigging was natural fiber, hemp and manila being the two I remember, except for the small stuff. Whipping was necessary to keep the three-strand lines from coming apart and Dad’s go-to whipping material was the stuff of Robin Crusoe, or Swallows and Amazons dreams.
Tarred marline came in a ball, the proportions of a softball. The ball was black and had a hollow center. And boy did it have a smell. Unlike anything today and light years ahead of the aroma of melting polyester after the kid cuts off what we need with the hot knife, tarred marline was the stuff of adventures. I read occasionally that advertising types are trying to develop techniques to use sense of smell in advertising. Well if they use tarred marline, there will be a rush of commuters heading for the nearest brokerage shop to get their South Seas yacht prepared for sea, a bit like William Albert Robinson in Svaap – another good read: Deep Water and Shoal.
Tarred marline screams sparkling seas, the Gulf Stream with that deep indigo blue, that impenetrable blue we cannot capture on film. Fresh reaching winds, easy sailing with the hatches open, the wind vane on watch, very little spray and the yacht at a good passage making speed. I still have a ball of tarred marline.
When lines needed replacing, Dad would get them from Chick. Chick would put his teacup down on top of a pile of hardware catalogues, adding another marker to the collection of teacup rings there on, and loaf over to the line racks. “How much ya need, mate?” He would look out from under the bushy eyebrows. Let’s say it was 25 feet. Chick would grasp the bitter end off the drum, pass the bight of the line through his other hand and stretch his arms apart, four times. Never ever saw him use a measuring stick for selling cordage.
There are few such marine facilities today. Last week I was in Bristol in one of the shops that populate this old seaport. They do a roaring trade in aerospace composite work, but it has no catalogues with tea stains on them, everything is measured to the millimeter and everyone wears hazmat suits. There are air scrubbers, so there’s no smell and it just ain’t the same. ■
Australian born, Joe ‘Coop’ Cooper stayed in the U.S. after the 1980 America’s Cup where he was the boat captain and sailed as Grinder/Sewer-man on Australia. His whole career has focused on sailing, especially the short-handed aspects of it. He lives in Middletown, RI where he coaches, consults and writes on his blog, joecoopersailing.com, when not paying attention to his wife, dog and several, mainly small, boats.