Here & Now with S Sorrensen - Mar 11

Port Fairy, Vic.

Friday, 2.45pm

I like messing about with boats.

I was strolling along the wooden planks of pretty Port Fairy Harbour leaning into a wet, chilly wind coming off the Southern Ocean, when I noticed a group of people gathering at the main wharf, not far from me.

Fishing boats have been tying up to the old wharf since the 1830s to disgorge their catch after cold nights scouring the ocean for something to sell. The catch is dwindling of course. But the fisher people are tough, resilient and persevering. They’ll keep at it until the last fish is caught.

The Knarn Kolak people, whose country this is, have a different attitude. Generation upon generation ate from the bountiful sea, the many middens testament to their sustainable feasting.

I strolled past the pretty wooden clinker-built sailers, the smaller fishing boats, the around-the-world yachts – all bobbing in a competent, determined way. I headed towards the growing crowd.

At the mouth of the river is an island. In 1835 the Port Fairy white folk built a whaling station there to exploit the wealth of blubber that swam through this bay. It took 13 years and the whales were gone.

People are gathered on the wharf and peering over its edge. Most are definitely out-of-towners. With pale faces and loaded wallets they come here in droves to frolic in the salty air.

Tourists are the new whales.

In the centre of the crowd is a crane, its long arm hung over the water. An old sailor directs the crane driver with hand signals. The sailor’s huge belly sticks out from under a checked flannelette shirt. Another bloke of similar vintage (and size) and with a tattoo on his arm so faded it looks like bruising, leans out and fastens a large chain onto the crane’s hook.

Having pushed to the wharf’s edge I now see what all the excitement is about – at the end of the chain hooked to the crane there’s an upturned motorboat in river – about two metres underwater. Catch of the day. There’s excitement around the wharf.

The crowd watches as the upside down boat is hauled up until its bottom is exposed. Fresh, savage rips mark its metal skin. A murmur ripples through the crowd. Water gushes out from deep punctures.

As the six-metre boat is raised higher, rubbish from inside the boat – beer bottle, crab pot, takeaway coffee cup – drops down into a rainbow oil slick which spreads across the river to flow into a sea once famous for its abalone.

But the abalone now have ‘abalone herpes’. No joke. You can’t eat them. And the disease is spreading beyond these 200 kilometres of infected waters.

With the boat suspended above the river, water and crap draining from it, kids perched on fathers’ shoulders point and shout excitedly. The old sailors have big smiles. They’ve been pulling stuff from the sea all their lives. Though there isn’t a lot of work these days, they like messing about with boats.

The upside down boat is pulled landward and lowered, its cabin roof crushing as it settles on the wharf. With some deft work by the old blokes, the boat is flipped right side up and the crane lifts it into the air again.

A car with boat trailer is reversed under the mangled boat. The driver looks sheepish.

The boat is lowered onto the trailer, bits still falling off.

The crowd claps. Jolly good show.

The fish are going, the abalone are gone, but the tourists are coming.

Everyone loves messing about with boats.

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