Taking a Gamble
He is black, and made more so by the contrast of his brilliant white habit. Leaning over me to tell me his name he holds my hand to comfort me. Father Bright Shining Wisdom is a Dominican priest who has come to hear my last confession.
“Tell me your story child”, he says, so I tell him from the beginning…
I spent my last $20 travelling in the cargo hold of a twin engine Sensor bound for Karumba, a small township on the Gulf of Carpentaria in northern Australia. On board the pilot, a doctor, a nurse and me stowed away with our luggage. Through the bars and cracked window I saw swollen rivers teeming with birdlife, as the heat haze vibrated over distant red hills. As the pilot dipped the plane down towards the river mouth, I saw a dozen or more crocs slipping into the muddy waters below. We landed safely at Karumba airstrip on the 20th July 1974.
Here I was, a 19-year-old female with a dream. First however, I had to make my fortune to finance it. I checked into the pub – the only place to stay in town – and make my way down to the prawning factory, where I was taken on immediately as a full time prawn sorter. I considered this not only a good omen, but important, if I was to find a job on a prawning boat. I would be able to pay for my room and board at the pub. There were about 30 women working in the factory, not brave or crazy enough, to head to sea. The next day at work I met 23year old Annette, a robust young woman with a presence. She was well proportioned, with a ruddy complexion and shoulder length brown hair. Apart from smoking “rollies”, which stained her fingers with nicotine, she looked the picture of good health. I thought her a quietly confident female who knew what she was doing. Like me, she was hoping to make some big bucks by working on a prawning trawler, so she could meet up with her boyfriend in Thailand. By comparison, I was just a girl still trying to forget a troubled past and make a fresh start, learning as I went along. While she admired my pluck, she inspired confidence in me, so it seemed natural for us to join forces. We organised a hotel room to share to save money, and every morning or afternoon, depending on our shift, we walked walk down to the dock to see if any new boats had come in.
It was a hard town full of fishermen, drunks, runaways, and criminals. There were no tourists in those days in Karumba. We didn’t venture into the hotel bar after 8pm because fights frequently broke out. Fortunes were lost. People were bashed and hurt. No police. No questions asked. People appeared and disappeared all within a blink of an eye. Regularly, we made enquiries with the coastguard, to find out when boats were expected in. After three weeks sorting prawns and getting paid a pittance, our money wasn’t growing significantly. We were starting to get a bit desperate about finding a boat to go to sea on.
One sunny morning we strolled down to the dock and spotted some guys unloading their catch of prawns. We asked the usual question. “Need any hardworking crew?” They looked us up and down, and told us they did need two crew. We were hired on the spot as cook/deckhands. We were ecstatic. We agreed without hesitation, thinking we would see how it went. We were eager to move out of the pub and quit our jobs at the factory. Although it wasn’t a big boat, (like we had hoped), we imagined if we fished often enough, we should be able to make some real money.
The 48-foot blue and white wooden trawler named “Seafarer” had seen better days and the crew of three men weren’t much better. The boat was a pigsty, but the guys assured us we would be paid 10% of the catch (the going rate) if we could cook meals and prawn sort on deck. They told us we would need to have the boat ready to go sea by the next morning – provisions on board and all stowed away. They had organised a delivery of ice for the following morning. As this primitive boat didn’t have a freezer, the catch had to be put on ice. This meant the crew could only spend about 3 days fishing at sea at a time.
The men went to the pub at 11am that morning after cashing in their catch. They got $2000 for that catch, and less food and diesel split $1800 between them. Our share would have been $180 each but we calculated we should be able to make about $500 a week (a lot of money in those days) if we kept fishing three times a week. We would make sure we did our part. Earl the captain, pressed $100 in my hand, and told me that would have to cover food and two cases of beer. The only thing he insisted on was the beer.
These guys were sober when we met them that morning on the dock, but by the time we had moved our stuff onto the boat, did the shopping and spent 6 hours cleaning the boat from top to toe, they were far from it. When we told them we’d found dead rats in the galley, had sprayed cockroaches galore in the shower come latrine (which stank of urine) they invited us to come along to the pub with them for a drink.
“Come on girls,” said Earl, a skinny, blond haired, 40 something year old captain covered in tatts “You deserve it!”
Annette thought quickly…
“We’ll be right here,” she trumpeted. “We’ll make some “spag boll” (Spaghetti Bolognese) for dinner for you. It will be ready when you get back.”
When they had left, I told Annette I thought they were barbaric morons. My hopes about this adventure were fading. These apes of men particularly frightened me. I wondered how they managed to catch anything out there. Prawns were plentiful this season we were told. Anyone, even these bums were catching them.
We were fast asleep in bed at midnight when they returned and boarded the boat talking and laughing loudly. I awoke immediately, and lay awake listening to the drunken conversation for awhile. After getting stuck into the spag boll the skipper announced he was opening a second bottle of Jack Daniels. They were playing poker for money – their earnings, and the skipper was winning big-time. I heard him lower his voice in a murmur and say he wanted to raise the ante, to include us as part of the winnings!