As most people who cruise the coral coast
know, Great Palm Island is the home of a major aboriginal settlement
which lies towards the southern end of the western face, in Casement
Bay. It is serviced by plane and a supply barge which unloads
at, or close to, a jetty situated at the inner end of a dredged
channel through the intertidal shelf.
Up until the 1970's, policies were more
towards self-help, the island having its own cargo vessel skippered
by caucasian and crewed by aborigines. Named after a small bay
towards the north of the island, she was the Cannon Bay,
driven by twin Gardner's and loaded by her own goal post derricks.
She carried around 30 tonnes.
Her timetable involved sailing Townsville
every Monday and Wednesday, returning fully laden every Tuesday
and Thursday. Friday was maintenance day on her mooring in Casement
Bay. Two nights per week were spent at her berth in Townsville's
Ross Creek in the vicinity of the present day Museum of Tropical
The island was still 'dry', so it was hardly
surprising that crewing on the Cannon Bay was the
most popular job going giving, as it did, an opportunity to do
a pub-crawl two nights a week. Part of the skipper's job was
not only to discourage this, but to prevent grog being smuggled
back the next day. Needless to say it was an unreasonable and
impossible task. As a result, the vessel was nearly always loaded
by a very hung-over crew whose grog-smuggling talents were highly
polished. The island was never really dry, but nor was it anywhere
near as wet as it is today.
The idea of living on an Island and working
my skipper's ticket had an enormous appeal at the time. So much
so that when I was awarded the job, I cut off my line of retreat
by selling my cruising yacht of the previous eleven years. By
the end of the year (1971), I would seriously regret that decision,
but I could not even imagine the dramatic way which I would lose
The beginning of the end of nearly one
year's employment came on Wednesday, 23rd December, 1971 as Cannon
Bay plodded her way into Townsville for the last cargo
pick-up of the week. It would also be the last shot at supplying
the Island before Christmas break, and with its supermarket virtually
empty it was an important shot. The trouble was, however, that
a major depression was heading straight for the Palm Island-Townsville
area. It was named Althea.
I had a decision to make: Load up and get
back to the island and risk losing the vessel there, or stay
in Townsville and risk losing her there. There was really no
contest because both plans would probably result in losing the
vessel, but the first would, at least, feed the island over Christmas.
Moreover, if there was any chance of saving Cannon Bay,
I would need a sober crew, not one that had succumbed to the
temptations of a large town.
The other tempting possibility was that
for the first time in my nine months on the job, a tide high
enough to steam straight into the island's jetty to unload presented
itself on the next day. Whereas normally we offloaded from a
mooring onto barges, here was a chance to speed the operation
by direct delivery ashore and then get out and use the same tide
into the 'cyclone creek'. It seemed possible that we would deliver
the goods and save the ship.
The heavily laden return trip, on Thursday
24th December, was under a leaden sky and before a freshening
south-easterly. The radio blurted out the latest news on Althea;
Here is a top priority cyclone warning issued by the cyclone
warning centre, Brisbane. Cyclone Althea, with a central pressure
of 28.5 inches, lies 240 miles north-east of Townsville and is
travelling in a west-south-west direction at 14 miles per hour.
The most fundamental sense of navigation
left no doubt that we were in for a pasting. I squeezed those
Gardner's for everything they could give and knew that the key
to success was catching that tide (there was no dredged channel
Alongside by mid afternoon, with just inches
under the keel and the tide about to turn, we unloaded as fast
as humanly possible, but it wasn't to be. Despite the decreasing
draft, Cannon Bay took the bottom and killed any
further thoughts of getting her into the creek. She was doomed
to face the cyclone sitting on a tidal flat.
The former boat house... Palm Island
The uninitiated can be forgiven for seeing
that as a positive: No mooring to part, no anchors to drag, nor
any chance of sinking. Just the security of a dry berth with
stout lines ashore. What can go wrong?
What could go wrong is this: If the cyclone
passed between the Palm Isles and Townsville, the wind would
strengthen from the south-east then, as it moved away, it would
veer west, through south, to north-west. It would thus throw
a considerable sea into Casement Bay and put Cannon Bay
on a vicious lee shore.
Far worse, though, would be the storm surge
caused by the low pressure 'sucking up' the sea level which,
if it combined with the next tide while the storm was at its
worst, nothing short of a miracle would save the vessel.
With the cargo unloaded and the crew paid-off,
I fussed around doubling and tripling up warps and removing all
soft or loose material. I then went home (to my government house
at the foot of the mountains) and did the same to the house metaphorically,
at least. In the back yard was a small displacement yacht I was
building which I also secured as best as I could. Upside down,
it was fully clad and the building jig was well dug into the
ground. It should be ok.
Yeah. And boats can fly!
By midnight of Christmas Eve, the very
old, tall and resilient coconut palms scattered around the settlement
started chucking coconuts at each other, then debris of all descriptions
took flight. The most challenging were the sheets of corrugated
iron zipping out of the darkness like guillotines from hell,
quite capable, I was convinced, of decapitating a person.
And then it really started to blow! By
03.00 hours Christmas Day, my backyard boat not only blew off
its jig but it did, literally fly! As it sailed over the rotary
clothesline, heading for next door, its painter fouled the hoist
which then swung it around a few times before the whole lot,
clothes hoist, bits of building jig and hull crashed to the ground.
The boat would survive. The clothes hoist was a write-off.
It was around about then when the island's
cop banged on my door. An Irishman who knew little about boats,
he called out, You better get down to your ship. She's
walking along the beach! At that he jumped back into his
Landie and continued on his very busy way. I ran down to the
waterfront, hitting the dirt to avoid flying things whenever
threatened, and survived intact to see that, yes indeed, Cannon
Bay was walking on the beach.
With a high tide (that would normally be
three feet short of floating her) and the storm surge, she had
torn her wharf apart in her bid to escape to the beach. There,
she rode the savage wave train beam on, hammering her heart out
as she thumped from bilge to bilge. It was just a matter of time
before she would be driftwood.
Lying on the ground, just beyond the beach
(so that I wouldn't be decapitated, sandblasted or drowned),
I pondered the smallness of man. With winds nudging the ton,
waves and blinding spume driving onto the beach and a small cargo
boat pounding out her death throes, exactly what can one man
The answer is not a lot, but there was
one vague hope of saving the vessel or at least minimising her
damage. This was to get aboard and throw off her cargo hatch
covers so that the sea sweeping her deck would pour below and,
by its weight, pin her to the beach. Getting aboard was a story
in itself, but the ploy worked like clockwork, the wind doing
most of the work of removing the hatch covers and the waves being
more than willing to pour into her hold.