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 Losing the Cannon Bay!

By Alan Lucas, SV, “Soleares”

How Great Palm Island's cargo vessel, “Cannon Bay” was lost in cyclone Althea. A response to those readers of “Cruising the Coral Coast” who have requested more information than offered in my fact box on page 199 of 8th edition of “Cruising the Coral Coast”.


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 Queensland.

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 my job.

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 then).

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 do?

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.

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