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 “Losing the “Cannon Bay” continued...

“Cannon Bay” eventually sat like a rock as the wind, easing slightly, veered into the south-west then kept going to the north-west. I sat exhausted under the lee of the wheelhouse waiting for dawn where I realised I was not alone. Also enjoying the lee were a number of birds whose normal timidity was abandoned in favour of security. Nothing would convince them to fly off into the wind, not even my gentle stroking of their saturated feathers. Cyclones are great levellers; everyone becomes humbled.

Dawn exposed a rubbish tip of debris strewn far and wide, with many buildings shattered beyond, dislodged off their foundations or minus their roofs. Trees along the distant mountain ridge were shorn off every vestige of foliage, looking for the world like giant fish skeletons. And the Island's others vessel, the 15 metre passenger launch “Kiru” had broken free from her mooring and was later found smashed ashore in North East Bay.


Cyclone Althea rated as one of Queensland's most destructive storms, not because she was the strongest, but because her most destructive southern semi-circle passed over a densely populated area (Townsville then had 71,000 citizens). Her maximum gust was recorded at 109 knots (196 kilometres per hour) at Townsville Airport on 24th December, 1971. It was generally believed that gusts much higher than this occurred, especially near Cape Palleranda and on Magnetic Island.

Her lowest central pressure was 952 hPa. This compares with Ada's 962 hPa in the Whitsunday's, January 1970 and, at the other extreme, the great Bathurst Bay cyclone of 1899 whose low is a record to this day at 914 hPa!

Perhaps the most permanent effect Althea had on Townsville was cultural, her massive destruction attracting hundreds of southern workers to the area. Before Althea, carpenters were paid around $2.00 per hour. After Althea, rates went up to $10 per hour. Before Althea, a house in Railway Estate could be bought for $4000. After Althea, just a block of land fetched more than twice that price. Townsville lost its innocence just as Darwin would three years later when cyclone Tracey did her thing.


Compared to Townsville, the Palm Isles were lucky, having copped only the northern semicircle of Althea. The southern half, the most destructive half, turned the city of 71,000 people into a disaster area. Christmas Day was a dismal affair of preliminary clean-ups, attempts to save food in the absence of power, and for at least ten percent of homeowners, a search for accommodation.

Ross Creek became the graveyard of many vessels, some of which piled up on the slipway near the Motor Boat Club, whilst others were stranded in city parks. Dozens of glorious old fig trees along The Strand were uprooted and a recently laid submarine pipeline to Magnetic Island virtually disappeared.
 Typical cyclone damage about the place.

  Back on Palm Island, I used the neap tides to patch “Cannon Bay” in the hope of a refloat on the next springs. The Gardner's needed little more than a wash-out and the hull seemed sound enough despite every seam being started and many fastenings showing signs of failure. And here, let me put to rest a persistent rumour that suggests she was pulled off the bank and set adrift to become a navigational hazard for weeks after. This is quite untrue. What happened is this:

The assistant Director of Aboriginal and Island Affairs (as the department was then called) flew up from Brisbane a few days after the cyclone. We discussed the future of “Cannon Bay” and I was categorically assured that the Island would continue to manage its own cargo and passenger deliveries using its own vessel. To this end, I was requested to get the vessel into Townsville, book her onto Matt Taylor's slipway and have her fully restored.

 The Palms survive..........

My crew and I limped her into Townsville as soon as she floated off on the next spring tide. Pumping all the way, we were met at a public jetty (near the Motor Boat Club) by the local fire brigade whose truck pumped her dry and promised to be on call should we experienced trouble keeping her afloat. The crew went home and I lived aboard for no other reason than to keep her pumped out. When it became too much, the fire brigade's offer was taken up on a number of occasions.

Weeks passed alongside that jetty waiting for vacancy on the slip. It had to clear the wreckage off its slipways and then rebuild its own infrastructure.

I spent my time pumping, sleeping and because there was nothing else happening, boredom set in. This led to a decision that I would quit the job as soon as the “Cannon Bay” was in safe hands.

Such was the pressure on boat repair services at the time, “Cannon Bay” was still unfinished towards April, at which time I resigned. With a private barge contractor supplying the Island and every indication that the department would change its policy from one of supportive engagement with the Palm Island community to economic rationalisation, I presumed this private arrangement would continue. And I was right. Despite the money poured into “Cannon Bays” repairs, she was pensioned off and abandoned.

Her remains lie in the very same cyclone creek on Palm Island that I hoped to enter after unloading those Christmas supplies so long ago. As to how she became a navigational hazard so soon after her restoration, I cannot say but obviously someone managed to shove her into the creek. Perhaps that hazard was not her at all, but another victim of cyclone Althea.

 The author........