By Alan Lucas, SY Soleares
As we all know, cockroaches are often unwanted
guests aboard a cruising yacht, with most sailors able to spin
at least one horror yarn about these orthopterous insects. Predictably,
the same sailors have guaranteed methods of preventing cocky
invasion, all of which fail dismally when the ultimate test comes:
this being the night an army of occupation moves in and overwhelms
your vessel in a matter of hours. Like the time in 1978 when
we laid our recently built, cockroach-free schooner alongside
the old Maryborough Public Wharf (the site of today's Mary River
Marina) to celebrate her launching.
Later that night, after farewelling guests
and returning to anchor, Patricia went into the galley to get
a drink of water in the poor light of a quarter moon. In a sleepy
stupor, she couldn't understand why the galley's light-coloured
bench surface had turned brown. Touching the bench, she recoiled
in horror as a thick carpet of cockroaches scattered in all directions.
After a brief period of stunned disbelief, she brushed off those
climbing her arm and urgently called for backup.
I have seen infestation of this magnitude
on pearling luggers and other vessels involved in seafood, but
never on a squeaky-clean, near new yacht whose owners fully understood
the meaning of hygiene. Frankly, I was bereft of ideas as to
how thousands of cockies could be eliminated without putting
the crew ashore and bombing her. We settled for sticky mats and
insecticide sprayed into every locker, shelf, bookcase, wardrobe,
and even bilge and engine room. We then spent the night standing
watch over our infant son lest he became the target of food-seeking
vermin (as we will see, cockroaches will nibble humans under
Rare though it is on a clean, well cared-for
vessel, roach invasion of the above magnitude can nevertheless
happen and there is plenty of historic evidence proving that
it is far from new. Look at the well-documented case of the survey
ship HMS Bramble back in the 1840s: she became so badly infested
that her skipper, Lieut. Charles Yule of the Royal Navy, decided
to sink her in Port Essington.
Port Essington, and its main settlement
Victoria, was a short-lived attempt during the 1840s to establish
a working port in the (now) Northern Territory. It lasted only
a little over a decade, but in that time it gave welcome succour
to many a ship, including HMS Bramble when she returned from
a victualling exercise in Indonesia. She was loaded with nearly
one hundred wild pigs, yams and other foodstuffs, and despite
being smoked out and cleaned, cockroaches, quickly took control,
becoming so bold as to nibble away at the extremities of the
crew's bodies while they slept. Drastic measures were needed.
Lieut. Yule ordered everything moveable
aboard to be taken ashore along with crew and officers who were
obliged to camp in makeshift quarters behind the beach for the
duration. The ship was then run aground at low tide, shores were
placed under her bilges and a scuttle (large hole) was cut into
her bottom to flood her to the waterline then freely admit the
rising tide. At high water, only her masts and rigging were exposed
by which time they had become a writhing mass of cockies desperately
seeking higher ground. The crew happily vented their anger in
what became a challenge to dispatch millions of cockroaches.
Bramble's cockroach numbers were estimated
in gallons, 500 being the official figure for those floating
ashore, with that many again drifting out to sea. In today's
terms, that's around 4000 litres of vermin from one 165-ton vessel!
The mind boggles, but only if you have never seen a real invasion.
Patricia's and my experience in Maryborough leaves us in no doubt
about the estimates. Happily though, modern chemicals eliminate
the need to smoke and sink our vessel whilst poor old Bramble
was obliged to repeat the process just a few months later when
she arrived in Sydney Harbour, so quickly did the vermin return.
And even after the second sinking, she became infested again
Most of us squirm at the thought of living
with cockroaches, yet Mike Bailes, an intrepid cruising sailor
of the 1970s, was quite comfortable with them. Despite a high
intellect and a background in the Royal Navy, Mike had reduced
cruising to its basics of minimum boat, minimum maintenance and
an unbelievable anti-cockroach agenda. He lived and cruised internationally
in a tiny, traditional Folkboat named Jellicle, which, he freely
admitted was rotting in at him from both ends. A sentimentalist,
his main boom was a polished mangrove pole given to him by a
friend in Spain twenty years before and nothing would move him
towards getting a 'proper' one.
But the most remarkable thing about Mike
was his philosophical acceptance of 'his' cockroaches. Supping
with him in his cramped heads-down-knees-up cabin took a little
courage because the place was well endowed with cockies and when
one of them came too close he calmly crushed it then chucked
it into a corner. His theory was that if they eat their dead
they wouldn't be hungry enough to attack his stores whilst controlling
their population into the bargain.
As for the claim that some crewmembers
had their extremities nibbled, I can also confirm this: not from
personal experience but from a 1960s Cape York fisherman whose
boat was a veritable pigsty. A lovely bloke, his attitude towards
hygiene suggested he had never heard of it. His boat swarmed
with cockies, so much so that the quicks around his fingernails
were eaten away by, he frankly admitted, 'Cockroaches nibbling
at me while I'm sleeping'.
If the idea of being eaten by cockies
doesn't revolt you, try digesting this quote from the journal
of Bramble's storeman, John Sweatman: "As the Bramble's
cockroaches washed ashore in Port Essington, the natives gathered
them up in handfuls to eat them!"
Cockroaches are a rich source of protein,
I believe, and the idea of making them palatable for human consumption
has been tossed around by food scientists for years: meanwhile
I'm more than happy to stall the day with good hygiene and, if
that ever fails again, with whatever chemicals it takes. When
its all said and done, cockroach armies are like human armies:
if they can't feed their troops, they won't occupy a clean vessel.
Well that's the beautiful theory anyway.
Oh, and by the way. Since becoming the
basis of a marina, café and chandlery, Maryborough's old
public wharf has never experienced a cocky invasion of such magnitude
since that terrible night in 1978. To the contrary, I haven't
heard one complaint about boat infestation from anyone who has
berthed there since. Maybe we unwittingly blocked a rare migratory
path of cockroaches rather than attracted an army of locals.