No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
– John Donne
I have been going through a book called ‘Focus on Stradbroke’ which contains an article about aboriginal use of St Helena Island from about 2,400 years ago. Quandamooka people used bark canoes to access Noogoon (St Helena) via Yerabin (King Island) and Tanggeera (Green Island). The author, Gillian Alfredson, refers to observations made by Edward R Lovell and a photo he took of the southern beach of Noogoon in Quandamooka (Moreton Bay). I knew him as Ed. In the year prior to his visit to the island Ed and I were caught up in the 1974 flood in Brisbane.
Ed and I both lived on yachts on the St Lucia reach of the Brisbane River. Ed’s was called the Phalarope and mine the MV Careel. When the flood came our boats were sitting on the raging river 30 feet higher than normal. Three days of continuous rain had fallen. Twenty-five inches (656 mm) of rain fell over four days in Brisbane, on Thursday alone 12 inches fell. The UQ sports ground was flooded and the Eric Freeman Rowing Shed was partly under water. The current was flowing at 15 knots downstream. Ed had a friend and a black Labrador we called Nelson on board with him. The Phalarope was moving side on to the current and heeled over. Ed had two lines to shore one aft and the other forward. The Careel was just downstream with its stern facing upstream toward the Phalarope. The Careel’s rudder had been taken out by a big log but we were sitting pretty well in the water with no reason to move because we had no way to steer. But the Phalarope was threatening to the come down on top of us, and if either hull was breached, one or both boats would sink. The Phalarope was listing dangerously to one side with the force of the current pushing against its keel. The Phalarope’s keel drew about 6ft 6inches of water. As it tilted, the boat began taking on water in the rear cockpit.
Ed had started his Lister diesel with his friend at the tiller. The Phalarope was a canoe stern 30 footer with a sloop rig. Ed pulled up both anchors fore and aft then ran forward with an axe cleanly cutting the line he had to shore. The Phalarope righted itself and swung our into the current. Ed ran to the back of the vessel, axed the stern line and gunned the engine. The Phalarope was nearly on us. However Ed expertly shot past our starboard side with feet to spare. The Phalarope was travelling at about 20 knots as it careered past the Careel. Ed leant on the tiller and the boat shot past our prow to where the rowing pontoon had been and into a mill pond in the lee of the Eric Freeman Rowing Shed. All this happened in seconds.
Some time later, through the rain, we saw a house boat shooting past amongst the debris. Ed yelled out that the boat belonged to friends who were in Fiji.
We rowed ashore and ran down to Sir Fred Schonell drive. We hitched a ride. When we got around to the Regatta hotel on Coronation drive we spotted the house boat coming around the bend on the Kurilpa reach.
There was a guy in a small tinnie pilfering fridges that were floating on the surface. We called out to him to take us out to the house boat. He seemed reluctant. We begged him. We had carried a big hemp rope with us. We lugged it to the 10 ft aluminium boat and set off. We reached the steel houseboat as it passed the regatta hotel and jumped onboard. Ed tied off the rope onto a cleat and gave the other to the tinnie driver instructing him to tow us steadily to shore. So we were travelling at about 15 knots downstream and about 3 or 4 knots sideways but we were steadily getting close to the bank on Coronation drive. However the gunwhale on the loaded tinnie would pull down each time the driver accelerated the outboard. At one point the gunwhale went under and he shipped some water before he could slacken off the heavy rope. Then he shook his head, untied the rope and left us to our fate.
We looked forward to see the Grey Street bridge coming up. My younger sister calls it the humpty-dumpty bridge because of its shape. Its pylons widen as they come to the surface of the water. With the flood waters racing a huge vortex formed around the base of each. We were lining up to hit the northernmost pylon. Instead we raced on the edge of the vortex with the house lurching to one side.
We could smell scotch whiskey from inside the cabin. We tried to break in. To no avail. The cabin was locked. Soon the Victoria Bridge was upon us. Another vortex. We got lucky again. But as we could see the Captain Cook Bridge down the far end Ed tied off the hemp rope and took one end in his mouth and dived overboard. I tied the other end around my waist and followed Ed. The houseboat appeared to be heading for the southern end of the Captain Cook bridge so we swam towards that shore.
As we approached the bridge we could make out an old boiler that had stood on old wharves down that end. Ed swam around one end and I around the other. We tied each end together and the houseboat swung in the lea of the boiler. We had saved the boat. People clapped as we swam onshore. There were two police nearby who told us that we had to report the runaway boat at the Port Office on the other side of the river. They told us to jump in the back of the police car. We were all soaked and one of the coppers asked me to hold his cap. There we were, two yachties sitting in the back of a police car wearing stubbies and singlet with out feet in water. We came up along the Kangaroo Point cliffs and over the Storey Bridge.
We looked down to see the Robert E Miller the largest ship ever built in the Brisbane River break its steel rope moorings. The ship swung out into the centre of the river moving sideways downstream from the Evans Deakin shipyard. From our vantage point it looked like the ship would hit an apartment block in New Farm. If the Miller founders or runs aground then who knows what chaos would befall the people downstream. Two tug boats appeared from under the bridge and rope and chain was being fastened to a stantion on the bow of the Miller. A bolt was being used to fasten the a shank to the pole. The men appeared desperate. However the Robert E Miller was steadied fore to aft midstream in the flood waters with the tugs holding the bow toward the current.
Onwards to the port office. When we arrived in Alice street near the Botanic gardens chaos reigned. The Harbour master stood outside the port office shaking his head. Before him wooden pylons were oscillating crazily in the current. Yachts were tied to pylons fore and aft. When the pylons movement got out of synch the ropes were breaking and the $100K yachts (half share in the Careel cost me $1500) were spinning out into the current running into each other and sinking before our eyes.
We told the Port master our story which he noted. We took his leave eager to return to our own vessels. The coppers obliged taking us via Storey Bridge out to Tennyson and the Indoorpilly Bridge. From that bridge we could see houses going under, people were trying to salvage household items using rowboats and tinnies. We arrived back to find our boats safe but my old 1951 Morris tourer convertible was concertinaed up against a tree in the flood.
To be continued …