Hook’s Nemesis [66]

By Peter Osman

It had been a full-on training night. The subject was navigation and as the evening wore on the talk turned to unorthodox techniques and compasses. Joe came up with a neat trick where you would place a stick in the ground and some time before noon mark the tip of its shadow in the dust. Then stretch a string between the base of the stick and the mark, draw a semicircle and wait for the shadows tip to creep round and hit the semicircle again. Bisect the angle and you have a north-south line! Takes a while though, so after a fair bit of discussion we came up with a variation of the fairly well-known watch trick. You know the one? You place the watch on the ground, support a stick vertically on the centre of the dial and rotate the watch until the stick’s shadow covers the number 6. The time midway between 12 and the hour hand points to north. Of course to be accurate your watch should be set to standard time for the longitude and what exercised us was whether to read the time from an almanac or measure and calculate.

Joe pipes up saying “Yes, this will work BUT!!! If you have the foresight to be carrying an almanac, then why the hell aren’t you carrying a compass?” A good question deserving a straightforward answer; it reminded me of a conversation years ago in Skuffles where we used to meet of a Thursday night after an evening paddle.

Skuffles is a Sydney waterfront bar frequented by sailors, kayakers and other disreputable folk. Sometimes travellers would join us and enliven the evening with stories of exotic and foreign lands. One windy winter’s night about two years ago I was at Skuffles looking at the lights on the harbour and drowning my lonesome regrets with a glass or two of warm beer when a tall lean and grizzled fellow sat himself next to me. He turned out to be an ex-kayaker and, furthermore, had paddled a Pittarak. So he was clearly was a man of discernment and culture despite his shaggy grey hair and unshaved, unkempt appearance; a man of ripe vocabulary and even riper vaguely sulfurous smell; with the additional oddity that he would not take his gloves off. We got to talking about close calls in our boats and I found from my limited stock a story or two. Told him about a boat that was swamped near to sinking midway between Bucasia and Scawfell while island hopping in Queensland. He scratched his nose and muttered into his beard. Then there was kayaking between Erith and Deal islands in a blanket of fog, where missing landfall meant being swept by the fierce currents of Murray passage into the turbulent, trackless wastes of Bass Strait. He stifled a yawn, looked up quizzically and struck up with his own story.

“Mate,” he said “you think that’s a close call, let me tell you about the most ill considered decision I’ve ever made — gave up the sea because of it. It was on Hook Island in the Whitsundays where I was camping for no better reason than it bore my name.” (Jim Hook was how he introduced himself showing me some sort of naval commission, something to do with a Letter of Marque, which I have to say was the most dog eared and yellowed certificate I’ve ever seen).

“Anyway, mate” he continued, “twas evening and the Pittarak was drifting down Nara inlet while I studied sea eagles perched on the hoop pine and wondered what kind of giant wombat could make the mud slides that occurred every so often between the mangroves. Curlews were calling and, from time to time, an animal barked, a peaceful spot and very isolated. Then I hear this faint click behind me. Nothing happens for a while and then there it goes again — click click, quite regular now and a bit louder. And of a sudden there’s a swirl of water and what I thought was a log starts swimming gracefully around the boat, clicking all the time. It’s a saltwater croc mate. But its OK looks fairly docile, quite un-aggressive in fact. And there’s my first mistake!

“Years ago a professor told me that even the politest of sharks or saltwater crocs circling your boat is no more innocent than a young lad curiously doing the rounds of a Christmas buffet, just waiting to devour the pudding. Like a flippant fool I ignored the advice and continued to study the swimming log.

“It circled me twice and just as I was beginning to feel an affection for the critter, me being lonely an all, up it leaps and barges full tilt into the boat. Mate I was shocked, Prof’ Thomson was right after all. I’m back paddling me fastest and this horrible beast is smiling its toothy grin waiting for the next rush which comes too quickly. Its cavernous jaws are agape and I’m peering in despair at hell waiting at the end of a crimson, slavering, tooth lined throat opening before me.

“Mind racing…time to fire a flare into its gaping maw? — NO the blamed flares are in the back of my PFD. But there’s bungee stretched across the deck and I whip my feet up to hold the elastic cord off the boat, pull the centre of the cord back and there it is! A catapult ready for action but nothing nearby for a missile, except either a small hand-compass or an almanac that I always carry under the bungee. Figured the compass was the go as there was a spare fixed to the deck. So set this expensive missile in the cord, let go and THWACK it fires and hits that ole croc squarely in the epiglottis.

“The jaws clamp shut and down its head crashes straight onto the deck compass. It crosses its eyes, retches, sets its jaws to the sky retches again and coughing violently shoots out a silvery looking object into the blue yonder. Then shaking pieces of compass housing from its blood stained throat, it gives a despondent look at the lost meal and quickly, quietly, slips away.

“Silence… then a whistling; think for a moment it’s a cannon ball but look up and there’s that silver instrument heading straight at me. One hand grasps the paddle and braces like fury the other stretches across, leans and HOWZAT caught it — years playing cricket for England finally pay off.

“Turns out the critter had once swallowed and now thrown up, a Lange & Sohne marine chronometer! And just as well because I’d lost both my compasses and the almanac had slid off the deck into the briny so the devil’s own luck gives me a clock to measure the time of sunrise, sunset, locate true north and find my way home.

“But still on a dark winter’s night while considering those murky waters, an icy chill creeps down my spine at the thought that I will no longer hear a warning “tic toc tic” while the croc creeps up behind me.”

The old guy winks, picks up my beer in his claw, drains it with a gulp and is gone.

With apologies to: JM Barrie, Professor Thomson and the NSWSKC for detaining you so long! :~)