Night came. The wind had picked up. It was now blowing about twenty knots and coming from the starboard quarter. Spray came over the bow of the little Jillian and some of it landed on the five unhappy bulls in the hold.
Garth Simms, the Jillian’s captain, is an Aussie sailor through and through. He is heavyset, tough, but thoughtful. He told a little about himself. “All my family were at sea: brothers, father, everybody, even before they came from the old country—Ireland—opposite the coast of Cornwall. Curly Joe, the original Simms, came out in eighteen-some-bloody-thing, 1840 or something. They started off fishing out here, hand-line fishing. Some still are fishing.”
Garth was interrupted by the radar; it quit. He stared at the blank tube for a second, flicked some switches, then tested the connections. Nothing. It was black out and visibility was poor. Garth called Alf “Fred” Ess up from the engine room and together the two men tinkered with the radar. Ess came back in with tools and some electrician’s tape, took apart a connection, and got the radar working again.
Red tries to prevent some errant woolies from escaping.
“How long we been down here, Fred?” Garth asked. “Sixty-nine? We’re in the fifteenth year—constant. Before that Fred was on the little one, the Triad, and I was master on a similar one in Adelaide, sulphuric acid run. Twelve years there, for the Crouch company. They built the Jillian. She was originally called the Jillian Crouch. Built with a flat bottom for working shallow water: steel frames, wood hull, threemaster—fore and aft schooner. This scow type used to be typical construction in south Australia in the old days. She’s good for this trade, too. At Whitmark [the western port on Flinders], when the tide’s out, we sit on the bottom for two or three hours every trip.”
Garth reflected on his work. “The cattle trade, it’s a difficult one. We’re worried about weather all the time. If it’s too rough, we can’t sail, especially with cattle. Once they go off their feet, the others fall over them and its bloody difficult getting them up again. Dangerous, too, in amongst them on a rolling ship. But we’ve lost very few due to weather. When we lose some, when they die on board, it’s usually that they’re sick when they come in. It’s in the spring and they eat that young rye grass. They’re okay until they are moved on board, then they die like flies.
“The crew on the Jillian is good with the animals,” Garth continued. “It takes real skill. You have to know exactly what to do, especially with the cattle. The sheep aren’t bad. They are small enough so that you can pick them up and move them by hand. The cattle, though, they are something else. Require thought and care in handling them. Ingenuity, too. One time we had a load of scrubbers on board—wild ones—and they got all boxed up, just refused to move up the chute. Well, old Sprocket got tired of waiting and went up to the pilothouse and blew the ship’s whistle. Those cattle went shooting off—that had them on shore in a bloody minute. Another time he tried it and they scattered everywhere.”
The captain took a sip of his tea. “Once a big steer got loose and somehow got into the galley. Well, he got stuck in there, knocking things about and making a terrible mess. It was a hell of a job getting it out because nobody could get in there with it. Finally we put a man over the side with an electric prod. He stuck his head and arms in the porthole far enough to back the steer out. But he dropped the prod. He said that he and the steer were eyeball to eyeball before he could slowly reach down and pick it up again. He was able to back the steer out, but he said that the next time a steer got into the galley, someone else could go in the porthole.”
Garth Simms’s stories went on late into the night. The next morning the Lady Jillian navigated the rocky, shoal-strewn bay at the south end of Flinders. Razorback Mountain and the Strezelecki Peaks stood up in a clear blue sky, guarding the entrance to the harbor at Lady Barron.
The view of Marshall Bay on Flinders Island, where there are more sheep and cattle than people.
The five Santa Gertrudis bulls were unloaded without difficulty. No doubt they were eager for the green pastures and young heifers of Flinders Island. The Lady Jillian took on a load of woolies and in an hour she was gone.
List of Particulars:
– Name of Vessel/Nationality: Lady Jillian/ Australia
– Built in/Year: Port Adelaide, Australia/1948
– Name of Builder: Unknown
– Hull Material: Seel sides, wood bottom, jarrah planking
– Length/Breadth/Draft: 125’ (38.1m)/25’ (7.6m)/9’ (2.7m)
– Net/Gross/Deadweight Tons: 98/243/?
– Number and Type of Engine(s)/Cylinders/Horsepower: 1 diesel/6/425
-Description of Engine(s)/Builder/Date: Caterpillar Tractor Company, Peoria, Illinois/ 1975
Speed Maximum/Cruising : 10kn/9kn
Fuel Consumption: 18 gal. per hour
No. of derricks and their tonnages: 1- 5 ton
No. of crew: 7
Name of Owners: Flinders Strait Shipping Company
Isolation has been the islanders’ main problem. Traditionally they have depended on small shipping companies both to transport their livestock to market and to supply them with everything they need from the outside world. Too often the shipowners were not reliable or moved on to more lucrative markets. So in 1969 a group of island farmers and the local storeowner formed the Flinders-Strait Shipping Company to provide a transportation service for their community and the surrounding islands. Besides the Lady Jillian, the company runs the 350-ton general cargo carrier Katika and the tiny Flinders Triad, which is used as a backup vessel.
The Flinders-Strait Company and its ships have served the islands well. In 1983 the Lady Jillian and the Katika carried 7,571 cattle, 62,247 sheep, and 6,623 bales of wool, plus 8 pigs, 3 dogs, and 19 horses. They also brought to Flinders everything the people needed, from cornflakes to motor cars. This commerce was accomplished at a rate of a vessel call every other day. The company has helped Flinders so much that the islanders started their own airline and now operates three de Havilland Herons and two Piper Navajos between Melbourne, Flinders, and Launceston.
Teenage brothers Max and Neil (Shortfinger Sprocket Jr.) Pickett were enjoying their dinner of lamb chops (what else?), string beans, and mashed potatoes. Springhead was ashore having a few days off. The brothers’ father, Sprocket Sr. Pickett, was in the closet-size galley doing the cooking. Shortfinger still had gauze around his thumb. He took it off and admired the stump. He had caught the thumb between two sections of the chute as he was guiding one section into place. When the two sections came together, a quarter-inch of Shortfinger’s digit was left between them. He thought that it might grow back, but maybe not for a long time.
Capt. Garth Simms checks his position as the Lady Jillian heads out of the River Tamar into Bass Straight.
Both boys had been raised on Flinders. Max had recently moved to the bright lights of Launceston (population 65,000). Shortfinger had decided to stay on the island. Sixteen-year-old Shortfinger squealed on his older brother, “Reason is, he’s plannin’ on getting’ married over there soon.”
That revelation brought a scornful look from Max that told Shortfinger to shut up.
I asked the brothers what it was like sailing with their father, whether he gave them any trouble.
Max shook his head, “No, he’s too little.” A ferocious-looking Sr. stuck his head out of the galley serving-hole, where he had been listening. Both the boys laughed.
“He’s a pretty good old man,” Max admitted. “He’s been around for a long time.”
Sprocket Sr. gave a satisfied nod and went back to his work.
Jass Cheema was at the wheel. From northern India, Jass had immigrated to Australia and liked what he found. In his soccer jersey, the effervescent young man seemed as though he would have no trouble fitting in, elbow at the bar, enjoying a pint. Jass had been sailing for three years before coming aboard the Jillian. I asked him if he had sailed for an Indian shipping company.
“No,” he said, laughing, “a Greek one. I got my first job as a deck boy. We sailed around everywhere. We were across the Atlantic, Mediterranean, Red Sea, America—all over the place.”
“Any trouble finding a job in Australia?”
Jass nodded. “If there wasn’t this company, I wouldn’t be able to get a job because I have to be a member of the seamen’s union.”
“And they don’t take in foreigners?” I asked. Jass shrugged and looked away.
They were a tough-looking bunch: Springhead, Max, Shortfinger Sprocket Jr., and Sprocket Sr. As the ketch-rigged Lady Jillian slid alongside the wharf at Launceston, Tasmania, her crew looked as though they were ready to jump from her rigging with cutlasses. A moustached and tattooed Springhead guided the bridging chute into place as Alf Ess, the engineer, lowered it with the cargo winch. The crew positioned themselves along the chute, which ran from the Jillian’s hold, across her deck, to the livestock pens on shore. All the men were armed with electric cattle prods.
This Santa Gertrudis bull balks while being loaded for the trip to Flinders Island.
A series of bellows rang out from below deck. A full-grown cow, the first of 208 Herefords, stumbled up the chute from the hold. Wide-eyed and petrified with fear, she stopped midway up the chute. Immediately the cattle following her piled up, bellowing and trying to lift their heads into the air. A crewman stuck an electric prod into the lead cow’s flank. The shock sent the haggard animal bolting forward. Each succeeding cow received a shock that propelled it after the first Hereford. Within thirty minutes the ship was cleared of animals. The crew hosed the deck and hold with live steam, and the Jillian was ready to load again. A small but very valuable cargo was to be put on for the fifteen-hour return trip to Flinders Island: five prize-winning Santa Gertrudis bulls.
Late in the afternoon the loading of the five Santa Gertrudises began. The huge chocolate-brown bulls, however, wanted absolutely no part of the Lady Jillian. With saliva foaming, they balked at every turn in the chute until the cattle prods shocked them into moving forward. One of the bulls, confused and bewildered, tried to go over the top of the chute and succeeded only in tangling his foreleg between the rails. Stuck, the one-and-a-half-ton animal thrashed wildly in an attempt to free himself. It was a delicate moment. Jass Cheema, the closest crewman, had to react both correctly and immediately. A wrong move would cause the bull to break his trapped leg. Jass poked the prod once at the bull’s neck and the shock provoked exactly the right reaction. The bull backed away and in so doing freed himself. The men knew their work and they did it with a minimum of force.
Once the sheep have filled all available deck space, a portable pen is loaded onto the hatchcover.
Nothing But Wind
Loading was completed without further incident, and with her Caterpillar 353 purring, the Jillian nosed out into the River Tamar, heading for Bass Strait and Flinders. The Jillian’s regular route takes her into the roaring forties, that area of ocean between 40° and 50° south latitude, known by sailors the world over for its fearsome winds and mountainous seas. Bisected by the fortieth parallel, Flinders is the largest of a windswept collection of islands and rocks forming the Furneaux Island Group. Lying in Bass Strait off the southeast coast of Australia, the islands are 200 miles from Melbourne and 120 miles north of Launceston. To the east there is nothing but wind and waves for 1,000 miles until you hit New Zealand.
Low-lying, with rolling hills and empty white-sand beaches, Flinders is home to 150,000 sheep, 20,000 cattle, and 1,100 tough, self-reliant friendly people. There are not many millionaires on Flinders. Aside from sheep and cattle raising, the island’s economy is dependent on a little fishing and the odd tourist. Period. The island abounds with wildlife. Cute pig-like wombats, badger-looking Tasmanian devils (the only marsupial carnivore), some red-necked wallabies, a few small Tasmanian pademelons, together with possums, the Cape Barron goose, and the burrowing muttonbird (short-tailed shearwater) all live there. Unfortunately, the islanders view their animal neighbors as pests who compete for food with the livestock, instead of as the potential tourist gold mine they are. The wallabies are used by the local fisherman for lobster bait, and the other animals are shot as a matter of course.
The Lady Jillian makes her way up the River Tamar toward Launceston.