Tuesday, 19 March 2002 00:00

The Sun, the Moon, and the Wooden Leg

By Trevor Jackson - Esperance Star

Summer 1987, the searing heat of a Brisbane Christmas, steam rising from the freshly cut playing field. It's the annual 'fishermen versus buyers' cricket match and its as tense as the MCG on Boxing Day. The fishermen aren't doing well as they've lost three early wickets to a deadly ring-in that is making them look very ordinary. Enter the new batsman Scott Ogilvy. Ogilvy strides confidently to the crease, asks the umpire for 'centre', and leans into his stance. The 'buyers' ring-in bowler kicks off the sight screen and steams in, releasing his projectile at a million miles an hour. Ogilvy clips the leather missile away to square leg and bounds into his stride... and falls flat on his face. The crowd erupts into laughter. Ogilvy has left his wooden leg back at the batting crease, has jumped up to his foot and is hopping down the pitch in a vain effort to score his opening run. He failed.

Part 1

I was a relative newcomer to the fishing scene at that point. I thought that the crowd's sense of humour left a little to be desired. Here was this poor one-legged bloke doing his best for his team and all they could do was make fun of him. I soon wised up though, above all the laughter and shit slanging, I could hear a bearlike belly laugh. It was Ogilvy himself, in absolute hysterics at his own misfortune. The story became fishing folklore round the local harbour.

Years later Scott and I had become firm friends, so it was with some considerable concern when early one Saturday night late last year, I heard over the radio that his boat the 'Melaine' had rolled over and sunk whilst trawling to the east of Moreton Island. As the drama unfolded over the airwaves, our tenseness began to ease as we heard that at least some of the crew had made it off. Then finally around midnight the all clear was given, all of the crew had made it and were steaming aboard the 'Melaine's sister ship, 'Victoria K', back to dry land. In 87 metres of water, in a roaring current, the 'Melaine' sat in darkness, fuel bellowing from her tanks, hungry Crabs and Sharks joyous at the feast that had befallen them. The 'Melaine's icebox was full of fresh prawns. They would dine well tonight at Scott's expense.

A few days later I decided to drop in on the 'Melaine' and check her out and see how she was going. The 'Victoria K's crew had seen the wreck on their sounder as they idled around spotlighting for the survivors on the night the shit went down. They'd quickly scribbled down the mark as they passed over her, hoping to avoid joining her at some later date if they were to snag the brand new obstruction with their nets. They radioed the position to the other trawlers in the area and I jotted it down.

I planned the dive at 70 metres but when we got on site it was immediately apparent that that was not real clever. The bottom was reading over 85 so it was time for a quick rethink. We decided to drop 70 metres of anchor chain down, get upstream of the wreck then I would jump in whilst crewman Carl 'to and fro-ed' the boat to keep us on line as we drifted down to her. The viz was spectacular so I had no trouble spotting the 'Melaine' as she lay bouncing in the current, still tethered by her nets which lay dormant in the sand a thousand feet to the north. She was an awesome and sorrowful sight, upright as if still steaming, wishing she was back at work. Maybe, in a small way, she would get her wish.

A couple of months later Scott phoned me to ask about the possibility of going down and getting some of the crews gear back. "We lost our wallets and a couple of personal items, oh yeh, can ya see if ya can get me back me spare leg?" When a boat goes to sea its customary to take a few spares just in case, so of course it stood to reason that Scott would include a spare leg in his kit bag. I laughed when he asked me, “No worries mate, I'll have a bit of a kick around and see if I can spot it."

But we never went back. That is until last Sunday. Scott rang back a week or two ago and asked about the 'Melaine ' and had I been back. We'd sent him up Kevin Denlay's photo of her and he didn't mind admitting it brought a tear to his eye.' I was on that boat for 22 years Trev, help build her as a youngster, then bought her 16 years ago'. I knew how he felt, having been attached to the odd ship in my time, but Scott had a more pressing problem. The insurance company had paid Scott off for the 'Melaine' within a few weeks and he'd set himself up with another boat, trouble was that fishing gear is expensive, and on the back deck of the 'Melaine was the answer to Scott's problems, a complete set of brand-new trawl gear. We just had to get it. I told him I'd help him sought things out.

Now without trying to blow my own trumpet here, blokes that can dive down to nearly 90metres, do 20 mins of hard labour, and come back alive aren't exactly thick on the ground in these parts and I needed a buddy. I rang me old mate Mouthpiece Max to see if he was interested but he'd been jetsetting around watching space shuttle launches and the like and didn't feel he had the 'match fitness' to pull it off. However there was another option and after a few minutes on the phone Dr Simon and I were already tasting the beers we'd drink if we managed to get the job done.

Simon has dived the wreck on more than one occasion. One day he visited me on the Esperance and said that he had brought something back that he thought the owner should have. 'What uz ut?' I asked, taking the piss out of his Kiwi accent. 'Ut uz a cup', he answered. 'Why the bloody hell would Scott want a cup back?', I thought. When Simon produced the cup I could see why he thought it would be a good piece of memorabilia. If was a beautiful handcrafted ceramic coffee mug, on the side were images of the sun and the moon, stellar bodies that rule the tides and waves, I sent it up to Scott the next day.

Part 2

The fateful morning came, we dragged our collective carcasses out of bed in the pre-dawn darkness and gathered on the jetty at Bribie Island anxious but hopeful. Scott admitted to feeling very edgy. He'd not been out to the site and didn't know how he'd feel once we got there and spotted the life he'd once known on the sounder. Simon and I were anxious too. We didn't want to let him down but knew that this was the 'longest of shots'. Neither of us had gotten much sleep, so we dived into the nearest bunks to pass away the four hours it would take to get out the spot.

It was going to be a major operation. Scott had heaps of mates who wanted to come and help but we needed specific people, support diver, surface watch of course, but also blokes who knew fishing gear and how to get it on board if we managed our part. There were 6 of us in all, Simon, Scott and I, crewmen Shane and Peter from the Esperance Star, and Graham from the Dept of Fisheries. Together we joked as the shot lines were readied and the dive gear set up on our final approaches.

The plan was to drop a very heavy shot consisting of 125 metres of 28mm rope, with 30metres of chain and a 65pound anchor attached to it. Connected to the rope, at the same point as the chain, was another 50metre length of 28mm rope that would hang loose at one end. We'd drop the shot, dive down and tie the loose end of the second rope to the gear we wanted, cut away the ropes that were holding said gear to the deck of the 'Melaine', and be back in time for tea. Well that was the theory at least. The whole success of the operation depended on getting the shot line to land at the correct point in relation to the wreck. If it landed in front of her we were shot ducks, even though we might have been able to still tie the gear off, wed have to go over or around the ship itself, which would mean we'd almost certainly get tangled up when we tried to lift. It was a 50/50 thing really, would we get lucky?

The wreck jumped up on the sounder OK, the shot was dropped, and we started to gear up. Simon and I had to be repeatedly hosed down once we were all rigged up as the heat was stifling, I could physically watch Simon lose body weight as we motored the boat into position beside the floats which held the shot line afloat. I slung one foot over the rail ready to jump when the unforeseeable jumped up and smacked us in the head. The floats holding our down line were dragged under by the force of the current. '%#$*&'!!!!!!!!!!!!

We knew as we were steaming down the eastern side of the Island that there was plenty of current because the boat was doing one knot above her normal speed but it must have been increasing through out the morning. Suddenly we had visions of complete failure before we even got into the water. Simon and I were looking at each other with that 'there's no frigging way we're gonna make this descent' type look whilst we motored around hoping the floats would pop up. They didn't.
Crewman Shane and the topside gang were busy working on putting together a makeshift shotline. This time they had a light rope, a light anchor, and a huge float [a 100lb LPG bottle makes a damn fine float]. There was still a slim chance. If we got straight into the water as soon as the downline was dropped and went like buggery, we might get down below the current, find the other shotline and continue as planned originally. The second shot was dropped and we hit the water before it hit the sea floor. Pulling, pulling, pulling, down down down. It was a marathon descent but past about the 45metre mark the current eased and we settled into it. At the bottom the shot was dragging at a great rate of knots and there was no sign of the wreck though we knew it must be ahead of us up current. Then through the haze we saw our original shotline off to the left and scarpered over to it. The loose rope was hanging perfectly vertical and the wreck was thirty metres beyond the anchor at the end of the chain. A perfect drop, directly astern of the wreck, we couldn't believe it.

I grabbed the loose rope and dragged it across my shoulder as we swam up to the 'Melaine'. We sat there dumbfounded, the gear we were supposed to retrieve wasn't there. I tied the rope off to a rail and looked around at Simon, he was shrugging his shoulders as if to say, 'what the hell do we do now'. I gestured at him that we should just 'go for a dive', what else could we do. For a second we both decided the best thing we could do would be to try to find the Wooden Leg.

Scott had described the gear we were looking for--- '' four Stainless Steel Otter Boards tied to the inside of the rail at the back of the boat''. Neither of us could see them All we could see was some normal wooden boards that were still connected to nets, the nets were tied to an awning above the deck. We sat there for a minute and caught our breath and began to realise that we were in fact looking at the gear that Scott wanted. Since the awning extended right out to the back of the boat, and these boards were in underneath it with the nets still attached, there was virtually no chance of being able to pull them free without snagging the whole lot and snapping our tow line to boot. But we came to do a job and we might as well do it and see what happens.

Part 3

We'd wasted a fair bit of our precious bottom time standing around scratching our heads, so while I tied the boards together, Simon hacked frantically at anything he could see that would stop them coming free. With that done and a couple of minutes to spare I poked my head into the wheelhouse to see the carnage. Everything you'd normally expect to see in a boat was sitting there in an almighty mess, a brass compass binnacle housed the shattered remains of Scott's compass, the glass had imploded as a result of the water pressure, a pressure well above that of the manufacturers specifications I was sure.

Looking down and forward from the doorway I could see into the crews sleeping area in the forecastle. Lying peacefully on the floor was Scott's spare leg. You beauty! There's a saying that you cant fit a round peg in a square hole, and I was a pretty big version of that round peg. I thrust forward in an attempt to get my considerable girth through the wheelhouse door. No go. I looked across to Simon and wondered if his more streamlined profile might make it in, but a quick glance at the bottom timers indicated it was time to get the hell outta there. It was still 30 or 40 metres back to the anchor and there was still a little job to perform.

We had had the idea on the surface that if we could undo the shotlines anchor and leave it down there we might just get enough weight off the downline to make the floats rise back to the surface. It was a long shot but every inch would count. I undid the shackle connecting the chain to the big rope. This effectively left us with one very long line, bout 170metres, direct from the floats to the fishing gear. With that done I scanned around for Simon who was ahead and to the left of me trying to spot the second downline anchor. He spotted it and gestured that I should follow, it was still skipping across the bottom very slowly, but we made it ok and started the ascent.

At the 44 minute point we were both up at around 10 metres where we were met briefly by support diver Shane who had brought down our Shark deterring gear. He asked if all was well and was trying to tell him that we'd managed to attach the fishing gear but the floats would still be a problem. On the ascent I had caught a glimpse of the first shot line and its floats, they were 30 metres down and hanging firm in the current. Hope was draining.
An hour or so later Simon and I dragged ourselves onto the deck of the work boat, absolutely buggered. Scott came out and announced that we had dragged the shotline 1.5 nautical miles whilst doing the deco. 'Some current all right', I murmured. We steamed back up to the site of the 'Melaine' and figured we could try and put Shane down above her, he could drift back with a rope and hopefully catch a glimpse of the submerged floats. 'Fat Chance', we thought, 'but worth a go''.

Occasionally however the gods do shine down on us. As we closed in on the wreck site the two floats busted through the surface as if to say, 'here we are, come get us'. It was one of those joyous moments, when all hope is lost, then fate jumps in and decides to lend a hand. There was no time to lose we weren't going to let this opportunity go by and Scott steamed flat out for the floats whilst ropes and lifting gear were hurriedly readied. We snatched the floats from the water and quickly secured them, our first sigh of relief for the day.

It was far from over however, the gear was still on the bottom and under the awning and as we took the weight of it, the work boat began to list at an alarming angle. I joked to Simon that he may be about to experience first hand how one of these boats rolled over. The current had us pushed around side on to the rope and it extended down at right angles from our hull, definitely not ideal!

The guys working the back deck had a better idea. They rigged up another towing point at the stern of our boat, and we'd use pure brute force to extract our prize. Scott was on the throttle, 1000 revs, 1200 revs, 1300 revs…. We sat still. 1400 revs, 1500 revs, 1600 revs, the strain on the tow-rope was well up near breaking point. 1700 revs, 1800 revs... movement?

Almost undiscernible at first, we began to move. Something had given, and since the rope was still near breaking point, we knew we must have pulled the gear free, and quite probably pulled the transom [rear deck wall] clean off the 'Melaine'. It was high fives all round.

Seems we were really having good luck this day as not only did we recover the gear which came away cleanly, but also the lines and the nets intact as well. Now, a few days later and that gear is already back in full use.

A few hours later we were drinking beers and still slapping each other on the back. So much had been against us, yet through a series of small miracles, our one legged mate would soon be back to work and doing the thing he lives for. It was a nice kind of feeling as we docked the boat. Scott's wife and son were on the jetty and praising us all like we were heroes. Everyone felt great.' Not a bad days diving hey Simon?'' I queried. 'yeh!', he said, 'now how bout we go for a drink?

PS ...as for the wooden leg, well I guess I'll just have to lose a few more million pounds to pull that off.