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Bonzer Words!: Yesterday

Eugenia Gomes tells of 85-year-old fisherman Bert, who recalls how he came to be in Australia.

Squinting against the midday sun, eighty five year old Bert stood at the end of the Fremantle fishing jetty, his eyes searching the horizon, for the boats still to come in with their day's catch of crayfish. The familiar sounds of the diesel motors chugging through the water, and the noise of rowdy crewmen as they moored their boats along the jetty, made him smile.

Slowly he settled down on the end of the wooden jetty to watch the boats make their way into the harbour. He breathed the clean sharp smell of salt the wind had whipped up from the sea as he watched the gulls swoop and dive around the boats on the jetty as they searched for any tit bits of food. He had spent most of his life working on the ocean, from his childhood fishing in Madeira Island, to lobster fishing in German West Africa. He was proud to be amongst the first of the Portuguese cray-fishermen in Western Australia.

He ran his fingers through his thick grey curls; he could still remember his arrival in Australia from South Africa, in June of 1952. He was one of three partners involved in a cray fishing venture, to fish in the West Australian. He had berthed the 77-foot wooden fishing boat the North Cape at the Fremantle wharf, and waited for hours to be cleared by customs, before coming around to the fishing harbour and tying up along this same jetty. He smiled as his memories became sharp and clear.

What a sight they must have appeared in their storm damaged boat. Aboard the North Cape were his crew of eighteen Portuguese fishermen from Madeira Island, his five-year-old son, a woman, a South African captain and a German engineer. He had served as first mate and navigator on the journey that had taken nine weeks. They had pottered their course from Cape Town going via Durban, Mauritius, Rodriguez Island, to Fremantle.

It had been a hazardous journey as they encountered rough weather and high seas for most of the way. Only one day, before reaching the coast of Mauritius,the boat was hit by a cyclone which damaged it extensively. After weeks of delay, the boat was finally repaired. However, the vessel was fraught with storms and high seas yet again, before reaching Rodriguez Island.

Two days out of Fremantle disaster struck yet again, a raging storm pushed the vessel miles off course and Bert feared they were lost. To make matters worse, in the height of the storm the fresh water tank ruptured and the drinking water was lost. Low on supplies, and with no water aboard he had struggled to correct his course as the boat was lashed by waves. He smiled as he remembered the feeling of jubilation by the crew when they first sighted the welcoming flashes of the beacon, from the Rottnest Island lighthouse.

That was a lifetime ago, and things were different then. Boats were mainly plank, with the small wheelhouse in the stern; they were named after saints or wives, usually painted bright blue Yellow or white. The majority of the fishermen were Italian or of ethnic origin. Cray pots were constructed from cane and pulled from the ocean bed by hand. A day’s crayfish catch was bagged in hessian sacks ready for the Fishing Co Op, which was housed in the Fremantle fish markets at the end of the Jetty.

He had spent the next forty years fishing the waters around Fremantle, coming in and out of the fishing harbor. He looked about him with a measure of sadness. Things had changed, gone were the wooden boats, most replaced by aluminium with winches and fancy computer gadgets. Restaurants and car parks had replaced the fish markets and Co Op. Bert sighed and looked up at the blue sky, yet the seagulls still swooped and dived looking for tit bits of food.

© Eugenia Gomes


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