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Pelican Point: my sailor-suit days




A Swan River pelican with Pelican Point beyond. The painting is by my schooldays friend Hamish Cuming


During the early 1990s when I was an officer in the public service in Western Australia, I worked for several years in the departmental Head Office on the banks of the Swan River at Crawley. The building was known satirically as ‘Toad Hall’, for reasons that require no explanation to departmental staff of the day. Although it was a graceful red-brick building with a lovely outlook across Matilda Bay, my time within it was marked by frustration and ill-humour, befitting the in-house soubriquet. 


However, working at Crawley had two advantages. The first was that my mother lived nearby. I often called in on her for lunch or for a drink after work. Lunch was preferable, as it gave her an excuse to cook a nice meal (she loved to cook, but lost interest after my father died). On the other hand, the afternoon drink allowed sufficient time for her to give me a wide-ranging critique of all the family goings-on.


The second advantage was that I knew this part of the world very well. I had attended Nedlands State School, just up the hill; learned to swim at the Nedlands Baths, just around the corner; and had studied at the University of WA, just across the road.


It was a beautiful area and after a while (and after my mother died) I fell into the habit of taking a short restorative walk at lunchtime. A favourite path led east past the millionaires’ yachts in their pens at Royal Perth Yacht Club. From there I could cut through the scrubby nature reserve and out to Pelican Point, the long sand spit running into the river. This was a place of beauty and solitude, right in the very midst of the busy city. A twenty-minute walk would always refresh my soul and spirits.


Pelican Point evoked special memories. I had spent a lot of time there in the 1940s and early 1950s.  When I was about 9 or 10 years old, I joined the Number 1 (Pelican Point) Sea Scouts. Their headquarters was the last building out on the point, backing onto the nature reserve, and with an outlook across the Swan River to Kings Park and the distant high-rises of down-town Perth.



A contemporary view looking across Matilda Bay to the city and Kings Park from the Sea Scouts HQ at Pelican Point. The ramshackle jetty I knew seventy years ago is long gone, replaced by the modern and substantial jetty shown here.


I went for a stroll down this particular memory lane not long ago. The charming old Sea Scout buildings I once knew are long gone, replaced by a modern brick-and-tile structure with all amenities. However, the Sea Scouts headquarters is still there. As it was in the 1940s, it is still shaded from the afternoon sun by a dense stand of Rottnest ti-trees, and it still retains (at least to my imagination) the atmosphere of intense interest and adventure with which it has always been associated in my mind.


Whoever selected the site as a Sea Scout HQ knew what they were doing. It is nestled in the bush, surrounded on three sides by the Swan River, but protected from the strong easterly and south-westerly winds of summer; and it has unfettered access to the wide expanses of Matilda Bay and Melville Water. These broadwaters provided the perfect canvas on which the scouts could paint their maritime adventures.


The headquarters I knew was a jumble of rustic wooden buildings. They were the remnants of a wartime installation, the headquarters of the US Navy Catalina Flying Boat Squadron that had operated there during World War II. There was a boatshed hung about with ropes, anchors, buoys, and other nautical accessories and historical curiosities, including an ancient cylinder gramophone and a box of wax cylinders which, when played, reproduced the tinny sounds of 1920s dance bands. There was a mess with a rudimentary kitchen, known to the scouts as ‘the galley’, equipped with a smoky wood stove; and a bunkhouse in which we slept in ex-Navy canvas hammocks. There was a timber lookout tower, rather like an abbreviated version of the fire lookout towers I came to know many years later. The lookout was probably about 10 m in height, and was festooned with flagpoles, halyards and wireless aerials; there was an upstairs section reached by a spiral ladder where our Scoutmaster held court. Across a small rectangle of scruffy buffalo grass was a sandy cove from which our fleet of boats could be launched, and a rickety timber jetty that reached out into the deeper waters of the bay.




The “new” lookout tower at Scout HQ, erected in 1960. This replaced the old timber tower I knew, that had been a relic of the wartime days when Pelican Point was the site of a US Navy Catalina Flying Boat Squadron



The fleet of the Number 1 Sea Scouts in those days comprised two old whale-chasing boats, Myriad and Ranger. In these we were taught to sail and row.


The boats had been acquired from a whaling operation on the south coast in an earlier era, perhaps the 19th century by the look of them. They were eight metres in length, clinker-built of solid jarrah, and heavy. It took about twenty small scouts to get one of them out of the boatshed and drag it down to the water, and about thirty to drag it back.  Each boat had cross-thwarts (seats) and was rigged for six rowers, three on each side. They came equipped with massive wooden oars that I used to think had once been used by Jean Valjean when he was a galley slave. When a favourable wind was encountered, a mast could be stepped in one of the thwarts and a heavy, brown canvas sail hoisted and set. There was a jib, or “fores’l” (as we learned to call it) which was operated in the conventional way, but the mainsail (“mains’l”) was gaff-rigged so that when the boat was put about on an upwind tack, or gybed on a down-wind run, the whole sail had to be taken down and then re-hoisted on the other side of the mast. This was dangerous and heavy work for nine-year olds. Often it would take us three or four attempts to go about, each failure requiring a re-hoisting of the sail on the upwind side for long enough to pick up weigh. It was the sort of seamanship that would have been second nature to any ship’s boy at the time of Nelson but was seriously difficult for little boys from the suburbs of Nedlands and Dalkeith. At the bow of each boat was a small platform, presumably the place where the harpoon-man had stood when the oarsmen were chasing down a whale. The control of the crew was in the hands of one of the senior scouts who stood in the stern of the boat, manipulating a sweep oar and snarling instructions.



The Myriad, a Pelican Point whale-chaser under sail, crossing Matilda Bay sometime in the early 1950s. Photo courtesy of Greg McClean



Our ventures out onto the Swan River in the whale boats were full of excitement, and not just because of our incompetence at rowing or sailing these cumbersome old craft. As often as not we would become entangled with, and cause havoc among the racing fleets, the 18-foot Skiffs or the Sharpies. They would be screaming across the bay on a broad reach with spinnakers set and then suddenly find two whale boats wallowing in their path. The racing crews would shout invective as they swerved and capsized around us. This also contributed to our maritime education, as we were able to acquire a whole new nautical vocabulary, no doubt well-known to Nelson’s ships’ boys.


‘Scouts’ was held every Saturday afternoon, although often we would stay the night and go home on Sunday afternoon. It was a “boys-only” organisation in those days – girls could join the Girl Guides, but I don’t remember that there was a naval equivalent.


Like the rest of the boys, I would ride to Pelican Point on my bike – it was about an hour’s ride there and back – dressed in my white shorts and shirt, white scarf with toggle, sandals and little round sailor hat. If it was cold, I could don a special navy-blue sweater with “Sea Scouts” embroidered on the front, a garment of which I was inordinately proud. The sleeves of my shirt soon began to blossom with badges, sewn on by my mother, indicating that I had passed various tests in seafaring and scouting lore.


My sailor-suit days, circa 1950. The bandaged ankle was so much a part of me that my mother did not bother to take it off for the photograph. I was always carrying a wound of some sort in those days, and a colour photograph would no doubt have disclosed the red and yellow stains of mercurochrome and flavine.


 There was always a parade to start the day, but apart from the reedy whistle of the bosun pipe (which I loved) blown by our most senior scout, and the disciplined forming up in sections (or ‘patrols’ as they were called) according to our age group or experience, I do not remember that it was especially regimental. The emphasis was on fun and learning, not on discipline, and our Scoutmaster (known to us as The Skipper, or Skip) liked to leave as much as possible in the hands of the older boys. He was, after all, encouraging leadership.


Skip was an interesting young man. In 1950 he would have been aged about 35. He wore a white para-naval uniform, superior in several ways to our scout uniform, befitting his status as our commanding officer (he wore a real Navy peaked cap for one thing, and a lanyard). In real life, Skip was a schoolteacher, but he was also an ex-Serviceman, having spent the recent war as an officer in the Royal Australian Navy, and he held the total respect of all the small boys under his command. After the parade was over, and the assignments for the various groups had been set, Skip would mostly retire upstairs to his ‘office’ in the lookout tower, where he would study naval manuals, gaze out over the river through a pair of powerful naval binoculars as if checking for U-Boats, or teach the older boys codes, ciphers, semaphore and signalling. Whether he drank pink gin up there I am unsure, but it would have been in character.


Looking back, I recall no parental involvement, none at all. We arrived on our bikes or on foot, rather than being dropped off from Range Rovers. On our overnight camps everything, even the cooking, was in the hands of the boys. No doting mothers attended to the catering, the cooking and the washing-up or fussed about making sure little Jonquil had remembered to put on his singlet, as would probably be the case on school camps today.


It was on the overnight camps that I had my first experience of peeling potatoes and carrots with a large, blunt scout knife, part of the preparation for the massive stew one of the scouts would concoct in a four-gallon iron dixie in the galley, and which later we would wolf down ravenously. In theory there was a roster so that each patrol member had to do the catering and cooking for his fellow-patrol members on a particular weekend, but I can’t remember ever having to do this; perhaps my patrol leader considered me too incompetent or immature. What I do remember is that tinned peaches seemed to be part of every meal, including breakfast. The tinned peaches were invariably accompanied by thick, yellow custard. One of the senior boys had mastered custard-making; for all I know he may have earned a badge for it.



None of the old whale-chasers I sailed and rowed survive today, but this lovely little “seaboat” as they are now called, is similar, and still used for training Sea Scouts. This one is made of teak, and was built in Singapore (photo courtesy of Philip Raston)


The lack of parental input or oversight back in my day did not worry anyone. The camps were well-behaved, and as far as I can recall, there was nothing to worry about apart from the usual small-boy shenanigans. I don’t suppose a modern occupational health and safety officer would approve. For example, there was no bathroom at Pelican Point as I recall, and the toilets were primitive in the extreme, but tradition demanded a swim in the river before breakfast every morning, summer and winter. Perhaps we were tougher in those days or immunised by exposure to a less-religiously cleansed environment. Whatever it was, neither the regime nor the food seemed to do anyone any harm.


In addition to the Saturday afternoons and occasional overnight at Pelican Point there was an annual camp. I only went on one of these, but I remember it vividly. Again, it reveals the freedom that children of my generation enjoyed. Parents put their complete trust in the scouts, who were then able to arrange adventures for boys without the fear of getting taken to court if there was the merest accident.


The camp I attended took place during the summer school holidays and was held at Garden Island, several miles down the coast through open water, south of Fremantle. At that time Garden Island was a recreation reserve, not a Naval Base. We sailed and rowed there all the way from Pelican Point in our old whaling boats. I can still remember nearly being run down by a freighter in Fremantle Harbour and the anxious faces of the swarthy crew members peering down over the ship’s rails far above us, and then later the sensation of striking the ocean swell when we passed out beyond the South Mole. We wore no safety jackets and carried no life rafts or safety equipment of any sort. The crew were six 10-year-olds and the skipper was aged about fourteen. Had the old whale-chaser capsized, it would have gone straight to the bottom. On the other hand, we were all good swimmers (you had to be, to get into Sea Scouts) and stayed well in-shore. If the worst happened, we probably would have been able to reach the beach clinging to the oars.


At Garden Island we camped in the sand dunes, sleeping rough, and cooking our meals over aromatic campfires made from driftwood and native pine.  It was an idyllic spot, with the sheltered, pellucid waters, the dry summer easterlies and afternoon sea breezes, and the delicious aroma of coastal daisybush and beach spinifex.



Herring Bay, one of the idyllic spots at Garden Island


The nights were spent yarning and singing around the campfire, or going for moonlight swims, and the days at various scouting activities, boat drills and training sessions. At the end of the camp, deeply worn-out, sun-burnt, filthy, salt-caked and suffering from malnutrition, we sailed and rowed home to Pelican Point. It was a round trip of perhaps 60 kilometres.


I loved the training. Learning to tie complicated knots was an essential aspect of sea scouting, and the skills acquired have stood me in good stead. I can still call up a Round Turn with Two Half- Hitches, or a Bowline, Reef Knot, Figure of Eight or Sheepshank, as the occasion demands. Learning to row properly, in a crew, was also useful, and good discipline. Later as a 15-year-old I took up serious rowing in a racing crew, and this was made easier because I already knew how to do it. We were also taught to read charts and maps, and this was of great value when I became a forestry officer, a job in which maps were a tool of the trade.


These days I expect all the little scouts come to Pelican Point with a mobile phone in their pocket or backpack. Back then, we all had to learn the Morse Code and to read Morse through earphones and by semaphore, and to transmit it on one of those old-fashioned telegraph tapping keys.


A Morse key, as used by Sea Scouts in the days before mobile phones


Memorising the Morse Code was my greatest feat of memory up until I studied biochemistry at University many years later and had to memorise the Krebs Cycle. I can still remember bits and pieces of Morse, like how to transmit an SOS, but I can hardly remember what the Krebs Cycle is, let alone bring any of it to mind.


If the unsupervised camp at Garden Island was a thing that might make the hair stand up on the back of the neck of a modern parent, the ‘deep sea diving’ was another altogether. Among the many items of nautical equipment at Pelican Point was an old diving outfit that had somehow been acquired from an early Broome pearling lugger. This comprised an air pump, which was manually operated by turning heavy wheels on either side of a machine about the size of a tea chest, which was connected by a lengthy rubber hose to an old diving helmet. The rest of the diver’s outfit, including the canvas suit and lead boots, was missing by the time I joined the scouts, but this did not stop us.



Pearl diver’s brass helmet


The helmet was the centrepiece of the diving experience. It was a lovely bit of gear, reeking of the romance of the pearling days. It was made of brass and had a small, opaque window which could be opened on hinges and secured with brass butterfly nuts, and through this you could peer about when exploring the deep.  The pump and helmet were extremely heavy, requiring several boys to lift and carry them down to the river.


An afternoon’s deep-sea diving was wonderful fun. The helmet (attached to the pump by the air hose) would be tipped over the side of the jetty, and two boys would be assigned to the handles of the pump. The boy who was the designated diver would then leap into the river, duck-dive down, locate the diver’s helmet and don it. Once your head was inside, and the boys above started to pump, the helmet would fill with air, and you could start breathing. The next trick was to manoeuvre yourself vertically under the helmet and allow its weight to bear you down to the bottom of the river. Here it was cold and gloomy, but it was a new world, and we could walk around on the sandy river floor, avoiding, if possible, the barnacle-encrusted piles of the jetty and the odd broken beer bottle. Brushing aside the massed jelly fish, we would look for pearl shell.


Like everything else we did at Scouts, the deep-sea diving was completely unsupervised by an adult. We were expected to take responsibility for ourselves, and we did. Nobody drowned, not as far as I remember anyway. Sometimes the lads on the air pump gave it away through fatigue or boredom, but if you were down below at the time, this was soon detected by the absence of oxygen. Then you simply swam out from under the helmet and rose to the surface, sometimes red-faced, but usually laughing with the exhilaration of it all. Luckily the river was not deep enough to risk getting the bends.


I gave up Sea Scouts when I started high school. Another world opened up, with different and new challenges, interests and friends. The tennis courts of summer and the football fields of winter beckoned more powerfully than heaving a whale boat through rough river waters. Furthermore, I was never a particularly good scout, and towards the end I found that there was an autocratic side to it that I did not enjoy. It was all very well for Skip to pass over responsibility to the older boys, but some of the older boys were not ready for this, and they developed a bossy and superior attitude towards the smaller boys. You could never call it bullying, and I was only occasionally on the receiving end (and always because I needed it). It was just that I had other things to do and was lucky to have a choice.


Having said all that, I look back to my days as a Sea Scout at Pelican Point as being full of interest and excitement. I learned valuable life skills and responsibility, and I enjoyed the intersection with social and naval history. I made friends that have lasted a lifetime. Most of all, I remember those days as an example of the extraordinary freedom enjoyed by young Western Australians over seventy years ago. It is something about which the coddled youth of today might only dream, especially those unlucky enough never to become a Sea Scout at Pelican Point.



I thank Philip Raston, current leader of the Pelican Points Sea Scouts, for helpful comments on this story.

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