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Unsung Heroes - a reflection on courage (and foolhardiness)

Freshwater Bay

Painting by Elizbeth Durack

Provided you have lived long enough, most of us have done something heroic at some time or another. It might have been a momentary act of courage, the purpose of which was to help someone, irrespective of personal safety. Or maybe it was an unthinking response, regarded as heroic by someone who benefited, but it was not a conscious act of bravery in the face of danger.

I certainly remember one instance of the unthinking response. It was about 1980. Ellen and I had gone for a walk with the good dog Ruby along the Swan River in Bicton, and our walk took us out onto the wooden jetty that comprises one arm of the old swimming baths. As we approached the deep-end we noticed an elderly man, possibly in his 80s, accompanied by a little boy, no more than a toddler, sitting side by side. Grandfather and grandson, we assumed.

Just as we reached them, the little boy stood up and stepped straight off the jetty into the deep water and disappeared. Without thinking, I immediately stepped off myself, located the little fellow on the bed of the river, brought him up and heaved him onto the jetty. There he coughed once or twice, grinned around and carried on. During all of this, the old man had not moved a muscle - he was totally frozen with shock. Ellen took charge, order was restored all round, and eventually we returned home, me in my sopping clothes. Afterwards we thought - what if? What if we had not arrived just at the right moment, and what if I had not been driven by some instinct to jump straight in? It was a good thing to remember having done. The old fellow thanked me with calm sincerity, and told me I was a hero. But I don't regard it as heroic. It was an instinctive act, not an heroic one.

Anyway, it was not in the same league as the events in which I was involved at Cockburn Sound back in the late 1950s, a story I am now about to recount, a story of real, but now long-forgotten and unsung (until this moment) heroes.

In those days my schoolmate Richard "Dicky” Bird (also known as “The Skipper”) was a keen yachtsman, and over the summer months I used to sail with him, mostly in club events on Freshwater Bay on the Swan River in Perth. Dick lived in a lovely house in Mosman Park overlooking Blackwall Reach. On the river's edge below, his father had a boat shed. This was where Dick kept his yacht, a Vaucluse Junior, or "VJ" racing dinghy designed for a two-man crew. Dick was skipper and decision-maker and operated the tiller and the mains'l. I was the for'ard hand and did what I was told. My job was to operate the jib (the fores'l) and to get out onto the leaning plank to keep us upright at full speed, or to slither back in again in a flash if there was a sudden lull in the wind.

This was routine unskilled stuff. The key requirement of the for'ard hand was to manipulate the jib when the skipper put us about from one upwind tack to the other. Getting the timing of this exactly right facilitated a snappy turn, which was of the essence in competitive sailing. I could do it, heeding my skipper's urgent and pointed advice, but never really became expert.

The VJ was a beautiful little craft, one of the most popular small racing dinghies in Australia in the 1950s. It was only about 4 m in length, but carried a large sail area for its size and was very strong-willed and lively. In a high wind it could be a handful even for two fit, strong and agile young men like the Skipper and me.

The VJ had two great advantages over contemporary sailing dinghies: firstly, it was unsinkable, the hull being completely enclosed (you sat on a VJ, not in it); and secondly it was relatively easy to right-up after a capsize. This was accomplished by one of the crew (usually me, as for'ard hand) clambering up and standing on the centre board where it poked out of the keel, and then both men heaving the thing upright and scrambling on. The recovery was made easier with an experienced skipper, who knew how critical it was for him to get aboard in the twinkle of an eye, grab the tiller and get the craft pointed straight into the wind the moment it was upright. This gave the for'ard hand a moment's breathing space during which he could clamber aboard, and then get the various ropes and sails in order before heading off.

I probably need to mention here that Skipper Dick was an outstanding gymnast with the agility of Tarzan, and I was an interschool (albeit mediocre) swimmer, hurdler and high-jumper. Righting a capsized sailing dinghy and getting aboard was child's play to us, indeed we enjoyed it.

Skipper Dick and I were capsized on that VJ many times, especially when running downwind with a spinnaker sail set. It was part of my job to hoist, set and manage the spinnaker and I was not very good at it. As a consequence, we became expert at the recovery operation after a high-speed mishap had plunged us into the drink. We were not, however, very successful in the races, as our VJ was an older version of the species and heavier and less agile than the more streamlined VJs being sailed by most of our competitors.

A champion VJ in full flight, spinnaker set, both skipper and for'ard hand out on their leaning planks

Skipper Dick was impatient over the sluggishness of his old VJ and was keen to get into more serious and successful yacht racing, so in 1957 he and his father took on the ambitious project of building a new craft in their garage at Mosman Park. Instead of a VJ, they decided on a Gwen 12, a new variety of small sailing dinghy that was just then becoming popular. The Gwen was more user-friendly than the VJ. It was lighter, easier to rig and sail, more responsive, and more comfortable. It was also very fast, especially on a reach with spinnaker set. Instead of leaning planks, the Gwen had a "trapeze" - the for'ard hand wore a sort of harness and would hook himself to a wire from the mast, and then stand on the upwind gunwale and lean way out. It was exhilarating ... but also risky and if you didn't get it just right, the result was another capsize. Luckily the Gwen, like the VJ, was unsinkable and easy to right-up, although it was slightly higher and harder to get into from the water.

The new yacht was completed in time for summer racing at the end of 1957, and we launched her into Blackwall Reach on a grey spring day. We named her Cy Toof, after an obscure American jazzman, an expert on the flugelhorn, who had somehow caught our imagination. I forgot to mention previously that the Skipper and I, as well as being a yachting team, were fellow-members of a small jazz band. Dick also skippered the band, and was our clarinettist, arranger, conductor and manager. In the band, as on the yacht, I played "second fiddle", on the trumpet.

The launch of the Cy Toof in Blackwall Reach, the author on the left and

Skipper Dick Bird on the right

We loved this beautiful little craft. It went like the wind, and gave us many a wild ride, our favourite being a broad reach along the length of the Point Walter Spit, spinnaker up, and a powerful sea breeze sweeping across the bay. Under these conditions, the Gwen would rise up and "plane", almost nothing in the water but the keel, the rudder and the centreboard.

Dick was a member of the Freshwater Bay Yacht Club, and we sailed in their Saturday afternoon events. There was a big fleet of Gwens, and the racing was competitive, with some champion crews leading the way. We were not in this class, but thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

The Skipper rigging the Cy Toof at the Freshwater Bay Yacht Club, preparing for a race. There is another Gwen in the background, showing the layout of the deck

The highlight of our yachting days (and the scene of our forgotten heroics, to finally get back to the main point of this story) was the end-of-year regatta held in Cockburn Sound, which we attended in early December, 1958.

Back in the 1950s the Cruising Yacht Club of Western Australia was based in Rockingham and each year they organised a huge Yachting Regatta from their club. The races were held on Cockburn Sound, where sailing conditions were ideal: good winds and ocean sailing, but in the lee of Point Peron and Garden Island. Races were held in most of the popular classes of the day, from the little Pelicans sailed by beginners, up to the mighty Division 1 cruisers.

We signed on, arranged to get the Cy Toof down to Rockingham, and then set up our HQ for the week. This was in a small tent in the back yard of one of the old houses on the waterfront at Palm Beach, the owners of which were the family of one of the Skipper's lady friends. We cooked on a primus stove, slept on the ground in sleeping bags, and subsisted on baked beans, toast, weatbix, ginger nuts and tinned fruit. The evenings were whiled away jamming quietly with clarinet and trumpet in our tent, or by walking into Rockingham to gaze shyly at the pretty girls who, like us, had just completed their final-year High School examinations and were in town for fun and games. Most of the day, every day, we spent out on the Sound either racing or training. The Skipper was a tough sailing master, and he was always pushing for a higher level of perfection in my performance as his for'ard hand.

The smaller yachts held their races in the morning when the breezes were generally lighter, and the larger yachts raced in the afternoon on the south-westerly sea breeze (known to city people in Perth as the "Freo Doctor"). This usually arrived at about noon, and could be strong and blustery before dying away in the early evening.

Cruiser on Cockburn Sound

A mid-day time gap of about two hours between races allowed non-competing yachts to go out, and the Sound was always a lively and attractive scene, either with the fleets of racing yachts or with serious yachtsmen tuning their craft to achieve another mile per hour, or simply with kids or families "going for a sail".

An unusual feature of sailing from Rockingham was that the beach faced north, so that the afternoon sea breeze always blew off-shore (away from the beach, and home). Sailing races are generally started into the teeth of the wind, rather than with the wind behind the fleet. This meant that the starting line for races on Cockburn Sound was away to the north, sometimes two or three km off-shore and usually not clearly visible from the beach.

Skipper Dick and I were doing well in the regatta. We actually won a race one day, to everybody's general surprise, including ours. The Gwen was sailing beautifully, and we soon got the hang of the local conditions.

A Gwen 12 with spinnaker set, planing, for'ard hand on his trapeze

On the day I am now recalling the Skipper decided that we would go out early, and put in some serious practice, so that we would be well warmed up when the race began. We were doing our practice manoeuvres down-wind of the starting line, so we were a long way from the shore and well out of visibility from the beach at Rockingham.

But just as we were about to finish our training and move back to the starting line for the race, we noticed something unusual in the water about 200 m away. It was even further north and off-shore than us, and was clearly a sailboat in trouble.

Obeying the First Rule of the Sea, we instantly sailed over to investigate and, if necessary, provide assistance. It was a fully rigged but capsized VJ. There were two teenage girls in the water grimly hanging onto it. They had clearly been trying to right-up the yacht for some time, but either their technique or their strength (probably both) failed them. The repeated effort and failures had also exhausted them and they knew they were drifting further away from help at every moment. As we swerved to a halt beside them it was immediately apparent that they were also seriously alarmed; both were in tears of frustration and fear .... and on the edge of panic.

The Skipper put the Toof into a luff and we got in close enough to tell them to abandon the VJ and get over to the Gwen and we would take them home. Unfortunately, they were incapable of this, and would not (or could not) swim over to us. I dived over, and then first for one, and then the other I managed to prise open the death grip of fingers on the VJ and get them over to the Gwen and help to heave them aboard. There they lay quivering and almost lifeless.

It was at that moment that I made a stupid decision. Having rescued the girls, I decided to rescue their yacht as well. I waved the Skipper away, and he sailed off, leaving me with the stricken VJ. Luckily, he was a fine yachtsman and could handle the Gwen by himself - the girls were no use to him. I swam back to the VJ, righted it easily, and then took the tiller and the main sheet and steered for home.

The wind was brisk, probably 12 knots, and I was tacking into it. Sailing a VJ single-handed was not easy at the best of times, and I still don't know how I did it. I capsized at least twice and each time the recovery was more difficult. The whole voyage took well over an hour - an hour of hard labour and mounting anxiety. Within minutes of the Skipper's departure, I knew I was up to my ears in deep yoghurt, and would have abandoned the project without a second glance if I could have. But there was no escape, no rescuer to come to my aid, and no way of signalling for help. We wore no life jackets in those days.

I finally managed to get back to Palm Beach, arriving in a state of exhaustion. It was all I could do to stagger ashore and collapse on the beach.

The Skipper had made good time and was home well before me. He had delivered the two girls (who were sisters) to the arms of the anxious family who had been waiting fearfully on the beach for the long overdue return of their daughters. They took over, and almost immediately disappeared up the beach and away. It took me half an hour to recover, and then Dick and I got the VJ and the Gwen up onto the beach and unrigged them. My most fervent hope was that I would never see a VJ again.

So, the adventure ended. We made the Gwen safe and walked back to our tent, lit the primus stove and made a cup of tea and ate a couple of ginger nuts. We were not drinkers in those days, so the recourse to the brandy bottle that would have been inevitable a few years later did not eventuate. The next day we sailed in the final race of the series, but without spirit, both of us being mentally and physically below-par. The VJ, we noticed, was gone.

A surprising aspect of the whole affair was that we received not one single word of thanks or appreciation from the family or from the girls for undoubtedly saving their lives, and getting them and their VJ to safety. No attempt was made to contact us, to say thanks, or even (I fantasised) to hand over an extremely large sum of money.

At the time, we didn't think anything much about this; we just got on with our lives. But looking back it seems to me that the family was ungracious. Perhaps they simply left Rockingham to return to the city or the farm, with the intention of thanking us later, by which time it was too late. Perhaps all these years later, the sisters sometimes reminisce about their little brush with death, and remember their courageous and heroic savours and wonder what became of us.

Courageous? Heroes? Certainly not. At least we do not regard ourselves in this way whenever we reminisce and laugh about it sixty years later. “You were a bloody fool” was how the Skipper cheerfully described my “heroics” the last time we met.

That Cockburn Regatta in December 1958 turned out to be the swan song of my sailing career. The following week I started work in a forestry crew at Dwellingup, and my life in the bush began. The Skipper found a replacement for'ard hand, and sailed competitively for several more years, but eventually gave up racing dinghies to become a crewman on a three-man cruiser, one of the Dragons in the magnificent fleet that sailed out of Freshwater Bay Yacht Club. He would have been a good for'ard hand, but I fancy that he would have secretly liked to take over as skipper - calling the moves, sniffing the wind, assessing the currents, working the sails in the skilful way he had as Skipper in our VJ and Gwen 12 days, and participating in the sort of splendid adventure that marked that memorable day in our youth.

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