Our mothers called us little fish

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I remember December days like this on the beach at McCrae. The clouds heavy and low, the air quiet as dust, the odd breeze lazily pushing the warmth around. Rumblings of unseen sky planes above the high cloud. The tense summer air waiting.

View of McCraeAround midday one of two things would happen: either the sky would rip open, demanding that you enter the water or roast, or the pressure would build and a squall would brew. When that happened the clouds would hunker down and a black line would begin to collect across the horizon of the bay from Sorrento and like a distant battalion, chart east towards our little patch of concrete just above the sand.

This was before radars and smartphones, when men would look to clouds and water and teach their children to read ripples and windshifts and the ancient language of mariners: windward, leeward, clew and cleft, haulyards, sheets and vangs. Every Saturday we would run upstairs at the club to learn how to tack upwind, set sails on a beam reach, run without capsizing, and avoid getting your fingers caught in a block.

Lesson done, we'd clatter down the stairs, all bare feet and wetsuits, don life jackets and zinc cream, and, like baby turtles, flap and frolic our way to our dinghies perched on the beach. We'd furiously hoist sails and cluster round to carry each others' boats down the beach, staggering with preadolescent legs and impossibly bulky life jackets.

Once the boat was lifting in the shallows, you'd wade out, breathless and gasping as the water crept up the thighs inside the wettie. With the craft walked out to waist-deep, you'd drop the rudder, turn her away from the wind and belly flop over the side of the boat. Once in, you'd jam the rudder with one foot, duck a rearing unharnessed boom, scramble up onto your bottom, connect appropriate ropes and handles with appropriate hands, pull, and away she would go.

The older kids, with a couple of years and a few inches on us, made this look graceful. They'd give a good hop and with a leg over the gunwhale (another maritime word, one can only imagine its origins), they'd pull the tiller and sheet on hard so the little raft, with no time to slack, would take off as if slapped on the rump. But we were only 11.

Finally, we were all off, heading out to sea with eyes squinting and backs to the shore. In a stiff breeze on a low chop, it was glorious. The little boat would charge and slap in rhythms of salt spray as I peered up at the tell tales. The trick with sailing, as with everything, is to know how to listen to your craft. Sometimes she would shy and lag, I'd spot wrinkles in the sail where they shouldn't be and feel the nose drop. I was no expert at setting sails, unlike my father, but sometimes you'd fiddle with outhauls and downhauls and suddenly she'd leap like a fish finding the current.

 

"We were wise and free, before bikinis and mean girls, before the fear of failure, before the great parent-child silence."

 

You'd swear a dinghy was alive. I remember mine batting the waves, lifting at the sides, filled with the joy of air. Or sometimes she was sluggish and moody, refusing to set, dragging me along a grey sea that teased us with the ripples of little windshifts that she refused to catch. And occasionally she hurtled like a stallion at full clip, not caring if we won or if we went over, me valiantly hanging off the side by my ankle straps trying to keep her upright, head low, not knowing where we would end, dragging my frozen fingers on the tiller and main. Gunwhale bum.

Saturday mornings we'd practice starts and buoy roundings, rehearse the rules and what all the flags meant. I wasn't really interested in racing, but my friends were, and it was something to focus on. Amid the 20 or so kids in boats my grandpa would buzz about in his speedboat, checking on children, helping with minor repairs, righting overturned craft, or just towing someone home when they had had enough.

At 12 o'clock we'd all come ashore to mothers who descended with dry towels and lunch and to fathers with shackle keys, spanners and sage advice. They'd draw courses in the sand with shells for boats and corks for buoys, tracing fingers with three or four shivering kids standing around.

The dads were all sailors too, and would be starting to think about the race in the afternoon, discussing prevailing weather conditions, tides and changes. They would sometimes wander from boat to boat, examining new fittings and systems that improved how our dinghies would function. They were tall, wise and healthy, in our eyes. They would run down the beach to help us pull our boats up, source us second hand trailers and talk of the days when they travelled Australia sailing catamarans they'd built themselves. They were gods.

Once sails were down and bellies were full, we'd pull our wetsuits down half way and skitter barefoot across the searing Nepean Highway for Bubble O'Bills and hot chips. To each other, we were as good as brothers and sisters. We'd been at barbecues and New Year's Eve parties since we were young enough to sleep under picnic tables. We were wise and free, before bikinis and mean girls, before the fear of failure, before the great parent-child silence. Our mothers called us little fish. We were golden brown or darker, proud of wetsuit and bathers lines, and the only reason you wore a hat was so you could see the sail better.

We threw tennis balls to each other in the shallows and sea sponges and jellies at our little siblings. One year something foul came out of the stormwater drain up the beach and we all got impetigo and compared open sores. Sometimes we would smart when we saw fathers talking harshly to sons, and we shared stories of sibling evildoings. Crushes started to come and go in the space of a day, like the sun moving through clouds. It didn't matter. There were skateboards and cricket bats.

After lunch, the senior sailing class would race with the adults. I hated racing. My stomach would churn, I'd hide in the women's bathroom with the other two or three girls, wondering if I drank from the slightly electrified tap would it injure me and let me out of the race. Expectations wrapped around me like Kikuyu: my dad was a champion sailor, a catamaran genius and international trophy winner.

 

"Sailing was a rich man's sport in other places. Our families were ordinary people from the suburbs with a passion that took a bit more of the pay packet than intended. Half the parents there had heaved cinderblock into place to build the clubhouse in the 60s."

 

My grandfather was one of the founders of the club. I was the first born of the third generation and for an hour every Saturday I was, shamefully, terrified. Races were my great shame — sometimes I'd forget which lap I was on and finish 20 minutes behind, sometimes I'd panic in the chaos and tangle and hit someone and be penalised, or not pick a windshift and take the wrong tack, leaving me hot in the face while the others streamed past.

I envied other kids who had dads who taught them how to love their boats, teaching them woodwork and what to look for. Some of them built their own boats with their fathers' help. My boat was a bit leaky and Dad never had time to fix it. He had built several boats himself, but he wanted me to fall in love with boats like he did and devote my winters and Sundays to tend to their care. He'd set me up in the backyard with an orbital sander and tell me to come and get him when I was done.

My inability to eagerly seek out boatbuilding knowledge and put my energy into weekly repairs was a disappointment to Dad. Sailing was his greatest, deepest love and he gave everything to it. For me, sailing was complicated — an arranged marriage that I tried to make the best of and eventually, to some extent, made my own. Dad could leave his lawyering in the city and be a boat builder and a sailor, although he didn't always leave his moods there. However, one season when I — at fault each time — put holes in two other boats, my father, perturbed and embarrassed, diligently and perfectly repaired them.

Back then the yacht clubs were filled with tradies and government workers. I was bounced on the knees of plumbers, builders, draftsmen and teachers. And mums. So many mums, perched in low chairs under umbrellas just above the high tide line, each with an Eski of sandwiches and cordial. Every beach umbrella was a sentinel flag for a family. Communities were formed based on which side of the boat ramp you sat on when you first arrived in McCrae.

These were decent folk making a decent living with a little shack, a home or a permanent camping spot on the Peninsula. Sailing was a rich man's sport in other places. Our families — from Mount Martha to Rye — were ordinary people from the suburbs with a passion that took a bit more of the pay packet than intended. Half the parents there had heaved cinderblock into place to build the clubhouse in the 60s.

I was terrible at racing, but every week I would be standing there at the 1.30 briefing and on the water for a 2.30 start, be it 2 knots or 20. Some days were hot and still, and we'd strip down our wetsuits and pour water on our heads and long for the pennant and signal to cancel the race. Then we'd jump off our boats and swim them home, chattering and spluttering, clutching forestays and waving away my grandfather. Other days it would be a gale, a gust would come in and you would see a mess of cartwheels and capsizes, the course marked with the salutes of centreboards and bobbing crew members.

Then there were perfect days, with a clear wind, sheeting along on a reach watching catamarans fly hulls above you like low-flying eagles, their skippers waving and calling hello as they swooshed past. If the sun was out, you'd look back to the long stretch of beach, to the harlequin mosaic of beach umbrellas and hear the squeals of toddlers like far off birds.

And then there were days like this: warm, but with few beachgoers. Something deep was alerted within people, saying: stay home. The clouds would be waiting. We'd have our lesson and then mill about, watching while the adults moved nervously in and out of the control room upstairs at the clubhouse, clutching binoculars and listening to UHF radios. Reports would start coming through from Port Arlington, Queenscliff, Portsea. It's coming. Sails would be hastily pulled down and tied, while the black-grey line on the horizon grew, a dirty mix of cloud and sea.

 

"Some parents got wealthy and some kids got bored. Friendships didn't survive the transformations of teenagehood. The roiling mess of love and insecurity that comes with beach summers got the best of me."

 

Then you'd see the cloud of sand kick up from Rosebud way and in a minute the wind would roar through like a truck, kicking sand in your eyes and sending everyone backing under the downstairs shelter. Boats casually parked on the beach would lift and flip and faces would wince at the expense and time off the water. Then the rain would fly in a squadron, horizontal and fierce, and then sometimes, miraculously to my child's mind, the crack of hailstones would come, soon an avalanche, so loud we could barely hear. My Dad would stand there with his arm around my shoulder, both of us in awe while all around would be white stones. Then, in a sultry huff, the storm would be gone and the families would return for the afternoon.

When I was 13, I went to my first yacht club youth disco and spent the summer secretly in the arms of a girl from up the road. At 14 it was Fido Dido, a wet summer, and the Catholic kids living by the freeway with a video. At 15 I heard Nirvana for the first time on a cassette in a caravan park with a boy who I never knew loved me.

By 16 it was gone. Some parents got wealthy and some kids got bored. Friendships didn't survive the transformations of teenagehood. The roiling mess of love and insecurity that comes with beach summers got the best of me. There was no more trotting down to the Club beside my long-legged champion Dad.

But once, at 11, I stood, sandy-footed, my legs quietly jiggling, hardly breathing, watching the sky, wondering what would happen when it broke.

 

 

Chelsea CandyChelsea Candy is a writer and poet from Melbourne, Victoria. She has a 15 year career in law and policy and writes on the dining table in the cracks between raising two children, walking dogs and work.

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There's something to be said for messing about in boats.
Pam | 03 November 2017


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