Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Existentialism by the bay

1 Comment

Port Philip Bay The RipThere's a cliff above the small Victorian coastal township of Point Lonsdale from which you can gaze out across the narrow entrance to Port Phillip Bay — 'The Rip' as it is graphically and accurately called — and watch the big ships glide by in their stately way.

Even huge, chunky container ships seem briefly impressive as they cruise into this famous waterway and begin the tricky process of navigating the shallows and channels of the bay.

In this challenge they have the crucial aid of a pilot, traditionally a retired sea captain, who is delivered by launch from the Pilot Station at nearby Queenscliff and who leaves the vessel he is guiding once it has been safely ushered into or out of the bay. So that at almost any given time you can see a huge cargo ship or an ocean liner or both, along with the bright red pilot launch buzzing ahead or back into the Queenscliff distance.

And, as if all that watery traversing were not enough, you'll most likely see the Queenscliff–Sorrento ferry making its own quiet, regularly timed way across the paths and wakes of the big ships: well, that's how it looks to landlubber eyes watching from afar. No doubt, they don't actually go anywhere near each other.

But the sea, as we all know, is endlessly fascinating no matter what is happening or not happening on its restless features. Somehow you can watch it for hours — the glint and flash of waves, the dark smudge of a school of fish just below the surface, the glistening arc of what you would swear are dolphins but probably aren't

And, in the case of 'Rip View', as this spot is locally known, the ships, queues of them, so close, as I described it to a South Australian friend who quite properly didn't believe me, that you can see the crew on the deck, the pilot and skipper on the bridge and the printed lettering on the containers.

Decades, even centuries, of staring out at the sea give coastal townships a maritime, briny, windswept look, the way some dog owners start to look like their dogs.

Bush towns settle into their landscape. The galvanised-iron roofs and the encircling verandahs squat down solid and immovable, occupying their bit of desert or their clearing in the eucalypt forest with a certainty and a determination that only nature at its worst — fire or flood — might disrupt. Territorial birds sing familiar notes from favourite trees and bushes and embark on their seasonal migrations and returns with clockwork reliability.

Coastal towns, conversely, know all about the uncertain nature of existence: tides large and small, sudden squalls, stunning blue skies, clouds puffing along like sails, sails ballooning like clouds, blown sand stinging, huge swells racketing up the beach and taking most of it back with them, gulls and marauding seabirds querulous and aggressive amid the hissing or roaring seas — that's the way of it on the coast, even if most of us only see its quieter summer face for a few weeks at a time.

That I was speculating on such comparisons explains why, when we first set eyes on our temporary home here, within minutes of 'Rip View', I was not surprised to find that it was a long, relentlessly rectangular structure, staring slit-eyed out to sea, looking as if it had been not so much built as launched down some slipway onto its narrow strip of grass. A shipping container with windows.

It had the container's stern disciplines too. Despite having donated, sold, sacrificed and dumped a vast range of items, furnishings, books and bric-a-brac, we still couldn't fit into this new house. It wouldn't contain us. If only we'd had a pilot to greet us as we approached, check our load and Plimsoll line — maybe a small red ute driven by a retired removalist to track us along the esplanades and seaside roads and fit us expertly into our 'containment', like berthing a ship at the dock.

As I write, a vast vessel loaded with containers and with the letters NYK hugely scripted on its sides is sailing magisterially through the Rip and beginning to make the first of the turns that the pilot prescribes for its trip up the bay. Surrounded by unopened boxes, imprisoned in a motionless container, I long for a pilot ... 


Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is the award winning author of A Fine and Private Place and The Temple Down the Road. He was awarded the 2010 National Biography Award for Manning Clark — A Life.


Topic tags: Brian Matthews, Port Phillip Bay



submit a comment

Existing comments

Only someone who has experienced this would truly understand.Bravo

graham patison | 11 December 2011  

Similar Articles

Rescuing JFK

  • P. S. Cottier
  • 17 November 2011

'Kennedy was a cold warrior, but Johnson took it to the next level. He had the same my-balls-are-bigger-than-yours complex as Dubya.' The narrator journeys into the past in order to produce a kinder America. One that may not throw itself into Vietnam with such lust. 


Girding Job's loins

  • Brian Doyle
  • 15 November 2011

There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job; and he was essentially a blameless dude, and unarrogant, and he was blessed with seven sons, and three daughters, which is a startling number ...