The Poor Ketch ‘Coquette’

February 7th, 2019 | Maritime history, Sailing, Songs, Stories for adults

I have always loved the idea of taking interesting events from Australia’s maritime history and shaping them into poems or song lyrics for contemporary audiences. Stan Rogers, the Canadian singer songwriter, is the master of this, with songs such as ‘The Mary Ellen Carter’ and ‘Barrett’s Privateers’. I can’t really think of an Australian equivalent. We have plenty of songs about shearers and drovers, but we have never mythologised our maritime history, rich as it is.

Since becoming friends with Maggie Somerville and staying at her house in Foster, I have begun to reacquaint myself with the history of South Gippsland, much of which is, of course, maritime.

It is tempting to simply write about shipwrecks, but that seems such a cheap way of approaching the subject – of course they are going to be tragic, and there is no shortage of them to choose from.

That is why the story of the ketch ‘Coquette’ struck my fancy. I first heard of the ‘Coquette’ in a book entitled ‘They Fished in Wooden Boats – A History of Port Franklin District and the Fishing Families’, by Neil Everitt, which I found in the Visitors’ Information Centre at Wilsons Prom several years ago. Pages 22 – 23 are devoted to the story of the landing of gold prospectors by boats and ships at Stockyard Creek to take them to the diggings. (Stockyard Creek was also an early name for Foster.) A number of vessels are referred to, including the ’41-ton ketch Coquette.’ I decided to see if ‘Trove’ could tell me anything about the ‘Coquette.’

Turned out it most definitely could. Yes, the ‘Coquette’ sank, but nobody was killed, and the events both preceding and following are interesting and, thanks to Trove, readily accessible in considerable detail. Of further appeal to me was that the ‘Coquette’ sank in Waratah Bay, a part of the coastline that Maggie has especially taken to heart. (She even wrote a song about it!)

The first article, published in Sydney in the Australian Town and Country Journal on Saturday 12 November 1892, tells us that the four masted ship ‘Drumblair’ has become stranded on the sand in Waratah Bay on the way from Sydney to Port Pirie in South Australia.

The second article, published in Melbourne in The Argus on Friday 23 December 1892, tells us that the Drumblair was winched off the sand with the help of anchors that were left behind, and are obviously very valuable. The ketch ‘Coquette’ has been sent from Melbourne to retrieve the anchors and related gear (presumably pulleys and ropes/cables). An anchor is successfully winched out of the sea but, unfortunately, it smashes against the bow of the ‘Coquette’, and causes sufficient damage to the hull that the ‘Coquette’ sinks within ten minutes, in about eight fathoms (48 feet) of water. The crew take to a dinghy, arrive safely on shore, and return to Melbourne overland.

The third and final article, published in the Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate on Wednesday 22 Feb 1893, tells us that a steamer, ‘Albatross’, has been despatched from Melbourne to raise the ‘Coquette’. Alas, the attempt was unsuccessful. All the hawsers broke before she could be brought to the surface. The ketch was ‘only slewed around’, and has been ‘abandoned to her fate.’

What was her fate? Was the ‘Coquette’ ever raised from the sea floor? Did she simply disintegrate on the seabed? Do traces of her remain? I have been unable to answer any of these questions.

Meanwhile, here is the song lyric I pieced together from these three articles.

The Poor Ketch ‘Coquette’

For the poor ketch ‘Coquette’
The saddest fate yet –
It’s sunk beneath Waratah Bay.
We all have high hopes
We can lift her with ropes.
Alas, it will not be today,
Alas it will not be today.

Verse 1
Through storm she sailed, but did not veer
From her task, to bring back gear
And anchors from the rescue mission grand
For that four-masted ship ‘Dumblair’
Which slowly dragged it, with great care,
From where it lay so helpless on the sand.

Verse 2
Alas, an anchor, swinging high
Beneath her bow went all awry.
It struck her stem, and wrenched it from its planks.
Amid the tumult and the din
The ocean quickly rushed right in.
She sank, but none were drowned – a cause for thanks.

Verse 3
The steamer ‘Albatross’ then sailed
Where others had so often failed
To raise the ketch ‘Coquette’ from where it sat.
It could not lift her from the ground,
But simply slew the ship around
And that it seems, at least for now, is that.

© Stephen Whiteside 02.02.2019

I am sure Stan Rogers could have created something far more entertaining and engaging, but I guess it is still better than nothing!

Benalla Entertainment Muster 2018

October 16th, 2018 | Festivals, Music, Ocean, Photos, Sailing, Songs, Stories for adults, Stories for children

Maggie and I visited the Benalla Entertainment Muster last Sunday. This is an annual event run by the Victorian Bush Poetry and Music Association, and organised primarily by Cudgewa-based Jan Lewis. It is a great fun weekend, and I have been attending it for a number of years now. It is also a good opportunity to promote the Toolangi C. J. Dennis Poetry Festival, which usually follows a week or two later. (This year it is following a week later – taking place this coming weekend.) Some years I have attended on both the Saturday and the Sunday, staying overnight in Benalla, and Maggie has joined me for the two days a couple of times in recent years, but my current work commitments make it difficult for me to get there on the Saturday.

As always, it was great fun. This year, a ‘sea shanty’ theme was chosen, which lent itself to being interpreted in a number of ways. Certainly the most visually spectacular of these was the court martial of Captain Kirley by Admiral Carrington and Co.

Val Kirley’s paintings of sailing ships added to the nautical atmosphere.

Maggie (back) joins Jan Lewis (left) and Christine Boult (right) in song.

Maurie Foun (lagerphone), Jim Carlisle and Jeff Mifsud (guitar) make music together.

Just a few snippets of what was a very enjoyable day…

The Launch!

May 19th, 2014 | 'Banjo' Paterson, C. J. Dennis, Camping, Family holidays, Photos, Poems for children, Sailing, Snow, Songs

Well, the launch of “‘The Billy Died With Its Boots On’ and Other Australian Verse” was held on Sunday, and I’ve had time to come down to earth and reflect upon it all.

Without doubt, it was a great success. Walker Books, the publisher, and Readings bookshop, the venue, had done a great job to together put on a fine display. It was absolutely magical to see multiple copies of the book – a wall of “Billys” – in a grand crescent at the back counter.

IMG_9396 copy

I was thrilled that so many people turned up to support me. Members of my family were there (of course), old friends, new friends, friends from sailing, skiing and bushwalking, friends from work, children’s writers, bush poets and reciters, and others.

IMG_9391 copy

Geoffrey Graham did a fine job launching the book and acting as master of ceremonies, as I knew he would. He also said some very kind things about me, for which I am truly grateful.

Geoff 3 copy

Edel Wignell had been inspired to write a poem about the book, which she read. Edel has been a tremendous support to me in recent years, and it was wonderful to have her contributing to the launch in this way.

Edel copy

Another friend, songwriter and musician Maggie Somerville, had been inspired to write a melody to accompany “The Sash” (the poem that tells the story of Ned Kelly’s rescue of the drowning Richard Shelton from Hughes Creek in Avenel) which she sang to round off proceedings, accompanied by yet another friend, Marie Butler, on accordion. It was a wonderful way to finish the afternoon.

Maggie and Marie 2 copy

What was particularly gratifying, of course, was the number of people who wished to buy a copy of the book afterwards. No, I didn’t develop writer’s cramp but, yet, I was certainly at risk of doing so!

IMG_9450 copy

Thank you again to everybody involved in making the afternoon such a memorable success. This book really is the distillation of a lifetime of writing. There were many times when I doubted if it would ever happen. Dreams do come true!

Sailing/Camping – Gippsland Lakes

February 5th, 2014 | Camping, Family holidays, Photos, Sailing

Last night I returned from a fabulous holiday sailing and camping in the Gippsland Lakes with my son, Thomas, and two of his mates, Alex and Daniel.

We established a base camp at Emu Bight in The Lakes National Park, east of Lochsport, on Sperm Whale Head.

Emu Bight Camp 03.02.2014 copy

The plan was to head off to the Mitchell River silt jetties. These are an amazing geographical phenomenon, whereby the Mitchell River, over countless years, has carried silt into deep out into Lake King, creating so-called ‘jetties’ that create the effect of river banks in the middle of the lank. (If you go to Google Images and search for “Mitchell River silt jetties” you will see some great aerial views.) I had visited them very briefly many years ago, and thought they would be a great place to camp. (Little did I know…)

The day got off to a wonderful start. It was hot and still, and a pod – perhaps eight – of the local dolphins swam past the calm waters of Emu Bight. They were a fair way off – perhaps a couple of hundred yards – yet because of the quietness of the bay, and no doubt due in some way to how sound travels over water – we could hear their blows as they surfaced. Then they put on a stunning aerial display for us, leaping repeatedly out of the water. It was utter magic.

Eventually they moved on, and we got down to the serious business of rigging and packing the boat, and setting sail. We set off with a light breeze, which soon dropped, leaving us becalmed in the middle of Lake Victoria. It didn’t take long for the gang to realise this was a golden opportunity for a swim. Eventually Thomas returned to the boat, and I decided to have a dip myself. There is nothing like having a whole lake to yourself – especially when it is about 10km long!

Eventually the wind picked up a little, and we continued on our travels. The only real navigational decision to make was whether to go the long way around Raymond Island, or take the short cut through the very narrow McMillan Strait that separates the island from Paynesville. There was no particularly strong argument one way or another, so I made the executive the decision that we would take the long way round. I think I just liked the idea of sailing in open water.

It was indeed a long way, but eventually we rounded Point King, at the north of Raymond Island, and could just sight the silt jetties on the horizon. As we approached them, we heard thunder and saw rain clouds behind them. It was a little unnerving, and we briefly toyed with the idea of heading west to the mainland. The situation seemed to improve a little, though, so we plugged on when, suddenly (“out of the blue”, so to speak), we were hit by a massive northwester that we really didn’t see coming.

It was one of the strongest winds I have ever sailed in. There was no way we could beat into it. The best I could manage was a broad reach, with all four of us hiking out hard. We were literally being driven before the gale! I quickly realised we had no hope of making the silt jetties, and would eventually have to make a landfall in Tambo Bay, to the east. Unfortunately, this was not close, which meant a long and nail-biting ride trying to make sure the mast kept pointing towards the sky as we rode the tempest.

The next cheerful little discovery was that most of the coast seemed to be lined with rocks, but eventually I spotted a small stretch of sand, and made for that. Finally, with a huge sense of relief, we made landfall.

Landing at Tambo Bay copy

Tambo Bay, just to the south of the mouth of the Tambo River, is a particularly cheerless stretch of coastline. It has a very wild, abandoned, unloved feel to it. It looks like a dumping ground of sorts, as though we are by no means the first to have been washed up on its shores. It also looks very flood prone, and as though it might have once been cleared for farming, but ultimately abandoned.

We couldn’t resist this opportunity for a shot of the boys watching ‘local tele’ (Thomas left, Alex middle, Daniel right).

Everybody watching local tele 1 copy

We had a bite to eat while the wind died down, and then decided to make the final push for the silt jetties. We reached them without great difficulty, but they turned out to be a huge disappointment. The main problem was that rocks had been placed all around their shores to stabilise them. This made it very difficult to find a place to launch our boat. Eventually I found a muddy bank inside the mouth of the Mitchell River itself, but by this time the boys had decided the whole area looked thoroughly uninviting. We eventually resolved, therefore, to try to make a dash for Duck Arm before daylight failed us. We had spent a lovely day beside this beautiful patch of water at the end of the Banksia Peninsula in Lake Victoria the previous year, and it seemed to make perfect sense to spend the night there again. But did we have time?

Duck Arm is south west of Paynesville and Raymond Island, so the island needed to be negotiated once more. This time, however, there was no real option other than facing the shorter route through McMillan Strait.

Unfortunately, we reached it to find the wind was pretty much on the nose, so we would have to tack all the way up it. It was hard work in a brisk breeze and narrow water, but we very nearly made it. Alas, however, another huge gust of wind towards the end forced us to make for shore once more. This time, the shore was very close but again, it was mostly rocks. Once more, I spotted a patch of sand, and we made another safe landfall.

Raymond Island landfall copy

As you can see, the environment was essentially suburban, with no obvious camping options on offer.
Fortunately, a very kind local gentleman gave us permission to camp on the nature strip beside his back gate. Here we are, tucked in cosily out of the wind.

Raymond Island camp-site copy

The wind continued to rage throughout the night, and we wondered if we would have to spend the next day holed up on Raymond Island. Fortunately the next morning, though cold and grey, brought a much more gentle breeze, and we woke early, packed and headed off as soon as possible, before the wind had a chance to build once more.

Here we are packing once more.

Packing once more to leave Raymond Island copy

We passed through the remainder of McMillan Strait without incident, then struck out across Lake Victoria to the passage of water that runs between Banksia Peninsula and Sperm Whale Head. Once through here we were becalmed once more for an hour or so – which allowed for another swim in the lake – before at last returning to Emu Bight at about midday.

1616247_10202439163332094_1817456305_n copy

It had been a fabulous twenty four hours – dolphins, swimming in calm waters, running before gales, and simply enjoying sailing the lovely waterways of the Gippsland Lakes. Next year, though, we might make life a bit easier, and simply head for Duck Arm in the first place!