Labour Day to the pier

The weather has caught everyone by surprise on the Labour Day weekend.  After a week or two of coolish weather, it’s back into the low thirties.  Although coming to think of it, it’s the anniversary of the swim to the “Harbour Masters Harbour”, when it was just as hot.  Surprisingly though, there are only a few people on Sandridge Beach and even better, no jet skis.  Maybe it’s the predicted strong northerly that has kept people away, or the early onset of a southerly.

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Vince and I swim regularly on Saturday mornings with the Mussels but rarely venture beyond Willy.  It’s not for lack of enthusiasm but rather finding a day which suits everyone.  Both of us though, are keen to make the most of the last of the warm weather.  A couple times, we have discussed swimming from Sandridge to Princes Pier.  Today’s the day.

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The moderate on-shore wind and outgoing tide make for a bit of chop, but just enough to give a twist to the swim and add to the work-out, since it’s only about 850 m to the remains of Princes Pier.  Looking east with Station Pier in the background, we plot a course.  At the same time, a couple of jet skis take off from the next section of beach.  Oh well, it couldn’t last for long.

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A swimmer was killed by the driver of a jet ski only a couple of years ago between Lagoon and Kerferd Road piers, off Port Melbourne.  The unimaginable horror of Robert Brewster’s daughter, seeing a crowd gathering in the water where her father had been swimming, her view blocked by a jet ski, stays with me for a few days.  Astoundingly, there is very little authority, or even concern, over jet ski conduct in spite of numerous reports of harassment from swimmers, sailors, fishers and kayakers, even on inland waters and are banned from all waterways in Sydney Harbour.  If only.  On the Bay, it is usual to see jet skis hooning just offshore at high speed, unchecked.  While swimmers are crammed into a small section of beach, jet skis have the run of the place.  The speed restriction of 5 km per hour close to shore is frequently ignored.  Today is no exception.

We decide to swim out to the first yellow marker, past a yacht which is moored a couple of hundred metres off the beach, hug the first breakwater, then swim closer to the beach to avoid being sliced to ribbons.  From there, our course takes us diagonally across to the pier.  A little further off, the Spirit of Tasmania is moored at Station Pier.  Strictly out of bounds.

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The water is mint-green, still warm enough to swim without a wetsuit.  The currents and low swell feel different to Williamstown, just across Hobsons Bay, but the wake from motor boats is noticeable.  Once, my hand brushes the dome of a blubber jellyfish, which is surprisingly hard but with a gelatinous surface.  Like a rubbery bowling ball. Otherwise, the swim is reasonably uneventful and the jet skis keep their distance.

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Every now and again we stop and check on each other but all’s good and we swim on towards the pier.  Soon we are at the edge of the “forest of piles”, the sculptural remains of the original structure which, during the pier’s restoration a few years ago, were retained by the architects to preserve its original length of 580 metres.  Suddenly, it seems really spooky.  Same in a kayak, and exaggerated by seabirds who we imagine are staring malevolently at us.  Time to swim through and out the other side.

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The construction of the pier was approved in January, 1912, at a cost of £105,097.  It was designed by Mr W. Davidson, Inspector General of Public Works and would be known as New Railway Pier.  By that time, the cutters, brigs, schooners and barques, common in the Bay only ten years earlier, had been mostly displaced by steamships.

Melbourne ports were busy places.  By 1912, the number of sheep exported had doubled in 35 years since 1877.  Greasy wool was the highest export, along with wheat, butter and gold.  Flour, leather, mutton and lamb, geldings, biscuits, books, newspapers and apples were also valuable exports.  Hardwood timber, bags, bark, cement, lime, sand and shell, soap, tallow and grains were unloaded from overseas and interstate.

That year, the  Melbourne Harbour Trust Commissioners reported good progress on the pier’s construction.  The first section, 1,252 feet long and 186 feet wide, was completed by June 1914.  The second section extended the length of the pier to 1,902 feet, to provide four berths “capable of accommodating the largest vessels visiting the port”.  Four lines of rails and a central roadway with a footpath each side, overhead travelling gangways to carry passengers to the vessels and electrical lighting sealed the new Railway Pier as state of the art.

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The deep water ports near the mouth of the Yarra shortened the distance between Williamstown and the City and with the release of land for sale in the Port Melbourne area, the Melbourne Harbour Trust Commissioners saw an opportunity to provide dock accommodation in the locality.  However, by 1914, with the outbreak of war, revenue and trade were thrown into chaos.  Ships were requisitioned as troop carriers, documents for consignments of goods failed to arrive or were at best irregular, leaving cargo stranded on the wharves.  The Port of Melbourne was stretched to provide berthing accommodation for transports, fitting up and embarking of troops and horses.  Nonetheless, the Commissioners proudly announced at the close of the financial year that it “happily proved equal to the occasion”.

By 1916, New Railway Pier was fully commissioned, although the initial section had already been deployed for war-related shipping traffic.  Although trade was disrupted, during 1917 fifty-one vessels berthed at New Railway Pier, on average for seven days.  Exports were diverse, but were dominated by wool and wheat, a trend which persisted well into the future.  Other major exports included ale, horses, biscuits and cakes, butter, dried fruit, jams and jellies, superphosphate, frozen rabbits and hares, skins, and tellingly, Red Cross goods.

By the time the Armistice was declared in 1918, nine of the 193 volunteers from the Melbourne ports had been killed in the war.  Steamships dominated the northern Bay although occasionally a barque, ketch or schooner still sailed into port.  In 1919, when the volume of wheat and wool export doubled and other exports increased to record levels, the Port Melbourne piers were the second busiest after the River Yarra piers, earning almost £24,500 from 300 ships in revenue.  Minor compared to Victoria Dock but significantly higher than other piers at Williamstown.

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Trade continued to improve over the years.  Imports related to the motor car and construction industries, as well as increased disposable wealth, brought in substantial revenue from wharfage rates in the form of timber and softwoods, drapery, cotton, paper, rice, woollen goods and glassware.  In 1921 nearly half a million tons of wheat were exported out of Melbourne.  New Railway Pier was formally re-named Princes Pier in 1922, after the visiting Prince of Wales aboard the HMS Renown two years earlier.  Twenty-five thousand people crowded onto the pier to see the royal party and the HMAS Australia, also berthed at the pier in 1920.  The Harbour Trust Commissioners reported with pride, that the water was deep enough not to have to wait for high tide for the Prince’s ship to depart, in spite of the Marine Engineers’ strike earlier that year, which had disrupted coal supplies and hence dredging operations in the Melbourne ports.

Today, the piles sway slightly in the current.  At the outermost end of their ranks, they were over 70 feet long, sharpened ends driven firmly into the sea floor.  In total, 5,000 turpentine piles supported horizontal jarrah beams and red gum decking.  They are ghostly beneath the surface and sheathed by colonies of mussels.  Stumps of rotted piles sit just below the surface, loosely bandaged by sea lettuce and ribbons of kelp.  Under the stares of sea birds, we breast-stroke through the forest and into the stretch of water between Princes Pier and Station Pier.

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The swell is suddenly different in this section, perhaps because of a relatively strong current which persists around the Station Pier and toward St Kilda.  We have a sense of the deep water.  We turn around and swim back and somewhat relieved, but also somewhat reluctantly, head back toward Sandridge.

What must Vince’s father have thought, nearly fifty years ago, arriving from Italy as a Calabrian migrant on Monday, February 27th 1967?  The weather was unusually cool for February – 650F, with early isolated drizzle patches, then a fine, mild day with morning cloud and a south-easterly breeze.

War, and swimming, dominated the news.

Harold Holt was Prime Minister, until he disappeared swimming off Cheviot Beach at Portsea at the end of that year.

The USA had announced a new “systematic bombardment” of North Vietnam, using land, sea and air power to target crucial infrastructure and disrupt supply lines to the south.  Controversially, the Federal Opposition Leader Gough Whitlam was reported as backpedalling on the Labor Party’s policy of withdrawing troops from Vietnam, unless under an armistice agreement via negotiated settlement.  On the weekend, George Day from Warrnambool won the Renault iron man contest at the Portsea surf carnival.

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Princes Pier was at its height as the point of disembarkation for migrants.  Was Australia a good place to come to live?  Forever?  On page 3 of “the Age” in his address to the congregation of the Scots Presbyterian Church, Ringwood, the Immigration Minister Billy Snedden said:

“Migrants are ordinary people…Generally they have acted on the urge to come to a country which they believe will provide greater opportunities, if not for themselves then for their children.

They have their individual problems to surmount before they change from ordinary people who are migrants to ordinary people who are Australians.

In the early period of adjustment, for some, these problems become distorted and magnified and they especially need warmth of welcome, friendship and understanding”.

It’s hard to know what to make of this speech.  On the one hand, it comes across as compassionate and even forward thinking.  On the other, the whiff of assimilation is not far from the surface, as is the barely concealed greed for labour in a population of only 12 million, excluding Aborigines, not yet included in the census, since the 1967 consitutional referendum was not scheduled until May that year.

“Migrants had a long tradition of dedication to their faiths.  This enriched Australia’s spritual life and served to preserve the unity of the nation.

In the two decades between 1947 and 1967, Australia’s population had grown by four million and of these, half consisted of new settlers and their children.

We have a homogeneous people sharing essentially the same aims.  We have no oppressed minorities and no racial discrimination.  We are indeed, a single Australian people”.

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And all this from the man who famously “died on the job” shagging his son’s ex-girlfriend.

Snedden became Minister for Labour and National Service a couple of years later, during the Vietnam War, the aftermath of which would more than test Australia’s attitudes to refugees.  What would he have said to the Presbyterians today, as a Liberal Minister?

On the other side of the world, in Massachusetts, Albert de Salvo, who claimed to be the Boston Strangler, was re-captured a couple of days earlier after escaping from what is described in The Age as Bridgewater mental hospital.  Dressed in sailor’s clothing de Salvo walked into a shop and asked to make a phone call.  He later told police that he had fled from the hospital to draw attention to his need for psychiatric care and is reported to have said “maybe people will know now what it means to be mentally ill”.

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In State politics that same weekend, the Higginbotham by- election in the Legislative Assembly was won by Liberal candidate Harold Murray Hamilton, a bachelor accountant, who lived with his mother in Camberwell and was in favour of hanging.

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Makes you wonder who most needed psychiatric care.

Like all swims, this one feels good.  In spite of, or because of the cold, the waves, each other’s company, the icy wind on the beach in winter, sunburn in summer, or dodging the jellies, there is always a feeling of having no limits.  A feeling of being able to do almost anything whether it’s swimming in 8 degree water, or swimming three kilometres when you thought you could only do two, or swimming with people who you thought you’d have nothing in common with but in fact have everything that counts in common.  It is always though, about D. H. Lawrence’s  “third thing”, famously quoted in part, by Roger Deakin:

“Water is H2O, hydrogen two parts, oxygen one,

But there is also the third thing, that makes it water

And nobody knows what that is”.

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Anyway, the jet skiers clearly haven’t read that because on our way back, one comes dangerously close to me, enough to make me glad that we are almost back in the swimming only zone in front of the Surf Life Saving Club at Sandridge Beach.

Of late, there has been some discussion about the nature of anxiety in the water.  I think I feel it most intensely but at the most unexpected times.  For me, it is never about deep water but for others, Deakin’s thoughts may hit the mark:

“Once in the water, you are immersed in an intensely private world as you were in the womb.  These amniotic waters are both utterly safe and yet terrifying, for at birth anything could go wrong, and you are assailed by all kinds of unknown forces over which you have no control.  This may account for the anxieties that every swimmer experiences from time to time in deep water…The swimmer experiences the terror and the bliss of being born”5.

Being immersed in water.  Swimming can be intensely private and intensely joyous.  The undulating autumn sea has just the right amount of movement after the more dynamic summer swells.  Swimming is a little more gentle now and in a sense, reminiscent of kayaking in a following sea.  True immersion takes some time to experience I think, it’s more than just being physically within water, and it’s more than your body moving with water around it, as Deakin describes.  Immersion only truly comes at the point when your mind is also immersed, unseparated from a new world where there is no horizon and no firm ground, only fluidity and motion.

There seems to be a few more people on the beach when we emerge from the shallows.  Sandridge is a strange mix.  The beach is popular with Muslim families.  Covered women and girls wade in the shallows, other family members picnic on blankets spread out under umbrellas, or beneath the shade of shrubs planted to revegetate the area between the road and the beach.  Yet just a little further on, men deal in sex and drugs along the well-worn paths through the copses of coastal scrub at the far western end of the foreshore.

Against the macho industrial backdrop, with its boxy giraffe-like cranes and steel containers, there’s the sound of grinding lorries hauling cargo along Todd Road to Webb Dock.

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