Driving Mr Kelly

Tony Kelly comes swimming with me some Saturday mornings.  We used to play Monday evening tennis together and one night, between games, started chatting about swimming.  I told him if he ever felt like a dip in the sea with the Williamstown Mussels he’d be more than welcome.  A few months later he rolled up on his bike one Saturday morning after I offered him a lift over to Willy beach.

As the expression goes, half the fun is getting there.  Our route is the western ring road – a grey ribbon draped across the industrial landscape at the western edge of the city.  Presiding over it all is the Bolte Bridge; a bridge which is part of a freeway; a bridge with no pedestrian access; a bridge in the style of fuck-you-Kennett-era architecture.  But a bridge with a great view.  I never tire of seeing the massive cranes which straddle the docks.  Often, I find myself distracted from our conversation by the impossibly ludicrous, giraffe-like structures lurching above the clutter of containers stacked and crammed along the wharves.


We chat away in the car.  Tony has an interesting job, dry humour, is well read and a member of his family is famous.  But we don’t mention this, or rather we didn’t for over a year, until one morning his cover was blown by the others in the swimming group, after a TV documentary conspired with genetics to let the cat out of the bag.  Someone started playing air guitar.  Tony stalked back to the car, scowling.

I drive and Tony buys take away coffees if we need to get back straightaway and get on with the demands of modern living.  Sometimes I like to hang around with the others and as a concession to this, Tony waits around too, but I can see that he is impatient to get going.  I am constantly astounded at how busy and well-organised his life is.  To the extent that he already knows, weeks in advance, what date he will next be able to make it for a swim, which he duly notes before hopping on his bike to cycle home.  The secret to this, says Tony, is getting up at 5 am.  Seriously?  By comparison, I know I am a malingerer and each week resolve to make better use of the ample time I have on hand, but which never seems enough.

Heading east towards home, I have a small buzz of excitement approaching the West Gate Bridge.  Tony is five years younger than me and grew up in Adelaide so has no memory of its collapse.  Already forced to witness the realities of the Vietnam war when moratorium marches clogged Bourke Street, and confront the ugliness of illegal abortion when the Wainer years played out on black and white televisions each evening, Melbourne was brutally shocked when the grand project proved only as good as the smokescreen that concealed its deadly flaws.  One Saturday morning, driving over pier 5, just past the point of collapse, we notice that below us, a huge chunk of industrial landscape has disappeared.  The remains of corrugated iron sheds are piled up around the edges of the site but mostly, there is scraped earth and bare concrete slabs.  A little piece of the journey to Willy has gone and I think we both regret that we can’t remember exactly what was there.


It gets cold in the water in winter.  Tony made mention of this in an article he wrote for the Big Issue (Ed # 448) about swimming on his fifty-second birthday, the age his father reached when he died and when Tony was still only a little kid; a year younger than my niece when her father, my brother, died.  I remember how her grief intensified when she could no longer remember his face and my helplessness, knowing that no amount of photographs or stories could ever restore his image in her mind.

Tony feels the cold more than most people I think.  At first, I was a little worried that he’d chicken out of winter swims owing to the ache of chilled sinuses, numb hands and feet and immobilised facial muscles.  However, he makes up for this on the way home, by cranking the heater right up so I nearly suffocate.

We’ve swum at Sandridge too.  One Sunday morning, on a cold and bleak day, we were the only swimmers in the water on a beach completely deserted other than by a couple of life savers messing about with an inflatable boat.  It had rained the night before.  As we swam, the cloudy water suddenly darkened when the sun disappeared behind a cloud and a wad of seaweed appeared out of nowhere.  It scared the shit out of both of us.  Emerging from the water, we agreed that on days like this, gloomy, with no-one else in the water or on the beach, it doesn’t take much to feel suddenly and shockingly afraid.


 Of course, we analysed this incident in great depth.  Does the sea provide expression for a fear of nature which sits beneath the conscious surface?  Is it about the things you can’t control?  Why is it that most Australians are not concerned about drowning, sunstroke, or polluted water but rather, fear shark attacks which in truth are at best remote, if not impossible, at least close to shore in the bay.  Does knowing what lies beneath the surface strip away some of that uneasiness?  Does being unable to see beneath the surface make swimming an act of faith?

Not everyone is up for this kind of post-swim debrief.  The other Willy Mussels are simply happy with morning tea.

But all of us are hooked on sea swimming.  In spite of, or owing to, the icy wind on the beach in winter, sunburn, or mouthfuls of salty water when it’s rough, there is always a feeling of having no limits.  Being able to do almost anything whether it’s swimming in ten degree water, or swimming three kilometres when you thought you could only do one, or getting out of bed after a late night, or swimming with people who you thought you’d have nothing in common with but in fact have everything that counts in common.


We’ve swum on Grand Final Day, on Cup Day, on Labour Day and on Christmas Eve.  We’ve swum over reefs and crossed the sandy sea floor in water which was sapphire blue, milky green, thick and soupy, or littered with dead birds and debris spewed from storm water drains after spring storms.  We’ve swum with jellyfish, stingrays and puffer fish.  We’ve swum on our birthdays.



Each swim and each drive to Willy, Mr Kelly, has been a pleasure.  


Adding Kentledge

Last Wednesday, I hopped on the tram and headed to the State Library to chase up the photograph of the swimmers at the Fitzroy Pool, which sits above the fireplace at the local pub, the North Fitzroy Arms.  My memory is that it was labelled “Melbourne Times, 1926” but after searching the catalogue, there is nothing and I give up.  So I switch the search to the West Gate Bridge.

It’s hard to imagine another more thoroughly documented project, perhaps with the exception of the Sydney Harbour Bridge or the Opera House, certainly not in Victoria.  Did the National Gallery garner as much attention during its construction?  Was there a need to rival the Sydney Harbour Bridge and define Melbourne in some way that had always been missing?  The West Gate is, after all, twice as long, as Melburnians liked to remind themselves and others.  Or perhaps it distracted public attention away from the ugliness and brutality of the Vietnam War and the abortion debate.  Ironic that it should eventually join the ranks of disaster, as the worst industrial accident the country had ever witnessed.  Then again, perhaps the enthusiasm for the bridge is just Melbourne, where else are roads so embraced? Where else would crowds of people gather to walk through a newly opened section of freeway, whether it was the bridge or in recent times, new freeway tunnels in the eastern suburbs?

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Working my way through the library’s imagery collection provides some telling clues about the imagining of the bridge and its reserved place in the minds of Melburnians.  The vision of a bridge across the Yarra had been nurtured since the late 1950s, and in iconic fashion, gathered momentum as construction proceeded and the structure took shape.  It dominated the skyline in photographs and paintings by Rennie Ellis, Wolfgang Sievers, Rick Amor, John T. Collins and Fred Williams.  The early imagery records the toothy gaps between the central spans, and an army of spindly construction cranes, slowly bringing the bridge to life, clustered around stout, boxy piers standing solitary, and improbably, above the waters of the Yarra.  Looking at these photographs, it’s almost conceivable that a collapse could have been predicted, so tenuous do these structures appear.  It’s easy to imagine the piers starting to totter at any time, although that’s not how the bridge collapsed.  There is another photograph of a young engineer, in high-waisted flairs, long hair spilling from under his hard hat, in jovial discussion with a foreman.

The idea of a bridge over the Yarra was galvanised in 1965 with the formation of the somewhat humbly named Lower Yarra Crossing Authority which appointed joint consulting engineers based in London and in Melbourne.  The essential structure consisted of a bridge 2,590 m in length, rising 58.6 m above the river below, described as a suspension bridge or alternatively and probably more correctly, of cable-stayed box girder design.  There were five steel spans, the longest 336 m,  divided into three compartments by vertical ‘webs’.

Construction proceeded with the end spans erected first, each of these consisting of two full length longitudinal halves which had been assembled on the ground, then lifted and joined on the top of the piers.  The boxes were then lifted and mounted on top of the erected spans, and the remaining spans cantilevered toward the centre of the bridge until the two ends join.  On October 15th, 1970, the 112 m long western span collapsed and 35 men, including four engineers, were killed after 30 bolts were removed from a transverse splice.  The intention was to flatten a buckle that had developed after fifty-six tons of concrete were loaded on top to correct a 4.5 inch difference in camber between two of the half spans after they had been jacked up to the top of the piers.  Other reports say eighty tons, well in excess of the engineer’s directive.  This unconventional action of ‘adding kentledge’ and the subsequent undoing of the bolts reduced the safety margin, already appallingly inadequate, to nothing.

The collapse and subsequent review following a Royal Commission revealed other design problems and a huge number of highly stressed components.  Every single design and structural aspect of the bridge was scrutinised – its aerodynamics and capacity for ‘significant excitation’ in high velocity winds, its ability to withstand fatigue, its loadings and stresses, the panel stability of webs and flanges, towers and cables, its roller and rocker bearings and the serviceability of its deck.  The engineers were indefatigable in their investigation.  Only the original concept and geometry were retained in the re-design.  By early 1973, new contractors Redpath Dorman Long and John Holland started work to resurrect Melbourne’s dream bridge.  From “The Dawn of a New Era” described by the Lower Yarra Crossing Authority in a pamphlet published in 1969, to the Royal Commission into “The Failure of the West Gate Bridge”, to a reinvented, bomb-proof, modern structure.  The bridge evolved far differently than was ever imagined.  It spawned the bland and boring Bolte Bridge which replaced the Yarra Bridge, barely more than a causeway, built as part of the CityLink project and connecting the West Gate Bridge with the Tullamarine freeway to the north, and the Monash Freeway to the south.

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There are no Fred Williams paintings of the Bolte Bridge but there are two paintings in the SLV collection titled ‘West Gate Bridge Under Construction’ I and II, both dated 1974 and a couple of others in the National Gallery dated 1970.  The former two were both were painted ‘en plein air’ and both dated March 6th, after the collapse.  The date doesn’t seem quite right  given that Williams was reportedly on Erith Island in Bass Strait and according to his wife Lyn, was supposed to have lost interest in his series of river paintings after the bridge’s collapse.  It also seems unlikely that Williams would have painted both, on opposite sides of the Bay, on the same day.  No matter.

The bridge looks almost completed in the first painting, although the cranes are still there.  The khakis, blues and dirty orange smears of the polluted western shore of the river and the thick grey sky are strikingly different from the playful scene of tug boats, a child holding up a red beach ball and the aquamarine blues and greens in the second painting from the other side somewhere near Port Melbourne.  Even the cottony puffs of smoke from the factories in the background look decorative.  It’s only after a while that you notice what could be the grubby haze of bushfire smoke pluming from the south west.  The central span is clearly incomplete in this painting but the cranes look larger and more commanding.

Fred Williams I

Fred Williams 1974. “West Gate Bridge Under Construction I”. State Library of Victoria Collection.

I like how Williams has positioned the bridge within the broader urban landscape.  If the date of the painting is correct, later confirmed by an enquiry to the SLV to be so, then the impending disaster of the bridge collapse was known.  The naïve belief in construction and the built environment, and impending calamity, might be represented by the smoke gradually engulfing the suburban sky.

Fred Williams II

Fred Williams 1974. “West Gate Bridge Under Construction II”. State Library of Victoria Collection.

The image of the bridge persists throughout the photographic record as subject or in the background.  Even the administration building was recorded by architectural photographer Wolfgang Sievers in 1975.  Since the bridge dominates the skyline, it is and always will be there.  However, surely the most stately photograph is by John T. Collins, in black and white, taken in 1970, before the collapse.  It is classical and contrived.  Yet the bridge’s structure and the curve of the span, dispassionately photographed against Edwardian red brick industrial buildings, factories and power pylons reflected in the still river water below, and even incomplete and with the knowledge of what is to come, is harmonious and graceful.  Briefly, the bridge’s meaning is captured.

John T Collins WG Bridge

John T Collins 1970. Port Melbourne. West Gate Bridge. State Library of Victoria Collection.

Rennie Ellis continued to photograph the bridge well after its collapse, or rather the bridge appeared in his photos of  the Bay beaches.  I never liked his work, although now I am pleased that it exists, in all its volume and unkempt, undated carelessness and haste, it’s lack of composition and precious record of the ordinary.  They are snapshots really, photojournalism at a stretch.  In his work, the bridge is a careless presence among sunbathers, yachts and traffic jams.  It’s a half constructed silhouette, shot on Kodachrome and undated, or foreshortened through a telephoto lens off Port Melbourne Beach in the late 1980s like some prosthetic extension of Princes Pier, the sunlight reflected off windscreens as cars climb and descend from the summit, matching the sparkling Bay below.  There is some sort of loss in this photo which I can’t put my finger on.  The topless sunbathers and the threads of silvery Spinifex on the foredunes, since replaced with concrete bike paths, shrubs and tussock grasses, belong to the era of beachballs and tugboats, before beach tents and the unrelenting, shrill sound of jet skis.  The bridge belongs to that earlier time and the artists have secured a place for it there.

Rennie Ellis Beach [between 1981 and 2000]

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Around Princes Pier

Today is a test run of my new sea kayak.  I launch off Sandridge and paddle gingerly toward Williamstown. I have resolved to fall out (on purpose), get wet (obviously) and get back in (hopefully) again.  The aim is to become sufficiently confident to go off on my own.  So the plan goes.  However,  I can’t resist the idea of paddling off into the void of the bay.   The water is flat and grey and every now again the kayak is gently lifted and lowered by the swell.  I look behind me.  The beach is suddenly distant and soon we are almost around the point toward Webb Dock.  The kayak moves unexpectedly fast, skimming past a solitary fisherman fiddling with his line, glancing up and tracking the kayak with an anxious gaze, concerned that we might become tangled since I am sticking close to shore where if the worst happens, I can swim the boat in.  So I like to think.


Rounding the point, Williamstown is laid out along the edge of Hobsons Bay.  For a moment, I don’t recognise it, until I spot the bristle of  masts around the yacht club, then identify various landmarks:  wharves, sheds, a naval destroyer and the cluster of houses along the Strand.  I realise I’m at the edge of the shipping channel close to Webb Dock, not too far from the mouth of the Yarra, with a sum total of about twenty minutes sea kayaking experience.

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Williamstown across the shipping channel

Webb Dock is an outlier of the docks along the Yarra.  It has a couple of enormous boxy cranes, a few containers and a ship.  Signs direct stray watercraft to keep a distance of 75m, which I am inclined to obey under the circumstances, with the expectation of the water police appearing and swamping my boat.  So I turn around and head back toward the glittering towers of Port Melbourne.  The sea is slatey grey-green and the clouds are starting to thicken overhead.  The bridge is slumped over the north western skyline.  I don’t feel like going in yet so I paddle toward the ruins of Princes Pier.

Webb Dock from Sandridge Beach

Webb Dock from Sandridge Beach

From the water below only ranks of weathered pylons are visible.  Panicky seabirds shriek in protest at the disturbance, sweeping from one spar to another, settling, squawks receding with one last, huffy, fold of wing.  There are surprisingly more pylons than I had thought; the pier must have been enormous.  In fact it was over half a kilometre long and intricately linked not only to movement of cargo in and out of Melbourne by rail and sea, but also human movement to and from wars in the northern hemisphere.  The recent restoration project has rebuilt some structures and deliberately exposed the original pylons by removing part of the old decking,.  It honours the industrial, maritime and social history of Port Melbourne.  Paddling deeper into the skeleton and surrounded by the ruins is eerie.

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The water is clear, almost aquamarine.   Beneath the surface fronds of kelp move slowly with the current which winds among the stumps.  The wood is fissured from the salt and at the waterline its surface is braided with glossy black mussels and crusted with cream coralline algae.  Paddling toward the other side, it’s weirdly quiet; the birds raise and settle their wings in half-hearted protest then return to sentinels and gaze out to sea.


As ever, the bridge is a constant on the skyline.


Back close to the shore, I practice falling out and trying to get back in again.  It’s difficult but I eventually succeed although the next day I am covered in enormous bruises and it does little to increase my confidence since I realise how much harder this would be in rough sea.  

Better to learn to not fall out in the first place.

Better find someone to paddle with I think.

Then Ron showed up. How easy was that?

Princes Pier Google Earth