I was 18 years old when I used a can opener to remove the lid from my swollen money tin. It was in the shape of a giant beer can. A generous pile of silver and gold coins foamed out with a pleasant metallic fizz.
The disgorged treasure on the carpet represented months of sacrifice. I had sworn off trips to the video game arcade and frivolous snacks to amass this small fortune.
A sensible and prudent young man would deposit the coins into his savings account. I was neither sensible nor prudent. I used the money to book passage on a square-rigged ship, The Eye of the Wind.
The Eye of the Wind
I met ‘The Eye’ while she was docked in Cairns, Australia. The 40 metre (130 foot) long vessel was built almost 100 years earlier in 1911 at a German shipyard. Her black steel hull with white trim bobbed gracefully beside the pier. She was out of time among the modern charter boats. Her grand figure promised romance and adventure.
When I stepped onto her scrubbed teak deck, I was the youngest passenger for this leg of her journey. I had flown to Cairns with a group of scuba divers from South Australia to explore the Great Barrier Reef and beyond. The Eye of the Wind was to be our home for 10 days.
A curious fact about scuba divers is their fondness for beer. I associated scuba diving with health and fitness, but this idea was put to rest three years prior when I obtained my scuba certification in Adelaide.
I discovered divers love to drink and this trip would be no exception to the rule. My fellow travellers made repeat trips between the dock and ‘The Eye’ to carry case after case of Steinlager down into her hold. The storage area was soon filled with beer, so the excess cases were stacked in the space behind the timber stairs at the end of the saloon.
A boat is unserious. A ship is magisterial
The crew removed the thick mooring lines that held The Eye of the Wind to the dock and the Skipper, a wild sunburnt man known as ‘Tiger’, used her diesel engine to motor out of Cairns towards the horizon.
Once free of civilization, Tiger cut the engine and ordered the crew aloft to unfurl the rust-colored sails. Few experiences in my life have matched the perfection of standing on 130 tonnes of steel, timber, brass, and canvas with only the wind to propel you.
“What a beautiful boat,” I said as I clung to the port side rail beside the helm.
Tiger, the Skipper, turned and shot me a sharp look. “She’s a ship, not a boat,” he said.
I remember feeling chastened at the time but decades later, I concede ship was the only word to describe The Eye of the Wind. A boat is unserious. A ship is magisterial.
For several days, we lazily followed the Great Barrier Reef and dropped anchor when we wanted to dive. The real excitement began when we decided to leave the protection of the reef for the Coral Sea.
Our destination was Osprey Reef, a remote coral encrusted underwater mountain, 300 kilometres (185 miles) from Cairns. This isolated reef rises 2,000 metres (6,500 feet) from the sea floor. A deep, wild, and dangerous place.
We were in the middle of nowhere, a tiny speck of humanity tossed about like a trivial bath toy
The trip under sail to Osprey continued long into the night. The calm blue water inside the Great Barrier Reef was replaced with impressive green waves. I felt too nauseous to stay confined to my small bunk below, so I took my blanket above deck and climbed on top of the galley roof.
I rolled over to face the starboard side of the ship. My makeshift bed placed me above the occasional crew member who wandered the teak deck. Although elevated, my eyes were now level with the crest of each wave The Eye of the Wind ploughed through.
My sleep was fitful. I feared I would slide off the galley into the restless water. We were in the middle of nowhere, a tiny speck of humanity tossed about like a trivial bath toy. I opened my eyes to gaze at the waves again. It was still dark. The only illumination was from the running lights of the ship reflecting off the green, boiling ocean.
In the pools of light, I saw flying fish keep pace with our passage to Osprey Reef. They would submerge beneath the waves only to reappear moments later with their large fins extended to carry them over the next foaming crest.
I idly thought it would be funny if one of the fish misjudged their flight and landed on the deck. The door to the galley below slid open and a passenger stumbled out. It was one of the scuba divers, Sam. He was drunk. As soon as his feet stepped onto the deck, laughter burst forth from him. He bent down and picked up something silvery.
“Ha! Look! A flying fish! Look at it!”
He waved the fish about. I was the only other soul who saw his performance. I was stunned. I imagined this scenario and the sea delivered. Sam threw the lucky fish overboard and satisfied with his achievement, stumbled drunkenly on his way. I remember thinking no one would ever believe this story.
Daylight arrived and we reached Osprey Reef by late afternoon. Tiger gave the order to drop anchor over the shallow part of the reef and we filled the two inflatable dive boats with our equipment. A short trip in the inflatables placed us where the aqua colored sea met ominous black water. This was where Osprey Reef plunged away into the depths.
I rolled backwards over the side of the inflatable, one hand on my mask and the other on the heavy aluminium scuba cylinder behind my shoulders. After I exchanged an ‘OK’ hand signal with my dive buddy Mark, we descended to the reef below and gently swam to the edge of the coral.
Heights terrify me. Simply gazing out the slanted windows of Centrepoint Tower above Sydney induces immediate dizziness in me. I chose scuba over skydiving because depth is preferable to height. Imagine my surprise when vertigo hit me underwater.
Before my eyes was a vast cobalt blue abyss. My senses were overwhelmed as the reef dropped away to become a sheer wall. The late afternoon light from above was swallowed by a black void when Mark and I looked straight down.
Heights terrify me. Simply gazing out the slanted windows of Centrepoint Tower above Sydney induces immediate dizziness in me
A lone manta ray glided by a hundred feet below our position. Its black wings gently flapped as it receded into the depths. By now the rest of the dive party had joined us at the edge of Osprey Reef. I felt there was nothing to prevent me plunging thousands of feet to the unseen sea floor. I swam a little way back from the edge to place the coral beneath me and regain control of my nerves.
A Deep Mystery
What happened next was stranger than the flying fish episode. A deep rhythmic sound filled the water. Its source was hard to pinpoint as sound travels faster in liquid than it does in air. I thought it emanated from the abyss.
It did not sound like a ship engine – the tone was strange – but it did sound like a machine. The hypnotic slow pulse of a giant turbine. What puzzled me was there was no other vessel in sight. The Eye of the Wind was anchored behind us, her engine off, and the inflatables had not yet returned to pick us up. We were in the middle of nowhere.
The mystery noise faded. A lone grey shark below punctuated its departure. As the late afternoon light dwindled to twilight, we surfaced and signalled the inflatables to pick us up. I remained baffled over our auditory encounter on the short damp trip back to the ship.
After the evening meal in the galley a few divers remained seated around the table. I brought up the mystery sound to solicit opinions.
“It had to be a ship.”
“There aren’t any ships out here.”
“Well, what else could it be?”
The most experienced diver, Ian, shifted in his seat to announce his opinion.
“I think we heard one of the nuclear subs the Yanks use pass through this neck of the woods.”
Everyone was silent except for me.
Hours after the evening meal, the ship’s cook, a tall godlike figure with spectacular curls, announced we were running low on meat. I cannot remember his name, but I vividly recall what happened next.
He gathered some of the crew and divers to set fishing lines from hand reels off the stern of the ship. In less than ten minutes, one of the lines went taught. It took several people to haul it in. A thrashing whitetip shark was lifted onto the timber deck.
I expected the cook to remove the hook from the shark and order the fishing party to toss it back. It was not to be. The whitetip shark continued to twitch wildly on the deck as one of the other lines went taught. Soon there were two, then three sharks on the deck. The sight of their life ebbing away troubled me. I retired below to my small bunk. Shouts of glee from above continued as I turned my face into the pillow.
I do not know why but it felt like we had crossed a line catching other predators to restock our supplies. It was hard for me to put the sight of the thrashing fish out of my mind when every dish the cook served for the remainder of our trip contained shark.
Shark steaks, shark stir fry, and shark curry. My reluctant bites of each culinary creation elicited a strong metallic taste. It was odd to eat meals that delivered the same sensation I felt when I placed my tongue on the terminals of a 9-volt battery.
Sharks… So Many Sharks
We chose the day after the shark massacre to visit the northern tip of Osprey Reef in the inflatables. Once again, we were greeted by a precipitous cobalt blue drop off after entering the water.
Today was different. As we swam beside the coral wall with bottomless ocean below us, sharks appeared. At first, we were shadowed by only half a dozen. Their numbers began to multiply in a compound fashion.
Whitetip sharks joined their brethren from the shallows on our left and larger grey whaler and silvertip sharks rose from the void below. Fifteen minutes into our dive and the water was thick with them.
Suspended mid water above an abyss and surrounded by a substantial cloud of sharks, truly humbled me
This would be a fine time to visit payback on us I thought. They continued to arrive. The adjective impressive to describe the number of sharks was insufficient. Appalling was better. I craned my neck to look above… sharks. I looked below… sharks. Left… sharks. Right… sharks.
Suspended mid water above an abyss and surrounded by a substantial cloud of sharks, truly humbled me. I use the adverb truly to separate this experience from the debased overuse of humbled. For example, I am humbled to receive this award – copy often used in tedious LinkedIn posts – is not what ‘humbled’ is. Humbled is firsthand experience of a situation that reminds you of your mortality.
The sheer number of sharks was all we could focus on. Rather than push our luck, we ended the dive. As we clambered out of the water and over the side of the inflatables, our feet were farewelled by multiple slate grey fins slicing the surface. It is a rare thrill to drag your legs into a boat while sharks follow your departure.
When the dive boats were secured to The Eye of the Wind, I climbed up the side of the hull and saw one of our dive party already on the bench outside the galley. His name was also Tim, a primary school teacher from Adelaide. He gingerly sipped a cup of tea. His face was white as a sheet.
“Are you okay? I didn’t see you in the dive boat.”
“No. I ended my dive early and asked one of the crew to bring me back in the inflatable,” he said.
“What’s the matter?” I was looking at his trembling hands.
“Sharks… so many damn sharks. Too many.”
The Eye of the Wind remained anchored at Osprey Reef for a few more days before we returned to the shelter of the Great Barrier Reef. We spent the remainder of our trip exploring the waters and reef around Lizard Island.
An incredible dive location, second only to Osprey Reef, was our visit to the The Cod Hole. When we entered the water here on a clear Spring day, a dozen large Potato Cod surrounded us. Each one of these fish was as large as a Labrador Retriever.
The giant fish threw themselves at us like wild dogs. This alarmed me. Sharks were better behaved than these brutes. In my dive vest pocket was leftover shark flesh from last night’s meal. I pulled it out and presented the sickly white strands to one of the cod. Its cavernous maw, wider than my chest, opened and sucked the dreadful meat into its throat. I was dumbfounded at the fish’s ability to create a powerful vacuum. An improbable and exhilirating final dive.
The voyage was over when our home for 10 days tied up to the wharf at Cooktown. It felt strange to feel firm ground after we disembarked via the gangplank.
I reluctantly gazed at the tall ship for the last time before we headed into town to meet the awaiting airport bus.
Out to Sea
In my quiet moments, my thoughts return to the deck of The Eye of the Wind. It was not a pleasure cruise. Some of it was horrible.
My feet became so sunburned I winced in pain each time I slid the legs of my salt encrusted wetsuit back over them.
I endured terrible bouts of seasickness when the ocean became surly and pitched the old ship up and down. I never want to eat shark again.
Most of it was beautiful. The impossible blue wilderness of Osprey Reef. The open ocean transit under sail with only the wind to push us. The lone crewmember on watch at the bow, ready to alert the Skipper if an orphaned shipping container challenged our progress.
I close my eyes and I am wrapped in my blanket above the galley. Green waves, large and intimidating, pass through the small pools of illumination fed by the running lights of the ship.
Beyond the reach of electricity and human certainty is an immense ocean. An unknowable future, its weight heavy on the present moment. Today feels like my wind tossed night on the wild sea.
Photograph notes: Each image taken by me with a film (yes, film!) camera. I scanned a selection of photographic prints with a flatbed scanner to insert into my story.