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Harboring Lifelong Fascination With Ports

<i> Jones is a free-lance writer living in Norco, Calif. </i>

A harbor, even if it is a little harbor, is a good thing, since adventures come into it as well as go out, and the life in it grows strong, because it takes something from the world and has something to give in return. --Sarah Orne Jewett

It was the words dangerous cargo stenciled on her side that first drew my attention to the Tradewind Express.

She was cautiously turning within the narrow confines of Fremantle Harbor--a tricky operation in such a limited space--and I stopped to watch her complete the maneuver.

Ever since childhood, harbors and the ships that pass through them have held a special fascination for me. There is something about them, some intangible quality, that I find impossible to resist.

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Perhaps it is simply the love of travel that lures me down to the waterfronts of the world. Or perhaps it is their appeal to the senses: the sound of the gull’s cry and the ship’s horn, the taste of salt in the air, the scents of a hundred strange cargoes.

Whether in Liverpool or Los Angeles, Cape Town or Christchurch, Barcelona or Buenos Aires, I invariably am drawn down to the sea and the ships.

Romance of the Ocean

But it is not every harbor that acts like a magnet. Yacht clubs and their attendant snobbery, for instance, hold no allure, and fishing harbors, while closer to the essence of the sea, have only limited appeal. No, for me the true romance of the ocean lies in the deep-water ports of the world.

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Which is why, one sunny Saturday morning not long ago, I found myself once again strolling Victoria Quay here.

The inner harbor is little more than a widening and deepening of the mouth of the Swan River, a turn-of-the-century feat of engineering for which Charlie O’Connor is thanked even today. His life-size bronze statue, graced by four dolphins at its base, stands outside the port authority building.

Charles Yelverton O’Connor was an odd sort of chap, an Irishman who blended both the genius and the melancholy of his native land. Almost predictably, he came to a sad end at the moment of his greatest triumph.

Designer of Harbor

Born in County Meath in 1843, O’Connor migrated to New Zealand at age 22, worked there as a civil engineer, then came to Western Australia in 1891 as the colony’s engineer-in-chief and manager of railways. A year later, work began on the harbor he designed.

His ideas for reshaping the mouth of the Swan proved controversial, but drew nowhere near the criticism he endured for his most daring plan: a 350-mile pipeline, going uphill, to carry water from the coast to the gold-mining towns of Kalgoorlie and Coolgardie in the parched interior.

Strong opposition to this visionary project led to his poor health and eventually to his suicide in 1902, less than a year before it was completed.

But O’Connor’s harbor survives and, indeed, thrives.

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Still Western Australia’s largest fishing port, Fremantle also sees passenger liners and warships, freighters, bulk cargo carriers and container vessels tie up at its berths. Oil, steel and phosphates are the main imports; refined oil, wheat and wool make the outward-bound voyages.

Flocking to the Port

And tens of thousands of sheep. It was these, indirectly, that brought about my visit to the harbor this Saturday morning.

Sailing down the Swan the day before, I caught sight of the strangest ship I had ever seen. It was enormous, a supertanker, but with one vast difference. It had seven or eight stories of what can only be described as cages on deck. I had no clue as to what it might be or what it might carry.

The next day I found out. The Al-Yasrah was from Kuwait. Towering over the port terminal building alongside the berth, it drew open-mouthed stares from the half a dozen or so other people strolling the quay. I asked one of them what sort of ship it was.

“That’s a sheep carrier,” a man replied. “They started coming here from the Middle East a few years ago and hauling sheep out in the thousands. Pushed up the bloody price of mutton around here, too, I’ll tell you. We used to have a roast every weekend. Not anymore.”

I learned later that ships such as the Al-Yasrah can carry upward of 100,000 sheep at a time. Islamic custom forbids their being slaughtered before shipment, so they begin the voyage on the hoof.

Strange Scenes on the Wharf

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This no doubt has led to strange scenes on the wharf, with thousands of bleating, baaing animals milling around before loading. Now, however, the Al-Yasrah was empty, awaiting their arrival a day or two later. I was sorry I would miss the party, but I had other ships to see.

In days before regular air service Fremantle was known as “Australia’s front door to Europe,” a phrase coined by British composer and author Thomas Wood. It was the first port of call for ships coming from Europe.

Wood visited the docks in the 1930s and jotted down his impressions:

“The quay was remote, detached--a study in still life, if you will accept the phrase; a place where bollards stood, and crates and cases, and men whose very immobility fixed your attention,” he wrote.

“Men in dingy trousers and canvas shoes, with flannel shirts cut low around their armpits; big men, wearing the oldest hats ever seen on earth. Lumpers. They lounged against the sheds, watching us, their bronzed arms akimbo, their dark faces set.”

Parade on the Sea

But there were no loungers this Saturday morning. Barring a few fishermen, I had Victoria Quay almost to myself. That had not been the case on two earlier visits, however. Then the entire population of Fremantle, and perhaps Perth too, had made its way down to the port.

The occasion was the arrival in Australia of the First Fleet re-enactment, 11 sailing ships that had made a months-long voyage from England as part of Australia’s 1988 bicentennial celebrations.

The fleet was due to dock the next morning, but crowds gathered in the harbor the evening before, lured by the presence of the tall ships and the U.S. Navy. The latter was represented by the battleship Missouri and cruiser Kansas City, both berthed in the outer harbor because of their size, and four lesser warships tied up at Victoria Quay.

A party atmosphere prevailed as American sailors flirted with Australian girls--or was it vice versa?--and beer flowed like the evening tide. A fun fair had been set up, and its colored lights competed with those illuminating the ships. The crowd was in a noisy and good-natured mood.

The next morning, almost before dawn, 500,000 people jammed the harbor to welcome the first fleeters and bid the tall ships adieu. So many boats of every kind and description took to the water that it seemed possible at times to walk across the harbor without getting a foot wet.

Memorable Few Hours

No matter how precarious and uncomfortable one’s perch--on rooftop or rock, on crane or quayside--it was a memorable few hours for lovers of the sea.

Now, months later, I was back. The crowds had gone but there were ships to see. I made a quick inventory.

The orange-hulled Tradewind Express had completed her turnaround and was being nudged gently into her berth alongside the North Quay, her bow pointing toward the Indian Ocean. Her arrival raised the number of ships in port to 11.

Berthed behind her was the container ship DeLoris, with a black hull and decks already half covered in cargo while cranes strained to lift more aboard.

Then came the gray NedLloyd Kingston, apparently idle, followed by another black-hulled cargo carrier whose name and flag were indecipherable at this distance. A smudge of smoke rose from her red-striped funnel that indicated she might be leaving soon.

Last, tucked away in a corner close to where the railway bridge crosses the Swan River, was the Mandama, also too far away to identify her nationality.

All Tied Up

My attention turned to vessels nearer at hand. Apart from the Al-Yasrah there was the El Cordero from Panama, another sheep carrier but far less imposing because she was not even half the size of the former.

I searched for the Maersk Wind but the extraordinary, turquoise car carrier from Singapore that I noticed the day before must already have sailed.

At the opposite end of Victoria Quay were four Japanese longline trawlers. They were the Taiwa Maru, Habomai Maru, Kiryo Maru and the Yasu Maru. All identical in size and color. All were white and all bore the red circle symbolic of the rising sun.

I wandered toward them, noticing the shark fins drying in the sun aboard one, the laundry strung from a line aboard another, homely activities of crews in port.

Gone Fishing

Nearby a handful of people, including a few youngsters, fished, not seriously but more for fun.

“Any luck?” I asked one man.

“Only blowies, mate,” he replied.

Apparently blowies, whatever else they may be, were the untouchables of the fish world because some of them floated on the water’s surface, thrown there by the fishermen.

I strolled back toward the Al-Yasrah, still astounded by her size. What would it be like to travel on it, plowing through the Indian Ocean with thousands of seasick sheep for company?

In the curve of the bow I noticed a tug beginning to nudge the unidentified black ship from the North Quay. As it neared mid-channel I made out the Soviet hammer and sickle on the flag over the stern. Then the name became readable: the Skulptor Zalkalis.

I kept pace with it, or at least tried to, as it steamed out of the harbor, watching as it threaded the gap between the north and south moles and set out to sea. It was time to leave.

Mementos From Ships

Reluctantly, I crossed the footbridge that flanks Fremantle railway station and its decorative brace of black swans, then turned onto Phillimore Street, leaving the harbor behind. It had been a fine morning, but I had little time left to see the rest of the city.

I hadn’t gone too many paces when a sign across the street caught my eye. Nautical antiques, it said. Magic words.

Perhaps I could afford just a quick look, a brief browse. One peek through the open doorway was all it took--I saw all sorts of treasures, the stuff of dreams.

In one corner a gleaming brass binnacle; in another a hand-painted sea chest. Here an assemblage of sextants, telescopes, diver’s helmets and masthead lights; there a collection of ship models, flags, menus from famous liners and old charts.

Everywhere I looked lay the mementos of 100 ships long gone to their watery graves or to the breaker’s yard and of a thousand voyages long since ended. It was too much to resist.

The undertow was too strong. The sea had drawn me in once again.

Fremantle would have to wait.


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