On December 23, 1816, His Majesty’s cutter Mermaid was launched in Calcutta, India. Built of solid teak and sheathed with copper, she was 56ft long and weighed 84 tons, with a beam of 18ft 6in and a 9ft draft. Australian-born Royal Navy captain Philip Parker King commanded the Mermaid on three voyages to explore and survey the Australian coast between 1817 and 1822. As we sailed through the Kimberley region in the northwestern part of Australia on our Herreshoff H28, Sam, we crossed King’s wake several times.
Rugged and remote, with many parts still unsurveyed, the Kimberley is well off the beaten track and very few private boats take on the challenge of cruising there. Thirty-foot tides, 8-knot currents, river bar crossings, saltwater crocodiles and a lack of phone coverage or anywhere to re-provision are all tests for those who venture into these waters.
Our adventure started at Adele Island, where my partner, Danny, and I intended to swim on the boat and clean the hull. Not long before the Mermaid was built, the Royal Navy pioneered the use of copper sheathing to protect its ships from the effects of marine plants and animals growing on the underwater hull. In a modern form, Sam has Coppercoat antifouling, which requires regular scrubbing, as did the Mermaid’s sheathing.
The cruising guide told us: “Lying well offshore, Adele Reef has no crocodiles. And while the water is not as clear as other mid-ocean coral reefs, it is clear enough to snorkel amongst a huge variety of marine life...”
At Adele Island, though, the water was murky, and ashore we saw the fresh tracks of a crocodile in the sand. There would be no getting in the water here. Still, after four weeks of Kimberley cruising, Sam was feeling sluggish, and we could see growth below the waterline, so we started looking for a place to careen, the time-honored way of cleaning, painting, repairing and maintaining a ship’s bottom. These days, the simplicity of a haulout, the risk of damage (especially for modern fin keel boats) and environmental regulations are all reasons that careening is seldom done. However, Sam is a traditional cruising boat, built with a full keel and a transom-hung rudder—ideal for putting on the beach.
In 1820, on King’s third voyage, the iron nails holding the Mermaid together rusted, out and the boat sprang a leak. On September 30, therefore, King beached the Mermaid in a bay in the southern part of Port Nelson, which he named Careening Bay.
Unfortunately, while the bay, which is protected from the northeast to the southeast and boasts seasonal freshwater, eucalypts, mangroves and boab trees, was perfect for King, it had too much surge for us. Luckily, we found another perfect place nearby at the Coronation Islands—a small cove inside a bay, with a flat, clean beach of firm sand and rocks to tie off to on either side. The tides were also predicted to diminish in a couple of days, so we decided to careen immediately. At mid-morning, not long before high water, we, therefore, anchored Sam in about 15ft and drove her astern toward the beach, laying out 200ft of chain, until we had less than 3ft under her keel.
From the safety of the boat, we scanned the beach and mangroves for crocodiles. Our “Crocwise Info Sheet” also warned that these reptiles can remain hidden underwater for such long periods that you may not see one at all, even if it’s lurking close by. As it was, we didn’t see one, so we launched the dinghy and took a stern line ashore, which we tied to a rock on the beach. After that, we spent some time positioning the boat fore and aft by adjusting the stern line and the anchor chain.
Next, we took a starboard line ashore, pushing through the mangroves—alert for crocodiles!—and tied it around another rock, after which we did the same with a line running to port. Back on the boat, we attached both lines to halyards to spread the load. We worked fast, as the tide was dropping, and at 1115 we touched the bottom. We noted the depth on the tide chart—6.44ft—as that was when we would expect to float again. We took upon the halyards to ensure the boat was secure, and then we waited.
It is a myth that noise frightens crocodiles. In fact, they are extremely sensitive to sound and vibration and are attracted by noise and activity. We waited until 1230 when the water had receded beyond the keel, then we hung a ladder over the side, got our buckets and scrubbers and got to work.
We removed the layer of slimy growth on the Coppercoat with a plastic scraper and then went over it with a scouring pad until the bottom looked good as new. For scrubbing to be effective the surface needs to be continually wetted, so we went back and forth bringing back bucket after bucket of water from the cove. As the afternoon wore on and the tide ebbed, the water became muddy and visibility decreased. One of us filled the buckets while the other kept an eye out for crocodiles. It was hot work, and we took turns working on the shady side of the boat.
After removing the slime, the next job was to clean the prop, which was covered in weed that came off easily enough with a scrubbing brush and a scouring pad. Next, we cleaned the through-hulls and the log. The bottom of the ladder now hung more than a yard off the ground, making it difficult to get on board. When I climbed on, I tracked mud into the cockpit but it couldn’t be hosed out because the drains were now all facing “uphill.” I threw down some water bottles and snacks, and we kept scrubbing.
By 1700 the bottom of the boat was clean, the light was fading and the moon, which was a couple of days short of full, was rising in the east. The job was finished. We had worked nonstop for over four hours. We were tired and filthy, and our clothes reeked of marine growth. We collected and put away the cleaning gear and hoisted the dinghy onto the cabintop. This wasn’t an easy job from beach level, but not far from here a crocodile had recently chewed up an inflatable, and we made it a rule to never leave ours in the water. We washed up standing on the beach. I barely had the strength to hoist myself up the ladder. The tide was now rising, and once again we had to wait.
Compared to the work Captain King and his crew carried out on the Mermaid, our job was quick and simple. When King put his ship ashore, the Mermaid lay on her side for 16 days while repairs were carried out on the keel, stern post, rudder couplings, garboard strake and fastenings. During this time the ship’s carpenter carved the words “HMC Mermaid 1820” into a boab tree just behind the beach, something that has become a bit of an icon on the Kimberley Coast. The site also has signboards with sketches of Careening Bay made by Captain King. It’s fabulous to be able to picture the ship and the camp as they must have appeared almost 200 years ago.
At about 2000 there was a tinkling noise as the incoming water began washing little pieces of coral against the keel. I took a torch and went outside to look around, and what did I see over by the mangroves, but two red dots of reflected light. Crocodile!
In the seconds it took to swing the light, the crocodile was alongside the boat. It was massive—we estimated it to be about half the length of Sam, over 15ft long. Incredibly, it was able to submerge itself out of sight in water less than knee deep. We thought about all the trips we had recently made to the water’s edge. Moments later, the crocodile returned to the surface and just watched us. I felt a deep and almost uncontrollable fear. It was powerful, dominant and very menacing. I wanted to look, and I wanted to hide. I wanted to take a photo, but I didn’t dare get too close. As the water rose, the crocodile rose too, getting closer to the gunwales. It seemed like it would take no effort at all for the crocodile to lift its head and rip me off the boat. I went below and hid.
At 2130 we began to float again. Now we had to release the lines holding us to the shore. From the relative safety of the cockpit I eased off the halyards, and then Danny had to go forward and climb the mast to retrieve them. He carefully and quickly dashed along the side deck opposite the crocodile. As he free-climbed the mast, the boat gave a small lurch. I had visions of him catapulting out into the water.
Next, we untied the halyards from the shorelines and, after securing the halyards, tossed the lines into the water. The crocodile had now moved to the stern, and we had no intention of retrieving the lines that night. We pulled up short on the anchor, started the engine and moved out of the bay and around the corner. The boat slipped through the water, free from marine growth and free of the crocodile.
The next day, we hiked over the hill to the cove to retrieve the lines. They had washed up onto the beach, and it was straightforward to untie them from the rocks and coil them up. We didn’t see the crocodile. Still, I’m sure it was there, hidden somewhere in the mangroves or under the water. Watching…
Photos by Mo Fitzpatrick