I have long considered myself to have been one of those very lucky people who made an adequate living doing pretty much what I liked doing. There are few people so lucky but Portland professional fisherman Garry Kerr is another.
For more than 40 years Garry Kerr has worked a series of cray-fishing boats out of the Victorian port of Portland, working as far afield as Bass Strait and the west coast of Tasmania.
These are waters where a good living can be made and where a wrong move can cost the lives of the vessel and its crew. Lists of those who did not return can be found in many volumes, notably the works of the late Jack Loney and of Graeme Broxam.
Garry Kerr left school just as soon as he could, at 14.
Work, any sort of work, seemed better than school but the local meatworks produced not quite the start that the young hopeful was after. The opportunity of a job aboard a local cray boat seemed to be an improvement – fancy being paid to catch fish!
“I had a rude awakening when I was introduced to the Southern Ocean. I was terribly seasick but I knew I’d get over it if I persisted,” Garry said.
After a couple of years learning the trade and the ways of seamen and “full of ignorance and ambition”, Garry put a deposit on a 28ft crayboat.
“I’v been my own boss ever since,” he said.
Being your own boss means you have control of your life and can make your own decisions and you have to take responsibility for them.
“I’v always enjoyed crayfishing, pretty basic, hunter-gatherer stuff, I suppose.
18 years I’v worked along the west coast of Tassie. Just once in the last five years I’v had to run for shelter. I don’t know whether that means I’m brave or stupid but I reckon that if people can sail around the world in 30-footers I’d have to be a ‘wimp’ to run for shelter in a big 66ft steely.”
As Garry matured and his income grew he worked his way up the cray boat hierarchy – from the 28-footer Valdarie, to the 90-year-old Gazelle, through the purpose-built Huon pine auxiliary ketch Jane K of 1981, and to the brawny steel cray boat Eumerella which was built in 1996.
Eumerella may well be Garry’s last boat because, at 60 he is gradually handing her over to his son Matthew while he gets on with developing his long-term hobby – writing and publishing books and DVDs!
This might not be what most people might expect of a semi-retired fisherman. Not for Garry sitting on the quay mending nets and remembering ‘old times’ while tourists wander past. His talking of old times is done with a video camera and recorder and the images and voices he collects are of men much older than he who have memories to save and stories to tell.
“I’v always been fascinated by history. The old men would talk of how things used to be and it seemed to me that none of it was being recorded or written down.
“I saw the old traders being pensioned off and abandoned with nothing done to preserve any of them and I felt that something was being lost. It was only after I announced that I was going to write a book that I began to realise what I had let myself in for. I needed help and luckily, I got it, so a joint effort brought about my first book, Australian and New Zealand Sail Traders, in 1974.
“As I said in the foreword, ‘It seems evident that there is a need, in Australia, at least, for a maritime equivalent of the National Trust, or perhaps a special section added to the existing Trusts: the function of this body being to classify some of the more important vessels. There are at least five such craft that deserve an A classification. They are May Queen, Alma Doepel, Cathkit, Fancy and Enterprise. There are many others that might be rated B or C.’”
Thirty years after that prescient comment all but the scow Cathkit still exist.
“As a fisherman I soon realised that different boats had evolved for different uses in Australia and although much has been written about fishing boat types in Europe and Asia, none had been documented in Australia. That brought about Craft & Craftsmen of Australia Fishing.”
This was self-published by Kerr’s Mainsail Books in 1985.In this, Kerr’s second book, he discussed styles and designs of coastal and deep sea fishing boat types in all Australian states. It became a ‘source’ book on the subject since it was published in 1985.
“I have always been fascinated by the beauty and strong nautical flavour of Tasmania. The 65ft ketch May Queen, built in 1867, was still carrying freight into the 1960s and her sisters in trade had not long gone.
“This really fascinated me. Some of the men who had sailed these ketches were still around, and some of them had begun their working lives, under sail alone! How was it done? What were the living and working conditions like?
This gave birth to another self-published title, The Tasmanian Trading Ketch, in 1987.”
The fiercely contested ketch races that were for so long a feature of the Hobart regatta are now history and so are most of Tasmania’s sail-powered ‘delivery trucks.’
Some ketches were converted to other duties, not always in ways that enhanced their appearance. Gippslanders and those living around Gosford, in NSW, may remember the cruise boat Lennabird, that became Lady Kendall. She started life very early in the 20th century as the Hobart-based Lenna. She was one of the finest and fastest of her type and worked for more than 90 years before final demolition in 2006.
In the same year as The Tasmanian Trading Ketch, Garry Kerr published a book of the memoirs and photographs of a genuine ‘ketch hand.’ Ron Thiele had earlier published a small booklet on his life afloat in the Gulfs of South Australia but Kerr’s involvement produced a much-expanded hard cover version of Ketch Hand in 1987.In 1996 Garry published his smallest book, to date. Of Men, Boats & Crayfish told the tale of the lives and times of the Port Welshpool-based Norling family. This family of Scandinavian background has a more than 70 year history of working fishing boats around the islands of Bass Strait with the fine record of never having lost a life or a vessel. Good seamen in good boats indeed.
“Huon pine is a Tasmanian icon. It was won from the wildly beautiful rivers and rainforest’s of the West Coast, where men lived and worked up the rivers for three months at a time in this pristine wilderness. Little of their living and working conditions had ever been recorded, hence The Huon Pine Story in 1999.”
The Huon Pine Story is probably Kerr’s largest and finest book. In A4, hard-bound with 300 pages presenting remarkable past and present photographs, it went into a second edition in 2004.
“I’v always had a bent towards oral history. Many academics frown on oral history as being unreliable, and some of it can be. I have found by experience never to use anything that a person tells you about anyone else unless they were there. Hearsay is terribly unreliable but if oral history is restricted to an individual’s own experiences, it can be very reliable.
“The best medium for recording oral history is with a movie camera, where the people can both be seen and heard, along with their body language, inflection, accent and expression.
“Having interviewed those unique characters, the Huon Piners, on audio tape I was keen to save them on camera for posterity.”
This produced a video, The Oldest Living Tasmanian – Huon Pine. This was produced by Paul Scott Films of Sydney and largely funded by Garry Kerr. It was shown on ABC TV and is available in Video or DVD.
“With my first film effort in the public arena I thought that I might do something similar with Ketch men and with the ’couta fishermen and put them on DVD. While working on the DVD/Video Trading Ketches of South Australia it occurred to me that there were probably men still living who sailed on the great square riggers to South Australia.
“I wondered if there would be anyone around who had sailed on the old windjammers. I soon found out that indeed there were, there was even a Cape Horner’s Association in Australia. With such an association, if you find one person, you’ve found the lot – and that included keeping in touch with their Finnish counterparts.
“As some of the young Finns abandoned Erikson’s great ships in Australia, some young Australians signed on for the return voyage, via Cape Horn, and soon found out why the Finns had jumped ship. Watching the DVD/video The Last Cape Horners will show Australians just how hard life aboard sailing ships in the 1930s really was.
“In Mariehamn in the Baltic’s Aland Islands I was fortunate enough to interview the granddaughter of Gustav Erikson, who still runs the company he started. I also met some of the then young men who had sailed in his ships.
“As a result, having long had an interest in Cape Horn, my daughter Jane and I went to Ushuaia in southern Argentina and took passage on one of the charter yachts that took cruises around Cape Horn. We were aboard for one week and rounded the Horn under sail on the sixth day.
“My wife Judy and I have four children Brendan, Matthew, Katrina and Jane. Son Matthew has taken over some of the work skippering Eumerella, so I guess that means I’m semi-retired with more time to follow my interest in local history. My next DVD concerns the forest industry of south west Victoria.” book The Watermen of Sydney can be had from Boat Books, ABC books and all good book stores.