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Stories from the Bay

Stories from the Bay

After 32 years spent running the Stradbroke Flyer, John Groom has seen it all. He has ferried more than 10 million people to North Stradbroke Island during his career. But it is the personal stories of saving troubled boaties, and helping bring babies into the world, that are most memorable for him. 

Boaties getting into trouble in their tinnies on Moreton Bay was a common occurrence in the 1990s and 2000s, according to John. “People were always getting themselves into strife. We have helped more boaties than I can count over the years. Unfortunately, because the bay is so big, people are not always recovered in time. Two days later we spot their bodies floating. So, I tie a life jacket to them, call the police and say, ‘This one is yours. That is not my job.’”

But it is not always tragic. John recalls how they have saved a man and his son. “Many years ago we were coming back from the island. It was just before dawn and we were half-way across the bay. It was still mostly pitch black and one of the passengers comes up to me and says, ‘Johnno, have they put a new beacon out there towards Saint Helena? Something is bobbing out in the water over there.’ I was squinting and could only just see it. I was not sure what it was, but since we were running a few minutes ahead of schedule, I decided to go over and have a look. Eventually when we were about 200m away, we realised it was a bloke in the water. I pulled up beside him and one of the passengers leans out of the boat and says, ‘G’day. You swim out here often?’ Surprisingly, although the guy was barely keeping his head above water, it was his four-year old son on his back that was making it really hard!

“It turns out they had gone fishing first thing in the morning. After hitting a big wave, they were tossed overboard, but their boat kept going, heading off towards Victoria Point. Back then the bay was a lot closer community, and we had heard the local pro fisherman, Warren Whitehall, was over that way. So I called Warren to explain about the people we had picked out of the bay, and asked if he had seen their empty boat screaming around. ‘Johnno, I know exactly where that boat is, because I am sitting in it right now.’ I said that was great news and asked if it just came up next to his boat. ‘Yeah, you could say that. It is in the wheelhouse with me now’. Turns out it had punched a hole in the side of his boat while he was having a cup of tea. Warren was perfectly calm. He said he did not even put down his cuppa. He just leaned over and turned off the ignition.

“For a couple of years after that, we always got a Christmas card and a thank you from the gentleman we saved. I often think about how lucky it was we saw the shadow in the distance. 10 minutes more and he would have been a goner. Those are the really nice things we get to do. They stay with you,” John reminisces.

“Thankfully we do not see anywhere near as many boaties in trouble these days. I think maybe they have smartened up and have better training now. At least they know which side of the channel to pass on,” chuckles John.

One element that does make Moreton Bay particularly challenging to navigate is the way the sand banks shift around. “Unless you can honestly admit you have done some seaweed gardening with your propeller, then you really do not know the bay. The sand banks move around throughout the year, and the guys in charge of the beacons cannot keep up with the shifting sand, especially around Amity Point. Just because there is a beacon, there does not mean there is enough water there, especially at the bottom of the tide.”

John says that, often these days, he sees people from the Gold Coast who have bought their first Riviera getting into trouble. They are pushing the pedal to the metal, and he normally finds them smashed into the first sand bank, coming out of the channel. “I remember I was heading past Wave Break Island, going towards Surfers in the late afternoon. I was in my Calypso boat, which is nine meters across, so the lights are nice and wide. I saw this boat heading straight towards us, and he was really powering along. I was concerned, so I slowed down a bit. The deckhand next to me was saying, ‘Oh crap, he is still heading right at us.’ So, I ended up coming to a complete stop. But he was still coming towards us! I blasted the horn and turned all the spotlights on. Finally, that got the message across and he pulled up beside us and says, ‘I am really sorry. I just saw the red and green lights and I was trying to go between them.’ The poor guy thought my boat was the channel beacons! And he was stone-cold sober! Talk about crazy!”

John, and his brother Alan, operate four boats for their Stradbroke Flyer business, but only one is needed to maintain the normal ferrying service to the island. This enables them to charter out the other boats for plenty of special events, ranging from weddings on Tangalooma to ‘doof doof’ parties at McLarens Landing.

Out of all the weddings their boats have been used for, the one that stands out most for John was a Goth wedding on South Straddie. “Their outfits were immaculate. I remember the bride’s bright red dress was stunning. The bit that got us though was their vows. They did the vows, with the bride, groom and best man, all hanging from a tree. They used six big fish hooks each, driven into their backs. At least they took the barbs off the fish hooks, but still there was blood everywhere. It was definitely not your typical wedding.”

From the scores of boaties he has saved, to the handful he was not able to, and all the crazy stories in between, it is fair to say John has seen pretty much everything on the water. It is clear though that helping bring new babies into the world is always a special moment.

“When mothers are going into labor on the ferry, I am always faced with choosing between two tough options: Do I put the hammer down and go really fast, but hit all the bumps and bounce mum around, or do I take it slow and steady, giving her a better ride, but risking the baby being born on the boat? It is always a 50/50 gamble. Often, I try to go slow and have the passengers try and distract her and keep her calm. When I can hear the screams up in my wheelhouse though, I can tell it is getting very serious and I normally have to floor it. We have had three mums only make it to the car park and deliver their baby right there in the ambulance. There is no time to go anywhere. Those babies are not waiting for anyone.”

Stradbroke Island and Moreton Bay have changed a lot in the three generations the Groom family have been operating their ferries. Back in 1985, there was no tourism at all. Sand mining was the main business on Stradbroke and the only transport was the mining company’s barge. “My parents saw Stradbroke’s tourism potential. They started with just one boat doing a couple of runs a day. The ’80s was a struggle. We were working 15-16 hours a day, seven days a week. For 10-12 years I do not think we had a day off. It was always the same day, over and over,” according to John.

Thankfully, the Groundhog Day-style daily grind eased in the 90s as the business grew and enabled the purchase of three new boats. The ferry service now shifts just under half a million passengers a year across the bay to Stradbroke. In spite of the size of the business, John has kept it family operated. He and his brother, along with their wives, manage the close-knit 15-person business.

It is his family’s determination to keep the ferries running in any weather that has been the key to its success. “We are just a small family business competing against multi-nationals, but we are not deterred. We just keep providing service no matter what. On the other hand, the big guys stop running when the wind gets up to 30 knots. Maybe their drivers complain when their coffee cups fall out of their holders? I have never understood it, to be honest. The bay does get very choppy in the wind, but we just take it in our stride and keep ploughing on,” John says proudly.

 

By Narayan Pattison

 

 


A TREASURE TROVE OF ANCIENT WETLANDS 

How many times have you been on North Stradbroke Island (Minjerribah), or have sailed past it? With popular anchorages around it and interesting destinations on the island itself, one would not even think about the history it holds, and its value to our future. Environmental researchers have uncovered a wealth of information about this island that offers never-before-seen insights into climate change since the last ice age. “There are more wetlands on North Stradbroke Island dating to the last ice age than anywhere else in Australia,” says project leader Dr John Tibby, acting head of the Department of Geography, Environment and Population at the University of Adelaide. “The persistence of these wetlands suggests that for much of the past 40,000 years, and for perhaps much longer, the local environment has remained relatively moist.” Darren Burns, traditional owner, and Land and Sea manager of Quandamooka Yoolooburrabee Aboriginal Corporation, says, “This evidence represents and confirms the resources that no doubt the Quandamooka People would have had to enable them to live continually on the Island.” (Excerpts from https://www.adelaide.edu.au/news/ news94782.html)

The mangroves and saltmarshes of Australia provide roosting and feeding sites for over 30 species of shorebirds, many of which fly annually over 10,000 km to Siberia and Alaska along the East Asian Australasian Flyway. Mangroves and coastal wetlands annually sequester carbon at a rate two to four times greater than mature tropical forests and store three to five times more carbon per equivalent area than tropical forests. Most coastal carbon is stored in the soil, not in aboveground plant material as is the case with tropical forests. (Source: www.environment.gov.au)

 

 

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