Justine – ghost islands, mutiny and prawns

Posted: July 29, 2019 by The Sprink

This is Justine. She grew up on an island off Geraldton, 400km north of Perth. From a family of fisherman, she spent her childhood on boats, and her teens working them – from wet-liners and shark boats (when they were legal) to prawn and cray-fishing boats.

You built coral sandcastles on the scariest island I’ve heard of.
The Island of Angry Ghosts is one in a chain of 122 coral islands in Abrolhos, WA. In 1627 a Dutch ship called The Batavia was steered off course onto a reef following a bloody mutiny led by a bankrupt passenger who wanted the treasures and weapons onboard. 40 drowned leaving 300 shipwrecked (including women and children) on these tiny islands with no water. What followed was a bloody battle for months between mutineers resulting in torture, rape, murder, poisoning of babies, massacre and cannibalism. The island is also known as Davis Island, nicknamed after our family. Ace.

I lived beside a park that had a puddle 24/7 no matter the season so I feel ya on the freaky home front. I’d ride my bike around trying to hock loogies in it – what did you do as a kid?
We would visit dad at work which meant catching a sea plane to a pontoon in the middle of the ocean. The pilot was an alcoholic and landing was always hairy. He would leave my 8yr old sister Mim, and me (10yrs) there on the plank of wood, waiting for dad to come in his tinny. We would:

  • catch prawns in tin cans with little holes to drain the water out
  • fish using Play Doh as bait – but there is a talent to do this as it falls off pretty quick, so we got freaky good and caught parrot fish and gropers on tiny lines
  • Mim would get sunburnt all the time
  • hand fed and pat huge kingfish which would suck our whole arm in
  • sit there for hours when Dad forgot us.

What other dumb thing did your dad do?
Dad and another guy found a shipwreck and pulled up loads of gold coins – a massive tub of them. He celebrated by getting wasted at an island bar and started telling the guy next to him about the stash. The man was ‘working for the taxation department’ and had come out to the islands looking for fishermen who hadn’t paid tax on cash deals, and dad was one on his list. When dad showed him the stash, the guy just took it.

Loose lips sink ships – also he definitely worked at the tax department. Craziest thing you saw out to sea?
Sharks attacking a giant squid. The tentacles that came out of the water looked 100m long. Even dad couldn’t believe the size of it. It was proper 20,000 Leagues.

Should we be scared of WA sharks?
They are the scariest things in the world. Sometimes tiger sharks would follow the boat and they’d ram us trying to get fed – they’re vicious, they’ll go anything. So when dad got a bit bored we would set up traps with chains floating off 44 gallon drums to catch them. Some were so big they would bite through the chain or just swim off with the trap hanging out of their mouths. We caught a huge tiger one day and killed it by dragging it backwards behind the boat to drown it. It was too big to eat (the bigger the shark, the more mercury it has) and when we cut it open a whole pig’s head fell out. The gut-juice was rancid and so acidic we couldn’t go near it.

My first job was serving bread at Bakers Delight and yours was murdering beasts of the sea.
At the end of school I started in a cray factory, sorting and killing crays. The biggest and best ones would go to Japan (now, they go to China), the average ones would stay in Australia. To kill em, you’d stick a knife under the head of their shell and screw-pop their head off. Next job was on prawn trawlers.

What as a day like out on the trawlers?
Boring and repetitive. We would see no land for three months. We would work all night throwing nets until they would fill up, then drag them up and hand-sort them at the table. You had to look out for pinhead sea snakes which are incredibly venomous – you’d be dead in two minutes if you were bitten. We were used to dealing with them and would grab them by the tail and flick them out to sea.

Random things that happened:

  • I met Phil Ceberano at a fish n chip shop on an island and we partied for a few days then convinced his promoter to pay for me to go to Melbourne with them (I have no idea how)
  • we didn’t wear shoes on the boats, and one night we wanted to go drinking in the casino in Darwin which had a no-shoes-no-entry rule. I found an old thong then wrapped tape around my other foot to look like a sandal so I could go in.

Is Groote Eylandt Monkey Cage actually real or is it a myth of the seas?
Groote Eylandt is where all trawlers would go for supplies. We would all go drinking at the Groote Eylandt Monkey Cage – a bar with no windows because people kept shooting the glass with guns. It was the wild west. The first time I walked in, my crew had to save me from a man who tried to drag me off with him, like a cave man. A guy once fell asleep at the front door and was dragged away by a croc. No cops back then, it was proper outlaw territory.

Did you have boat parties?
When there were events on-land such as The Melbourne Cup, fishing boats would all anchor close together and have mental parties. To get to another rig you’d have to swim literally through shark infested waters, but you didn’t care cos you were gagging to see new faces. At times like this the kitchens would swap produce (so would be swimming with a bag of peaches to exchange for eggs) and cos we were so bored, we would come up with ways to f*ck up the crew eg put bicarb in food to give everyone the runs.

Is jumping ship a thing?
Fuck yeah. I’d met a guy named Raphe at one of the boat parties, he was a total spunk. I had spent 3months hating my crew, so I grabbed my stuff and moved onto his boat but didn’t tell my crew who all swam back to our boat to find my cabin empty. Raphe and I were cool, we got a dog and called it Pirate – but broke up after 8months as he was quite an angry guy. He died of an overdose a few years later.

What is the scariest seas you have been through I AM LIVING FOR THESE STORIES JUSTINE
It was the end of tiger prawn season and we were going back to Perth. Instead of going 10hrs around islands in the Gulf of Carpentaria, we sailed through a passage called “the hole in the wall” which is where two currents hit each other. It’s a quirk of geography as it looks flat calm, but there are millions of whirlpools, so you have no steering ability and can only go during a certain time of day. The day we got there, we hit the tail end of a cyclone. The seas were RAGING and even with the stabilisers down we were going up walls of water. So we all got hammered on cooking sherry to cope

This was all before the age of 20

YOU HAVE LIVED MORE LIVES THAN ANYONE we haven’t even gotten to the part when you were the head of the gay party scene in SYDNEY OK MORE NEXT WEEK

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