After my three years of teaching English in China, I decided to cash in my plane ticket home to England and head off to Cairns, Queensland, where my sister was based. One of the highlights of my year there was learning to scuba dive at the Great Barrier Reef. In fact, I was so hooked (and broke) that I decided the only way to get in some more dives was to work on a dive boat.
Except I didn’t sign on to work on a dive boat. It turned out that the job I got as all-round helping hand was actually on a cargo ship that took supplies out to the shrimp boats at sea off the Queensland coast. As a way of supplementing his income, the slave driver captain took paying guests on board and promised them some stop-offs for diving. We employees too were promised free diving in our leisure time.
The only problem was that we didn’t have much free time at all. In fact, we didn’t even have a cabin to sleep in. The boys slept in the engine room (smelly and noisy) and we girls slept in a hold (smelly and noisy). I don’t think we had a shower during the entire 10-day trip.
As I boarded the mothership, I was blissfully unaware of the fact that the captain had hired us as slaves for ten days. There I was thinking that I could cope with serving the paying guests, doing a spot of washing up and a lot of scuba diving.
“Make some scones!” ordered the captain as I stowed my meagre belongings in the hold.
Scones? From scratch? Without a cookery book in sight… Wild panic threatened to overwhelm me, until I met my angel.
Her name was Sarah and she DID know how to cook. Without using a cookbook. She even enjoyed it!
As we chugged off on our sea voyage from Cairns up to Cape York and then onto Thursday Island in the Torres Straits, I suddenly remembered a vital fact…
… I get seasick!
The first couple of days were tough until the queasiness went away. I scurried around alternating between serving the guests, puking over the rail, washing up, puking over the rail, serving the guests, puking over the rail…
Once the seasickness left me, all that remained was the hard slog of getting up at 6 am to prepare breakfast, clear up, make elevenses, wash up, make lunch, clear up, make afternoon tea, wash up, make dinner and wash up until about midnight.
We did get to go on one fantastic dive with a guest who was an expert scuba diver. And we were allowed off the boat at Lizard Island to enjoy the feeling of sand between our toes for a couple of hours. Other than that, it was hard work all the way. By the time we passed Cape York, Sarah and I and the two deck hands, decided to mutiny once we got to Thursday Island. The captain had completely gone back on his word to let us dive and enjoy the trip.
He didn’t want to let us off the boat at Thursday Island but we went anyway and headed to the pub to drown our sorrows with at least one beer.
There was no time for anything else. One of the guests came running up to us to say that the captain was going to leave us stranded on the isolated island. And although that option was more enticing than working our way back, we realized that we would be well and truly stuck without any money or a change of clothes. So, we dashed back and jumped aboard.
The worst part was that when we got back to Cairns and disembarked, the captain refused to pay us our wages. We could hear him laughing as he sailed off – he had just got free labour for ten days – while we were left empty-handed and despondent.
But not too despondent, I might add – because I did have one of the most wonderful experiences of my life. One day during our trip, the cry went up that there were whales swimming alongside us. I grabbed a mask and snorkel and dived into the water with my clothes on. It was an amazing and humbling experience to swim alongside these gentle giants.
That alone was worth more than any amount of money.