At half past one on a bitterly cold and miserably wet Melbourne morning I climbed out of my cosy bunk in the wood-fired warmth of Storm Bay’s focsle, eased the forehatch open just a whisker and peered out at the grey, horizontal rain sweeping across Port Phillip Bay. A 25 knot south westerly was howling and whistling through the rigging and sleet was pinging off the big smack’s Huon Pine decks: precisely the foul weather Dugga Beazley had predicted the night before.
I had journeyed down to Melbourne in the hope that we might go out together after snapper, but the prospects for fishing now looked bleak indeed. Dugga is nothing if not blunt and in typical fisherman fashion his forecast had dispensed with the meteorological niceties.
“It’ll be shithouse,” he said. “There’s no way we’re goin’ fishin’.”
But Tim Phillips, Dugga’s great mate and my host aboard Storm Bay, was not so easily dissuaded. On the phone to Dugga that night he was adamant that the latest Weather Bureau forecast on his laptop suggested that the ominous East Coast Low might be easing. With more optimism than conviction, Tim had declared:
“I reckon she’ll be right.”
Dugga was not so sure.
Dugga Beazley is 71 and like his father, his grandfather and his great-grandfather before him, he has spent his entire life fishing the waters of Port Phillip Bay. He doesn’t need a computer to tell him when he is likely to get his arse wet.
Reluctantly, he agreed to meet us at his boat at 2:30am, a time he said when we could assess the weather for ourselves. If his prediction proved correct, we could all adjourn to the warmth of the Beazley family’s kitchen in Port Melbourne.
Tim called a cab from the Royal Yacht Club of Victoria and we drove all the way round the bay to St Kilda Pier, a long, silent journey in which we were very nearly the only vehicle on the rain-lashed streets. We were both in our wet weather gear. I caught a glimpse of the Indian cab driver watching us warily in the rear-view mirror, no doubt wondering what mischief we were up to at that ungodly hour.
St Kilda Pier disappeared into the gloom. Somewhere out there, at the far end of that very long jetty, Dugga’s boat, the 32ft Frances, was pitching and tossing on her mooring. Tim and I walked all the way out to the far end of the pier and waited in the pitch darkness. Dugga and his 42-year-old son, David, eventually drove out in a battered old ute with its tray crammed with fishing gear: nets and floats and lines. They glanced down at the writhing boat, then out to the white-flecked bay.
“Be a bitch out there this mornin’,” Dugga said.
“Waste of time,” said David.
Tim was obliged to agree. He drove back down the pier with Dugga while David and I walked through the rain. It was then that my fatuous observation: “you and your Dad must know the Bay like the back of your hands,” elicited a singularly eloquent response.
“Yes,” David replied, “we know the Bay better than it knows itself.”
I had last been in Port Melbourne 30-odd years ago at the height of the murder and mayhem that marked the bitter Painters and Dockers turf wars. As a journalist I had pitched up in war zones from Vietnam to Cambodia, but nothing quite as frightening as the violence in this grimy, down at heel part of the Melbourne waterfront.
What an amazing sea-change 30 years has wrought. Port Melbourne is now one of the city’s most expensive bayside suburbs, a place where multi-million dollar homes and apartments sit cheek by glitzy jowl at the water’s edge and BMWs and Mercedes Benz are parked bumper to gleaming bumper in the narrow streets. In the middle of all this up-market real estate stands the modest red-brick home of Dugga and Frances Beazley, a humble remnant of the time when Port Melbourne was staunchly working class and proud of it.
Each day, when Dugga comes ashore with his catch, he brings his fish straight home to Dow Street where he and Frances sell direct to the public. The fish are ungutted, unscaled and no matter what size the snapper are, they’re all sold at the same flat rate: $10 a kilo. There are walk-in fridges under the house, but they store little more than the bait – pilchards and squid – that Dugga and David sew into their nets.
Day after day, Dugga’s haul of fresh fish is sold within hours of its landing. Melbourne’s enormous Greek community, including many an emigrant family from the Aegean Islands, has for years provided his staunchest clients, although now he says, the second and third generation Greek-Australians have become so disconnected from their cultural roots that they prefer to buy their fish cleaned, gutted, cling-wrapped and foam-boxed at the supermarkets.
The Beazleys’ concrete backyard is a repository for all manner of boating bits and bobs: brass fittings, wooden spars, fishing nets and coils of line. For years Dugga’s fleet of five lovely double-ended net boats have been maintained and sometimes re-built here from the keel up.
He has been known to prop his boats up in the street and paint them under the noses of all those wealthy neighbours. The result is a pavement that closely resembled a paint-spattered Jackson Pollock canvas.
Some of the carvel-built 28 footers have been owned by the Beazley clan since Dugga was a boy. The Volunteer, Pearl, Greta, Margaret and Gemma are all spoken of with genuine affection as if they are not merely inanimate objects but living, breathing members of the Beazley family.
In his cosy kitchen, Dugga produced strong black tea and banana muffins and carried on talking until a watery sun rose over the Bay. He quit school without regret at the age of 13 and immediately went fishing with his father, Len and his uncle George. He was then the youngest licensed fisherman in Victoria, if not Australia.
His earliest memory, a Couta Boat voyage up the Yarra with his Uncle George in 1945, remains vivid in his mind’s eye. Although he was then just a weedy five-year-old, not yet tall enough to see over the coaming, he took it all in. It was his Uncle George who dubbed him “Dugga the Bugger”, a sobriquet that has stuck with him throughout his life.
“We went way up the river to the Spencer Street Bridge,” he recalled. “There were fishing boats all the way up there in them days. The navy had requisitioned all the trawlers round the coast for the war effort and that left no boats to net the valuable flathead out in the Bay.
“Couta Boats were not at all suited to that kind of work. They were very deep drafted aft and very shallow forward. The breeze would blow their heads off and when you hauled them aft they wouldn’t come straight along the nets. We needed a nice double-ender for that. Uncle George knew about a beautiful 27-footer named the Greta. He organised a straight swap, one for the other and that’s how we ended up going home in the Greta.”
The Beazleys have fished from the distinctive lug-rigged Port Phillip net boats ever since. Over the years Dugga has rescued a dozen or more of these lovely historic vessels and with the help of his son David, a gifted woodworker, they have all been beautifully restored.
“I won’t part with any of them,” he said. “Sometimes I go round to St Kilda and just sit there admiring the lovely forefoot, the beautiful canoe-stern. In my opinion, there have never been more sea-kindly boats. Not once in all my years on the Bay have I ever felt in the slightest danger aboard any of them.”
I wondered how much help the 13-year-old Dugga could have been to his father.
“I was as good as a man,” he said quickly. “I was pretty strong. You soon develop muscles pullin’ them nets in.”
The Beazleys’ 30 gill or mesh nets, hand-made from soft Irish linen and roped in tough half-inch sisal, were each 45 fathoms long. Strung end-to-end they stretched out for two miles. Baited with pilchards and weighted with lead, their buoyancy corks were spaced a fathom apart so that the nets were held vertically along the bottom.
“We used to shoot ’em fair wind (running before the wind) then go back to the windward end, anchor for an hour, have a cup a tea and somethin’ to eat and then we’d lift ‘em up,” he said.
“The bloody things would be loaded with flat’ead. We often ended up with 15 boxes. That’s 450 kilos of fish. Not bad for a morning’s work.”
In Part 2, Dugga Beazley talks about the near-death experience he and his son faced in Port Phillip Bay.