Book Review: Beyond Boundaries
by Des Kearns
Reviewed by Oliver Shtein
Des Kearns is a master mariner and marine surveyor. His memoir Beyond Boundaries recounts a life spent mostly at sea and his experiences across the nautical spectrum.
Kearns spent the 1960’s riding the waves of Sydney’s Northern Beaches with mates who would soon become luminaries in the then nascent sport of competitive surfing. While still a teenager Des accepted an offer from a friend, Andy Wall, to sail into the Pacific, taking him into deeper and bluer water. Aboard the 32-foot Swanson-designed Carmen class sloop Carronade, Kearns and his friends sailed the Pacific, visiting South America, the west coast of the USA and many of the fabled South Pacific islands.
This cruise was followed by stints as crew in tall-ships and trading schooners in the South Pacific, including experiencing the wreck of a wooden ship on a remote atoll and, subsequently, an idyllic sojourn in French Polynesia. Another crewing job saw a Sydney to Hobart race win aboard Huey Long’s Ondine.
Realising that the sailing bum’s life may not ultimately be a sustainable one, Kearns moved to London and sought formal maritime qualifications. He secured his first command as captain of a Canadian tug. The book includes many memorable stories in the Canadian wilderness including towing barges through giant and treacherous river whirlpools, and later as tug master in charge of moving oil rigs in the Red Sea.
I particularly enjoyed the chapters that recount Kearns’ time as a master of an exploration drill ship anchored in Arctic waters in the service of the Canadian oil company Dome Petroleum. Kearns recounts that sometimes the Arctic ice pack, pushed by distant storms, would slide by the rig at a rate of knots causing the stationary rig to create a kind of wake in the moving ice. Sometimes, with the force of moving ice, the situation on the ship became so tenuous that a helicopter would be left on deck with engines running in case of the need for urgent escape.
When the oil bubble burst, Dome crashed (ironically just days after making its most significant find). Kearns secured a role as an Asian-based nautical troubleshooter for the famed outfit Noble Denton. This work produced all kinds of assignments from the more routine assessments of oil rig moves for insurers, to the interesting task of freeing a rig with its legs trapped by silt in the Irrawaddy River. Many anecdotes play out against a background of geopolitical events, Kearns recounting the time he snuck out of San Francisco with darkened ship after the US threatened to requisition his ocean-going tug as tensions flared with Iran.
There are many funny stories in the book, my favourite being the one about the South Seas missionaries who required their islander flock to collect copra to be sold ‘for the good of Our Lord’. While the missionaries were elsewhere one day, a trading vessel arrived and a figure with a white sheet over its head came ashore, loaded the copra aboard and departed. Enraged on their return, the missionaries demanded the islanders reveal where the missing copra might be found. Only to be respectfully told by their congregation that ‘God took it’.
Beyond Boundaries is written with an engaging tone and style. A minor but recurring theme is the benign influence of Kearns’ friends to his career and the importance of integrity in relationships. Kearns lost his first wife Susie far too young. Beyond Boundaries shows us only some of his personal struggles and the last pages are very moving.
Beyond Boundaries is a great read for anyone interested in the sea and ships, big or small. It is available at www.deskearns.com