In Search of Captain Roy Downie
I was in Tasmania a few weeks ago, around the end of June 2017
As I had just turned 60, I was feeling a bit sentimental with regards to my own mortality so I decided to see, as I had been promising myself for years, the place where my father had been lost at sea, 55 years earlier.
Captain Roy Downie was a Master Mariner of the old-school variety. After a significant career with the CSIRO Fisheries he built his own 50-foot fishing boat, the “Gondwana” in the yard of our home at Triabunna in Southern Tasmania. He was fishing for crayfish and was expected home early September 1962 after leaving Dover Tasmania on the 23rd of August. His own story is one of a fisheries pioneer and will be told in greater detail, later.
It had always been suggested he was lost near an Island off the South coast of Tasmania called Maatsuyker Island, or Dewitt which is also in the same location. I had always thought Maatsuyker was halfway between Tasmania and Antarctica, but I had, through a bit of lazy Google Earth gazing, discovered that the rocky outcrop was indeed only a few kilometres off the coast… never the less, it is completely unreachable by road and the couple of people that monitor the remote weather station, are serviced only by helicopter. I searched for a boat charter that went down that way but was unsuccessful so on a whim, I flew down to Hobart and proceeded to have a look at the possibilities.
I went down to the fabulous Constitution Dock and walked into the offices of tour operator Rob Pennicott who runs “Wilderness Tours” with a fleet of 13 high speed power boats. I spoke to the receptionist about a possible tour and my motivation for doing so and before too long Rob came out of his office and met with me. He explained there wasn’t an operator in Hobart that runs to Maatsuyker, because apart from the distance, it’s a dangerous place. Ferocious weather, rain and huge seas made it an uncomfortable destination, for most of the year. However, he had overheard the story of the loss of my dad and as a man of the sea himself, we sat down and planned a one off run to Maatsuyker Island.
With his most experienced skipper Mick Suter, use of the boat, fuel and insurance costs, he offered to do it for $2,500. Not a small price. He even contacted two helicopter tour operators and they each quoted way over that mark for a flight down that way. So, I gave it few hours thought, called my old mate Pauly for a his usually sage advice and went back and laid down the plastic. We were scheduled to leave the next morning at 7am. Rob also added the services of deck hand and tour guide Jamie King and in the early light of a crisp Hobart morning, we headed off.
First stop was Kettering, to add fuel. At Kettering, we also added another crew member, Kate Wilson. Her usual job with Pennicott tours is take groups of tourists to Bruny Island. She moors in a safe and beautiful bay, dives for lobster, oysters and scallops, prepares it all on deck and serves it up to the tourists on board with Champagne and other Tasmanian goodies. She does this daily, a handy person to have in a wilderness. The boat hammered down past Bruny Island, around the Southern tip and on to Maatsuyker for about the next three hours.
On the way down, dolphins joined us by leaping out of the water at the bow of the boat, we saw solitary birds that were hunting for a seafood breakfast and several other working fishing boats. The sea was for the most part calm but became rougher as we approached the Southern tip of Tasmania. The boat was a superb Naiad, custom built for Pennicott tours. It’s a comfortable and fast power boat well suited this kind of work. Eventually the Island came out of the horizon and we could pick out other features as well such as The Needles, Flat Witch, De Witt Island and Maatsuyker itself.
Mick, the skipper explained that this group of islands is in the current that is generated by the continental shelf, which is right off the coast in that area. He showed me a topographical map of the sea bed, courtesy of the state-of-the art navigation panel on the boat. Flotsam and Jetsam often gets caught in this formation and it was quite possible that my father was lost further out to sea and the ropes and buoys that were recovered during the initial search were simply caught in these rocky outcrops. The others had been here before at one time or another. Mick the skipper had been here many time as a commercial fisherman and Kate had hiked through the rugged wilderness on the mainland but they all jumped at the chance to be a part of this trip.
The Islands are beautiful, rugged, foreboding and dangerous to the uninitiated. The forecast had indicated unusually good weather and we weren’t disappointed. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, we could gently motor around the whole island, getting close enough to easily pick out seal colonies and old mooring points, long unused. We came slowly around to the South West side of the island and drifted gently in the relatively calm water. I was in awe of the solitude of the place, the beauty of the vegetation and the ruggedness of it all. I thought of the possibility of my father colliding with this island or the other rocks and I was lost in contemplation at the solitude of the place.
The skipper Mick, then offered a most memorable gesture. He said that his wife had suggested we couldn’t do this trip without a symbol of the solemnity of the moment. Mrs. Suter had the evening before, made a wreath from Tasmanian ferns and other native flora. A simple thing and eminently suitable for the moment. The others watched on as I muttered a few words then dropped the beautiful wreath into the water off Maatsuyker Island.
I now believed that the proximity of the islands to the mainland offered up a myriad of possibilities for the loss of my father’s boat. No one will ever know for sure what happened in 1962 but for a man of the sea that my father was, this place, with its ferocious location in the sea and its proximity to our fabulous Tasmania, I think is a fitting and beautiful place to spend eternity.
We eventually powered up the boat and headed to the mainland to a sheltered cove and a bite of lunch. On the way over, the deck hand Jamie King offered me another tradition. He handed me a shot glass of aged Sullivan’s Cove, a famous Tasmanian Scotch whiskey and suggested that a moment like that, needed a stiff drink to follow and I did, relishing the taste and savouring the honour of being in the company of such fine people in such a mysterious place. The trip back to Hobart was no less interesting as we could be closer to the rugged cliffs of the mainland. Jamie King and Kate Wilson gave me detailed information about the geography of the jagged coast interspersed with anecdotes of their own experiences on the water and life in Tasmania in general.
I look forward to my next return to Tasmania. I have a more contented feeling now, a sentimental feeling of connection to the Maatsuyker Island and a memory that will never leave me.