When I first left Australia, travelling to England, I sailed from Fremantle aboard the Italian immigrant ship Roma which was bound for Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Singapore, Bombay and ultimately to its home port of Genoa.
On arrival at Melbourne I travelled by train to Brisbane to spend a few days with my friend Gerry who was studying veterinary science at the University of Queensland. I stayed with him at a university hostel and when it was time to leave I invited Gerry and his friend Don to have lunch with me aboard the Roma. We arrived at the port of Brisbane, found the correct birth, but it was empty. The Roma had sailed an hour before we got there!
Panic stricken we raced to the shipping office only to have the shipping agents advise us the only option was to charter a private aeroplane and fly to Cape York and reboard when the Barrier Reef pilot left the ship.
This would cost a huge amount of money. When they realised it was not an option they had a more risky suggestion; that we drive the 90 kilometres to Caloundra and hire a fishing boat there to take us to meet the ship when it slowed down to let off the Brisbane River pilot. The shipping agents said they would try to organise a fishing boat for us and radio the ship’s captain of our intentions.
We raced back to the university to collect Don’s car, a 1938 ex-army Chevrolet, still liveried in its original drab green and, though in somewhat shabby condition, felt to be more reliable than Gerry’s car.
The atmosphere was tense as we battled the slow moving Saturday afternoon football traffic, but having cleared the city we began to make better time. As we relaxed a little we decided to stop and buy fruit from a roadside vendor — we had after all missed lunch aboard the Roma. Then our car refused to start.
From the faint ticking sound and the heat coming from beneath the bonnet we could tell the engine was overheated. For fifteen minutes we waited, anxiously eating our fruit, while we waited for the engine to cool. Then it fired up and the race was on again.
When we reached Caloundra and found the fishing wharf it was a huge relief to a see a powerful looking launch waiting, with its twin diesel engines ticking over, ready for a fast get away. We leapt aboard and off it ploughed down the Brisbane River.
My jubilation was short lived when I saw the huge swells at the estuary as the fast running river collided with the incoming ocean tide. The launch surged forward and effortlessly climbed the swell and surfed down the other side and I felt an adrenaline rush as we made for the open sea. We could see the Roma five kilometres in the distance. At the rate it was steaming it was clear we had missed the pilot exchange. Not giving up the skipper of the launch opened the
throttles. Eventually the Roma sighted us and slowed.
As we pulled alongside, passengers leaned over the ship’s railings, watching. A rope ladder was thrown over the side and I climbed aboard. I waved a final farewell to Don and Gerry whom I would not see for another seven years.
The day after this escapade the ship’s Captain invited me for a drink in his stateroom. Over the obligatory rum on ice he told me that in all his years at sea this was the only time he had been involved in such an escapade.
Smiling I thanked him for his part in what I now see as one of my adventures of a lifetime.