I lived aboard Niki, an Adriatic style boat, in the local Fishing Boat Harbour. She was built in 1963 from jarrah planks an inch thick, by Marko and Drago Sambraillo, the last of Fremantle’s traditional boat builders in their yard on the Mews Road waterfront.
Coaxed along by an ancient Perkins diesel engine, Niki’s flared bow happily punched through heavy seas. Her large hold once contained ice and freshly caught fish. It had now been converted into cosy accommodation – warm in the winter, cool in the summer. The air-conditioning was simple – heavy hessian cray sacks laid on the deck were salted down with buckets of water hauled from the harbour and sloshed over them. The sea air evaporated the water and cooled the deck by a few degrees.
Often my only company was to swim with large curious rays. It was a tolerable lifestyle.
Niki was 38 feet long and weighed 16 tonnes. Two large galvanised tanks were fitted in the engine room, one held 1000 litres of diesel fuel to keep the Perkins happy, the other held 1000 litres of fresh water which kept me clean via a cold water shower behind the wheelhouse. When full the tanks added about two tonnes to her dead-weight, holding her low and solid in the water. With a steadying sail and the engine ticking over on a couple of thousand revs Niki would ferry me to Rottnest in about ninety minutes. I’d sometimes head off for breakfast, drop a couple of large anchors from her bow and, tempted by Parker Point’s calm blue water, stay for days on end. Often my only company was to swim with large curious rays. It was a tolerable lifestyle.
Tony Pozzebon drove around in a small Toyota ute and Suzy, his frizzy little dog of mixed DNA, shadowed him everywhere. While travelling in the ute she would perch on the shelf behind him, below the rear window of the cabin.
He was in love with the engine, the sort you’d find in one of London’s post war double decker buses.
Tony kept the old donk running obediently. While he worked Suzy would sit on the jetty for hours, staring at the hatch of the engine room down which Tony had vanished, listening to him tapping metal bits and chatting to the motor.
He charged very little to bang around in the bilge for hours on end. I suspect that was because he was in love with the engine, the sort you’d find in one of London’s post war double decker buses. He’d replace pipes, tubes, belts, fuel filters, Change the oil and check the batteries.
Over time Tony and I became good friends. He was short and his round face was topped off with a black beanie pulled down far enough to cover the tips of his ears. It helped prevent his thick lensed glasses from falling off.
Tony migrated decades before to live in Fremantle with many Italians who’d left their war scarred country. They expanded the fishing fleet which became a mainstay of the local economy. But Tony was not a fisherman. When he arrived in the port city the fishing industry was at the end of its sailing days and becoming dependant upon diesel power. Tony had been apprenticed to a diesel mechanic in Italy and he rapidly became a legend, the ‘go to’ man to fix engines in Fremantle’s fleet. While fishermen reaped enormous financial benefits from the industry Tony remained simple in his day to day taste for living. He was a master of recycling. Nothing went to waste. He didn’t socialise a great deal with the fishermen, he was from the north whereas most of the Italians who fished were from the south, around Molfetta. But Tony kept their fleet moving.
He lived in a modest brick house in South Street, not far from the Fishing Boat Harbour, close enough for him to be woken by the early chorus of the fleet’s diesels as they thumped into life before first light. They headed from the harbour in all weather to retrieve cray pots in the waters of Cockburn Sound and around Rottnest and Carnac Islands. The crayfish, or rock lobster industry as it became known, boomed in the early 1970s. Their export to Japanese and Chinese customers fostered a passion for our particular crayfish as, when cooked, they became bright red, a colour associated with good fortune. As their economies flourished the price of crayfish went from about ten bob a dozen to $40 a kilogram.
Freshly minted fortunes led to new boats being built, powered by huge marine diesel engines, 12 and 16 cylinder versions, which cost several hundreds of thousands of dollars and drove a new style of boat at 25knots. Wealthy fishing families built palatial homes leaving their small limestone and timber cottages near the waterfront to be bought at bargain prices by Fremantle’s emerging artisan community.
They also left boats like Niki to be picked up by people looking for simple life-styles, me among them.
Tony saved everything, including flagons which may have held cheap wine in their former life.
Tony was never tempted to build an Italianate mansion though I suspect it may have been well within reach. He enjoyed his simple life and went to extremes to keep it that way.
At the back of his house waa collection of sheds solidly built from salvaged tin and timber. Their roofs connected to gutters and a network of pipes drained winter rainwater into large round corrugated iron tanks. These fed Tony’s veggie garden, situated along the fence line of his property, during Western Australia’s desert dry summers.
Tony saved everything, including flagons which may have held cheap wine in their former life. They now stored his urine which he used to fertilise the garden.
One shed was home to his workshop. Wooden benches veneered with oil and grease appeared chaotic to the untrained eye but, like everything about Tony, were organised. Each bench had sections dedicated to engine parts which had been amassed and stored. The assortment ranged from crank shafts, pistons, cylinder blocks, injectors and gear boxes down to the smallest nut and bolt. They ranged through Volvo, Ford, Perkins, Detroit, Mercedes and BMW. Tony could build an engine from scratch if necessary.
His tools were neatly wrapped in old cloth, parcelled up with string and divided among screw drivers, spanners, hammers, wrenches, drill bits and mysterious tools he’d made over the years.
Nothing was wasted. Worn out overalls were patched but spotlessly clean apart from a few determined paint and grease spots. When they finally reached their use by date Tony would cut them into squares for use as cleaning rags. Often they would be lacerated into thin strips, lashed to short wooden sticks and reincarnated as dish mops. Larger strips would be bound onto broom sticks, becoming floor mops.
Saturday mornings became important, sacred, to a small group of us.
Tony lived in one of the sheds. I don’t know why as he and his wife were devoted. Perhaps he snored. That shed was in the corner of the concrete slab which formed the large back yard. There was a small curtained area where he had a bed. The main living area had an old zinc sink situated under a large window and few home made mops were jammed behind a water pipe attached to a rainwater tank. The tap was shiny brass. At washing up time Tony would use an old saucepan to scoop hot water from a cauldron which sat on a wood burning stove and pour it, steaming, into the sink, a refugee from a back yard laundry.
Against the far wall was a kitchen cabinet, probably pine, painted several times during its long life. Layers of colour could be seen through the scabby areas. An old Bakelite radio, with knobs and a large dial with meaningless numbers on it, stood among various condiments and cooking utensils. Salt, pepper, a plastic tray loaded with garlic nesting in wafer thin skins, caught the light. A couple of bits of ginger, jars of honey, jams and olives, fought for their territory as well as an assortment of old knives each honed to a razor edge. A couple of thick jarrah chopping blocks, scarred from years of use and separated for preparing meat and fish.
A clock, hanging from a thin wire wrapped around a rusted nail, teamed with a bare light bulb and an old Electrolux fridge murmuring to itself. They were the only electrical appliances in the place.
I suspected that time didn’t matter much to Tony but Saturday mornings became important, sacred, to a small group of us.
Frits Steenhauer, Jim Hall and I were always invited to join Tony for Saturday lunch. Come hell or high water, summer and winter, rain or shine we would rock up to Tony’s shed for a blokes’ morning tea and lunch.
Frits and I had a common interest in wooden boats. We each lived aboard our own, neighbours on my jetty in the fishing boat harbour. I say my jetty because it was a bonus, a part of my lease of an office building in the harbour. Frits kept Stormy Petrel, simply known as Stormy, next to Niki. She was small and neat with a comfortable deck space and a cabin big enough to sleep two. On the cabin wall a framed, though well out of date, whaling licence for Shark Bay was an insight into her history.
He went there for about three weeks a year and made no bones about the fact he shagged himself silly in the brothels
Jim had been a neighbour in Attfield Street where I lived, happily married, for a few years. He was tall, rough shaven, mussed up, disorderly. He seemed to be of Italian origin, an orphan adopted by Mr and Mrs Hall. Mrs Hall was born down the road in Fremantle Hospital in 1900, when it was little more than a wooden building, some of which still exists. She would come into our house, number 71, and tell us about the days she played with the kids who lived there in the early 1900s. Jim was devoted to her, worshipped her. He also worshipped his pigeons. He bred tumblers in cages which were sheltered from the summer sun by our large, overhanging, olive tree at the bottom of the garden. He’d release them and they would put on displays of aerobatics, flying high then collapsing in free fall, wings and feathers seeming to be out of control. Then they would recover, climb again and repeat their performances.
Jim worked in the abattoir, the slaughterhouse on the coast a few minutes south of Fremantle. Most mornings he’d leave early on his old motorbike, rocketing down the street. He spent his days killing cattle and pigs. Apart from that he was a gentle guy, an easy going neighbour who’d swap vegetables over the garden fence and now and then give us a couple of bottles of his home made beer except Jim added a little too much sugar, as he said, ‘to help it along’. One night we heard a loud explosion in our kitchen. Two bottles had detonated and shards of glass were embedded in kitchen doors and other woodwork. Other than realising we were lucky not to have been in there at the time we prudently decided to make our own beer after that.
Jim’s holidays were spent in the goldfield’s town of Kalgoorlie. He went there for about three weeks a year and made no bones about the fact he shagged himself silly in the brothels, for which the town was famous.
Friday must have been flay day
Lunches with Tony were special. Old newspapers were used to cover the table. Salt in a Saxa plastic container – the one with the red labelling, pepper, vinegar and other bits were placed in the centre. Clean white plates, a little bit chipped, were laid out as were wine glasses. Nothing flashy.
In the corner of the shed a wood burning Metters stove blasted out heat summer and winter. In the summer the shed’s door and window were left open. In the winter Suzy would lay down in front of the stove to roast herself. In the summer she hunted for a cool spot in a corner.
There were always at least two pots on the boil. A giant aluminium kettle, which must have held at least five litres, steamed away and there was a large aluminium cooking pot of simmering pig fat.
Jim arrived one Saturday morning with a huge pig skin, folded lengthwise, pink, quivering, and hefted over his shoulder. Friday must have been flay day. It wobbled as he walked and squelched as he dumped it onto a length of sacking on the shed’s concrete floor.
Tony selected one of his large knives and sliced the hide into strips, dropping several into boiling water and the rest into a large plastic laundry basket, a blubbery fly trap. This process went on for hours. The fat, skimmed from the top of the pot and stored in bowls, was cooled and jammed into the shuddering Electrolux. Pure lard. This was Jim’s contribution to our time together. Also the key to a crispy, golden, fry up.
Tony would most likely have been fishing the evening before, or early that morning when the air was cool and clean. He would catch a seasonal assortment of tailor, mackerel, herring or whiting. They were brought home, gutted on the jarrah block and washed in rainwater in the sink. There were also chicken legs. I don’t know where they came from. Maybe Jim, who kept a few chickens alongside his pigeons, supplied those as well. He’d always hand a few eggs over our garden fence and the only thing he ever asked in return was to be able to harvest black olives from our tree, for pickling. Our neighbours, mostly fishermen, cherished our olives and there were enough for everybody. We’d be given a few crayfish, still alive, by way of thanks.
Fish and chicken was our regular boys’ lunch. Tony plunged fish fillets and chicken legs into the fat, stirred them around and retrieved them a few minutes later, golden and crispy.
There were never vegetables but we made do with slabs of warm crusty bread which I suspect was made by Tony’s wife in her kitchen. Butter oozed through it and we pecked at large crumbs scattered over the old newspaper.
Tony also made red wine. It was stored in flagons which bore an uncomfortable resemblance to those in which he stored his piss. It was undrinkable but, as with all problems, Tony had a solution. He had a large china tea pot full of cold black tea to which he’d added a lot of sugar. The trick was to drink the wine mixed fifty-fifty with the cold tea. Against all odds the combination was highly quaffable – a miracle of biblical status. We drank too much, laughed a lot and told lies about ourselves. Jim didn’t much like the wine and tea combo and would bring his own beer, a couple of large bottles, which made me feel nervous, especially in the warm weather.
Tony’s coffin was the size of a small car
Tony died. He had stomach cancer. It appeared his entire diet was little more than fish and chicken crisped in boiling pig fat. We never knew how old he was but figured about 65. His funeral was one of the grandest Fremantle had seen, pretty well every fisherman put in an appearance.
Tony’s coffin was the size of a small car, ornate woodwork, varnished, fitted with gold handles. It would have weighed a great deal more than Tony and a team of pall bearers struggled along the pathways of Fremantle Cemetery to his grave where a mound of fresh earth covered by turf waited beside Tony’s resting place – a final engine room! It was a blistering afternoon and Tony was sent on his way with more ceremony than a Pharoah. He’s a Fremantle legend, always will be.
Frits died a few years later. Another legend and good friend to anybody with a wooden boat or even a passing affection for wooden boats. His memorial is the Fremantle Cruising Yacht Club which he established in Challenger Harbour. I still ride his old bike around town.
Jim died shortly after Mrs Hall, probably from a broken heart. He carried on breeding pigeons but lived alone in the Attfield Street home. He was often seen walking up and down in his garden wearing one of his mum’s dresses and chatting to himself.
Those times don’t seem to exist in Fremantle any more. Tony, Frits and Jim have gone. The abattoir has closed. So have Kalgoorlie’s brothels.
Niki is alive and well, beautifully maintained, and recently living at Claremont Yacht Club.
I guess I’m still ahead on points!
© Roger Garwood 2021
This story was originally published in an edited form in Fremantle Shipping News https://fremantleshippingnews.com.au
Roger Garwood is a freelance photojournalist whose work has appeared in National Geographic, The Sunday Times (London), Time, Newsweek, Stern and many European and Australian magazines.
With Trish Ainslie he published several books including “Off Like Flies”, “Chook on Sundays” and “’Til She Dropped Her Strides” which recorded traditional Australian lifestyles.
His photographs are in the collections of The National Library, The Australian National Gallery, The National Gallery of Victoria, The Art Gallery of Western Australia, The State Library of Western Australia, and private collections.
He is a Fellow of the Art Gallery of Western Australia Foundation.