A Short Swim at Spit Bay
By Grahame Budd
What follows is a minimally edited transcript of an anecdote and a letter to the Editor that were published in Aurora (vol 11 No 4, page 12) in June 1992 – a Special Issue in honour of Phil Law’s 80th birthday. The letter to the Editor of the Aurora also tells us much about Phil.
It was mid-morning on the last day of the ANARE 1963 Heard Island expedition and the pontoon was nearing the shore at Spit Bay. Phil Law sat in the stern and filmed while the 8-man crew hauled the pontoon along the floating rope, or grassline, that had been sent in earlier by rocket and now stretched between the shore and a buoy anchored outside the breakers.
Five of the island party were at Spit Bay (Warwick Deacock, Max Downes, Nils Lied, Jon Stephenson, and myself) and Alan Gilchrist was at Atlas Cove. We stood in front of the hut and watched the pontoon with the usual mixture of eagerness and apprehension. There wasn’t much wind, but wicked dumpers more than two metres high were crashing close inshore.
The pontoon made it safely to the beach, and we hastened to load our equipment and scientific results before the surf or the weather could deteriorate. We manhandled the pontoon back into the surf, climbed aboard, and took our places around the grassline. A moment later we were on our way, hauling hard and trying to keep her head to the surf.
We were going well, through manageable waves, when a huge dumper reared up close ahead. At the same time a momentary slack in the grassline let the pontoon swing broadside to the approaching wave. “Pull like buggery!” shouted Phil. Pull we did â€“ but we were still at a bad angle when the wave broke over us.
The pontoon reared on its side and I thought we’d roll. But a moment later it was upright again, wallowing in the water with the foam pouring off and everyone soaked and dazed and Phil struggling in the sea a few metres away. Supported by his life jacket and swimming strongly, he soon regained the pontoon and was hauled aboard. He lay there gasping, but still found the strength to glance seaward and again shout “Pull like buggery!” We were still at the wrong angle and more big waves were coming.
At last we were safely beyond the breakers. The pontoon surged on its tow-rope, the motor boat puttered ahead, Nella Dan grew larger every minute. We relaxed and enjoyed the view. Only then did I notice that in the haste of our departure none of the island party had remembered to put on life jackets.
A Letter to the Editor of Aurora from Grahame Budd
I enclose an anecdote about Phil Law’s swimming prowess entitled ‘A short swim at Spit Bay’, as a contribution to your special P.G.L. celebration issue.
Phil always said that the landing and disembarkation operations at Heard and Macquarie were the most difficult and dangerous parts of his relief voyages. Certainly I think they called for some of Philâ€™s most admirable and necessary (in those circumstances) qualities.
In my Heard report of 1963 (ANARE Report No. 74, 1964) I tried to sum them up by writing that his ‘patience, experience, and personal leadership were in large measure responsible for our safe landings at the right places on Heard Island’, and every word of that was advisedly chosen.
When you recall the extraordinary run-around we had from weather and surf in making our various landings on the island that year and the patience and time it took to cope with it, you wonder how many voyage leaders (looking over their shoulders at what the accountants might say) would have resisted the temptation to dump us at the most convenient place for themselves and leave us to do the best we could.
I think Phil showed an exemplary mixture of caution and patience in waiting for acceptable (never perfect) conditions, and then of resolution and personal example once the decision had been made and swift firm action was required. He was the voyage leader we needed for the 1963 trip, and also the Director ANARE needed in those early years.