OYSTERS IN THE BILGE – Part 1

(Ray Barrett, Dunwich)

It is the morning of January 16, 1991, and the United Nations’ ultimatum for Iraq to leave Kuwait has just expired.  Yet the threat of imminent war seems a long way from the peace of Dunwich and the glassy waters of Moreton Bay.  A long way, too, from the film and TV industries’ production centres for such a famous actor as Ray Barrett, but a refuge none the less from the pressure of his work. From the cool comfort of his waterside home at Dunwich, Ray reminisces about his early sailing days, “It was always my desire, like so many young fellows who came from sailing families, to sail on the bay; and building my own boat was the only way I could afford to do just this.”

In his early teens, Ray took his father to see a twelve foot skiff which was for sale for £14. His father could see that it was rotten, and so refused to buy the boat for his son.  However, he did purchase timber so that Ray could build his own boat, and over the next few years, working in his parents’ Kedron backyard, he completed five craft of ever increasing dimensions.

During World War II at the age of 16 he began working as a radio announcer at station 4BH.  On a top bracket weekly wage of £8, Ray conducted the breakfast programme, which required him to catch the 5.30 am tram so that he could open up the station at 6.  Later when 4KQ commenced transmission, Ray transferred there and received a £2 a week increase in his wages.  As well as his radio work, Ray was acting with the ABC and little theatre groups. It was at this time, too, that Ray completed building the last and largest of his boats – a 24 foot sailer which he named “Countess”.  Dunwich became one of his favourite destinations.

Always ready with a humorous story, even against himself, Ray likes to relate his navigational skills: “The entrance to the One Mile Basin at Dunwich is narrow and flanked by two long sandbanks.  I’d leave the retractable keel three quarters down and I’d keep the craft on a tack until I felt the keel hit one of the sandbanks.  Then I’d tack the other way until it hit the other bank, and so on.”

Early days at the One Mile Harbour (photo courtesy Ron Peterson)

Another of Ray’s navigation stories involves Norman Wright Senior: “Old Norm would supplement his income by taking fishing parties outside, and would go in all weathers and despite the pleas of any seasick passengers.  Once, while being challenged about his navigational skills by a “greenie” he was just professing his knowledge of the sandbanks at the mouth of the Brisbane River, when the rolling craft bounced onto a bank. Unperturbed, he took another swig of rum and ordered the pick to be thrown over!”

At Dunwich, Ray became very friendly with Bonty Dickson, Dunwich’s only shopkeeper at the time.  He often came out to the boat for a drink and sing song.  At the sound of his wife’s voice hollering across the water from his shop, Bonty would feign deafness and disappear below decks with the bottle of rum.

Another of Ray’s close friends at Dunwich was Jack Borey, one of a large family of Portuguese and Aboriginal parentage.  At that time the Aborigines used to live in a community at the One Mile in houses of driftwood and corrugated iron.  Jack used to run some oyster banks then and often, when he went walkabout looking for posts to use as stakes for his oysters, Ray would accompany him, a welcome escape from the hair-raising crew he had brought from Brisbane. Jack could easily recognise Ray’s boat as it came over beside Peel Island, and by the time it had dropped anchor beside Bonty Dickson’s oyster banks, Jack would come out in his little tarred wooden flattie which he used on his oyster banks and ask in his pronounced stutter “Like w-where do you want em, Ray?” and he’d pour a kerosene tin full of oysters into Ray’s dinghy and then come aboard. There were always dozens of oysters in Ray’s dinghy while he was over at Dunwich during the war. “My daily routine was to dive over the side with an oyster knife and knock off a few dozen oysters. We had them with a beer for breakfast.”

Waiting for water taxi at One Mile in 2020

Extract from Moreton Bay People – The Complete Collection’.

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