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This (Salty) Life

by Eleanor Ahern

Dad has always loved the sea. From the days his kids could squash into the boot of the green Volkswagen, there was always some vessel in the shed.

First came a long banana board, hanging in the garage. Back in the 1960s, no other fathers had one.

Dad had trouble leaving his work behind. He’d secure the board on the new station wagon, but then would stop at the beachside telephone box to check on things. We held our breath, knowing we could soon be back in the car and deposited home without a swim.

Dad was proud to be the oldest in the surf. ‘Hang ten!’ he’d yell when we kids had a go on the enormous board, as surfers grinned around us.

When I was 10, we bought our first yacht, a red-sailed Mirror. We learned to sail on the kitchen table, using paper cut-outs of boats and The Pan Book of Sailing. Our inaugural sail on the freshwater lake at Patawalonga in Adelaide was more a lesson in ditching, but after a few weekends we progressed to Goolwa.

We picnicked on the Murray, Mum, Dad, three kids, a schnauzer and a roll of mettwurst all on board. We had man overboard sessions to learn how to get back on the boat; even the dog got chucked over.

It wasn’t long before we sailed on the open sea. Dad found a partner for work, joined the local sailing club and started racing on Saturday afternoons. Soon our little boat was too slow for him. We bought a larger Cygnet and a new car, a Toyota LandCruiser, which stood out among what Dad called the leased Mercedes in the work car park.

When we kids hit 16, we learned to drive in the LandCruiser. Dad figured if we could park it, we could drive anything.

Dad was a self-confessed Captain Bligh in his quest for the perfect set of sails. One minute it’d be ‘tighten the jib’, the next, ‘slacken off, just an inch’; this could go on for a whole leg or, worse, the whole race.

One day, a mile offshore, my older brother spat the dummy and refused to follow his father’s orders. When Dad told him, ‘Do what I say or swim home’, my brother jumped into the water and swam to shore.

Dad finished the race but was disqualified for sailing without a crew. This entered the folklore of the sailing club.

Then the rest of us took over as crew. It was nice spending time with Dad, even if he wasn’t sympathetic the day a huge shark swam under the boat. I was scared of the sea and still am, but it never occurred to me not to sail with Dad. We became state Cygnet champions.

Later Dad moved on to bigger yachts, a one-man Piccolo and then the ultimate, a 505. In his mid-50s, windsurfers came on the scene and, of course, he had to have one. I could barely pull up the sail.

In his 60s, with great sadness, Dad gave up the windsurfer. He had to content himself with body surfing at Chiton Rocks. He bought a house above the lifesaving club. Around his 80th birthday, Dad decided his 35th last swim in the great Southern Ocean was really his last. We had a few hairy moments walking to the water together as he said, ‘Remember, Nor, noresuscitation.’

He could think of no better way to die than in the sea (although he didn’t that day, thank God). I just couldn’t wait to get back to shore.

'This (salty) life' by Eleanor Ahern, The Australian, 11 April 2009.