by Meridith McKinnon
The Apollo Bay Writers Festival recently presented me an opportunity to enter my short story S.S.Casino in the open category of the writer’s competition. It was short listed in the final twenty.
This story is about my Grandfather saving two men’s lives from a raging sea as their ship, the S.S. Casino, sank off the shores of Apollo Bay in 1932. It’s a story about an ordinary man and his family who did not hesitate to do the extraordinary on this day. It’s a story of amazing courage in an event of tragedy that I believe equates easily to acts of courage today in events of trauma and tragedy that are so very different to 1932. A testimony to mankind and modern bravery.
I hope you enjoy it.
The early morning wind greeted Frank as he struggled to secure his coat. Working dogs didn’t move from the warmth of their hessian floor, as they heard the back door slam shut. Grace had placed his boots by the wood stove overnight and his feet felt the coziness that lasted what seemed like only seconds.
Down to the outhouse, he didn’t sit long for the wind blew fiercely through the gaps, and he fumbled pulling up his long johns and cursed his braces caught on the edge of the seat. Frank noted the crashing of the waves, knowing the south easterly had been blowing since yesterday, he sensed the tide was well in.
Back along the footpath he headed for the milking shed, steadying himself at the gate to spot her huddled under the row of Cyprus.
Damn, he cursed, she’s all the way there. She looked at him coming and as though in defiance she turned and began to walk further along the trees. His steps quickened as she moved even more.
‘Here!’ he said, out loud this time. A couple of dogs moved now and Frank turned to one and called. Rain sleeted as he reached the first kennel and unchained the black and white kelpie. The dog rounded his feet, mustering a burst of energy as Frank pointed and called, ‘Head ‘er in!’
Off he went against all the elements, smooth and straight in the direction of the cow.
Frank watched, summoned and called back the dog as she didn’t take much to turn the cow around and walk her to a trot to the shed.
‘Tha’s a girl! Off you go, com’on, ther’s a way, up you go!’
The dog backed off and knowing his job was done stood back and waited his next instruction. When it didn’t come he sat, waiting. Frank led the cow into the bale and reached for the bucket as milk began to squirt from her udder even before he had the chance to start squeezing. Her bag swung heavy between her legs and it didn’t take long before he had a daily quota.
When Frank returned to the house, Grace was up and stoking the fire. Frances, the oldest of their three girls was also dressed and setting the table for breakfast. The youngest, Joyce, was still in her cot that they had dragged out to the kitchen so she had the warmth to ease her cough. Norma remained tucked in bed asleep. Frank sat the bucket of milk on the bench and passed his socks to Frances to put near the fire. Already his boots had leaked enough to dampen his socks.
‘It’s blown a south easterly all night.’ said Grace.
She poured hot water from the kettle into the tea pot. Worn pot holders protected her hands as she held the pot to the table. Frank had sat himself at the end, in his chair, and waited.
‘Bessie didn’t want to be milked – even though she’d a full bag on ‘er - that wind being so bitter. The sea’ll be high too.’
Frances had her father’s porridge made and placed in front of him and Grace poured the tea. They all sat and ate while Joyce stirred and Norma slept on, the sound of sea and wind lulling perpetual sleep.
Frank’s day had only begun and as the clock chimed 8am he already had his dry socks back on, boots snug and again buttoning his jacket high to the neck as he fought the now driving rain and made it to the stable. The horses looked for him, sensing him near, tossed their heads back and flurried on their feet in dance to the outside turmoil. Other than checking their feed he paid small attention to this lot. They had shelter and were warm, not like the horses is the front paddock. He reached for the bridle and waited for a break, which didn’t seem to come, and went in search of Lady in the front paddock. He saw her and made the horse noise that normally would be clearly heard, but still it was a habit to use it.
‘Lady, here girl!’ he called her. She pricked her ears, her tail up and she sprinted towards him. The other horses saw her gallop across the bank and pricked their ears and tail also, looking in the direction of Frank. Such was the affection for his horses they knew their trusted master would protect them.
As they approached each other, the rain eased and Frank glanced out to the ocean; his property viewed over Bass Straight and all its fury. The grey sky met the foaming sea but there was something that stopped him still. He squinted into the wind and turned slightly from the direction of Lady to what he thought was a ship close to the shore. He heard the SOS whistle and could further make out the ship was listing to one side. The S.S. Casino was sinking!
With his bridle in one hand he caught Lady instinctively as she came to him. Slinging the bridle in place he threw his body over her and rode her across to the other horses. Beckoning them to follow he continued down the hillside to the road and onto the beach as the first rocket was fired. The rocket crew set up for another line and fired but both had fallen short of the ship. Realizing that the lines weren’t going to reach the ship Frank could see the bodies in the water and several clinging to the hull as the ship dangerously buffeted waves. His horses were no strangers to the water and they knew what to do. Still on Lady he turned her and in his loud commanding voice aimed her and drover her into the ocean. Fighting the fierce south easterly, he swam her in the crashing waves, taking in water himself and only hanging on by the skin of his teeth.
Clinging to her mane and struggling to see, he managed to pull two men on with him and turn Lady back to the beach. As her feet touched the ocean floor she pushed forward, nostrils flared and all the while listening for her master. Frank tipped the men off into the arms of other rescuers and turned again to face the sea. Lady flinched, not sure she could go again but Frank edged her, patted her calm and once more commanded her. Back they went into the raging surf but this time the power of the ocean was too much. Frank could feel Lady’s strength being taken and water filling her – he knew they had to turn back. By this time he couldn’t see anyone on the hull – the storm had been merciless to the captain and his crew. Frank lost his grip and only just managed to climb back on as Lady made it back in. They both staggered and spluttered back on the beach, amoung other rescuers who too had been forced back by the waves.
Some 130 metres from the Apollo Bay shore, the S.S. Casino was now submerged. Bodies had washed ashore or out to sea. On this day, Sunday, July 10, 1932, on its 50th anniversary, the S.S Casino went down. On this day ordinary brave men and women risked their own lives in this treacherous event to save lives.
Frank Martin gathered his horses and returned home. A quiet, unassuming man, he returned to his family, his cows, dogs and horses. His relentless respect for the ocean and his animals had paid off this day. He was a hero not only to the people he saved but to the horses he had so much faith in.