Locals and tourists take to the water to escape the flames. Grant Shorland was one of them. When the shit hit the fan during the holiday season of 2019–20, it wasn’t just the CFA in fire trucks that saved the day. There were blokes in boats, in all shapes and sizes, to help save the day, the boats as well. On December 30, the border fire front was heading north, 60km wide with Mallacoota in its path. This was the big one locals had feared for decades. With just one road in and out, Coota was in lockdown. There were two options. Wait in the lake with 4000 shit-scared people and dozens of bobbing gas cylinders — not really my cup of tea — or take to the lake in a boat. No-brainer.
Down at the jetty, the boats were ready to go. One crewman was wetting everything down and putting out nearby embers. As the fire rolled down Karbeethong Hill toward our house, we left. That was the promise I’d made to the missus. Down on the shoreline, it was like a scene out of Waterworld. We had the Cootacraft Gun Shot work vessel, the Mallacoota BBQ boat, and the Grady-White 258 Journey for sleeping quarters. Skippers were called upon and naturally, Matt Cassar stepped up to the plate. On board we stowed provisions, two slabs per boat, precious personal belongings, generators, fridges, New Year’s Eve disco deck and speakers. I also packed the game rods and as much tackle as I could fit in. Did I mention we had plenty of beer?
49 DEGREES AND 80KM/H WINDS
The smoke filled our lungs, as the wind picked up. We could hear the fire roaring over the noise of the motors and visibility was down to a couple of metres, so we had to use the chartplotter. We headed toward Goodwin Sands, where others sought refuge, and rafted up. Then the fire jumped the Narrows where the boats had previously been and we could see the flames towering above our neighbour’s homes. For a while, we thought we might be the only ones left living. The Bureau of Meteorology weather gauge recorded recorded temperatures up to 49 degrees and wind gusts up to 80km/h. We nearly lost the BBQ boat when wind gusts pulled the anchor line tight and forced the nose under. The little Honda couldn’t drive up on it, but luckily I had a knife and managed to cut us free (good skipper’s tip, that one). All around us, boats poked their way through the darkness, searching for sanctuary from the heat and smoke. Some just drifted aimlessly on the lake with no motors. When the main front had passed, I went to check on our home. It was still standing, so I got on the hoses and sprinklers to put out small spot fires and wet things down. I have to thank the neighbours because I went though 20,000L of water.
More than 100 homes were destroyed in Mallacoota. The town was isolated for days and could only be serviced by sea. The Navy rocked up and tried to quarantine the ramp, but the locals would have none of it. They were bringing in supplies and ferrying people back to Eden, which had also come under threat. Tony Kemna came to the rescue in his 30ft Bass Strait Far Out II. He did an amazing job in shitty weather, bringing in generators and other supplies. My boats suffered a few battle scars, mainly dings from other vessels. There are a few scorch marks and the smoke smell in the cabin of the 258 Journey won’t go away. We had to leave them in the water for a couple of weeks and they’re still stained below the waterline. Ash in the lake also caused overheating problems in some motors. They’ll be fixed up, the gelcoat will be rubbed back and Mallacoota will pick itself up off the blackened floor. Thank fuck for those boats.
FROM HOLIDAY TO HELL
Humminbird electronic guru Shaun Clancy was holidaying in Mallacoota when the fire swept through.
He knew he had to take things into his own hands, so loaded his wife, Jacqueline, three-year old Louie and one-year-old Ayden into his Haines Hunter Seawasp with a 40HP Mercury tiller. “For a 13ft boat, the Wasp is unbelievable,” Shaun says. “I can take it offshore when the entrance is open. We sought refuge at Fairhaven Farm and watched the town glowing red at midnight.
If the fire attacked us, we planned to put PFDs on, get under the jetty and turn the sprinklers on.” Shaun returned to Mallacoota on New Year’s Day, waiting until January 5 before they could get a flight out to Sale RAAF Base. He reckons it was the scariest experience of his life, but would have been a lot scarier without being able to escape the madness in his trusty Seawasp.