There are some days down by the Bay when the world seems lost in watercolour. The days don’t have clear edges, they don’t seem to begin nor do they have distinct intervals. It is only at sunset that a sense of time can be perceived as the late summer sun breaks through the hovering heat haze. On these days, the humidity creates mesmerising atmospheric effects, with obscured horizons and Turneresque painterly seas.
On a day like this, ships, or sometimes a mirage of a ship, appear on the lost horizon, giving rise to thoughts about Fata Morgana.² Shapes emerge from nowhere, lost in a soupy mist, magically and mysteriously.
We cart our chairs and a bottle of wine down to the beach and set up in front of an old boatshed, spending a few hours meditating on the passing parade of ships. Some are famous cruise ships, others are time-tabled ferries to Tasmania, while others seem malevolent. Once we saw a black piratical ship on the bay which we labelled the ‘Ship of the Dead’. We are waiting for it’s return, perhaps to pick us up on the way through.
I once wrote a children’s story about some little kayaks being stuck in the shipping lane in the black of night. The terrified kayaks escaped by riding the ship’s wake back to shore. The story had lots of sound effects, the blasting horn from the ship’s warning system- three honks and you’re out- and the sshhwash sshhwash of the ship’s wake. I could rely on this story to put little ones to sleep when camping by the sea. It’s a scary story with a happy ending as the kayaks surf their way back into their unlocked boatshed. Now that the children are older, they wait for that blasting horn and sense the danger for some lone yacht or fishing boat caught in the shipping lane.
My brother, an EPA man who sometimes works on the bay, informed me of the pilot system used to aid boats in and out of the shallow waters of Port Phillip Bay. The pilot boards each ship, either at the port of Melbourne or at sea near Queenscliff. Their entry and exit from the ship makes for terrifying reading,
“the pilot boards directly from the launch with the ship steaming at about 7 knots. The high degree of seamanship and skill shown by the launch coxswains during this procedure is relied on by the pilot and the deckhand, who assists the pilot to board from the exposed foredeck of the launch. In heavy weather this can be a hazardous operation but with experience the pilot knows when to leave the pitching deck of the launch and to grab and scramble up the rope ladder to the security of the ship’s deck.”¹
² A Fata Morgana is an unusual and complex form of superior mirage that is seen in a narrow band right above the horizon. It is the Italian name for the Arthurian sorceress Morgan Le Fey, from a belief that these mirages, often seen in the Strait of Messina, were fairy castles in the air or false land created by her witchcraft to lure sailors to their deaths. Although the term Fata Morgana is sometimes applied to other, more common kinds of mirages, the true Fata Morgana is not the same as an ordinary superior mirage, nor is it the same as an inferior image.
Fata Morgana mirages significantly distort the object or objects on which they are based, often such that the object is completely unrecognisable. A Fata Morgana can be seen on land or at sea, in polar regions or in deserts. This kind of mirage can involve almost any kind of distant object, including boats, islands and the coastline.