Last man standing

IN 1952, 15 young Portuguese men set off in a converted sardine boat to sail from South Africa to Fremantle.

It was a hell of a voyage.

Now there’s just one voice left to tell that rollicking tale; death and dementia have carried away the last of Manuel Correia’s former shipmates and the Beaconsfield resident is about to hit his 95th birthday.

It was a significant voyage in Fremantle’s history as the 15 men, who all hailed from the island of Madeira, were the first of what has become a thriving Portuguese community.

As Mr Correia recalls, they almost didn’t make it.

Their boat North Cape turned out to be horrendously unreliable, with the engine breaking down constantly during the voyage.

One of the first breakdowns was in treacherous waters off South Africa – the same spot that almost bought famous Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama to grief 500 years earlier.

Mr Correia says huge waves splashed over the sides of the stricken vessel and it started to sink, but only the hand pump on deck was working and it was impossible to stand there without being washed overboard.

• Manuel Correia recalls a hellish journey that took him from Portugal to Fremantle. Photo by Steve Grant

To survive, the passengers and crew each took turns manning the pump while a shipmate held tight to a rope tied around their waste.

Once they went overboard, they’d be hauled back in and the rope would be handed over to whoever was next in line.

“That was very bad,” Mr Correia says of the experience.

The North Cape pulled into Durban for repairs, but broke down another dozen times on the way across the Indian Ocean; on one occasion the boat drifted 300 kilometres in the wrong direction.

Short of food and water, when they finally sighted the Rottnest Island lighthouse, Mr Correia says the captain of the North Cape unusually joined the passengers around the galley table to say a prayer for their safe arrival.

Mr Correia says despite the voyage, he’s never regretted the decision to strike out for Fremantle.

A fisherman back in Madelina da Mar where he grew up, he quickly scored work on a fishing boat in Fremantle but wasn’t being paid so he quit and found himself sleeping on the streets.

The captain took pity on him and put him up at the Esplanade Hotel, but soon after he got work on the construction of the BP refinery in Kwinana. Construction wasn’t his cup of tea, but once the refinery was completed, he landed a job on the tugboats and spent the rest of the career there.

The job gave him the money to bring his wife and child across to Australia, and over the years the family grew to 11 children.

“I always said I shouldn’t pay taxes in this country because I populated it,” Mr Correia laughs.

Early next month Mr Correia will be returning to the Esplanade Hotel, but this time it will be with 50 of his close family (there’s just too many for extended cousins and the like) to celebrate his 95th birthday.

by STEVE GRANT

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