STAR SHIP

A re­stored pearl lug­ger is set to ap­pear with Ni­cole Kid­man and Hugh Jack­man. June Alexan­der re­ports from Dar­win

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Holidays Afloat -

FROM col­lect­ing trochus shells in the Ti­mor Sea to sun­set cruises on Dar­win Har­bour with an aphro­disiac pearl meat ap­pe­tiser, the old lug­ger An­niki has seen it all. Now it is set for star­dom as a mis­sion boat in the movie Aus­tralia, tipped to make waves as Aus­tralia’s an­swer to Gone with the Wind.

An­niki’s story is al­most as colour­ful as that of the movie’s lead char­ac­ters, played by Ni­cole Kid­man and Hugh Jack­man. Owner-op­er­a­tor Mal Soutar found the lug­ger look­ing a lit­tle for­lorn in 2000 when bring­ing his sail­ing ketch, Star Chaser, back to Dar­win from Syd­ney. Its pearling days over, An­niki was ly­ing on a moor­ing off Thurs­day Is­land and Soutar re­mem­bers think­ing: ‘‘ It didn’t look too bad on the out­side.’’

Two years later he bought the lug­ger and set it on a fresh course in life, cruis­ing on Dar­win Har­bour. First, he tried to ac­quire An­niki’s sis­ter boat, the An­to­nia, but it had been given to James Cook Mar­itime Mu­seum in Townsville, so he ne­go­ti­ated for An­niki. He be­came its third owner, buy­ing it from Phyl­lis Ah Loy and her son Peter, who had used the lug­ger to catch cray­fish and col­lect shells for pearl farms in Queens­land.

Harold Col­lis had built An­niki in Cairns in 1956 for a Greek pearling mas­ter, Jack Zafer. It joined Zafer’s small fleet of pearl lug­gers; Phyl­lis Ah Loy’s fam­ily had run sev­eral of them, in­clud­ing the An­niki and An­to­nia.

The lug­ger has been very much a work­horse of the sea, but it al­ready has tasted movie star­dom. ‘‘ Back in the 1960s it fea­tured in a doc­u­men­tary, Pearlers of the Coral Sea, with An­to­nia,’’ Soutar tells me. ‘‘ No other boat had col­lected so much shell in its time.’’

An­niki’s pearling days ended with the ar­rival of new boats in 1999, but it was not idle for long. In 2000 it car­ried the Olympic flame from Horn Is­land across to Thurs­day Is­land. In 2002, Soutar set about the re­build.

He put the 32-tonne lug­ger on the deck of a ship at Thurs­day Is­land and took it to Cairns. ‘‘ Her hull is all spot­ted gum. The decks are Aus­tralian beech;

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the masts, im­ported Ore­gon.’’ If not for a ship­wreck though, An­niki would not be here at all. ‘‘ When An­to­nia was be­ing built, the ship bring­ing the mo­tor from Eng­land was wrecked,’’ Soutar says. ‘‘ An­other mo­tor was ar­ranged, but some time later a crate turned up, sal­vaged from a ship­wreck and con­tain­ing the orig­i­nal mo­tor, cov­ered in sand. Rather than waste the mo­tor, Zafer de­cided to build an­other boat, im­prov­ing the de­sign. He named it An­niki af­ter his two chil­dren, Anne and Ni­cholas.’’

An­niki spent its first six months col­lect­ing trochus shells for the but­ton in­dus­try, which was also the main use of pearl shells in those days. ‘‘ Ev­ery now and then you found a pearl, which was a bonus,’’ Soutar says. ‘‘ In the late 1960s, plas­tics took over from the shells in but­ton-mak­ing and at the same time the cul­tured pearl in­dus­try took off.’’

Its makeover com­plete by July 2003, An­niki be­gan pro­vid­ing sun­set cruises on Dar­win Har­bour. Be­sides beau­ti­ful sun­sets, pas­sen­gers are treated to pearl shell meat, pre­pared sim­ply with lime juice, co­rian­der, white wine vine­gar and a lit­tle ginger, and served on the shell. Now mostly sold in Asia as a del­i­cacy, the meat re­tails at about $150 a kilo and is a re­puted aphro­disiac.

Mean­while, Soutar has been busy groom­ing An­niki for its role in Aus­tralia, chang­ing the ropes back to the orig­i­nal and en­sur­ing all mod­ern fit­tings are re­moved, ‘‘ so it looks like a 1942 boat’’. Soutar says he may ap­pear in the movie as an ex­tra.

As for An­niki, movie roles aside, its fu­ture seems se­cure.

Last year the lug­ger was listed on the Aus­tralian Na­tional Mar­itime Mu­seum’s his­toric mar­itime reg­is­ter. Aus­tralian Har­bour Cruises op­er­ates on Dar­win Har­bour, in­clud­ing sun­set cruises on the An­niki from April to the end of Novem­ber. More: www.aus­tralian­har­bour­cruises.com.au.

Pic­tures: June Alexan­der

New life: For­merly a work­horse in the pearling in­dus­try, the An­niki, above and right, is now used for sun­set cruises on Dar­win Har­bour

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