Dover Bay

It’s nearly twelve, and we’re all climbing from the white dinghy into the aluminium boat, as Tony stands with a foot in each, hitching the mooring rope from one to the other. Now he, too, is climbing about in the dark, and someone’s waving the light from a torch over his hands as he starts the outboard. Behind us, unmoving, is the long straight beach, while below us, the boat tilts and sways on Dover Bay.

The outboard growls, a familiar sound. No-one talks over it. We move off, and the growl blends with the hiss of the boat’s wake. Soon we barely hear either.

Tim’s pointing at something; up the back, I can’t see it, and I twist around. I see it then—the path of the boat, spread back to the mooring, glowing a pale blue. At the side of the boat, phosphorescent dots splash to the surface as we churn through the top layer of black water; they feed the blue trail, which flickers like a film in a darkened room.

Facing backwards, I can see the white and red and blue lights of Dover, way off to the left, breaking the flow of the beach. Facing forwards, the brilliant glare of a fish farm on the opposite shore covers the bay with silver-green light. Above, the sky is cloudy and moonless; the stars are hidden.

The boat moves steadily. To the right, an island juts through the water’s mirrored flat surface, a sturdy, mysterious giant; it’s somehow reassuring, this landmark in the darkness. We pass by it and all light disappears, only to return briefly on the island’s other side, then vanish again as we push out into the channel. We meet the mouth of the river, with the Tasman beyond it. The bay is blocked off by a collar of land.

The darkness is nearly complete. A distant lighthouse beacon pulses regularly, and beyond it another sweeps from right to left, but their occasional faint flashes only emphasize the darkness. We thump over the open water. Cool wind splashes over us, and I push my hands further into my pockets.

It is dark: the land is a looming mass to our right; the sea is black below; the sky is a sheet of grey-black above. Their boundaries are vague. We aren’t about to run aground, but then, I can’t see past the boat’s raised nose, and neither can Tony—I ask him what would happen if we hit another boat. He tells me we probably won’t. No answer at all, but I accept it. This empty March night seems to hold little risk.

Abruptly the boat slows and moves in to the shore; Tim lights up a spotlight and wheels it to the front, where it circles nearby waves. Rippling black swells glint at us, then move to a shoreline of tumbled rocks, splashing silently, leaving white foam draining in their wake. Grey-green eucalypts crowd the slope, an audience reflected in the light from a stage. On the water, the light picks out the main player, a bobbing white plastic bottle. The boat sidles up to it.

The puttering engine patiently works to keep the boat from drifting. Tim kills the spotlight, while Stuart points the torch at the bottle. Tony hauls up the rope attached to the makeshift buoy, and a large wicker craypot pulls after it with a rush of cold water.

It’s empty. Even the bait is gone. It’s thrown to the floor of the boat, and we move on.

The bracing wind of the outward journey has passed now, and the air is slightly less cold than would keep me awake. I nod my head and slump slightly, then jerk to attention as I find nothing to slump against. The boat weaves in and out of coves and inlets, and I’m caught in a cycle of waking and sleeping. The spotlight scans around, picking out kelp, rocks, breaking waves, and other people’s buoys. Time stretches, compresses, loses meaning, and way out on the ocean the peninsula light sweeps from right to left. It is dark, I want to sleep, but the restless water moves my only bed and the cycle repeats.

Now I wake up. The buoy at the boat’s side is again one of ours. Tony brings the pot aboard, and as it breaks the surface it rattles. The torch shows moving crayfish; in its scarce light their brown shells reflect red.

Tony draws one out and holds it to the light, its legs and tail slowly weaving and bending. A battered measure shows it’s undersize, and he throws it back. A few others are over, and are consigned to a large bucket, where they clack against each other briefly before falling still.

The sound of the outboard rises in pitch. Tony lurches the boat in a tight curve to jolt us awake. Our speed increases, and the land is on the left, the wind is cold, the boat is bumping over the waves, the bay is ahead. We see the farm’s light. Then we’re past the island, and the sweep of Dover Bay surrounds us, for the first time seen entire: town lights off to the left, farm light behind, dark silver water below, faint strip of beach ahead. For a moment, the vast circle of the bay is a world with us at the centre; bounded by beaches and silhouette trees, domed by black clouds, but no less infinite for that.

A single tall and barely distinguishable gumtree marks our destination. Soon the white dinghy appears on the water before it. The crayfish shift and rattle as if aware of their fate.


It’s the next morning, and the taste of cray is a pleasant memory, the boat is on the bay, the cloudless blue sky is brilliant above us, the green water is clear below us. The sweep of the bay is visible, precisely and completely, and it’s the same bay, it has the same features.

But it’s not the same size. Its meticulously illuminated detail diminishes it. The island is no mystery now its trees and cattle and red stone hut are clearly seen. The sky is not endless now it’s empty and blue. The sound is not a wave of sound now the silence is broken by idle chatter. The bay is not a world; and infinity is somewhere else—again.

And suddenly I feel that last night, that one night out of dozens, is the one I’ll remember Dover by. Not the nights of noise, of warmth, of movement, but that one night of dark, silent simplicity; when everything was a small boat, on a mirrored bay, under a starless, moonless sky.

1990