Off Season Odyssey – Part 39: Cargo Barges Passing

Off Season Odyssey Pt.39.


Cargo Barges Passing.


Brilliant, black storms swallow Cairns as we leave. The sort that stay, that hurt and break things. The cargo barge pushes through islands and weather, everything warm shifting greys, while behind us there’s nothing but dark, smudging over where there was once a city.

It takes our crew one night to wipe out all the bourbon on board. By morning, other than the occasional sand island, there’s nothing but blue water. We resort to UDLs like disgruntled teenagers.


The land re-appears when it gets dark again. We wind into and out of fog, along brilliant, moonlit, palm-covered coastlines that never, ever end. It’s so humid I step out from cover, and talk to the others while standing in the rain.

“Typical Tassie boy,” they say.

The Pommie looks at me like I must be mad. He’s a champion, but 27 years young. Very British. He thinks being alcoholic and taking pills is as outrageous as it gets. It’s not that he uses so many drugs, it’s that he feels the need to constantly tell us.

“Become a junkie or shut up,” I say, while admiring the cook’s assistant behind him.

She’s all dumpy curves and lips and tattoos that blend into the rust and scenery. I watch her smoke on deck time and again. She wears the seat, arms dangling behind it, in ways that are simple, frank and make me cross-eyed.

The boys talk tree lopping. I can’t be bothered.


All night, the cook’s assistant comes and goes, lounging in the invincibility of her youth without realising.

Some time near shut-eye, she catches me looking at her.

“You work with those boys long?” she asks.

“No, I’m just trying to get home,” I say to her.

She’s from Cairns and likes its nightlife. Her boyfriend works at sea, too. They’d only see each other ten times a year. It must be frustrating. Lonely.

It takes forever for the others to go to sleep, but they do, in the telly room, because it has air-conditioning. The captain’s in the bridge. The crew in the bowls, working or snoozing. Everything’s Heaven and empty.

Up on deck the air shifts without moving. Becomes hotter, in the dark, in the wet season. We’ve crossed some invisible line that I’m in love with.

It says:

   Who are you?

It says:

   At last, you’re lost.

It tells me:

You know nothing.

Which is so needed. I’m sick of the coast, and modern Australia and all its rules and comfort.

Topless, still drinking, I move around just to feel the heat surround me. Roll on my skin. To be in the tropics, the real tropics, while the barge pushes over shark-infested waters.

I’m stupidly restless, so shadowbox, even though everything’s shadows.


Up on the top deck, when the Captain steps out for a smoke I talk to him.

“Where are you from, Cobber?” I ask, to figure out if he’s footy or rugby, but he’s obviously neither. He is a seaman, and has his own stories to tell.

“I’m out in the bush every chance I get,” he says. “At night. I take photos of frogs, give the better ones to places like James Cook University.”


“I have friends who do cockroaches, and another who does moths. You meet them out in the bush, or through friends.”


“Yes, I worked Alaska, and Hawaii, and South America, and a fair chunk of Europe.”


“For five years I was Captain of a documentary ship. We had a helicopter and sub and sailed and dove everywhere. I saw some amazing things. But on my last year I met my wife. On board, of course. That put a stop to it. The never-ending travel.”

He flicks his butt overboard.

“I’ve been doing this route, on and off, for 25 years.”

After a while I start to tell him something about my life.

“Anyways, back to it,” he cuts me off and is gone again.


This side of the reef is too calm. To the right, by moonlight, big waves are breaking on the Barrier Reef. I still can’t sleep. It feels like I’ve been dragged, put on a bench made from a tired old cargo ship, just when I’m primed.

There is no worse feeling in football. None. To be left on the woodwork. To be unspent. Even injury is better. Coaches who leave kids on the pine for all bar 15 minutes don’t understand the game. They aren’t coaches. It’s that simple.


Some time later, the cook steps out of the dark. In this short day or two we’ve gotten along well. I’m glad to see him. He’s Maori and way overweight, I doubt he could make it up the steps to the top deck, but that’s fine. A cook who likes food is a good thing.

I have no idea why he’s up? Maybe he’s hungry.

“You enjoy your meal last night, Bro?” he asks. “There was twice as much, but I tasted it, and it was so damn good…” he smiles at me.

He says he used to play rugby. Second-row. “But my running days are over, ‘ey?” Then mentions that he coached kids forever.

“Tell me your best story,” I ask him.

He gins and rocks back, then forward, and back again.

“Where I was from on the North Island, there weren’t many people. We’d have maybe two 15yr olds, they’d have a team of them. We were being thrashed half time in this final. 32 to nothing, or something. I overhear two ladies in the crowd. They’re saying our boys are too little, and we should call the game off. Well…” his eyes goggle.

“Some kids are just too young, so I put a few aside… and then I ripped into the team. Do you know what people are saying?! If you can do it now, while your still younger and littler, there will be nothing stopping you when you’re older! Have some fire! Above all else, I tell them sport is about character. Above all else!”

I tell him totally I agree, crack another can, offer him one. He’s not allowed, so continues.

“I drilled into them that they were faster, to push their defensive line up quick and early, so they could tackle early, before the other mob’s big boys could get up enough speed to crash through them. The opposition didn’t score again. We won easy. When we were walking off, I noticed everybody in the grandstand was standing and clapping.”

“Even the two ladies?” I ask.


“You beaut…” I croon.

“Thanks, Bro,” he says, and lifts his big frame from its seat and is gone, to his cabin, next to the engine room somewhere.

The barge drags itself forward as if going nowhere. Every negative thought I’ve ever had in football, and life, floods in through the silence. I grab my footy and kick it into the steel wall. Just kick, and kick, and kick it as if it will save me. Until there’s nothing but leather and reflexes and everything’s simple.

Who the hell wouldn’t want to train, or coach, or spent their nights in the rainforest taking photos of frogs? What sort of crazy, sane people seek to be idle?

Finally, the grog catches up. I sleep on deck, surrounded by the heat and the constant throb of the engine. I can’t believe they made such a point of offering us earplugs. I grew up behind the refineries. Its relentless rumble is soothing.


Barge on Right. Horn Island.


  1. Wait for your next installment after the Alvie game and 1-1000 draw! Very deep stuff this 1 bro

  2. Matty – you ARE a disgruntled teenager!

    But I do appreciate your take on “rules and comfort” – they only get in the way…

    See you next time.

  3. Phil Gwynne says

    Beautiful writing, Matt. I can’t believe you’re giving it away!

  4. Malby Danlges says

    Top stuff Matty. I was the kid on the bench for many games and you are so right I was just aching to get on and strut my stuff. Sometimes the coaches would give us minimum game time which I appreciated but on the successful teams I barely got a go, especially if we were up against another good side. Being a fat boy was a liability I guess…

  5. Matt Zurbo says

    Thanks Phil, I guess?

    Malby, yeah, you would have had some frustrating coaches, I reckon. I coached juniors just shy of a decade, and always spun the odd bods, no matter how awkward, giving them good game time. If they trained, they played. It might have cost us a game or two down the line, but long term, made for a much healthier, stronger team. Without integrity you have nothing. The boys always became much more aware of their teammates because of it, looking out for, and helping improve those kids, rather than abandoning them. Sometimes it worked. Some kids didn’t improve. But it was two edged. Getting a star to think beyond his own game was a bonus.

  6. watt price tully says

    Good writing, great read. Thanks. Enjoyed it.

  7. Broody and rumbling as ever…always a surprising pleasure to be ruffled by your writing…

  8. Hey matty i really like how you got the best out of the kiwi cook with his story, probably mae his night.
    Get back to me on email if you can, love to hear where you are now n upate you about the crocs lastest.

  9. Matt Zurbo says


  10. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Good read and I totally agree with you I must admit Umpiring Kids on a Saturday morning I can be a tad creative making sure every kid gets a kick but I feel that is my responsibility who knows the youngster who is struggling may become a star but even more importantly may grow up loving the Game and still struggle but become a vital member of a club Secretary etc Playing Sport helps any 1s life in so many ways it can not be measured
    I to enjoyed the way you got the story out of the cook
    Matty as always love your work

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