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The Boatman’s Call

Things didn't look good for Goolwa, a drought-stricken Australian outpost best known for yacht racing and rabble-rousing — that is, until one salty boat-rigger rallied the locals and helped bring his town back from the brink



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Randal Cooper in his shop at Goolwa Masts & Welding


“IF I COULD’VE CAUGHT A FISH, I would’ve let it pull us,” says Nigel Kies, exhausted and broiled a painful shade of fuchsia. He swallows half a can of XXXX Gold — a beer made by a brewery that could sustain itself solely on the patronage of Kies’ fellow Goolwa Regatta Yacht Club members — but the brew does little to ease the ravages of a long, long day. Kies, quick to smile and, at 33, one of the younger guys on the scene, was among the crew on the Beth, a World War II-era fishing boat, for today’s race: the Marina Hindmarsh Island 2012 Milang Goolwa Freshwater Classic. The Beth is owned by Randal Cooper, who’s usually a man of many words (more on that in a moment), but he’s through with them tonight. So into the breach steps Kies.

On a good day, sailors competing in the 158-year-old, 50-kilometer yacht race off South Australia navigate the River Murray’s shallow trenches, their spinnakers pregnant with the winds whipping up from the Indian Ocean, tacking swift and knotting well into the double digits. On the rare bad day — and judging by the sun-scorched faces and halfhearted ribbing at the awards ceremony, this was a bad day — the wind’s near-absence leaves 194 sailboats with sails limp as tablecloths, hulls bobbing, sailors cooking in 97-degree heat and cracking cans before 10 a.m. and, in a few solemn cases, motors grumbling surrender. Today, only a Hobie Cat filled its sails during the first leg on Lake Alexandrina, and that was because a news chopper hovered too low and delivered a 100-mile-per-hour blast of wind directly onto it.

It wasn’t the ideal way to welcome back the largest freshwater sailing race in the Southern Hemisphere, one that Australia’s decade of drought had put on hold since 2007, when the Goolwa Channel became a mudflat, the Murray a stream, and the soil an acidic mess. Back then, as the drought tightened its grip, one of Australia’s leading hydrologists came to Goolwa to tell the community that in six months there would be no water, it would be devastating and there was nothing to be done about it. That gave Randal Cooper an idea — an idea that, in time, would transform this rowdy “bogan” (more on that in a moment, too) into the town’s unlikely leader.

WHEN THE RAIN FALLS ON Victoria or Queensland or New South Wales, it makes its way to the caramel-colored River Murray. When Mother Nature cooperates, the river brims. It courses past the dry plains of the river valley, where it is, somewhat controversially, siphoned off to farmers who raise cattle and grow cotton and rice there. It continues on to Lake Alexandrina, a 250-square-mile lake just 10 feet deep, and then arrives at the Goolwa Barrage, a man-made barrier between freshwater and the Southern Ocean, 56 miles south of Adelaide. During good years, the River Murray should reach the barrage with 58 percent of its natural flow. During a drought, it can disappear altogether. In a town like Goolwa, population 6,000, losing water can mean losing everything.

Which brings us to Randal Cooper. Cooper, 54, is the man behind Goolwa Masts & Welding, and here in his shop — a pole barn ribbed with steel masts and filled with welders, tools, girlie calendars and enough grease to grow hair on your chest as soon as you step inside — he has built many things. A reputation for keeping quiet, however, is not one of them. You see, Cooper grew up as a Huck Finn type of kid: leveraging common sense and guile to confound adults, clever in a way that most book-bred kids dream about, and irreverent just because. After infuriating headmasters by questioning the system, and figuring he wouldn’t get far with his dyslexia anyway, Cooper left school at 16 and began apprenticing to a builder.

Cooper considers himself a “bogan,” an Australian label that roughly translates as “swamp person,” “redneck” or “hick,” depending on which way you want to go. He’s short on teeth and his close-set eyes and beak nose almost make him an Aussie version of Robin Williams. He wears a beige collared T-shirt most days because when he tried it on, he liked it, and decided to buy 10 more. He dons a skipper hat because he’d rather waive the captain’s role (safety, responsibility) in favor of the one whose sole concern is boat speed. There’s also a sizable gut, but Cooper swears it’s temporary — he’s cutting back on beer this fall.

He’d never been a political person. But in 2009, when the drought was at its worst and the River Murray was more of a trickle, Cooper watched his town die. Mechanics, tradesmen, apprentices lost their earnings. The riverbed, exposed to air, turned into toxic acid sulfate soil that caused breathing problems and rashes. Salinity in the water jumped 50 percent. And at the yacht club’s marina, the number of boats dropped from 106 to fewer than 30. Of those 30, some were simply moored in the mud, listing to starboard. “My mates and I sat around counting one day,” Cooper says, “and 32 families had lost their income because of water. And that’s only within the boating business.” Someone had to do something. After the meeting at which the aforementioned hydrologist came to town to tell everyone it was over, the locals anointed Cooper.

At first he was hesitant to take to the soapbox. “I told them, ‘You don’t want me to talk, I’m just a bloody yacht-rigger,'” he says. “‘I’m not a learned person, I don’t have the gift for gab, I can’t get up and get the audience in the palm of my hand, and then lead to some massive crescendo and applause. I just want my town back.'” Nevertheless, Cooper began doing his research. He discovered that farmers upriver used storage dams to hoard water for their fields, and that the government-regulated water allocations to farmers didn’t lower along with the water level until much later in the drought. In places like Spain and America, he knew, water allocation is assigned based on the output at the river mouth. If the river runs low one month, everyone along it gets less water. This drought affected everyone along the Murray, but no one had to sacrifice like those on the lower lakes.

“It felt like one of those old movies where a town was shrouded in darkness because of a curse,” says Cooper. “It felt like nothing could get done. I began working with people, and we called ourselves Goolwa Needs Water Now.” Cooper’s solution was simple — reduce farmers’ water allocations upriver to give Goolwa more freshwater, or open the Goolwa Barrage to let in seawater. “I didn’t care what kind of water it was, I just wanted them to put something back in the pond.”

AUSSIES ARE A TOUGH BUNCH. They’ve lived off of rainwater for generations. Kangaroos delay the growth of their embryos during hard times. Plants flourish after brush fires. It’s a continent bred on hardship. But while many of the old-timers in Goolwa maintained a defiant attitude to this latest drought, invoking the mantra “The land won’t break us,” they weren’t exactly ready to stand idly by. These were men raised in the bush at a time when people were strung up for lesser crimes than political inaction. Some of them had been through wars, they told Cooper. Some knew how to blow things up. A barrage, for instance.

“You know what one of them told me? ‘I’m 90 years old, what are they going to do? Put me in jail for four years?'” Cooper laughs. “I told him he’d kill himself, and he said, ‘Well, put a nice plaque up in the main street, will ya?'”

Instead, Cooper grabbed a bunch of buckets and 20 people, and bucket by bucket began quenching the thirsty Murray with the Southern Ocean. Since Adelaide draws its drinking supply from the lower lakes, this show of defiance risked a $10,000 fine, even though the height of the ocean was nearly 5 feet above the Murray and saltwater had already broken through. When a cop did show up, he informed the crew that he was there only to make sure a fight didn’t break out, and when asked, he ended up lending a hand. The news crews and photographers spread the story.

With the success of his bucket brigade, Cooper printed up and handed out 4,000 Goolwa Needs Water Now postcards to local businesses, which then mailed them in and brought the state government’s postal system to a grinding halt. Next, the community sent two paper reams’ worth of letters. Eventually, the committee rallied 5,000 people to the steps of Parliament House in Adelaide.

“Last year, I was being rowdy at a bar somewhere, and a guy came up and asked if I was Randal Cooper,” says Cooper. “I said, ‘Yep!’ And he told me that the campaign me and my friends ran down in Goolwa was the best they’d ever seen. He used to be one of the advisers to the premier. In the end, the premier said to do whatever it takes to shut those people up.”

In 2009, the government built a regulator to dam the Goolwa Channel and pump in water from Lake Alexandrina to cover the acidic soil. For all the attending controversy, it worked. Of course, a year later, floodwaters made it down from Queensland, rendering the long-awaited aid moot, but, as Cooper points out, “at least we’ll be better prepared for the next drought.”

AS THE SETTING SUN GLEAMS off the Murray, the happy slapping sound of the opaque water on the yacht club’s dock feels ephemeral — as if at any minute, Mother Nature could change her mind and let the river dry up and the sailboats bare their underbellies and get stuck in the slop once more. But that feeling is why the men of the Goolwa Regatta Yacht Club can’t help but take a long swig and a long look at that sinfully beautiful carve of river and be happier than they can remember. Because they know that even without the wind, the sailors could gather for war stories and their wives could put on pearls and mingle over white bread-wrapped sausages; they know the kids could play on the dock and their mothers could worry about them falling into water, not mud; they know Don Richardson, the yacht club’s commodore, could shine his white shoes and sport his all-white uniform, chest puffed, with a smile wider than the Murray. This whole joyous feeling is summed up perfectly by Mayor Kym McHugh at the awards presentation.

After climbing the stairs of the dark green semi-trailer, McHugh stands above a folding table gleaming with trophies and addresses a crowd of 300 sunburned, exhausted and smiling people. “What a tremendous thing,” he says. “Sailing is back in Goolwa.”

RACHEL STURTZ, a writer living in Denver, got the distinct honor of firing the starting shotgun for one of the sailing heats at the Classic (and fired it one second too early).

3 Responses to “The Boatman’s Call”

  1. Maite Conway Says:
    April 4th, 2012 at 2:34 pm

    What a great story on Goolwa. To check when the next Goolwa Sailing Race is happening or to learn more about South Australia, check out http://us.southaustralia.com

  2. randal cooper Says:
    May 2nd, 2012 at 2:39 am


  3. Wendy Watson Says:
    June 19th, 2012 at 9:11 pm

    We are a resilient bunch of boaties at Goolwa and it just shows what people will do with a passion for our mighty Murray River so Australia will take notice! Great story Rachel, come and visit Goolwa again perhaps for the next South Australian Wooden Boat Festival on at Goolwa 23 & 24 February 2013 and yes we have water!!!!

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