Boating with the Robinsons

I lived in Hong Kong on and off for 15 years, and one of the greatest joys during our family’s time there was boating and all its associated pleasures. We arrived in January, 1985, and our first experiences were naturally the ferries, from the Star Ferry service between Tsim Sha Tsui to the Island, as well as the ferries to outlying islands such as Lamma and Cheung Chau.

Heading out of Aberdeen Harbour

A year or so into our first seven-year stint, Louise Piorko, a colleague at Hong Kong Polytechnic, invited us for a day trip on her husband’s law firm’s junk, kept in Aberdeen Harbour (the bay in the middle at the bottom of Hong Kong Island in the map below). Such wooden junks are (or were) plentiful in Hong Kong, being of that well known traditional shape and sporting (mostly) reliable marine diesel engines. We had to drive from our flat in Shatin through the Harbour tunnel and across the Island to Aberdeen, a seething hubbub of activity on a Sunday morning. I recorded bits of it on a video camera I’d borrowed from work, which I later incorporated into a YouTube of our early life in HK. It’s pretty grainy, and the section concerning our junk trip starts with the drive at around 2 mins and 40 seconds. We had a great day, swimming from the junk in a sheltered bay (lovely warm water) and pigging out on a sumptuous feast of food and drink.

I’ve circled a section of the map to highlight where we spent practically all of our subsequent boating time in Hong Kong. This all came about courtesy of close friend and special person, Nic Robinson, a legend in Hong Kong sailing and boating circles. The Robinsons and the Murphys lived at Pak Tak Yuen in Shatin, a residential complex provided to our employer, Hong Kong Polytechnic. Nic worked in the Maritime Studies Department, after a career as a master mariner in the British Merchant Marine. Accomplished in all facets of shipping, boating and sailing, Nic and a colleague had written the standard reference work for sailing and navigation in Hong Kong waters. He also co-authored the text for training those seeking a licence to take to the waters, ‘New Pleasure Vessels Operator Handbook’, and conducted training courses for decades. After retirement from the Polytechnic, Nic set up his own maritime company which provided training, marine surveying and other consultancy services.

Naturally Nic had his own boats, the one we became most familiar with being Cloud 2 (named after the Robinson’s dog), a pleasure junk moored at Hebe Haven in the Sai Kung area of the New Territories. The Robinsons would invite a few families to join them on a leisurely Sunday, and we’d make our way by train and minibus to rendezvous mid-morning. We would all bring along snacks and drinks to sustain us until lunchtime at a remote seafood restaurant. The map below shows the area circled in our first map above.

A typical day’s outing would involve boating from Hebe Haven Yacht Club to Sha Kiu, where the Yau Ley seafood restaurant was located – so remote that there was no road access. We’d gather at the clubhouse, then be ferried by one of the Club boats from the jetty out to Cloud 2 at its mooring. This Google Earth pic shows just how crowded the moorings in Hebe Haven are!

Once out into Port Shelter, there are two basic routes to get to  Sha Kiu: you could either meander through the channels around Sharp Island, then down past Tai Tau Chau, or go around the bottom end of Kau Sai Chau and across Rocky Harbour. On most trips we’d take the former course, as it’s more interesting and allows stoppages in a myriad of bays, inlets and beaches. During such stoppages we’d refresh ourselves with what ever we’d brought: selections of cheeses and other delicacies and a choice of libation (beer, wine, champagne and orange juice, etc.), and enjoy a dip in the water.

Kau Sai Chau was originally used for target practice by the British Army, but was then handed over and developed as a public golf course. Nic worked as an advisor for the ferry service taking golfers on the short trip to the island. On at least one of our trips we anchored nearby and spent half an hour or so gathering lost golf balls from the foreshore scrub, as Nic and his wife Winnie are both golfers.

Those with enough energy (usually the younger ones on board) would indulge in a variety of games, many of which involved leaping off the side (or even the roof) of the boat. The boys in particular would try to jump off the roof, catch a rugby ball thrown from the deck, and throw it back before hitting the water. A relatively successful attempt is shown here, my son Nick being the skilful catcher on this occasion. My greatest claim to fame with respect to such frivolities was when I caught a grape thrown from Cloud 2 in my mouth while swimming in the water.

A platform and ladder at the stern of the junk made it easy to clamber back on board, and there was even a shower on the platform to enable a wash off before donning the shorts and t-shirt for the final short leg to lunch.

Arriving at Sha Kiu, the jetty doesn’t accommodate pleasure craft, so we had to anchor in the bay and then ring Yau Ley restaurant for them to send out their boat to pick us up. The restaurant is open air, with all of the seafood still alive in small tanks. Winnie was usually tasked with seafood selection, and the menu would typically include prawns and steamed fish. Side dishes of vegetables and fried/steamed rice were on hand. We’d supply our own wine, while Yau Ley kept an ample supply of beer, usually Tsing Tau.

The Yau Ley restaurant owner is in the red shirt between my daughter Felicity and I.

Looking down on Pak Lap Wan

Lunch could last for a few hours, but if there was time, we’d go for a walk along the country paths. The best walk was across the headland to Pak Lap Wan, a beautiful bay and beach.

Back on board in the late afternoon, it was time for a leisurely cruise back to Hebe Haven. The remaining snacks were consumed, bottles emptied and naps taken. We’d watch the sun setting behind the hills, and search  for the mooring in the half light of the dusk.

Our friendship with the Robinsons grew over the years, so much so that when we were living back in Australia for three years around 2000 (before going back to HK for the third time), Nic and Winnie came to stay with us over the Xmas/New Year holiday. It was tremendous fun, a highlight being a five-day sailing cruise on the Gippsland Lakes in Eastern Victoria.

We hired a Catalina 320 at Metung, a lovely small town on the Lakes. With Nic on board we were in safe hands, though we did have to call the hire company for assistance when the rudder failed. They were quick to respond and highly supportive – one of the hire conditions was to check in daily at 5 pm to confirm that everything was fine.

At first we headed out along the channel to the North of Flannagans Island, then through the narrow channel to the south of Rigbys Island. It’s tricky, as much of this area is shallow, making grounding a distinct possibility. It happened at least once (while I was at the helm), but isn’t too disastrous, as the bottom is sandy and weedy, so no damage is done. There’s no need to drop the anchor at night, just pull up gently against the sand and tie up to the nearest tree (as recommended by the hirers).

Next day provided the opportunity to take the short sunny walk through the bush to Drew’s Front Beach for an ocean swim. We were greeted with the glorious sight of dolphins surfing in the early morning glistening swell.

We then headed back past Metung and sailed across the bay to the delightful town of Paynesville, a holiday haven just across from Raymond Island. Fortuitously, we were able to tie up at a wharf right in front of a popular local seafood restaurant, where we (over)indulged on a platter or two.

Food was also on our mind (well, Marilyn’s mind anyway) when we tied up at a jetty the next night, and she spied good sized mussels on the pylons. Without telling us what she was up to, she grabbed a spoon and a bucket and dived in the water, then ferreted away until she had a hefty bucket-full. My job was to clean and prepare them for feasting. And a feast it was, consumed with a few cans of beer – fabulous! A fitting end to our wonderful trip.

A couple of years later we were back in Hong Kong. Luckily we lived not too far from Nic and Winnie, and we spent plenty of time together, with some of our junk trips just the four of us. It was a great diversion from the stresses of daily work and life, though we did have the odd stress or two out on the waters. Nic and I once took out one of the Club yachts for a sail; it was probably about 25 feet long. After briefly going ashore at a remote beach, when attempting to re-board, somehow Nic got left behind as he lost a shoe as I took the helm. Though I claim to have sailing skills, I had a hell of a time getting back to him to pick him up in the unhelpful wind conditions.

On another particular occasion, when anchored in an isolated bay, Nic and I swam to the beach while Marilyn and Winnie stayed on board, There was a rainstorm of such severity that we had to shelter in a small cave on the foreshore, and for a while we couldn’t even see the junk, even though it was no more than 150 metres away. We didn’t always go to Yau Ley, at times enjoying a barbecue on board in a small charcoal cooker. And there was usually a leisurely drink or snack back at the yacht club when we returned.

There is plenty more to tell, such as the fun and games we had at Nic’s 70th and 80th birthdays. Yes, he is 20 years my senior, not that you’d know it by his level of energy and his activities (I’ve video footage of him windsurfing at age 80). All I can say is that it’s been such a pleasure to have been his friend for the past four decades.

Let’s finish with the poem (ahem) that I wrote for Nic’s birthday, celebrating his nautical nature:

An Ode to Captain Nic

(with deepest apologies to Samuel Taylor Coleridge)

It is an ancient mariner,
And his name is Captain Nic.
“By thy short grey hair and glittering eye,
You’re our favourite sailor pick.”

“The Clipper Lounge doors are opened wide,
And here’s the next of kin;
The guests are met, the feast is set:
May’st hear the merry din.”

The ship was cheered, the harbour cleared,
It was of the Blue Funnel Line;
Midshipman N J Robinson,
Second Officer – did his time.

This mariner Nic, without a ‘k’,
he joined the Navy Royal;
A Lieutenant Commander, no less,
His fun no-one could spoil.

In ’68, he forsook the sea,
Forsooth, went back to school:
Exeter University, my friends,
This mariner is no fool.

With testamur held firm in hand,
Our mariner headed East:
A stopover in Hong Kong, he thought,
Perhaps a place to feast.

Not just to feast, but there to wed
The gorgeous, winsome Winnie:
A Poly job as well, pray tell,
Our mariner is no ninny.

Yes, Hong Kong Poly, a Lecturer Senior,
Matters nautical he did teach:
Of navigation and such stuff
And how to sail a reach.

We met him then, in ‘85,
In the flats at Pak Tak Yuen:
Revered by all, he would enthrall,
With tales of derring do, and …

Then that day, we heard a bang,
His life-raft popped wide open;
Who pulled the rope, who was the dope,
My son, or that of MacAlpine?

In ’93, he did break free,
Our mariner became his own master.
Of Robinson Co Ltd, Marine Surveyors;
All his boats they did go faster!

Cloud 2 is now the boat we love;
For a day to escape it all,
And remind us of a dog that we once knew,
Would come to Nic’s clear call.

Our Sunday’s out, in such a craft,
Are heaven for the stressed;
The smell of sea, drink coffee or tea,
Or something from grapes pressed.

We motor out, under Nic’s command:
Leaving Hebe Haven yacht Club;
Round Kau Sai Chau, we watch the bow
Then anchor for some grub. 

Hour after hour, hour after hour,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.

Water, water, everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, everywhere,
And plenty of drops to drink.

The very deep did rot: O Nic!
That ever this should be!
Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs
Upon the slimy sea.

These slimy things, yea we did eat,
At places we did stop;
Prawns and crabs and yau yu so,
The taste you cannot top.

Ah what fine days with Master Nic,
We sure can ask no more;
In company fine, we drink the wine
Our hearts, yea they do soar.

Master mariner N J Robinson,
Number 79086;
Born in ’32, a man true blue,
A mate when in a fix.

So Happy Birthday, our friend Nic,
You make us all feel bright!
Your spirit keen, your figure lean
You have it all just right.

Anon., 2002



4 thoughts on “Boating with the Robinsons

  1. Hat off to poet DM! I don’t know the key characters in your blog except the Murphys. Yet the story conjures up so much warmth and nostalgia of British Hong Kong of which I knew so well in my previous life. I could smell the sea water, feel the breeze and savor the seafood in my mind. The good old days is, sadly, history.

  2. Thanks Angela – yes, they were great years, I experienced and learned so much, worked with wonderful colleagues and made great friends (you were both, of course!).

  3. Wonderful, engaging writing. Having met the main characters, it was easy to put them in the scenes.
    It must be affecting to see Honkers changing. I remember the (K’ed) Nick telling me years ago that he felt himself to be Hong Kongian more than anything else. I wonder if he still does.
    We’re coming over for MIJF in August, if you’re about then.

  4. Thanks for the kind note – and yes, he’s a Nic and not a Nick! They’ve now moved to Chichester rather than stay in HK. I thought the MIJF was in October, not August, or have I got the wrong festival?!

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