Impossible the Next

Rose Bay Afloat

The Rose Bay Afloat is a boxy grey vessel which has served as a restaurant for the forty years that it has cluttered the Harbour – a testament to the fact that there is no institution a Sydneysider loves so much that it couldn’t be improved by being, well, afloat. At various times it has been known as Captain Cook’s Floating Restaurant, Flanagan’s Afloat, the Imperial Peking Floating Restaurant and finally simply Rose Bay Afloat. Quite an identity crisis when you stop to think about it. It spent much of that time moored at Lyne Park, Rose Bay, framed by the sparkling white yachts bobbing approvingly around it. But the rich and famous owners of the yachts were far from approving, considering the restaurant an eyesore afloat.

That didn’t stop many of them dining there over the years – at first for the novelty of a floating restaurant, but in its later years because of a reputation for a practical utility beyond the tastiness of the food or the gentle displacement of the diners. In its penultimate iteration as the Imperial Peking Floating Restaurant fortune cookies were served at the conclusion of the meal, and the messages they contained were coveted for their uncanny accuracy and perspicacity. Diners would routinely suffer through lemon chicken that tasted like a lemon-flavoured throat lolly or san choy bow served in flaccid lettuce all for the chance to glimpse their future from the after-dinner treat.

But a little bit of knowledge can be a very dangerous thing. In the dying months of the restaurant’s life a series of eminent Sydneysiders with less pleasant futures to look forward to dined there and were outraged by the cookies’ predictions of their imminent downfall. They organised a boycott of the restaurant, which eventually drove the owners broke. The owners rebranded as the Rose Bay Afloat, with promises that no fortunes would be distributed with meals. But with the novelty of being afloat having worn off and nothing to better to offer on the food front, the restaurant quickly folded.

The hulking vessel was quickly towed away. If the rust-bucket were going to rust any further the residents of the East were sure of one thing: it would politely refrain from doing so in their sight. It was taken to Balls Head Bay until a new owner could be found. Apparently most people inquiring to purchase the vessel dreamed of turning it into a houseboat, which confirms another cardinal rule of Sydney real estate – that nothing is worthless if people can live in or on it. Eventually a businesswoman purchased it for \$90,000. I believe she wanted to create a reality cooking show based on the boat. The Sydney papers enthused that she would return it to ``its former glory”, but precisely when it had last possessed the characteristic of ``glory” nobody could say. Its nomadic existence continued; the businesswoman dragged it across the Harbour to Snail’s Bay, so that it now polluted the multimillion dollar views of Birchgrove rather than Greenwich. And there it stayed until the events of the fateful day I will now describe to you.

A trend of squatting had taken hold amongst inner city hipsters who dreamed of turning Sydney into a bohemian paradise like Berlin. Their desire to squat was not so much motivated by necessity, as they could afford to live in the gentrified Inner West. Instead, it was political, motivated out of solidarity for poor people they had never met; or rather it was aesthetic – replicating the virtuous look and feel of a city that didn’t care about money, which had transgression imprinted or sprayed on every surface. They longed to swap the affected, manufactured holes dotting their second-hand vintage clothing for real badges of pride, marks of an authentic rejection of property. They lived rough to look rough, but occasionally popped home for a hot shower and a home-cooked meal when it all became too much for them. The first targets of the squatters were abandoned buildings in the Inner West, but when they were shooed by police out of buildings such as the boarded up St Michaels College near Sydney University, they set their sights on a new target: the Rose Bay Afloat.

One evening the squatters swam out to the vessel and found it unoccupied. Before long they ferried gas burners and other supplies aboard in little tinnie boats. The boat was not completely empty either, there were barrels of food in the kitchen, some of which not yet past its used-by date, and the squatters were able to subsist on a diet of prawn crackers and pineapple chunks. They got about two weeks into a very determined squat, faintly disappointed that nobody had noticed how transgressive they were being, before a neighbouring yacht owner alerted the owner to the unauthorised entry onto the Rose Bay Afloat. Despite the late hour, the owner ordered a water taxi to take her from her home in Mosman to her ship, but found that the taxis were solidly booked up ferrying children to school balls and champagne sweet sixteenths across the city. So instead she ordered a latte from the Harbour’s one-and-only mobile barista, and when the little tinnie arrived the owner convinced the barista with an extra generous tip to take her as far as Birchgrove.

The owner boarded her ship and was distressed to see the state the squatters had left it in, with trash piling up in the corners of the restaurant floor. The stench of human shit pervaded the air – the squatters had overcome the lack of working toilets by tearing up the restaurant’s enormous white tablecloths and using them as toilet paper, but were unable to dispose of the shit-stained cloths, which were instead stored with the rest of the rubbish. The owner asked them to leave immediately. The squatters, presented with this antagonistic assertion of proprietary and possessory rights, panicked and lifted the anchor of the ship in response. As the Rose Bay Afloat started to drift into the middle of the Harbour, the squatters’ careers as kidnappers and pirates had begun.

They tried to convince the owner of the merits of their cause. She gave them a fair hearing, but was incredibly sceptical as to why the end of all private property or the solution to unaffordable housing in the city should begin with her eccentric purchase. Finding her uncooperative, the squatters took a vote amongst themselves whether to tie her up. The motion in the affirmative was backed by persuasive practical argumentation that, without subduing the owner, their squatting insurrection would quickly be brought to an end. One of the squatters on the negative responded that to do so would be in contradiction with their longstanding opposition to the use of violence by the state.

By the time a third speaker had risen to speak to the motion, however, the owner had tired of the entire exercise and used her freedom, while she still had it, to unhook a set of flares from the wall of the boat and discharge them into the air, fiery shots of defiance lighting the night’s sky. The water police, supervising the filming of a television series which featured their speed boats at neighbouring Woolwich Dock, quickly re-requisitioned the craft from the producers, and jetted across the water to neighbouring Birchgrove. The sight of the old enemy certainly sharpened the minds of the squatters, who now fired up the engines of the lumbering beast of a vessel, and started eastwards towards the Harbour Bridge. Obviously the Rose Bay Afloat was not going to be any match for the speedy police boats, so one enterprising squatter took a loud-hailer from the ship, and pointed it at the fast approaching water police.

"Come within twenty-five metres of the ship, and we’ll capsize it! We drop the anchor in the middle of the floor, and this thing’ll sink before you can get any of us in cuffs.” This set off a furious rabble on the deck of the floating restaurant. The other squatters began to draft various censure motions decrying the undemocratic decision-making of their comrade with the loud-hailer, if not the substance of the threat he’d made.

"Sir, we would ask you to release your hostage, this situation is futile,” replied the water police.

"Yeah, well. That’s the way it is.”

"Sir, would you please put your...ah...guest on to speak with us please?”

The squatter looked suspiciously at the owner. ``Call off your dogs, tell them not to board or we’ll scuttle it.”

"Of course,” promised the owner. ``Don’t board – they mean it,” she reluctantly said. But before the squatter could stop her, the owner ran down the length of the ship and added ``LAY SIEGE TO THE LITTLE FUCKERS, I’LL PAY THE POLICE’S COSTS ONCE THEY GIVE UP, JUST DON’T SINK THE SHIP!”

"That’s quite enough of that,” said the squatter wrenching the loud-hailer off the owner.

And so began the siege of the Rose Bay Afloat. At the outset the prospects of the squatters looked very poor indeed. Having eaten their way through all the prawn crackers, the only remaining foodstuffs aboard the ship were fortune cookies, which they refused to touch because they were not gluten free. The police boats maintained the twenty-five metre perimeter, but it was clear that any attempt to swim away or land the restaurant would result in immediate arrest. At least the incident was starting to bring publicity to their cause; a news helicopter followed the boats, and shortly after the police boats were joined by crowds of tinnies and catamarans full of well-wishers or people simply curious to get in on the seemingly made-for-TV event. The flotilla was quite a sight as it passed under the famous Harbour Bridge, past the Opera House and Mrs Macquarie’s Chair, even perhaps resembling one of those famous Australia Day processions one sees at Camp Cove or, more generously, the start of a make-shift Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race.

The Rose Bay Afloat made steady progress out towards the Heads of the Harbour. The squatters’ make-shift committee, meanwhile, made no progress whatsoever. After they had dealt with the censure motions, having passed a motion objecting in principle to their comrade’s use of the loud-hailer but delegating to a subcommittee to determine the precise wording of the censure, they then moved on to the question of what their course of action should be now. This discussion was sidetracked by a series of procedural motions, including whether limiting speaking times to twenty minutes was in contradiction with the principle of free speech, and whether a two-thirds majority was sufficient to close the speaking list on a particular motion.

Meanwhile, the owner was left to sit in the corner eating her way steadily through the barrel of supposedly prophetic cookies. The owner hoped that the stand-off would end soon anyway, but had taken to reading the little messages of the fortune cookies to tell her if there weren’t some way to hasten the result of this farce. After a time, she detected a pattern, it seemed the cookies were telling her to take the initiative and end the siege: ``shoot for the stars”; ``if you are afraid to shake the dice, you will never throw a six”; ``all progress occurs because people dare to be different”; ``for success today, look first to yourself”.

"I know how to end the siege,” she declared suddenly.

"We’ll add you to the speaking list,” offered one squatter.

"No, there isn’t time. Take the ship to international waters, the police won’t be able to apprehend you there. You mustn’t delay, we won’t have enough petrol left if you don’t hurry.”

"Why would you want to help us end the siege?” interrogated another.

"Because I’m worried if I don’t help you get away, then you’ll scuttle the ship. Please, it’s your last chance. If you don’t believe me, read the cookies.” The owner offered them the pile of scraps of advice. The squatters had heard of the powers of the cookies, and although they were loath to cede their democratic system to prophetic desserts, they acknowledged there was wisdom in the plan. They ratified the plan, and turned the floating ship out to sea. It passed the Heads with much fanfare, a huge crowd gathering to witness the daring escape.

Of course the owner had no intention of helping her kidnappers reach international waters. She knew the ship was about to run out of petrol, and once out of the Heads there was no way the squatters would make good their threat to scuttle the ship in the middle of the furious choppy waters that had claimed so many lives in Sydney to Hobart races past. Indeed the ship did quickly run out of petrol, but it did so before it reached open waters. The squatters lost control of the ship near the rocks of the Heads, and before the police could board the vessel, it was swept onto the rocks which ripped it open like a circular saw eviscerating a rusty can.

The squatters were immediately arrested. The owner had to pay for removal of the hulking wreck and the remaining scrap metal was not even valuable enough to pay for the clean-up. Nor could she claim the destruction of the vessel on insurance because, as all the squatters were more than happy to testify, it had been the plan of the owner herself to take it out to sea. The squatters were sent to prison for the kidnap and act of piracy. They hadn’t quite started a revolution, but in this way they had succeeded in destroying (some) private property and relieving Sydney’s housing crisis, if only a little bit, by removing themselves from the market.