1. Swimming With Sharks
Three miles from Coogee Beach, a large dorsal fin rose steadily from the grey sea, cutting through the gentle swell like a ploughshare. The 14-foot monster glided effortlessly beneath the surface and then descended gracefully. Diving into the deep, its body moved slowly from side to side, its mouth fixed in a deadly grimace. Across its back and along the top of each flank was a distinctive pattern of stripes from which the species derived its name - one that fishermen and swimmers fear wherever it roams. Tiger shark.
With a flick of its powerful tail, it turned away from the shoreline towards the open sea. Already at the southern-most extent of its range, it was late heading north for warmer waters. When it returned the following year, it would make headlines across the world.
Thirty miles north, in driving rain, a collier headed south towards Sydney. Belching out an arching column of black smoke from its stack, it steamed past Terrigal, a small community of houses and homesteads strewn across hills behind a scimitar-shaped beach. On its southern edge, partially obscured by fingers of mist, were the craggy rocks of Broken Head and The Skillion, a small peninsular that looked like the raised stern of a sinking ship.
A mile west, in rough seas, a yacht was mirroring the landscape. An officer on the collier's bridge, binoculars glued to his face, first spotted it. "I think there's a vessel in distress, Captain," he announced. "At two o'clock."
The captain soon found the yacht in his binoculars. Its rounded stern was facing the collier, and its two towering masts were leaning to starboard. "It's listing badly." He instructed the officer to change direction immediately and head towards the stricken yacht being battered by an unforgiving sea. In minutes the collier was within a hundred yards of it, and gave a loud blast from its horn.
"It's the Pathfinder," the captain said, seeing the name plate on the bobbing stern through the binoculars. He scoured the aft deck, which was covered with tarpaulin like a veranda, but saw no movement. "It looks like a ghost ship."
"It's worth a pretty penny or two," the first officer commented, as he reduced speed.
"At three o'clock!" the captain shouted. "A skiff!" Fifty yards from the bow of Pathfinder, a lone man dressed in a heavy oilskin and sou'wester was furiously rowing against the large swell.
"He must know we're here," remarked the first officer. He blasted the horn again, more protracted than before, its deep bellow echoing around the nearby heads.
The captain was focused on the man in the rowing boat. "I think the crazy mug is waving us away!" The man was holding both oars across his lap with one hand, and dismissively signalling the collier to move back with the other.
"Maintain our position," the captain ordered, and unhooked the megaphone from the back of the cabin. He opened the door into the rain and wind. "Row towards us," he instructed. "We will take you on board." There was more vigorous waving from the skiff. "Do you want to be taken on board?" The man turned his back. "Do you hear me?" He started rowing away.
The captain returned to the bridge. "I've never seen anything like it!"
"She'll will be gone within minutes by the look of it," the first officer remarked, still focused on Pathfinder through his binoculars.
"Something's not right. He's a couple of miles from shore, and it's rough. What's his game?"
"What shall we do, sir?"
"The yacht's lost, but we can't just leave the drongo to drown. Let's idle here. He'll come to his senses, if he has any."
After 10 minutes the oarsman was fading into the sea mist, making some progress towards shore but relentlessly carried northwards by the wind and strong current. The first officer used the megaphone to summon the man for a final time, but to no avail.
"We've done all we can," the captain announced to his first officer. "Resume heading and cruising speed."
The captain opened his log book and made an entry for 9 April, recording the approximate position of the sinking yacht and the attempts to rescue the rower.
Several hours later, the oarsman made landfall at Terrigal Beach. Exhausted and shivering, he pulled the skiff onto the cold sand and walked to the local police station. He explained the situation to the duty officer behind the front desk, refusing offers of new clothes and a cup of hot tea until he had made a phone call.
"You want to speak to Mr Reginald Holmes of Sydney?" the officer confirmed.
"Yes, it's urgent," the man replied, sweeping back his drenched black hair. The cagey officer studied the unexpected visitor. Looking to be in his late 30s or early 40s, of medium height with obvious upper body strength, it was clear that he was in good physical shape. He was square-faced with a slightly misaligned nose, and a tooth appeared to be missing from his lower jaw. The officer surmised he was no stranger to fighting and trouble. This made him suspicious.
"A relative of yours, is he?"
"No, he's the yacht owner."
"What were you doing with it?"
"I'm the skipper. I was taking it up the coast from its moorings at Hawkesbury River."
"In this weather?"
"I do what I'm told."
"Were you the only person on board?"
"Yes. This call really is urgent."
The constable hesitated, before pulling a metal pyramidal phone towards him. "I guess you know the number?"
"Yeah, I'll dial it." The man reached for the phone.
"No, I have to," the constable retorted, picking up the receiver. "All calls are supposed to be logged. If there's an answer, I'll pass it over." He dialled the number and waited, suspiciously scrutinising the man in front of his desk. "Good afternoon, this is Terrigal Police. I have a man with me who wishes to speak to Mr Holmes... aha.. can I put him on?"
"Mr Holmes, it's Jim Smith," the visitor said urgently as he took the phone.
"What the hell are you calling me for!" came the brusque reply in the tinny receiver.
Smith hesitated, a little confused. "Pathfinder is lost, sir. It foundered..."
"I'm not the registered owner." Making eye contact with the officer, Smith realised his conversation might be overheard and pulled the telephone to the end of the counter, turning his back.
"I thought you would want to know..." There was a long pause while Smith listened. "But..." His interjection was ignored. "I'm sorry to have bothered you," he said finally, replacing the receiver. He returned the telephone to the sergeant. "I'll have that cuppa now, thanks."
The officer nodded. Although he failed to enter details in the log, he would not forget the call.
With a shark and a sunken yacht; this is how it begins. Both are central to one of the most astonishing cases in criminal history. The Australian tabloid Truth, which splashed the story over its front pages for weeks, called it "the mystery story of the age". This was no overstatement, even for a paper known for its sensationalism. Unique, unsolved and unbelievably true, it is the ideal case to be placed before the Cold Case Jury.
Continued in The Shark Arm Mystery. E-book published 8 October 2020. Paperback 20 May 2021.