Stinker’s History: The adventures of ‘Clanka’ – Part 1

Hard to believe that with Hollywood looks, Clanka could be tougher than Ned Kelly.

FOR the next four weeks this column will feature the life and times of truly one of Port Stephens’ greatest characters.

The articles do not simply reflect on one man’s life but give an insight into the tough times that existed in the 1950s.

The articles are from ‘Old Salt’, a book which I wrote back in 2009.

Unfortunately the book is out of print and is no longer available.

The adventures of, and the havoc caused, by Ronald Barry ‘Clanka’ McLean, would make Ned Kelly look like the ‘sugar plum fairy’.

I wished I’d have met the man.

Born in Maitland in 1932 Ron was from tough stock.

His father, Norman, worked as a labourer through the western region from town to town raising a family in a tent with wife Violet.

For some unknown reason young Ron developed a love of the sea, and it was to be the sea that defined his life.

He left school at sixteen years of age and went prawning with Bill Wilson on the Hunter River.

In those early days the prawning boats were no bigger than a regular rowing boat.

One man would row the boat along the water’s edge while the other would pull the net along the shoreline, requiring some strength.

This was Ron’s job.

Still in his teens the keen young fisherman moved on to Nelson Bay where he lived and worked with Bobby ‘Old Mouldy’ Tarrant, beach fishing and prawning in the Myall.

At nineteen years he worked as a relieving assistant at the Outer Lighthouse off Fingal, a small outpost across a very dangerous stretch of water known as the ‘Fingal Spit’.

Ron swam the Spit on many occasions to tow supplies and grog back to the light.

One time he crossed the treacherous waterway to post a card to a young lady from Anna Bay, Adele Kafer.

Back on the mainland he began work with Alf Mitchell on the trawler ‘Girl Pat’ and then did a season as a deckhand for Harry Hunter catching sharks on the ‘Dorothy Anne’.

By this early stage of his life Ron had gathered valuable experience in many differing styles of fishing and the related conditions.

Unlike many other fishermen his age, Ron could turn his hand to anything – except crabbing and oystering, which he refused to do.

This extensive knowledge that he was accumulating plus his toughness, unrelenting desire to work hard and willingness to continue learning was to see him emerge, in later years, as a master fisherman and fearless seaman.

Still only a young man, Ron married Adele and moved into a humble shack at Rocky Point on an acreage owned by Charles and Nettie Diemar.

The shack was in fact an old garage that was moved onto a clearing to become home for the couple and first born, daughter Vicki.

Vicki recalls their neighbour Wally Rogers trying to shoot a snake that was living in their roof.

“Wally brought his shotgun over and took aim at the snake,” she said.

“An almighty BOOM!

“He missed the snake but the hole remained for years.”

The early 1950s were wild times at Rocky Point, shared with a gathering of squatters eking out an existence any way they could by fishing, farming and gathering shell grit.

Bagging shell grit for the chicken farmers and in particular, Steggles, was a meagre source of income in tough times.

The history of gathering shell grit on Fingal Island during the Depression years is documented in ‘Sheer Grit’, an excellent book written by Arthur Murdoch.

The gatherers at Rocky included Jikky Dumont, who arrived each weekend from Newcastle to shovel grit.

He and his wife Myrtle would arrive drunk, as they had been drinking wine all the way from Newcastle.

When they arrived at Rocky they would both fall out of the truck and stagger around.

On one occasion Myrtle attempted to straddle the Kafer’s barbed wire fence with catastrophic consequences.

While at Rocky, Ron purchased his first powered boat off Les Ode, called ‘Gung Ho’.

The small boat was worked to trap the rocky reefs and headlands for lobsters.

Living at Rocky Point was rough – no house, no road, no electricity or running water – but the young family had heaps of good old fashion guts.

To get money to establish himself as a rock lobster man, Ron went to work for the Hunter District Water Board.

Having no transport available from Rocky Point he would run two miles to the main road, night and morning, to be picked up by passing workers.

He did this until he had saved enough to buy a motor for his small dinghy.

Then came a stroke of ‘luck’.

Ron’s father, Norman, came to visit driving a converted 1928 Chevy ute.

He swerved off the beaten track and ran smack bang into a tree.

He got out, took one look at the damage, kicked the tyre and simply left it where it was, up the tree.

With his acquired knowledge of all things mechanical, it didn’t take Ron too much to fix it.

The family were on the move – wheels!

The ute enabled Ron to travel so that he could collect and cut sticks to make lobster traps, to collect vines to weave the necks for the traps and to gather rocks for ballast to hold the traps against the sea.

The main thing was that there was now transport to town to do the shopping and an escape for Adele from the isolation of Rocky Point.

During this period Ron saved enough money, £300, pound by pound putting it into an envelope, to buy a block of ground in Nelson Bay.

During the ‘travelling season’ when mullet, bream and luderick were on the move, Ron joined Jack and Ken Barry on Fingal Beach.

This he did for many years.

Working long hard hours Ron saved what money he earned and purchased the ‘Bosto off Bernie Thompson for trapping and taking weekend parties out hand lining for snapper and other reef fish.

Unlike modern day charter boat captains Ron couldn’t contain his laughter seeing those in the fishing party get sea sick.

There was always a great deal of drinking before heading to sea, which was considered as preparation for the ‘crew’.. Once on the water Ron would ask the ones showing early signs of seasickness to go down into the blackness of the bilge and blow and suck on the pipe, so that the bilge could be pumped.

A combination of the rolling boat, the smell of the bilge and the rotting fish that had filtered through below deck was enough to send the paying customers a bright shade of green and spend the remainder of the fishing trip “head down bum up” gurgling into the sea.

Although not good for business, Ron thought this was hilarious.

By John ‘Stinker’ CLARKE

With a mechanical mind, Clanka got the old car going.

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