I dreaded the thought of Sydney, and its crowds, but my job was to reach it. The launch was crowded with sailors, and at 20 yards their robust personalities gave me a feeling of inferiority. I felt that I had to get away quickly. I asked the launch to tow me to the shelter of the breakwater, and a sailor slipped me a tow rope efficiently. I climbed out on to the float to swing the propeller, and as I swung it I noticed mares’ tails of sticky black soot on the cowling, due to the backfires. I wondered if the engine still had enough kick to get me away, but as soon as the seaplane started moving forward and pounding the swells, the futility of trying to take off was obvious. That settled it; I had to ask for help. The launch approached again. ‘We’ll tow you to Albatross,’ an officer said. I made fast the tow line and I was towed up to the aircraft carrier, where I made fast to a rope dangling from the end of a long boom. I released the pigeons, feeling sorry for them, and they took off flapping and fluttering, presumably for their home loft near Sydney. A sailor let down a rope ladder from the boom, and I grappled clumsily up it, my feet often swinging out higher than my head. I made my way along the boom to the deck where a commanding figure, with much gold braid, was waiting for me. ‘Doctor Livingstone, I assume,’ he said, looking hard at me. ‘At any rate, you have managed to discover the only aircraft carrier in the Southern Hemisphere. Come along to my cabin.’
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I felt like a new boy in front of the headmaster. ‘Did I say, when you came aboard, “Doctor Livingstone, I assume?” Of course, I meant, “Doctor Livingstone, I presume?”.’ But Captain Feakes of the Royal Australian Navy was a great host. He gave me a whisky and soda and made me feel like a long-expected, favourite guest. Yet I felt isolated, and drained of personality, horribly cut off from other people by some queer gulf of loneliness. I had achieved my great ambition, to fly across the Tasman Sea alone, I had found the islands by my own system of navigation which depended on accurate sun-sights worked out while flying alone, something which no one had ever done before and perhaps no one ever would do in similar circumstances. I had not then learned that I would feel an intense depression every time I achieved a great ambition; I had not then discovered that the joy of living comes from action, from making the attempt, from the effort, not from success.
Squadron-Leader Hewitt of the Australian Air Force arrived and offered to lift the seaplane on board Albatross. I asked him to let me do the job of hooking on. It was dark when I went on deck. An arc-lamp shed a brilliance high up but only a dim light reached the seaplane as she was towed slowly under the lowered crane-hook. Standing on the top of the engine of the bobbing seaplane I tried to catch the ponderous hook; it was a giant compared with the one at Norfolk Island, with a great iron hoop round it, probably a help in hooking on big flying-boats, but only adding to my difficulties. I had to duck the hoop to catch the hook with one hand, and reach under it with the other to keep the two sling wires taut with the spreaders in place and the middle points of the wires ready for the hook. The hook itself was so heavy that I could not lift it with my arm outstretched. The seaplane was rolling, and also there was a slight movement of the aircraft carrier, sufficient to tear the hook from my grasp, however tightly I clung with my knees jockeywise to the engine cowling. At last I had the wires taut and the hook in place under them, when either the seaplane dropped or the aircraft carrier rolled unexpectedly. The hook snatched and lifted the seaplane with my fingers between the hook and the wires. The pain was excruciating, as the wires bit through my fingers. I shrieked. I felt ashamed; but I knew that my cry was the quickest signal I could give the winchman. The hook lowered, and I sat on the engine top, knees doubled up, leaning against the petrol tank. I could not bear to look at my hand. The hook swung like a huge pendulum above me. I felt, well, I had bragged of my skill at this job; I should just have to get on with it. I cuddled the round of the iron hook in the palm of my right hand, and rested the wires in the crook of my thumb of the other hand. Everything went easily. ‘Lift!’ I said. The water fell away, and at last the seaplane swung inboard, stopped swinging, and dropped softly on to padded mats. I said to a man standing by, ‘Help me down, will you? I am going to faint.’
When I came to I was in the ship’s hospital. My right hand was crushed, but I lost only the top of one finger. The surgeon cut off the crushed bone and sewed up the flesh. I then became the guest of the wardroom officers as well as of Captain Feakes, and it is hard to recount such marvellous hospitality. It was like staying in the best club with the mysterious fascination of naval life added.
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