Willy-willies of the old Northwest

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Abstract

A 'willy-willy' is an old Western Australian term for a tropical cyclone. Beresford Bardwell described one in a letter to his mother in 1908. Master of the pearling lugger Phyllis, he had put into Cape Bossut for shelter in the face of a strengthening gale and falling barometer, where he let out two anchors with 120 fathoms of chain. As the rain fell and the sky darkened, he worked desperately with his Malay crew to keep their vessel pointed into the wind. 'At 1.30 a.m. (April 27) the glass dropped suddenly to 29.52, and the wind came up with such awful violence that we lay over on our beam ends, the deck being perpendicular for several minutes', he recounted. The eye of the storm passed over and gave them a reprieve, but the Phyllis had taken on too much water, so when the tempest resumed she sank within minutes. Bardwell clung to a hatch with two Japanese divers as immense seas buried them 'fathoms deep' for hours on end. When dawn arrived, he spied land and began to swim; 'at last, when just at my last gasp, I touched the bottom and struggled into three feet of water, but was so exhausted I could not stand'. Two Aborigines watching from the sandhills carried him to their campfire, before a third guided him to the closest pastoral station, where Bardwell sent news of the calamity to the telegraph station at La Grange. By the time that Perth's newspapers were reporting on the incident he was back at the wreckage-strewn coast, retrieving bodies from the shark-infested shallows as they washed ashore on the tide.

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