There are 20 skippers on Five Short Blasts, Madeleine Flynn and Tim Humphrey's community-crafted project at the mouth of the Swan in Fremantle.  Half of them are young women, Freo locals who've grown up with one foot in the water and the other firmly on the ground. They’ve messed around in boats all their lives, got their skipper's tickets, and are navigating their way into their adult lives with a hand on the tiller and an eye on the horizon.

They’re such good company, such careful, enthusiastic and watchful guides whose love of these waterways is fierce and motivating. They’re confident, and they’re proud: of the place where they live and its stories, of their own skills and capacities, of the project that's brought us all together here in this little flotilla of 10 small boats, locally designed and built. Though only 2% of seafarers worldwide are women and they occupy less than a third of shore-based maritime jobs, let there be no mistake about the role of women in Five Short Blasts, on and offshore. As storytellers, skippers, producers, cultural and community navigators and elders, as artists, participants, gatekeepers and creators, women young and old have shepherded this project into being. They’ve all come to Five Short Blasts as equals, as skilled participants, committed to the values that underlie all of Maddie and Tim's work, and the practice of their gracious, generous, immensely capable community producers and barefoot boat-whisperers Bec Reid and Katherine Wilkinson.

We go out, five to a 'Power Kitten’ (baby catamaran), in the early evening, as the sun sets behind the row of giant cranes in the port and the vessels there flare gold and bronze. We go out together listening to the radio built into the boats and broadcasting on just one band, 89.1 FM. One band, ten thousand signals: Five Short Blasts is built around the idea of marine communication, the transmission of meaning and intent over distance in a constantly-changing context of water, wind and weather.

Moon and telephone lines. Photo: Ruth Little

In maritime signalling parlance, five short blasts indicates uncertainty about the intention of another vessel. It signals fear of possible collision, that some kind of remedial action is urgently required.

Quite. Though Five Short Blasts is itself a meticulously conceived and crafted event, its actual playing out varies hour by hour according to local conditions and the movement of other vessels, from kayaks to monolithic container ships, across its three daily iterations at dawn, early morning and on the cusp of night. And its small uncertainties in time and space are an allegory of what's required to navigate the larger existential uncertainty that characterises this new human epoch. We need alert skippers and wise elders as never before.

But they’re already here, these journeywomen and life-craftsmen, and they’re on the river now, taking their bearings, communicating with one another and responding to the changing context and the complexities of navigating in a commercial waterway which is also a process, also a living system of many, many stories. We have to learn how to listen like them, for all the voices of place, because the truth is in their abundance, and resilience depends on behaviours of care and attention to them all.

Photo: Ruth Little

They’re not tour guides, these careful pilots, but contour guides, taking us round the edges of things, the cultural and ecological meeting places. The voice of young writer, academic and Noongar descendent Cassie Lynch emerges from the wash of story and memory as we pass the pocked cliffs of Rocky Bay. She tells us that the creator serpent Waugal slept here on its journey home upriver. On the boats, and in her research and writing, Cassie is bringing together Indigenous and scientific understandings of the vast wavelength of time's geological and mythological tides. Cassie has listened to the stories of elder Marie Taylor, and she's teaching us to listen more deeply and attentively to these water-words over the putter of engines and the slap of waves on the south-westerly breeze as we turn towards the port. There's so much life beyond the surfaces of wave and rock, urban development, industrial geometries and the shout of the digital 'now'. For these 80 minutes, our phones are silenced and away, and our senses are open to the near and the far, to the ceaselessness of life's signals.

When I was born in Sydney in the 1960s, things were different for women of my mother's generation. There were fewer signals coming in from their social context, fewer opportunities to enter uncharted waters with curiosity, confidence, and bodily freedom. Throughout the 70s, as I sailed on lasers in Sydney harbour with my friends and rode horses across the wild country along the Goulburn River, my mother struggled to earn a living as a divorced parent of 3 children. In 1976 there was one woman in the Legislative Assembly in Parliament. Wikipedia puts it simply: 'Historically a masculine bias has dominated Australian culture.'

Photo: Ruth Little

Well goodbye to all that here on the riffling blue waters of the lower Swan, where Harbour Master Allan Gray shares airtime and expertise with Fremantle local and Festival executive producer Anna Reece, a former sea scout who learned as a child to read the river and who comes down daily to the water for peace, solace and a resetting of her compass to the rhythms of place. Their voices are interwoven with those of sailors and swimmers, marine ecologists, writers, children, boatbuilders, ferry operators, kayakers, divers, dogwalkers and dolphins. They are Noongar and wadjela, immigrants and drifters, women and men, teenagers who grew up with the white sands of the geologically adolescent Swan Coastal Plain between their toes. And they’ve all come here to be home first and foremost, to learn how to care for this place and its intersecting ecologies.

Water is an excellent solvent, a dissolved of difference, and sound travels up to five times as fast through water as through air. This has led to high levels of environmental and sound pollution in many waters, and one of the many damaging impacts of that has been interference in and scrambling of the communication systems of marine creatures, particularly whales and dolphins. For every skipper in the Five Short Blasts fleet, there's a dolphin that swims in the Swan River every day, one of a group of around 20 that has grown up here and possesses detailed local knowledge of the movements of fish in these waters. One of more of them has been seen every day by the Five Short Blasts team. As we listen to the array of gentle voices, sounds and music on the VHS radio, what engine thrum and boom do they endure all day, what actual entanglement, not in stories but in lines and nets and wires? As we turned away from Rocky Bay, a dolphin rose and rolled beside the lead boat.

Photo: Ruth Little

The naturalist John Muir wrote that 'When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe'. To deal with her displacement and depression, her loss of bearings in the late 1970s, my mother's doctor gave her sleeping pills, and she took them all one day in 1986, at the age of 50. Doctors know better now. And the Fremantle Doctor, that alternative healer of the Noongar hot-dry bunuru season, will blow you sideways and back into the current of life. There's everything to live for and with, here on the water.

Down in a cool dark corner of Strange Company in Fremantle we gathered to speak of these things; Tim and Maddie, who have now adapted Five Short Blasts to the profoundly different marine and social contexts of 5 cities worldwide, Cassie Lynch and Harbour Master Allan Gray. We were joined by 60 Fremantle residents and visitors like me, a confluence of the curious, the place-connected and those who were deeply affected by Five Short Blast's interweaving of past, present and possible futures, its Dreaming and disappearances, its blurring of life and art. At the end of the conversation an older woman stepped forward from the crowd. I last saw her at my mother's funeral 34 years ago. Tim Humphrey cried when he spoke about the experience of making Five Short Blasts. I cried when I saw that forgotten but familiar face who saw my mother's face in mine. Of all the places she might have found me, this was the best. Our bodies are almost 70% water, and our tears are traces of the marine environment in which we evolved. Life, says William Bryant Logan, is the story of vessels that learned to contain the sea. It's our forgotten but familiar home, and its future is our future.

Teardrops under a microscope. Photo: Maurice Mikkers

'Inside the river', wrote Mary Oliver, 'there is an unfinishable story/ and you are somewhere in it/ and it will never end until all ends.' This country, this water, as elder Marie Taylor tells us on the journey out from shore, is Crow and Cockatoo Dreaming land. In Noongar culture Crow helped to carry the spirits of the dead across the western sea to their resting place at Kurannup. The name of my mother's friend, now 85, is Catherine Crowe. In cycles is solace. As Five Short Blasts reminds us so keenly, time and water journeys are not linear, not fixed, not certain. They are processes of relating, of perpetual listening and signalling, and this work of love has brought us all together, not drowning but waving.