The Godfather: Peter Corris on as-told-to autobiographies Part 2
In April 1998 Captain Ken Blyth, a Scot and an experienced and respected merchant mariner, was in command of a tanker transporting thousands of tons of fuel through the South China Seas. The vessel, named the Petro Ranger, was boarded by pirates, diverted to a secure harbour and held for some time, with the crew under restraint, while negotiations went on between various interested parties.
Eventually Captain Blyth managed to arrange an escape. Chinese authorities took control but the vessel and crew were detained under guard in Haikou Harbour while conflicting elements within the Chinese authorities sorted out their differences.
The hijacking and subsequent developments received newspaper coverage and a publisher, alerted to the story, conceived the idea of a book with me as the Captain’s co-author. Ever the romantic, mention of pirates quickened my blood and the project sounded interesting, Captain Blyth was amenable, the advance and royalty terms I was to receive were acceptable and so it was arranged.
Our first meeting was not propitious. I was living in Byron Bay at the time, affecting a hippie appearance with long hair and an earring. Ken Blyth, then living on the Gold Coast, turned up clad in immaculate white trousers and shirt, reminiscent of a naval uniform. Our friendly dog jumped up on him and besmirched his whites.
Our personalities were not congenial. The Captain was somewhat stiff and conservative with a religious bent. But as he told the story I admired his resilience, the concern he showed for his crew, and his courage, and so taping and writing got underway. We met several times in Byron Bay and on the Gold Coast. Captain Blyth was not a gifted storyteller and I had to struggle to dramatise the events. As well as moments when there were good reasons for fear, there were lighter moments such as when the Chinese guards, soccer enthusiasts, became more agreeable on seeing a photograph of the Celtic soccer team on the Captain’s desk. A keen soccer fan, he had tried out for the team and still regretted that he had not had the required ability.
Matter-of-fact as his delivery mostly was, Captain Blyth did, however, become animated on the subject of Andrew Bolt, who, representing himself as working for the Brisbane Courier-Mail, twice bravely ventured out in a sampan to the ship while it was under guard by Chinese police. He secured one interview with the Captain but according to Blyth his reports were partly fictional, self-aggrandising and their publication caused difficulty in the negotiations underway with the Chinese. Bolt exaggerated the threat he had faced and, when he was detained by the police, issued an apology for the offence he had caused – although once back in Australia his subsequent article denied he had apologised. Far from being an accredited journalist, Bolt had entered China on a tourist visa and was ignominiously deported.
Somehow the elements of the story – the hijacking, the release, the enforced detention and privations and the Captain’s suspicions of an inside job – never came together satisfactorily and the book, published in 2000 as Petro Pirates: The hijacking of the Petro Ranger, was not a success. The publishers conceded that the material was perhaps more suited to a magazine article than a book.
This was a low point in my career as a co-author but worse was to come.
To be continued …