Tessa Perri all but ran away to sea, just as they do in those old romantic sagas. Where the young heroine meets the man of her dreams as they sail the world’s oceans. Hang on, isn’t that exactly what happened here? CHARMAYNE ALLISON reports
AS a little girl, Echuca's Tessa Perri wanted to be a hairdresser just like her mum.
But at the still tender age of 18, somehow found herself on the high seas with the Royal Australian Navy.
It took a curious twist of fate and a whole lot of blood, sweat and tears to get her there.
But it was the beginning of an almost 10-year love affair which would see her sail to five different countries on six different ships, enduring physical and mental challenges most of us can only imagine.
And forging friendships that would last a lifetime.
This year, Tessa made the tough decision to leave her Navy family and return home, where she and husband Richard now run Echuca's popular Roma Pizza and Pasta Restaurant.
And she's channeling all her energy into her newest (perhaps biggest) challenge yet: being a mum to two-month-old Leonardo.
Born in Kyabram in 1990, Tessa could never have imagined the whirlwind journey that would lead her to where she is today.
Growing up on the dairy farm with three older brothers, it wasn't unusual to find her swimming in channels, skinning her knees riding motorbikes or helping out on the farm.
“Yeah, it was a bit of childhood labour, they started me early,” she laughed, a twinkle in her eye.
After climbing through the grades at Girgarre Primary School and Kyabram Secondary College, Tessa faced the tough task of deciding what to do with her future.
“I always wanted to be a hairdresser like mum, so I completed my certificate one and two and worked at several salons in Ky,” she said.
“But I soon realised it was too indoors.”
Feeling a little lost, she decided to take a gap year.
Initially planning to work in Canada, her parents replied with a flat-out no — there was no way they were letting her go overseas at 18.
So she decided to try something a little tamer — the Navy.
“At that time, I kept seeing it advertised in the newspaper and on the news, so I thought I'd apply,” she said.
“I didn't know much about it at the time.”
Just 17-years-old, Tessa gritted her teeth and threw herself into the rigorous application process.
This included a fitness test in Shepparton, IQ tests, an aptitude test and an interview in Albury.
The family was just about to break out the cake and presents at her 18th birthday party zwhen she received the phone call she'd been waiting for.
She'd made it in.
From there, Tessa was whisked off to the HMAS Cerberus for recruit school.
The subsequent months were a blur of 4.30 am starts, fitness classes and training sessions — many, many training sessions.
“There was a toxic hazard gas room where we had to walk in without our masks on and hold our breath for 30 seconds,” she said.
“We then had to put on the mask, do a canister change to change the air filter, then complete five push-ups so we could learn to deal with heavy breathing.”
Then there was the flood unit.
A claustrophobe's nightmare (really, everyone's nightmare), this was a scene straight out of Titanic.
“We'd be placed in a two-storey unit and water would flow in and fill the unit so there was only a foot of air left at the top,” Tessa said.
“We had to assemble all the right tools and plugs and fix all the holes and shore the doors closed.”
There was also training for first aid, survival at sea, firearms (Tessa's handy with an F88 Austeyr), drill and seamanship.
And all this in just three months.
While Tessa never felt like giving up, she admits the first few weeks pushed her to her limits.
“One morning we had to do continuous push-ups,” she recalled.
“There were 100 people and if you dropped, everyone else would have to hold their position until you got off the ground.
“So if you gave up, they all suffered. It was all about teamwork.
“I remember crying at one point and saying, 'I can't do this'.”
This was exacerbated further by the fact Tessa wasn't allowed her mobile for the whole three months, except on weekends off.
“I only got a weekend off after one month as well, so we had basically no contact with the outside world,” she said.
“I missed talking to my family.”
Once she'd finished recruit school, Tessa took a 'gap year', joining HMAS Sirius and sailing throughout South-East Asia.
The gap year allowed her to get a feel for different jobs on the ship — from working on the bridge with the boatswains to training as a marine or electronic technician.
But Tessa soon found where her heart truly lay — in the kitchen.
“After a bit of time with the chef, I decided I loved it,” she said.
“I did TAFE for five months then a three-year apprenticeship.”
Little did she know she was honing skills that would one day serve her (and Echuca diners) well at Roma Pizza.
During that time, Tessa also trained for the medical emergency response team.
Where she experienced her first casualty.
“A man died from a gunshot wound. He put his gun back in his holster but forgot to put the safety on,” she said.
“We were 20 hours from the nearest shore, so we did everything we could but unfortunately lost him.
“It was alarming, I was in a bit of shock after it happened.”
Whenever the ship docked at the main galley in Perth, Tessa and her friends left the chaos of the seas behind them, relishing a little downtime together.
Richard — a chef from another ship — was among them.
“We were friends for three years, then we started dating,” Tessa said.
Married in 2016, the couple moved to Cairns before finally deciding to leave the Navy and move to Echuca.
And while Tessa treasured her time there, she doesn't regret her decision to leave.
“Richard and I weren't allowed to work on a ship together, so in the past three years we only had about six months together each year,” she said.
“We got a bit over being apart.”
Plus the couple had other, big dreams for their future.
The first, to have their little bundle of joy, Leonardo.
And the second — which came true much sooner than expected — to run a business.
“We always wanted to have a pizza shop and were hoping to start one in the next three or four years at least,” Tessa said.
“So when we found out the owners of Roma were selling, we decided to give it a go.”
And while it may not be the Navy, Tessa said life still moves at a dizzying pace.
“Life's still busy, with a baby and a business,” she said.
“But I wouldn't have it any other way.”