Merchant Navy Service
After leaving the Royal Australian Navy, I joined the Navy Reserves at HMAS Moreton, in Brisbane. Our training vessel was HMAS Adroit, a patrol boat with a crew of 17. The reserve officers resented a Petty Officer from the RAN with so much up to date knowledge, navigation and ship handling skills and it took a while for acceptance. The annual 2 week cruise and exercises were interesting, one being to Milne Bay in PNG together with other patrol boats and warships of the RAN. The RAN built the Attack class patrol boats as a direct result of the Indonesian Confrontation when minesweepers had to be used for patrol work as the Navy had no other suitable small ships at the time. These patrol boats were unsuitable for Australian sea conditions, particularly in southern waters, being a bit on the small size and were later replaced by the Fremantle class patrol boats. Had the Attack class patrol boats been in service in the period of the Indonesian Confrontation they would have been perfect for our role of inshore patrolling during that war.
After the RAN, I had been working ashore and in 1974 applied to join the Seamans Union of Australia (Queensland Branch) and to my delight I was accepted. The Australian Mercantile Marine was introducing a revised leave system for seafarers whereby one accrued .784 days leave for every day on articles and extra seafarers were needed in all seagoing unions. My first merchant ship on the Australian Coast was the SS Yarra River, a new 50,000t bulk carrier operating in the Weipa to Gladstone bauxite trade. She could pickup 50,000t but because of draught constraints passing over the bar at Booby Island entering Torris Strait north about, most times only 7 of her 9 hatches were loaded. The hatch covers were operated hydraulically and lifted upwards in sections before rolling to the end of the hatch. Seamen worked a leave swing of 40 days on and 30 days off. I was paid almost double the wages of the RAN, had single berth self contained accommodation, excellent food and no longer had to call anyone "Sir"! I joined the ship in Gladstone in 1974 and worked in her until December 1976.
My next ship was the SS P.J.Adams (the "Adams Family"), an old Ampol tanker bringing crude oil to Brisbane from Western Port Bay in Victoria. In older merchant ships, the officers lived midships and we lived in the poop over the propeller which was quite noisy. To go on watch one had to walk to the bridge over the aft deck which could be awash when the ship was loaded to her marks and encountered heavy weather. Entering Bass Strait, rounding the Prom and crossing the "paddock" was usually rough and cold. The crew were sedentary, self centered, self serving, very inbred and resented a stranger on board, so when my relief turned into a permanent job I declined thankfully.
I then joined the 7,500t bulkie, MV Iranda (Murray for Black Cockatoo) an old "I boat", launched in Newcastle in 1957 and 20 years old when I joined her, with a top speed of a very relaxing 7 knots, carrying sugar round the Australian Coast and over to Auckland in Kiwi where I was discharged with a sprained ankle. The 4 hatches were opened by lifting them on offset wheels using hockey sticks and then pulled by wires. The infamous "hockey sticks" were a way of life in older merchant bulkies and were a constant cause of injuries, the more serious being broken jaws or broken arms. After returning to the ship in Australia, Iranda delivered a cargo of paper pulp from Port Huon in Tasmania to Fremantle, south about, and after discharging, sailed to Bunbury to load mineral sands (fulminate) and then the ship was handed over to new Greek owners. The Australian crew flew to their home ports, Iranda sailed from Bunbury and was never heard of again.
For a couple of years I worked in some of the old Lakies, my favorites were the Lake Sorrell and the Lake Macquarie carrying alumina, sugar, gypsum, cement, salt and wheat. On one berthing at Woolloomooloo with 15,000t of salt from Rockhampton, the pilot made a mess of it and the ships bow almost knocked the roof off the "Rockers" and when everyone came out of the bar to see what was happening we spoke to the barmaid in a normal voice and asked her to set up 10 beers as we would be straight down! These old Lakies were the last Australian merchant ships to have graceful lines. I then took a job in MV Jeparit which was a modern merchant small bulk carrier that had been seconded by the RAN to transport tanks and equipment to Vietnam during the Vietnam War disaster. The ship had been run down terribly by the RAN before being handed back to the ANL. One night entering Mackay Harbour to load sugar, the Pilot thought he knew more about steering the ship than me with the result that Jeparit demolished about 15 feet of the end of the wharf. He was a young smart arsed pilot and a Pommie to boot and I did not feel even slightly sorry for him. I could have easily avoided the collision, after all I was the "mud pilot".
Following Jeparit I found myself in the MV Australian Emblem, a box boat with RoRo (merchant container ship with roll on, roll off) on the Australia to Japan run which was known as the Eastern Seaboard Service or ESS. This ship was new and conditions were luxury for all unions on board. She was powered by 3 diesel engines driving an electric motor and a single variable pitch propeller and when "Full Away" planed at 28 knots. She leaned into wheel instead of away as displacement ships do. During my time in the Emblem we carried live draught horses to Japan for human consumption and on one occasion during a wet and windy tie up after midnight in Yokohama, the ship's rear door (all 30 tonnes of it, see photo below) fell off onto the pad. Had the weather been fine there would have been 20-30 Japs waiting to come on board and certainly many would have been killed or hurt.
On another occasion there were containers of wet cow hides in the darkness of the lower vehicle deck and when we went down to unlash the cargo prior to berthing, the deck seemed particularly spongy and on closer examination was found to be 10 centimeters deep in writhing fat maggots. When the Japs opened the hatches and saw the maggots we all thought they were going to eat them!... perhaps they did!!
Office seat polishers called "Planners" were responsible for the placement of the deck containers and often stuffed up the loading so a stack of containers was too high for our lashing gear. The ship often sailed with stacks of containers not lashed and if heavy weather was encountered it was quite common that some would be lost overboard but no one seemed to care, no wonder ANL went broke.
With bankruptcy looming and lack of Government support the ANL attempted a profile change which included a new funnel and the good old red, white and blue was replaced by the Australian national colours of green and yellow but all to no avail. I often wonder what academic thought that spending money repainting the ship funnels would save the shipping line from oblivion. As with any closure seafarers wages were sited as the main impost to making a profit however the real reason was gross mismanagement, being inefficient, top heavy in the office department and too many office parties!! It must be remembered that the ANL was an Australian Government owned shipping line run by semi bureaucrats and for that reason was unable to compete with private enterprise.
I worked again in the Weipa bauxite trade on the SS Curtis Oceanic and the terrible Tolga, before a job in the SS B.P. Endeavor, an old tanker operating between Melbourne, Adelaide and all ports in between. This ship was an old scow and the main deck valves were still manual and took 3 men to turn. "Ringbolts" (stowaways, molls) were a common part of life in this ship and were carried by just about everyone at some time or another. The Master turned a blind eye to the practice, often taking a ringbolt himself. The ship may have been an old scow but the overnight parties at sea were something to remember!!
Christmas Eve 1979, and the Shipping Master rang me at home with a job. I had only been on leave for a week or so but a trip to England and Europe via Suez was to good to pass up, so I flew to Melbourne on Christmas Day and joined the SS Australian Endeavor (the old ACT 3) the next day. We sailed for Fremantle and Suez two days later.
I was on the wheel when the ship entered the Bitter Lakes midway through the Suez canal and on the port side was a deserted large airstrip with underground aircraft bunkers. There were small trees growing out of cracks in the runway and I asked the Egyptian ship pilot why they were there - he replied "camouflage"!! It was the joke of the trip!
Europe was in the grip of industrial disputes and all our scheduled ports were changed, often while the ship was at sea, so one never knew which port was to be next. One of the best ports I have ever visited was Fos Le Mer in southern France. This container port was new however the town nearby is Port St Louis, untouched by tourism and for the most, the outside world.
On returning to Australia the company asked all crew to stay on for an extra week for a quick trip to Kiwi and back to Melbourne. The quick trip turned out to be 6 weeks because of industrial trouble in all Kiwi ports, not only that, Kiwi beer is bloody awful!
I worked for a while in the new Lakies, Lake Eyre and Lake Barrine carrying wheat, gypsum, cement and sugar. About every second trip was to Tasmania with wheat from Geelong, Ceduna or Newcastle.
I was on the top of the roster in Brisbane when probably one of the best jobs at that time came up, it was the tanker SS Esso Gippsland, which I immediately took. The ship worked 6 weeks on and 6 weeks off with annual leave when the ship drydocked. Ringbolts were regularly carried in this ship too. The main ports were Melbourne, Port Stanvac, Devenport and Hobart with occasional voyages to Brisbane and Townsville. While loading at Stanvac there was a rush of oil and a spill occurred. The decks were running with black crude of what seemed like hours. On another occasion we took black crude oil residue (called "black thick") to Whyalla however the engineers forgot to steam heat the tanks and when discharge started on a cold night the whole system solidified. Shore was unable to run the pig and clear the lines and our pumps were chocked.
There was a three day wait until a hot day softened the oil and discharge was started. The deck crew spent the time catching sand crabs from the adjacent beach and partying into the night. On one occasion after sailing light ship (light ship is more dangerous than loaded because of the fuel/air mix in the tanks) from Botany Bay there was a fire in the engine room and it was rather funny to see ringbolts dressed in overalls trying to hide in the life boats. The fire was extinguished by the below crew thankfully as I was first man on the deck fire hose in breathing apparatus and did not relish the thought of going down into the engine room to fight a fire.
After 18 months I went back on the roster and secured a relief in the MV Anro Australia, a brand new box boat with RoRo that traded in a consortium of three - Anro Asia and Anro Merask, from Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Devenport, Adelaide, Fremantle to Djarkata (Tanjuon Priok), Singapore, Penang and Kalang before returning to my home port of Brisbane. I then had leave until the ship returned to Brisbane. Living conditions were referred to as "a floating feather bed" in the Australian Parliament, not that pollies do it too tough either?!
On the first trip to Tanjuon Priok, the port for Jakarta, the ship owners, ANL, advised the ship to ensure that all the down below was securely locked to prevent unauthorized access. There was a small door in the Starboard Funnel that led down a ladder into the engine room and it was overlooked resulting in a million and a half dollars of engine room spares stolen in one night. The next morning an Indonesian "business man" came on board to see the Captain and offered to sell the spares back to the ship - it was the first that anyone knew they had been stolen!
A small bar in Tanjuon Priok was our "water hole" and it was in need of repair so we organised to paint the inside and pinched the paint and rollers etc from the ship. After the job was finished we were all having a free beer when the Indonesian owner of the bar said to me "don't matter what you do to help us, one day we come and take your country!" Very reassuring!!
The seamen worked one trip on and one trip off of 6 weeks duration. Everyone in the crew bought a keg of duty free beer in Melbourne for $20.00 and the beer was free from then on for crew and guests. The job became permanent and I took it thus revisiting some of my old haunts in Singapore. The ship finished the outbound voyage in Kalang, Malaya where the vehicle deck was emptied out and filled with sawn timber. On arrival in Brisbane the ship received Pratique while in Moreton Bay and after berthing at Newstead wharf, Brisbane, the rear door was opened and all sorts of exotic vermin, insects and sometimes birds were released into the Australian environment without any inspection by AQIS.
One of our favorite tricks in the Far East was when there was a new shore based gangway watchman of Muslim persuasion, we would get him breakfast of bacon and eggs and watch him eat it before declaring that the bacon was in fact, pig!!