SHF – John Oxley

SS John Oxley – Voyage to Sydney from Brisbane in 1970
By Johnny Woodland

More than 46 years have passed since the steamer John Oxley left the port of Brisbane for the final time. I had a small part to play with the delivery voyage which turned out to be quite an exciting event.

I was Treasurer of the Lady Hopetoun and Port Jackson Marine Steam Museum, a position I had held following the Museum taking over the old steam tug Waratah in April 1968. At that time there was a small but very dedicated number of enthusiasts who had established themselves to save the Lady Hopetoun from demolition. Lady Hopetoun was the former steam yacht of the Maritime Services Board and was a familiar sight on Sydney Harbour for many years.

Both vessels were coal fired which was especially pleasing to us who relished the aroma of steam and coal smoke.

Committee meetings were held on the Waratah and during 1969 events took a turn which had a profound effect upon the Museum. It happened that following negotiations with the Queensland Government we were offered the former pilot steamer John Oxley as a gift on certain conditions and with a security bond which was acceptable. Plans were put in place for the voyage to Sydney which involved a lot of work and arrangements for a host of items such as transport, crew requirements, provisions, engineering and bunkering, stores and legal issues and so on. The Society always had very limited financial resources and we were stretched to the limit in meeting our obligations.

An advanced party travelled to Brisbane to organise matters and to assist with steaming the vessel for trials. Later, many of us travelled up on the Brisbane Limited Express and on arrival at Roma Street we caught taxies to the wharf. I remember my first sight of the vessel as my wife Sue and I stepped onto the wharf. Bunkers were being taken from a Shell road tanker, a thin column of smoke issued from the funnel whilst steam escaped from various ports. People were scurrying around as we boarded and found our way to our allocated cabin.

After changing into a boiler suit, I went down into the engine room where I was to work as a greaser. Sue played her role in the galley assisting with the meals. The engine room was alive with activity, the main engine was being warmed and oiled and auxiliaries given a final check over. Eventually the telegraph signalled our departure and we commenced our voyage.

We departed amongst much waving and cheering and sounding of the whistle for many had come to farewell the once familiar sight of the vessel that had become so well known in the Port of Brisbane. Some were saddened to see her leave but at that time there was only a small number of interested people trying to establish their own maritime museum and they were unable to gain enough influence to keep the vessel in port.

The engine room watch was divided into 3 watches and I was given instruction in what I was required to do and how to oil the main engine and the auxiliaries. Oiling the main engine when steaming was a truly dangerous task for someone who had no previous experience and I’m sure like many others situations, OH&S would not approve of it today for one moment. John Oxley’s main engine is an open type 3 cylinder triple-expansion 17.5” x 29” x 48” x 33” stroke. That is to say, the rods and other moving parts which are connected to the crankshaft from the overhead steam chest are open and not enclosed within a casing.

In order to oil the various moving parts with the engine in motion at around 75-80 rpm, I had to step up onto a narrow grating that covered the crankshaft between each cylinder. This grating was only wide enough to gain a foothold and whilst oiling with the can in my right hand I had to keep my left arm firmly pressed against my back to avoid it coming in contact with the piston and connecting rods and eccentrics of the cylinder behind the one I was oiling.

Another problem when standing on the crankshaft gratings was the escape of steam and the occasional drops of scalding water which leaked from the steam chest. John Oxley had been de-commissioned in 1968 and maintenance had lapsed. Opening the cylinder drain cocks helped this situation but the engineer on duty only allowed this procedure occasionally. Other machinery that required oiling were the boiler feed pumps, bilge pumps and pumps for other services, the steering engine on the bridge wheelhouse and the steam winch on top of the fo’c’sle.

It was quite hot in the engine room spaces and a canvas ventilator was rigged up on a rope stretching between the funnel to the aft mast. The ventilator shute was then passed down through the skylights which gave us additional cool air. However, at mealtimes it wasn’t so good as the cooking odours wafted down and mixed with the engine room fumes, this combined with the swaying of the vessel was very off-putting for a landlubber like myself.

Occasionally I went down the passageway towards the propeller to test-feel the bearing casing over the propeller shaft. It was an uncomfortable feeling within the enclosure of the counter stern; the air was thick, the sides of the hull were sweating with condensation and with the propeller shaft spinning you had to remain alert and take care. The stokehold was a fascinating area to visit although oil-firing had replaced the vessel’s original coal-firing. Two scotch boilers provided the steam and even though it was hot there was a cool downdraught from the cowl ventilators above that stood alongside the funnel. Entry from the engine room was a narrow space between the boiler and starboard side of the hull and there was also a ladder to the deck for the fireman’s access. I remember visiting a fireman in there who told me he’d been seasick on his shift and went on to explain that he had used his boots to be sick in as he didn’t want to make a mess over the stokehold plates.

We were very fortunate to have had the services of some professional seamen such as the Master, Mate and Chief Engineer who had all previously worked in John Oxley. They were quite wonderful and very generous in giving their time for the voyage. A couple of Society members were also professionals and we were very fortunate to have with us a fellow enthusiast from Brisbane who was a doctor. Others like myself were simply enthusiastic to help out where we could.

Mealtimes were looked forward to by most and we had several cooks who all tried their culinary skills. I remember someone saying the galley stove was a beast to get going but we all enjoyed hot meals and I don’t think there were too many complaints. Meals were taken in the saloon which was a cheery room and the atmosphere was always friendly.

I can recall a few humorous occasions such as the time it was decided to hold a fire drill. The deck crew rolled out a hose and the engineer activated the appropriate pump to set the drill in motion. It went off pretty well but the old hose turned out to have a few leaks and it ended up looking more like a soaker hose in full swing. The shower on the main deck was an old fashioned thing and one in which care was needed. There was a separate water and steam cock and if you didn’t turn the water on first and the other just a little then you got a very hot surprise.

We steamed along at a steady pace, I can’t recall the speed but I think it was around 10 knots or so and a speed device was trailed out over the stern for calculating. Once we spotted a vessel far in the distance off our stern which turned out to be one of ANL’s “Trader” vessels. She overhauled us quite quickly and I wondered what they thought of the sight of our small vessel.

When we reached a point off Smokey Cape, the engine was stopped and a couple of minutes silence was held in respect for the crew who had lost their lives in the MV Noongah. A general cargo vessel of the ANL fleet, Noongah foundered in heavy seas on 25 August 1969 and 21 of the crew of 26 were lost. It was a solemn moment for all of us on board and the silence in the engine room was only disturbed by the sound of the auxiliaries. I’m sure the occasion affected our crew and I was grateful like everyone else that we were sailing in calm conditions. Eventually the telegraph rang and the engineer opened up the regulator and drain cocks and we resumed our voyage.

By Saturday afternoon we had reached the entrance to Broken Bay and proceeded up Pittwater to anchor for the night. Around midnight I was oiling up and after servicing the steering engine I went up to the bow to oil up the steam winch. It was a chilly night and fog had descended over the water. Looking back towards the bridge I saw that it had almost disappeared from view and with no life around the feeling was surreal.

Sunday morning heralded a beautiful day and we proceeded to steam down Pittwater and turn for Sydney. As we rolled gently along the northern beaches I was reminded of my previous trip along the coast on the South Steyne. A “beautiful cruise on the ocean” turned into quite the opposite as I was seasick, however, this time was thankfully different. As we approached the Heads, we were welcomed by the submarine HMAS Oxley which had left its base in Neutral Bay to rendezvous with us just off North Head. I missed the action but was told it had been submerged and surfaced off our starboard beam. It must have been a wonderful sight as it then manoeuvred to take up station ahead. Full credit must go to our executive members who had arranged for the boat to greet us and for the Navy and crew for being so generous with their time in order to help us celebrate the arrival. It was a truly magnificent gesture.

About this time the pilot came on board and made his way to the bridge. I’ve been reliably informed that he told our officers that we were not to worry about any charges and asked where we were going to berth. My informant apparently told him Balmoral Dolphins to which I believe he got on the radio to someone and came back with the news that we would instead berth at 3 Circular Quay opposite the Overseas Terminal. After being very warmly thanked he said we don’t get many “up and downers” these days. It was another example of everyone being so keen to help out.

HMAS Oxley proceeded us as we entered the Heads and turned up the channel. Here we were joined by Fenwick’s steam tug Himma, which had steamed out especially and followed along for a while on our port side whilst our own tug Waratah greeted us and steamed on our starboard side. It was generous on the part of Fenwick’s to arrange for Himma, their last steam tug, to come out and greet us. Himma looked a picture and Waratah was a grand sight too with members and guests holding on to many vantage points. She gradually fell behind our procession as the years of barnacles took their toll.

Many other boats came along to join in the procession and some dignitaries came aboard at one point including, I believe the Minister for Transport. We berthed at 3 Circular Quay and were followed by the Waratah which tied up astern and gave the Opera House a slight coating of coal dust. A truly memorable event had ended with success, one which some thought would not eventuate but one which was a credit to all who participated in one way or another.