SHF – John Oxley

A sailor’s experience on John Oxley

by Ron Thiele

About March, 1950, jobs in coastal steamers were very scarce in the port of Brisbane, where I spent several weeks “on the beach” after paying off my last ship. At the Shipping Office one morning, amongst the few jobs called, were two deckhands for the pilot steamer John Oxley so, with pockets almost empty, I decided to get into the line-up and try for one of these.

The Marine Board representative looked along the line of hopeful sailors and chose two of us, mainly, I think, because we were young and well built. Boat pulling in the Pilot Service was not for the middle-aged. Told to report aboard at 1 p.m., we strolled off to the nearest hotel for a few drinks, before collecting our gear.

Sailing down the Brisbane River that afternoon, we swung out the two whaleboats, and set up the gryping spars against which they would be secured, when not in use, for the next three weeks. After clearing the mouth of the river the state of the weather determined whereabouts in Moreton Bay the captain of the John Oxley decided to put the ship on station. If conditions were favourable we would anchor under the lee of Cape Moreton, but if the wind came in hard from the east or northeast perhaps we would not be able to anchor at all. We would then steam slowly to and fro, having a very uncomfortable time of it and, as this was the cyclone season, we quite often found ourselves in these unpleasant circumstances.

As this particular afternoon was fine and sunny the ship was anchored near Cape Moreton in ideal conditions, after which the boat’s crew assembled for a couple of “dry runs”. There was a unique drill worked out, covering all phases of the whaleboat’s launching and return. It was imperative, for the safety of all, that each man knew his particular function, and carried it out with maximum efficiency.

The John Oxley‘s whalers were propelled by four oars, with the Mate taking charge and handling the mighty sweep. The ship’s leading hand, or bosun, was stroke oar, another old hand was bow oar, leaving number 2 and 3 oars for us two new chums. Fortunately for both of us, we had spent our early years at sea in small craft, where boatwork was an almost daily occurrence, so we acquitted ourselves reasonably well when we took the boat away for the first time. Possibly we were encouraged to do our best by the thought that our first duty call out could be in total darkness and, in this season of rapid weather changes, high winds and rough seas. After two launchings the Mate pronounced himself satisfied, so we hoisted the boat to the gryping spar, and settled into our watchkeeping routine.

The deck crew of the John Oxley comprised a leading hand and four sailors, one of whom did not keep a watch or form part of the boat’s crew. He was a day worker, who cleaned the crew’s quarters, drew the meals from the galley, and did odd jobs about the deck in the afternoon. He was also called out at night to assist in the launching, and recovery, of the whaleboat. The leading hand was also a day worker, when not required in the boat, while the remaining three sailors were divided into normal sea watches, 4 hours on, 8 hours off.

The fine weather with which we began our period on station did not remain for very long. Strong winds from the south were followed by gales from the east and north-east, accompanied by heavy rain, so that our lives were made very miserable indeed. Although our skipper did his utmost to put the John Oxley into the most favourable position possible in relation to the ship we were servicing, we had many a rough, hard pull before we had the boat back safely in the davits. Our standard dress in this kind of weather was a short oilskin jacket and a pair of shorts, as we were always conscious of the fact that, at any time, we could be swimming for our lives.

On only one occasion did we refuse to take the boat away. This was a particularly bad night, with an easterly gale blowing, mountainous seas, and torrential rain falling. I was on the bridge, keeping the 12 – 4 a.m. watch when, about 3 a.m., a large Dutch tanker, his navigation lights barely visible on the eastern horizon, began to call us on his Morse lamp.

At the time we were steaming slowly into the seas, barely making steerage way, so I called to the Mate who was in the chartroom below. He immediately came to the bridge, and with our lamp acknowledged the tanker’s call, whereupon the tanker captain signalled his request for a pilot. The Mate merely acknowledged this again, but took no further action, as he expected the tanker to continue on his course into the bay.

Some ten to fifteen minutes later, when it was obvious that the tanker had not closed with us, he repeated his call for a pilot. At this point the Mate decided to go below and call the skipper, who was on the bridge within minutes, to be briefed in a few short sentences about our current situation.

As the tanker captain was still repeating his request for a pilot, and was still obviously hove to, our skipper took up the lamp and flashed back a simple instruction to continue on his course. It was our skipper’s usual procedure, in weather such as we were then encountering, to request an incoming ship to follow the John Oxley until we could get under the lee of the land, or at least into calmer conditions, before we attempted to put a pilot aboard her.

The instruction to proceed having been completely ignored, some minutes elapsed before the tanker officer commenced to signal once again. Our skipper hesitated for a few minutes then said, “We will steam out to him. Ring for full speed.”. Telling the Mate to take over the wheel he said to me, “Go and call the duty pilot and boat’s crew. Tell them to stand by”.

By the time I had called out to the men, the John Oxley was pounding into the waves, heavy seas crashing aboard and washing along her decks. The pilot remained in the relative comfort of his own saloon aft, while the boat’s crew at least remained dry in the more spartan conditions of their wildly pitching messroom, under the break of the fo’c’s’le head.

When within a quarter of a mile of the tanker, the skipper repeated once again his request that they should get under way and follow us in, but this was not even acknowledged. Stalemate.

As we were now virtually hove to, as was the tanker, seas no longer swept our decks, but the ship was rolling wildly as the Mate staggered along the deck towards us. Stepping into the messroom, with water streaming from his oilskins, he looked around at us and said, “The captain says we will have to take the boat away. He will try to make the tanker bloke understand that he will have to give us a broad lee”.

We looked at one another, and I felt my stomach roll over. We all shook our heads, and the leading hand said quietly, “You go back and tell the skipper we are not taking the boat away”. The Mate gave a crooked smile, but said nothing, and departed. We knew how he felt. If we had agreed to take the boat away he would, of course, have had to come too, handling the sweep oar. We were not cowards, but we were pretty sure that we would never have made it back to our ship.

Apparently the skipper was not inclined to argue either as, peering out of the messroom door a few minutes later, I saw him signal to the tanker a simple “Follow us in”. This was followed immediately by the clanging of our engineroom telegraph as he rang, “Full ahead”.

Running now before following seas the ship went like a greyhound, so we all made our way amidships, to check the boats and gear, to make sure nothing had been damaged. Glancing astern we could see the tanker’s navigation lights swinging as she gathered way, and within minutes she was in line with us, her huge bow scattering sheets of foam as she, too, raced before those angry seas. How we cursed obstinate Dutch tanker skippers!

Sometime later, in the comparative calm of the channel leading to the Brisbane River, we rowed a pilot across to him, but before pulling away from the tanker’s side we all looked up to her lofty bridges and in very plain Australian, told her skipper what we thought of him, the Mate pretended to be horrified, “Be quiet, you blokes, you’ll get us all into trouble”, but his voice lacked its usual tone of crisp command.

As time passed by, and we put pilots aboard all types of ships, it became obvious to me that tanker captains generally were very “land shy”, standing well off shore while waiting for us to come out to them. Liner captains, on the other hand, came charging into the bay, seemingly reluctant to waste a few precious minutes while their pilots were placed aboard, and we sometimes felt quite embarrassed as we had to actually chase them if they came in from the opposite end of the bay to that where we happened to be. The pilot’s feet were barely an the bottom rung of the Jacob’s ladder before we would hear the clang of telegraphs. With our feet well spread on the bottom boards, we would put every ounce of our weight and strength into pulling clear of that ship’s side.

Passenger ships in general had other hazards for us to be wary of, as they had so many discharge points through the ship’s side. Condenser water gushing out and turning to spray in a strong wind, oily bilge water being cleared before the ship entered port, but worst of all were the numerous galley refuse chutes. Going alongside a large Italian ship, one evening, we passed under one of these just as an avalanche of “left-overs” from the passengers’ tables shot out. We, and the boat, were covered with a sticky, greasy mess, and our language was definitely unprintable as we looked up at the grinning faces lining the rail, high above us. The pilot’s gabardine coat was dripping with a mixture of sauces and gravy, and as he grabbed the ladder and commenced to climb, he was already rehearsing what he was going to say when he reached the bridge of that ship.

When we pulled back alongside the John Oxley, where the rest of the crew caught sight of us, there was a wild burst of laughter and we were the target of much ribbing during the next few days. Remarks were made, to anyone who cared to listen, about the risks of begging “hand-outs” from the saloons of passenger ships, and how stomachs used to plain fare should be content with what came from the John Oxley‘s galley. After that episode we were very wary when approaching passenger ships, and the Mate always tried to keep us well clear of any opening which looked remotely like a galley refuse chute.

One job in the John Oxley which became pure drudgery, and which we all detested, was stowing the anchor cable. Many ships, particularly those built in more recent years, had cable lockers sufficiently deep and large that, as the cable was hove in, it did not need careful flaking and stowing, but was allowed to pile up under the spurling pipe. Not so, the John Oxley. It was necessary to stow her cable almost to the last link, to make sure that the locker accommodated the lot.

On many occasions when the weather was fine enough to remain at anchor, we would perform this exercise two, sometimes three, times in a watch. It was most exasperating to drop the anchor, pay out thirty or forty fathom of chain, then find that a ship was just steaming clear of Cape Moreton and requiring the services of a pilot.

The sailor on watch had to stow chain, while those men off duty were trying to sleep in the fo’c’s’le, directly under the pounding windlass, which was driven by the Mate. Needless to say, the boat’s crew, under these circumstances never needed calling, but were out of their bunks, cursing and grumbling, long before the last link of chain was stowed.

Life on the John Oxley was not all high adventure and hard work though. Days of fine weather found the off duty men lazing in the sun, or lounging against the bulwark dangling a fishing line hopefully over the side. On beautiful balmy evenings we would sit around the hatch, swapping yarns and telling lies, reluctant to turn into our bunks in the hot, stuffy fo’c’s’le. Fine weather also meant that pilotage jobs were quickly disposed of, the skipper sometimes taking us so close to the approaching ship that one or two good hard strokes with the oars put the whaler neatly alongside the pilot ladder.

One job we always looked forward to was putting a Torres Strait pilot aboard a north bound ship, or taking one off a south bound one. The Torres Strait Pilots were a privately run company, and only used the John Oxley by agreement with the Queensland Marine Board. However, the main interest of the boat’s crew lay in the fact that, by tradition, each pilot left £2 with the Mate to be divided between us.

Sometimes there was an adjustment needed to the number of pilots aboard our ship, as the number of outgoing vessels never seemed to match up with those coming in from sea, or vice versa. When this was necessary the Marine Board despatched a smart little wooden motor tender, the Captain Heath, out to us and as she also brought a certain amount of fresh stores, newspapers and mail, she was always a welcome sight.

The John Oxley was not the premier pilot steamer for the Port of Brisbane, this role normally being filled by the Matthew Flinders, a smart, yachtlike steam vessel, with a clipper bow and lovely overhanging counter stern. At this time she was in dockyard hands, having an extensive overhaul. Our ship was normally only the relieving pilot steamer, to take over the station when the Matthew Flinders went into port to bunker, provision and give leave to her crew. Otherwise the main work of the John Oxley involved maintenance on all the buoys, beacons and other navigation aids coming under the jurisdiction of the Queensland Marine Board.

This accounts for the heavily rigged foremast and 2 ton derrick, also the “drop down” bulwark sections on her foredeck. This simplified the bringing aboard of massive fairway buoys, while they were still attached to their heavy mooring chains.

I stayed with the John Oxley until we heard the news that the Matthew Flinders had completed her overhaul, which meant that we would return to Brisbane, provision, then commence a period of long deferred buoyage work. As this did not appeal to me I decided to try my luck at the Shipping Office, once again.

On my first morning there I was one of a full crew picked to join a new vessel just completing at Evans Deakins shipyard. This ship was the Bilkurra, an oil-fired steamer built for the Australian Shipping Board, later the Australian National Line. Anyone who has ever joined a new ship, fresh from the dockyard, will appreciate my sentiments when I say that, for at least a month, I deeply regretted my choice. Nothing fitted, nothing worked (except the crew), and nothing could be found when urgently needed.

Anyway, as any sailor will tell you, his last ship was always the best ship…