SHF – John Oxley


By Stuart Gibson

I was among crew members who traveled by rail from Sydney. We were told by project organizer, Warwick Turner, to bring enough gear for two nights at sea and “don’t forget a clasp knife – all sailors need one”. He also warned ‘”f you miss the 10 o’clock train out of Central, you’re history}. Other crew members went by air or car and arrived better rested for the voyage, which began springing off from Howard Smith’s wharf just downstream from the Storey Bridge.

There was a slight holdup to departure when it was realised that the ship’s boats were still upstream at the maritime authority’s wharf. A motor launch was pressed into service and a rescue party went upstream and secured both boats. In getting them aboard, we learned the idiosyncrasies of the old-style davits. These two whaleboats were not the only mementos of the ship’s service that came and are no longer with us. Stowed in the hold were two black marker buoys (the foremast derrick and winch were not just for show). The last of these buoys was seen bobbing at the junkings end of Rozelle Bay in 2003.

My first job was to help secure bottles of ammonia forward of the ship’s refrigeration room, just in case the weather turned nasty. In fact, the seas were calm most of the way and nothing too alarming happened.

There were more than 25 crew aboard and some were assigned key duties such as oiler, stoker, bosun, cook, and the rest of us were deckhands. The cooking was indifferent because the oil-fired range was never really mastered and, in the galley, David Phippard was at a loss without his off-sider Gerry Kearney (who had barbecued for Princess Margaret).

The skipper was on loan from the Queensland maritime authority of the day, Charlie Gould was Mate and Warwick Turner was lord of the engine room. I had to carve the centre out of a rubber sink plug to fit around the whistle in the engine room end of the wheelhouse-to-engine-room voice pipe, my first John Oxley contribution.

As we steamed north up the Moreton Bay channel to Caloundra, it was interesting to see the cluster of wrecks off Stradbroke Island near Tangalooma, which in later years became a tourist attraction.

On the first night out, I was on the middle watch so I was glad to bunk down after it finished at 4 am. I was barely asleep when a yelling idiot woke the whole forecastle, so for the second and final night at sea, I was determined to get more rest. I learnt there was a bunk in the pilot’s cabin, so promptly occupied it and had the pleasure of being rocked to sleep by the rhythm of the engines. It was a most enjoyable experience.

As the ship passed Norah Head the engines were cut to let Oxley drift respectfully through the area where a fishing boat had sunk with all hands the previous week. There was one other session of gently wallowing with the engines stopped. That was while the boiler tube steam jets were turned on to clear any soot build-up. Much muck issued from the funnel.

Seas had been so calm all the way that Oxley was hours ahead of schedule by the time the entrance to Broken Bay came in sight. The best speed on the towed spinner log was 14 knots, if I remember.

There was only one thing for it – to not arrive so much sooner than expected, we steamed into Broken Bay as far as Cottage Point, where a State Boating Service officer invited himself aboard to inspect our driver’s license. It made his day. He surely noticed that the Queensland Maritime had sent us away with at least two life vests per person.

John Oxley steamed through the Heads in bright sunshine to the welcoming ST Waratah, complete with my parents aboard, which circled astern and accompanied the ship up Sydney Harbour to East Circular Quay. Then the work began in earnest, shunting the vessel to half a dozen points around the harbour over the next 30 years.

Stuart Gibson,
30 November, 2020