The swell and
sea were high, the wind strong, and the currents unknown. Anyhow,
we made it around the point safely, then passed between Hook and Hayman
Islands out into the Passage proper. There, despite the fact that
our sails were filling from a strong wind, we made virtually no headway
for hours because of the strong tidal stream running northwards up
During the afternoon
we gave up our battle with the elements and we began to row, and after
a couple of hours were taken in tow by a 32ft cutter from the ship
that was out on a fishing trip. And because we had been towed for
the last leg of the trip, we were "disqualified".
We informed the
Mids' Training Officer (the Ship's Navigator) that in our opinion
the waters east of Hook Island - and particularly off the northeast
point - were unsafe for a pussers 27 foot whaler; we were certainly
not novices at whaler sailing, having done it all during our time
at the College, including trips out of Jervis Bay and down to Sussex
Inlet. But we were only Snotties - what did we know?
SYDNEY in her role as a fast troop carrier
The whaler that
was sent out on Tuesday attempted a clockwise passage, and ran aground
on a sand-bar off Hayman Island, and spent the night there "
The whaler crew
that set out on Wednesday 25th also attempted a clockwise passage,
but had not returned by 0600 on Thursday 26th when the fourth, final
and fatal whaler set out.
This crew set
off in the same direction I had - i.e., for a counter-clockwise passage.
At 0900, when the previous day's whaler was still not in sight from
the ship, I was sent out as cox'n of a 25ft FMB with LEUT Jim Yates
along as my OIC to search for the missing boat. We found it off the
east coast of Hook Island, making its way slowly southward without
a mizzen mast. The previous evening the whaler had been blown onto
a lee shore on the northern coast of Hook Island, and there the crew
spent the night. (The only victuals we were sent out with were B&B
sandwiches and an orange!) We asked if they had seen the other whaler,
and they said it had passed them about an hour earlier "going
like the clappers", with all 5 on board - 4 mids and the rocky
(reservist) Sub-Lieutenant, sitting on the windward gunwhale.
We then towed
the mizzen-less whaler back to the ship - and FMBs were not designed
for towing! The waves kept breaking over the bow, and landing right
in the cockpit! That afternoon, as Captain's Coxn, I was called on
to take the skipper (Bill Dovers) and a couple of HODs out fishing.
I kept looking up the passage, expecting to see the fourth whaler
sailing southward, but saw nothing.
By the time we
headed back to the ship, around 1800, the whaler was still not in
sight, and the skipper reckoned that his prize was "safe".
Next, at 2100 that evening, I was sent out in a 32ft (Kitchener-Gear
equipped) Motor Cutter to search for the overdue whaler. No-one was
unduly concerned for the safety of those on board - the only concern
was that its late return would delay the ship's scheduled departure
the next morning.
My crew was a
young stoker and fellow Midshipman Kerry Marien, who had been in the
whaler I had towed back that morning; he was totally exhausted, and
so went to sleep as soon as we left the ship.
View, RAN 27' Whale Boat
I searched right
up the passage, past Hayman Island, and found nothing. At 0200 I put
into Hayman Island, and asked the resort manager if he had seen anything
of the whaler during the day. He said that around 1100 one of his
guests had reported seeing what looked like a "capsized boat"
with a couple of people sitting on it drifting westwards off the island's
northern shore. Why hadn't he informed us? I asked him. He said that
he had tried to contact us by radio, but had been unsuccessful.Then
he had tried to get under way in his boat, but had got a line around
his propeller shaft and given up.
We then tried
to contact the ship by radio, and we were also unsuccessful. At 0400
we set out on the 19-mile trip back, and made it in 2 hours - I think
the tidal stream must have been right up up our kilt!
Well, when I reported
to the skipper and navigator on the bridge, the crappy stuff hit the
whirling blades! A search then commenced, which eventually involved
the destroyer HMAS ANZAC, air-sea-rescue launch AIR SPRITE, and a
Gannet from NAS Nowra flown by LCDR "Tos" Dadswell, who
had been our first Training Officer at the College.
Kerry Marien and
I were sent across to AIR SPRITE after she joined, as she only carried
one officer - LEUT Robbie Burns - and 3 were needed if she was to
be underway 24 hours a day. The first thing AIR SPRITE did after we
joined was to head into Bowen to victual. There we talked with local
fishermen, who wanted to know what the "flap" was. We told
them, and they asked where the boat was thought to have come to grief.
We told them off the northeast point of Hook Island, which produced
much tut-tutting and rolling of eyes. We asked that if a boat capsized
there, where would it go? The unanimous answer was "north".
We passed this expert "local knowledge" on to SYDNEY, but
the navigator was adamant that all the tidal streams and currents
in the area would cancel each other out, and the whaler should still
be somewhere around Hayman Island. And that is where SYDNEY, ANZAC
and AIR SPRITE continued searching - we in AIR SPRITE going close
inshore to all the small islands to scan the foreshores.
whaler's mizzen mast was found washed up on one of the smaller islands.
Then, on the second day of the search, just on dusk, ANZAC was heading
south at 30 knots to rejoin SYDNEY after having refuelled, when the
Buffer sighted what he thought was a capsized boat flash down the
A Dan-buoy was
immediately released, but a search during the night found nothing.
Come daylight, however, and the whaler was found - upright, but submerged
to the gunwhales. In it, under the thwarts, were two bodies. The position
in which the whaler had been found was 72 miles from where it had
most probably capsized. And in which direction? North! So much for
SYDNEY's "expert" navigator!
Despite a continued
search, the other 3 bodies were never found - nor were the bottom-boards
or the oars.
On Cape Bowling
Green, however, a semi-inflated pussers life-jacket and a rubber-encased
DC torch (which would not float) were found, indicating that probably
someone had got ashore there. Inland, however, was nothing but swampland
for miles - where someone without proper clothing, food and water
simply would not survive.
therefore, that something had happened to the whaler off the north
coast of hook to make the crew decide
to lower the masts; the bodies of one of those found in the whaler,
Dave Sanders, had a "dent" in his head as if he had been
struck by a falling mast. At some stage the whaler had then capsized,
and that was what was seen by the person on Hayman Island. Leaving
one Midshipman (Graham Pierce) with the injured Dave Sanders, the
other three apparently made a raft out of the oars and bottom-boards
and tried to make it to shore.
raft must have eventually come apart, but at least one person made
it to Cape Bowling Green, but then perished in the swamp. Subsequent
courts-martial exonerated the Captain and the Navigator, but the latter,
to our mind, should have been hung by the neck until dead.
The Names of
the four Midshipmen lost were:
David Sanders (body in whaler)
Graham Pierce (body in the whaler)
The RANR subby
was SBLT Norman Longstaff.
February, we lost another 4 of our year in HMAS VOYAGER - all of whom
had been serving in HMAS SYDNEY during the whaler "incident".
There names were:
Kerry Marien (posthumously awarded the Albert Medal for his courage
on this fateful night)
The loss of 8
of our number in a 5 Month period led to us being branded the "Jinx
Year". That didn't do much for our psyches, I can tell you!
Royal Australian Naval College - HMAS CRESWELL