The Ill Fated Midshipmen Of HMAS SYDNEY 1963
Submitted by Retired Naval Officer and member of the Graduating Class RANC 1963 - Bruce T. Swain
On Sunday 22 October 1963, HMAS SYDNEY (former Aircraft Carrier turned TroopShip) anchored in Cid Harbour in the Whitsunday Passage. On board at the time were 14 Midshipmen (including myself) who had graduated from the RANC (Royal Australian Naval College at HMAS Creswell) on July 1963, as the 50th graduating year.
There were also a couple of Supplementary List Mids and a Reserve Sub-Lieutenant.
Everyday, commencing from Monday 23rd October, a 27ft whaler was to set out with a crew of Midshipmen (Mids) to circumnavigate Hook Island; the crew who achieved this in the fastest time would receive the "Captain's Prize" - although we never found out what that was.
I was in the whaler that set out on the Monday; we aimed to go around Hook in an anti-clockwise direction. We passed between Whitsunday and Hook Islands, sailed up the eastern coast of Hook, then rounded the northeastern tip. There the conditions were "unfavourable" to say the least.
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 the passage.
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?
HMAS 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 " lucky b-----ds!"
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.
Cut-Away 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.
Eventually the 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 port side.
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.
We concluded, 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.
This makeshift 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.
The following 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!
Lest We Forget
Royal Australian Naval College - HMAS CRESWELL