Fifty years ago in PNG: Brian Darcey

In 1955, I had just returned to Sydney from a trans-Tasman crossing to New Zealand in Kylie, a steel ketch which had taken up the previous two years of my young life as we built her in the sand dunes of La Perouse on Botany Bay.

As a newly married man, not yet gainfully employed, I was faced with two choices: Longreach in Western Queensland where a job as radio announcer awaited, or Port Moresby in what was then Australian Territory where Steamships Trading Company had a ship needing a supercargo (code for sea-going clerk/handyman/dogsbody).

Port Moresby (which I had never seen) seemed the better alternative and I left Sydney with a one-way ticket to Port Moresby aboard a vintage DC4 leaving my new bride behind to follow ‘later’, when my employers would hopefully pay for her to join me.

Port Moresby signalled my arrival with a shattering metallic clatter as the aircraft touched down on the wartime runway at Jackson’s Airport, still covered with the ubiquitous marsden matting: interlocking steel plates which the post-war territory used for purposes never dreamed of by its American inventors. Tank stands, pig fences, security barriers and fishtraps were just a few.

I had invested in a new officer’s cap complete with snow-white cover to complement my reefer jacket and long trousers; appropriate attire for my new career, or so I thought. Sweating profusely in the humid air, I went straight to my new ship, MV Doma which was moored alongside Port Moresby’s only wharf, fully loaded needing only its new supercargo before departing for Daru across the Gulf of Papua.

Her shirtless skipper David Herbert, brother of Australian author Xavier, raised a bushy eyebrow at the appearance of this new Supercargo in wildly inappropriate attire and wordlessly poured me a very large glass of Negrita rum before turning to the Chief Engineer with what I later learned was his invariable signal for immediate departure: “Kick ‘er in the guts Lofty!” he said, and we sailed for Daru without further ceremony.

Doma was part of a fleet of small ships bought by Steamships Trading Company for peppercorn prices from the Australian Government, which disposed of the huge mass of machinery and equipment left behind by departing US forces to anyone with a cheque book.

She was 120 feet overall. Flat-bottomed. Powered by twin diesel engines but without the usual benefit of contra-rotating propellers, which made her almost uncontrollable when going astern. She was designed by a general in the US Marines as a water tanker and general cargo carrier: if these small ships survived one beach invasion, this was all that was expected of them. Doma was fully loaded with a mixed cargo of rice, tinned meat, sugar, flour,tobacco and other staples below a single long hatch. The deck was completely covered with 44-gallon drums of highly volatile fuel, and this in turn was overlaid by over one hundred deck passengers, complete with pressure stoves, which were lit from time to time directly on top of the fuel drums.

Navigation equipment was minimal. Depth sounding was by leadline. Other aids were completely absent. No Radar, no Radio Direction Finder; and no buoys, lights, or any other indication of position or depth for the hundreds of miles of shallow, mudstained water of the Papuan Gulf. The success (or otherwise) of a voyage was entirely dependant on the local knowledge of her officers and crew, mainly the latter, whose seagoing antecedents had sailed these seas in huge claw-sailed Lakatoi canoes for centuries.

Doma successfully completed this, my first voyage, with no more than the usual number of groundings and missed landfalls. On return to Port Moresby, she was immediately loaded with an almost identical cargo for the reef strewn East Coast of Papua. Destination, Samarai, at the Southeast end of Papua.

More appropriately dressed now for my job, I approached the shipping manager for an advance on my princely salary of sixty pounds per month for an airfare for my new wife Ivy who was patiently waiting in Melbourne. To the astonishment of Skipper “Dave” Herbert, Steamships Trading Company agreed. “Yer must have caught them off guard by turning up sober,” was his percipient comment.

The voyage to Samarai was our honeymoon and attracted the close interest of planters at ports along the coast. They had been attentively listening to ships’ radio Skeds carrying my messages to Ivy which included sentiments and detailed promises of connubial bliss better expressed in more privacy than that afforded by an open radio circuit!

Heat, dust, and an overall air of makeshift dilapidation pervaded Port Moresby, still showing the effects of years of military occupation, which ended in 1945. The streets were potholed. Traffic was chaotic, and wheeled transport was salvaged army jeeps or trucks and battered sedans with the occasional new car driven by one of the newly rich entrepreneurs of this frontier town.

We set up our first home in an apartment in the dusty outer suburb of Boroko. Ivy started work as assistant to Dr Joan Refshauge in the Health Department and I went back to sea for two more trips on Doma.

Sufficient sea time now accumulated, I sat for the rudimentary examination of the times, gained a Ship’s Master’s Certificate and was immediately offered command of a small 85 foot motor vessel MV Moturina.

I managed, with the considerable assistance of my Papuan crew, to safely negotiate the entire coast of Papua for the next three months. I will be forever grateful to those Papuan seamen for their help in keeping me off the reefs and mudbanks of their home waters. A tactful, discreet cough, followed by meaningful inclination of a bushy head translated as “Turn now boss or we’ll all be swimming!”

Moturina, like Doma, was another wartime legacy, single-screwed with a high deck house aft. I first took command while she was on the slipway after a refit and proceeded to move her all of half a mile to the small ships’ wharf, where an official group consisting of the managing director, the shipping manager and the all-powerful harbour master, whose signature was hardly dry on my new masters certificate, awaited the arrival of the new Captain.

For six months of the year, the Southeast Tradewind blows across Port Moresby harbour at 25 knots or better, and it was directly behind me as I approached the wharf and its assembled dignitaries.

‘Slow Astern,’ rung down on the rickety telegraph to the engineer two decks below, had no discernable effect on Moturina’s headlong charge at the wharf… ‘Half Astern,’ followed by ‘Full Astern!’ had no time to take effect before wooden ship and solid timber wharf met with a rending crash, sending the welcoming committee down in a confused heap of white-clad limbs and bulging eyes, accompanied by a roar of alarm from the local wharf workers.

Damage was confined to a few planks stove in above the waterline, which were repaired much sooner than the ego of her chastened skipper, who retreated to the Snakepit, the mariners’ retreat at the nearby Papuan Hotel.

Previously published in Brian’s blog  < >

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