Fly River: Peter Hay

When I got married in 1969, the idea was to have a year doing something interesting before settling down to kids and suburbia in Sydney. A shipmate from Jardines was Master of a coaster in New Guinea and I was going to go as Mate. In the event the job became vacant, and had to be filled, before I could get there. We had already booked tickets so we went up anyway, “on spec”.

A visit to the Harbourmaster’s Office came up with some ideas of where to look for work. The most interesting job, which I applied for and got, was as Master of a small coaster which had just arrived in Port Moresby, and was going to be running from Port Moresby across the Gulf of Papua to Kiunga which was approx 480 miles up the Fly River. Geologists for a big American mining company had found encouraging deposits of gold/copper on the surface but the depth had to be established. The ship was on charter to them to take all the exploration mining equipment, fuel, stores, etc., up there.

The ship had been built in Singapore, without much input from a naval architect I suspect, and was 300 gross tons. Engines and accommodation aft and two hatches forward with a 5 ton crane between them. The crane was not a marine one but had its own diesel engine and worked on friction drives and clutches. Shortly after I got on board I tried it. It was diabolical. You could try easing the hoisting wire back gently and nothing would happen. Ease it back a tad further and would drop about 18 inches and then stop violently. When the crew came I let them loose on it and fortunately a couple of them became very good at it. Just as well, if you were trying to lower a truck onto a platform built over half a dozen dugouts lashed together this could get interesting.

The engines were two good V8 diesels that were good for 10 knots. The engine room had so much space in it that with a homogeneous cargo and more flotation aft you were always down by the head. The steering wheel and compass had obviously been salvaged from the breakers yard.

As I was the only person in the company with a foreign-going ticket they asked me if I would take a crew of teenagers who were going to be the next generation of skippers and give them some instruction and training. As mate I got a skipper from one of the small wooden coasters. The engineer was a Kiwi.

The mate was an older man, without much use for shoes, but a good practical seaman. He gave me some of my first lessons in coastal pilotage of the “clearing mark for the reef is the V in the hills in transit with the second palm tree from the left” variety. However he could hardly read or write and the teenagers looked down on him because of it. In turn he regarded them as a bunch of jumped up whippersnappers who had not been at sea a dogwatch. “Crabbed age and youth can not live together” as old Bill from Stratford-on-Cosmetics once put it. It was not working out so I got him posted back to his old ship and took over the mate’s job as well. The crew were good lads, and wanted to learn, but they were too easy going to want to stand over their mates, so I wound up as bosun as well.

Kiunga was pretty small in those days and there were very few villages on the way up the river so I was told to recruit a few men from one of the coastal villages to help discharge the cargo when we got to the top of the river. When they came on board there was a bit of mutual suspicion between them and my crew who came from the other end of the country. It then fell on me, with my pretty inadequate knowledge of pidgin, to give them what would now be called their Induction Course. The galley was very simple, but still more hi-tech than anything they had seen. We put our hands on the electric hot plate and I switched it on. After a few seconds they got the idea and I switched it off.

After showing them round we weighed anchor and carried on up the river. As the river had not been charted (all I had was a series of aerial photos stuck together) we had to anchor each night. After we had anchored that night the engineer and I were sitting in deck chairs and having a beer when I smelt wood smoke and thought I had better investigate. My deck crew had accepted that there was to be no smoking on deck but nobody had said anything about cooking on deck. Not liking the galley they had got some dunnage and made a cooking fire. As the deck was covered in cargo they made the fire on top of the cargo. The cargo was a few hundred drums of Avgas and Avtur (Aviation gasoline and Aviation turbine fuel).

A defining moment in any navigator’s life is the first time he goes aground. The steering gear was hand hydraulic (no motors/pumps) and very low geared: 13 turns from hard over to hard over. This was topped off with a steering wheel that looked as if it had spent its younger years rounding the Horn. Worse was to come. There was no self-centering: if you took your hand off the wheel, the wheel stayed there. To really top it off there was no rudder indicator.

Surprisingly, it was passable in the open sea, but going up the river had its moments. I started off the conventional way: “Four turns to port, steady, three turns to starboard”, but it was not going to work. Fortunately, again, the sailors were excellent, and got a feel for it. I would give them a mark to steer for, and then say “More towards the bank”, etc. When they wound up with the wheel hard over and still paying off they would tell me and I would try to correct it with the engines. (I would spend a lot of the day never more than five seconds from the controls.) The ship was long, narrow and shallow draft so the steering characteristics were strongly reminiscent of a sailing dingy with a broken centerboard.

The first time the inevitable happened, it all seemed to be in slow motion. I felt as if I was a disembodied observer somewhere above the ship. “We are going to go into the scenery,” was the thought. With one engine ahead and the other astern there was nothing more I could do. I had never realized that 20 seconds came in 20 bite sized chunks, as it were. Once we hit I had to keep her slithering/sliding over the thick glutinous mud because if we came to a dead stop there would have been a “plopping” sound and we would have been there for some time. Fortunately in the times we went aground we never quite lost momentum, and managed to get off without having to get technical and resort to kedge anchors, etc. (Mind you my copy of Danton’s Seamanship got a lot more thumb marks in it then, than it ever did while I was studying for my “Ticket”.)

The ship had started running just after Christmas which is the “wet” season up there and the NW monsoon. We crossed the Gulf in the lee of the land and the weather was pretty benign (no cyclones that year). One trip when we came back down the river everything had changed. To be more precise, the seasons had changed. We now had the “dry” season and the SE trade winds. The ship only had a small forepeak tank and no ballast tanks, so the lightship draught was about 2 feet. Although the wind was only about 15 to 25 knots it had come a long way over water and coupled with the shallow water it produced a short steep sea. The pounding was severe and I began to worry about the quality of welds on the single skin.

A year previously I had been up for my Masters (majored in mini skirts and beer, minored in shipmasters business and meteorology) and the ship was very close to the box shaped vessel so beloved of DoT examiners. I worked out that if I flooded the forward hatch I would still have lots of GM. (For nonseafarers GM is the amount of leverage that is trying to push the ship upright again after it has been forcible inclined by waves or shifting weights on board. It is found after a number of complex calculations.) The thing that stopped me was that although I had not, at that stage of the game, sailed with that abomination on the face of the seven seas—the ballast hatch—you did not need much imagination to work out what the “sloshing” effect, in a half filled hatch in those conditions, would be.

It was just as well. GM is only an approximation for the area under the curve, and only applies to big ships. This came out a few years later when the Blyth Star, a small coaster, capsized off Tasmania.

A few hours later, when I was trying to get some sleep, the man on the wheel called me and said “Kompass, him no go”. The compass was on the monkey island. (Again for non seafarers, this is the deck above the bridge. The magnetic compass was up there to keep it away from the steel structure and a projector goes from inside it through the wheelhose deckhead and can be read by the man on the wheel. The ship was too small to have a gyro or mechanical compass.) When I went onto the monkey island I found that one of gimbals had sheared off with the pounding and the bowl was wedged at about 25 degrees. I lifted the whole thing off and sat it on top of the projector. It worked after a fashion, but neither Grant nor Klinkert1 would have approved.

A few hours later I heard a crash overhead, followed by rumble, rumble, splash. Shortly afterwards I got another call from the man on the wheel. When I got on the monkey island I found that one of Kelvin’s balls had disappeared and the whole compass was breaking up. Despite my attempts with wedges, Spanish Windlasses, etc., it disintegrated. The uncorrected compass bowl would not work in the steel wheelhouse. Needless to say it was the only one on board.

Ah well, the SE trades caused the problem, the SE trades fixed it. Put a flag up the foremast, shone a cargo cluster on it, and told the man on the wheel to keep the wind 3 points on the bow. Dr David Lewis would have approved.2 The following night we raised the loom of Port Moresby on the port bow, more or less where it should be.

It looked as though we were going to have to carry permanent ballast which, apart from cutting out cargo, would have had to be shifted from hatch to hatch depending on whether we were light or loaded.

Another way presented itself. At the airstrip in Kiunga when they had finished with a drum it was rolled into the jungle and left. This was long before the environment had been discovered/invented. Anyway, I borrowed a couple of trucks and got the crew to bring a few loads of the empty ones back. They were then put in the forward hatch, lashed in position, and filled from the deck service line. When we got back to Moresby I told the company and they sold them back to the oil company.

This last move brought strong disapproval in the “Bottom Pub”, which was where the local seafaring community drank. They were all colorful characters and had some excellent small ship sailors among them. In some instances their heroic feats of seamanship were equaled only by their heroic feats with a bottle.

Anyway, apparently what I should have done was had a word with the wharf supervisor, who would have talked to someone else, who would have talked to someone at the oil company. The result would have been that without anything going through the books formally, there would have been a nice little “earner” for us all. I still had a lot to learn.

On another occasion a bunch of scientists came into the “Bottom Pub”. There was a reef marked on the charts as “Existence Doubtful”. If it existed it was in the right place for one of their studies. They had flown over the area unsuccessfully, and someone had suggested that they try the “Bottom Pub” as being the repository of most local nautical knowledge. The debate, fueled by much SP (lager) and “Bundy” (rum), as to whether this reef did/did not exist was getting quite heated. After half an hour I began to think that if Columbus had paid any attention to the dockside tavernas of Cadiz, America still would not have been discovered. Eventually a voice from the back said “If old so and so has not hit it, it does not exist.”  Motion carried. By this stage the boffins had lost interest in the reef and were busy soaking up the local ambience (or similar).

One trip when we got to Kiunga there were some men from a different tribe waiting on the bank. True, they were half naked, bearded and tattooed. They were also white. The “Top Camp” had run out of beer and they had sent some roustabouts down to speed things up. Elbowing my deck crew aside they started cargo work with a vengeance. Once they had got the first couple of dozen cases they headed to the airstrip, where first a light plane and then a chopper would take them to the “Top Camp” in the mountains. Cargo work then resumed at a more measured pace.

You can learn from all of these things and I took to having the beer, suitably dunnaged, put at the bottom and the ends of the hatch. On the odd occasion thereafter we achieved some remarkable brisk cargo outturn figures. I was learning fast.

As the known world gets bigger, missionaries get herded into the smaller parts of the unknown world. There were a lot of them in the Fly River. Some of the major religions did a lot of good work, but some of the fringe groups, particularly from the American mid-west, were downright scary. As a goodwill gesture my company used to arrange for us to drop off stores at the various mission stations on the way up. I can remember being out on the after hatch with an earnest young missionary who was saying “Twelve bottles of HP sauce, one broken and in dispute” while at the same time I could hear a Texan voice on the SW radio asking, not very politely, where his Avgas was, as his choppers were grounded. If he only knew!

Things reached a bit of a head one day when I was told by one mission station that it was Saturday, and their holy day, so the discharge would have to wait till tomorrow. “Brothers and sisters there is a spirit of ecumenical change in the air. Either you get the cargo off now or you wait till I come back down river.” Given the choice between God and groceries, groceries won. I was learning fast.

One trip the engineer paid off and they had to find one at short notice. The replacement did not look too prepossessing but we sailed. After a couple of weeks I did not see him for a day or so which did not worry me. Then one of the crew approached me looking worried. The engineer had obviously locked himself in his cabin and gone on a bender. Human waste was a major by-product. He had then told the crew to clean his cabin up and they had refused. I told them to leave his cabin. It was a shock to me because I thought that my rapport with the crew was pretty good, but obviously they were worried that as a white man I would automatically back the other one. I got on the radio and asked for another engineer on arrival. The radio was in the wheelhouse so the helmsman could hear all conversations. I still had a lot to learn.

Many of the expat administrators, medical staff, teachers, and particularly kiaps (patrol officers) were very hardworking, dedicated people and obviously excellent role models for the future leaders of an emerging country. On the other hand there were people like the engineer who were the exact reverse. I have wondered later how the decisions and policies of the leaders of the newly emerging countries might have been shaped, in part, by their treatment from white people when they were at a young impressionable age.

One morning, after the first night in the river, the crew went forward to heave up the anchor. The windlass was a two stroke diesel (similar to a lifeboat engine) which worked through a gearbox from (I think) an army 3 tonner. Some horrible sounds came from forward. They had tried the windlass in low gear and when that did not work they tried the other two. It was only when they stopped the motor that my agonized shouts from the bridge were heard. With the pounding, the holes for the holding down bolts had worn oval and the windlass had moved out of line with the gearbox. (The shaft between the two was reasonably long.) Getting the anchor up was a long tedious job involving using the crane wires at some horrible leads.

That night I put the bow into the bank on the deep water side of a bend in the river, and got a couple of the crew to take two headlines ashore and wrap them around a few trees before bringing the ends back on board, and making them fast. That worked all right going upriver and for the first few nights coming down river, but on the last night we were going to have to anchor as there were many mud banks between the channel and the shore. We pulled the cable up on deck and put half a figure of eight round the bitts and flaked it out up and down the deck. At the end of each flake it was tied by a heavy rope snotter to the bulwark supports. A wooden pad was put under each snotter.

To let the first fleet go the snotter was cut with the fire axe. The second one went the same way. Then the ship took a shear and a lot of weight came on. The next snotter parted of its own accord, then the cable jumped the bitts and it was on for one and all. There was cable, rust, and bodies everywhere. Fortunately, the bodies were always slightly higher, wider, faster, but there was not much in it. All the cable ran out but to my surprise, and relief, two things happened.

  • The shackle on the bitter end held.
  • The bulkhead that the shackle was fixed to also held.

Both were in need of replacement/repair but they had done the job. Getting the anchor up the following day does not bear thinking about.

By now the year was nearly up and it was time to start thinking about going back to Australia and looking for a job with better pay, leave, and prospects, even if it was not going to be so interesting.

If any of the younger generation of seafarers should happen to read this they will be asking “What about SMS; audits; compliance/non-compliance, etc. There is no mention of crew committees on such things as occupational health and safety, etc. Silly old bugger should have retired when they invented containers.”  (Actually they would be dead right on that one: that’s when I should have given it away.)

Still you cannot live in the past and I too have had to change and move with the times. I have renounced the follies of my youth. (Well, not all of them, but that is an entirely different matter.) I have been QA’d; ISM’d; ISO’d; BRM’d; PDC’d and everything else in the alphabet soup. Whereas I did my first circumnavigation on a ship without gyro or radar, now my Bluetooth GPS downloads my position onto the electronic charts on my laptop computer. I can consider myself to be a thoroughly modern pilot.

However there is one very subversive thought that lurks at the back of my mind: Going to sea used to be good fun, didnt it?

1The Ships Compass by Grant and Klinkert. Routledge & Kegan Paul.
2Dr David Lewis. A Kiwi yachtsman who navigated across the Pacific the Polynesian way using sea/swell patterns; migratory birds; cloud formations, etc. He used everything except a compass.


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