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I started out as a deckboy on the dredger Morwong. It did three 8-hour working shifts per 24 hours. Then I went to the larger dredges RemoraPlatypus etc. I worked on the dredges all the time. When one dredge went into dock, they’d send me down to another if it were short of a crewmember. Altogether I was 46.5 years on the dredges StingareeBreamSeal, Dugong, Grouper, Nautilus, Cowrie, Trochus, and Sir Thomas Hiley, but eventually had to give it up because of ill health.

I also worked on the tug Koala. We used to go up to the Port of Brisbane and collect the stores and take them down to the dredges. We also took stores to the supply vessel Matthew Flinders when she came in from outside for the changeover. We transferred the crew down to Pinkenba. On one occasion we had one chap fall over the side accidentally. We got him out of the water, put a blanket round him, and took him back to the Matthew Flinders where they put his clothes in the washing machine, dried them and he was good as new. At that stage, I was based with Harbours and Marine when Cecil Fison was in charge.

I later worked from the Port of Brisbane at Whyte Island where the tugs were eventually moved to. We used to board the new dredge Sir Thomas Hiley from there.

‘Sir Thomas Hiley’ (photo courtesy Alex King)

The dredges used to tie up at whatever berth they could get into, sometimes it would be the grain wharf, or the coal wharf, or Patrick’s, or whatever wharf was unoccupied.

At Fisherman Islands, when they started to expand the bund wall out, I saw one truck run off into the water. They built the wall first, then filled it in behind later. I was a deckie on the Hiley that did a fair bit of the filling. They first started pumping the sand ashore up near the coal berth. They had a pipeline down near Patrick’s where they had a little pumping station. Every time they shifted the pipeline, the dozers would move the sand around. 

We had the Pearl River, a Danish dredge, working at the Spitfire Channel in Moreton Bay, and she used to bring the sand in from out there. She had a floating pipeline, drop her stern anchor, and pump the spoil ashore. She could move along, too, and her dredge hopper was twice as big as the one on the Hiley.

One skipper on the Hiley reckoned we were eating too much ice cream so he ordered a smaller scoop, but the cooks used to pile it on just as much. Then the small scoops gradually disappeared and they went back to using the big ones.

We crew used to steer the Hiley until they put in an automatic pilot. Then they started axing the crew. There were 33 on board. They were thinking of getting rid of all the older ones and keeping the younger ones. But someone in the office must have thought that we’d better hang on to the old ones because they understood what goes on better.  We had two crews A and B which they used alternately and which enabled the Hiley to work continuously. We lost six on one crew and six on another. It started off as 8 hours ON and 8 hours OFF, then one day we came back to work at 4pm and found that we were not to start until 6pm because our shifts had been changed to 12 hours.

We had two crews worked a fortnight each. When our fortnight was up, we’d come in and we’d change crews. We’d talk to the other blokes and tell them what goes on and all that, and that was it. This enabled the dredge to operate 24 hours a day. During the day, they had three day-workers who used to perform maintenance work, which could be noisy and interfere with our sleep in the forward quarters. When the A crew had finished their fortnight shift, they’d come in and be replaced by the B crew. 

I used to drive my car down to Whyte Island and leave it there. It would be there for a fortnight until my duty was over. We used to work it with the other watch so that when we knocked off, we would finish early and go up home, and the same with the other watch when they finished, so they could go off early too. The skipper knew all about it.

We also used to do the northern ports on the Hiley – Townsville, Cairns, and Weipa. We also did a job in Western Australia for a month. We flew over there and had been working for about a week when the airline pilots pulled the plug out, went on strike, and left us high and dry. We eventually got back when they got light aircraft to bring us back. One lot went off early in the morning on a Lear Jet, but we copped a Cessna. We had to land at Alice Springs to take on fuel and provisions and go to the toilet (none on board!)  Later in the flight, we had a scare when the fuel line iced up and the engine began spluttering. We had to fly lower to avoid this reoccurring.

One time we were working at Weipa. The phone rang on the bridge where I was at the wheel and the skipper was told that there was a fire on board. They had overhauled one of the engines and when they fired it up there must have been some oil, which ignited. If they hadn’t got the fire out, she might have been a burnt-out shell and everyone might have been out of a job. When they pushed the fire alarm some of the crew slept through it. They had to knock on the doors to wake them.

I was a deckhand, but I used to relieve the operator for his cup of tea etc. I was a temporary leading hand there for a while when the operator went away on long service leave. I was operating for a fortnight up in Gladstone. It’s a difficult harbour to work in especially if there is a good south-easter blowing side on to the ship. On another occasion, one of the dredges turned over in Mourilyan Harbour. She was working in the entrance and took in water as she bounced up and down on the swell. A couple of blokes got drowned. 

The Hiley also had her share of accidents. One night she knocked the outer beacon over. I had just been relieved at the wheel. It was 5 pm at teatime, and as the dredge slowed while the Captain got the pipes over the side, the wind blew us sideways and onto the beacon. We couldn’t do much to avoid it. Dredges aren’t as maneuverable as other vessels.

There was another time the Hiley ran over the Government launch Boyne on a Friday night. I was in bed and one chap came along and said we’d run over a fishing boat. Fishing boats used to go out Friday night.  However, it turned out to be the Boyne. We weren’t told about the boat being in the area – they were testing a new light at Bulwer Island to see how far out they could pick the light up. We’d just come back from the dumping ground, and the Hiley had been lit up like a Christmas tree, but as soon as they’d finished dumping and got the doors up, they switched the light’s off, so when we turned into the channel that was when we clobbered her. Sadly, one chap was drowned.

After I left on sick leave, the Hiley was replaced by the dredge Brisbane.

Dredger ‘Brisbane’ (painting courtesy of Marine Artist Don Braben)

Vern Dinden

Coolum Beach

(Extract from Peter Ludlow’s book ‘Moreton Bay People 2012’ (now out of print)